One service we offer on TheyWorkForYou is an email alert: this lets you know when there is new data published on the site that either contains a word/phrase that you’ve subscribed to, or that indicates new activity from your selected Member/s of Parliament.
(Didn’t know this? Go and sign up now!)
We send around 400,000 of these emails a month. For many years, the look has remained exactly as it was when we first developed them: plain text, which has the benefit of being lightweight and unlikely to get scrambled by email clients. The downsides are that it doesn’t exactly make for a compelling email, visually speaking, and that some find it hard to identify which sections are of interest in a uniform block of unformatted text.
We’ve now finally transformed alert emails into a much more polished HTML format, and at the same time we’ve also improved the look and feel of four other vital elements of TWFY: profile images, the API, the sign-up page, and the Contact page.
As usual, before starting work, we did a bit of research into who uses this feature and why, so we could be sure we were answering their needs. You can see more about this in Alex’s post here.
Photos of MPs
Where there is a more recent and higher quality image available, we’ve updated the profile image we use for MPs. In some cases, this has replaced some pretty youthful faces — it’s clearly high time we caught up with this particular ticket!
Higher resolution or larger images also mean that they’ll be more useful to developers using the images (which are all available under an open licence) on other sites and apps.
Clearer access to the API
The API page (where developers and researchers can access TheyWorkForYou data) has been given a slick new design. We’ve updated it with new examples of how the API might be used, and streamlined the language and content to make it easier to understand.
We hope that all of these features will make it easier and more pleasant for you to use TheyWorkForYou, either when you’re checking up on what’s happened in Parliament for yourself, or using our data to make other parliamentary apps and sites.
Image: David Pisnoy
TheyWorkForYou’s alerts service helps keep people informed on things that happen across a range of UK legislatures (The UK Parliament, Welsh Assembly, Scottish Parliament and the London Assembly).
We send daily emails to subscribers about the activity of selected parliamentarians, or when defined phrases are used in debates or written questions or answers. On average, this means around 400,000 emails are sent a month. The service was originally intended to act as a way to notify people of their own MP’s parliamentary activity, but the keyword search also makes it a powerful free parliamentary monitoring tool.
Before our redesign of the alert emails (blog post to follow), we wanted to know more about what subscribers find useful. So in February 2021 we ran a survey of users of our alerts, receiving 1,866 replies. Going by responses to a question on the reasons for alerts, 16% of respondents can be categorised as some kind of ‘professional’ user, who use alerts as part of their role in an organisation. The largest groups were in the charitable sector (40%) and the public sector (35%).
Generally the alerts serve their core (and largest) audience of ‘ordinary citizens’ (ie those without a professional interest) well. Most are people using the service, as intended, to follow their own MP, and are generally interested in the kind of content the alerts service provides.
Free text answers showed general satisfaction among users. Professional users are mainly from the charitable or public sector, and differ in making more use of keyword searches and finding vote information less useful.
What TheyWorkForYou content do users have alerts for?
Respondents were given a set of options on what their alert tracked and could pick more than one. Almost all citizens (94%) and a fair few of professional users (67%) had an alert tracking their own MP.
Professional users were far more likely to make use of keyword/issue searches (69% to 30% for citizens) and to follow Lords (22% to 9%), which may be because Lords often focus on specific areas of interest.
New and old users showed similar usage of alerts. One respondent was a parent of an MP, using the site to keep up with their contributions.
What content do users find useful?
Respondents were given a tick-box question to let them select which alert content was useful.
All options were considered useful by more than 50% of both groups. The most useful content for citizens was votes (87%), followed by written questions/answers(82%) and speeches (79%).
For professionals, it was written questions/answers (89%), speeches (76%) and written statements (68%). The largest difference is in votes, which citizens see as useful, but professionals make less use of (although still seen as useful by 59% of professional users).
This survey has helped us understand more about the different users of alerts and their different needs, and shaped our views on how they could be improved to be more useful. The use by the charitable and public sector is especially interesting, because they show the indirect impact of making information more accessible.
For more information, a 2016 GovLab report explored the impact of this kind of usage of the site. While the improvements in the official Hansard site over the last five years mean there is less of a sharp divide between the official site and TheyWorkForYou, email alerts remain a key way that TheyWorkForYou helps make Parliamentary activity more transparent for all.
Whether or not you voted for the MP you ended up with, it pays to keep a careful eye on what they’re saying and how they’re voting.
Democracy works best as a model when we, the public, hold our MPs to account. If you see them acting or speaking in a way that’s contrary to your views, tell them — otherwise, how will they know that anyone feels differently?
But you’ll only be able to do that if you know what’s going on.
Here’s one of the services that you might not know about, but which is a crucial tool for anyone wanting to stay up to date with Parliament:
Sign up to an alert, and we’ll send you an email every time your MP speaks in a debate, or votes. Or, if there’s a topic you care about, we can send you an email every time it’s mentioned in Parliament.
You can set up any number of alerts, to comprehensively cover your interests.
