1. Our review for Parliament is out today

    Palace of Westminster by Greg Dunlap

    A few months ago we won a contract from Parliament to review its digital service provision (brief advertorial – we can do this kind of work for your organisation too).

    Today Parliament has published that review. Here are a few comments:

    1. It’s great news that the Management Boards in Parliament have agreed to implement the two recommendations contained in the report. Reviews are one thing, actions another.
    2. It’s great that Parliament chose to publish the review at all. They didn’t have to, but they chose to without any prodding. Big thumbs up.
    3. We interviewed a lot of parliamentary staff (dozens and dozens of people). They’re a fantastically dedicated, interesting bunch working under often absurd pressures, and we think Parliament overall would probably have a better reputation if they had as much visibility as the elected members. Time for a docusoap, maybe?
    4. The review contains only two recommendations, even though there were hundreds of good ideas floating around. The reason for such extreme minimalism was to ensure that there was no ambiguity whatsoever about what we believe to be the essential reforms*. Once those reforms are enacted, the ground will be much more fertile for specific digital projects.
    5. My colleagues Ben Nickolls, Dave Whiteland and Mike Thompson did the majority of the real work on this review, conducting interviews and analysing data. My thanks to them for a job well done.

    Parliament is encouraging public feedback on the review. Let them know what you think via NewDigitalService@parliament.uk

    * If you want a digital review filled to the brim with lots of recommendations, try this 25 point action plan from the US federal government instead. Just remember that it was published roughly three years before this.

    Photo by Greg Dunlap (CC)

  2. The People’s Assembly website launches – a one-stop parliamentary monitoring service for the people of South Africa

    People's Assembly website

    There was some excitement here at mySociety this week, as the People’s Assembly website launched in South Africa. It’s the result of a year’s partnership with PMG and a good test of some of our newest collaborative software.

    The site contains a vast amount of information, all available in the same place for the first time, and offering a simple way for South African citizens to keep an eye on what their representatives are doing. There are pages for each representative, Hansard and parliamentary Questions and Answers, records of members’ interests, and more.

    Locating, processing and displaying this data was quite a challenge: it has been taken from a wide range of sources, and came in an even greater range of formats, including PDF documents, Word documents, Excel files, CSV files and sometimes just e-mailed lists of information.

    But perhaps most significant is the site’s Representative Locator function. For the first time, South African citizens can now find out, with ease, who represents them – not as simple as it might seem at first.

    The Proportional Representative system means that members of the National Assembly and National Council of Provinces are not directly elected from constituencies.  Political parties are, however, funded to run constituency offices and to allocate representatives to those offices.  We believe that this is the first time this data has been consolidated and presented as a simple search tool.

    The software that runs the site

    As you’ll know if you read our recent blog post about SayIt, our recent focus has been reaching out to provide software for civic or democratic-focused websites anywhere in the world.

    The idea is that such groups no longer need worry about writing code from scratch, since we’ve already done it – and their energies can be better expended on gathering data or adjusting the software to work within the local governmental systems.

    People’s Assembly is a great example of this. It utilises two underpinning pieces of technology:

    Firstly, the Pombola platform, our software for running parliamentary monitoring websites.

    If you’re reading this in the UK, you may be familiar with our own parliamentary monitoring site, TheyWorkForYou. Pombola provides several tools that make it easy to do much of what TheyWorkForYou does: it provides a structured database of the names and positions of those in power; it allows people to look up their elected representatives by inputting their location, and to isolate and see what a specific MP has contributed to discussions in Parliament’s committees and plenaries; albeit, in the case of  Hansard,  after a six-month delay necessitated by South Africa’s own protocols.

    We first developed Pombola for Kenya’s Mzalendo.com, and it’s been re-used for ShineYourEye.org in Nigeria and Odekro.org in Ghana.  It’s superb to see this re-use, as it’s exactly what we set out to acheive.

    Secondly, People’s Assembly is the very first site to use SayIt, which is embedded as a Django app to power the Hansard, Questions and Committees content. SayIt is one of our Components, built under the Poplus project, and we’re truly delighted  to see it in place, proving its worth and being used as we first envisaged.

    Thanks are due

    The main work on the People’s Assembly has been funded by the Indigo Trust, and the SayIt component work was funded by Google.org as part of the Poplus Project. We also wish to thank Geoff Kilpin, who helped greatly with the scrapers and templating.

