When TheyWorkForYou launched back in 2004, it was a world first. Never before had parliamentary data been used to power a digital tool designed specifically for citizens to better understand how their MPs were representing them in parliament.
Innovations like TheyWorkForYou and our open source code Pombola, which was designed to help people elsewhere run their own parliamentary monitoring sites, have helped make mySociety a bit of a global expert in the digital transformation of parliaments and parliamentary data, and over the years we have been working a lot with international parliaments to help them to realise their own digital potential, so that their people can better hold them to account.
One of our key partners in this work is Westminster Foundation for Democracy, alongside whom we have worked with parliaments from Morocco to Uzbekistan to Myanmar. While each parliament is fascinatingly unique, there are very common opportunities, risks and barriers that arise in digital transformation, and an exploration of these themes is the subject of a new report published today.
‘Connected Parliaments’, published by Westminster Foundation for Democracy during Participation and Openness Week 2021, is a jointly authored report by WFD and me, mySociety’s Head of Research. It considers how local and contextual factors affect the digitisation of parliamentary business, and the potential for digital tools to empower citizens to better hold their political institutions to account.
Image: Fabio Bracht
Back in February 2012, we announced the launch of a new site for Mzalendo, a parliamentary monitoring website for Kenya.
This year, we handed the hosting, development and maintenance of the site over to the Mzalendo team on the ground. We’re delighted that they are in the position to no longer require our help.
Supported by the Indigo Foundation, this was one of mySociety’s first formal partnerships in which we developed a website for an existing organisation — in this case, building on the work of two activists Ory Okolloh and Conrad Akunga, who had been filling a gap in Kenya’s public provision of parliamentary information by blogging and publishing MPs’ data since 2005.
If it wasn’t for their work, Kenya would be a whole lot less informed about its own parliament: the official government website, for example, only had information about 50% of the nation’s MPs at the time, and the country’s Hansard could only be accessed by request to the Government’s Printer’s Office.
We were able to draw upon our experience with our UK parliamentary site TheyWorkForYou to avoid the common pitfalls in building such projects, and provide useful features such as an online searchable Hansard, responsive design, MP ‘scorecards’ and an easily-updated database for representatives’ details.
During the years of our partnership, Mzalendo kept the site maintained with data and news, while we worked on the development of new features they requested, fixing any bugs that arose, for example when the Kenyan parliament changed their data outputs, and hosting.
But there are plenty of willing and able developers in Kenya, and it became increasingly obvious that funding could be more effectively — and efficiently — routed directly to them rather than to us in the UK.
Like most mySociety code, the Pombola codebase on which Mzalendo was built is open source, so anyone is free to inspect, reuse or just take inspiration from it. The handover should, therefore, be reasonably painless for the new developers.
We wish Mzalendo all the best in their ongoing efforts to keep Kenya informed and politically engaged.
Image by Valentina Storti: a tawny eagle flying over Laikipia District, central Kenya (CC by/2.0)
Whether or not you voted for the MP you ended up with, it pays to keep a careful eye on what they’re saying and how they’re voting.
Democracy works best as a model when we, the public, hold our MPs to account. If you see them acting or speaking in a way that’s contrary to your views, tell them — otherwise, how will they know that anyone feels differently?
But you’ll only be able to do that if you know what’s going on.
Here’s one of the services that you might not know about, but which is a crucial tool for anyone wanting to stay up to date with Parliament:
Sign up to an alert, and we’ll send you an email every time your MP speaks in a debate, or votes. Or, if there’s a topic you care about, we can send you an email every time it’s mentioned in Parliament.
You can set up any number of alerts, to comprehensively cover your interests.
What to do
First of all, visit this page if you’d like to follow your own MP. Just input your postcode and email address, and you’re all set.
Or, if you’d rather follow a word or phrase, follow the simple instructions in this post.
Already signed up?
One fifth of the UK has a new MP after the election. If you already have an MP alert set up, but your MP has changed, you also need to visit this page to switch over.
And if you already have some other alerts set up, and you want to refine them, there are instructions here.
Useful for everyone
Email alerts are a really simple way to keep informed. They can be halted or paused at any time to suit your needs, and if Parliament isn’t sitting, your chosen MP isn’t active or your keywords don’t come up in a debate, you won’t receive anything on those days.
