1. Introducing EveryPolitician’s bot

    mySociety’s EveryPolitician project aims to make data available on every politician in the world. It’s going well: we’re already sharing data on the politicians from nearly every country on the planet. That’s over 68,652 people and 2.9 million individual pieces of data, numbers which will be out of date almost as soon as you’ve read them. Naturally, the width and depth of that data varies from country to country, depending on the sources available — but that’s a topic for another blog post.

    Today the EveryPolitician team would like to introduce you to its busiest member, who is blogging at EveryPolitician bot. A bot is an automated agent — a robot, no less, albeit one crafted entirely in software.

    First, some background on why we need our little bot.

    Because there’s so much to do

    One of the obvious challenges of such a big mission is keeping on top of it all. We’re constantly adding and updating the data; it’s in no way a static dataset. Here are examples — by no means exhaustive — of circumstances that can lead to data changes:

    • Legislatures change en masse, because of elections, etc.
      We try to know when countries’ governments are due to change because that’s the kind of thing we’re interested in anyway (remember mySociety helps run websites for parliamentary monitoring organisations, such as Mzalendo in Kenya). But even anticipated changes are rarely straightforward, not least because there’s always a lag between a legislature changing and the data about its new members becoming available, especially from official national sources.
    • Legislatures change en masse, unexpectedly
      Not all sweeping changes are planned. There are coups and revolutions and other unscheduled or premature ends-of-term.
    • Politicians retire
      Or die, or change their names or titles, or switch party or faction.
    • New parties emerge
      Or the existing ones change their names, or form coalitions.
    • Areas change
      There are good reasons (better representation) and bad reasons (gerrymandering) why the areas in constituency-based systems often change. By way of a timely example, our UK readers probably know that the wards have changed for the forthcoming elections, and that mySociety built a handy tool that tells you what ward you’re in.
    • Existing data gets refined
      Played Gender Balance recently? Behind that is a dataset that keeps being updated (whenever there are new politicians) but which is itself a source of constantly-updating data for us.
    • Someone in Russia updates the wikipedia page about a politician in Japan
      Wikidata is the database underlying projects like Wikipedia, so by monitoring all the politicians we have that are also in there, we get a constant stream of updates. For example, within a few hours of someone adding it, we knew that the Russian transliteration of 安倍晋三’s name was Синдзо Абэ — that’s Shinzo Abe, in case you can’t read kanji or Cyrillic script. (If you’re wondering, whenever our sources conflict, we moderate in favour of local context.)
    • New data sources become available
      Our data comes from an ever-increasing number of sources, commonly more than one for any given legislature (the politicians’ twitter handles are often found in a different online place from their dates of birth, for example). We always welcome more contributions — if you think you’ve got new sources for the country you live in, please let us know.
    • New old data becomes available
      We collect historic data too — not just the politicians in the current term. For some countries we’ve already got data going back decades. Sources for data like this can sometimes be hard to find; slowly but surely new ones keeping turning up.

    So, with all this sort of thing going on, it’s too much to expect a small team of humans to manage it all. Which is where our bot comes in.

    Hello bot

    portrait of bot

    To be honest with you, the bot doesn’t really look like this because, being software, it’s entirely non-corporeal. Sorry.

    We’ve automated many of our processes: scraping, collecting, checking changes, submitting them for inclusion — so the humans can concentrate on what they do best (which is understanding things, and making informed decisions). In technical terms, our bot handles most things in an event-driven way. It springs into action when triggered by a notification. Often that will be a webhook (for example, a scraper finishes getting data so it issues a webhook to let the bot know), although the bot also follows a schedule of regular tasks too. Computers are great for running repetitive tasks and making quantitative comparisons, and a lot of the work that needs to be done with our ever-changing data fits such a description.

    The interconnectedness of all the different tasks the bot performs is complex. We originally thought we’d document that in one go — there’s a beautiful diagram waiting to be drawn, that’s for sure — but it soon became clear this was going to be a big job. Too big. Not only is the bot’s total activity complicated because there are a lot of interdependencies, but it’s always changing: the developers are frequently adding to the variety of tasks the bot is doing for us.

    So in the end we realised we should just let the bot speak for itself, and describe task-by-task some of the things it does. Broken down like this it’s easier to follow.

