Millions of people reached for their phone on June 9, and checked Facebook for the result of the UK General Election.
Now, you may or may not be one of those people yourself, but there’s no disputing that many of us turn to social media as our primary source for big news. Through the night, Facebook was a place where we could express feelings about the results as they came in, share news stories and ask questions: it gives us a rounded view of an event like an election, quite unlike any you’ll receive from traditional media.
And the morning after, those logging in to Facebook may have seen something like this — an invitation to follow your newly-elected or re-elected MP and other elected representatives, from local councillors to MEPs:
We’re glad to say that mySociety has been working alongside Facebook to help make this happen.
Reaching people where they are
mySociety has a mission to make democracy more accessible for everyone, and via our websites TheyWorkForYou and WriteToThem, we serve and inform more than 400,000 UK citizens per month.
That figure has, as we’d expect, spiked in the last few weeks as people rush to check their MPs’ track records, all the better to cast an informed vote; but all the same, we’re well aware that 400,000 users is only a small proportion of the country’s electorate.
What’s more, our research has consistently shown that our services don’t adequately reach the people that need them most: our typical user is male, reasonably affluent, well-educated, older and white — I mean, we’re glad to be there for everyone, but generally speaking this is a demographic that can inform itself quite readily without any extra help.
That’s not a problem Facebook has, though, with their 32 million UK users. 75% of them log in on a daily basis, and almost half are under the age of 30*.
That’s why we were so keen to join forces with the Facebook Civic Engagement team, to help this large online audience see who their representatives are today.
Facebook for engagement
You may not have been aware that Facebook has a dedicated political engagement team — unless you came to TICTeC this year, of course, in which case you’d have seen a walkthrough of the extensive research that’s gone into their election offerings globally — but if you use Facebook at all, and if you’re in a country that has recently had an election, you’ve probably seen some of their work.
Over the last few weeks in the UK, people on Facebook were alerted to each stage of the electoral process. They were invited to check who their candidates were and what they stood for; offered a reminder to vote and provided information on where and how to do so; and finally, encouraged to share the fact that they had voted, tapping into the proven peer encouragement effect.
mySociety behind the scenes
Thanks to our experience running TheyWorkForYou and WriteToThem, plus the support we receive from Commercial Evaluations and their Locator Online service and our involvement with Democracy Club’s WhoCanIVoteFor.co.uk, we have access to accurate and up-to-date data on candidates and representatives at every level, from local councillors up to MEPs, and including MPs — all linked to the relevant constituencies.
In all, this totaled around 23,000 people. What we needed to discover was how many of them were on Facebook — and could we accurately link our records to their Facebook pages?
Working together with Facebook, we built an admin tool that displayed likely pages to our team, on the basis of names, locations and the really giveaway information, such as ‘Councillor’, ‘MP’ or the constituency name in the page title. Some representatives didn’t have individual pages, but ran a party page; those counted too (and of course, a fair proportion of representatives have no Facebook presence at all).
While our tool filtered the results reasonably well, it was still necessary to make a manual check of every record to ensure that we were linking to the correct representative, and not, say, someone who happened to have the same name and live in the same town. We needed to link, of course, only to ‘official’ pages; not representatives’ personal pages full of all those things we use Facebook for on a day-to-day basis. Those holiday snaps, Candy Crush results and cat memes won’t help constituents much: what we were looking for was the kind of page where constituents could message their reps, find out about surgery times, and get the latest news from their constituency.
Now of course, until the results came in, no-one knew precisely which candidates would be MPs! So a small crack team of mySociety people worked through Thursday night to do the final matching. It was a very long night, but we hope that the result will be an awful lot more people following their representatives, and so quite effortlessly becoming more politically engaged, thanks to a platform which they already visit on a regular basis.
FixMyTransport was launched a month ago. It is now well on its way to listing 1,000 individual complaints, suggestions and requests to the public transport operators of Great Britain.
As the sample size grows, we’re able to see just what provokes the country’s mild-mannered passengers into action. There are the diurnal irritations – the leaky station roof, constant announcements, smelly trains; there is the discomfort of overcrowding and overheated buses.
All of which are important, of course. And in this, FixMyTransport is achieving its aim of allowing people to make their reports to the operators, while at the same time creating small bunches of people who read those reports and think, ‘Hey, me too!’.
