1. Google’s election search – now powered by YourNextMP

    Have you ever typed a phrase like ‘what’s the time in New York’ or ‘what is 28 km in miles’ into Google? If you’ve done so in the last couple of years, you’ll have seen answers given on the results page itself, inside dedicated answer boxes.

    YourNextMP results on GoogleFor the next couple of weeks, Google users in Britain who search for key election data will see the answers presented in-page in this increasingly familiar way.

    We’re delighted to share the news that these answers are being supplied as open standard data from Democracy Club’s brilliant, volunteer-powered YourNextMP project, as well as our own long running TheyWorkForYou. The aim is to make information easily accessible to anyone who seeks it: we are one of a few data sources to be supplying Google.

    YNMP data on GoogleWe’re particularly excited about this because YourNextMP is powered by PopIt, a Poplus Component which is used to create nice clean open standards Popolo data on politicians.

    We think that adoption of open standards data by companies as big as Google points towards a promising world in which there is a lot more good quality, open standard data on political issues of all kinds.

    Try it for yourself: search for uk election candidates or a question like who can I vote for?

     

    How was this made possible?

    We’re so delighted to see essential civic data being brought to the search engine’s vast numbers of users. It’s all down to the power of open standards and re-usable open source software.

    YourNextMP provides feeds via an API, which are available for anyone—large organisations like Google, or individual people like you, perhaps—to use in their own projects.

    YourNextMP’s use of the Popolo open standard for government means that the data is clean, machine-readable and easy to slot in anywhere—including Google.

    Three cheers

    We think a few shout-outs are due. This simple but far-reaching usage of YourNextMP data is only possible because of many good people bringing good things together:

    • Democracy Club, and the huge amount of work that this volunteer-run organisation put in to gather and check candidate data
    • The many volunteers who gave their time in adding and refining that data
    • Popolo, driven by the work of James McKinney
    • Poplus, because YourNextMP is based on the people-and-positions storing Component, PopIt
    • Google.org, whose funding allowed the creation of Poplus in the first place.

    What YourNextMP has achieved

    Just as was hoped, YourNextMP data has been used to underpin a variety of projects by many individuals and organisations.

    Google may be the latest and the biggest, but we’re no less pleased to see how it has made possible numerous tools to educate or inform the public before the election, as well as powering stories and infographics in several national newspapers. See our previous post for more details on this.

    And there’s more. YourNextMP, because it’s built on Open Source code, won’t be going into hibernation until the next election in this country.

    The UK voting may be over on May 8, but there are elections all over the world still to come. Our friends in Latin America will be taking the code and adapting it for use in Argentina whose election process starts in August. ¡Viva YourNextMP!

     

     

  2. A ‘yay for Poplus’ moment: one bid, six countries

    Image by Dave WhitelandThe Knight Foundation’s News Challenge offers funding to innovative projects. We wonder whether they’ve ever had a bid whose collaborators span six different countries before.

    Well, now they have: the plan to extend YourNextMP to work in Guatemala, Chile, Argentina, Peru, Scotland, and Minnesota is a great example of the Poplus federation in action.

    You can read more about the plans on the bid page—and please click the little pink heart to give us ‘applause’!

     

    The bid

    In short, we want to build on the success that the YourNextMP crowdsourcing platform has had here in the UK.

    Right now, YourNextMP offers open data on every candidate for the UK general election. That data is being used by major media companies and internet giants, and underlies several innovative online tools. On top of that, it’s getting thousands of visits every day from people who simply want more information about who’s standing in their area.

    With some modification, other countries could use the same tech in advance of their own elections, giving their citizens the same opportunities to become more informed about those standing, and to develop still more useful online tools.

    This is a ‘Yay for Poplus’ moment

    Because Poplus is an international federation of organisations with similar needs, we can come together to forge plans that will benefit all of us, and then work together to make them a reality.

    Our plans wouldn’t just benefit those six countries, either. Like every bit of Poplus tech, it’d be available as open source software for anyone to use, anywhere in the world. And that’s what Poplus is all about: maximum impact from every bit of code.

    So now..