What to do
First of all, visit this page if you’d like to follow your own MP. Just input your postcode and email address, and you’re all set.
Or, if you’d rather follow a word or phrase, follow the simple instructions in this post.
Already signed up?
One fifth of the UK has a new MP after the election. If you already have an MP alert set up, but your MP has changed, you also need to visit this page to switch over.
And if you already have some other alerts set up, and you want to refine them, there are instructions here.
Useful for everyone
Email alerts are a really simple way to keep informed. They can be halted or paused at any time to suit your needs, and if Parliament isn’t sitting, your chosen MP isn’t active or your keywords don’t come up in a debate, you won’t receive anything on those days.
It takes just a few seconds to scan the email, and, if you’re interested in the content, a couple of minutes to click through and read the content.
Useful for businesses, campaigns and charities
Alerts can be equally helpful if you work for an organisation that would benefit from knowing whenever your field is mentioned in Parliament.
If an MP shows sympathy for your cause, you could get in touch and see if you might work together; you might ask them to submit a question to the House, come and see your organisation in action, or help you to forge useful links.
Or if they say something misguided, you can put them right with a press release or a letter inviting them to come and see the facts for themselves.
Some organisations run campaigns around upcoming legislation, asking their supporters to get in touch with their own MPs with their experiences and information that might help inform their vote.
Image: ©UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor/ Stephen Pike (CC by-nc/2.0)
If you subscribe to emails that tell you every time an MP speaks via TheyWorkForYou, then you may have noticed a change in today’s mailout.
From today, we’re trialing alerts not just when your chosen MP has spoken, but also when and how they voted — and what could be more timely, what with the dramatic votes of last night! As always, you can click the link in the email to see further context.
The alerts also cover votes in the House of Lords, and in the Scottish Parliament.
This is one part of the work we’re able to do towards enhancing access to democracy, supported by a grant from the Open Society Foundations. It’s a feature we’ve wanted to add for a long time — not to mention something that you’ve been asking for — and as we hope you’ll agree, it certainly adds to our overarching goal of trying to make the goings-on in Parliament more accessible to everyone.
Find out more about votes
Generally speaking, you can check the Recent Votes page on TheyWorkForYou to see whether your MP was present for a division; or if you know what date it was held on, you can go to the calendar, click through to the relevant debate, and find the divisions usually near or at the end of the page.
How to sign up for alerts
Not signed up to follow your MP’s activity in Parliament yet? It’s very simple: just go to this page and input your postcode.
Enjoy tracking your MP’s votes, and watch this space for more voting-related improvements coming soon.
Image: Luca Micheli
Well, it certainly all happened over the weekend: the resignation of one Secretary of State on Friday and the quick appointment of another by Saturday.
It all left a lot of people wondering just who this Stephen Crabb fellow was, and what he stood for.
Fortunately, there’s a very handy website where you can look up the details, debates and voting records of every MP — we refer, of course, to our very own TheyWorkForYou. Over the weekend, we saw the link to Crabb’s voting record shared across social media (and even good old traditional media; we were also mentioned on Radio 4’s Any Answers). Naturally, most interest was around Crabb’s voting habits when it comes to welfare and benefits.
The upshot of this was that TheyWorkForYou saw almost three times our normal traffic for a Saturday. Over the weekend, 30% of all page views were for Crabb’s profile or voting records. In contrast, just 1.83% thought to check out his predecessor’s record: yesterday’s news already, it seems.
So Stephen Crabb’s the new guy, and you may want to keep up to date with his contributions to Parliament. Sign up here and we’ll send you an email every time he speaks.
So, the results are in. Some of us have a brand new MP. Others will see the same familiar face returning to the benches of Westminster.
Either way, the important questions remain the same:
- What will your MP do in Parliament?
- Will they speak about the things that matter to you?
- How will they vote in your name?
The easy way to keep up
TheyWorkForYou.com makes it very easy to keep check: you can even sign up to receive an email whenever your MP speaks. These are in the form of a daily digest, and we only send them on days when your MP has actually contributed to a debate.
It’s the low-effort way to see exactly what your MP is getting up to, with no spin, just the facts. Click here for our easy sign-up.
If you already receive alerts, but your prior MP has lost their seat, be sure to set up an alert for the new one now. We’ll be sending reminders to all current subscribers.
There’s no need to cancel the previous alert, however: if your old MP isn’t in Parliament, we simply won’t be sending any more emails about them.
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
Here’s how to change the email address that alerts get sent to.
Visit your profile page, and edit the email address field.
If you don’t have a TheyWorkForYou account yet, you’ll need to register first. Use your old email address, so that the account you create will contain your existing alerts. We’ll send you a registration email to that address, and once you’ve clicked the confirmation link in that, you’ll be able to visit your profile page and edit the email address field as described above to add your new address.
If you no longer have access to your old email address and wouldn’t be able to complete the account confirmation step, get in touch and we can change it for you.
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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 ‘Get 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.
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