All well and good, but mySociety’s developers don’t just roll out the big stuff. Smaller releases are happening all the time, and, as a bunch of them have all come at once, we’ve put together a round-up.
Oh – and it’s worth saying that your feedback helps us prioritise what we work on. If you’re using any of our software, either as an implementer or a front-end user, and there’s something you think could be better, we hope you’ll drop us a line.
Here’s what we’ve been doing lately:
We’ve just released version 1.2 of our postcodes-to-boundaries software.
The new version adds Django 1.7 and Python 3 support, as well as other minor improvements.
The latest version of our transcript-publishing software, 1.3, adds mainstream support for import from fellow component PopIt (or any Popolo data source). That’s key to making it a truly interoperable Poplus Component.
SayIt is now also available in Spanish. Additionally, there are improvements around Speakers and Sections, plus this release includes OpenGraph data.
Many thanks to James of Open North, who contributed improvements to our Akoma Ntoso import.
Our software for storing, publishing and sharing lists of politicians now has multi-language support in the web-based editing interface as well at the API level.
Release 0.20 of our Freedom of Information platform sees improvements both to the Admin interface and to the front-end user experience.
Administrators will be pleased to find easier ways to deal with spammy requests for new authorities, and manage the categories and headings that are used to distinguish different types of authority; users should enjoy a smoother path to making a new request.
Version 1.5 of the FixMyStreet platform fully supports the new Long Term Support (LTS) version of Ubuntu, Trusty Tahr 14.04.
Four new languages – Albanian, Bulgarian, Hebrew, and Ukranian – have been added. There are also some improvements across both admin and the front-end design, and a couple of bugs have been fixed.
Whatever mySociety or Poplus software you’re deploying, we hope these improvements make life easier. Please do stay in touch – your feedback is always useful, whether it’s via the Poplus mailing list (MapIt, PopIt, SayIt), the FixMyStreet community or the Alaveteli community.
We were at the Mozilla Festival again this year. In practice, this meant we had a table at the Friday night Science Fair, ran a session in the Build and Teach the Web track about “Reusable Civic Tech”, and spent a lot of time meeting old friends and making lots of new ones (technically, we call that “networking”). This blog post is a shout-out to all the fabulous people we talked to, demonstrated with, learnt from, and perhaps even drank a cheeky beer with. It was excellent to meet you all.
Because we’re based in the UK, we’re especially lucky that the Mozilla Foundation’s annual festival was once again held in London. It’s good for us because our friends from the London Mozilla Space are there, and also because this makes it easy for us to get to (unlike so many of the attendees, we didn’t need to travel all the way into the country first). In fact, the unique and lofty Ravensbourne venue is an excellent location for such an event — it’s easy to see what’s happening on the other floors, and it’s easy to wander up and down between them. There is a lot going on to see and do, and, just like last year, even the stairs are productive: we had some serendipitous encounters on our way between floors.
Our primary activity at the festival was spreading the word about the Poplus federation and its reusable civic tech components. If you bumped into any of us, or if what we were demonstrating tickled your fancy, or if you are even now wearing one of the T-shirts we generously gave out: do please remember to get involved!
Image credit: Mozilla in Europe CC BY-SA 2.0
That’s one use of SayIt – but we actually built it with a slightly different aim in mind: the storing and publication of transcripts.
SayIt really does transform transcripts – so, if you regularly take minutes of meetings at work, or in another capacity, it’s worth a look.
That’s easy for us to say, we know. But if you play with it for half an hour, we think you’ll see the benefits.
Making online transcripts better for your readers
Traditionally, transcripts of meetings are published as PDFs or Microsoft Word documents. The information is there; you’ve done your duty in making it available – but do you ever wonder if it’s really working for your readers?
For example, let’s say you are a clerk in the local council, and you routinely publish transcripts from council meetings online.
The chances are that residents access your transcripts when they have an interest in one specific topic. Typically your meetings cover many subjects, and readers have to wade through pages to find the part they want. On SayIt, searching is very easy, even for people who are not very familiar with internet technology.
Or suppose that you are a member of a pressure group, and you’ve transcribed a local community meeting to share on your website. You might want to highlight particular parts of the meeting. With SayIt, you can link to individual statements, so it’s simple to share them by email, social media, or on your website.
See some examples
If you’d like to see how your meeting transcripts will look, once they’ve been published on SayIt, have a browse through these two examples:
- Go to this page and sign up.
We’ll ask you for:
- Part of the URL (web address) for your site – for example, if you choose “TotnesCouncil”, your new URL will be http://TotnesCouncil.sayit.mysociety.org. Note that URLs can’t contain spaces or non-regular characters.