    We know not everybody will be interested, which is fine: the EveryPolitician data is useful for all sorts of people — journalists, researchers, parliamentary monitors, activists, parliamentarians themselves, and many more — and if you’re such a person you don’t need to know about how we’re making it happen. But if you’re technically-minded — and especially if you’re a developer who uses GitHub but hasn’t yet used the GitHub API as thoroughly as we’ve needed to, or are looking for ways to manage always-shifting data sets like ours — then we hope you’ll find what the bot says both informative and useful.

    everypoliticianbot-small
    The bot is already a few days into blogging — its first post was “I am a busy bot”, but you can see all the others on its own Medium page. You can also follow it on twitter as @everypolitbot. Of course, its true home, where all the real work is done, is the everypoliticianbot account on GitHub.


    Images: CC-BY-SA from the EveryPolitician bot’s very own scrapbook.

  2. Mzalendo: more reliable than the Kenyan government’s website

    For verified, reliable information, it’s usually best to go to the official source — but here’s an exception.

    Parliamentary monitoring website Mzalendo, which runs on mySociety’s Pombola platform, carries more accurate MP data than the official Kenyan Parliament site.

    Checking parliament.go.ke‘s list of MPs against Mzalendo’s, our developers discovered a large number of constituency mismatches. These, explained Jessica Musila from Mzalendo, came about because the official site has not reflected boundary changes made in 2013.

    Even more significantly, the official parliament site currently only holds details of 173 of the National Assembly’s 349 MPs.

    “The gaps in www.parliament.go.ke validate Mzalendo’s very existence,” said Jessica. We agree: it’s a great example of the sometimes unexpected needs filled by parliamentary monitoring websites.

    And of course, through EveryPolitician, we’re working to make sure that every parliamentary monitoring website can access a good, reliable source of data.

    Image: Richard Portsmouth (CC)

  3. People’s Assembly track the attendance records of South Africa’s MPs

    South African parliamentary monitoring website People’s Assembly have added an Attendance page, allowing citizens to see at a glance what percentage of committee meetings each MP has attended.

    A few weeks ago, we highlighted one major difference between the Ghanaian parliament and our own: in Ghana, they register MPs’ attendance.

    This week, we received news of another of our partners who are holding their representatives to account on the matter of attendance: People’s Assembly, whose website runs on our Pombola platform. The new page was contributed by Code4SA, who have been doing some really valuable work on the site lately.

    According to South Africa’s Daily Maverick, in some cases MPs’ attendance is abysmally low. There’s also a history of those who “arrive, sign the register and leave a short while later”, a practice that may soon be on the decline thanks to People’s Assembly’s inclusion of data on late arrivals and early departures.

    With 57 representatives — or about 15% — floundering at a zero rate of attendance, it seems that this simple but powerful display is a much-needed resource for the citizens of South Africa. See it in action here.

     

    South African MPs' attendance at committee meetings on People's Assembly

    Top image: GovernmentZA (CC)

  4. Timing is everything: why we’re publishing in June

    It’s around this time of year that we normally publish our responsiveness statistics on WriteToThem. However, if you’ve been looking forward to seeing your MP’s ranking, we’re afraid you’ll have to wait a little longer.

    Two weeks after you use WriteToThem to contact a representative, we send you an automated email to check whether or not you received a response. The data gathered by these questionnaires gives us a snapshot of how well the site is working for its users; it also allows us to highlight which MPs, which parties, and which parliamentary bodies do the best and worst at responding to constituents’ messages.

    We’ve habitually analysed  a calendar year of responses, January to December. Last year, though, was an election year, meaning that several MPs were active up until May, and then several new MPs took their seats in the new Parliament. So we’re going to run the data in June, looking at May 2015 to May 2016, followed by a four-week period to ensure we’ve received all the questionnaires.

    Now, in theory, it shouldn’t matter too much, because we rank MPs by the percentage of mail sent through WriteToThem that they respond to (or more accurately, that our users tell us they have responded to). An MP may have responded to 100% of all their mail and then been voted out; their successor may then respond to 10% of their mail: both MPs would be ranked accordingly.

    In fact, that’s how we did it for 2005, the first year for which we published WriteToThem rankings, and also an election year*.

    But shifting the date like this means that the data will be less confusing. It’ll let us see how every current MP has performed, in terms of responsiveness, across a full year.

    Of course, one side effect of this is that if you’re an MP and you want to be top of the pops, you have an extra five months in which to boost your score… so, on your marks, time to get writing!

     

    Image: Debb Collins (CC)

     

    *2010 fell within a four-year period during which we didn’t publish rankings.

