Why we do what we do. No, not the name of a wonderfully named new mySociety product, instead it’s an excuse for me to take stock of where we are and where we go next.
Inevitably over the past decade we’ve tackled lots of issues and projects from lots of different angles. What we’re currently focused on is Freedom of Information, Parliaments and Elections, and Local Issue Reporting.
What links all of our work is the creation of civic technology that enables greater access for citizens to the work of government and the democratic process:
Lack of access to elected representatives amongst disadvantaged or underrepresented groups is a key driver of exclusion and inequality, yet governments tend only to become better at serving the needs of citizens when those citizens are capable of demanding better.
Simply put, this is our cause.
Our Theory Of Change
Citizens will only demand better from governments if they have access to a mix of often scarce resources: from education, to wealth, to knowledge about government failings. At mySociety we are highly aware that we can’t give people most of these things: we can’t boost business in failing economies or bring teachers into schools that have none. These are the tasks of development funders, political leaders and well-regulated markets.
Tremendous human suffering happens when governments fail to serve the needs of their citizens, and human welfare is dramatically increased when governments serve citizens’ needs well. Some governments are excellent at meeting some citizen needs, but weak at meeting others, harming a minority, often invisibly. Others make no attempt to meet any of their citizens’ needs, robbing, starving and failing them in every possible way.
Our theory of change is based on a reading of political history, and specifically of the history of reform campaigns, such as those that drove the democratisation of nations from the 17th to the 20th century. We believe that governments tend only to get better at serving the needs of citizens when citizens are capable of demanding better, creating a virtuous circle that leads steadily to better government.
Each of our services give citizens the skills, confidence and knowledge they need in order to be capable of demanding better.
Freedom of Information
FOI is a core plank of a healthy, transparent and accountable democracy. Every citizen should have the right to query and understand the workings of government and public bodies on their own terms.
Alaveteli is our platform for FOI request websites. We currently support partners in over 20 countries, from Australia to Hungary, Nicaragua to Ukraine, as well as a pan-European site AskTheEU. Our most successful site is WhatDoTheyKnow in the UK, with almost 300,000 individual FOI requests alone – drawn from over 16,000 UK public bodies.
Over the next year we will continue to refine and develop Alaveteli to better support the expansion and proper use of FOI around the world. At the same time, we’ll be actively campaigning to preserve FOI in the UK which is currently under threat from the Government’s FOI commission.
Parliaments and Elections
The activities of Government can often be opaque and difficult to interpret. We improve access to elected representatives, providing clarity, context and understanding to the decisions they make on our behalf.
We tackle the workings of government at a variety of points throughout the electoral cycle; YourNextMP/Rep for candidate information, TheyWorkForYou and WriteToThem allow people to query and explain the workings of government at all levels.
Increasingly central to these efforts is EveryPolitician, our crowdsourcing effort to sustainably store and share a structured open data set of every national politician around the world. It currently holds data on more than 60,000 politicians from over 230 territories.
In the next few weeks we’ll complete work to integrate all of our existing Parliament services with EveryPolitician and continue to encourage more journalists, developers, and NGOs to create the tools they need in their own countries.
Local Issue Reporting
FixMyStreet gets right to the root of any disconnect between citizens and those who provide their local services. Literally dealing with street-level issues, FixMyStreet can help turn our everyday feelings of frustration into action.
The original and much emulated FixMyStreet.com makes it easy to report street faults like broken street lights or potholes, raising over 650,000 reports in the last 8 years.
We’ve extended the principle of issue – reporting – resolution, to create a generalised platform catering to a variety of interesting and practical new use cases; with projects as varied as empty home identification, or logging road collisions and near misses for cyclists.
Citizens feel more in control. Local councils can target their efforts more effectively. Together this can contribute to better government.
For the moment we’ll continue to consolidate our offer in these three areas.
There’s ample scope for further development, refinement of concepts and of course directly increasing the impact of currently deployed sites.
What gets really interesting is when we start to scale up the delivery of each of these in more countries, delivered to more people, ensuring we see more citizens gain greater influence over those with power.
