1. Upcoming business on TheyWorkForYou

    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.

  2. UK Parliament Delays FOI Responses by Claiming it Doesn’t Exist

    On Monday the 12th of April 2010 Parliament was formally dissolved in advance of the forthcoming general election. This has prompted some interesting, and rather bizarre, responses to the Freedom of Information requests which have been made to the House of Commons and House of Lords since dissolution. Each such request made via mySociety’s Freedom of Information website WhatDoTheyKnow.com has received a standard reply stating:

    When Parliament has been dissolved there is no ‘House of Commons/Lords’ for the purposes of Part 1 of Schedule 1 to the 2000 Act, and there is therefore no ‘public authority’ to which the 20 day deadline under section 10 of the 2000 Act is capable of applying. The time limits do not, therefore, apply during the period of Dissolution.

    The effect of the 2000 Act, including its time limits, resumes when the new House of Commons/Lords first meets.

    Requests which were due to receive a response during the period parliament is dissolved have had their “clocks” stopped, with notices saying:

    As your request was received before the House dissolved, the 20 working day time limit of your request will be split, ceasing on 12 April 2010 and resuming on 18 May 2010 when the new Parliament first meets.

    As mySociety’s Freedom of Information website WhatDoTheyKnow automatically publishes requests, correspondence and responses online it’s not just the requestors who can see those responses, anyone can.

    During the 2005 election according to the UK FOI blog Parliament placed a notice on its website saying it had consulted with the Information Commissioner and agreed the procedure for extending the time limit for a response.

    Clearly the Houses of Parliament still have staff employed and people are still acknowledging the FOI requests. While both houses have stopped meeting, the institutions behind them must surely still be operating, and to claim they have ceased to exist is bordering on the utterly ludicrous.

    Are the staff who would otherwise be in a position to respond to requests for things like viewer statistics for the Parliament Live TV stream, content of the Commons’ Intranet or cost of the Parliament Education Service not at their desks at the moment? If they are who’s employing them? Who’s paying them? While it is presumably a busy time for those staff preparing for a new intake of MPs; you might think that without MPs and Lords around it may be a quite time for many staff who might want to use the opportunity to catch up with correspondence like FOI requests. Perhaps in the midst of all this rather British oddness we should be happy that at least the parliament website hasn’t been turned off at this time of peak interest in the nation about parliament and our democratic system.

    WhatDoTheyKnow already has to be aware of public holidays and follows some rather complex rules when it comes to calculating deadlines for responses however we have decided against updating the system to deal with this new and unexpected situation. We don’t think it is right that the institution of Parliament should consider itsself not to exist during an election period. We still be marking FOI requests as “late” when the twenty working day statutory time limit has expired regardless of the odd stance being taken by Parliamentary officials.

  3. WhatDoTheyKnow Beats Parliamentary Question

    Many MPs and Lords use the Freedom of Information Act to obtain information from public authorities despite the fact they are able to table parliamentary questions. Occasionally they make their requests via mySociety’s freedom of information website WhatDoTheyKnow.com which ensures both the request, and its response, are freely available online. Surprisingly the freedom of information route can result in the release of more, and better quality, information than a written Parliamentary Question.

    For example on the 12th of November 2009 Eleanor Laing the Conservative Shadow Minister for Justice submitted the following written Parliamentary Question:

    To ask the Secretary of State for Health how many staff in his Department were employed on the management of freedom of information requests submitted to his Department in each year since 2005; and how much his Department spent on the management of such requests in each such year.

    The response contained the number of staff per year as requested but with respect to the spending the parliamentary response stated: “The information requested on expenditure could be provided only at disproportionate cost.”

    A very similar request for information had been made many months previously, in July, by WhatDoTheyKnow.com user and FOI campaigner Heather Brooke. The response to the FOI request contained more information, and more precise information, than Eleanor Laing had obtained via her parliamentary question. When the request was made via WhatDoTheyKnow how much staff substantially involved in answering requests were paid was disclosed, in detail.

    While the costs of complying with a particular request are capped by regulations under the Freedom of Information Act, data on total costs of FOI compliance such as that released by this request allows the average costs of dealing with a request to be calculated.

    MPs using WhatDoTheyKnow

    Do let us know in the comments if you’ve spotted any more!

  4. TheyWorkForYou Redesign

    Richard Pope has been redesigning mySociety’s biggest site TheyWorkForYou.com for a couple of months.

    He’s done a heroic job, as has Matthew with his epic import of Hansard data from 1935 onwards.  TheyWorkForYou is a much better site for their combined work recently. We’ll be writing more on the historic stuff soon.

    There are a few things I’d like from you as a member of the mySociety community:

    1. Please say a big thanks to Richard. This was not an easy or relaxing task at all, and he’s done it brilliantly. Just check a Lords debate to see the attention to detail. We are a very lucky organisation to have him, as he’s always in demand.

    2. Please give some constructive criticism on how it could be even better (please note, focussing on design here, we already have a load of feature priorities to deliver).

    3. Anyone who could help supply a redesigned logo, or some nicely processed parliamentary-themed artwork to sit in the background grey-boxes on the homepage would be doing a very Good Deed for mySociety.

    And lastly, please do pledge to become a TheyWorkForYou Patron, so we can keep doing things like this in the future!

  5. Love and support

    I’m still busy beavering away at the Facebook / PledgeBank integration. It all works now, but will take a bit more polishing to get just right. Matthew is, I think adding surveys to PledgeBank. So it finds out later if people have or have not done their pledge. Or is he updating to a new version of BoundaryLine at the moment, so our postcode lookup on WriteToThem and everywhere else gets better? Hard to keep track when he does so much at once.

    Keith is upgrading our internal documentation, so new people at mySociety can learn how to keep things going. Heather is stalking all of America, finding people to use and promote PledgeBank. Tom is on a much deserved holiday, after seemingly a zillion meetings per day for months.

    There’s lots of ongoing maintenance for all our sites. We’re lucky that large chunks of our customer support email are done by volunteers (thanks Anna, Louise, Tim and Tomski/James) and by Debbi (yay Debbi!). Much of this is routine – changing pledge text, updating council email addresses, giving MPs posting links for HearFromYourMP, putting new MP photos up on TheyWorkForYou etc. A lot of it is unique – handling new translations, answering questions from MPs and Lords about their voting record. I’ll let the others give some more examples of the kind of thing we answer.

    Speaking of which, do you know any good web developers who would like to work for mySociety? If so, put them in touch.

  6. Peer Pressure: The House of Lords Opens Today

    Today mySociety launches a pair of complementary services sprinkling some of our democratic pixie dust on the House of Lords:

    Between them, these new services let you:

    • Identify a Lord who is interested in an issue of interest to you.
    • Write to any Lord you want via WriteToThem.com
    • View individual Peer profile pages including attendance at votes, most recent speeches, rebelliousness and more.
    • Get custom email alerts every time a certain Lord speaks, or when a word or phrase is spoken by anyone in the Lords. Over 5000 people will be mailed with unique updates today alone.
    • Produce league tables of which Lord or which MP has spoken words or phrases the most (handy for identifying which members show a public interest in which issues issues).
    • Search, read and annotate Lords Hansard back to 1999

    Collectively we think that these tools should help pour light into the activities and workings of the House of Lords, and help members of the public develop productive relationships with the peers who vote on issues of importance to all of us.