  5. Big Bang Data exhibition

    How is the data explosion transforming our world?

    That’s the question that inspires the Big Bang Data exhibition, running from today until February 28 at Somerset House in London.

    Alongside all kinds of data displays, data-inspired artwork and data-based innovations, the exhibition features our very own FixMyStreet and TheyWorkForYou as examples of websites that are using data for the common good.

    The exhibits range from fun to thought-provoking to visually rather beautiful: we enjoyed Nicholas Felton‘s annual reports about himself, the Dear Data project, and innovative devices such as the fitness tracker for dogs. Most of all, of course, we enjoyed seeing our very own websites put into context and available for everyone to have a go with. 🙂

    We’re delighted to have been included in this event, and we recommend a visit if you’re in the area.  There’s plenty to keep you interested and informed for a good hour or two.

    Data for the common good - a sign at the Big Bang Data exhibition at Somerset House
  6. The Scottish Parliament returns to TheyWorkForYou

    Scottish Parliamentary proceedings are now back on TheyWorkForYou.

    Back in August 2014, the Scottish Parliament changed the way it published the Official Report of its debates.

    TheyWorkForYou works by fetching data from various parliamentary sources—and in this case, unfortunately, the change at the Scottish Parliament end meant that our code no longer worked. We replaced our ‘debates’ section with an apologetic note.

    Well, thanks to the Scottish Parliament kindly republishing the data in almost the format we used to use, we’ve managed to make some small tweaks and restore that content—including debates from the previously missing period. If you’re subscribed to alerts, you should have received an email digest with links to the backdated content (always supposing there was any that matched your chosen keywords).

    And if you’re not subscribed to alerts? Now is a great time to rectify that. We’ll send you an email every time your chosen word or phrase is mentioned in Parliament, or every time your chosen representative speaks.

    While we were doing this work, we also modified TheyWorkForYou so that it now pulls in ministerial data from the Scottish Parliament API. This is a welcome time-saver for us: previously we were creating a list manually from the official PDFs, while we can now automatically fetch it and reformat it into Popolo JSON, meaning it’s consistent with all our other data.

    Thanks for your patience; we know that many people were awaiting this repair, and for longer than we would have liked. Enjoy!

     

    Image: Mark Longair (CC)

     

  7. Spare a moment for the less popular countries on Gender Balance

    Ever feel sorry for the less popular kids at school?

    Excellent, then you’re just the sort of person we need: you may empathise with some of the countries on Gender Balance that aren’t getting quite as much attention as the rest.

    Thanks to our recent data drive, Gender Balance now contains many more countries, all waiting for you to play.

    But we’ve noticed that some countries aren’t getting quite as much attention as others. Gender Balance’s ultimate aim is to provide data for researchers, and we’d hate to feel that we had patchier data for those studying the less popular places.

    featured country on Gender Balance

    So, to encourage take-up, we’ve now added a ‘featured country’ spot. Accept the invitation to play the highlighted place, and you’ll receive double points, propelling you all the faster towards a coveted place on the Gender Balance leaderboard. Time to get playing!

     

     

  8. Gender Balance – now with lots more people

    Yesterday we told you how the data on EveryPolitician had expanded wildly in the last week. One side effect is that there are 64 new countries to play on Gender Balance.

    Our gender classification game (read more about it here) runs on politician data from EveryPolitician, so by adding a whole bunch of countries, we also expanded Gender Balance’s range.

    It also means that, as those countries get played, we’ll be gathering even more informative and useful data about the proportions of women to men in the world’s legislatures.

    That’s all we have to say, except, 3,2,1… get playing!

     

    Image: Timothy Krause (cc)

  9. EveryPolitician – 200 countries and counting

    Amazing—we did it!

    When we decided to mark Global Legislative Openness Week with a drive to get the data for 200 countries up on EveryPolitician, in all honesty, we weren’t entirely sure it could be done.

    And without the help of many people we wouldn’t have got there. But last night, we put live the data for North Korea and Sweden, making us one country over the target.

    The result? There is now consistently-structured, reusable data representing the politicians in 201 countries, ready for anyone to pick up and work with. We hope you will.

    That’s not to say that our job is over… far from it! There’s still plenty more to be done, as we’ll explain below.

    Here’s how it happened

    everypolitician-glow-week-map

    Getting the data for each country was a multi-step process, aided by many people. First, a suitable online source had to be located. Then, a scraper would be written: a piece of code that could visit that source and pull out the information we needed—names, districts, political parties, dates of office, etc—and put it all in the right format.