It takes just a few seconds to scan the email, and, if you’re interested in the content, a couple of minutes to click through and read the content.
Useful for businesses, campaigns and charities
Alerts can be equally helpful if you work for an organisation that would benefit from knowing whenever your field is mentioned in Parliament.
If an MP shows sympathy for your cause, you could get in touch and see if you might work together; you might ask them to submit a question to the House, come and see your organisation in action, or help you to forge useful links.
Or if they say something misguided, you can put them right with a press release or a letter inviting them to come and see the facts for themselves.
Some organisations run campaigns around upcoming legislation, asking their supporters to get in touch with their own MPs with their experiences and information that might help inform their vote.
Image: ©UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor/ Stephen Pike (CC by-nc/2.0)
On 21st November we will host a seminar at the House of Lords exploring how digital tools are being used in Sub-Saharan Africa to bring parliaments and citizens closer together.
During the seminar, we will be launching our Parliaments and the People: Digital Democracy in Sub-Saharan Africa report, which presents the findings from an extensive and in-depth research study into digital democracy across Nigeria, Kenya, South Africa and Uganda. This research explores the use of digital channels and platforms in communicating political information in the region, and considers the implications for future development in digital and institution-building.
The report analyses the breadth of digital political engagement in the countries studied, and identifies key structural and cultural considerations that influence whether digital solutions to improving democratic engagement, transparency and accountability in governing institutions will be successful.
The findings of this report are more relevant than ever to those interested and involved in international development and institution-building, through which policy implementations digital solutions are being increasingly embedded.
The seminar will bring together researchers, policy makers and practitioners to discuss how the insights from this and other work can be integrated into policy, engagement and future development work.
- Hosted by Lord Purvis of Tweed & Mark Cridge, CEO mySociety
- Dr Rebecca Rumbul, Head of Research, mySociety (Report author)
- Gemma Moulder, Partnership Development Manager, mySociety (Report author)
- Paul Lenz, Trust Executive, Indigo Trust
- Julia Keutgen, Parliamentary Development Advisor, Westminster Foundation for Democracy
- Two further speakers will be announced soon.
Date/time: 21st November 4pm – 6pm.
As capacity is limited, attendance to the event is by invitation only. If you’re interested in attending please email to request an invite and we’ll let you know full details.
Research Mailing List
Sign up below to hear when this report is published.
Our recent research interests have taken myself and mySociety’s Head of Research Rebecca to four Sub-Saharan countries over the last two months, where we’ve spoken to 65 individuals from 45 fascinating organisations.
Our aim with this research is to investigate how political information around legislatures and government is produced and consumed in Sub-Saharan Africa.
This information is of course particularly important for us to know as a lot of our work is helping organisations set up digital solutions to allow citizens to connect to their representatives and monitor/ask what they’re doing, as well as trying to simplify and display complex political information.
Through this research we want to better understand political landscapes in the countries we work in to make sure the digital solutions we provide are actually of use. We hope the research will inform us, and others, about what does and doesn’t work when creating parliamentary monitoring and Right To Information websites and other Civic Technology solutions.
We’re aiming to publish the full research report at the end of this year, but read on to hear about the research process, who we met along the way and some interesting highlights.
So back in March Rebecca and I headed off to Abuja in Nigeria to commence the project. With help from our friends at EnoughisEnough Nigeria (EiE) (who we’ve worked with on ShineYourEye) and through our existing contacts with the MacArthur Foundation’s On Nigeria programme we were lucky enough to meet with 20 individuals from a variety of different organisations.
We met and interviewed representatives from: the Centre for Information Technology and Development (CITAD), The Public and Private Development Centre (PPDC), The Freedom for Life Initiative, BudgIT, Women’s Advocates Research and Documentation Centre (WARDC), Shehu Musa Yar’Adua Foundation, Right To Know Nigeria (R2K), Premium Times Centre for Investigative Journalism (PTCIJ) and Connected Development (CODE).
A particular highlight was meeting one of the members of the Nigerian House of Representatives at the National Assembly building, which for us politics nerds was very exciting (see said nerds here to the left)!
From Abuja off we went to Kampala, Uganda. This time our friends at The Africa Freedom of Information Centre (AFIC) generously helped us set up interviews with NGOs and media organisations. We work with AFIC on FOI request site AskYourGov (which uses our Alaveteli software).