    Join the Poplus mailing list to find out more about Poplus activities

    Give some applause to our Knight Foundation News Challenge bid

  3. Helping Passenger Focus display bus satisfaction data

    Passenger Focus bus satisfaction survey

    Users of Lothian Buses are more satisfied with the value for money of their bus journeys than anyone else in the country.

    Passengers on the Oxford Park and Ride service find the seats the most comfortable.  And the drivers of Trent Barton in Nottinghamshire give a friendly enough greeting, according to 95% of passengers.

    These are the kind of insights that it’s now very easy to discover on the Passenger Focus website, thanks to the latest project by mySociety Services.

    It’s an extension of the work we did last year to help the transport watchdog display their train satisfaction data. We’ve introduced a new design which, we hope, makes it much easier to explore the results of Passenger Focus’ annual passenger satisfaction survey.

    We’ve used a new visual approach that is appropriate for the bus data: it makes it really easy to browse through 32 different survey categories, from cleanliness to safe driving.

    When you have that many categories, drop-downs aren’t really an option, and we’re pleased with what we came up with to make it easy to make the most important categories prominent, while still allowing easy and intuitive access to the others.

    We’ve also used responsive design, which means it performs beautifully whether viewed on mobile or at the desktop. Check it out for yourself here – be sure to resize your browser to see the mobile version kick in!

  4. Hello Academics of the world, we would like to work with you!

    We at mySociety build and popularise digital tools worldwide that help citizens exert power over institutions and decision-makers. Or do we?

    Wanting to know whether our well-meaning civic tech is actually making a difference, mySociety recently created the post of Head of Research. My name is Dr Rebecca Rumbul, and I have now been installed in that role for about 6 weeks. I want to know if civic tech like ours is having an impact on citizens and governments, and how such sites operate and negotiate issues not just in the UK, but in the 50 or so countries that we know have digital democracy websites operating in them.

    Into the unkown

    There is enormous scope for interesting and important research to be conducted using sites such as the ones that mySociety and our partners operate. The digital nature of our focus means that we can collect large volumes of data online at a low cost.

    That said, there is nothing quite like making connections on the ground or meeting people face to face. mySociety is a small NGO, and does not have the capacity to conduct all of the research activities it would like on its own.

    Therefore, we are actively seeking to work with academic partners on both qualitative and quantitative research focusing on the impact of civic tech.

    We are planning to conduct research in the following countries. If you are an academic based in one of these countries and interested in our research agenda, please get in touch. We will be very happy to hear from you. Contact me via research@mysociety.org

    Countries:

    • Argentina
    • Chile
    • Hungary
    • Kenya
    • Malaysia
    • Mexico
    • Norway
    • South Africa
    • Ukraine
    • Uruguay

    We conduct and disseminate research regularly. If you would like to hear more about our activities and events, sign up for our newsletter.

    Image credit: Into the Unknown by Gary Gao (angrytoast), CC BY-NC 2.0

  5. Parliament without Scottish MPs: how would it have looked different since 1997?

     

    An analysis, with code and data, of which Commons votes would have had different results, if Scottish MPs’ votes hadn’t been counted since 1997.

    By Richard Taylor and Anna Powell-Smith.

    Humble address in the House of CommonsPublicWhip is a wonderful thing. Founded and still run by independent volunteers, it contains the results of every House of Commons vote since 1997, scraped from the official web pages and presented as simple structured data. Here at mySociety, we’ve used it to power TheyWorkForYou for many years.

    Most recently, it helped our staffer Richard create the new voting analyses on TheyWorkForYou’s MP pages. Want a quick, simple summary of your MP’s voting history on same-sex marriage or climate change, or on any of 62 other major issues? You’ll now find the answer on your MP’s TheyWorkForYou page, all based on PublicWhip data.

    But here’s the most exciting thing about PublicWhip. If you know how to get around its slightly forbidding exterior, it contains a treasure-trove of data on MPs’ voting patterns, all structured, openly-licensed and ready for anyone to analyse.

    A data challenge

    Recently, while discussing the upcoming Scottish referendum, Richard posed a question to Anna: could PublicWhip data tell us which House of Commons votes would have had different results, if Scottish MPs’ votes hadn’t been counted?

