And yet, it’s among mySociety’s longest-running sites, and one that we had big plans for. It was a truly international project, too, with users in many countries.
It even, as we’ll see, spawned one of the UK’s major transparency organisations.
But all good things come to an end, and as we announced in a recent post, we’ll shortly be closing Pledgebank down.
Before we do, it seems a good moment to record some of its history.
The Pledgebank concept
In November 2004, we announced mySociety’s second official project:
The purpose of PledgeBank is to get people past a barrier which strikes down endless good plans before they can are carried out – the fear of acting alone. It allows anyone to say “I’ll do X if other people also do X”, for example “I’ll write to my councillor if 5 other people on my street do the same”.
However, there is no scale to big or too small, it could equally be used to say “I’ll start recycling if 10,000 other people in Britain also start”.
Pledgebank officially launched on 13 June 2005. We’d opened a trial version of the site to a few users first, with early pledges including anti-ID card campaigning, carbon offsetting, and community river cleaning. People were interested. It was off to a good start. As the Guardian reported, even Brian Eno was a user.
By that September, mySociety Director Tom was describing Pledgebank as our most popular site yet, and as of January 2006, there had been more than 200 successful pledges. In July 2006 the site won the New Statesman New Media award.
Finding a niche for Pledgebank
So that was all going swimmingly, and as time passed, we started building on the basic Pledgebank model.
There were location-specific Pledgebanks, like Pledgebank London which urged folk to do a good deed for their city. Both the then PM Tony Blair and Mayor of London Ken Livingstone helped launch it, pledging to become patrons of a sports club.
Did we miss something?
Here at mySociety, we’re not all about making the big bucks. But that doesn’t stop us from occasionally wondering why we never evolved Pledgebank into a lucrative service like Kickstarter or Groupon, both of which are founded on the very same idea: that there’s potential power in a pledge.
Whether you back a project on Kickstarter, or put in for a hot stone massage on Groupon, you’re basically undertaking to buy something. But while Pledgebank did allow fundraising pledges, it didn’t take a cut of the moneys raised.
At one point we did look into using an escrow service, but we decided in the end that each pledge organiser could sort out collection of any payments. And thus, we never quite became Kickstarter. Oh well.
Simple concepts have many possibilities
Pledgebank might have been founded on a simple concept, but, like so many simple concepts, it turned out that there were endless features we could add to it.
At launch, SMS text messages were an important part of the site, and one that we spent considerable time and effort on. It was 2005, remember, and as we often said in our blog posts at the time, many people either weren’t online or had no desire to be. We wanted the site to cater for them too.
And almost immediately after launch we added another feature: the ability to subscribe, so you’d receive an email when someone set up a pledge that was near you, geographically. This was ideal for those pledges with a local aspect, such as saving an ancient tree, or getting together to clean up a community.
Then there was the international aspect. Pledgebank was mySociety’s first in-house project to be translated.
In true mySociety style, the translation was crowdsourced and ultimately overseen by our diligent volunteer Tim Morley. As I write, just prior to the site’s closure, it is available in 14 languages, from Simplified Chinese to Belarusian, and including Esperanto.
And it was taken up, enthusiastically, in many countries. Even now, we still sometimes have to deploy Google Translate in order to reply to Pledgebank’s user support emails.
A site to change the world
Over its lifetime, Pledgebank has been the starting point for many people to make the world a better place, in ways both large and small.
Before we say goodbye all together, let’s take a look at some of the surprising, sometimes amazing, things it helped bring about.
- In what was probably Pledgebank’s biggest success, over 1,000 people donated to bring about the creation of ‘an organisation that will campaign for digital rights in the UK’: that organisation became the Open Rights Group.
- After the Croydon riots, more than 1,000 people chipped in to rebuild the damaged Reeve’s furniture store.
- Football fans raised over £20,000 for Ebbsfleet United, so that they could buy striker Michael Gash.
