1. Writing to MPs in public: People’s Assembly in South Africa

    Does publishing a correspondence with MPs make it more likely that promises will be upheld, and citizens’ voices heard? Thanks to a piece of software we’ve just installed on a partners’ site, we may be about to find out.

    As you may know, mySociety supports several partners’ projects worldwide: one of these is People’s Assembly, which, like our own TheyWorkForYou, makes it easier for citizens to find out who their representatives are and what they’re doing in Parliament.

    PMG, who run the site, saw the potential of the Open Source WriteInPublic software, which was made by our friends in Chile Fundación Ciudadano Inteligente. Like mySociety’s own UK tool WriteToThem, WriteInPublic allows users to easily contact their representatives; where it differs is that the whole correspondence is published online. It’s a way of holding representatives to account, and making sure that promises or assertions are not forgotten.

    Messages to MPs

    Here in the UK, of course, MPs only deal with correspondence from their own constituents, but in South Africa, citizens may legitimately write to any MP. Messages are far more frequently about policy rather than personal issues, which might go some way to explaining why a WriteInPublic tool targeting MPs is a more viable prospect than it might be, say, in the UK.

    PMG are yet to promote the tool through their newsletter and social media channels, but of course, users are discovering it for themselves on the homepage. In the five weeks since launch, more than 270 messages have been sent to MPs. These can be seen on the MPs’ pages, in a new ‘messages’ tab: here’s an example.

    Messages tab on an MP's page on People's Assembly

    Informing Committees

    The new tool doesn’t just invite users to write to their MPs directly; People’s Assembly now sports two invitations on its homepage: one to write to an MP, and another to contact a Committee.

    WriteInPublic on People's Assembly

    PMG have previously had some success in surveying their users over key issues of party funding: the survey results were sent to a sitting Committee, and the chairman reported that they were “very helpful for the Committee’s discussions” and were “used as a reference point to gauge public opinion especially where discussions were deadlocked”.

    The group are keen to extend this kind of engagement, and this second tool allows citizens to send a message to a Committee dealing with specific issues such as public works or the police. PMG are planning to continue surveying their users, while also pointing them at the tool as a way of getting public input into the bill-making process.

    In the spirit of Democratic Commons, the underlying contact data for the MPs tool (though not the Committees one) is also now being used by Wikidata and our EveryPolitician project, so it’s freely available for anyone to use. For us it’s a win-win when data can not only serve an immediate purpose, but will also go on to provide a resource for anyone else who needs it.


    Image: WOCinTech (CC by/2.0)

  2. Wazimap brings census data alive, with MapIt

    wazimap screenshot

    Census data: there’s lots of it. It contains fascinating insights.

    But as with many huge datasets, those insights are not always easy to find at first glance — nor is it easy for the untrained observer to see which parts are relevant to their own lives.

    Wazimap in South Africa takes the country’s census data and turns it into something the user can explore interactively. Originally conceived as a tool for journalists, it turned out to be so accessible that it’s used by a much wider range of the population, from school children to researchers. It’s a great example of how you can transform dry data into something meaningful online, and it’s all done using free and open source tools.

    Our points-to-boundaries mapping software MapIt is part of that mix, putting the data in context and ensuring that visitors can browse the data relevant to specific provinces, municipalities or wards.

    We asked Greg Kempe of Code for South Africa, to fill us in on a bit more.

    What exactly is Wazimap?

    Wazimap helps South Africans understand where they live, through the eyes of the data from our 2011 Census. It’s a research and exploration tool that describes who lives in South Africa, from a country level right down to a ward, including demographics such as age and gender, language and citizenship, level of education, access to basic services, household goods, employment and income.

    It has helped people understand not just where they work and live, but also that data can be presented in a way that’s accessible and understandable.

    Users can explore the profile of a province, city or ward and compare them side-by-side. They can focus on a particular dataset to view just that data for any place in the country, look for outliers and interesting patterns in the distribution of an indicator, or draw an indicator on a map.

