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.
We’ve been shown or seen a few responses from MPs, after people wrote to them, saying that they are worried about their addresses being made public. If this is their main barrier to voting No on Thursday, they have nothing to worry about: they voted to exclude their residential addresses (and expenses on security, and future/regular travel) from the Freedom of Information Act in July 2008.
In fact, one of the reasons it is costing so much money to collate and edit these expenses is staff have been going through and making sure precisely that such information would not be released.
It is sad that MPs don’t seem to know what the law is, and I hope someone will stand up in the debate on Thursday and make this point.
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.”
A NARROW mountain lane has been damaged and turned into an “international playground” for 4x4s and satnav-guided lorries, angry villagers claimed yesterday.
The interesting thing is the claim that making the reports public really helped pressurise the authority into fixing them
one [resident] claimed the local authority had now been “embarrassed” into action by the complaints on fixmystreet.com
A few weeks ago mySociety and Politik Digital held a small unconference in Berlin. The idea was to get together some of the best practioners building and running democracy websites across Europe, regardless of their size or status.
I’ll try to write this up more fully soon, but for the moment I wanted to share some email interviews I did with some of the participants after the event. The first is with Guglielmo Celata from the Italian group D.E.P.P. We first came across them a couple of years ago when they borrowed some code from PublicWhip.org.uk (the independent volunteer vote analysis project run by Julian Todd and mySociety senior developer Francis Irving) for their website OpenPolis.
Anyway, enough for the context – D.E.P.P have some great, boundary-pushing work coming up and I thought people in the English speaking community would want to know.
What is the organisation you work for?
The name of the Association is D.E.P.P., that stands for Electronic Democracy and Public Partecipation.
It’s a relatively small group of people (four) who work on e-partecipation projects with local administrations (the municipality of Rome and the Regione Lazio, for examples). We also have an self-financed project, named Openpolis, to map politicians, their charges, their declarations, both at a national and at a local level. More on this later.
What is the main purpose of the site(s) that you run?
We have a project named eDem 1.0 which has been so far installed twice: municipiopartecipato.it focuses in enabling e-participation of local communities on the “participatory budget”; and edem-regione on the budget of the Regione Lazio (the link points to an alpha version).
I think the participatory budget for the local community is far more interesting. The site shows a list of issues categorized by theme and territory. Registered users can vote up issues and make them emerge as important. Issues are created by the users. Users can also create proposals related to issues and vote them. The integration with Google Maps, allows user to see how issues and proposals distribute in their territory; it makes the user interface immediate (and of course makes the site sooo stylish).
The proposals emerging as the most voted are approved and follow a workflow to be actually financed and implemented.
Online activities and offline physical assemblies (which exist), are linked together by a group of paid people, called enablers. They take care of moderating both offline and online activities, too.
The other project has almost the same features, but applied to the budget document of the Regione Lazio. Of course, the issues here are not created by the citizens, being the chapters (or sections) of the official budget document. The citizens can create and rate proposals, but such proposals are never going to be implemented.
This happens a lot, administrators are intersted in e-participation projects, but they want to reduce the possibility of issues emerging directly from citizens, and€ of course they try to change the nature of the project from a participative one, into a consultative one. A kind of Poll 2.0, if one wants to be cynical.
Can you tell us about your next site, the one you showed us in Berlin?
Openpolis is a project to gather informations on our political class and make them transparent. How they vote once elected, what laws they propose, their charges in institution, political parties and private organisations, public declarations, financial interests, judicial positions etc. The aim of the project is to revive the bond between the citizens and their representatives. We would like to give individuals or organized group of citizens, a set of tools to enable them to perform lobbying activities.
We want to work both at a national level and at a very local level, and to do this we plan to allow users to create part of the content on the site, and hope this way to create communities, wiki-style.
However, the site is not a wiki, since content has to be well-structured; we want to export statistics and make analysis on data added by users.
You are planning to combine information gathered from formal sources, and submitted by users. Can you tell us where you’re getting the formal information from, and how you are going to handle the information submitted by users?
We have different levels, and correspondingly different sources. At a national level, we are harvesting the official web sites of the Camera and Senato (the two houses of national representatives) and the web site of European Parliament. At local levels we rely on official biographical data from the Ministero degli Interni (Interior Ministry). We double check politician’s data for the 20 major cities in italy, but of course can’t possibly dream of doing that for the 109 provinces and 8100 municipalities.
For data on charges, declarations, financial interests and judicial positions, and for a complete double check on details and biographical data, we plan to leverage the community of users. The more users, the more data and verification.
Of course, data inserted by the users must be always connected to sources (i.e a web link, a reference to a book, an article in a newspaper, or a radio or television program). Data will be verified by moderators, and the community of moderators will grow on trust basis (using a karma-based system, so that when a subscribed user reach a certain treshold of trust, he is proposed as moderator to the board of administrators). We all know that this part is a real challenge and that handling a community online is a daunting task, but, hey, let’s try.
