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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Image by Janne Hellsten (CC)
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.
* Here’s a blog post explaining how you can subscribe to FixMyTransport reports, and this one explains how to get alerts from TheyWorkForYou when politicians mention your chosen words in Parliament.
Our Freedom of Information site WhatDoTheyKnow also provides alerts for any search term, public body, or request – as described at the foot of this post.
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 🙂
Matthew and I have been sitting next to each other today looking at the outputs of his lovely new custom built conversion tracking system, designed to ensure that the optimal number of users who just come to one of our services as a one off get signed up to something else longer lasting.
I’ve been banging on for ages about how government should seize on cross selling people who’ve just finished using one online service into using another of a more democratic nature, so it seems worth spelling out some of the lessons.
First, there’s some interesting data from the last few weeks, since our newest conversion tracking infrastructure has been running in its nice new format.
One of the adverts randomly served to users of WriteToThem (after they’ve finished sending their letter) encourages them to sign up to TheyWorkForYou email alerts – the service people use to get emailed whenever their MP speaks in Parliament. The advert features a slogan of encouragement, and a pre-populated email form containing the user’s email, and a ‘Subscribe me’ button. This advert was shown to 2328 users last month, of whom 676 became TheyWorkForYou email subscribers, which is a pretty cool 29.04% conversion rate. However, we also showed another advert for the same service, to the same WriteToThem users, which also had the same button and text, but which hid the form (and their address). That was shown to 2216 users of whom 390 signed up, a more modest 17.6%. So the impact of simply showing an email box with the users email address in it, versus hiding it, was worth 10% more users. Why? Go figure!
So now we’ve canned the advert that hides the address form, and instead we’re comparing two different adverts both of which feature the pre-populated signup form, but which use different words. It’s probably too early to judge, but the new ad appears to have a very similar conversion rate suggesting it might be hard to squeeze many more subscribers out of this page. We’ll keep trying though!
Another thing we learned of interest was that monthly subscribers to email alerts on TheyWorkForYou were down year on year in the month before we added this new advertising & conversion tracking system, even though the total number of visitors were clearly up on the same month last year. This appears to suggest that two things are happening. First RSS is catching on, so some users who would previously have got email alerts are subscribing to RSS feeds instead. Second, it suggests that the TheyWorkForYou user audience might have been getting more saturated with regulars – proportionally fewer new users coming (although more visitors in absolute terms) so fewer people signing up to get alerts. The cross marketing and conversion tracking seems to have reversed that trend, which is awesome.
We also advertise several different services to people who just finish signing up to get email alerts on TheyWorkForYou itself. We’ve just noticed that a full 25% of people shown the advert to sign up for HearFromYourMP proceed to sign up. We’ve therefore just decided to dump other adverts shown on TheyWorkForYou (such as advertisements for other sorts of TheyWorkFor you email alert) and concentrate on just cross selling HearFromYourMP. A back of the envelope calculation suggests that by just advertising this one site from the completion page we should get an extra 10,000 subscribers to HearFromYourMP this year on top of the organic growth. Not bad for a few minutes analysis, and a number likely to make a fair few more MPs post messages to their patiently waiting constituents.
One last interesting thing (at least to me) is how some more demanding services are a much harder sell than others to users. So asking people to make new groups on GroupsNearYou.com or report a problem in a street on FixMyStreet tend to result in more traditional online marketing scale conversion rates of 0.1% to 2%. Still worth doing, and so we compare different versions of those ads too, to try and eke up those rates for these sites that arguably have more tangible, direct impacts on people and communities.
It will be a challenge for mySociety’s future to work out how to trade off impact against scale of service use – are 10 HearFromYourMP subscribers worth one pothole that doesn’t get fixed? Answers on a postcard…
Just a quick post to keep those of of you interested in mySociety in the loop with our activities at the moment.
New Things You Can Use Now
1. Email or RSS alerts when people report problems in your ward or your council via FixMyStreet. Ideal for councillors, people on resident’s associations, or anyone just concerned about what’s breaking and being fixed in the area right near their home.
Have a go – it’s ace when the mail comes dropping in from just down your road.
2. The Queen on TheyWorkForYou
Is this the first monarch with her own RSS feed? Would anyone really care if she was?
New Projects Coming Up
We have three major projects under way at the moment, and unusually
only two of them involve us building websites.
1. The Freedom of Information Filer and Archive website is under construction. Aiming to make it easier to make freedom of information requests, and easier for people to find what other people have found out, this is being build mainly by Francis. We’re having lots of discussions about design and features right now, and if you have anything to contribute please either get in touch or leave your ideas on the wiki page.
2. Local Email Groups Near You – an attempt to record the location of hyper local email groups and local forums and websites and to share that information on lots of other sites. Why go blindly hunting for advice on a plumber if there’s already an email list that covers your street? This is going to be a rare international project for us, so if you’re outside the UK and interested in community Internet usage, please get in touch.
3. The 90 Day Project – mySociety’s first lobbying exercise, trying to encourage parliament to take some steps to improve the way it publishes information, and to improve the tools that MPs have to handle mail from their constituents.
There’s lots and lots more too, but we can’t blow all our surprises in one go, can we?
Whereas new sites are lovely, and I talk about Neighbourhood Fix-It improvements further down, there’s still quite a bit of work that needs to go into making sure our current sites are always up-to-date, working, and full of the joys of spring. Here’s a bit of what I’ve been up to recently, whilst everyone else chats about database upgrades, server memory, and statistics.
The elections last week meant much of WriteToThem has had to be switched off until we can add the new election results – that means the following aren’t currently contactable: the Scottish Parliament; the Welsh Assembly; every English metropolitan borough, unitary authority, and district council (bar seven); and every Scottish council. The fact that the electoral geography has changed a lot in Wales means there will almost certainly be complicated shenanigans for us in the near future so that our postcode lookup continues to return the correct results as much as possible.
Talking of postcode lookups, I also noticed yesterday that some Northern Ireland postcodes were returning incorrect results, which was caused by some out of date entries left lying around in our MaPit postcode-to-area database. Soon purged, but that led me to spot that Gerry Adams had been deleted from our database! Odd, I thought, and tracked it down to the fact our internal CSV file of MLAs had lost its header line, and so poor Mr Adams was heroically taking its place. He should be back now.
A Catalan news article about PledgeBank brought a couple of requests for new countries to be added to our list on PledgeBank. We’re sticking to the ISO 3166-1 list of country codes, but the requests led us to spot that Jersey, Guernsey and the Isle of Man had been given full entry status in that list and so needed added to our own. I’m hoping the interest will lead to a Catalan translation of the site; we should hopefully also have Chinese and Belarussian soon, which will be great.
Neighbourhood Fix-It update
New features are still being added to Neighbourhood Fix-It.
Questionnaires are now being sent out to people who create problems four weeks after their problem is sent to the council, asking them to check the status of their problem and thereby keep the site up-to-date. Adding the questionnaire functionality threw up a number of bugs elsewhere – the worst of which was that we would be sending email alerts to people whether their alert had been confirmed or not. Thankfully, there hadn’t yet been any such alert, phew.
Lastly, the Fix-It RSS feeds now have GeoRSS too, which means you can easily plot them on a Google map.