Political Hacking in the UK

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Via Simon’s blogmarkshttp://www.theyworkforyou.com/ – a web app that allows UK citizens to view their local politicians performance as well as providing an interface for searching debates that have taken place in the House of Commons (the UK’s main political “forum”).

It works by re-packaging information from other online sources, such as Hansard (the transcript of all debates in Parliament) into a form real people might actually be interested in.

Here’s a snippet from the files on Tony Blair;

1-21 August 2003, accompanied by my family I spent 20 nights at a private villa in Barbados. I have made a charitable donation to a charity chosen by Sir Cliff Richard, the owner of the villa, in lieu of the cost of this accommodation. I paid for all other expenses, including flights.

Scary stuff!

The group who built it are volunteers with a growing portfolio of similar sites, such as National Rail Enquiry, which turns the UK National Rail Enquiries website into something usable and, more (in)famously: http://www.faxyourmp.com/ – the site allowing you to harass your UK politician via their fax machine. Judging from Netcraft (and an error message I ran into), the front ends to these sites are being built with PHP.

Back in February of this year, Simon blogged remarks by Danny O’Brien (one of the volunteers), discussing the idea of “political hacking” and how FaxYourMp was implemented;

It’s really hard to object to this, because the rules of the game state that MPs represent their constituents. Over time, other forces – party political and the media mainly – have bypassed those rules so that some MPs do very little constituent tending. This is a gaming that has been very hard to stop. Bad MPs have a lot of excellent techniques for avoiding their constituents. Some are just inaccessible. Some have a great excuse that they try to meet with their constituents, but those apathetic buggers simply refuse to turn up to the surgeries.

By setting up the fax gateway – a dirt cheap tech fix, we took those excuses away, and didn’t provide any new ones. We tried to rig the forces that broke the MP/constituent link to work for us. When a fax machine doesn’t work, it’s not us that has to fix it. It’s the whip’s office, who need to keep in touch with their MP. When MPs don’t reply to faxes, we don’t do anything. We just alter the public statistics, which the press read and respond to.

That “tallies” with my own understanding; a friend of mine work used to work part time, while studying, in the office of a couple of MP (Members of UK Parliament), answering letters from constituents (the MPs voters). My friends real job description amounted to fobbing off voters with meaningless answers while one of the MPs was busy trying to climb the party political career ladder and the other was drinking and watching football in the House of Commons bars.

Thanks to TheyWorkForYou, it’s now possible for voters to find out just how hard their local MP has been working for them.

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