  3. What changes would you like to see on TheyWorkForYou?

    Kenya Electricity Corporation Suggestion Box by Lindsay Bremner

    mySociety is an organisation with many priorities, and they often compete for attention. Right now, we have some time and budget to lavish on TheyWorkForYou. We need your input to help us understand what development we should prioritise for the site.

    Note: if you don’t know much about TheyWorkForYou, your opinion still counts! See the foot of this blog post for an overview of the site and its aims.

     Some suggested improvements

    Below is a list of improvements that other users have suggested, or that we think are desirable. Which improvements would you most like to see – from this list, or based on your own needs?

    1. Easier sharing via social media If you see a debate you want to share with your Twitter or Facebook buddies, all you’d have to do is click a button. More details
    2. When your MP voted Letting you know, via email alerts, when your MP has taken part in a vote. More details
    3. Option to search just headings At the moment, search covers all content of debates, including everything anyone said. This option would allow you to only search headings, meaning that you could be sure the results were entirely focused on your topic. More details
    4. Tweeting debate headings or future business A Twitter account which would tweet, and link to, every debate in Parliament, or upcoming events. More details
    5. Signposting of big ‘events’ such as the Budget These are not always easy to find if you don’t know your way around, so we’d make sure the big events were always trumpeted on the site. More details

    Great ideas, or utter bunkum? Let us know. You can give us feedback via any of the following methods:

    1. Leave a comment under this blog post;

    2. Tweet at us on @TheyworkForYou, comment on our Facebook page, or drop us a mail;

    3. If you’d like to see the whole list of suggestions and issues, you can do so on our development list at Github (and the ‘more details’ links in the list above go to the issues on there). Note that anyone is welcome to add comments to these issues, or even to create your own (please search first to make sure you’re not duplicating an existing issue). Github may look complex, but it’s easy enough to use – you just need to set up a user account here.

    We’re keen to understand whether we’re serving all kinds of users, so it’d also be helpful if you could tell us whether you consider yourself to be someone who knows a bit about Parliament (through work, interest, or experience) or a novice user.

    Noteyou can see what we’re currently working on here. Some changes were obvious – for example, we’re improving MPs’ individual pages.

    What is TheyWorkForYou for?

    TheyWorkForYou has been running since 2004. We know why we launched it, though the way you use it may be totally different – and if so, we want to hear about that. Its aim is to give a window into Parliament, for everyone, but including people who may never have previously thought that parliamentary proceedings had anything to do with them.

    TheyWorkForYou does a lot of things. It lets you find out who your MP is – if you don’t know – and then it tells you all about them.

    It publishes the written record of debates in Parliament, and lets you search it, and link to it easily.

    It allows you to set up alerts, so you get an email every your chosen words or phrases are mentioned in Parliament – or every time a particular person speaks.

    It publishes future business (there are alerts for that, too), written answers, Public Bill Committees, and more.

    So, it does a lot – but we know that it still doesn’t do everything our users request, and it doesn’t neccessarily do everything in the way that they want, either. Some changes are obvious, and we’re working on them – right now, for example, we are improving individual MPs’ pages. But we want your thoughts too.

    Photo by Lindsay Bremner (CC)

  4. FixMyStreet now covers Northern Ireland

    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.

  5. WhatDoTheyKnow – Oral Evidence to MPs on First Five Years of FOI in the UK

    Alex Skene, WhatDoTheyKnow.com, at the Justice Select Committee
    On the 21st of February 2012 Alex Skene, representing mySociety’s Freedom of Information website WhatDoTheyKnow, appeared in front of the UK Parliament’s Justice Select Committee. The MPs on the committee were holding an evidence session as part of their post-legislative scrutiny of the Freedom of Information Act.

    Video of the session can be viewed online via ParliamentLive.TV and the BBC’s Democracy Live. A transcript of the session will become available via TheyWorkForYou, typically these take a week or two to be produced.

    Prior to the session WhatDoTheyKnow had submitted written evidence to the review making three main points:

    • The scope of the act should be extended to cover a wider range of public bodies.
    • Time limits should be introduced for public interest tests and internal reviews.
    • There is a need for more proactive publication of information, and a culture of openness and transparency needs to continue to be nurtured and extended within the UK’s public sector

    The committee appeared genuinely interested in finding out how FOI has performed to-date and how it can be improved.