- A title: this will appear in the top bar of your website. Don’t sweat too much: you can always change this later. In this example we might choose “Totnes Council meetings”.
- A description (optional): this is a good place to explain the purpose of your site at a little more length. You might write something like “Transcripts from local council meetings in Totnes, UK, 2014 onwards”. Again, you will have the chance to change this later if you like.
2. Confirm your email address
If this is the first time you have used SayIt, you will need to input your email address, then go to your email and find our automated message so you can click on the confirmation link.
Keep a note of your password, as you will need it whenever you want to edit your site.
SayIt is currently in Beta – that’s to say, it’s functional and live, but we’re still developing it.
In this phase, you can manually type (or copy and paste) each statement of your transcript in. Soon, it will also be possible to import a document of the entire meeting, as long as it’s in the required format – if you have a lot of existing transcripts and you’d like to try this, get in touch and we may be able to help.
In this post, we’ll look at the manual input of speeches.
You will need either a copy of your transcript, or a recording of the meeting you wish to transcribe.
Here’s how to begin:
1. Click on the ‘add your first statement’ button.
2. You can paste, or type, your content directly into the box marked “text”.
In the fields below the text box, you have the option to add more details about this piece of text. None of these fields are mandatory, but all of them add functionality or information to your transcript:
- Date and time If you know these, they are useful because they will help SayIt to order your speeches chronologically. Don’t worry if you don’t know them, though – SayIt automatically arranges speeches in the order that you input them, unless the timestamps tell it otherwise.
- Event and location What sort of meeting was it, and where did it happen? For our example, we might input “Totnes Town Council Meeting” and “Guildhall, Totnes”.
- Speaker Enter a name, and then click on the underlined text to add it to your database. As with all text fields on SayIt, once you have added it, it will be offered as an auto-fill option for subsequent speeches. Attaching names to your speeches also means that SayIt can do clever things, like display everything said by one speaker.
If you are not sure who spoke, don’t worry – you can leave this field blank, or enter a name such as ‘Unknown’.
- Section Meetings often have distinct sections: an introductory period, apologies for absences, following up on agreed actions, etc. Or you might use Section to identify items on the agenda. If you use the Section field, SayIt will automatically arrange your transcript into groups of associated content.
- Source URL If you are taking speeches from a source such as a news report or another website, you can add the web address so that interested people can see it in context.
- Title and tags: These enable you to tag your content – for example, you might want to tag everything to do with road-building, and everything to do with tourism, et cetera. That means that your readers will be able to find the sections of the content they are most interested in.
When you’ve added everything you want to for this part of speech, click “Save speech”.
Well done! You’ve just added your first speech to SayIt.
You can go back and edit it at any time – and that applies to every field.
3. Continue adding speeches.
As you do so, SayIt will be making connections and organising things neatly.
Tip: If you click ‘add another speech like this’ then fields such as ‘event and location’ will automatically be filled for you – you can overwrite them if they are incorrect for your next speech.
Click on ‘Speakers’ to see an icon for everyone you’ve added:
– and click on any one of those icons to see just their speeches:
Clicking on ‘Speeches’ in the top bar will show you every speech you’ve input; if you used Sections, they will be divided up neatly:
You’ve done it
So there you are, now you’ve seen what SayIt can do – we hope you liked it enough to consider using it in the future. Remember, it’s completely free.
Let us know if you hit any problems, or if there are features you’d like us to add. SayIt is in active development at the moment, so your feedback will help shape it. We’d also love to hear if you are using it.
Manual inputting is clearly only practical for shorter meetings (or people who have plenty of time on their hands!). As mentioned above, we’ll be adding the ability to import your transcripts.
They will need to be in the format that SayIt accepts, which is Akoma Ntoso, a schema for Parliamentary document types – you can read more about that here.
If you already have documents in Akoma Ntoso, get in touch and we can get them imported for you.
You can host SayIt on your own servers, but for beginner users it’s quicker and easier to start by creating a version that we host, as described in the steps above.
If you decide later on that you want to host the content yourself, and perhaps embed it on your own website, that option will remain open to you.
SayIt is a Poplus Component – open-source software that is designed to underpin digital democracy projects. It can stand alone, or work with other Poplus Components. The source code is also available for developers to modify and improve, so if you are already imagining more ambitious ways that you might use SayIt on your website, let us know.
