We, and Open Knowledge International, are looking for the digital files that hold electoral boundaries, for every country in the world — and you can help.
Yeah, we know — never let it be said we don’t know how to party.
But seriously, there’s a very good reason for this request. When people make online tools to help citizens contact their local politicians, they need to be able to match users to the right representatives.
So head on over to the Every Boundary survey and see how you can help — or read on for a bit more detail.
Data for tools that empower citizens
If you’ve used mySociety’s sites TheyWorkForYou — or any of the other parliamentary monitoring sites we’ve helped others to run around the world — you’ll have seen this matching in action. Electoral boundary data is also integral in campaigning and political accountability, from Surfers against Sewage’s ‘Plastic Free Parliament’ campaign, to Call your Rep in the US.
These sites all work on the precept that while people may not know the names of all their representatives at every level — well, do you? — people do tend to know their own postcode or equivalent. Since postcodes fall within boundaries, once both those pieces of information are known, it’s simple to present the user with their correct constituency or representative.
So the boundaries of electoral districts are an essential piece of the data needed for such online tools. As part of mySociety’s commitment to the Democratic Commons project, we’d like to be able to provide a single place where anyone planning to run a politician-contacting site can find these boundary files easily.
And here’s why we need you
Electoral boundaries are the lines that demarcate where constituencies begin and end. In the old days, they’d have been painstakingly plotted on a paper map, possibly accessible to the common citizen only by appointment.
These days, they tend to be available as digital files, available via the web. Big step forward, right?
But, as with every other type of political data, the story is not quite so simple.
There’s a great variety of organisations responsible for maintaining electoral boundary files across different countries, and as a result, there’s little standardisation in where and how they are published.
How you can help
We need the boundary files for 231 countries (or as we more accurately — but less intuitively — refer to them, ‘places’), and for each place we need the boundaries for constituencies at national, regional and city levels. So there’s plenty to collect.
As we so often realise when running this sort of project, it’s far easier for many people to find a few files each than it would be for our small team to try to track them all down. And that, of course, is where you come in.
Whether you’ve got knowledge of your own country’s boundary files and where to find them online, or you’re willing to spend a bit of time searching around, we’d be so grateful for your help.
Fortunately, there’s a tool we can use to help collect these files — and we didn’t even have to make it ourselves! The Open Data Survey, first created by Open Knowledge International to assess and display just how much governmental information around the world is freely available as open data, has gone on to aid many projects as they collect data for their own campaigns and research.
Now we’ve used this same tool to provide a place where you can let us know where to find that electoral boundary data we need.
Where to begin
Thanks for your help — it will go on to improve citizen empowerment and politician accountability throughout the world. And that is not something everyone can say they’ve done.
Image credit: Sam Poullain
It’s been a few months since we first announced our Democratic Commons project under the banner of “shared code, data and resources where anyone can contribute, and anyone can benefit” — but if we’ve been silent since then, it’s certainly not for a lack of activity.
Quite the reverse, in fact: we’ve been busy bringing new team members on board and getting stuck in with the time-consuming and often fiddly process of data gathering and sharing.
When we’re in the midst of all this hard work, it’s sometimes hard to remember to talk about how everything’s going; but it’s always interesting, so here’s a snapshot of where we are now.
Those of us working on Democratic Commons are only a small team within the smallish organisation mySociety. Gathering in-depth data on politicians all around the world takes more time and more local knowledge than we have ourselves, so we’re working with partners located within our target countries.
Distintas Latitudes have been handling Latin America – they’ve been great at gathering data and explaining the various differences between the political systems in each country we’ve worked together on.
In India, Factly and Gender And Politics have done the most amazing job in gathering a full national and state level dataset for politicians right across the country. We were astounded, as that is a LOT of data (over 3,500 records and counting so far).
And in South East Asia we’re working with OCF, with whom we’ve had a long association (you may remember TICTeC Taiwan, for example). OCF have helped us with data for Taiwan and South Korea so far, and are set to work with us on seven more countries before December 2018.
Finally, a special mention goes to OpenLeb of Lebanon, who are working hard to start finding data in a country where data is not usually open. We genuinely could not do this work without our partners and we are eternally grateful for their help.
As is probably clear from the above, we often select which countries to work on by our ability to find a community or organisation that will extend help. A nice side effect of this is that we’re strengthening the connections and bonds between mySociety and organisations with similar missions in many different places.
Growing the community of such organisations across the world is going to be the primary focus of our new Community Manager Georgie, whom you will no doubt hear a lot from over the next few months.
She’s going to be finding out who’s already using data like this, who’s maintaining it, who’s interested in running projects with it or doing research — and seeing if there’s also an appetite there to keep the data up to date. This is because the data will really only be useful to people if it’s well maintained and current!
Working with Wikidata
Early on, we recognised that improving the political data available in Wikidata, rather than ringfencing it all within EveryPolitician, was going to be an efficient way to maximise the benefits of the Democratic Commons project.
What does this mean in practice? Well, in our first phase we’ve targeted 13 places in which to locate the data and load it into Wikidata: Mexico, Brazil, Colombia, Paraguay, Chile, Canada, Italy, Estonia, Lebanon, India, S Korea, Taiwan and Hong Kong.
Ultimately, we want to help make any and all information about politicians at every level freely and openly available via the Commons; but for now, our initial scope looks at representatives at national, regional, and city legislatures.
