1. Grenfell Tower: how mySociety can help

    Just like many others, we at mySociety have been appalled and shocked at the Grenfell Tower fire which struck last week. That shock has only deepened over the weekend as the confirmed death toll has risen and more facts have emerged.

    As both the public and the media search for the ‘why’ behind the story, strands are emerging which point to political mismanagement, inequality, long-term neglect and deprivation, shortsighted cost-cutting, rule bending, and following the letter, rather than the spirit, of the law.

    Residents of the tower had raised multiple concerns about the risk of fire, only to have their requests dismissed. As our CEO Mark Cridge says, ‘Simply put, this is a totemic example of what happens when citizens fail to have influence over those with power.’

    Everything mySociety does is about giving citizens more influence over those with power, so that puts Grenfell very much within our purview.

    We recognise that there are deep, intractable issues around this terrible incident. We’ll be thinking more deeply about what we can do in the long term, and we’ll be returning with further thoughts once we’ve had a chance to discuss the best way forward.

    But for the moment, we have services which you might wish to make use of right away.

    If you want to help campaign

    The first instinct of many, after an event like this, is to campaign for change or justice.

    Gather information

    At this stage, facts are still emerging. If there’s information that you think might help, but which hasn’t yet been covered, you can use Freedom of Information to lodge a request with a relevant public body, on our site WhatDoTheyKnow.

    Note that this is not necessarily a speedy process (while authorities must provide the information if they hold it, in most cases*, the process can take up to 20 working days); if you have personal concerns, see below for our advice on getting quick answers — but if there is information which you think should be in the public domain and which does not yet appear to have been requested, you may wish to lodge your own FOI request. It’s very easy, and WhatDoTheyKnow also publishes the whole correspondence online, meaning the information is then available to all.

    In fact, over the last few days, many have already used this avenue to request information:

    If any of these requests are of particular interest, you can use the ‘follow’ button to receive an email when they are updated, e.g. when a response comes in.

    Or if you would like to make your own request (remembering that you shouldn’t replicate anything that’s already been requested — just follow those requests if you want the answers) here are some relevant authorities:

    Also: while only publicly-funded organisations are covered by the FOI Act, note that you can ask any council for, say, contracts, minutes of meetings or sums paid to contractors or housing associations, which may cover much of what you need.

    Lobby for change

    Another way to campaign is to contact your MP and make it clear what action you would like them to take, whether that is a question asked in Parliament or to push for new legislation. You can see who your MP is and send them an email on our site WriteToThem.

    If you want quick answers

    Your local representatives are there to offer help and answer questions.

    If you live in a towerblock yourself, and especially one that has been recently retrofitted with cladding, you may, understandably, be worried. In fact, some of the requests on WhatDoTheyKnow reflect just that concern:

    But like we’ve already said, FOI requests can take time. If your block is council-owned, you’ll get the quickest information — and hopefully, assurances — via your council, and you can get support from your local councillors. Even if your block is privately-run, you may find that they can help, with information about local legislation or suggestions for the best contacts to follow up.

    WriteToThem also covers councillors. You don’t need to know who they are — just input your postcode and the site will guide you through the process of sending them an email.

    What we will be doing

    We’re still discussing the best way that mySociety can help, and we’ll be following up with a more considered response once we’ve come to some decisions.

    Some ideas have already been suggested, from a FixMyTowerblock version of FixMyStreet, allowing residents to lodge concerns which would then be in the public domain (as well as being sent to the block’s management), to a site co-ordinating the needs of victims.

    Whatever we do, we want to make sure it’s genuinely useful — whether that means using our own resources, or supporting others who use our Open Source code to power their own projects. So watch this space and we’ll let you know how our discussions go.

     


    *Unless covered by an exemption.

    Image: Chiral Jon (CC by-nc-nd/2.0)

  2. Who Uses WriteToThem?

    WriteToThem allows you to email the people who represent you – even if you don’t know who they are. Input your postcode, and you’ll see all your representatives, from local councillors, to your MP and MEPs. You can then choose who you want to write to, and send off your message.

    Never done anything like this before? You’re not alone. In fact, we ask all our users whether this is the first time they have contacted a representative. The number who say ‘yes’ is consistenly over 50%.

    Write To Them user, KateOf course, once you know WriteToThem is there, you can use it whenever you need to. Like Kate:

    Meet Kate

    Kate found WriteToThem in the same way that many others do: searches for phrases such as ‘contact my local MP’ bring a lot of users to the site.