We interviewed representatives from: Parliament Watch, Galaxy FM, Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA), New Vision and HiveCoLab.
One of the most interesting highlights was the discovery of the prevalence of WhatsApp Twitter Facebook (also known as WTF), or Snapchat WhatsApp Instagram Facebook Twitter (SWIFT) data bundles. These only allow users access to these social media channels, and don’t allow web browsing. These data bundles can be purchased for as little as £1 per month, and this is primarily the way that normal citizens experience the internet. Obviously this is highly relevant when we think about our partners’ sites, which might not be accessible to as wide an audience as intended.
After a brief interlude which included organising and hosting our annual research conference TICTeC (phew!), we were back on the road again. This time to Nairobi.
We were lucky enough to have very interesting conversations with representatives from the following organisations: Kictanet, iHub, Sovereign Oversight, World Wide Web Foundation, Africa’s Voice Foundation, International Budget Partnership (IBP), National Democratic Institute (NDI), Mzalendo Trust, Katiba Institute, Local Development Research Institute (LDRI), The Elephant and The Institute for Social Accountability (TISA).
A particular highlight was speaking to one of the lawyers who wrote Kenya’s 2010 constitution (again, hugely exciting for politics geeks!). And who knew that the maximum number of participants in a WhatsApp group is 256? Not us, but everyone we spoke to did! WhatsApp is a huge vector of information in Kenya, including news content and political discussions.
Our final destination was Cape Town in South Africa. Our amazing partners at Parliamentary Monitoring Group (PMG) very generously arranged a great mixture of interviews for us and even took us on a tour of the South African parliament.
During our time in Cape Town we interviewed: a parliamentary researcher, journalists from The Daily Maverick, the Goedgedacht Forum, My Vote Counts, PMG, Open Democracy Advice Centre (ODAC), the Land and Accountability Research Centre (LARC), OpenUp, Black Sash, Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), Dullah Omar Institute and Council for the Advancement of the South African Constitution (CASAC).
A few of the most interesting things we discovered: mobile data is super expensive in South Africa; the proportional party list system to select representatives makes it difficult to hold politicians to account; and Twitter, Facebook and WhatsApp are not used anywhere near as much as they are in the rest of the African countries we’ve looked at.
We are incredibly grateful to all of the above organisations for helping us with this field work, we really appreciate you taking the time to talk to us and helping us with arrangements.
So now we’re back at our desks the real work putting the report together begins. If you have any recommendations of who else Rebecca and I should talk to as part of this research then please do get in touch.
We look forward to sharing our full research findings in our report at the end of the year!
Header image: Flying over Mount Kilimanjaro (author’s own photo)
In order to make debates and votes a bit easier to find, understand and share, we’ve recently introduced some new features on TheyWorkForYou.
What am I looking for?
Our users frequently write to us to say that they can’t find a specific vote on TheyWorkForYou — and that’s often because descriptions of votes in the media, or in conversation, don’t reflect the way they are referred to in Parliament.
The official record, for example, will not bring you a vote titled ‘Snooper’s Charter’, ‘Bedroom Tax’ or ‘Brexit’: you’ll have to know enough to search for the ‘Investigatory Powers Bill’, ‘Social Tenants Deemed to Have Excess Bedrooms’, or ‘Exiting the European Union’.
So we’ve put in place a few different ways to find the content that matters to you.
99% of the time when people ask us where to find a particular vote, it’s something that happened in the last few days, or at most, weeks.
So now, you’ll see a new ‘Recent Votes‘ tab in the main TheyWorkForYou menu, which leads to a page listing the last 30 votes:
If you’ve entered your postcode on the homepage (or your browser cookies remember you from previous visits), you’ll also see your own MP’s stance under each vote, like this:
There’s one important point about this page: it only contains those votes for which we currently have policy lines — that is to say, the votes we include on MPs’ pages. That’s because they are the ones for which we already have a plain English description. Fortunately, these are almost always the ones that people are most interested in.
If you want to find a vote that isn’t on this page, you can always look on Public Whip, which is where the raw voting data that feeds TheyWorkForYou comes from.
If you click through from any of those listings, you’ll get a page dedicated to that particular vote.