- A pledge encouraging bloggers to post about women in technology on Ada Lovelace Day saw almost double the number of pledgers they’d hoped for.
- Australian massage therapists raised the funds to travel to New Orleans and offer therapy to those who needed it in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.
- People from all over the world donated books and money to build a library in Bhubaneswar, Orissa, India.
- 1,000 people pledged to move house and start a Free State community in New Hampshire.
- Hundreds of orphans in Liberia received clean underwear.
- Over £2,000 was given to plant trees in Kenya.
The smaller pledges were sometimes just as interesting:
- A pianist played a free jazz concert at Guy’s Hospital, in return for others pledging to have the hospital’s piano tuned.
- 15 people engaged in earnest conversation with someone whose views they really despised, to try to understand them more.
- As noted in this BBC article on the site launch, several people buried a bucket to create a home for stag beetles.
…and many more. Over time, Pledgebank became an archive of inspirational, utopian, and sometimes plain eccentric pledges. It brought thousands of people together in common causes, and multiplied the power of a single person’s desire to do good.
We’d love to hear how you used Pledgebank: let us know in the comments below.
In a recent blog post, we showed how to subscribe to Freedom of Information requests made to your local council on WhatDoTheyKnow.com.
All good, but what if you’re interested in a topic, rather than an authority?
Well, you can set up many different kinds of alert on WhatDoTheyKnow. For example, you can opt to receive a daily email every time an FOI request or response contains your chosen keyword.
If you’ve also subscribed to a specific body, you’ll receive the alerts all rolled into one email – in fact, however many alerts you set up, they’ll always be aggregated in this way, so there’s no need to worry about flooding your inbox.
How to subscribe to a word or topic
Let’s say, for the sake of an example, that you have a particular interest in bats – maybe you work for a bat conservation project, or you’re a student doing a thesis on bats.
Whatever the case, you might find it useful to receive an email every time an FOI request is made about bats. By subscribing to an alert, you’ll be tipped off if, for example, someone asks about bats causing an impediment to building works, or if new wildlife survey results are released in response to a request.
1. Search for your term
Every alert begins with a search.
Go to the homepage of WhatDoTheyKnow.com and use the search box at the top right of the page:
2. Refining your results
Most of these results are highly relevant, but there is one slight complication:
Some of the results contain different meanings of the word ‘bat': there is one about Bat Mitzvahs, several about bus stops which have ‘BAT’ as part of a location code, and one response which mentions baseball bats as a crime weapon.
We can refine these results, and make sure we only subscribe to the ones we want, with an Advanced Search – click on the link next to the search box to see how.
WhatDoTheyKnow’s search engine can handle advanced search operators, and also a number of search types that are tailored to the site.
For example, you can search within particular date spans, or within requests made by a specific user. If you scroll further down the Advanced Search page, you’ll also see that it’s possible to search for all requests within a certain status type (eg “successful” requests) – and all of these search operators can be used in combination.
For our immediate needs, however, we only want to ensure that our search brings up results about the right kind of bat. I can do this either by using the – sign, or the word ‘NOT’ in front of words I wish to exclude:
Click the Search button again, and you’ll see that this process has weeded out the most obvious irrelevant results.
If I subscribe to this search string, I will receive an email alert every time (the right kind of) bats are mentioned in a request or response.
Deciding what you want to receive
In the example above, I will receive several alerts for each relevant FOI request, over several days, as it goes through the process of getting a response.
I’ll get one when the request is first made, one when the authority respond to say that the request has been received, one when a response is made, and potentially others, if there is any more correspondence going back and forth, for example in the case of a request for an internal review.
That can be fine – many users like to track requests in this way. But if you want to, you can refine your search using the ‘status’ operators – for example, if you only want to receive an alert when a request has been successful, you could search for:
bats NOT baseball NOT mitzvah NOT bus status:successful.
Now your search results will only find those requests where a response has been received, and the user has marked that it answered their question adequately. You can see the various statuses available here.
