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The Grand Tour

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Exmoor Autumn on Exmoor

Democracy Club has been travelling. But unlike Clarkson, we didn’t get a $100m budget from Amazon, so we mainly took trains.

Exmoor

Our first stop was Exmoor. mySociety, the old hands of civic tech, had hired a country pile in a glorious location, with sheep-nibbled fields running down across a wooded valley and up into the Quantocks. From the nearest hilltop lane you could see across the Bristol Channel to the south coast of Wales. Great stuff. Joe went for a run, got lost and was rescued by a kindly retired couple in a Land Rover, obviously.

Aside from gaining some insight into the history and operations of mySociety — it struck us how big a team it was now — we were able to throw ideas around and learn from some of their guest speakers. In no particular order, some pointers for us:

  • We need to get a board of advisors together to help us with insight from different sectors and industries, who can connect us to new partners and help us think more strategically. More on this soon.

  • There are 10,000 parish or town councils in the UK (thanks @Tony4Place) — that’s a whole lot of micro-democracy that could be tapped. Somebody called it “democracy at the postcode level”, which is nice.

  • We learnt about ‘neighbourhood plans’, which we’d seen a lot of around the elections in May 2016. We now understand that these are surprisingly powerful tools for communities to establish democratic control over planning in their area. More here.

  • The Independents for Frome song got stuck in our heads.

  • mySociety are running public experiments to see what helps make Freedom of Information sites better — an excellent idea.

Manchester

After a dawn taxi ride back to Taunton, we then hopped on a train to Manchester for the Democratic Society and Open Data Manchester event on ‘post-fact politics’ (post-truth has since been announced as OED’s word of the year) and ‘echo chambers’. There are a few tweets from the event here. Again, a few thoughts:

  • Democracy Club needs to test the effects of providing more information to people. We haven’t assumed that more information increases turnout (though it’d be nice to know for sure) but we have assumed that better information does help people take better decisions and increases trust in the democratic process. And anecdotal feedback on WhoCanIVoteFor does hint at this. But we can do more robust evaluation.

  • The presentation of information is crucial. We try hard to ensure our websites are easy to understand, but we don’t have the resources to do this in an expert way. As we grow — hopefully to provide information on candidates political viewpoints and agendas — then we need to have a laser focus on making this information easy to understand.

  • There was a lot of chat about how ‘we use facts to confirm our worldview, rather than changing our worldview according to facts’ — so what sets up the worldview? And can we increase the extent to which people’s worldviews sit upon evidence and reliable information? ((Did someone mention media regulation?))

No easy answers. But was good to be in Manchester, meeting people who hadn’t come across our work before and who cared about making democracy work better.

London

The Grand Democracy Tour continued onto London, to meet the Electoral Commission, who are up for helping us out with the polling station finder. It’ll be great to have their support in encouraging councils to open their data sets. Meanwhile, the finder is gradually building up its data for 2017, council-by-council… We also popped into to Portcullis House to see Matt Warman, MP for Boston and Skegness, who has kindly offered to help us out with gentle nudges to various people and organisations that can help us get stuff done.

America

Okay, we didn’t go to America. But, in case you missed it, there was a US presidential election election last week. We spotted a few interesting things that we should be available in the UK too:

  • Google Search results for ‘who can I vote for’ or ‘where do I vote’ were excellent, see the examples we tweeted here.

  • Twitter launched a feature where users could message @gov and find links to candidates and polling stations — we reckon we’ll see more and more of this kind of ‘chatbots’ relating to civic tech, partly because they’re trendy, see e.g. Voxe.org’s hellobot for the French 2017 presidential elections.

  • And lastly, and because queues (or ‘lines’ if we must) at polling stations are always an odd sight to a Brit — here’s a light-hearted civic tech effort involving crowdsourcing, crowdfunding, and a serious user need for pizza. (With a serious message).

What’s next?

  • We’re cracking on with the Every Election tool, and writing to political parties, campaigners and anyone who watches out for elections to ask them to join in building the open database.

  • Our friends at M/A have worked on a light rebrand for us — we’re still tinkering, but get excited. #ThereWillBeStickers

  • It’s time for the company accounts!!!

Forward! (Stumbling, cursing the darkness, but still forward.)