In September 2018, on the company’s 8th birthday, Rabid became Ackama - this was to reflect that fact that we work on large digital ecosystems, and given that nature is the largest ecosystem in the world we wanted a name that came from nature. Ackama, or Makamaka, is a small bushy tree with white flowers and red seeds. It’s found on the coast from Whangarei north.
Democracy and the internet
Last Friday I attended the launch of AskAway and On The Fence as part of Massey University’s Design + Democracy labs. Various Rabidiers and our officemates from Enspiral and Loomio have been involved with Meg Howie’s project AskAway since it was in its infancy in her final year design project last year, and Meg also helped us out with the Christchurch Journey Planner, so we’re excited to see it launch. This year’s incarnation has been primarily developed by the joyous and silken-haired Loomian Jon Lemmon with help from civic-minded hackers from Code for New Zealand, including Rowan Crawford and Cameron Prebble, and various others who’ve popped in for free pizza on a hack night (including myself, Rose and Jonas from the Rabid office).
AskAway is a project that allows people to ask questions of political parties, and allows representatives of those parties to respond to questions. I’ve been really impressed by the level of uptake that the project has had from both sides of this interaction, and they’ve also got a great relationship with the Radio National youth media project The Wireless. Joining all of the dots between politicians, media, electorally disenchanted youth, and the open source development community isn’t an easy task - Meg and Jon have done an amazing job.
I first talked to Meg about AskAway in July last year after Aurynn, Megan and I spontaneously created Adopt an MP on the last day of NetHui with the goal of getting people to educate MPs about how technology and the internet works. I won’t link to it here because, although it was an impressive effort for a day, we never really got to getting it up to its full potential, or updating the lists of MPs, which had to be done manually. (It turns out that Parliamentary data feeds are generally non existent, woefully insufficient, or incredibly painful to work with.)
An MP’s job is to represent their constituency, and as such a core part of it involves seeking input and talking to constituents. The Parliamentary process allows for public participation, and sometimes gets thousands of submissions on bills. They do try to be accessible to their constituents. But MPs are busy people and the parliamentary process can be confusing, alienating, and inaccessible to many. So the relatively few people with the knowledge and means to interact efficiently with this process end up being over represented. People often have a poor understanding of their rights and the limits of MPs’ power.
I’m really pleased with Meg’s work with AskAway. The codebase of AskAway is entirely open source on GitHub so could also be forked for elections elsewhere. I’d love to see the platform being adapted for usage between elections as well.
There are also other websites, including Adopt an MP and They Work For You, that are sadly lying dormant because of the amount of manual processing it takes to use publicly accessible data such as Hansard and up-to-date lists of MPs with their portfolios and responsibilities. With a few more machine readable data feeds from the office of the Clerk and Parliamentary Service, we could keep these services useful and up to date throughout the term with a more sustainable level of volunteer labour. This could significantly improve peoples’ understanding of and participation in the political process in New Zealand throughout the electoral term, not just around elections.