    This is interesting because if the Scottish people vote “yes” to independence on September 18th, we may see (probably not as soon as 2015, but perhaps soon thereafter) a House of Commons without Scottish MPs. No-one really knows how such a Parliament would be different.

    While it was widely reported that that Scottish MPs’ votes carried the decision to introduce student tuition fees and foundation hospitals in England, those were just two high-profile votes. To our knowledge, no-one has published a comprehensive analysis of all votes that were carried by the Scottish MPs.

    The results

    Anna chose to accept Richard’s challenge, and to use PublicWhip data to carry out this analysis. You can see all their code, and the data they produced, on GitHub.

    The headline finding is that only 21 votes (out of nearly 5000 since 1997) would have gone differently if Scottish MP’s votes hadn’t been counted. This surprised Anna, who expected more.

    Secondly, if there’s any visible pattern, it’s that English MPs seem to have a stronger civil-libertarian bent than their Scottish counterparts. High-profile votes on 42-day detention, “glorifying terrorism”, allowing the Lord Chancellor to suspend inquests, and on control orders: according to Anna’s analysis, all would have gone differently if Scottish MPs had not been in the chamber.

    Other than that – Anna comments – the key finding is perhaps the absence of any other strong trend.

    Here is the full list of votes that would have gone differently – click on the date to see the full vote details on PublicWhip. If Scottish MPs hadn’t been in the chamber:

    2010-date

    • 5 Sep 2014 The majority of MPs would have voted to send the Affordable Homes Bill to a Select Committee rather than a Public Bill Committee.
    • 29 August 2013 The majority of MPs would have voted to agree that a strong humanitarian response to the use of chemical weapons in Syria was required from the international community, and that it may, if necessary, require military action. (You may remember that David Cameron called MPs back from their summer break to vote on this, and MPs rejected the motion.)
    • 29 Jan 2013 The majority of MPs would have voted against postponing a review of the boundaries of parliamentary constituencies until 2018 and against delaying a review of the effect of reducing the number of MPs.
    • 31 Oct 2012 The majority of MPs would have voted against calling on the UK Government to seek a real-terms cut in the European Union budget.
    • 24 Apr 2012 The majority of MPs would have voted to require products containing halal and kosher meat to be labelled as such.
    • 24 Feb 2010 The majority of MPs would have voted for restrictions on the amount of carbon dioxide electricity generation plants are permitted to emit.

    2005-2010

    • 9 Nov 2009 The majority of MPs would have voted against allowing the Lord Chancellor (a minister) to suspend an inquest and replace it with an inquiry and against allowing the use of intercepted communications evidence in inquests.
    • 8 Dec 2008 The majority of MPs would have voted to immediately starting the proceedings of a committee of MPs to investigate the House of Commons procedures in light of the seizure by the police of material belonging to Damian Green MP.
    • 12 Nov 2008 The majority of MPs would have voted to require membership of new regional select committees to be determined taking account of the proportion of members of each party representing constituencies in the relevant region and for at least one member from each of the three largest parties to be on each committee.
    • 11 Jun 2008 The majority of MPs would have voted against extending the period of police detention without making any criminal charges of terrorist suspects from 28 days to 42 days.
    • 2 Jun 2008 The majority of MPs would have voted to require the National Policy Statement to contain policies which contribute to the mitigation of, and adaptation to, climate change.
    • 15 Mar 2006 The majority of MPs would have voted against a proposed timetable for the Parliamentary consideration of the Education and Inspections Bill.
    • 2 Nov 2005 The majority of MPs would have voted against making glorifying the commission or preparation of acts of terrorism an offence.
    • 2 Nov 2005 The majority of MPs would have voted to make the offence of Encouragement of Terrorism only apply to cases where an individual intended their actions to encourage terrorism.