    I first came across WriteToThem a few years ago when looking for my local MP’s contact details. It was the first time I had contacted an MP, apart from when I wrote a letter to Parliament as part of a secondary school project.

    I chose WriteToThem because it had a full list of representatives, as well as a letter template.

    The first time I used the site, I got an almost immediate response from my local MP.

    That’s great. Of course, every MP is different, and we can’t guarantee that they’ll respond – but it’s good to hear that yours was on the ball. So, what do you contact your representatives about?

    I only write to an MP when I feel that public service providers have acted unprofessionally or not helped in any way.

    I have written about more support being given to single working parents. I have written about traffic wardens handing out unjustified parking fines to cars with permits displayed, and I have also written about the lack of housing.

    Has it been useful?

    I have had responses to every letter, and I have also seen results: one of my letters about single working mothers was sent from my local MP to Iain Duncan Smith, and since April there has been more support around child-care.

    WriteToThem is a direct and simple way to contact representatives. The site is easy to use, and every time I have used it I have had a response from the MP either by letter or email.
    It’s a good way to get your opinions heard by politicians, and a good way to encourage positive change within local and national politics.

    Thanks very much to Kate for telling us how she uses WriteToThem.

    This post is part of a mini-series, in which we meet people who regularly use mySociety’s websites.

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  3. WeWorkTogether

    Describe your idea:

    Introduce volunteer citizen participation directly into the daily operation of elected politicians, on both national and local levels. Start with local councilors and: A) TASK TRACKER = simplified version of Request Tracker, or Basecamp, to track tasks that citizens ask councilors to work on and tasks that councilors work on otherwise; B) OPEN COMMITTEES – tool to have citizen discussing tasks/decisions and related documents that councilors work on in committees, with citizen ability to collectively comment on and edit documents. Couple of my local concilors are willing to start using it and i’ll work with them anyway. more here.

    What problem does it solve?:

    Problem of political representation, which is a broken way to conduct politics democratically. Since it doesn’t enable citizens to participate in it directly. This proposal would open the doors for the Internet Model, by introducing the concept of Open Process. With the tools for communication and cooperation we have available, our current political models are a problem in itself. They have been designed centuries ago and are quite inappropriate today. We can do far better. Example proposal of Open Process in academic publishing.

    Type of idea: A brand new project

  4. Game, Set, and Matched

    The last batch of councillor data arrived this morning, thanks very much to GovEval, so pratically every council (bar all Scottish councils and the 17 English councils that had boundary changes, for which we’re just awaiting a new version of Boundary-Line, Ordnance Survey’s product that says where constituency boundaries are) should now be contactable again through WriteToThem.

    I’ve been doing some work on helping people promote our sites and the things on them – spurred by a request from a user who was holding a street party, we’ve made some posters and flyers for FixMyStreet (thanks to volunteer Ayesha Garrett for designing them), and we’ve started providing online tools to promote pledges on PledgeBank, including an up-to-date status image or text of a particular pledge, alongside the established, more offline, flyers.

  5. “When a rose dies, a thorn is left behind.”

    The first new councillor details have begun to automatically arrive in our database, thanks to GovEval. 34 councils were reactiviated on WriteToThem today, from Alnwick to Wokingham. It would have been 38 but the other 4 councils have had boundary changes that we don’t have the data for yet.

    16 of the 40 Welsh Assembly constituencies did not change their boundaries at the election (this took some time to work out, as the Press Association said it was 18, and the official report from the Boundary Commission for Wales said it was 17 🙂 ). Those 16 Assembly Members are now also reactiviated on WriteToThem, along with their regional AMs.

    Other than that, I’ve continued tweaking Neighbourhood Fix-It and started some work on TheyWorkForYou – the first step of which is to deal with the large backlog of mail that’s accumulated, leading to a number of bugfixes. Apologies to anyone who was trying to look at Brian Wilson MLA‘s page and found themselves stuck in an infinite loop of being told there were two Brian Wilsons. We also had a couple of emails asking us why Gordon Brown didn’t have a voting record on equal gay rights like other MPs. This was easy to answer – he’s never voted in any division that is included by that PublicWhip policy – and so an MP’s page now states if they’ve been absent from every vote on a particular policy.