Other ways to use SayIt
We’ve recently written about:
We’ll also be looking at the following soon:
– Collaborating with other users on SayIt transcripts
Image: A scribe from the Book of Hours (public domain)
Party Conference season is upon us again, and, with it, a new set of fine promises and rhetorical flourishes, as each party’s top dogs take the podium. But what happens to those pledges, vows and forecasts once the banners are taken down and the party faithful turn for home?
Cast your mind back to November 2013, and you may recall that there was bit of a fuss about the fact that the Conservative party had removed old speeches from their website.
Not just that, but they’d also effectively erased them from the places where you can commonly find retired internet content… unless you really know where to look.
Was it a sinister rewriting of history, or a simple spring clean of elderly content? Well, that depends who you believe – but here at mySociety, we do think that you should be able to hold political parties to account for promises they made in the past.
Not only that, but we happen to have a splendid tool for publishing the spoken word: SayIt.
So we thought we’d track down that missing content and put it online for anyone to search and browse. And because we are a wholly non-partisan organisation, we did the same for Labour.
Note: we’re not intending to update these collections regularly – it’s a one-off initiative, designed to fill a gap in the public archive. And within the confines of this project, we’ve only published Labour and Conservative speeches.
On the other hand, if you’re interested in setting up similar sites for the other parties, or even taking over these ones, SayIt is very simple for anyone to use: just get in touch.Image by Klaus Riesner (CC)
Poplus Components are interdependent, Open Source pieces of code for civic and democratic websites. Find out more on the Poplus website.
Do you have an idea for a new Poplus Component? Or would you like to add features to an existing one?
We’re currently inviting groups and individuals to apply for grants. You may apply for up to USD $5,000 to help you with development work on creating or improving a Poplus Component.
- Priority will be given to proposals for the development of new Poplus Components, or new features for existing Components.
- We will also consider grants for those planning to implement existing Poplus Components into wider projects.
How to apply
Please complete this form before 10th September 2014.
We hope to inform successful applicants by 17th September. If you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to get in touch.
Help us fund more projects
This funding will be the final expenditure from the original Poplus start-up grant.
If you represent a funding organisation, and might be interested in helping support the growth of Poplus through funding micro-grants, please do let us know! Poplus Components represent great ‘bang for your buck’, since they are re-usable across the entire eDemocracy worldwide community.
June 23rd saw the soft launch of an innovative new tool that uses a Poplus Component as an integral part. It’s called Nouabook.ma and allows constituents in Morocco to contact their elected representatives, either through the website or while logged in to Facebook.
Nouabook is built on top of the WriteIt Poplus Component developed by Ciudadano Inteligente and connects into Facebook, one of the most used websites in Morocco. The group behind the site are SimSim-Participation Citoyenne and developer Tarik Nesh-Nash.
This is an exciting time for the whole Poplus network. The community has been going from strength to strength since the conference in April, and this tool, the first built by an external group using a Poplus Component, is a real sign that it is beginning to spread its wings.
And of course, because all Poplus Components are open-source, Nouabook is available for any other group to use! An exciting prospect as social media is such an important tool for communication in today’s society.
How did this project come about?
To decide the right approach, SimSim and Tarik conducted surveys of citizens throughout Morocco to find out how many had ever contacted their representatives. The results showed that of 80 respondents, 81% had never written to their representative. Yet 73% said that if it was easier to get in touch, they would be more likely to contact their representative, on issues ranging from public transport to security at Moroccan universities.
Couple this thirst for communication with the fact that Facebook is one of the most popular websites in Morocco , and the idea for Nouabook.ma was born.
Nouabook.ma (meaning “Your Deputies” in Moroccan Arabic, but also a reference to the well known Facebook) allows users to find their representative, read a profile on them including their roles and responsibilities, and see their activity in Parliament. Most crucially, it also allows users to publicly put questions directly to their representatives, who can respond equally publicly on the site. A user can submit a question either by filling in a short form, or uploading a short video. Other users can vote on their questions, meaning the representative can quickly see which questions are most important for their constituents and prioritise their answers. For those who have authorised it, the question is posted automatically to their Facebook page. By enabling users to easily share questions and responses on their own timeline, this helps to spread information beyond the boundaries of the original Nouabook.ma site.
The site is currently in Beta and a small group of very engaged hand-picked representatives have signed up for the site. Of these, there are 4 or 5 who are already getting very involved answering questions, which is a huge success for the site. Once the pilot phase is over, the hope is to extend the platform to cover the whole Moroccan Parliament, so keep your eyes peeled for news come the next Parliamentary session in October.
So far the site is only in French, but if you read French and want to give some feedback there’s a short form here which will help the team with their next stage of development. The site will soon be in Arabic as well.
Tablet Picture by ebayink courtesy of Flickr and the creative commons license.