Here you’ll see something that we know is important to many of our users, set out nice and clearly: the ‘division’, ie which MPs voted for and against, who was absent and who abstained.
Again, if you’ve entered your postcode on the site, you’ll also see how your own MP voted, in the top section of the page:
But even better, if what you’re most interested in is your own MP’s position in a specific vote, you’ll get this version of the page when you click through from their voting record — as clear as we can make it:
So that’s all fine and dandy for people who think in terms of MPs and votes. But for a long time, we’ve wanted to explore ways to make parliamentary content more welcoming for complete political newbies.
We’ve been meeting with groups of young people around the UK to find out more about how they access politics, and one finding is that they think in terms of issues. Politics comes through the lens of topics like ‘the NHS’, ‘the environment’ or ‘Brexit’.
For that reason, we’ve created topic pages like this one, which gather together a lot of relevant and immediate content, showing how your MP voted, how all relevant votes went, debates and a chance to sign up for email alerts:
We’ll be adding more of these as time goes on.
Easier to share
The final feature we’ve introduced was a direct result of observing the way that you, our users, share our content on Facebook and Twitter.
We started collecting examples of where people had made a screenshot of voter records in order to make a political point, and we soon saw that this was a very common thing to do, especially at key points like the current run-up to the General Election, or a party leadership campaign.
To save you the bother of making and saving a screenshot, we’ve now added these share buttons at the foot of each section of votes on MPs’ pages:
That’s it for now, but this is all part of a rolling program of improvements, so do feel free to feed back with any related features you’d like to see.
mySociety’s Head of Research, Rebecca Rumbul, gives an overview of our research work in the latest publication from the World Bank’s Open Knowledge Repository. Also featured is an experiment in citizen engagement from Mzalendo in Kenya, that was first shared at TICTeC.
Evaluating Digital Citizen Engagement: A Practical Guide is a handy collection of examples and lessons from practitioners in Brazil, Uganda, Cameroon and Kenya, on how to measure the impact of civic technologies.
Rebecca explains the methods we’re currently using to answer questions like, “are institutions equally responsive to citizens?” and, crucially, “are our tools genuinely making a difference?”.
Meanwhile, Lily L. Tsai and Leah Rosenzweig, who contributed last year to our Impacts of Civic Technologies conference TICTeC, give an overview of how they used Facebook ads to draw conclusions about what makes people take concrete political actions online.
You can download the guide for free here — and don’t forget, if you’d like to hear more about the ways in which civic tech’s impact is being tested by projects around the world, there are still a few tickets available for TICTeC 2016.
For verified, reliable information, it’s usually best to go to the official source — but here’s an exception.
Checking parliament.go.ke‘s list of MPs against Mzalendo’s, our developers discovered a large number of constituency mismatches. These, explained Jessica Musila from Mzalendo, came about because the official site has not reflected boundary changes made in 2013.
Even more significantly, the official parliament site currently only holds details of 173 of the National Assembly’s 349 MPs.
“The gaps in www.parliament.go.ke validate Mzalendo’s very existence,” said Jessica. We agree: it’s a great example of the sometimes unexpected needs filled by parliamentary monitoring websites.
And of course, through EveryPolitician, we’re working to make sure that every parliamentary monitoring website can access a good, reliable source of data.
Last year, when we were helping to develop YourNextMP, the candidate-crowdsourcing platform for the General Election, we made what seemed like an obvious decision.
We decided to use PopIt as the site’s datastore — the place from which it could draw information about representatives: their names, positions, et cetera. We’d been developing PopIt as a solution for parliamentary monitoring sites, but we reckoned it would also be a good fit for YourNextMP.
That turned out to be the wrong choice.
YourNextMP was up and running in time for the election, but at the cost of many hours of intensive development as we tried to make PopIt do what was needed for the site.
Once you’ve got an established site in production, changing the database it uses isn’t something you do lightly. But on returning to the codebase to develop it for international reuse, we had to admit that, in the words of mySociety developer Mark Longair, PopIt was “actually causing more problems than it was solving”. It was time to unpick the code and take a different approach.
Mark explains just what it took to decide to change course in this way, over on his own blog.
The post contains quite a bit of technical detail, but it’s also an interesting read for anyone who’s interested in when, and why, it’s sometimes best to question the decisions you’ve made.
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.