I’ll post again later this week about some of the practical changes that we are making to better encourage the take up of our services and how we’re improving the way we work with our partners.
Note: Not only were these changes outruled, but WhatDoTheyKnow got a nice mention in the process. See more in our follow-up blog post.
Proposed changes, currently under discussion by a cross-party government commission, could make it much harder for you to access information.
This is what the proposed restrictions would mean for you:
- You’d be charged for making a request
- Your request could be turned down on the grounds of cost, even more easily than it can be now
- You’d find it more difficult (or even impossible) to obtain details of public authorities’ internal discussions
- The release of government information could be easily blocked by ministers
- The newspapers that you read would be less able to uncover stories of corruption, malpractice or cover-ups.
You have until 20 November if you’d like to voice your opposition to these restraints.
Here are four easy ways you can take action right now—you’ll find more details about all of them on the Campaign For Freedom of Information’s website.
What you can do
1. If you have 60 seconds: sign a petition
Sign the 38 Degrees petition to Protect FOI laws.
If you’re a journalist, you can sign the Hands Off FOI petition, too.
2. If you have 5 minutes, write to your MP
3. If you have 10 minutes, submit an FOI story
SaveFOI are collecting stories of how Freedom of Information has made a difference to individuals and organisations. Here’s how to contribute.
4. If you have a little more time, respond directly to the consultation
Why these restrictions matter
Freedom of Information is for everyone, not just those who can afford it
If you charge for making a Freedom of Information request, you automatically exclude a sector of society from the right to know.
It’s not just that a limited income will discourage some people from making requests (though it will, and our research has already shown that engaging with our democratic system is largely the preserve of the well-educated and well-off, a situation which needs to be rectified).
It’s also that the added complexity will discourage those who already consider the FOI process daunting—something we’ve always striven hard to overcome with WhatDoTheyKnow.com.
The right to information should be available to everyone. Not just those with money to spare, and the bureaucratic skills to navigate its complexities.
We’ve seen the results of restrictions in other countries
Our Alaveteli software helps people run FOI sites all over the world. At our recent conference, we heard of the struggles those people face, from the charging of fees, to bodies’ refusal to release information, to complex red tape.
In every case, the result was impeded access to information, a lowering of public’s engagement with their right to know, and increased disenfranchisement.
In Ireland, for example, where similar constraints were put in place in 2003, overall usage of the FOI Act fell by over 50%, and requests by the media by over 83%*.
Note that many important UK news stories in recent times have come from FOI requests: the imposition of fees and restrictions will have a stifling effect on journalists.
The current consultation threatens to put the UK in the same boat.
Government ministers could pick and choose what they release
Running WhatDoTheyKnow, we’re already aware that many requests are turned down—requests which we’d consider quite reasonable.
If these new restrictions take hold, it will be much easier for ministers to use the power of veto to withhold any information they choose.
The “safe space” argument as in the Commission’s call for evidence stresses the importance of collective cabinet responsibility and not revealing private splits within the cabinet.
We believe that such splits are in fact vital for the public to know about, in the interests of democracy. We’d also say it’s likely, human nature being what it is, that should a veto be made available, information will also be withheld when it is inconvenient or detrimental to the ministers’ party line.
Public authorities are funded by us, the public
If you pay someone to do a job, you’re within your rights to examine their work when you need to.
We should never forget that public authorities—the bodies which are subject to the FOI Act—are funded by us, the taxpayer. We should have the right to hold them to account.
If the government is concerned about the costs of FOI, instead of imposing restrictions, it should promote more proactive disclosure of information held by public bodies, which would save everyone time and money.
How will you help?
These are just a few of the reasons we’ll be asking you to take action over the next ten days. Please do all you can—and then help spread the word.
*A Review of the Operation of the Freedom of Information (Amendment) Act 2003: An Investigation into the Effects of the Amendment Act and the Introduction of Fees on Access Requests by Members of the Public. Ireland later reversed the decision to introduce fees “to restore the balance”.
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.
Has he or she reflected your interests? One key way of checking that is to look at their voting record.
