Online democracy tools that inform the general election debate

Last week I drew your attention to YourNextMP, a crowdsourced website run by Democracy Club. But they are not the only non-profit organisation providing useful open data information to support democracy, either by data scraping government sites or through crowdsourcing.

MySociety started it all many years ago, with the now redundant FaxYourMP. This was eventually replaced by WriteToThem, where visitors could find out the names of their elected representatives (including councillors) and send them a message without having to search other sites for their contact details.  FixMyStreet is another simple but powerful site which allows people to report problems to their local council.

theyworkforyouBut the best known MySociety project is TheyWorkForYou, which is still the yardstick by which many of us judge civic websites. It takes data from Hansard and other parliamentary/ assembly resources and repackages it to make it immediately accessible to any of us.  Enter your postcode to discover your MP’s voting record, recent speeches, attendances on committees, register of interests. It also covers members of the House of Lords, and the Queen.

I’m sorry to hear that the founder of MySociety, Tom Steinberg, is stepping down, but the vision he had will continue. I have been aware of his work from the beginning, back in 20013, when I was working on the National Project for Local e-Democracy. I have some residual guilt that we were never able to fund any of his early projects, much as he would have liked it, basically because the funding from the National Project had to be channeled through local authorities and I believed then that his work needed to be kept at arms-length from government. Maybe I was wrong, because later he went on to develop the e-petition site for Number 10 – this has now morphed into HM Government’s e-petitions.

All of this is a bit of a preamble to an announcement from a new kid on the block. RateYourMP was launched last week just in time for the general election. It offers the same spare postcode-driven design favoured by MySociety, but offers a wealth of numerical data about your MP since 2010. It presents information about pay and expenses, plus voting records. But I have some concerns about the way in which it ranks MPs on their so-called efficiency, measured by cost per vote. Not only does this imply that the only way to assess an MP’s performance is to count the number of times s/he votes, but it also does not make allowances for ministerial responsibilities, or indeed for illness or maternity/paternity leave.

RateYourMP has also been launched in beta mode and is still not ready. It will only accept postcodes, and not the name of the MP or the constituency, and some of the tabs still display ‘coming soon’. It has some way to go before it is as useful as TheyWorkForYou.

 

* Mary Reid is a contributing editor on Lib Dem Voice. She was a councillor in Kingston upon Thames, where she is still very active with the local party, and is the Hon President of Kingston Lib Dems.

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