Once you have refined your search results to your liking, you are ready to subscribe.
At the top right of the search results page, you will see a green button titled ‘Track this search':
At this point, we ask you to sign up or sign in:
If you already have a WhatDoTheyKnow account, all you need to do is log in, and you’re done – your alert has been set up.
If you don’t have an account, it’s as simple as filling in your email address, name, and picking a password.
The site will then send you a confirmation email with a link in it – clicking on this helps to confirm that you are a real person, and that you have entered a genuine email address – which you’ll need, if you are going to receive alerts!
Now all you have to do is wait for our alerts to come into your email. You can set up as many as you like, for as many topics or authorities as required.
Every email has a link at its foot, allowing you to delete your alerts when you’ve had enough. If you want to stop receiving one or more of them, just click ‘unsubscribe’.
Let us know whether you find this service useful, and how you’re using it!
In our two previous blog posts, we’ve looked at how to set up alerts on TheyWorkForYou.com so that you receive an email whenever your chosen politician speaks in Parliament, or whenever your chosen topic is mentioned.
Now we’re going to look at how to manage your alerts, and how to make sure you have the right type of alerts set up for your needs.
How to see which alerts you are subscribed to
Perhaps surprisingly, you don’t need to register for an account to receive alerts from TheyWorkForYou (although if you do create one, it’s quicker and easier to manage your alerts).
At the bottom of every alert email, there is a link:
Once you’ve followed this link, you’ll see a list of your alerts on the right of the page:
How to switch off or pause alerts
Beside each of your alerts, you will see buttons marked “Suspend”, “Delete”, or “Resume”.
Suspend allows you to stop the alert emails temporarily – they will remain switched off until you click ‘Resume’. This function is helpful if you only want to follow topics during a set time, for example the run-up to elections – or perhaps you want to cut down the number of emails you get while you are away on holiday.
Delete stops your email alerts for good, and removes them from your list.
Resume restarts suspended alerts.
How to check your alerts are correct for your needs
In the example above, the user has subscribed to the following alerts:
Spoken by Simon Kirby – the user will receive alert emails when Simon Kirby MP speaks in Parliament.
Spoken by Caroline Lucas – the user will not receive emails for this alert, because it has been suspended.
mysociety – the user will receive emails whenever the word “mysociety” is mentioned.
“badger culling” – because of the quotation marks, the user will receive emails whenever the phrase badger culling is mentioned. The user will not receive alerts if the two words ‘badger’ and ‘culling’ are mentioned separately, or if, for example, a phrase like “cull badgers” is used – so this alert may not be the best for their needs.
“Caroline Lucas” – the user will receive an alert every time Caroline Lucas’ name is mentioned by someone in Parliament. This is probably not the intention; it’s a common error to subscribe to mentions of someone’s name rather than their speeches.
small businesses – this is a poor alert. The user will receive emails every time the word ‘small’ is used in the same speech as the word ‘businesses’ (or business), even if the two words are not together. So, if someone happened to say ‘It’s a terrible business’, and then, a bit later, ‘small wonder’, an alert would go out.
This alert would be better if the words were enclosed in quotation marks: “small businesses”; in that case, it’s probably also best to add one for “small business”.
How to correct your alerts
If you have spotted mistakes in your alerts, simply delete the erroneous ones and follow the instructions below to create improved ones.
How to add new alerts
On the left of that same page (or http://www.theyworkforyou.com/alert/ if you have not come via a link in your alert email), you can set up new alerts for people or for keywords.
Otherwise, provide your email address, and click on the link in our confirmation email.
If you type in an MP or Lord’s name:
– you’ll be asked to decide whether you want to receive alerts when they speak (“Things by…”) or when they are mentioned (“Mentions of…”).
Advanced alert set-up
If required, you can use Boolean searches in your alert set-ups.
For example, if you would like to receive alerts when badgers are mentioned, but not owls, input badger -owl.