We’d like everyone to know exactly how their MP voted over the last parliament, so we’ve made some changes to TheyWorkForYou that make votes easier to understand.
See an example here, or read on to find out how to check your own MP’s voting record.
A complex matter
TheyWorkForYou publishes activity from Parliament each day.
This content includes parliamentary votes, along with the debates that they are part of. But it’s not always obvious to the lay reader exactly what’s being voted on.
Take a look at this debate, for example, on exemptions for smoke-free premises. By the time you’ve waded through the first clause,
“The appropriate national authority may make regulations providing for specified descriptions of premises, or specified areas within specified descriptions of premises, not to be smoke-free despite section 2”
– you may well be lost. And who would blame you?
Making it nice and simple
We don’t think you should have to be an expert to check your own MP’s voting record, and our new pages for each voting stance are here to help.
For some time now we’ve given you summaries of how your MP voted on certain topics, with a link to the votes that helped us understand each MP’s position on that stance.
Now we’ve created a page for each stance, and worded it in plain English so that anyone can understand exactly what it means.
See for yourself
Here’s how to see how your own MP voted (or we should say ‘previous MP’, since until the General Election, no MPs are now in office):
Go to TheyWorkForYou.com and input your postcode on the homepage.
You’ll be taken to the page of your (former) MP. Click on the ‘voting record’ tab.
Choose a topic you’re interested in, and click the ‘Details’ link on the far right.
You’ll see a plain English description of the stance, followed by descriptions of all the votes that were considered to contribute to it.
Want to see the context? Click on ‘show full debate’ and you’ll be taken to the full record of that vote.
Let us know what you think
These pages are still a work in progress, so we’ve included a feedback box at the top of each voting stance page. Do be sure to let us know if there’s anything else you’d like to see on them.
If you have feedback about how your MP has voted, mind you, that’s another matter… one you might want to reflect at the ballot box.
Not many people realise that we fund a proportion of our charitable work by carrying our commercial development and consultancy work for a wide range of clients.
Last year, we scoped, developed and delivered a real variety of digital tools and projects. Some of the projects were surprising. Some of them made us gnash our teeth, a bit, as we grappled with new problems. But all of them (and call us geeks if you like) got us very excited.
Here are just twelve of our personal high points from last year. If you have a project that you think we might be able to help you with in 2015, we’d love to hear from you!
1. We Changed the Way in Which Parliament Does Digital
This time last year, a small team from mySociety was poring over analytics, interview content and assorted evidence from Parliament projects dating back last 2-3 years, to help us put together a simple set of recommendations to conclude our review.
11 months later, Parliament have announced their first Head of Digital, fulfilling one of our key recommendations.
2. We helped the MAS and the FCA protect financial consumers
We built the Money Advice Service’s (MAS) first responsive web application, the Car Cost Calculator.
This tool takes one simple thing you know (the car you wish to buy) and tells you roughly how much it’ll cost to run that car against any others you might be interested in. It has been one of MAS’ most successful online tools in terms of traffic and conversion.
We also built the Financial Conduct Authority’s Scam Smart tool, aiming to prevent financial scams.
This tool helps users considering a financial investment to check a potential investment. Users enter information about the type of investment, how they heard about it and the details of the company offering it to them and get back tailored guidance and suggested next steps to help them ensure the investment is bona fide.
3. We Gave Power to the People of Panama (soon)
Working with the The National Authority for Transparency & Access to Information (ANTAI) and the Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO), we set up our first government-backed instance of our Freedom of Information platform, Alaveteli, in Panama.
This project will ensure that Panama’s FOI legislation is promoted and used, but it will also shine a light on ANTAI, who are responsible for ensuring ministries and organisations publish their information, and handling case appeals.
4. We Mapped All the Public Services in Wales
After we extended the Mapumental API to produce data output suitable for GIS (geographical information systems), the Welsh Government were able to map public services in Wales for their Index of Multiple Deprivation calculations.
Over the course of the year they have calculated travel times for over seventy thousand points of interest.