    2001-2005

    • 28 Feb 2005 The majority of MPs would have voted to give a greater role to the courts in relation to the imposition of control orders.
    • 22 Apr 2004 The majority of MPs would have voted against installing a security screen separating the public gallery from the House of Commons Chamber.
    • 31 Mar 2004 The majority of MPs would have voted against the introduction of variable university tuition fees (top-up fees) of up to £3,000 per year in place of the previous fixed fee of £1,250 per year.
    • 27 Jan 2004 The majority of MPs would have voted against allowing university tuition fees to increase from £1,125 per year to up to £3,000 per year, and against making other changes to higher education funding and regulation arrangements.
    • 19 Nov 2003 The majority of MPs would have voted against introducing NHS foundation trusts, bodies with a degree of financial and managerial independence from the Department of Health.
    • 4 Feb 2003 The majority of MPs would have voted for an 80% elected House of Lords.
    • 29 Oct 2002 The majority of MPs would have voted against starting sittings of the House of Commons on Tuesdays at 11.30am rather than 2.30pm.

    In the 1997-2001 Parliament, Anna’s code found no votes that would have had different results.

    IMPORTANT DISCLAIMER! We can’t conclude that all of the above would necessarily have become law if Scottish MPs had not been in the chamber. Bills don’t become law until they have passed through the House of Lords – not to mention the many other forces of history that would have acted differently.

    Get the code and the data

    You can see the code used for this analysis, and the full datasets, on GitHub. You can adapt it yourself if you want to do your own analyses.

    This analysis is the work of one volunteer: we welcome any corrections. Like PublicWhip itself, the whole point is that it is out in open for anyone to analyse and improve.

    Image by Catherine Bebbington. Parliamentary copyright image reproduced with the permission of Parliament.

  6. We’ve analysed every vote since the general election, and why that’s good news for you

    360 degree panorama by Eye of QvoxSince the 2010 election, there have been 1,085 votes in the House of Commons.

    Our team member Richard has now analysed every single one of those votes, and his findings have been added to each MP’s information on TheyWorkForYou.

    We hope that’s great news for users: it means that we can now present a really full picture of how your MP voted on key topics.

    It’s also potentially useful for developers, eDemocracy hackers and campaign groups, who can pick up our data and use it as they please.

    So what exactly is the data?

    Often MPs vote on motions which are, at first glance, rather incomprehensible and cryptic. They might vote for example on a motion to accept:

    Amendments (a) to (d) proposed in lieu of Lords amendments 1 to 4 and 6.

    We’ve done the research to determine what MPs were actually voting on in each case, and turned their archaic language into plain English.

    For every vote we’ve written a sentence to describe the effect of voting either “aye” or “no”. In relation to one MP’s vote on the evening of the 9th of July 2014 we write:

    Mark Pawsey MP, Rugby voted for a residence test as an eligibility criteria for civil legal aid; subject to exceptions for refugees and those who have sought asylum.

    In addition to describing every vote, we have decided whether it should be considered relevant to the topics we list on each MP’s page (see an example MP here, or check your own MP by inputting your postcode on the homepage, then clicking ‘voting record’ on your MP’s page).

    If a vote was relevant to one of the statements we show on TheyWorkForYou, we then determined whether voting ‘aye’ or ‘no’ was a vote for or against the statement and if the vote was very important, or less important. By clicking on the green ‘details’ button beside each statement on an MP’s voting record you can see exactly which individual votes contributed to it as well as how we calculated which wording such as “moderately for” or “strongly against” to apply in each case.

    Matters MPs have voted on since the 2010 general election have ranged from bankers’ bonuses to same sex marriage; from food banks to the “bedroom tax” (all of which have contributed to statements we show on TheyWorkForYou); from daylight saving to the regulation of hairdressers (neither included) – and plenty more. (We’ve written previously about how we select which topics to show on TheyWorkForYou.)

    Of course, Parliament continues to hold votes, and we’ll be continuing to analyse the results as they come in – but it is good to know that we are bang up to date.

    How can this data be used?

    We have plenty of ideas ourselves, and we want to hear yours, too. With the forthcoming general election, one obvious use is for ‘who should I vote for?’ tools, which match users’ opinions with those of each party.

    There’s also potential for comparisons between what constituents believe and what their elected representative has voted for.

    No doubt there are many other ideas that haven’t even occurred to us yet – please do get in touch if you have ideas and you’d like to use this data.

