This a guest blog by Joe Mitchell from Democracy Club, a non-profit whose aim is to create the digital foundations to support everyone’s participation in democratic life.
The TL; DR
Democracy Club has produced an election information widget that you can add to any website. It’s free. It provides candidate and, where we have it, polling location information for any postcode.
Check it out:
As you may be aware, the UK Parliamentary General Election will take place on 12 December.
You may be less aware that no public body takes responsibility for accurate, locally relevant digital information about elections.
Local governments publish election and candidate data as PDFs on their websites (or, in one notorious case, simply printed out and stuck up on the noticeboard outside the council offices).
Polling location information is printed on cards and sent, in theory, to every voter. It sometimes never arrives. And good luck if you live in a house of multiple occupancy, if you struggle to read the print, if you lose it or if you don’t have it with you when you need to refer to it.
Digital technology has massively improved access to information in many other areas of our lives, so a group of volunteer developers and digital types got together to try to apply the approach to elections in the UK.
That group formed Democracy Club, which is now several thousand volunteers and a small core team constantly working to bring together election, candidate and results data. We also work with local government to aggregate local polling location data and make it available online.
The candidate data we produce is published openly and is used by news media, campaign organisations and, ultimately, voters to learn more and participate in the campaigns. The polling location data we produce is available via an API.
Not everyone has the time to develop a stand-alone product with our data. So we produced a polling location finder widget, which has been popular among local newspapers and local councils. Today, we’ve introduced a widget which includes candidates data too. Users pop in their postcode and away they go. They can click through to a candidate’s page on WhoCanIVoteFor.co.uk for more information.
The civic need for this information is clear. At the last general election, polling location data was accessed (via our website, The Electoral Commission’s website or via the widget) over 1.8m times at the last general election. Candidates information was accessed over 1m times, but this doesn’t count all the uses powered by a one-off CSV download.
The fact that this information — increasingly critical to our functioning as a democratic society — is managed and produced by a tiny non-profit is not a ringing endorsement of our democratic institutions’ fitness for the 21st century.
Democracy Club is working hard to convince public bodies to take on the basic open data elements of our work: when are elections happening, for which area, who are the candidates, what is their preferred contact method, what were the results, etc. And civic user needs go beyond elections — we can’t get to a world of user-friendly, accessible information about democratic processes until the raw data exists for local democracy too.
But for now, at least there’s a widget.
As you’ll know if you’re a regular reader of this blog, YourNextMP crowd-sourced details of every candidate who stood in the UK general election.
But, just because our own election is over, doesn’t mean we’ll be letting YourNextMP gather dust. On the contrary—we want to see it being re-used wherever there are elections being held, and citizens needing information! We’re already seeing the first re-use case, and we’d love to see more.
Opening up data
YourNextMP’s main purpose was to provide a free, open database of candidates, so that anyone who wanted to could build their own tools on top of it, and it was very successful with that aim.
The traditional source of candidate data for such projects has been through expensive private providers, not least because the official candidate lists are published just a few days before the election.
Thanks to YourNextMP’s wonderful crowd-sourcing and triple-checking volunteers, we reckon that we had the most complete, most accurate data, the earliest. And it was free.
Directly informing over a million citizens
YourNextMP also came into its own as a direct source of information for the UK’s electorate. This hadn’t been the priority when the project was launched, but it was helped greatly by the fact that constituency and candidate pages ranked very highly in search engines from early on, so anyone searching for their local candidates found the site easily.
Once they did so, they found a list of everyone standing in their constituency, together with contact details, links to their online profiles such as web pages, social media and party websites, and feeds from spin-off projects (themselves built on YourNextMP data) such as electionleaflets.org and electionmentions.com.
YourNextMP had more than a million unique users. In the weeks just prior to the UK general election, it was attracting approximately 20,000 visitors per day, and on the day before the election, May 6th, there was suddenly a massive surge: that day the site was visited by nearly 160,000 people.
So, in a nutshell: YourNextMP has not only enabled a bunch of projects which helped people become more informed before our election—it also directly informed over a million citizens.
A reusable codebase
And, in the spirit of Poplus, the codebase is open for anyone to re-use in any country.
It’s already being pressed into use for the upcoming elections in Argentina, and we hope that developers in many other countries will use it to inform citizens, and inspire great web tools for the electorate, when their own elections come around.
If that’s something that interests you, please come and talk, ask questions and find out what’s involved, over on the Democracy Club mailing list.
Thanks to the work of thousands of volunteers across the country, we’ve now launched our survey of candidates to be your MP.
It tells you the views of candidates on a range of national and local issues. What’s particular exciting is that this is individual views – we separately surveyed all the candidates.
About 1/3rd of them have replied. The survey has a tool to let you ask the other candidates in your constituency to respond. Please give it a go, as we’d like to the survey to get as complete as possible over the weekend, to be most use to people in the last days leading up to the election.
Competition! Have you found an inventive way to ask your candidates to respond to the survey? Maybe you doorstepped them, or sent them a cake. Post your ideas and things you’ve done in the comments below.
As you may know, TheyWorkForYou are conducting a survey of candidates for Parliament.
Quite a few people have been asking how we worked out the questions. There are two parts to this, one local and one national.
We used the power of volunteers.
Thousands of DemocracyClub members were asked to suggest local issues in there area. These were then edited by other volunteers, to have consistent grammar, and be worded as statements to agree/disagree with, and filtered to remove national issues. The full criteria and examples are available.
You can view the issues for any constituency on the DemocracyClub site. They are in the “local questions” tab.
