1. mySociety endorses YourNextMP – let’s pull together to make a free, trustworthy, open database of General Election candidates

    Parliament Square by Duncan HarrisLet’s Not Reinvent the Wheel When We Can All Use the Same Wheel

    Every general election there are a load of projects that all need the same thing – a nicely formatted, accurate list of the candidates who are standing at the election.

    Loads of people need this data – journalists, app builders, campaigners, Wikipedians, everyone.

    But the government doesn’t actually publish the lists until right before the election, and when it does the data isn’t the least bit suitable for modern use (think unstructured PDFs and worse). It’s way too little and way too late.

    That’s why we’re big fans of the new YourNextMP.com, a collaborative project headed up by our friends at Democracy Club, and endorsed by various other organisations, including mySociety.

    YourNextMP.com is a totally free, open database of candidates, that is made partly from screen scraping and partly from volunteer contributions from people who think that having a single good quality list is a sane idea. It publishes the open data gathered both through a nice clean website, and through a nice modern API. Soon it’ll also provide csv export,too. And it means we can have nice shared identifiers for candidates, meaning greater potential connectivity between election-related journalism, tools, sites and projects run by different people and organisations.

    The builders  of YourNextMP have also taken steps to ensure accuracy and deter abuse, most strikingly by forcing all new data to be sourced, and keeping nice public logs of all the changes (and who made them).

    To be clear, YourNextMP is not a mySociety project. We are just very happy to endorse the idea, and to supply one of our open source tools (PopIt) to help store and share the data in useful ways. Plus some of us have been chipping in in our spare time, for instance by adding data.

    How can you help?

    There are two main ways:

    1) Add data!  The main thing needed today, 146 days before the election, is the most basic data on who is known to be standing, today.  We think that YourNextMP is probably already the most up to date candidate list out there, despite being very much unfinished.

    Additional data, about candidates’ Facebook pages, birth dates and so on, isn’t such a high priority right now. You can help by looking up your constituency on the site, or choosing a random constituency, and just using your best Googling/telephoning skills to find out who’s definitely standing this time.

    If you want to chat to other people who are doing the same thing, use the #yournextmp hashtag.

    We’ve put together a few tips on canny ways to find information on prospective candidates, here.

    Don’t feel you have to stop when you’ve filled in your own constituency – there are plenty more to complete.

    2) Spread the word that a single, high quality, free and shared database of candidates is just A Good Thing that people should support.

    Who loves time-wasting? Nobody! What is YourNextMP if not an anti time-wasting project? Nothing! So, please, if you’re planning an election-related project, tell people that YourNextMP is a good idea, and consider letting them use your logo on their site, as a sign of good will.

    And if you see someone in your office about to pay for a proprietary database of candidates, why not suggest they give the money to YourNextMP instead?

    Image: Duncan Harris (CC)

  2. Helping voters in the devolved elections

    As well as council elections and the referendum, the Scottish Parliament, Welsh Assembly, and Northern Ireland Assembly are holding elections this May. In Scotland and Northern Ireland, there are accompanying boundary changes, meaning this year you might be voting in a different constituency from last time.

    To help people, as we’ve again had a few requests, our service from the 2010 general election is back, at http://www.theyworkforyou.com/boundaries/, just for the Scottish Parliament and Northern Ireland Assembly. Our generic lookup service MaPit also provides programmatic access to these results (technical footnote).

    Alongside this service, we have refreshed our Scotland and Northern Ireland front pages, to slightly better display and access the wide array of information TheyWorkForYou holds for those devolved legislatures.

    Sadly the Scottish Parliament changed the format of their Official Report in mid January and we haven’t been able to parse the debates from then until its dissolution this March – hopefully we’ll be able to fix that at some point, and apologies for the inconvenience in the meantime.

    There don’t appear to be any central official lists of candidates in these elections. Amnesty.org.uk has a PDF of all candidates in Northern Ireland; David Boothroyd has a list of Scottish Parliament candidates. CAMRA appears to have lists for both Scotland and Wales. Those were simply found while searching for candidate lists, we obviously hold no position on those organisations :)

    Technical footnote: To look up the new Scottish Parliament boundaries using MaPit, provide a URL query parameter of “generation=15″ to the postcode lookup call. The Northern Ireland Assembly boundaries are aligning with the Parliamentary boundaries, so you can just perform a normal lookup and use the “WMC” result for the new boundary.

