Shutting Down Make the Change



April 16, 2014

Back in 2007, Russell McOrmond, Phillip Smith and myself decided to set up a service for the Canadian NGO community to make it easier to match individuals with their elected officials. It seems like a pretty basic component of any effective democracy, but it still isn't something that is available to Canadians.

At the time, Statistics Canada offered a database of postal codes to riding associations. For $3000 you could buy a database on a CD and have the rights to buy updates every year. The license allowed us to resell access to the database through an API (Application Programming Interface). We built a simple interface to match postal codes to federal riding associations.

Of course riding associations are only really of value in an advocacy campaign if you match them up with a Member of Parliament and their email address. With this information we were able to provide a generic way for online campaigns to connect a political action.

We built Drupal modules that allowed us to leverage our API, populated the list of MP's through 2 federal elections and supported organizations like the Council of Canadians, Make Poverty History, Development and Peace, as well as Canadian Labour Congress. 

Unfortunately, at this time, we are going to have to bring this project to a close. StatsCan has changed the license for this data so that it is now more restrictive.

This project never really became more than a very basic data service. The initial vision that Russell, Phillip and I had was much more extensive. If non-profits were able to collaborate together to aggregate more metadata on each riding, it would be possible to engage more deeply with citizens who would normally just be expecting to sign a petition. 

By collecting information about hot button issues in each riding or by doing proximity searches based on postal code, it would be possible to highlight different issues both to a Member of Parliament and to a person in that riding. If you can quicky say to people that 100 people in the same riding have already signed this petition, it adds weight as well. 

I have been very impressed with the work of OpenNorth over the years. Fortunately, they have been able to develop an even more comprehensive API recently in their project Represent which not only addresses federal politicians but also provincial and municipal as well. Represent has been working as a free service for a while, but they are now offering a Service-level agreement (SLA), which allows them to support even high volume queries from active campaigns. 

Given this and that we can no longer provide up-to-date Postal Code data, we are shutting down and encouraging our clients to make the move over to the Represent API.  There is already a functioning Drupal 7 module to leverage this API and we are using it with some of our clients. Their jQuery plugin makes it transportable to many other platforms as well, and it's great that it's built off the Sunlight Foundation's code base.

There are just too many people re-creating the wheel.  Hopefully we can get progressive organizations investing more in solutions like this which can be improved to produce more effective campaigns.

About The Author

Mike Gifford is the founder of OpenConcept Consulting Inc, which he started in 1999. Since then, he has been particularly active in developing and extending open source content management systems to allow people to get closer to their content. Before starting OpenConcept, Mike had worked for a number of national NGOs including Oxfam Canada and Friends of the Earth.

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