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 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.