  3. How to get TheyWorkForYou Into Your Local Paper/Radio Station in 5 minutes

    The two days leading up to election day are a hugely important time for less politically-obsessive voters. The parties know that a lot of people are only starting to seriously think how to vote today and tomorrow, and TheyWorkForYou saw its biggest spike ever the day before the election, way back in 2005.

    This means it’s a super-important time to get trustworthy, non-partisan information in front of as many people as possible. And you can help by doing the following simple things:

    1. Go to your constituency page on the TheyWorkForYou Election Quiz and take a good look at the answers. Is there anything surprising in the answers? Has anyone failed to respond who really shouldn’t? Is there anything funny in the responses? Make a couple of notes about what you think are the most interesting findings.

    2. If you know the name of your local papers or radio stations, try to Google for the email or phone number of the news desk. If you don’t know the names, try sticking the name of your nearest town into a media database like this, to get a phone number or email address.

    3. If possible, you should start your pitch by phoning rather than emailing. If you get a phone number for a news desk, give them a bell and say that you’re a volunteer from “The country’s largest non-partisan election information project”, and ask for the email of a specific person who might be interested in a story about what local candidates are saying.

    4. Once you have an email address of a specific journalist, compose a locally specific email for them, along the following lines:

    “Hi X,

    I’m a resident of Z constituency, and this election I’ve been one of 6000 volunteers helping  to build an unprecedented project to get candidates across the country to go on the record, in conjunction with the website TheyWorkForYou.com. It’s a strictly non-partisan project, aimed at giving voters a really clear, spin-free view of what their candidates stand for. I’d really appreciate it if you could give it some coverage before election day.

    In my constituency, N candidates have completed our survey. From this we can see some quite interesting things, namely:

    * Candidate A thinks…

    * Candidate B thinks…

    Would you be so kind as to print a story encouraging people to check our their candidates via TheyWorkForYou.com, and mentioning some of the highlights I’ve included?

    all the best,

    Your name, email, phone”

    5. An hour after you send the email through, give the journalist a call back to see if they need any more help.

    6. If you do this, please leave us a comment on this post so we know who’s had a go!

    Thank you for helping spread some non-partisan information this election time, and enjoy the election…

  4. How did we work out the survey questions?

    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.

    Local questions

    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!

    National questions

    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.

    To ensure maximum transparency, the discussions of the judges were recorded. You can download the recordings in two parts: part 1, part 2 (2 hours, 20 mins total).

    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.

  5. TheyWorkForYou election survey – A message for people who work for the political parties

    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:

    ———-

    Hi there,

    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 developers@democracyclub.org.uk and it’ll be sent along shortly.

    many thanks,

    The staff and volunteers at TheyWorkForYou and Democracy Club

  6. TheyWorkForYou’s election survey: Status Update

    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:

    1. Working out who all the candidates are (thousands of them)
    2. Working out how to contact them.
    3. Gathering thousands of local issues from every corner of the country, and quality assuring them.
    4. Developing a balanced set of national issues.
    5. 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.

    The Survey

    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.

    The Output

    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.

    The Pressure

    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.

    Join Democracy Club today

  7. Political parties don’t know where the boundaries are

    In my last blog post, I explained the new service TheyWorkForYou offers to show you what constituency you will be in at the next general election. Now I’m going to show you why you shouldn’t use anything else.

    The defintions of the boundaries for the forthcoming constituencies in England were originally published in The Parliamentary Constituencies (England) Order 2007 (SI 2007/1681), based on ward boundaries as they were on 12th April 2005. However, due to some local government changes since that date, The Parliamentary Constituencies (England) (Amendment) Order 2009 (SI 2009/698) was published changing the boundaries for four constituencies – Daventry, South Northamptonshire, Wells, and Somerton & Frome – to be based on the new council wards as they were on 3rd May 2007.

    The forthcoming constituencies in Northern Ireland were defined in The Parliamentary Constituencies (Northern Ireland) Order 2008 (SI 2008/1486). In this, Derryaghy ward was split between two constituencies – Belfast West is given “that part of Derryaghy ward lying to the north of the Derryaghy and Lagmore townland boundary.”

    All of which means that other sites that try to tell you what constituency you will be in at the election invariably get it wrong.

    Both Labour and the Conservatives say that BA6 8NJ is in Wells at the next election, when it will be in Somerton & Frome. Both say that NN12 8NF will be in Daventry, when it will be in South Northamptonshire. I assume that both sites are using boundary data predating the Amendment Order from March 2009. The Conservatives also say that BT17 0XD will be in Lagan Valley when it will be in Belfast West; Labour simply say “Northern Ireland” for any Northern Irish postcode you provide.