If you would like to receive alerts when either owls or badgers are mentioned, you can either set up an alert for each term, or you can enter owl OR badger. “Or” must be in capital letters so that the system knows it’s not part of the search term.
If you would like to receive an alert only when badgers and owls are mentioned in the same speech, input both words: badger,owl.
How to register for an account
If you anticipate setting up many alerts, or wanting to manage them closely in the future, you may wish to set up a TheyWorkForYou account.
This also allows you to add annotations to the site, contribute to the glossary, and change your email address if you need to.
Simply visit this sign-up page.
Registering will not change any of the alerts you already have set up – you’ll be able to view and manage them as before.
How to change your email address
You can change the email address that alerts get sent to, if you are registered on the site.
Just visit your profile page, and edit the email address field.
If you are not registered, you can either:
- Register under your old email address (you will still need access to it, because you’ll have to find our confirmation email), then visit your profile page, and edit the email address field; or
- Email us at email@example.com and we will change it for you.
Our site TheyWorkForYou publishes everything said in Parliament. But how do you know when they’re debating the stuff that really matters to you?
Easy – you set up an email alert.
You can ask TheyWorkForYou to email you whenever a chosen word or phrase is mentioned in Parliament, or when a specific person speaks.
Then, once a day, our automated processes check to see whether your keyword has been mentioned, or your chosen politician has spoken, and if so, we send you an email.
Alerts are for everyone
How might this service be useful to you?
- If you work for a charity or campaign group, you can subscribe to mentions of your cause;
- If you ever wonder exactly what your MP does, we’ll tell you every time he or she speaks;
- If you subscribe to the name of your town or city, you’ll know whenever it’s mentioned in Parliament;
- If a particular news story is of interest, you can subscribe to mentions…
…and so on. Everyone has their own topics of interest, and most topics are debated in Parliament at one time or another, so we think there really is an alert for everyone.
Two types of alert
There are two different types of alert: you can choose to receive an email every time a specific person (most likely your own MP) speaks, or to receive one whenever a specified word or phrase is mentioned.
In this post, I’m going to walk through the process of setting up an alert for when your MP speaks, and then in subsequent posts, we’ll look at alerts for keywords, and how to manage your alerts.
Receive an alert every time your MP speaks
1. Find your MP’s page
If you already know who your MP is (or you want to follow a member of Parliament who is not your MP) you can search for them by name on the TheyWorkForYou homepage :
If you don’t know who your MP is, no worries – just put your postcode into the search box:
Either way, you should end up on your MP’s page:
2. Sign up for alerts
Click on the blue button at the top of the page marked ‘sign up for email updates':
If you are logged in to the site, that’s it – you’ve subscribed, and you don’t need to do anything more.
3. Confirming your alert
If you are not logged in, don’t worry. You don’t actually need an account in order to sign up for alerts.
You’ll see this text:
Request a TheyWorkForYou email alert
Signing up for things by [your MP’s name]
Input your email address, and we’ll send you a confirmation email:
Click on the link in the email, and you’re all set up:
Now all you have to do is wait for our emails to come into your inbox.
Don’t worry if you want to stop them at any time – there’s a link at the foot of every alert email which you can follow to pause or delete your alerts.
Rather subscribe to a topic? Then you need this blog post.
Did you know that you can subscribe to FixMyStreet alerts within a chosen area? Like most mySociety sites*, FixMyStreet lets you subscribe to the content that is most meaningful to you, for free.
The feature was created with local residents in mind, but it’s proved useful for others with a stake in the area, such as councillors, MPs and community groups – especially as you can opt to receive reports within an electoral ward or a council area.
It just takes a couple of minutes to sign up for email alerts. You’ll get a deep understanding of the local area: what are the recurring issues, what concerns residents, and where are the trouble hotspots.
Here’s what to do.
Go to www.FixMyStreet.com and click on ‘local alerts‘ in the top bar, as indicated by the arrow in the image above.
