1. PetitionYourCouncil.com: making local council petitioning easier

    PetitionYourCouncil.com from mySociety

    [Note, November 2014: Petition Your Council has now been retired]

    Local petitions can be highly effective, and we think that making them easier to create is in the public interest. Many councils have petitions facilities buried deep within their websites,¬† most often, very deeply. In fact it brings to mind Douglas Adams’ quote about important council documents being “on display on the bottom of a locked filing cabinet stuck in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying ‘Beware of the Leopard'”.

    Our most recent mini-project is an attempt to make it as easy as possible to find your local council’s e-petitioning site, if they have one. PetitionYourCouncil.com (you’ll notice we stuck to our tried and tested format for site names, there) is a way of finding every council e-petitioning website we know about.

    Our original motivation for building the site was that we, along with other suppliers, have supplied online e-petitioning sites to numerous councils ourselves – it’s one of the ways in which we fund our charitable activities. Having delivered these sites, we later noticed that many of them are left under-used and in some cases, not used at all: only because people don’t know about them. We hate to think of councils spending money on a splendid resource that could be improving democratic processes for their citizens – and those citizens never knowing that they exist. In particular, we owe Dave Briggs thanks for pushing us into action with this blog post.

    And yes, in case you’re wondering, PetitionYourCouncil links to every council petitions site, not just the ones we made.

    The site was built by mySociety developer Edmund von der Burg using Django, jQuery, Google maps and Mapit, and like most mySociety projects, it’s open source. There’s a bit more detail on the About page. Please do try it out, and let us know what you think.

  2. How Mapumental works

    Here is a diagram of how the backend of Mapumental works. Take it in the spirit that Chris Lightfoot set when he made a similar diagram for the No. 10 petitions site – although many such diagrams are useless, hopefully this one contains useful information.

    (Click on the diagram for a large version)

    Below, I’ve explained what the main components are, and some interesting things about them.

    Everything can, at least in theory, run on lots of servers. Currently we are only actually using one server for web requests, because of problems with HAProxy. We’re runnning isodaemons on two different servers.

    Basic web application – it started out as raw Python, but the more Matthew hacks on it the more Django libraries he pulls in. Soon it’ll be indistinguishable from a Django app. When someone enters a new postcode, it adds it to the work queue in the PostgreSQL database, then refreshes waiting for the job to be finished. Then it displays the flash application (made by Stamen), set up to load the appropriate tile layers.

    Tile server and cache – This uses the Python-based TileCache, calling Geospatial Data Abstraction Library (GDAL) to help render the tiles from points. It was originally written by Stamen, and expanded by mySociety. GDAL isn’t perfect, it doesn’t have fancy enough algorithms for my liking. e.g. Using a median rather than a weighted mean.

    Isodaemons – These are controlled by a Python script, but the bulk of the code is custom written in C++. Slightly crazily, this can find the quickest route by public transport for each of 300,000 journeys from every station in the UK to a particular station, arriving at a particular time, in 10 to 30 seconds.

    I had no idea how to do this, but luckily I live in Cambridge, UK. It’s a city fit to bursting with computer scientists. Many of the jobs are dull, and need little computing, never mind science – like writing interface layers for SQL server. So if you have a real interesting problem it’s easy to get help!

    The universal advice was to use Dijkstra’s algorithm, which needed a bit of adaptation to work efficiently over space-time, rather than just space. Normally it is used for planning routes round a map, but public transport isn’t like that, you have to arrive in time for each particular train, so time affects what journeys you can take.

    I originally wrote it in Python, which was not only too slow, but used up far far too much RAM. It could never have loaded the whole dataset in. However, the old Python code is still run by the test script, to double check the C++ code against. It is also still used to make the binary timetable files, see below.

    Travel times, 1 binary file / postcode – I briefly attempted to insert 300,000 rows into PostgreSQL for each postcode looked up, but it was obvious it wasn’t going to scale. Going back to basics, it now just saves the time taken to travel to each station in a simple binary file – two bytes for each station, 600k in total. The tile server then does random access lookups into that file, as it renders each tile. It only needs to look up the values for the stations it knows are on/near the tile.

    There’s various other bits:

    • cron jobs for sending out invites
    • converting timetable data from ATCO-CIF to the binary format
    • loading static layer data into the database
    • precaching every tile for static datasets
    • Squid and Apache and FastCGI both sit in front of the web applications
    • for speed, we cache the mapping background tiles from Cloudmade
    • when zoomed out, there is code to cull which stations are used to draw tiles
    • of course, a bunch of test code

    Thanks to everyone who helped make Mapumental, we couldn’t have done it without lots of clever people.

    I realise the above is a sketchy overview, so please ask questions in the comments, and I’ll do my best to answer them.