    Because each country’s data had its own idiosyncrasies and formatting, we needed a different scraper for every country.

    Once written, we added each scraper to EveryPolitician’s list. Crucially, scrapers aren’t just a one-off deal: ideally they’ll continue to work over time as legislatures and politicians change.

    The map above shows our progress during GLOW week, from 134 countries, where we began, up to today’s count of 201.

    Thanks to

    mySociety’s Tony, Lead on the EveryPolitician project, worked non-stop this week to get as many countries as possible online. But this week we’ve seen EveryPolitician reach some kind of momentum, as it takes off as a community project. It’s an ambitious idea, and it can only succeed with the help of this kind of community effort. Thanks to everyone who helped, including (in no particular order):

    Duncan Walker for writing the scraper for Uganda; Joshua Tauberer for helping with the USA data; Struan Donald for handling Ecuador, Japan, Hong Kong, Serbia and the Netherlands; Dave Whiteland, with ThaiNetizen helpfully finding the data source for Thailand; Team Popong for South Korean data; Jenna Howe for her work on El Salvador; Rubeena Mahato, Chris Maddock, Kätlin Traks, François Briatte, @confirmordeny, and @foimonkey for lots of help on finding data; Henare Degan and OpenAustralia who made the scraper for Ukraine; Matthew Somerville for covering the Falkland islands and Sweden; Liz Conlan for lots of help with Peru and American Samoa; Jaroslav Semančík who provided data for, and assistance with, Slovakia; Mathias Huter who supplied current data for Austria while Steven Hirschorn wrote a scraper for the historic data; Andy Lulham who wrote a scraper for Gibraltar; Abigail Rumsey who wrote a scraper for Sri Lanka; everyone who tweeted encouragement or retweeted our requests for help.

    But there’s more

    There are still 40 or so countries for which we have no data at all: you can see them here. This week has provided an enormous boost to our data, but the site’s real target is, just like the name says, to cover every politician in the world.

    And once we’ve done that, there’s still the matter of both historic data, and more in-depth data for the politicians we do have. Thus far, we mostly have only the lower houses for most countries which have two — and for many countries we only have the current politicians. Going into the future we need to include much richer data on all politicians, including voting records, et cetera.

    Meanwhile, our first target, to have a list of the current members of every national legislature in the world, is starting to look like it’s not so very far away. If you’d like to help us reach it, here’s how you still can.

     

  10. How good design can save £millions in medicine costs

    International emergency aid charity Médecins Sans Frontiers are one of the biggest purchasers of medicine worldwide, and naturally it’s important that the drugs they buy are cost-effective. Where possible, they choose generics—white label medicines that contain the same ingredients even if they don’t carry the well-known brand names: think ‘ibuprofen’ or ‘aspirin’ rather than ‘Nurofen’ or ‘Anadin’.

    But when a specific medicine is only available as a patented product from a big drugs company and with an equally big price tag attached, MSF, like everyone else, has little choice but to pay.

    Curiously, this turned out to be a problem that can be solved, in part, through good web design. Here’s the story.

    Opposing patents

    Obviously, drugs companies have an interest in keeping their medicines under patent. As MSF explained, patents, and in particular the practice of ‘evergreening’ them (extending their life indefinitely by making slight modifications to the medicine’s make-up), give pharmaceutical companies a monopoly on pricing, and can impede access to patients who would benefit from them.

    MSF’s online project, the Patent Oppositions Database (PODB) is a resource for helping people challenge medicine patents. PODB helps groups around the world to find each other and work on cases together, and to share previous examples of art and arguments used in lawsuits which may help others in future oppositions.

    The site was already up, running and functional, and the concept was sound. But it wasn’t attracting much take-up. On analysis, it became clear that this was because there was no focused experience on the site, encouraging users towards the core interactions which would power the whole concept of collaborating and sharing knowledge.

    Where design came in

    PODB process map

    MSF asked us to suggest improvements that would enable groups to communicate about specific cases, and to improve the sense of community. Our solutions will add intuitive user paths that lead people to existing opposition cases and the information they need, then encourage them to join in by placing discussions and information about contributors on the page.

    It’s crucial for MSF that the project reaches its full potential, and with the in-depth design changes we’ve suggested, and have now been asked to implement, we know it will.

    You can read more about how we approached this project in our latest case study, over at the mySociety Services website.

    Image: Procsilas Moscas (cc)