The mySociety Call for Proposals: The winner and runners up

mySociety is pleased to announce the winner of our 2006 call for proposals, plus our thoughts on the best runners up, and various other lessons.

Winner

Our winner, and the next major site we are planning to build is the Freedom of Information Filer and Archive; a searchable, readable, googlable user-created archive of FOI requests and their responses. Think of a combined TheyWorkForYou and WriteToThem.com for FOI requests and their responses, and you’ll have our vision.

This idea was actually submitted twice, once by Phil Rodgers and once by Francis Irving (a mySociety coder).

We believe the idea is especially powerful in a form extended somewhat beyond that submitted. We think that the best way to build a top quality archive is to simultaniously build the best possible “File an FOI request” tool, and then publish both the requests and the responses made through it in the archive. From the private desire to easily file FOI requests we hope that we can generate the public benefit of an easy to use archive.

We asked our community of users and friends to list their top three projects, and the FOIFA was named more often than any other single project as the winner: 9 out of a total of 22 people who left a comment expressing their preferences. The core team, core volunteers and trustees agreed with the users, and so we have a winner.

Logistics

mySociety will start building the system in early 2007. We will try to fund it in two ways. First, we will approach donors, most probably foundations, to see if they are interested in supporting it. Secondly, we will see if we can set aside some surplus from contract work, such as branded versions of the other sites. And lastly, we’ll work with any volunteers who are willing to dig in.

Our initial estimate is that the site will take 120 full time developer days to design, build and launch to beta, for a total cost of about £25,000 including servers, management time, gathering of contact details, buying of sweets, motivational calendars and so on. The cost of running it thereafter are hard to gauge at this point, and will depend on usage patterns and the final spec we settle on.

In the run up to building and launching it we’ll gladly talk to anyone who wants to be involved, including public sector agencies who we hope might use this system to publish responses to requests made via other channels.

Runner Ups

In no particular order, these are some of the other ideas that had some legs. We’re putting them here to suggest to the world that there might be something well worth exploring here.

1. A to B travel, by Murray, is a sort of collaborative journey planner, where people share information on journeys that they’ve made. Unfortunately, too much of this site is already done by the big and expensively run government site Transportdirect.info , but it has nice ideas that are worth someone doing. In particular the idea of local knowledge and general comments on different journeys is an excellent, and Seat61.com shows that there is some considerable appetite for journeys explained in a human form. Often I don’t want the fastest journey from A to B, I might want the best view, or the most pleasant form of transport, or the one that can be broken somewhere notable.

We’ve also come up with a feature that this site could add. It is the idea of registering to express an interest not in a specific journey, but in a general journey: “I go from Manchester to London a few times a year, and I might want to share a car in future”.

2. Get Out! by Mary Reid. This proposal was about building a site that would contain a user build database of places to go in the UK that would contain something nice and easy to do if you had an hour or two to spare and wanted to get out of the house.

We’ve felt for a while that there is a great problem with knowledge of local activities being hopelessly fractured across the UK Internet, spread across a million different sites and so worth much less than the sum of its parts. A site that could become a reference place to store interesting things to see, and a reference place to find them could be excellent indeed. Maybe a rebuild and extension of our little back o’ the envelope site YourHistoryHere.com?

3. Write To Your Newspaper by Francis Irving (again)

This proposal was about a site that makes it much easier to write to local newspapers. It is undoubtedly a good thing, but it simply didn’t beat the FOI archive because we felt the demand and public benefit just wasn’t as great as for FOIFA. One of mySociety’s volunteers has actually already written some code in this area, and we certainly think it should go further.

4. TheyWantToWorkForYou by Seb Bacon – a site where people could find out prospective politicians rather than current ones was voted for by a few people. We think it would be a good idea for such a system to exist, but the scale problem is enormous. With 20,000 current councillors, just imagine how many candidates there are at each election, and the massive problem of trying to get them to give structured views. What is missing here really is a strong motivation for candidates to go to a certain site and enter info themselves – it just doesn’t exist, and probably couldn’t without the major backing of someone like a big newspaper,or the BBC. NB, we also feel strongly that such a site would have to be permanent, and not just run at elections.

Lessons Learned from Running the Call

Just some thoughts about the process, really here for anyone else who might be planning to run a call like this and who stumbles across us via Google.