    Image: Eye of Qvox (cc)

     

  7. Straight answers, or slippery digressions? The art of the Written Answer – in numbers

    House of Lords Library: Parliamentary copyright images are reproduced with the permission of Parliament

    The Written Answer is a noble parliamentary tradition, dating back almost 300 years. MPs and peers use them to hold the government to account, getting facts and figures on the record.

    But wriggling out of answering them is also a recognised Parliamentary skill – and one that, while often applied with dexterity, can impede the process of democracy.

    That’s the primary reason that, beside each Written Answer on TheyWorkForYou, we poll our users on a single point:

    “Does this answer the above question?”

    Last month marked the tenth birthday of TheyWorkForYou, and over that time, this unassuming poll has amassed more than 275,000 of these yes or no responses on a total of around 130,000 written answers.

    That’s a substantial sample for us to analyse. Running that data through a few tickertape machines and putting the results in order means that we can now see just how many written answers actually address the question in hand – and which government departments are the best and worst at giving a straight answer.

    Is the current administration more slippery?

    It seems that ministers are getting worse at returning a straightforward answer.

    In the previous government: 47% of written answers that were voted on got more ‘yes’ answers than ‘no’s from our users.

    In the current administration: That figure has dropped to 45%. Even within the current term, the figure has been falling year on year, with a 49% ‘yes’ rate in 2010 comparing to a 42% rate in 2013.

    Best and worst departments for a straight answer

    Breaking down the data by department is also eye-opening – some departments are decidedly more likely to be judged as prevaricators by TheyWorkForYou’s users.

    Accolade for ‘most improved’ goes to the Wales office, who managed an 86% ‘yes’ rate in the current government, against 48% in the last. Worst of the bunch – as perceived by TheyWorkForYou’s users – is the Department of Work and Pensions, with just 31% in this administration.

    We’ve put the full rankings below, for those of you who would like to delve deeper into these figures.

    (more…)

  8. How responsive is your MP?

    Image by Barry (Ennor)

    We’ve just published the WriteToThem responsiveness league table for 2013. Check your MP’s performance here – just enter your postcode.

    League table? What’s that?

    Our website WriteToThem.com allows anyone to send a message to their elected representatives.

    If you’ve ever done this, you’ll know that two weeks later, we email you to ask whether or not your representative replied.

    The information we obtain from this questionnaire is important to us: it helps us check that WriteToThem remains an effective way to contact politicians. But, when it’s analysed further, there are interesting results to be found.

    WriteToThem launched in 2005. Until 2008, we published an annual ‘league table’, ranking MPs by responsiveness. We did this because we believe that it is a fundamental part of an MP’s duty to respond to their constituents’ messages; we wanted to recognise the best performers, and highlight the ones who were falling below expectations.

    We haven’t run this data since 2008 – mainly because we’re a very busy organisation with a wide range of priorities.

    But our users frequently ask for the latest stats, and to that end we’ve now run the 2013 data. Take a look at it here.

    A big WriteToThem gold star to some MPs

    The people of Romsey and Southampton North should rest easy. Their Conservative MP Caroline Nokes is on the case. Top of our league table, she replied to 96% of messages sent through WriteToThem.

    Other good performers include Conservatives John Glen MP for Salisbury, and Justin Tomlinson representing North Swindon. Gloria De Piero, Labour MP for Ashfield, comes in at 4th position. Check your MP’s performance here.

    And ‘could do better, see me’ to others

    Mansfield residents may feel like nobody’s listening; their representative Alan Meale (Labour) comes bottom of the rankings, having replied to a sole message in 2013.

    Other low responders were Khalid Mahmood (Labour), representing Birmingham Perry Barr; Kenneth Clarke (Conservative) for Rushcliffe; and Tom Blenkinsop (Labour) in Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland. Check your MP’s performance here.

    Not just MPs

    WriteToThem isn’t just for contacting your MP. You can also use it to write to Lords, councillors, MEPs and members of the assemblies of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

    Running this data also allows us to make broad comparisons across all of these bodies – see our figures here.

    The Welsh Assembly comes out looking fairly respectable, with a 70% response rate, while the House of Lords (who, it must be noted, do not have an obligation to respond to correspondence) slink in at 27%.

    We’ve also sliced the data so you can see which political parties perform best and worst overall. Guess who comes top?