Users can be banned and content can be censored (after publishing), but any banning or censorship will be performed transparently, so that anyone, in any moment will be able to know the reason why a user was banned.
Do you ever face claims that the effects you have on politicians aren’t entirely positive? If so, how do you respond?
We actually have not yet started, but we do plan on receiving a lot of such claims. Of course we are trying to create something that the politicians should use, as well, so the most interested and active users should be the politician themselves.
Are there any other features of your site that you think are unusual or unique?
We plan to release an API, in order to make integration of our data and analysis possible directly from other web applications. Starting from RSS feed, to a proper API, it should be possible to integrate pieces of our applications directly into people’s blog or other similar applications.
What other projects around the world excite you the most, and why?
Well, of course the TheyWorkForYou project was a real kick off, we just thought: “wow, we have to do that here in Italy!” Then I really appreciate the work at GovTrack.us, especially from the technical standpoint, for the innovative way of using RDF and the Semantic Web approach.
Here in Italy, a project I forgot to mention in Berlin is: http://fainotizia.radioradicale.it.
FaiNotizia means Make Your Own News, it’s a project by Radio Radicale, an historical radio broadcast of the Italian Radical Party. It provides one of the first citizens journalism website in Italy and we plan to integrate with them in the future.
Do you use the law to help you get information? If so, how have you gone about it, and what have you obtained?
We haven’t so far, every information that we gathered was publicly available, we just wrote tons of parser code.
We plan to push the release of data on financial interests and judicial positions, though. Those data are public, but poorly accessible (no electronic format, no scanning, phtos or copies possible). This will require some legal actions or some fantasy to get them. We’ll see.
So there we are. If you’ve any further questions or clarifications, just post a comment here and I’ll update this post with Guglielmo’s help.
The last few weeks, I’ve been breaking our normal tradition of launching things the minute they are made (Matthew usually does this in 5 minute long release cycles). This hasn’t been deliberate, just the two things were quite hard to actual check properly and get out the door.
The first was the new UKCOD site (the parent charity that runs mySociety). It took a while to finish after I set up the infrastructure, while the trustees wrote and approved all the content. Thanks very much to Ayesha and Sym for the design brilliance. Also thanks to Mediawiki (the Wikipedia software) which the site is based on – although it isn’t a wiki, it is configured so only UKCOD people can edit it. You can see just how much Mediawiki can be skinned and made to look like a normal site. It is a useful, simple CMS that lots of people already know how to use.
I’m really pleased the UKCOD site is now there. I (speaking personally) think it is super important that mySociety and UKCOD are transparent organisations, and that we should demonstrate openness by being open ourselves. If there is anything else you’d like to know, please do ask – and we’ll either tell you, or explain why we can’t or won’t do so.
The second is the WriteToThem 2006 statistics. Shhhh! Don’t tell anyone we’ve put them live yet – we’ll be doing publicity for it later in the week. Meanwhile have a look and send us any comments. This took ages to get out the door because I wanted to make sure the statistics were accurate, and presented in a way that wouldn’t be misleading. Let me know where I’ve failed.
Right, now off to singing…
UK Citizens Online Democracy (UKCOD) is the charity that runs mySociety. Shockingly for an organisation that works on online projects, its own website has not been high on its priority list.
Thanks to the prodding and work of the mySociety developers and volunteers this embarrassing deficiency has now been rectified, and UKCOD is today proud to announce the launch of its own simple but hopefully informative website at http://www.ukcod.org.uk/. We aim to provide transparent and clear information on our organisation’s structure, its history, projects, finances, and the people involved.
We expect this to generate as many questions as it answers. Do please let us know if we’ve missed anything, or if there’s anything else you would like to know.
Chairman, UK Citizens Online Democracy
Since the petition system went out properly on Wednesday, we’ve been absolutely buried in an avalanche of changes, fixes, feature additions and massive massive amounts of email. I thought that you might be interested as to what sort of stuff has happened in the first two days:
- Email has taken over our lives. Matthew has responded to over 200 emails since yesterday morning, and I was up at 4am last night just trying to cope with the rate of incoming of mail. Francis, who’s now in Canada, then heroically took up the baton and responded to mail all (UK) night! Many if not most of these mails are giving us suggestions, as well as bug reports, problems with email and bits of praise and the odd conspiracy theory.
- Changes made to cope with expats and overseas military personnel.
- Phoned Hotmail to stop their system from eating 95% of the confirmation messages being sent to Hotmail accounts!
- Redesigned the automated mails no10 get telling them there’s a new petition (they’ve had over 500 of these mails, so they need to be clear and easy to read!)