Now that a lot of this work is being done on or in Wikidata, we’re creating tools to make processes smoother and faster. The main ones of these are around verifying data and creating statements in Wikidata; we hope that when we’ve completed these they’ll be valuable to the whole Wikidata community beyond just the Democratic Commons project.
Step by step
We’re focusing on getting what we’re terming ‘Outline Data’ for each place loaded into Wikidata first. This type of data helps us model the political system, as it tells us what the legislature looks like — for example, whether it is unicameral, bicameral or different to those; what it calls members of the legislature; what term the legislature is on and how long that lasts; and often how many seats that legislature contains.
Once we have that outline data, we then need some information about people holding seats in those legislatures. We try and start with five examples of each type of role at each level, then we can send this ‘Seed Data’ off to hopefully crowdsource the rest of the data: more on that in a bit!
Meanwhile, our GIS expert Will is working on boundaries. Boundary data is hard — like, really hard! This is one of the most challenging areas of the project but it’s also one of the most important. Without electoral boundaries we don’t know what area a politician is representing and a lot of the tools we think this data would be useful for just won’t work.
However, boundaries aren’t always released openly or completely, especially when it comes to local level constituencies, and even when we do find them, understanding whether we have all the data we need to represent politicians correctly can be really tricky.
Because we like to keep really busy, we’ve also been starting to collaborate with other organisations such as Open Knowledge and CLEA on how to raise the visibility of the availability (or lack, more likely) of open sources of official boundary data.
Working with Facebook
You may remember our ongoing work to connect Facebook users with their politicians after an election, in countries around the world.
We’re also working with Facebook to run some crowdsourcing experiments that will gather more data on politicians. I mentioned ‘Seed Data’ above. For each country, this gets fed to Facebook, and allows them to create questions which they can send to users to ask them who their representatives are at different levels of government.
We then get this data back and our partners help us verify it and put it into Wikidata so it becomes open and available for anyone to use. Facebook has a reach we would never be able to manage on our own.
So that’s where we are
As I’ve hopefully demonstrated in this post, the work is extremely challenging. That’s why we’re sometimes a little slow in updating where we’ve got to — but we genuinely believe that that having this data out there in the open will pave the way for so many exciting new political data-based projects and research. And so, onwards!
Image: Ben White (Unsplash)
Earlier this month, Mark laid out the concept of a Democratic Commons for the Civic Tech community: shared code, data and resources where anyone can contribute, and anyone can benefit.
He also talked about exploring new models for funding the kind of work that we do in our Democracy practice at mySociety.
For many years, our Better Cities work has been proof of concept for one such model: we provide data and software as a service (FixMyStreet, MapIt, Mapumental) to paid clients, the revenue from which then funds our charitable projects. Could a similar system work to sustain our Democracy practice?
That’s the hope, and with Facebook who we first worked with during the UK General Election in June, providing the data that helped people see and connect with their elected representatives, we’ve already seen it in action.
This kind of project is positive on multiple levels: it brings us an income, it brings the benefits of democratic engagement to a wider audience than we could reach on our own, and it contributes data back into EveryPolitician and Wikidata, that everyone can use.
The UK election was only the first for which we did this work: we’ve gone on to provide the same service for the French elections and more recently for the rather more eventful Kenyan ones — currently on hold as we await the re-run of the Presidential election next month. And now we’re doing the same for the German elections, where candidate data is being shared this week.
As we’re learning, this is definitely not one-size-fits-all work, and each country has brought its own interesting challenges. We’re learning as we go along — for example, one significant (and perhaps obvious) factor is how much easier it is to work with partners in-country who have a better understanding of the sometimes complex political system and candidates than we can ever hope to pick up. Much as we might enjoy the process, there’s little point in our spending days knee-deep in research, when those who live in-country can find lists of candidates far more quickly, and explain individual levels of government and electoral processes far better.
Then, electoral boundaries are not always easy to find. We’ve used OpenStreetMap where possible, but that still leaves some gaps, especially at the more granular levels where the data is mainly owned and licensed by the government. It’s been an exercise in finding different sources and putting them all together to create boundary data to the level required.
Indeed, that seems to be a general pattern, also replicated across candidate data: at the national level, it’s easy to find and in the public domain. The deeper you go, the less those two descriptors hold true. It was also at this point that we realised how much, here in the UK, we take for granted things like the fact that the spelling of representatives’ names is usually consistent across a variety of sources — not always a given elsewhere, and currently something that only a human can resolve!
What makes all the challenges more worthwhile, though, is that we know it’s not just a one-off push that only benefits a single project. Nor is the data going straight into Facebook, never to be seen again.
Much of what we’re collecting, from consistent name data to deep-level boundaries data, is to be made available to all under open use licenses. For example, where possible we can submit the boundaries back to OpenStreetMap, helping to improve it at a local granular level across whole countries.
The politician data, meanwhile, will go into Wikidata and EveryPolitician so that anyone can use it for their own apps, websites, or research.
There are also important considerations about how this type of data will be used and where and when it is released in the electoral process; finding commercial models for our Democracy work is arguably a more delicate exercise than on some of our other projects. But hopefully it’s now clear exactly how a project like this can both sustain us as a charity, and have wider benefits for everyone — the holy grail for an organisation like us.
At the moment it’s unclear how many such opportunities exist or if this is a one-off. We’re certainly looking for more avenues to extend the scope of this work and keen to hear more ideas on this approach.
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