    Of course Wazimap can’t do everything, so you can also download data into Excel or Google Earth to run your own analysis.

    Wazimap is built on the open source software that powers censusreporter.org, which was built under a Knight News Challenge grant, and is a collaboration between Media Monitoring Africa and Code for South Africa.

    Due to demand from other groups, we’ve now made Wazimap a standalone project that anyone can re-use to build their own instance: details are here.

    How did it all begin?

    Media Monitoring Africa approached Code for South Africa to build a tool to help journalists get factual background data on anywhere in South Africa, to help encourage accurate and informed reporting.

    Code for South Africa is a nonprofit that promotes informed decision-making for positive social change, so we were very excited about collaborating on the tool.

    Could MapIt be useful for your project? Find out more here

    How exactly does MapIt fit into the project?

    Mapit powers all the shape boundaries in Wazimap. When we plot a province, municipality or ward boundary on a map in Wazimap, or provide a boundary in a Google Earth or GeoJSON download, MapIt is giving Wazimap that data.

    We had originally built a home-grown solution, but when we met mySociety’s Tony Bowden at a Code Camp in Italy, we learned about MapIt. It turned out to offer better functionality.

    What level of upkeep is involved?

    Wazimap requires only intermittent maintenance. We had municipal elections in August 2016 which has meant a number of municipal boundaries have changed. We’re waiting on Statistics South Africa to provide us with the census data mapped to these new boundaries so that we can update it. Other than that, once the site is up and running it needs very little maintenance.

    What’s the impact of Wazimap?

    We know that Wazimap is used by a wide range of people, including journalists, high school geography teachers, political party researchers and academics.

    wazimap graphsIt has helped people understand not just where they work and live, but also that data can be presented in a way that’s accessible and understandable.

    Code for South Africa has been approached a number of times, by people asking if they might reuse the Wazimap platform in different contexts with different data. Most recently, youthexplorer.org.za used it to power an interactive web tool providing a range of information on young people, helping policy makers understand youth-critical issues in the Western Cape.

    We also know that it’s been used as a research tool for books and numerous news articles.

    The success of the South African Wazimap has driven the development of similar projects elsewhere in Africa which will be launching soon, though MapIt won’t be used for those because their geography requirements are simpler.

    What does the future hold?

    As we’re building out Wazimap for different datasets, we’re seeing a need for taking it beyond just census data. We’re making improvements to how Wazimap works with data to make this possible and make it simpler for others to build on it.

    Each new site gives us ideas for improvements to the larger Wazimap product. The great thing is that these improvements roll out and benefit anyone who uses it across every install.

    Thanks very much to Greg for talking us through the Wazimap project and its use of MapIt. It’s great to hear how MapIt is contributing to a tool that, in itself, aids so many other users and organisations.

    Need to map boundaries? Find out more about MapIt here

  3. People’s Assembly track the attendance records of South Africa’s MPs

    South African parliamentary monitoring website People’s Assembly have added an Attendance page, allowing citizens to see at a glance what percentage of committee meetings each MP has attended.

    A few weeks ago, we highlighted one major difference between the Ghanaian parliament and our own: in Ghana, they register MPs’ attendance.

    This week, we received news of another of our partners who are holding their representatives to account on the matter of attendance: People’s Assembly, whose website runs on our Pombola platform. The new page was contributed by Code4SA, who have been doing some really valuable work on the site lately.

    According to South Africa’s Daily Maverick, in some cases MPs’ attendance is abysmally low. There’s also a history of those who “arrive, sign the register and leave a short while later”, a practice that may soon be on the decline thanks to People’s Assembly’s inclusion of data on late arrivals and early departures.

    With 57 representatives — or about 15% — floundering at a zero rate of attendance, it seems that this simple but powerful display is a much-needed resource for the citizens of South Africa. See it in action here.

     

    South African MPs' attendance at committee meetings on People's Assembly

    Top image: GovernmentZA (CC)

  4. 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.