MySociety, the organisation behind some of the biggest democracy projects in the UK, has today made public two reports which it commissioned to gain greater understanding of two of its sites – TheyWorkForYou and WriteToThem.
As the site itself says: “We think transparency is a good thing for many reasons, but one of its rarely mentioned virtues is how valuable transparency can be for the people within the organisations which are transparent.”
And there have been some interesting discoveries. According to MySociety one of the reasons that both the sites were set up was to make representatives accessible to newcomers to the democratic process. So it was “heartening” to find, for example, that 60 per cent of visitors to TheyWorkForYou had never previously looked up who represents them, and two in five users of WriteToThem have never before contacted one of their political representatives, was a positive sign.
But, as you would expect with any properly neutral evaluation, it’s not all good news. Our sites aim to reach a wide range of people, but compared to the average British internet user, WriteToThem users are twice as likely to have a higher degree and a higher income. It also seems that users are disproportionately male, white, and over 35.
The Sunlight Foundation has launched a new tool – Poligraft – to encourage greater transparency of public figures and assist journalists in providing the extra details behind stories.
By scanning news articles, press releases or blog posts, which can be submitted to the program by inserting the URL or pasting the entire article, the technology can then pick out people or organisations and identify the financial or political links between them.
Anyone can use this, but it could be especially powerful in the hands of hands of journalists, bloggers, and others reporting or analyzing the news. It would take hours to look these things up by hand, and many people don’t know how to find or use the information.
Journalists could paste in their copy to do a quick check for connections they might have missed. Bloggers could run Poligraft on a series of political stories to reveal the web of contributions leading to a bill. All this information is public record, but it’s never easy to dig through. What is possible when investigative journalism is made just a little bit easier?
See a video below from the Sunshine Foundation posted on Youtube explaining how the technology works:
Ben Goldacre suggests a new website could be set up as “a repository of ingredients” for news stories to improve the media’s transparency when it comes to primary sources and give readers “unmediated/unedited access to full comments from interested parties”.
Such a site would contain, says Goldacre:
A website that gives each news story a unique ID;
Any involved party can add/upload a full press release or quote to that story’s page;
Anyone can add a link to a primary source;
Anyone can vote these up or down like on digg/reddit;
You can register as a “trusted source” and not need to be modded up or down;
Anyone can add a link to media coverage of that story.