5. We Launched a New Organisation in Four Weeks
Simply Secure approached us in dire need of a brand, an identity and a website to accompany the launch of their new organisation to help the world build user-friendly security tools and technologies.
Cue four weeks of very intense work for mySociety’s designer, supported by members of the commercial team. And we did it.
6. We Printed Stuff BIG (and found people jobs)
Xerox will be using these with the DWP to help job seekers find work that is within reach by public transport. As a byproduct, Mapumental now handles high-fidelity print based outputs: get in touch if that is of interest.
7. We Opened Up Planning Applications
With Hampshire County Council we had the opportunity to build a new application to help assist members of the public and business better understand what was happening around them. For us, it was also the first application in which we worked closely with a provider of a linked data store, in this case Swirrl.
When Open Planning goes live, it will look to help improve social engagement and the economy of Hampshire through better understanding and transparency of planning data.
8. We Proved (Again) That FixMyStreet Isn’t All About Potholes
We launched Collideoscope on October the 7th with our first sponsor—Barts Charity, with the aim of generating data both on incidents involving cycles, and near misses.
9. We Helped Launch a Film
We built a tool for the British Museum, to go alongside the general release of Vikings Live. The Norse Names project brought a sense of context and personalisation to a dataset gathered by the University of Nottingham.
10. We Made Data More Exciting
This year, they asked us to build something similar for bus users. We’re entering the final week of development now, and the finished product should be launched in March.
The main aim of this site? To take data that could be considered pretty dry, and make it a lot more engaging.
11. We Fixed Yet More Potholes
That means that residents of those places can now make their reports direct from their council’s website, or via FixMyStreet, and either way they’ll have all the benefits of FixMyStreet’s smooth report-making interface.
12. We Showed Parliament the Way
And so, we end where we began. While Parliament were busy interviewing candidates for their new ‘Head of Digital’ position, we were commissioned to demonstrate what Hansard might look like were a platform like SayIt used instead of the largely print-based publishing mechanisms used today.
The result was shared internally. While SayIt may not be the end solution for Parliament, it’s great to have had some input into what that solution might be.
And in 2015…?
Got a project that you’d like us to be involved in?
The Written Answer is a noble parliamentary tradition, dating back almost 300 years. MPs and peers use them to hold the government to account, getting facts and figures on the record.
But wriggling out of answering them is also a recognised Parliamentary skill – and one that, while often applied with dexterity, can impede the process of democracy.
That’s the primary reason that, beside each Written Answer on TheyWorkForYou, we poll our users on a single point:
“Does this answer the above question?”
Last month marked the tenth birthday of TheyWorkForYou, and over that time, this unassuming poll has amassed more than 275,000 of these yes or no responses on a total of around 130,000 written answers.
That’s a substantial sample for us to analyse. Running that data through a few tickertape machines and putting the results in order means that we can now see just how many written answers actually address the question in hand – and which government departments are the best and worst at giving a straight answer.
Is the current administration more slippery?
It seems that ministers are getting worse at returning a straightforward answer.
In the previous government: 47% of written answers that were voted on got more ‘yes’ answers than ‘no’s from our users.
In the current administration: That figure has dropped to 45%. Even within the current term, the figure has been falling year on year, with a 49% ‘yes’ rate in 2010 comparing to a 42% rate in 2013.
Best and worst departments for a straight answer
Breaking down the data by department is also eye-opening – some departments are decidedly more likely to be judged as prevaricators by TheyWorkForYou’s users.
Accolade for ‘most improved’ goes to the Wales office, who managed an 86% ‘yes’ rate in the current government, against 48% in the last. Worst of the bunch – as perceived by TheyWorkForYou’s users – is the Department of Work and Pensions, with just 31% in this administration.
We’ve put the full rankings below, for those of you who would like to delve deeper into these figures.
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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?
- 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.
- 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)
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.
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?
- 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
- When your MP voted Letting you know, via email alerts, when your MP has taken part in a vote. More details
- 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
- Tweeting debate headings or future business A Twitter account which would tweet, and link to, every debate in Parliament, or upcoming events. More details
- 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;
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.
Note – you 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)
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.