This post is by Tony Bowden and Lucy Chambers from the EveryPolitician team. Today we officially launch our collaboration with Wikidata – here’s what to expect…
The story so far
You might have been following the progress: since 2015, through our project EveryPolitician, we’ve been gathering data for every national legislature in the world, from thousands of sources, and sharing it.
Now, two years on, we’ve started to see some great results. For example:
- It’s much easier to build simple Parliament Tracking sites (as mySociety partner organisations have in Zimbabwe and Nigeria). Those running the sites can work on providing information and context to hold politicians accountable — and don’t have to worry about wrangling data and software.
- Tools that allow citizens to write to their representatives (like Majlis Nameh in Iran, based on the WriteInPublic software, or Oxfam’s UK and Australia Campaigning Tool) can now be deployed in days rather than weeks, allowing groups to focus on local customisation.
- Vote-tracking sites like TheyVoteForYou in Australia can be more easily adapted to other countries — such as Ukraine, again without worrying about the major task of sourcing the politician data.
- Projects that highlight politicians’ activity can be augmented to show extra information against those politicians — so for example, Politwoops can show party affiliation next to politicians’ tweets.
- Investigative journalists can cross-match our lists of politicians to other sources (e.g. investigating shell companies for a recent Private Eye article or with the Panama Papers).
- mySociety’s collaboration with Facebook makes it easy for people to connect with their newly elected representatives.
All of this is possible because of two main tenets of EveryPolitician: having gathered the data, we structure it consistently, and we share it freely.
Not just current data
We’ve also discovered that there is a huge value for everyone in retaining historic information, too:
- Old data tends to disappear from many official sites, for example, when a new government comes into power and / or when parliaments decide to remodel their websites.
- Sometimes even the official sources no longer exist: for example, in Burkina Faso the Parliament building was burned down by protesters in 2014 and many crucial documents were lost.
- Research projects and sites run by civil society organisations sometimes run out of funding and have to shut down — meaning that the data people were relying on can vanish overnight.
The future: going one step further
So that’s all great, but we think EveryPolitician can do still more to help the worldwide community of Civic Tech coders and activists.
In particular, we want to go beyond data showing who the politicians are, and also provide information on what they do. That’s because we can see real value in the ability to answer questions like:
- When we look at politicians who vote on issues such as gay marriage, smoking bans, tax on sugary drinks, etc, anywhere in the world — are there any broad correlations like age or gender?
- As countries elect more women MPs, do those women also gain equivalent representation in committees? Does this affect attendance and participation rates?
- Are there standard political career paths that can be observed anywhere in the world? So for example, do certain Cabinet positions limit future progression; and if so, would it be feasible to spot politicians who are on the way up, or on their way out?
- Do politicians who move from the lower to upper house act, and vote, differently?
- Do politicians change their voting activity after certain types of intervention, for example after receiving funding from oil companies?
… and there are undoubtedly millions more questions, each one just as interesting and with answers that could enrich our understanding of the world. We are aiming for a future in which each should be answerable within minutes, rather than form the basis of a multi-year post-graduate research project.
How we plan to get there
You may remember our recent proposal to integrate more deeply with Wikidata. We’re delighted to say that our proposal was accepted, and that makes EveryPolitician’s path very clear.
Wikipedia is fast becoming one of the best sources of political information in many countries: it’s often updated more quickly than major news outlets or official parliamentary sites are.
Which is great, but there’s an issue when it comes to using that information for projects like the ones we’ve mentioned above: Wikipedia contains largely unstructured information (that is to say, information that comes in a wide variety of different formats) — as you’d expect from any project with multiple contributors and, often, a free-text input.
There are also a lot of differences between Wikipedias in different countries. Some countries’ data (particularly countries where the Wikipedia community is larger) gets updated very quickly. Smaller language Wikipedias can’t rely on such a large pool of editors, and it tends to be longer before they are updated.
Additionally, and as you might expect, Wikipedia content will appear fastest in the countries most directly affected by the change being documented, so for example when there are elections in Estonia, the Estonian Wikipedia may show the results almost immediately, but it can take a while for those changes to trickle into all languages.
But of course, nothing’s ever quite that simple. While Wikipedia has a wealth of unstructured political information, on Wikidata there’s still an awful lot of data missing. You may recall that we recently ran a drive to ensure that every country at least had its head of government entered, but that’s just the beginning: in order to answer the kinds of questions we mention above, we really need to ensure there’s consistently-structured information for all legislators, all elections… and much more.
What you’ll see in the coming months
While we plan for EveryPolitician to retain its own identity and keep its own front end, we’re excited to say that over the next few months, we’ll be teaming up with Wikidata communities across the world.
Our first objective is see if we can bring Wikidata up to the same level as EveryPolitician for as many countries as possible.
And once we hit that target, we plan to go much further. The beauty of Wikidata is that you can add pretty much any information you want to add to politicians (indeed, to anything!), so local communities can decide for themselves which information is most pertinent and make sure that it’s included.
To help us make all of this happen, we’re expanding. If you’ve read this far and you’re still finding the project interesting, the chances are you’d be a great addition to the team! We’re looking for a new community co-ordinator, working from anywhere in the world (compatible timezones allowing): you can see all the details here.
How you can get involved
There are plenty of ways that you can help with this drive to improve the structured information on Wikidata. Here are the obvious ones:
- There are active missions always ongoing on the Wikiproject Heads of State and Government. There’s one there now – check them out!
- Would you be interested in organising a push to Improve Wikidata for your country? Get in touch on firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll do what we can to help.
- If this all sounds interesting, but you’re not sure where to start, or you’re unfamiliar with Wikidata – drop us an email and tell us what you’re interested in. We’re more than happy to help you get started.