Tuesday, January 08, 2013

Democratic activists: engage your representatives

For a long time, some kind of "postal code lookup" tool has been the holy grail of e-activism. I wrote such a tool that sent faxes to MPs back in the early 2000s [the aughties?].

But here in Canada we ran into a problem: postal code to riding databases are compiled by Stats Canada and licensed under restrictive use. So in spite of various attempts to come up with a sustainable solution, they've mostly been ad hoc and fail in the long run because of the cost and effort of keeping that database up to date.

So I'd been deflecting new requests for such a tool for years, hoping someone else would solve it, until a year ago or more two of my clients said they really wanted such a tool, and it occurred to me that geo-coding had now evolved to the point where we could use a different strategy: instead of keeping a database of postal codes to ridings, we could do geocoding of addresses to latitude - longitude and then use the now freely available shape files of ridings to do the lookup. Bonus for this method - we can do lookups with partial addresses that don't have a postal code.

Fortunately, I dallied in getting started and before I could do any code, I was referred to this site:

http://represent.opennorth.ca/

which basically does all this already, and provides a machine interface for external use.

So that meant I could focus on the interface issues and leave the technical lookup to an open data web service.

But to make matters even nicer, along came this module:

http://drupal.org/project/webform_civicrm

which solves a lot of the interface problems.

All of which brings me to what this post is all about -- I've just released the 6.x-1.0 version of the new drupal module:
CiviCRM Represent Open North Integration

And that means you can now enable and encourage your CiviCRM constituents to contact their representative with a simple interface that feeds into and back from your CiviCRM database, making the process as simple as possible for them. Try this as an example:

http://www.taxfairness.ca/action/how-many-tax-dollars

In fact, it's even a little nicer that you see here, because you can generate emails to your constituents with CiviCRM "tokens" so that just clicking on the link in their email will take your constituent to a version of the form that has all their information pre-filled. Yes, it's almost bordering on zombie activism, but I mostly think that the less technical distractions the better, and it doesn't get much better than this.

Did I mention that this works not just for federal MPs but most if not all MPPs and even city councillors for some big cities?

[Update, March 29, 2013: I've just published a Drupal 7 version with more documentation]