    The Liberal Democrats site currently returns no results for any postcode, which I assume is a bug :)

    The current boundary between Belfast West and Lagan Valley.

    The /current/ boundary between Belfast West and Lagan Valley. (Image produced from the Ordnance Survey electionmap service. Image reproduced with permission of Ordnance Survey and Land and Property Services)

    The official election-maps.co.uk service (from where TheyWorkForYou gets its boundary maps) returns the correct results for BA6 8NJ and NN12 8NF, but doesn’t have future boundaries for Northern Ireland. It’s not clear that it doesn’t, as searching for Lagan Valley with “future boundaries” selected returns a result, but that result is the current boundary. This can be seen from the picture on the right – as is clear from the quote I gave above, everything within Derryaghy ward north of the Lagmore/Derryaghy boundary will be in Belfast West at the next election. Plus the site doesn’t work without JavaScript.

    TheyWorkForYou’s “constituency at the next election” service gives BA6 8NJ in Somerton & Frome, NN12 8NF in South Northamptonshire, and BT17 0XD in Belfast West. There is enough confusion with the changes to boundaries for everywhere except Scotland, that it is somewhat frustrating to have it compounded by sites giving incorrect information. The lack of any official service also doesn’t help.

  8. Parliamentary boundary changes

    Parliamentary boundary changes appear to be a source of confusion to many people and organisations. The facts are quite simple – parliamentary boundary changes, proposed by the various Boundary Commissions, do not take effect until the next general election. Until then, your MP remains whoever they have been, no matter what literature you may get through your letter box, or what anyone may tell you.

    As one example, take Birmingham City Council. Their page on constituencies and wards correctly states that Birmingham is divided into eleven parliamentary constituencies, but then goes on to list only ten – they are listing the new constituencies which do not yet exist, as Birmingham is losing one constituency at the next election. It appears that they have organised themselves along the new boundaries in advance – which is fine, but this doesn’t affect current Parliamentary representation, and so they should explain this clearly, as otherwise members of the public get confused (and blame us for giving them the “wrong” MP, when we haven’t done so). As you can see from the maps above (which highlight Birmingham, Hall Green), the constituencies will be changing their boundaries quite a bit, and we have had reports of people receiving letters from candidates in the next election who are MPs of different neighbouring constituencies, simply referring to themselves as an MP, which is a great source of confusion.

    An inhabitant of St Josephs Avenue, Birmingham (behind the Royal Orthopaedic Hospital), which is currently within the Selly Oak parliamentary constituency (red), and the Northfield ward of Birmingham City Council (green), would, on looking at Birmingham City Council’s website, assume they’re in a parliamentary constituency called Northfield. Northfield is currently the constituency to the west of Selly Oak; at the next election, its boundary with Selly Oak will change to the blue line, at which point St Josephs Avenue will be in the Northfield constituency. But not until then.

    Map of Streatham constituency at next election

    As another example (chosen purely as it has come up in user support), the Labour candidate’s website for Streatham had a page about the constituency – obviously you would expect a candidate to be talking about the future constituency, but would it hurt to add some explanation that Streatham is currently a slightly different shape?

    Boundaries of different things are all independent – if a ward boundary moves due to some local issue, the corresponding Parliamentary boundary does not necessarily change with it (probably not, in fact). So when Birmingham changed its ward boundaries back in 2003, they became out of sync with the Parliamentary constituencies. From the next election, things will be more in sync as the new Parliamentary boundaries are based on more recent ward boundaries, but this will again separate over time. All we can do is always clearly explain the current situation, and ask that others do the same.

  9. Nine is the number: The different flavours of transparency website in 2009

    Image from jaygoldman

    Note: This post is a work in progress, I need your help to improve it, especially with knowledge of non-English sites

    I was recently in Washington DC catching up with mySociety’s soul-mates at the Sunlight Foundation. As we talked about what was going on in the field of internet-enabled transparency, it came clear to me that there are now more identifiable categories of transparency website than there used to be.

    Identifying and categorising these types of site turns out to be surprisingly useful.  First, it can help people ask “Why don’t we have anyone doing that in our country?” Second, it can help mySociety to make sure that when we’re planning ahead we don’t fail to consider certain options that be currently off our radar. Also, it gives me an excuse to tell you about some sites that you may not have seen before.

