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Represent: Making it easy to contact your representatives

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This week, we relaunched Represent, our free web service that finds the elected officials and electoral boundaries for any Canadian address or postal code. Open North has been offering this free service for over two years. Many of Canada’s largest nonprofits and unions depend on Represent for their campaigns. Head over to represent.opennorth.ca to see it in action and to learn more about how it’s being used.

Reaching more citizens through nonprofits

Represent answers a simple question – ”Who represents me?” – which turns out to be a hard problem when you want to answer that question for every Canadian. To put it briefly, we must continously collect and validate information about tens of thousands of elected officials and electoral boundaries from hundreds of sources, which is not something most groups can do. By solving this hard problem for others, especially those groups that empower citizens by amplifying their voices or by offering them tools to exercise power over institutions, we are able to better achieve our mission. Our mission is general: to enable citizens to participate actively in our democracy. Advocacy groups across the country help citizens take part in specific issues through specific actions. Represent helps these groups to focus on those issues and actions, instead of on the technical challenges of operating a service like Represent.

Reaching more nonprofits through businesses

Since launching Represent, we have received many enquiries from nonprofits about integrating Represent into their websites. Working with Environmental Defence and Democracy Watch, we developed open-source plugins for the Drupal and WordPress content management systems, for others to reuse. However, while such contracts could provide an interesting revenue stream for Open North, we believe the nonprofit sector is already well-served by existing web consultancies. We have therefore initiated a referral program, whereby we can refer nonprofits to trusted consultants. In this way, we can support the businesses that chose to develop an expertise in the specific challenges facing nonprofits, while also ensuring that the nonprofits that want to benefit from Represent receive great service.

Scaling up Represent

Represent has been using the federal and provincial electoral districts to determine people’s MPs and MLAs since its launch in 2012, and we have been working to increase our coverage at the municipal level ever since. At the municipal level, a first challenge is determining which of Canada’s roughly 4,000 municipalities are divided into electoral wards. A second challenge is requesting the ward boundaries of the over 750 municipalities that are divided. Without getting into detail, we have been able to overcome these challenges for over 85% of the population, and we will continue to push towards collecting 100% of the electoral boundaries in Canada.

There are two things that will smooth the road to Represent collecting 100% of the electoral boundaries and elected officials in Canada: open data and data standards. Only 45 of Canada’s municipalities have an open data catalog in which they publish their ward boundaries, but many more are considering adopting open data. This year, we hope to better understand the specific barriers to adoption and to then design appropriate solutions to address them. While this work progresses, we hope to see more municipalities publish elected officials’ contact information in a standard spreadsheet format, like the cities of Ottawa and Vancouver have done, so that it is easier to retrieve and combine this information from each municipality.

It should be possible to quickly and easily answer the question, “Who represents me?”, for every person living in Canada. It’s a question that interests not only the individual citizen, but also the various groups that engage people in democracy, including advocacy groups, political parties, and labour unions among others. If you would like to contribute to Represent, please get in touch.

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