  6. Rate-limiting service

    So, I’m about to start work on loading the next copy of the BoundaryLine electoral geography data into MaPit, which will give us 100% coverage of county councillors and fix some problems which we weren’t able to work around when we did this after last year’s election. But this is a tedious job and so I’m not going to talk about it now.

    Instead I’ll draw your attention to Ratty, our rate-limiting service, which is of general usefulness but (so far as we know) hasn’t been used by anyone outside mySociety. Our major use for it is in the anti-abuse rules in the WriteToThem back-end. I’m about to head out for lunch,so I won’t explain how the thing works in detail, but if this is the sort of thing that you think might be useful to you, leave a comment or drop a mail to hello@mysociety.org with any questions or comments. Like almost all our code, Ratty is licenced under the Affero GPL.

  7. How we learn to stop worrying and love statistics

    Just a brief one today. MORI has recently done a poll chiefly on the subject of Britain’s nuclear deterrent. Now, here at mySociety we don’t have any political views, so no comments on The Bomb itself; but MORI did ask another question which intrigued me:

    And which, if any of the things on this list have you done in the last two or three years?

    What How many
    Presented my views to a local councillor or MP 14
    Written a letter to an editor 6
    Urged someone outside my family to vote 16
    Urged someone to get in touch with a local councillor or MP 12
    Made a speech before an organised group 11
    Been an officer of an organisation or club 8
    Stood for public office 1
    Taken an active part in a political campaign 3
    Helped on fund raising drives 20
    Voted in the last general election 68

    So, 14% of British adults have “presented [their] views to” a councillor or MP in the past 2–3 years. I presume most people will have interpreted the question as including writing to their MPs; that gives us something like 6 million letter-writers over that period. On WriteToThem, about 75% of messages are for MPs, so if those 6 million people sent one letter each over the three years, that works out as about 2,000 messages/year/MP, or about ten per working day.

    That’s a lot lower than typical estimates I’ve heard (~50/day/MP). Of course, the poll asked about people rather than letters, so doesn’t account for people sending several letters over the given time period. However, judging by the WriteToThem data, that’s not all that significant an effect:
    Plot of number of letters per author in WriteToThem
    — something like 90% of letters sent through WriteToThem to MPs and councillors are the only ones sent by that author. (Note that this measurement is quite crude; in particular, I have identified two letters as being from the same author if they share a common email address. Also, since we remove all personal data about authors from messages after a little while, it only shows a few weeks’ worth of data. A further complication is that if an MP or councillor responds by email and the constituent sends a further email, they’re likely to do it by replying to the email, so not showing up as a further communication on that plot.)

    Anyway, if the crude data from WriteToThem are characteristic of all mail received by councillors and MPs, then MORI’s estimate of the number of people communicating with their MPs seems pretty low. Thoughts?

  8. WriteToThem maintaining itself

    Things have been quiet here recently, but are now getting busy again. Tom’s back from America, Chris is back from holiday, I’m better after being ill for most of last week.

    Earlier in the week we finally managed to load new county boundaries into MaPit. So WriteToThem once again has county councils working. Please try it out with your postcode. Let us know of any problems.

    This required lots of work from Chris, because a new version of BoundaryLine (from Ordnance Survey) has not yet been released with the updated boundaries. He’s done it using lists of the district council wards which make up the county electoral divisions.
    These lists were taken from the Statutory Instruments. This has covered most postcodes, but there are still some where the boundaries were specificed in text (walk along this river etc.) rather than wards. And we don’t have those.

    The last couple of days I’ve been turning on lots of things to automate updating of WriteToThem. A cron job now grabs new data on councillors from GovEval once a day, and merges their changes with any changes we’ve made.

    It’s automatically emailing GovEval with user submitted corrections to councillor data (the “Have you spotted a mistake in the above list?” link on WriteToThem). Hopefully this will create a virtuous feedback loop of ever improving data quality goodness. Or at least let us keep up with council by-elections without having to lift a finger.

    Finally I’ve made it send a mail once a week to the mailing list where WriteToThem admins (mostly volunteers) hang out. This describes what needs doing – such as missing contact details to gather, or messages in the queue which need human attention.

    Next up, wiring up the new screenscrapers Richard and Jonathan contributed last week, so the Welsh and London Assemblies automatically update…

  9. Electoral geography again

    So, it’s back to electoral geography for me, this time to get the new county and county electoral-division boundaries live on WriteToThem. This is a prerequisite for getting mail to county councillors working again after the election on May 5th, so we’re already three months behind the times. But more generally, electoral boundaries are revised all the time to account for changes of population within each ward, constituency and so forth; and at most (local and national) elections some set of boundary changes takes effect. So to keep WriteToThem running we need to incorporate such updates routinely.

