Putting Councillors to Bed in PlanningAlerts

This week we’re removing councillors, and the ability to write to councillors from PlanningAlerts. We disabled the feature in 2019. Now we’re removing the functionality from the code that runs the site and as a side-effect historical comments to councillors made between 2016 and 2019 will now no longer be visible on PlanningAlerts.

Why on earth would we do this?

I thought long and hard before doing this. It was in the front of my mind that hard work went into building the feature, it did what was intended and many people used it. So, why remove it?

The main reason is maintaining a complete and up-to-date list of all councillors for the hundreds of local councils in Australia was not a task that we were able to do with the way that things were set up. Regular council elections cause everything to change as well as big events like the forced merger of 40 odd local councils in NSW. In 2019 when we disabled the feature we were so behind on updates and the experience for people is that it says you can write to councillors who are no longer councillors which is terrible. Rather than show stuff that is plainly misleading we decided to remove councillors completely.

There were some other big technical issues as well. Write-it, a service (and open-source software) developed by a Chilean not-for-profit that we were using to send and receive the emails to councillors, was not being supported anymore. We were increasingly running into issues where we had to do things like redact comments and were having trouble contacting the administrators. In the intervening time the service has gone completely offline and the software is not being developed any further. So, we would have to either take over support and development of the Write-It software and host a service ourselves or develop an alternative approach, perhaps using Cuttlefish, the open-source transactional email service that we use for sending out email alerts from PlanningAlerts.

I wish we could have gotten back to this and fixed all this but the truth is we haven’t. So, rather than leaving this unfinished, not working thing around for us to feel guilty about, we’ve decided to grasp the nettle and excise it completely from the codebase. This has the added benefit of significantly simplifying the codebase which makes it easier for anyone new to pick up as well as simpler for us to support and add new features to. 

If we rebuild or recreate this feature in the future we will likely have to focus earlier on finding a sustainable way for the councillor information to be kept up-to-date. One passing idea is to only add councillors to a particular local council if a small group of local people nominate themselves as maintainers of the data for their council. They are the people most motivated to keep things up to date. Of course we don’t really know if that would work in practise but it might be one place to start in the future. If this is something that you would be interested in doing were it to come back, please do let us know.

What about the historical record?

It doesn’t feel great to be making changes to old applications visible on PlanningAlerts by removing comments to councillors (comments to planning authorities are unaffected). To try to be good citizens about all of this we’ve archived all the publicly visible information in a machine readable format (YAML) at https://github.com/openaustralia/planningalerts-councillor-comments-archive 

We’ve also made sure that snapshots of all pages with comments to councillors have been archived on the Wayback Machine from the Internet Archive. Hurrah for the Internet Archive. We wrote some code to do this all automatically too:

You can access the archived snapshots on the Internet Archive by taking the URL of the application on PlanningAlerts (e.g. https://www.planningalerts.org.au/applications/687643) and putting it into the Wayback Machine URL https://web.archive.org/web/20210909/<insert URL here> so that you get a full URL like https://web.archive.org/web/20210909/https://www.planningalerts.org.au/applications/687643

Thank you

Thank you to Luke Bacon, Henare Degan and Hisayo Horie for developing the features for writing to councillors. 

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  1. Nigel Waters
    Posted July 8, 2022 at 12:59 pm | Permalink

    Sorry to hear that you have withdrawn this feature. You flag this option:
    One passing idea is to only add councillors to a particular local council if a small group of local people nominate themselves as maintainers of the data for their council.
    I am sure we could find people her in Port Stephens to take this on, and perhaps even get volunteers to take it on for the wider Hunter region of NSW.

  2. Posted July 12, 2022 at 5:18 pm | Permalink

    We could do this also in City of Yarra Victoria which has a high number of planning applications relative to other Melbournr metropolitan councils.

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