But FixMyTransport is not just for the little gripes. It’s uncovering some pretty big issues, too. Prime among these is the issue of accessibility: reports have come in of buses driving away rather than let a wheelchair user on; a disabled passenger who has surmised that it’s easier to invite friends to come to him rather than try to navigate London’s public transport system; a station from which those with restricted mobility can only travel in one direction.
The big question for us is, what happens now? Are these reports making anything better? In some cases, yes.
There is the train that will now stop at intermediate stations, and the pedestrian crossings that are no longer blocked by buses. Little things that’ll make a big difference to the people who reported them. But the pay-off is not always so immediate. Bigger issues are obviously not going to be fixed overnight. And some problems won’t be fixed, for a multitude of reasons – they don’t fit in with the operators’ plans, or they’re not budgeted for, or they just aren’t seen as sufficiently important.
How is FixMyTransport going to crack those? Well, it was set up so that you can show your operator that there is demand, that budgets need to be massaged, or that plans should change. If you’ve used the site, you may well have been on the receiving end of a comment from one of the team, nudging you to spread the word of your campaign, among friends, family, and fellow-passengers.
The fact that people can sign up to your page helps make FixMyTransport different from just contacting the operator directly. We also reckon it’ll make a difference when it comes to getting changes. Consider, for example, the campaign to get increased cycle parking at Cambridge station – with 176 supporters (and still growing every day), our biggest yet. It’s been picked up by local press, talked about on Twitter – and eventually, National Express won’t be able to ignore the public demonstration of a palpable need.
Well, that’s the plan. We know it’s early days, and that FixMyTransport represents a massive sea change for some operators who are not used to interacting openly and online.
If you’ve written an impassioned, well-reasoned request, gathered supporters and spread the word far and wide, and still hit a brick wall, we have other suggestions. FixMyTransport allows us to get you writing to your local councillor, to the local paper, or to relevant groups like Passenger Focus, Transport for All, and the Campaign for Better Transport. These groups have been bashing away at the big problems like accessibility for far longer than we have, and it makes sense to tap into their expertise.
We know that for some issues, it’ll be a long game – just as it’ll be a long game trying to get every operator fully signed-up to the notion of transparent online interaction. But we’ll keep trying, and we hope you will too.
So. Yesterday we officially launched FixMyTransport, a site that has been in ‘quiet beta’ for a few weeks. Not such a big event, you might think – after all, the site has been open for public use; the only difference was that we were announcing it.
I think we’ve all been gratifyingly taken aback by just how much use the site has seen in the last 24 hours. Thanks to mentions in some of the mainstream press, but equally because of a veritable outpouring of tweets and retweets, word spread quickly. We experienced a 550% rise in visitor numbers (the servers took it in their stride, we are glad to say). Over the course of the day, the number of reports on the site doubled, with more than 70 totally new campaigns being created and many more problems being sent to operators. With each report came more tweets, more blog posts and more users signing up to campaigns.
We’re seeing the idea we worked on become a reality, and that’s both exciting and full of surprises. We knew what we would use such a site for, but we had no idea which issues would most motivate our users (at the latest reckoning, it’s poor air conditioning, delays, and, above all, a lack of decent information).
If you haven’t had a chance to see what FixMyTransport is all about yet, take a look at some of these examples:
- A passenger who has to travel west when she wants to go east
- What sounds like a complete no-brainer of a suggestion
- A sensible placatory move Virgin could extend to delayed passengers
- A call for longer commuter trains
Many of these examples see users (not just the operators, but ordinary people) who know a lot more than we do about public transport in this country weighing in with useful insights, which is fantastic.
Don’t forget you can search your local region for reports. If you find one you agree with, lending your support is as easy as clicking a single button, and then spreading the word with a tweet, a Facebook status or however you see fit.
Excuse the puns – they are hard to avoid – but we have the sense that we’re at the beginning of a very exciting journey here. And we’re sure we’re going to enjoy the ride. Thanks to everyone who’s come on board so far.
Everyone at mySociety is quite bubbling with excitement at the news that we’re today officially launching FixMyTransport.com , mySociety’s first new core charitable website since WhatDoTheyKnow launched in 2008. We’ve never before launched a site that took so much work to build, or that contained so much data.
What is it for?
FixMyTransport has two goals – one in your face, and the other more subtle.