On that page, input your postcode, or, if you have geolocation enabled, click ‘locate me automatically’.
As you can see in the image above, you have the option to subscribe to a geographic area, to the entire council area, or to a specific ward.
If you already use a ‘reader’ (eg Feedly or Newsvibe, to name a couple at random) then you may wish to use the RSS feeds. Feeds can also be used to put local content onto your own website, if you have one.
But if you would like to have FixMyStreet alerts delivered directly into your inbox, select the email alert option.
The final step is to check your email for our confirmation link. And then all you have to do is sit back and wait for the reports to roll into your inbox.
Since its launch in 2005, WriteToThem has always covered all parts of the United Kingdom, and the Northern Ireland Assembly was the first body added to TheyWorkForYou after the UK Parliament, in late 2006. So whilst we certainly have not ignored Northern Ireland, it had always been an irritant of mine (and a cause of infrequent emails) that FixMyStreet only covered Great Britain.
This was due to the way it had originally been funded and set up, but those issues were in the past, due to a myriad of changes both internal and external, and it was now more a case of being able to find the resources to implement the necessary work. Late last year, mySociety worked with Channel 4 on the website for their series of programmes on The Great British Property Scandal. This used, in part, code similar to FixMyStreet to let people report empty homes, and it was required to work in all parts of the UK. So as part of that process, code was written or generalised that let aspects of FixMyStreet like the maps and place name lookup work for Northern Ireland locations.
It’s taken a few months since then to allocate the time, but we’ve now been able to take the code written back then, add various other bits, and incorporate it into FixMyStreet – which now covers the 26 councils of Northern Ireland, and the central Roads Service. Issues such as potholes, graffiti, and broken street lighting can be reported to Antrim or Newry and Mourne as easily as Aberdeen or Wyre Forest, and just as in the rest of the UK you can sign up for alerts based around your location or to your council.
TheyWorkForYou has, until now, only covered things that have already happened, be that Commons main chamber debates since 1935, Public Bill committees back to 2000, or all debates in the modern Northern Ireland Assembly.
From today, we are taking the UK Parliament’s upcoming business calendar and feeding it into our database and search engine, which means some notable new features. Firstly, and most simply, you can browse what’s on today (or the next day Parliament is sitting), or 16th May. Secondly, you can easily search this data, to e.g. see if there will be something happening regarding Twickenham. And best of all, if you’re signed up for an email alert – see below for instructions – you’ll get an email about any matching future business along with the matching new Hansard data we already send. We currently send about 25,000 alerts a day, with over 65,000 email addresses signed up to over 111,000 alerts.
Mark originally wrote some code to scrape Parliament’s business papers, but this sadly proved too fragile, so we settled on Parliament’s calendar which covers most of the same information and more importantly has (mostly) machine-readable data. Duncan and I worked on this intermittently amidst our other activities, with Duncan concentrating on the importer and updating our search indexer (thanks as ever to Xapian) whilst I got on with adding and integrating the new data into the site.
I’ve also taken the opportunity to rejig the home page (and fix the long-standing bug with popular searches that meant it was nearly always Linda Gilroy MP!) to remove the confusingly dense amount of recent links, bring it more in line with the recently refreshed Scottish Parliament and Northern Ireland Assembly home pages, and provide more information to users who might not have any idea what the site covers.
Signing up for an email alert: If you want to receive an email alert on a particular person (MP, Lord, MLA or MSP), visit their page on TheyWorkForYou and follow the “Email me updates” link. If you would like alerts for a particular word or phrase, or anything else, simply do a search for what you’re after, then follow the email alert or RSS links to the right of the results page.
A few Christmases ago Chris Lightfoot and Etienne Pollard built a little throwaway website called HassleMe.co.uk as a one-day coding challenge. The purposes of HassleMe was to let people nag themselves into doing things that needed doing by arranging to be sent automated emails.