The right conference, held at the right time and attended by people with common problems, can sometimes give birth to whole new organisations. I was at OpenTech when the Open Rights Group was born, and on a grander scale the Red Cross and the UN both featured conferences at catalytic moments in their early history.
Last week in Santiago, Chile, a conference took place that felt like exactly such a moment – PoplusCon. People from 27 countries spent two days talking about their shared goals and desires, and from it the skeleton of a new federation – the Poplus federation – started to take shape.
Not everyone at the conference worked on identical projects, or had identical skills. Some people were specialists in tracking suspicious relationships (‘This guy’s brother-in-law gets all the contracts’), others were big into training journalists how to use FOI, others specialised in making important datasets more accessible to members of the public, others still were journalists, skilled at constructing stories. But one theme emerged pretty quickly – people wanted better, easier, more reliable ways of sharing knowledge and sharing technology, so that they could all save time, effort and money.
What could a new federation do for you?
And so that is how the conversation turned to the idea of founding a new federation – an organisation that could serve the needs of many different groups without being run or owned by any one of them. In a brainstorm session about what people wanted from a new federation, the following ideas were raised:
- Running events to facilitate more sharing of ideas and tech
- Publishing stories about successful and unsuccessful projects, especially where those stories need to cross language barriers to spread
- Vetting and endorsing data standards
- Access to a community of peers (for sharing experience, encouragement, tips and tricks etc)
- Resources for projects that are running short
- Help and advice on making projects sustainable
- Certification of what counts as a Poplus Component
- Where groups face common challenges, perhaps coordinate advocacy
- Organisation of mentorship, exchanges and placements
This wish list is clearly far more than a nascent organisation could arrange in the near future, but there was some informal voting and the top priorities fairly quickly emerged. People really wanted access to their peers, and to the stories that they tell. And there was a strong wish to see Poplus Components become more official, and better explained.
Getting Real – Getting Involved
But a list is just a list without people willing to make it real. And so without doubt the most awesome thing that took place at PoplusCon was that eight people immediately volunteered to form a committee that would bring Poplus into being, representing half a dozen countries in different parts of the world.
This committee, which is completely open for anyone to join, will be meeting a couple of times in the next few weeks to agree on a plan for the first 12 months of the Poplus federation. It will work out how the new-born federation should govern itself, and what the first things that this entirely volunteer-run group should be doing. It’s an exciting, fragile moment and I’ve not seen anything like it in my ten-odd years working in this field. There’s no boss, no leader, just some people trying to build something of shared value.
Right now there are no rules, no barriers to entry, no bureaucracy. In fact there’s nothing but some hope, enthusiasm and some shared dreams of a stronger community of individuals and organisations.
I hope that if you read this and think that Poplus sounds cool, that you’ll consider joining the committee too. All you have to do is join the mailing list and ask where and when to show up. If you come to online committee meetings a couple of times, you’re de facto one of the people who runs Poplus. What happens next is – quite literally – down to you.
What are your plans for late April? If you’re a civic coder, a campaigner or activist from anywhere in the world, hold everything: we want to see you in Santiago, Chile, for the first international PoplusCon.
Poplus is a project which aims to bring together those working in the digital democracy arena – groups or individuals – so that we can share our code and thus operate more efficiently.
We’re right at the beginning of what we hope will grow into a worldwide initiative. If you’d like to get involved, now is the time.
Together with Poplus’ co-founders, Ciudadano Inteligente, we will be running a two-day conference in Santiago on the 29th and 30th of April. It is free to attend, and we can even provide travel grants for those who qualify.
However, they can be very important, or even historic. They can reveal big plans that will affect lots of people, and they are a basic requirement of political accountability.
But the way in which transcripts are made available online today doesn’t reflect this importance. They tend to be published as hundreds of PDFs, and look more or less like they were made in the 1950s.
We think that the people who are affected by the decisions and plans announced in transcribed meetings deserve better.
What is SayIt?
SayIt is an open source tool for publishing speeches, discussions and dialogues, simply and clearly, online. Search functionality is built in, you can link to any part of a transcript, and the whole thing works nicely on mobile devices.
SayIt can be used either as a hosted service, or it can be built directly into your own website, as a Django app. Here are some examples of what it looks like in its hosted, standalone form:
The complete works of Shakespeare – as a demonstration of SayIt’s flexibility in handling different kinds of transcript
However, SayIt’s main purpose is to be built into other sites and apps. We don’t have a live demo of this today, but one of our international partners will soon be launching a new Parliamentary Monitoring site which uses SayIt to publish years of parliamentary transcripts.