    Supercharging FOI

    Alex told the committee that FOI enables evidence based policy making and empowers citizens; he said the WhatDoTheyKnow.com website supercharges the provisions of the FOI Act making it easier for people to take advantage of the right to access information which it gives them.

    Ghosts

    Elfyn Llwyd MP raised the question of vexatious and frivolous requests through the medium of ghosts. Asked if requests about ghosts could ever be justified Alex told MPs that it was hard to draw the line between acceptable and unacceptable requests. He noted that one council had spent public money on an exorcism, so in that case there would be information held and an FOI request justified. He questioned if requests on ghosts were to be deemed unacceptable, what other areas might be excluded. UFOs? The MoD for a long period did have an office collating UFO reports, again there was public spending, and recorded information held, in this area. Homeopathy was also highlighted, that’s about as real as ghosts or UFOs, but again FOI requests about it must surely be permitted as significant amounts of taxpayers money are spent on it.

    Maurice Frankel, the director of the Campaign for Freedom of Information, who was giving evidence alongside WhatDoTheyKnow took a stronger line. He described those who made FOI requests about ghosts as “idiots”; but also accepted it was hard, and undesirable, to try and outlaw requests on certain subjects. He added that such requests did not generally cost large amounts of money to deal with.

    Time Limits

    MPs on the committee appeared sympathetic to calls from the representatives of WhatDoTheyKnow and the Campaign for Freedom of Information to introduce stricter time limits. The need for time limits was brought into focus during the discussion of the time limits for prosecutions under S.77 of the Act (Offence of altering etc. records with intent to prevent disclosure), very few requests have gone through a response, and internal review, and the Information Commissioner within the time limit for launching a prosecution. An MP suggested making offences under S.77 triable in either a magistrates or a crown court so as to extend the time period while retaining consistency with the rest of the justice system.

    Fees

    When asked to comment on the idea of introducing fees for all FOI requests Alex said such proposals would be “devastating” and would deter many from making requests. Alex noted that the public had paid for the information in question already, via general taxation, and ought be able to access it.

    Exempting Universities

    When asked to comment on lobbying from universities to be exempted from FOI, Alex robustly defended their inclusion in the act, pointing to their role in controlling access to professions and awarding degrees. Maurice Frankel and Alex noted the universities’ argument that they were being funded by a decreasing fraction of public money wasn’t really relevant, as that is not the basis on which bodies are deemed to be covered by the Act.

    Extending Coverage of FOI

    The reach of FOI into commercial organisations carrying out work on behalf of public bodies was briefly discussed however notably there was little further discussion of extending the coverage of FOI, perhaps suggesting this may be a dedicated subject for future evidence session. This session was been described as the committee’s first, suggesting there will be more. At least one of these will presumably hear from the Information Commissioner.

    The written evidence we submitted can be read on page 81 of the compendium of submitted evidence (PDF).

  6. MPs to Review Operation of FOI : Submit Your Views

    WhatDoTheyKnow.com Logo

    MPs are about to review the first five years of the operation of the Freedom of Information Act 2000. We’d like to encourage users of mySociety’s Freedom of Information website WhatDoTheyKnow.com to share their views and experiences with the MPs who are to carry out the review.

    The review is being conducted by the House of Commons’ Justice Select Committee.

    The committee is currently inviting people to make submissions to it. The deadline for submissions is Friday 3 February 2012.

    A memorandum from the Ministry of Justice has been prepared to brief the committee, that document notes, in paragraph 67:

    Very little research has been published detailing the views of requesters of information.

    Particularly in light of this we thought it would be worthwhile alerting our users to this review; if we could encourage our users to make submissions to the committee that might help ensure they receive balanced evidence: from outside, as well as within, the public sector.

    While the committee is interested in any comments on the act’s operation, specific questions the committee has asked for comment on are:

    • Does the Freedom of Information Act work effectively?
    • What are the strengths and weaknesses of the Freedom of Information Act?
    • Is the Freedom of Information Act operating in the way that it was intended to?

    Responses can be emailed to: justicecommemo@parliament.uk

    Details of how responses should be formatted and technical details relating to submission are available on the webpage announcing the call for submissions.

  7. Advent calendar

    mySociety Christmas countdown

    December 23rd

     

    Santa's Chocolate Coin Mint by Johnathan_W

    If you haven’t got a penny,

    A ha’penny will do,

    If you haven’t got a ha’penny,

    Then God bless you.

