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Tech

A British Couple Made an App That Exposes Sellout Politicians

A new browser extension makes it easy to see which fat-cats are giving money to MPs.
February 16, 2015, 5:30pm

This article originally appeared on VICE UK.

Political lobbying scandals are a regular enough occurrence that it can be hard to keep track of which MPs will hook you up with the PM if you chuck them some money, and which will give you a job if you become their best mate. Then there's the steady stream of friendly gifts given to MPs by interested parties that seem minor enough that they don't make it into the 'papers with a whole "-gate" suffix. These are registered in an open, transparent way on the Register of Members' Financial Interests, and put on a website that only a few anoraks would ever bother to look at.

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Well, now there's a browser extension to help you keep track of on-the-neglected-radar backhanders that are slowly gnawing away at the heart of our democracy.

As another row erupted last week, with Labour Party leader Ed Miliband attacking the Tories' "dodgy donors" named in leaked HSBC Swiss bank files, I spoke with Emma Tyers. She has has spent the past few weeks with her husband Rob, putting their techie skills to good use to make it easier for us all to peruse the relationship between MPs in the news and the donors and private interests they are required to register.

VICE: So what exactly have you and Rob been building?
Emma Tyers: MembersInterests.org.uk is three things: a browser extension button you can download so when you read a news article about an MP, you can click on their name and see what financial interests they have registered. You can also type your MPs name into the website to link to their entry in the MPs register of financial interests, or a word cloud from it. And now you can also search words that appear in the register of financial interests they are meant to declare.

And what sort of things does it tell us?
It really shows the scale of influence corporations and political donors have on our parliamentarians. Try typing "Healthcare," "PriceWaterHouseCoopers," or "HSBC" in. Or for example, Lord Fink was in the news this week in a big row with Ed Miliband, saying "everyone does tax avoidance at some level." If you type in "Lord Fink," four MPs he has donated to come up.

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I'd like to make clear we are not party political, we are not members of a party, we are completely independent. We are just doing this to make it much easier for people to see what interests their constituency MPs or politicians in the news have.

We want to take interesting data—about who funds politicians and where their financial interests lie–and put it at people's finger tips.

Emma Tyers

So what motivated you to do this?
I am a member of [campaign group] "999 Call For The NHS" and we organized a march from Jarrow to London last summer—the People's March For The NHS—following the route of the original 1936 hunger march.

As a mother, as a person who has used the NHS, I am obviously concerned about hospital closures. And looking at MPs with healthcare interests, it was a pretty long list.

I know reporters researching the influence of private health companies on MPs have spent hours trawling through the MPs register in its very unfriendly format so we wanted to make that whole process easier.

I saw a similar app called allaregreen.us, written by a student that made it easy to see who contributes to members of Congress in the US, where donations can be hundreds of thousands of dollars. We wondered if we could do something similar with the financial interests of UK politicians.

And you put it together in a matter of weeks?
We both work in IT. We started in November, and worked on it evenings and weekends, and by January had the Beta site you can see today, including the browser extension, the website, and the ability to index all the data. Rob likes a challenge and found the data side very interesting because the MPs register of interests is unstructured data and very difficult to deal with.

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We're still tinkering with it, but it's very robust. The browser extension is in github and it's all Open Source, so anyone who wants to take the code and data and work with it is welcome to.

Why is that important to you?
This government has made a big deal about "open data." We have taken this hard-to-read, closed data and opened it up, so anyone can access it when reading a related news story or researching one. We want people to take it and do whatever they want with it, so as many people as possible can access the data—especially with the election coming up.

What else are you planning to do with it?
Rob is working on previous registers, because this register is only for the last year and old entries are removed, so people will be able to search previous years and get the full picture of the influence a political donor has going back over the past few years.

After that, we are looking at the House of Lords Register, though the data is in a different format, one that, again, is difficult to use. And possibly the Lobbying Register, though the government ensured there's very little transparency there.

Are you hoping Members Interests will change anything?
Time will tell. In a few weeks we were able to make a tool to open up democracy that little bit. We hope others join us using technology for greater transparency. We want people to use us to research what they find in the news and their local MP. And we want them to tweet us on #MPinterests to let us know what they find.

Thanks Emma.

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