SayIt is also 100% open data compatible, and we use a cut-down version of the Akoma Ntoso open standard for data import.
What isn’t SayIt?
Not a site full of data curated and uploaded by mySociety – it’s a tool for redeployment all over the net. We’ll host deployments where that’s helpful to people, though.
Not primarily about Britain – whilst we’re a social enterprise based in the UK, SayIt has been built with an international perspective. We hope it will serve the needs of people watching politicians in places like Kenya and South Africa.
Not solely a mySociety project – it’s actually an international collaboration, via the Poplus network (see more below).
Not (yet) a tool to replace Microsoft Word as the way you write down transcripts in the first place. This is coming as we move from Alpha to Beta, though.
Why are we building SayIt?
SayIt is one of the Poplus Components. Poplus is a global collaboration of groups that believe it is currently too difficult and expensive to build effective new digital tools to help citizens exert power over institutions.
Poplus Components are loosely joined tools, mostly structured as web services, that can be used to radically decrease the development time of empowerment sites and apps.
SayIt is the newest component, and aims to reduce the difficulty and cost of launching services that contain transcripts – in particular websites that allow people to track the activities of politicians. Using SayIt or other Poplus components you can build your site in whatever language and framework suits your wishes, but save time by using the components to solve time-consuming problems for you.
The founders of Poplus are FCI in Chile, and mySociety in the UK – and we are hoping that the launch of SayIt will help grow the network. The project has been made possible by a grant from Google.org, while early iterations were aided by the Technology Strategy Board.
Interested in publishing transcripts via SayIt? Here’s what to do…
Having taken a look at the demos, we hope at least some of you are thinking ‘I know of some transcripts that would be better if published like this’.
If you are interested, then there are two approaches we’d recommend:
If you’re a coder, or if you have access to technical skills, read about how to convert your data into the open standard we use. Then talk to us about how to get this data online.
If you don’t have access to technical skills, get in touch about what you’re interested in publishing, and we’ll explore the options with you.
Note to coders – We’ve not yet spent a lot of time making SayIt easy to deploy locally, so we know it may be a challenge. We’re here to help.
Where might SayIt help?
SayIt comes from a desire to publish the speeches of politicians. But we know that there are many other possible uses, which is why we built the Shakespeare demo.
We think SayIt could be useful for publishing and storing transcripts of:
Local council meetings
Academic research interviews and focus groups
Academic seminars, lectures, etc
Market research focus groups
Historic archives of events such as a coronation or key debate
These are just a few of our ideas, but we bet you have others – please do tell us in the comments below.
What’s coming next
At the moment, SayIt only covers publishing transcripts, not creating them. Needless to say, this lack of an authoring interface is a pretty big gap, but we are launching early (as an Alpha) because we want to know how you’ll use it, what features you want us to build, and what doesn’t work as well as we anticipated. We also want to see if we can attract other people to co-develop the code with us, which is the real spirit of the Poplus network.
We’ll also be adding the ability to subscribe to alerts so that you’ll get an email every time a keyword occurs (just as you can on our other websites, such as FixMyStreet, TheyWorkForYou and WhatDoTheyKnow). This feature will come into its own for ongoing series of transcripts such as council meetings.
Image by Columbia Phonograph Co. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
We’re starting the year with some really wonderful news: Google.org is granting us a fantastic $1.6m, to be spent over two years.
Clearly, this is a significant sum of money, which will really turbo-charge our efforts to build technologies to help groups like mySociety in countries around the world.
We will be using the money to provide developers with open source technologies to help them to more easily and quickly launch new civic apps and services. We will also be working with lots of other groups to promote greater knowledge and technology sharing amongst civil society groups of all kinds, especially in the accountability sector.
What’s the problem being tackled?
Currently, it can take a great deal of work to launch even relatively simple sites or apps with civic purposes, because the sector is not rich with mature, sector-specific tools and technologies. This high barrier to getting started has a bad effect on the range and strength of popular, impactful civic sites and apps online, globally.
Working with international partners we plan to develop some common, open source components that will reduce the effort required to launch new services in a broad range of areas: including accountability, legal, environmental, political, and more.
mySociety will work with local partners in various targeted regions to help those partners make the greatest possible benefit from using these new, common, collaboratively-developed open source components. And we’ll be working to help them contribute back, both in terms of shared code and shared knowledge.
The project will also develop new approaches to bringing together the global civic-technology community, so that it can collaborate more easily on new projects.
We’re really excited to see where this project will take us next – and we are very grateful to Google.org for the increased opportunities their funding brings us.
Photo by KayVee INC (CC)