Why I Want a Million Quid

If you’ve met me recently and I seem distracted, it’s because I’ve been trying to pin down a vision that’s been slowly forming in my mind, a vision of something mySociety isn’t currently trying to do, but something that it should try. It’s often tricky to see the big picture through the fog of spreadsheets, email and largely fruitless government meetings that make up my life, but for some reason today the vision seems to have come together.

Let me start with one of my favourite quotes, from the well known cyber-pundit David Lloyd-George:

Don’t be afraid to take a big step if one is indicated. You can’t cross a chasm in two small jumps”

mySociety has always tried to act as a pioneer in the democratic internet field, and has watched like a proud parent as children (like TheyWorkForYou in NZ) and cousins grow up around the world. The time has come for us to continue our tradition of direction-setting by shouting the following as loud as we can: the next step forward for our field is to commence building systems that hold people’s hands as they try to solve problems too hard for tools like WriteToThem or FixMyStreet to be of much help. And this next step forward in our field cannot be achieved in two small steps.

One of our key insights has started to become a hindrance. We love sites like FixMyStreet partly because they show how wonderful success can be achieved at implausibly low cost: about £6000 in the case of that site. They take maintenance, sure, many tens of thousands of pounds a year once you have a number of such sites, but they are essentially elegant, scaleable small pieces of the web ecosystem. We love them partly because they are so small and simple, and that affection can lead to a dangerous narrative that only small and zero-cost scalable can ever be seriously considered.

And there’s the rub. The systems required to hold people’s hands through the process of lobbying for more serious changes at a local or national level will have to be semi, rather than fully automatic, and therefore by definition more expensive to build and run. We need to cross-breed the scaleability, attractiveness and usability of services like WriteToThem with some of the community knowledge generation of Wikipedia, Netmums or Money Saving Expert. And we need to do it whilst never letting go of the hand of the person who’s come to us for help, never leaving them to flounder round a forum looking for help even though they can barely use a mouse.

Don’t get me wrong here, I’m not talking about us branching out into training courses, or the construction of massive Microsoft Windows style monoliths-of-coding-pain: if we can’t make this stuff modular and cheaply scaling they won’t be mySociety projects. What I mean is that we can build systems where each person who is helped to solve a problem leaves a trail of advice, contacts, insider information and new user-friendly web services behind them, ready to lower the costs of helping the next person witha similar problem. Look at how users of WhatDoTheyKnow enrich the service, and the state of common knowledge about our government, just by serving their own interests. We need to generalise that design philosophy, and target it more at the problems our users reveal that they have with government.

But this is, by mySociety’s standards, big money stuff. We’d need to hire some more world class coders, an expert or two in getting things changed in public institutions, some marketing and legal help, and (most important) enough spare cash to afford to go down various unsuccessful avenues without the mistakes killing us.

The vision of hand-holding systems as the next phase of civic coding, is now very clear in my mind, as are some of the specs of the tools we’d build. This is hard stuff: harder and less certain even than building TheyWorkForYou, and it needs to be funded allowing for a level of uncertainty and radical-direction changes. But the rewards could be massive, akin to totally reinventing the Citizens Advice Bureau, and I don’t think our field will remain vibrant if we don’t give it a go.

If you want to know how I think mySociety could change the world, this is your answer.  I don’t want a million quid because I want some sort of open source empire: I want a million quid because we can’t cross this chasm with any less.

14 Comments

  1. Best of luck with this Tom. There is an unfortunate impression that this Web 2.0 stuff ‘doesn’t cost much’ which is true of course. In fact it’s virtually free. Which means . . . . you can put your money where it’s really needed (and can give a huge return), in the hands of people who can make it do empowering things and leave foundations for others to build on.
    The technology may be free, but coders, innovators, relationship builders all need to eat.

  2. Well, you’ve convinced me to start donating. Not a million quid – but it’s a start :-)

    One of the issues with any code base – or wikis – is that they fail to “bootstrap” the neophyte. Too often a level of experience is expected, or steps are skipped over, which bamboozle anyone unfamiliar to your project.

    There is a law of diminishing returns, though. Should your training in how to build a MySociety project include downloading & setting up an IDE? Should you explain what every PHP function does?

    The most important – and cheap – way of helping newbies is to have a vibrant community. If you take http://forum.vodafone.co.uk/ you’ll see experience customer service advisors helping people with their problems. That’s the boring bit. The exciting bit is seeing someone ask a question and then a member of the community answers it.

    It’s something that has to be built organically – but I think that a self sustaining community can be a really powerful tool.

    Terence
    *Disclaimer, I work for Vodafone, I don’t speak for them.