    Data and methodology

    • Our figures are based on our follow-up questionnaire, and of course, not all users respond to it. This data is based on 58,573 responses; you can see more about the data below.
    • Letters sent via WriteToThem represent less than 1% of the entire parliamentary postbag, so this has to be taken as a sample rather than giving the full picture across the board.
    • WriteToThem is not the only way that people can contact their representatives. For all we know, those poor performers may be responding perfectly adequately to messages sent by other channels – although we do make it as simple as we can for them to reply to WriteToThem users, and it’s our belief that the channel of communication should not make any difference.

    We know, too, that some messages don’t require an answer. We would not expect to see a 100% response rate, and, by the way, we are considering altering our questionnaire so that it includes the option “I didn’t get a reply, but my message didn’t need one”.

    • It’s also important to note that this league table is not a ‘laziness’ ranking. MPs do many other things besides reply to their constituents’ letters. Poor responders may be incredibly active in their constituency, or in Westminster debates. So it’s what it says it is – a responsiveness league table, no more, no less.
    • WriteToThem sent 96,396 messages to MPs in the year 2013 and 103,965 to other elected representatives.
    • 58,573 people answered our feedback survey about communicating with their MP.

    The survey asked whether people had had a reply (not just an acknowledgement) from their representative.

    People were surveyed initially after 2 weeks, and if they didn’t answer, were surveyed again after 3 weeks.

    Because of this, and because of the way different people interpret the survey, you should interpret the figures with some caution.

    We did not include any MP who received fewer than 20 messages in 2013, as the sample numbers are too small to be indicative. See the bottom of our league table for the MPs affected: here you may also see which MPs do not accept correspondence sent via WriteToThem.

    Before preparing this table, we contacted the lowest performers to ensure that we had the right email addresses for them.

    In the cases of Caroline Flint (9 out of 63 positive responses to our survey), Stephen Dorrell (18 out of 94) and Tom Watson (4 out of 42), we were informed that while the addresses were monitored, there were better ones to use – these are now in place on WriteToThem.

    In the case of Alasdair McDonnell (10 out of 57), we were informed that we had the correct address. Jack Lopresti (4 out of 70) and Stephen Williams (53 out of 267) did not respond.

    Image credit: Barry (CC)
  9. Seeing how your MP voted – now clearer and more comprehensive

    House of Commons Chamber

    Do you know how your MP voted on the issues that matter to you?

    If not, take a look at the new Voting Record section for your MP – accessed easily via TheyWorkForYou.com. Even if you don’t know who your MP is, we’ve made it easy to find their voting activities, and to easy understand their big decisions at a glance.

    We’ve been working hard to increase the coverage of votes (we admit – they had got a bit out of date), as well as to make the experience of reading them much more pleasant. There are now so many bits of analysis we’ve actually split a separate voting page out for each MP, accessible from their main TheyWorkForYou page.

    Now you can see how your MP voted on issues like these:

    • Benefit levels – what goes up or down
    • Foreign policy – including military decisions
    • Social issues – eg gay marriage
    • Constitutional issues – for example, how many MPs there are

    Check your own MP’s voting record here – and don’t forget, if you want to discuss what you find with your MP you can use WriteToThem.com afterwards.

    Keeping things objective

    TheyWorkForYou is a trusted, non-partisan service so we work hard to ensure that these voting lines are unbiased and neutrally worded.

    We’re so keen to ensure that we don’t accidentally introduce unconscious biases, that we try to avoid entirely the business of picking which topics to analyse. Instead, we  prioritise our analysis based on what gets voted on by lots of MPs (accounting for whole party abstentions), not what gets talked about in the news, or what we care about ourselves.

    There are more details about the process in a previous blog post.

    Wording is important

    We  have decided to prioritise clarity over expressing every detailed nuance of votes – this is an intentional choice, reflecting our priority of reaching citizens who have never paid attention to their MPs before. Consequently, vote summaries need to be concise and not use jargon.

    For example, would we be wrong to use the common term ‘bedroom tax’? It’s a phrase that a lot of people would recognise from the press coverage, but the government’s preferred term is ‘removal of the spare room subsidy’.