The genius of HassleMe lay in the timing of the responses. Instead of it mailing users exactly 5 days or 2 weeks after they subscribed, it mails people approximately when they ask. As a consequence you never know when the mail’s going to arrive, making it strangely more effective as a nag.
After Chris died the site sat running on his server for a couple of years, and mySociety didn’t have access to it. Last week Francis migrated the site to our own machines with the help of Pete Stevens from Mythic Beasts. When Francis looked at the database he saw that there were 16,000 hassles that users had agreed could be made public. However, the feature to show them was never built.
Now it has been added on this page, and makes for a fascinating, often foul mouthed insight into what it is that people need to motivate themselves to do. There are thousands of examples, each stranger than the next, so just hit refresh for more. And please do paste and favourites as comments to this post.
PS And as always, if you like any of mySociety’s services, or even just find the comments amusing, please donate – we’re a charity!
One of the special pieces of magic in TheyWorkForYou is its email alerts, sending you mail whenever an MP says a word you care about in Parliament. Lots of sites these days have RSS, and lots have search, but surprisingly few offer search based email alerts. My Mum trades shares on the Internet, setting it to automatically buy and sell at threshold values. But she doesn’t have an RSS reader. So, it’s important to have email alerts.
So naturally, when we made WhatDoTheyKnow, search and search based email alerts were pretty high up the list, to help people find new, interesting Freedom of Information requests. To implement this, I started out using acts_as_solr, which is a Ruby on Rails plugin for Solr, which is a REST based layer on top of the search engine Lucene.
I found acts_as_solr all just that bit too complicated. Particularly, when a feature (such as spelling correction) was missing, there were too many layers and too much XML for me to work out how to fix it. And I had lots of nasty code to make indexing offline – something I needed, as I want to safely store emails when they arrive, but then do the risky indexing of PDFs and Word documents later.
The last straw was when I found that acts_as_solr didn’t have collapsing (analogous to GROUP BY in SQL). So I decided to bite the bullet and implement my own acts_as_xapian. Luckily there were already Xapian Ruby bindings, and also the fabulous Xapian email list to help me out, and it only took a day or two to write it and deploy it on the live site.
If you’re using Rails and need full text search, I recommend you have a look at acts_as_xapian. It’s easy to use, and has a diverse set of features. You can watch a video of me talking about WhatDoTheyKnow and acts_as_xapian at the London Ruby User Group, last Monday.
We’re busy as bees, lots of things happening, increasingly many of which are commercial, and we can’t talk about until they’re released.
Commercial? But you’re a charity! Yes – but just as Oxfam have a trading subsidiary company which runs the second hand clothes shops, we have a trading subsidiary company that sells services relating to the websites that we make (structural details here).
Everything from other small charities to large media companies are buying our services – which range from customised versions of FixMyStreet, through to strategic consulatancy. If you’ve got something that you think we might be able to help with, email Hello@mysociety.org – easier to talk to than us geeks.
Meanwhile we’re cracking on with our free services for the public, which are increasingly funded by this commercial work.
TheyWorkForYou recently launched a Scottish version, thanks to volunteer Mark Longair, and Matthew. More goodies in store as the Free Our Bills campaign unfolds. We’ve started a sprint to get a photo for every MP’s page. If you work for or are an MP or have copyright of a photo of one that we’re missing, then email it to us.
WhatDoTheyKnow is getting lots of polishing – the new site design that Tommy has been working on is nearly ready. Today I just turned on lots of new email alerts and RSS feeds, so you can get emailed, for example, when a new request is filed to a particular public body, or when a request is successful.
Our super ace volunteers have been busy adding public authorties to the site, and we now have 1153 in total. We’re getting a steady trickle of good requests (pretty graph) coming in. Blogs such as Blind man’s buff and confirm or deny are sorting the wheat from the chaff. Do blog about and link to any interesting requests that you see!
Other things in the works are a much needed revamp of www.mysociety.org, some interesting things on GroupsNearYou, and no doubt squillions of other things. I’ll let Matthew post up anything I’ve missed