1. First time round, in 2003, the call for proposals got 250+ proposals, whereas this time it had more like 100, even though mySociety has moved from completely unknown to somewhat better known. Clearly despite BBC and Guardian coverage, we did something not as well this time. This might simply have not been hammering every list and person we could with personally crafted emails, or it could have just been blind chance.

2. We should have determined and published the judging process before the call for proposals was put out. Nobody seems to have been especially upset by our drawn out and ill-planned selection process, but it would have meant we would have made our decision much more quickly.

3. We should have set a timetable for all parts of the process.

4. We should have made some sort of web based voting gadget to engage people slightly more with the deciding process (despite knowing that online voting is mostly bunk, of course).

5. We could have made a shortlist and then asked the authors to do more work in polishing up their ideas.

If you’ve any further questions about the call for proposals, or the Freedom of Information Filer and Archive get in touch with us at hello@mysociety.org

14 Comments

  1. cool. are the responses going to be automatically funelled into your web, for better capture, or will we have to stick it in ourselves? and, er, if it’s automatic can you have a feature for scumbag investigative journalists like me where we can do our searches through you, but the responses don’t go public on the site until we’ve had a chance to flog the story?

  2. It would be good if FOIFA could also collect requests and responses that weren’t submitted through its own tool. That could help kick it off with a useful collection of past results. It’s also more in tune with the ethos of FoI – to my mind it’s important that you don’t have to understand the process or say “this is an FoI request” to exercise your right to information, so don’t make this site a closed mechanism.

  3. Ben – the idea is indeed that the responses are automatically funelled through the site and published at the same time as they are emailed back to the user. Hopefully we can also encourage the user to leave some small amount of useful metadata.

    Also, the journalists question will be a good one. Do we want to scare away journalists by refusing to give them any advantage over other users? Our sites are supposed to empower citizens after all, not act as tools for already well organised groups. But the question is far from decided.

    And Pete, yes, there will be some sort of way of uploading requests and responses submitted in other ways. Thoughts on how this should work are warmly welcomed.

  4. Excellent choice. :-) To be fair to Francis, it was his idea first; I submitted my version without spotting that he’d already done so.

    I think getting the responses indexed by search engines is going to be one of the most important aspects – this will be challenging if they are often provided on paper. There may be some copyright issues, of the sort that Craig Murray has come across. It will also be interesting to see what the effect is of making it very easy for users to fire off a large number of FOI requests, which do after all impose significant costs on the receiving organisations. There should probably be some sort of encouragement of responsible use.

    I’d be happy to help out (in some not-terribly-time-consuming way) e.g. by commenting on the spec. I write software for a living (in Cambridge), so have some relevant experience.

  5. A word of warning:
    Craig Murray has had difficulty with republishing information received via FOI requests. The documents in question are still Crown Copyright and he was threatened with being sued if he published them (despite their being available under the FOI act).
    I’m not sure how, or if this will affect the project. I hope it doesn’t and all the best.

  6. The FoIFA idea offers the possibility of allowing users to submit requests without being identifiable to the receiving authority. This could be a good thing if it encouraged those who fear consequences, such as staff of public authorities, to submit requests. Or it might encourage irresponsible use of the Act. What do others think?

  7. Neil

    Section 8(1)(b) of the FoI Act requires a request for information to state “the name of the applicant and an address for correspondence”, so public authorities do not have to reply to anonymous requests. However, it would be possible for a named person at mySociety to act as a requester on behalf of somebody who wishes to stay anonymous, as an email address complies with the requirements. If mySociety decides to go down this road, it should note that section 14(2) of the Act provides that public authorites aren’t obliged to comply with repeated requests from a particular person.

    (Interestingly – at least to FoI lawyers – the Environmental Information Regs do not require a request to be accompanied by a name.)

  8. An interesting idea and line of discussion. I’ve posted something about this today on our blog at http://web.archive.org/web/20110728033632/http://impact.freethcartwright.com/2006/11/foia_request_re.html *

    If the proposals on fees go through (see bit in our blog posting) then this type of proposal could take on an even greater significance. A body of volunteer requesters as a way of getting round the aggregation of fees proposal could be a good supplement?

    *Broken link replaced with Internet Archive link.

  9. In the example above, the page header and intro text prints. I’m trying to suppress that as well.

  10. wadda, (Uganda)

    Well, what can i say?, this is a great idea because some of us in developing countries feel if such developments were available and accessible, change in the structure of enterprise development would very much be important. information is key and interactive requests and replies are the only foundation for indiscriminatory platform. It encourages even the fearful fellows.