The first goal, as the site’s name suggests, is to help people get common public transport problems resolved. We’re talking broken ticket machines, gates that should be open and stations without stair-free access. We’ll help by dramatically lowering the barrier to working out who’s responsible, and getting a problem report sent to them – a task that would have been impossible without the help of volunteers who gathered a huge number of operator email addresses for us. Consequently the service works everywhere in Great Britain, our database has over 300,000 stops and routes for train, tube, tram, bus, coach and ferry.
The second goal – the subtle one – is to see if it is possible to use the internet to coax non-activist, non-political people into their first taste of micro-activism. Whilst the site intentionally doesn’t contain any language about campaigning or democracy, we encourage and provide tools to facilitate the gathering of supporters, the emailing of local media, the posting of photos of problems, and the general application of pressure where it is needed. We also make problem reports and correspondence between operators and users public, which we have frequently seen create positive pressure when used on sister sites FixMyStreet and WhatDoTheyKnow.
Who made it?
FixMyTransport was largely built by one remarkable coder – Louise Crow, who started as a volunteer and who is now one of our longest serving core developers. She spent 18 months coding the site almost entirely by herself, wrestling with truly tortuous data problems and collaborating with Birmingham’s fantastic SuperCool design to make it look lovely (you should hire them, they’re great). She also tolerated my ‘aspirational scattergun’ school of project management with remarkable good humour. She really is the king of transport coding.
Credit must also go to mySociety core dev Dave Whiteland, who made the Facebook integration work, despite not having an account himself!
Why is it dedicated to Angie Martin?
Angie Martin was a mySociety coder for an all-too-brief period before she succumbed to cancer at a devastatingly early age. We’re dedicating this site to her in remembrance of a great, self taught perl monger who should still be here.
We’ll be posting further blog posts about the development process, the data challenges, and the overall project philosophy. In the mean time, please keep arms and legs inside the carriage – FixMyTransport is just about to depart.
UPDATE: If you approve of what we did this week, and what to help make sure we can still do it in the future, please pledge to support us: http://www.pledgebank.com/supportmysociety
The vote on concealing MPs’ expenses has been cancelled by the government!
In other words – we won!
This is a huge victory not just for transparency, it’s a bellwether for a change in the way politics works. There’s no such thing as a good day to bury bad news any more, the Internet has seen to that.
Over 7000 people joined a Facebook group, they sent thousands of emails to over 90% of all MPs. Hundreds of thousands of people found out about the story by visiting TheyWorkForYou to find something they wanted to know, reading an email alert, or simply discovered what was going on whilst checking their Facebook or Twitter pages. Almost all of this happened, from nowhere, within 48 hours, putting enough pressure on Parliament to force change.
Make no mistake. This is new, and it reflects the fact that the Internet generation expects information to be made available, and they expect to be able to make up their own minds, not be spoon fed the views of others. This campaign was always about more than receipts, it was about changing the direction of travel, away from secrecy and towards openness.
Today we stopped moving in the wrong direction. Tomorrow we start moving the right way. Sign up to our news mailing list (box on the right) to get updates on what mySociety gets up to.
7,000 members on the Facebook group, over 93% of MPs contacted. Lots of news coverage: BBC, Daily Mail, Guardian, Telegraph, Times. John Mann MP makes a good point in a letter to the Guardian: “Few of my constituents care about the detail of how I spend their money as long as I do a good job, but nearly all of them care that they have the right to find out if they really feel the need to.”
Tom has updated the main blog post with a quote from President Obama’s speech that I thought was worth repeating, on why this is a much bigger issue than some bits of paper and some minor embarrassment: “And those of us who manage the public’s dollars will be held to account – to spend wisely, reform bad habits, and do our business in the light of day – because only then can we restore the vital trust between a people and their government.”
If you haven’t already, do write to your MP, and pick up the phone and call your local radio and TV news stations to let them know about this.
A few moments ago the team rolled out changes to our biggest and best known site, TheyWorkForYou.com meaning that every visitor to any page of the site will be greeted with a call to arms on the issue of some MPs voting this Thursday to conceal their expenses. And after the vote, we’ll be prominently publishing who voted which way – there should be a couple of million visitors at least before the next election.
Our explicit goal is to have a lot of constituents from around the country let their MPs know they won’t be impressed with a ‘yes’ vote or an abstention (the same thing in this case), and to build our Facebook group to the point where the mainstream media starts to take notice of this Net driven discontent.