  3. we discussed this sort of thign a few years ago i think – a sort of universal get stuff done engine that helps you progress your problem with public sevrices or large companies

    after 200 years of modernish democracy, 150 years of contract law and 60 years of the welfare state our social systems and systems for redress when they go wrong are bound to be complex. short of a revolution they aren’t going to get radically simpler. evene simplicity brings new types of complexity (see the competition act). but the scale of the complexity for a general or universal resolution engine is daunting.

    a crowd sourcing method to help map pathways must be possible, if one keeps to straightforward non-Political issues.

    if you focus on a group of five things people have problems with – say a social housing problem such as a broken tap, a neighbours roof extension they don’t like, a noisy pub, some persistent fly tipping, a faulty mobile phone. then sketch out the perms of the pathways people have to go through across the uk the scale and need for local and regional subdivision will become clear. eg ‘fred has fixed a broken tap in his islington council flat, follow him’

    happy to convene a bunch of grass roots community activists in kings cross to real world test an approach

    BTW – i don’t have £1m

    cheers

    w

  4. Partnership sugestion – Citizens Advice Bureau & other smaller services e.g. Brixton Advice Centre (@brixtonblade is Director). Not just for help with mapping paths & solutions, piloting, evangelising, supporting end-users, etc. Nor just as a potential interim ‘crowd’ to give you a way to make the leap in two steps. But also for funding, Directly, to replace existing, discrete ICT support; and as joint applicants for new funding; bigger voice, more contacts & chanels etc.
    After all this is just the sort of handholding they try to do, albeit in largely web 0.0 ways at present.
    But you probably already thought of this?

  5. Excellent piece of thinking …

    I agree on the leap needed and the necessity of a mistake safety-net …

    The problem is that 1m or 2 for that matter do not usually come without conditionalities … the sort which cannot easily be accommodated by free-thinking unconventional change agents like mysociety people…

    I think that fundraising on a clear idea or project with the promise that you will “try” to bring about the change is possible, given the reputation you have acquired and integrity you enjoy is possible.

    If twestival.com managed to mobilise such a crowd in 270 + cities in a global fundraiser party through twitter in just a couple of months to help a charity bring clean water in Africa … mysociety can do it as well …

    The objective being less obvious than changing the glass of mud-water for a clean water one, (used for their campaign) there will be a serious effort needed on projecting a clear image of what the benefits and changes could be in the event of a successful outcome…

    I know that mysociety prefers to fly below the radar and lead silent revolutions but fundraising needs greater visibility on objectives met and future ones…

    If you allow for people to easily contribute I think they will… you already count thousands of email newsletters subscribers …

    - paying 20 quid to go to a fundraiser party is easy
    - Setting up a fundraiser party Is not that hard either
    - Allowing paypal donations that will put me on your site as sponsor of my preferred eDemocracy project is easy too
    - …

    It might not get you the million right away … but it will get you something … and it will be all yours … no conditionalities attached …
    just our hopes for a better future and our understanding for honest failures …

  6. Absolutely agree. We are trying to create similar tools to let the community bootstrap each other thru short lived non commital volunteering.

    Please see our blog for more. Cv is in the mail ready for when you get the cash .. seriously.

  7. Great idea, but why is £1m needed to seed this approach?

    Can you not just add “trail-leaving” components to the existing mysociety codebase? After all, functional elements involved in leaving and later reconstructing “a trail of advice, contacts and insider information” are not very dissimilar to freely available components e.g. threaded messageboards. Your proposed approach could be simultaneously piloted by friendly sites, made available freely for adoption by others, and evangelised (on twitter or whatever). For not much incremental cost to what you alerady do.

    Am I missing something here?

  8. Hello, Tom, and thanks for sharing your thoughts. I manage a gov-funded project in Italy (google Kublai) targeted at getting creative people involved with regional development policies. We write no code: everything runs on existing and free tools. But I agree with you, the less standardized the service, the more human input is needed. And human input costs. Of course, to the extent that users appreciate its value and a community develops, some of the human input will be for free, on a p2p basis, so all of this internet community ethos ends up increasing a lot the efficiency of taxpayers € or £ anyway. But for sure there is a different dimension to it from, as you say, fully automated service.

  9. Martin Stewart-Weeks

    This is the key (from an earlier post):
    “The objective being less obvious than changing the glass of mud-water for a clean water one, (used for their campaign) there will be a serious effort needed on projecting a clear image of what the benefits and changes could be in the event of a successful outcome…”
    maybe task #1 is to work on the ‘clear image of what the benefits and chnages could be’. But, as usual, Tom and the mySociety team are on the money

  10. Charles Dixon-Spain

    While following a different thought process I came across your post and then read Martin Stewart-Weeks’s comment about defining what you want and still being very unclear. You’re working in the same ecosystem which will manage (albeit unintentionally) to compromise any big project you might attempt. And in my view this is why the smaller projects work so well (love the landscape one btw) because they’re chewing at the edges while not engaging at the deepest level with the central problem, ie. conventional politics controls the message and stifles open, ongoing and meaningful discussion for everyone who wants to be involved. The big project in my view is an Open Source Political Party which uses existing technologies (like Alberta Cottica does in his comment above) to create momentum in the right direction, and maybe influences mainstream politics into a more congruency with its electorate.

    I posted more on this here: http://www.arbu.biz/2009/05/an-uk-open-source-political-party-anyone/

  11. A great idea – and you guys certainly deserve it.

    I’m not sure where you’ll find the philanthropist – though I suppose some of the big tech co.s might stump up.

    If you get your £1m let me know since I know the ideal lobbyist for you to employ (not me!) who would fulfill the spec perfectly.