We’ve ended up with local issues for about 85% of constituencies. They’re really interesting and high quality, and quite unique for a national survey.
Thank you to all the volunteers who helped make this happen!
This was hard, because we felt that asking more than 15 questions would make the survey too long. We also wanted to be sure it was non-partisan.
We convened a panel of judges, either from mySociety/Democracy Club or with professional experience in policy, and from across the political spectrum. They were:
- James Crabtree, chair of judges, trustee of mySociety, journalist for Prospect magazine
- Tim Green, Democracy club developer, Physics student, Cambridge University.
- Michael Hallsworth, senior researcher, Institute for Government.
- Will Davies, sociologist at University of Oxford, has worked for left of centre policy think tanks such as IPPR and Demos.
- Andrew Tucker, researcher at Birkbeck, worked for Liberal Democrats from 1996-2000.
- Robert McIlveen, research fellow, Environment and Energy unit at Policy Exchange, did PhD on Conservative party election strategy.
They met at the offices of the Institute for Government, and had a 3 hour judging session on 29th March 2010. They were asked to think of 8-15 questions, with multiple choice answers, which could usefully be answered both by members of the public and prospective candidates for national office.
Details of the broad framework the judges operated under are given by the chair of judges, James Crabtree, a trustee of mySociety, in the opening to the recordings.
Please do ask any questions in the comments below.
The following is a message that we’d like to see emailed around within political parties of all stripes. If you work for a party, or know anyone who does, please send it along:
TheyWorkForYou.com has sent online surveys to nearly 3000 candidates across the UK, including most of your party’s candidates. If you don’t know it, TheyWorkForYou is probably the largest politician transparency website in the UK, with about 3m visitors last year.
The survey we’ve sent is a rigorously neutral attempt to clarify candidates positions on many of the biggest issues at the election. It is also a long-term document – the data that comes from candidate responses will be viewed millions of times between now and the general election after this one. It also contains both local and national questions.
There are 6000+ volunteers now nagging non-responsive candidates. You can help your party improve its responsiveness rating, here, by passing on the word that TheyWorkForYou’s survey is not push-polling, not single issue, not short-termist.
Please help us by passing on the message that TheyWorkForYou will be one of the main ways that new MPs from all parties (and none) will be scrutinised and neither we nor new MPs want to start our relationship with a “refused to go on the record” badge on their pages.
If you are a candidate, and you want to do the survey, check your email for TheyWorkForYou (no spaces). If you don’t have it, drop a mail to firstname.lastname@example.org and it’ll be sent along shortly.
The staff and volunteers at TheyWorkForYou and Democracy Club
In January last year, at our yearly staff and volunteers retreat, we decided that TheyWorkForYou should do something special for the general election. We decided that we wanted to gather information on where every candidate in every seat stood on what most people would think were the biggest issues, not just nationally but locally too.
Our reasons for setting this ambitious goal were two fold. First, we thought that pinning people down to a survey that didn’t reward rhetorical flourishes would help the electorate cut through the spin that accompanies all elections. But even more important was to increase our ability to hold new MPs to account: we want users of TheyWorkForYou in the future to be able to see how Parliamentary voting records align with campaign statements.
This meant doing quite a lot of quite difficult things:
- Working out who all the candidates are (thousands of them)
- Working out how to contact them.
- Gathering thousands of local issues from every corner of the country, and quality assuring them.
- Developing a balanced set of national issues.
- Sending the candidates surveys, and chasing them up.
The Volunteer Army
This has turned out to be a massive operation, requiring the creation of the independent Democracy Club set up by the amazing new volunteers Seb Bacon and Tim Green, and an entire candidate database site YourNextMP, built by another new volunteer Edmund von der Burg. Eventually we managed to get at least one local issue in over 80% of constituencies, aided by nearly 6000 new volunteers spread from Lands End to John O’Groats. There’s at least one volunteer in every constituency in Great Britain, and in all but three in Northern Ireland. Volunteers have done more than just submit issues, they’ve played our duck house game to help gather thousands of email addresses, phone numbers, and postal addresses.
What we ended up with is a candidate survey that is different for every constituency – 650 different surveys, in short. The survey always contains the same 15 national issues (chosen by a politically balanced panel held at the Institute for Government) and then anything between zero and ten local issues. We’ve seen everything from cockle protection to subsidies for ferries raised – over 3000 local issues were submitted, before being painstakingly moderated, twice, by uber-volunteers checking for for spelling, grammar, obvious bias and straightforward interestingness (it isn’t really worth asking candidates if they are in favour of Good Things and against Bad Things).
In the last couple of days we’ve started to send out the first surveys – we’ve just passed 1000 emails, and there are at least 2000 still to be sent.
We’re aiming to release the data we are gathering on candidates positions on 30th April. We’ll build a nice interface to explore it, but we also hope that others will do something with what we are expecting to be quite a valuable dataset.
Candidates are busy people, so how do we get their attention? Happily, some candidates are choosing to answer the survey just because TheyWorkForYou has a well know brand in the political world, but this has limits.
The answer is that we are going to ask Democracy Club, and it’s army of volunteers to help. We’ll shortly roll out a tool that will tell volunteers which of their candidates haven’t taken the opportunity to go on the record , and provide a range of ways for them to push for their candidates to fill it in.
It would be a lie to say we’re confident we’ll get every last candidate. But we are confident we can make sure that no candidate can claim they didn’t see, or didn’t know it was important to their constituents. And every extra voice we have makes that more likely.