    In the end, we went with reducing housing benefit for social tenants deemed to have excess bedrooms (which Labour describe as the “bedroom tax”) – a balance between objectivity and clarity.

    The bottom line

    We’ve made lot of changes to the display for information on MPs recently. So if you have any feedback, good or bad,  please us know what you think by leaving a comment below, or dropping us a line

    Image source. Copyright Catherine Bebbington/Parliamentary Copyright. Licence: (CC BY-NC 2.0)

  10. Learning from the Shelter Databank

    If you are interested in attending a mySociety Data Briefing for Breakfast event, drop us a line and we’ll add you to our mailing list.

    28th June: Tristan Carlyon from Shelter

    Shelter's databank

    mySociety’s Data Briefings are all about how to present complex data online, simply. Shelter’s Databank tool is one of the better solutions we’ve seen to this exact problem, so we invited Tristan Carlyon, a key player in its creation, to tell us about it.

    The Shelter Databank pulls together government data on housing issues from a number of sources, and makes it accessible online.

    Although the underlying data is all freely available in various places, it wasn’t previously easy for the casual user to find or to use. Conversely, and crucially, you don’t need to be an expert to use Databank – it has a very simple interface and it outputs the data you need, in the format you need.

     “I created my ideal resource”.

    As with so much great software, the Databank was born when Tristan identified something that would make his own job easier. But it soon became clear that there would be a wider appreciative audience.

    A quick internal assessment helped Tristan calculate that the Shelter media team were spending a total of one day a week answering queries from the press. This fact alone justified the project – it’d make a large efficiency saving.

    The benefits wouldn’t just be internal:  it was also an opportunity to drive traffic to the Shelter website and increase brand awareness for the charity.

    At a previous Breakfast, the question had arisen of how you can get buy-in from higher management for this kind of project, when it may seem not to precisely align with your organisation’s main remit.

    As it happens, the Databank tool does fit pretty solidly within Shelter’s charitable mission – one of their aims is: “to educate the public concerning the nature, causes and effects of homelessness [..] and to conduct and procure research concerning the same and to make available the useful results thereafter to the public.”

     But there are other benefits too, even if your organisation doesn’t have a similar remit. Tristan confirmed that having an effective, useful tool builds the brand, cementing it more firmly in people’s minds.

    Plus, publishing this kind of data enables Shelter to engage with many of their target and actual stakeholders – press, elected representatives at all levels, academics, grassroots campaigners, and developers.

    Looks simple… works hard

    Tristan took us through the tool’s interface: it may appear basic, but a lot of thought has gone into every element. Some of the points he pulled out were:

    •  The input form is all on one page – and if you go back to amend your search, your previous input is saved.
    • The big red ‘get data’ button is unambiguous and unmissable – and happens to be Tristan’s favourite feature of the whole tool.
    • Search queries generate a URL that incorporates the search parameters, and can be easily shared or modified.
    • Glossary tags ensure that any technical terms can be understood by the general public just as well as industry insiders.
    • The tool is free of any spin. Despite its placement on a charity website, it does not exhort you to donate. Its only aim is to present the data without comment or editorial, which helps retain its integrity.

    OK, it’s built. Now you have to run the thing.

    The Databank was built within eight weeks, alongside other development projects. Like almost any such project – and as we at mySociety see with our own data-related sites – it couldn’t just be built and then left to do its work. As its underlying external data sources are refreshed, it must also be updated, and this is rarely a job that can be automated.

    In fact, Tristan currently does the updates manually, taking about a day’s work each quarter. He reckons that it’s still well worth it. The tool still offers massive efficiency savings, for him and for many others. Hundreds of subscribers are signed up to receive an alert whenever the data is refreshed.

    Shelter’s internal systems ensure that projects are always retrospectively assessed to see whether they met the objectives in the initial project plan.

    The Databank stands up well to scrutiny, being one of Shelter’s most consistently visited pages, and continuing to save time for the whole team. Reputation, perhaps, cannot be measured, but it is not a great leap to see that a useful tool like this can only enhance the charity’s image.

    We’ll be continuing our Data for Breakfast briefings, so if you’d like to hear about the next one, please drop us a line with your name and the organisation you work for.