    The way we handle electoral geography in general is to start with Ordnance Survey’s Boundary Line product, which, for each administrative or electoral area in Great Britain gives a polygon identifying that region. We then take a big list of all the postcodes in Britain (CodePoint) and figure out which polygons they lie in. Then when somebody comes along to WriteToThem and types in their postcode, we can figure out which ward, constituency etc. they are in, and tell them appropriate things about their representatives. (Technically this is a lie, of course, because postcodes represent regions, not points — we use the centroids of those regions — and each such region isn’t guaranteed to lie either wholly within or without all electoral and administrative regions. Unfortunately there isn’t a lot we can do about this beyond throwing our hands up and saying “oops, sorry”, so that’s what we do.)

    As an aside, outside Great Britain — that is, in Northern Ireland, we don’t have the same sort of data so instead we rely on another field in the CodePoint data which gives, for each postcode centroid, the ONS ward code for the ward in which that point lies. From that ward code you can find the enclosing local authority area, local electoral area — in Northern Ireland local councils are elected by STV over multimember regions, rather than by first-past-the-post as in Great Britain — and constituency. Happily it turns out that all of those other regions are composed of whole numbers of wards; this happy state of affairs does not necessarily prevail elsewhere.

    Now, twice a year, a new edition of Boundary Line is issued, taking account of recent changes in electoral geography. Usually this happens in May and October, though the schedule has been known to slip. In principle this should be easy to deal with: load up the new copy of Boundary Line, pass all the postcodes through it, and hey presto.

    Life, of course, is rarely that simple, and this isn’t one of those occasions. When the boundaries of a region don’t change between one year and the next, we don’t want to make any alteration to that region in our database (which uses ID numbers to identify each area). More specifically, when a new revision of Boundary Line comes along, we want to ensure that — let’s say — Cambridge Constituency in the new revision is identified with Cambridge Constituency in the old version. Now, in principle, this should be easy, because each area in the data set, in the words of the manual,

    … carries a unique identifier AI; this is the same identifier that was supplied in the previous specification of Boundary- Line. The same AI attribute is associated with every component polygon forming part of an administrative unit, irrespective of the number of polygons.

    Now, the first time that we did this, we worked from a copy of the Boundary Line data supplied in the form of “ShapeFiles” (a format used in various proprietary GIS systems, and with which our local government partners were able to supply us without having to order it specially from Ordnance Survey). Unfortunately in the ShapeFile version, the allegedly unique administrative area IDs were, in fact, not unique. After discussion with Ordnance Survey it was concluded that this was a problem which affected the translation of the data from NTF (“National Transfer Format”, their own preferred format) into ShapeFile; and that the problem would be fixed in the next release.

    So, taking no chances, we decided we’d work from the NTF format in future, since that seems to be closer to the authoritative source of the data, and anyway the ShapeFile format isn’t at all well-documented (for instance, many of the field names for the metadata about each area differ from those described in the manual for Boundary Line). So I’ve written code to parse the (slightly bonkers, natch) NTF files and modified our import scripts to use this code, with a view to then being able to keep up-to-date with future boundary revisions without too much trouble.

    You will not be surprised, therefore, to hear that this has not worked out exactly as planned. Unfortunately it appears that the May 2005 NTF release of Boundary Line suffers exactly the same problems of non-uniqueness as did the previous ShapeFile release. So unless some cleverer solution presents itself, I’ll have to revive the hack we intended to use with the ShapeFile data — try to construct unique IDs for areas from their geometry, and hope that the exact coordinates of the polygon vertices for unchanged areas do not change between revisions. We shall see. But right now I’m mostly worrying about why my parser script runs out of memory on my 1GB computer after reading a couple of hundred megs of input data.

  10. FaxYourRepresentative Testing Site Up

    We’ve just launched a testing version of FaxYourRepresentative. This is not a working site and not even a beta – because you cannot email representatives at the moment. What you can do, though, is practice sending messages – they’ll just be routed back to your own inbox so you can see that they’ve gone through.

    We want people to try postcodes, give us feedback, and volunteer to help with the further development. FaxYourMP remains online and will do for some considerable time yet.