- Made the rejected petitions system more granular, so that if a petition has to be rejected, and part of it has to be hidden (say, if it is libellous), then it only hides that bit, not the whole thing. Maximum transparency is the goal, you see.
- New options added to sort the list of all petitions in different ways, by number of signatures being the most asked for.
- Limited the length of “more info” fields so people can only write long rants, rather than really really long rants 🙂
- Special cased people with AOL accounts, so that their, erm, nonstandard email clients can actually cope with the confirmation links.
- Made several fixes to the processes involved in sending out confirmation mails.
- Made RSS changes and improvements.
- Updated various bits of text, like providing examples of what “party political” means. The BBC initially wrote that this meant no pledges mentioning controversial issues like Iraq, which was grabbing quite the wrong end of the stick about the nature of the rules. Now we have some complaining emails saying we’re being too liberal!
- Compiled a big list of user suggestions and fixes on the wiki.
- Made the rejection criteria in the Ts&Cs actually match the ones in the admin interface.
- Installed a stats packages to watch what’s going on.
- Added facility to search petitions
- Improved/fixed logging
- Added link and text pointing to the open source code.
I’ve probably missed some – I’m sure Matthew, Chris, Francis and Ben will let me know!
I’m very pleased to announce that the petitions system we’ve built for 10 Downing Street has gone live today.
I’m very grateful for the hard and often inspired work put into this by Chris Lightfoot and Matthew Somerville, as well as the civil servants who have helped to build a petitions system which I believe is in a real class of its own.
The most notable features are:
1. Petitions are accepted and published, regardless of the political slant of the petition. However, if they break the Ts&Cs (a petition that doesn’t actually ask for any action, for example) then they are put on a special rejected petitions page: they don’t just vanish. We think this transparency feature is probably unique.
2. The site is being launched in beta, and will change over time. This might seem too commonplace to note for many of you, but it reflects a willingness to see a public IT service evolve in response to users, not simply fulfil a contract agreed in advance. mySociety exists partly to spread good practice in the public sector, and we think this is a nice example of that in action.
3. The code, including Chris’s amazing high-load optimised engine, is all open source.
We recently got the following email requesting details of our financial affairs from someone in the House of Commons Library, doing some research for an unnamed MP. We’ve always tried to be transparent about the funding of mySociety, so putting the relevent bits in the middle of the homepage seems a reasonable way of carrying on with that tradition. Enjoy it, transparency fans.
I work in the House of Commons Library where we provide a non-partisan research service for MPs. It is this that has led me to contact you. I’ve been asked by an MP, whose name I cannot disclose, to provide some research on MySociety.
Glad to help. Just as a side thought, isn’t it interesting that MPs can use you to ask about us, but we can’t know who has commissioned the work? Why the aspect of privacy I wonder? Nevermind, we’re pretty sure we know who’s asking anyway…
They have asked for information on funding supplied to MySociety. I understand that a grant of £250,000 was allocated to West Sussex county council under the Local e-Government e-Innovations Round 1 Programme in 2004-05 for My Society
Yes, although it is worth noting that West Sussex took £54,000 of that – mySociety billed for £196,000 in various chunks. mySociety is still
functioning off the surplus (ie charity profit) made from this funding which ended formally in November 2005.
and £163,150 was made available to the organisation through the e-Innovations Product and Marketisation strand via Kirklees MBC who were grant aided to carry out this role on behalf of the Local e-Government Programme.
Yes, that sounds right (although I’ve never seen that exact figure before, I thought it was going to be £150,000, so good news I guess). We haven’t actually invoiced for ths funding yet. The condition of this final bit of e-innovations funding is that we are to use it to help develop spin-off services aimed at the local government and voluntary sectors. These are services that will both provide those sectors with useful products whilst generating revenue streams to help sustain all the sites we’ve built so far. You can see what sort of things we’ll be offering at mySociety.co.uk.
And from the blog on the website that the Pears Foundation provided some assistance.
Yes, although we haven’t invoiced for this either yet because we’re still trying to decide how much would be appropriate to charge. It won’t be more than £6000 though.
Would you be able to tell me if any other sources of funding have been provided to MySociety and how much the Pears Foundation provided?
We got an initial £10,000 from a private philanthroper who’s asked to remain anonymous. I personally was supported with another £10,000 by UnLTD, the Millenium Commision funding group who plug a vital gap in the UK charitable sector by supporting individuals, not organisations.
More recently, we won two grants from the Department of Constitutional Affairs, one in conjunction with the Young Foundation. One is for the development of Neighbourhood Fix It, a map based tool to turn the process of reporting public problems from private to public. The other is for an API and spin-off site from TheyWorkForYou.com.
I’ve just realised I missed a couple of things. First, the sums for the two pieces of DCA work mentioned above are £10,000 and £6000, and second those much-linked-to maps were £4500 from the Department for Transport.