Please do everything you can to get as many people as possible writing to their MPs and joining that Facebook group. We’re doing our bit – please do yours. Together we can stop the encouraging trend of more openness in our Parliament scrunching into reverse.
Update: WE WON! [the following is now for historical interest]
Uh oh. Ministers are about to conceal MPs’ expenses, even though the public has just paid £1m to get them all ready for publication, and even though the tax man expects citizens to do what MPs don’t have to. They buried the news on the day of the Heathrow runway announcement. This is heading in the diametric wrong direction from government openness.
You can help in the following three ways:
1. Please write to your MP about this www.WriteToThem.com – ask them to lobby against this concealment, and tell them that TheyWorkForYou will be permanently and prominently noting those MPs who took the opportunity to fight against this regressive move. The millions of constituents who will check this site before the next election will doutbtless be interested.
2. Join this facebook group and invite all your least political friends (plus your most political too). Send them personal mails, phone or text them. Encourage them to write to their politicians too.
3. Write to your local paper to tell them you’re angry, and ask them to ask their readers to do the above. mySociety’s never-finished site http://news.mysociety.org might be able to help you here.
NB. mySociety is strictly non-partisan, by mission and by ethics. However, when it looks like Parliament is about to take a huge step in the wrong direction on transparency, we’ve no problem at all with stepping up when changes happen that threaten both the public interest and the ongoing value of sites like TheyWorkForYou and WhatDoTheyKnow.
Update: Every page on TheyWorkForYou, our biggest site, is now strongly encouraging people to join the protest.
Update: We’ve sailed past 1000 members to our Facebook group. Onward and upward!
Update: And now past 3000 members! Also, some MPs are claiming that they need to vote for this Order to protect their addresses, even though they already changed to law to do this. Doh!
Update: Now we’re past 6500, and our supporters have mailed their constituency MPs in over 90% of the constituencies in the UK. And rather helpfully, President Obama has just given us a concise explanation for MPs why this is a much bigger issue than some bits of paper and some minor embarrassment:
“And those of us who manage the public’s dollars will be held to account – to spend wisely, reform bad habits, and do our business in the light of day – because only then can we restore the vital trust between a people and their government.”
Unfortunately, I’ve had to disable the PledgeBank Facebook application. It used to let you sign and share pledges from within Facebook.
Facebook recently changed their platform (again!), breaking our code for sending success/failure messages. Obviously, it is no good signing up to a pledge if you don’t get informed when it succeeds.
I tried to fix it, but couldn’t work out how to do so quickly. We don’t have the time and money at the moment to chase after this, so I’ve disabled the application entirely. Links to PledgeBank pages on Facebook now redirect to pledgebank.com.
Hopefully it’ll be back one day – do send us emails if you miss it (or money if you have a large pledge that really needs it!). I think there may be a better solution with a simpler interface – the current application tried too hard to reimplement all of PledgeBank within Facebook. And besides, we should be supporting OpenSocial now it exists. It’s an open standard, Facebook isn’t.
Technical details: We used infinite session keys to send notifications from cron jobs. Quite reasonably, this no longer works. However, I couldn’t find out what to use instead. I think Facebook should respect backwards compatibility of its APIs a lot more, and if it breaks it they should give clear instructions about what to use instead. This does put me off ever wanting to develop anything on their platform again.
I’m enjoying the weather at the moment, seems to be sunnier than the summer, but cool with an atmospheric autumnal taste in the air.
mySociety is changing as ever, leaping forward in our race to try and make it easier for normal people to influence, improve or replace functions of government. More on this as it happens.
Meanwhile, I’ve been continuing to hack away at WhatDoTheyKnow. A little while ago Google decided to deep index all our pages – causing specific problems (I had to tell it to stop crawling the 117th page of similar requests to another request), and also ones from the extra attention. There have been quite a few problems to resolve with authority spam filters (see this FOI officer using the annotation function), and with subtle and detailed privacy issues (when does a comment become personal? if you made something public a while ago, and it is now a shared public resource, can you modify it or take it down?).
Right, I’ve got to go and fix a bug to do with the Facebook PledgeBank app. It’s to do with infinite session keys, and how we send messages when a pledge has completed. Facebook seem to change their API without caring much that applications have to be altered to be compatible with it. This is OK if the Facebook application is your core job, but a pain when you just want your Facebook code to keep running as it did forever.
(the autumn photo thanks to Nico Cavallotto)