ETech – Civic hacking

Stefan Magdalinski, civic activist
Thinks the net can be used to redistribute information away from special interest groups to all citizens. All the guys are a group of about a dozen Perl/Python hackers that wanted to make it easier for UK citizens to get plugged into government. Showed the English House of Commons site–way too complicating to get information. Wanted to make a better way to get information about MPs (members of Parliament).

They built TheyWorkForYou.com. They were originally hoping building the site would become a forcing function for the government to build something better. They used data, in theory, they didn’t have legal right to access given British laws but they went ahead anyway. Brave!

Features on the site: highlight search terms in the document, annotate the document to translate parliamentary speak (which happens to be user created content), links directly to wikipedia. Turned a flat document more dynamic. They wanted documents to be open source and available via RSS so citizens could stay in tune with issues they cared about (eg, send me everything about fox hunting). You can track everything an MP is involved in. The detail page can track Technorati tags so you can track what other people are writing about a politician.
They’ve effectively created MP (parliament memeber) detail pages. Example here.

Other random bits:

  • They launched in June 2004
  • They initially got threatened that they would get shut down by the government
  • They’re a group of all volunteers who do this in their free time
  • The hard part of the project was processing the information. Source documents would comes in very messy feeds. They had to put together some clever ways to parse the information
  • They launched the app by word of mouth
  • Only used $3K donation to help one or two of their devs to pound out some work over a week taking time off from work.
  • Had 200K users in March. They’re doubling monthly. They are the top result for any MPs on Google
  • Some MPs use their RSS feeds to generate the content for their blog. Funny.
  • They believe that they’ll be doing more traffic than the official parliamentary site within six months
  • govtrack.us is a similar US version

Their vision–however obscure an issue, Brits can now find out how their MP voted on any issue. On any given day, any issue should get some scrutiny from the general eye balls in the public.

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