    Anyway, enough preamble. Here they are as I see them – please give me more suggestions as you find them. As you can see there’s a lot more activity in some fields than others.

    1. Transparency blogs & newspapers – At the technically simplest, but most manual labour-intensive end of the scale is sites, commercial and volunteer driven, whose owners use transparency to help them to write stories. Given almost every political blog does this a bit, it can be hard to name specific examples, but I will note that Heather Brooke is the UK’s pre-eminent FOI-toting journalist/blogger, and we’ve just opened a blog for our awesome volunteers on WhatDoTheyKnow to show their FOI skills to an as-yet unsuspecting public.

    2. What Politicians do in their parliaments – These sites primarily include lists of politicians, and information about their primary activities in their assemblies, such as voting or speaking. This encompasses mySociety’s TheyWorkForYou.com, Rob McKinnon’s one man labour of love TheyWorkForYou in NZ, Italy’s uber-deep OpenPolis.it (6 layers of government, anyone?), Germany’s almost-un-typable Abgeordnetenwatch,  Romania’s writ-wielding IPP.ro, Josh Tauberer’sGovTrack.us, plus the bonny bouncing babies OpenAustralia and Kildare Street (Ireland). Of special note here are Mzalendo (Kenya) who unlike everyone else, can’t reply on access to a parliamentary website to scrape raw data from, and Julian Todd’s UNDemocracy (International), that has to fight incredible technical barriers to get the information out.

    3. Databases of questions and answers posed to politicians – These sites let people post politicians questions, and the publish the questions and answers. The Germans running Abgeordnetenwatch (Parliament Watch) seem to have had considerable success here, with newspapers citing what politicians say on their site. Yoosk has some politicians in the UK on it, too.

    4. Money in politics – This comes in two forms, money given to candidates (MAPlight), and money bunged by politicians to their favourite causes (Earmark watch). In the UK, as far as I know, the Electoral Commission’s database remains currently unscraped, perhaps because the data is so ungranular.

    5. Government spending – where the big money goes. In the US the dominant site is FedSpending.org, and in the UK we have ukpublicspending.co.uk.

    6. Websites containing bills going through parliament, or the law as voted on – This includes the increasingly substantial OpenCongress in the US which saw major traffic during the Health Care debates, and the UK government’s own Acts database and  Statute Law Database. Much of the legal database field, however, remains essentially private.

    7. Services that create transparency as a side effect of delivering services – Our own sites lead the way here: FixMyStreet‘s public problem reports and WhatDoTheyKnow’s FOI archive are both created by people who aren’t primarily using the site to enrich it – they’re using it to get some other service.

    8. Election websites – These come in many forms, but what they have in common is their desire to shed light on the positions and histories of candidates, whether incumbents or new comers. The biggest beast here is Stemwijzer (Netherlands), probably in relative terms the most used transparency or democracy site ever. However these sites are popular in several places,  the big but highly labour intensive VoteSmart (US), Smartvote.ch (Switzerland), plus others.  mySociety is shortly to start to recruit constituency volunteers to help with our take on this problem, keep an eye on this blog if you want to know more.

    9. Political document archives - This is a new category, now occupied by Sunlight’s Partytime archive for invitation to political events, and TheStraightChoice, Julian Todd and Richard Pope’s wonderful new initiative for archiving election leaflets and other paper propoganda.

    10. Bulk data - Online transparency pioneer Carl Malamud doesn’t do sites, he does data. Big globs zipped up and made publicly available for coders and researchers to download and process. The US government has now stepped into this field itself with Data.gov, doubtless soon to be followed by data.gov.uk.

    ——

    Please don’t shoot me if I’ve missed anything here, the world is a big place. But I thought that was a useful and interesting exercise, and I hope you’ll both find it useful, and help me improve it too. Comment away.

  10. Disturbing election avoided

    Last week we seemed to spend all week in London. Partly interviewing people, partly redesigning PledgeBank, partly plotting the overthrow of Parliament (joke), partly preparing for the election (thank god it didn’t happen – we’d be far too busy). We even did some general work, scurrying wifi out of the ICA and at one of our trustee’s offices.

    As if that wasn’t enough, Stef gave the first of our disruptive technology talks, mainly about Farm Subsidy.org and UNDemocracy. It was interesting, engaging, fantastically attended, and turned into beer and sushi. Adam’s posted up a recording of the talk (scroll down in the comments). Make sure you come to the next one on 1st November.