    We wish you all a merry and prosperous Christmas – and for those of you who are already feeling quite prosperous enough, may we point you in the direction of our charitable donations page?

    mySociety’s work is made possible by donations of all sizes and from all sorts of people. Those donations help fund all the online projects we create; projects that give easy access to your civic and democratic rights. If that’s important to you, show your appreciation, and we promise we’ll make the best use of every penny.

    Thank you for sticking with us through this month-long post. We hope you’ve found it interesting and we wish you the very merriest of Christmases.

    We hope you’ll continue to follow us on Twitter, Facebook, or Google+ – see our Contacts page to find individual projects’ social media links.

    December 22nd

    Santa Watching by LadyDragonflyCC

    What’s behind the door? A letter to Santa.

    Dear Santa,

    We think we’ve been pretty good this year. We’ve tried to keep our local neighbourhood clean, help with problems, and aid those in need, so we’re hoping there are a few presents coming our way.

    If you can fit them down the chimney, here’s what we’re dreaming of:

    More publicly available data Of course, we were delighted to hear in Mr Osborne’s autumn statement that all sorts of previously-inaccessible data will be opened up.

    We’re wondering whether this new era will also answer any of our FixMyStreet geodata wishes. Santa, if you could allocate an elf to this one, we’d be ever so pleased.

    Globalisation …in the nicest possible way, of course. This year has seen us work in places previously untouched by the hand of mySociety, including Kenya and the Philippines. And we continue to give help to those who wish to replicate our projects in their own countries, from FixMyStreet in Norway to WhatDoTheyKnow in Germany.

    Santa, please could you fix it for us to continue working with dedicated and motivated people all around the world?

    A mySociety Masters degree We’re lucky enough to have a team of talented and knowledgeable developers, and we hope we will be recruiting more in the coming year. It’s not always an easy task to find the kind of people we need – after all, mySociety is not your average workplace – so we’ve come to the conclusion that it’s probably easiest to make our own.

    Back in February, Tom started thinking about a Masters in Public Technology. It’s still something we’re very much hoping for. Santa, is it true you have friends in academic circles?

    FixMyTransport buy-in – from everyone! Regular users of FixMyTransport will have noticed that there are different kinds of response from the transport operators: lovely, fulsome, helpful ones, and formulaic ones. Or, worse still, complete refusal to engage.

    Santa, if you get the chance, please could you tell the operators a little secret? Just tell them what those savvier ones already know – that FixMyTransport represents a chance to show off some fantastic customer service. And with 25,000 visitors to the site every week, that message is soon spread far and wide.

    (more…)

  8. New, simple MP vote analyses on TheyWorkForYou

    "12am time to vote" by European Parliament on Flickr. Used with thanks under the Creative Commons licence. Click through to see the photo on Flickr.

    If you’ve visited our parliamentary site TheyWorkForYou.com, you’ll have noticed that on each MP’s page there is a short summary of his or her voting record on various key issues.

    These issues have always been carefully chosen to give a simple but neutral top-line view of each MP’s voting activity. Judging by Twitter, they’re a fairly popular part of the site, too.

    There’s way, way more tedious complexity behind producing these little summaries than you might think, and due to a lack of appropriately skilled people in our team over the last year we had let our vote analyses get a bit behind the times. If you’re really interested you can read about why authoring these things in such a scrupulously balanced way is so time consuming here.

    We’re posting today to tell you that we have recruited a pair of excellent new part-time voting analysts, David and Ambreen, and they have recently produced the first of a new generation of voting summaries.

    The first shows how each MP has voted on increasing the rate of VAT, and second on the recent changes to university tuition fees. We have also increased the number of votes which feed into the EU integration policy to bring it more up to date.

    To see this new data, just pop along to TheyWorkForYou’s home page, stick in your postcode, and check out your own MPs’ page. Then, if you want to be made aware as soon as we’ve published the next analyses, please follow our new TheyWorkForYou Twitter account.

    Lastly, I just want to say thank you to the vote analysts Ambreen and David, to senior developer Matthew and to uber-volunteer Richard Taylor for kicking this vital part of TheyWorkForYou back into top gear.

    Image by European Parliament.

  9. 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.

  10. Helping voters in the devolved elections

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

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

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

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

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

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