Three of us from mySociety’s international team have spent the last few days in Yangon, Myanmar. We’ve come to visit people we’ve been talking to recently about some potential local projects, but we rushed the dates of our visit so we could be present at Myanmar’s first hackathon.
- 76 hackers
- 17 teams
- 8 NGOs’ problems
- 48 hours
Events like these live or die based on the enthusiasm and energy of the organisers and the participants. In that respect, this Myanmar hackathon was best we’ve ever seen. The motivation of everyone present was palpable, driven by David’s seemingly unlimited supplies of energy. It’s also relevant that the problems the teams were working on were specific, real ones that had been submitted by local NGOs who genuinely want them to be solved. This didn’t happen in isolation: representatives from the NGOs were available throughout the weekend to ensure that each team understood the problem they had adopted and were building something that met their requirements.
It’s not uncommon to see scratchy or shaky products being lauded at the end of hackathons, but that was not the case here. The standard of the teams’ work was unbelievably high. Many produced complete Android apps together with websites and iOS versions too. And while it’s easy to be distracted by the technical achievements, David and his people had been clear about the importance of the three-minute pitches/demos (yes: just three minutes!) that were the culmination of each team’s weekend of work. Participants were coached by the extraordinarily astute Phil Morle of Pollenizer in a series of rehearsals — a form of preparation and refinement that frankly was as valuable to those of us who sneaked in to watch it as it was to the participants themselves.
As the final pitches flashed past — timekeeping was politely but sternly enforced — we were again and again astounded by the high standard of the apps, websites, and solutions that were being presented. The judges were considering five criteria:
- impact: does this make you think “wow”?
- practical: can the NGO actually use it?
- creative: has the team done something unexpected?
- execution: did the team implement it well?
- pitch: how clearly was the solution presented?
(See Phil’s post about how to win the competition for more information — it gives a great insight into the attitude prevalent at the event, as well as pitching in general.)
The thoughtful organisers also provided other services: real-time English translations during the presentations (wonderful students from UCSY typed furiously into a google doc projected alongside the stage); buses to get back into town late at night; full meal catering; and caffeine that flowed freely from sponsors Red Bull and Nescafe.
We helped a little as mentors, asking the teams questions about their direction (we do know a little about user-centred design, after all) and providing enthusiasm and praise. But mostly we spent our time being impressed and inspired by these amazing people as they hacked away throughout the two days. Myanmar is deservedly famous for being a beautiful country of unrelentingly charming people — but in the last few days we’ve been shown that it has tremendous technical capability too. We will leave knowing how privileged we were to be here to see it being demonstrated so clearly and enthusiastically.
What are your plans for late April? If you’re a civic coder, a campaigner or activist from anywhere in the world, hold everything: we want to see you in Santiago, Chile, for the first international PoplusCon.
Poplus is a project which aims to bring together those working in the digital democracy arena – groups or individuals – so that we can share our code and thus operate more efficiently.
We’re right at the beginning of what we hope will grow into a worldwide initiative. If you’d like to get involved, now is the time.
Together with Poplus’ co-founders, Ciudadano Inteligente, we will be running a two-day conference in Santiago on the 29th and 30th of April. It is free to attend, and we can even provide travel grants for those who qualify.
Are you part of a campaigning organisation? If you ever ask your supporters to write to politicians, you should know that WriteToThem can be integrated into your website simply, and for free.
Like all mySociety’s offerings, WriteToThem is really easy to use. All your supporters need do is input their postcode and compose their message, then we send it off to the correct representative.
From your side, there are no worries about data management or CRM integration – we take care of all that at our end.
Behind the scenes, we’ve included several safeguards that prevent abuse: for example, your supporters will only be able to contact their own MP, not bombard other representatives with messages they’re unable to act on.
We also check that messages have been safely accepted by the representatives’ servers, and we even follow up to ensure that your supporter received a response.
WriteToThem is free for you, and free for your supporters. It’s available to every sort of organisation, from any part of the political spectrum.
WriteToThem on your website
Full integration with your own website
You can include WriteToThem’s functionality onto your own site, and even template it to match your own styles so that it’s a seamless experience for your users. You will need just a little technical expertise: the instructions are here.
A simple link
If you don’t have any technical resource available to you, though, it’s still easy enough to harness the power of WriteToThem. The quickest and most straightforward way is, of course, to include a link to the WriteToThem homepage, from your own website or in your campaign emails.
A slightly more polished link
For a more sophisticated interface, take a look at this page, which has code that you can drop onto your site or newsletter. You can modify the code so that you only cover certain types of representative – for example, MPs, or MSPs.
If you want to get fancy, you can even pre-fill the name and address fields for your supporters.
Integrating with WordPress
There’s a very simple way to include WriteToThem on a WordPress site: through this plug-in. Installing it is just a matter of drag and drop.
Start by reading our guidelines of use.
We hope you’ll find WriteToThem to be a simple solution that really helps you rally your supporters to contact their representatives on the issues that matter. Please do drop us a line if you hit any problems, or would like to share your experience of using WriteToThem.
Much of what we do here at mySociety relies on Open Data, so naturally we support Open Data Day. In case you haven’t come across this event before, here’s the low-down:
Open Data Day is a gathering of citizens in cities around the world to write applications, liberate data, create visualizations and publish analyses using open public data to show support for and encourage the adoption open data policies by the world’s local, regional and national governments.
If you’re planning on being a part of Open Data Day, you may find some of mySociety’s feeds, tools and APIs useful. This post attempts to put them all in one place. (more…)
There was some excitement here at mySociety this week, as the People’s Assembly website launched in South Africa. It’s the result of a year’s partnership with PMG and a good test of some of our newest collaborative software.
The site contains a vast amount of information, all available in the same place for the first time, and offering a simple way for South African citizens to keep an eye on what their representatives are doing. There are pages for each representative, Hansard and parliamentary Questions and Answers, records of members’ interests, and more.
Locating, processing and displaying this data was quite a challenge: it has been taken from a wide range of sources, and came in an even greater range of formats, including PDF documents, Word documents, Excel files, CSV files and sometimes just e-mailed lists of information.
But perhaps most significant is the site’s Representative Locator function. For the first time, South African citizens can now find out, with ease, who represents them – not as simple as it might seem at first.
The Proportional Representative system means that members of the National Assembly and National Council of Provinces are not directly elected from constituencies. Political parties are, however, funded to run constituency offices and to allocate representatives to those offices. We believe that this is the first time this data has been consolidated and presented as a simple search tool.
The software that runs the site
As you’ll know if you read our recent blog post about SayIt, our recent focus has been reaching out to provide software for civic or democratic-focused websites anywhere in the world.
The idea is that such groups no longer need worry about writing code from scratch, since we’ve already done it – and their energies can be better expended on gathering data or adjusting the software to work within the local governmental systems.
People’s Assembly is a great example of this. It utilises two underpinning pieces of technology:
Firstly, the Pombola platform, our software for running parliamentary monitoring websites.
If you’re reading this in the UK, you may be familiar with our own parliamentary monitoring site, TheyWorkForYou. Pombola provides several tools that make it easy to do much of what TheyWorkForYou does: it provides a structured database of the names and positions of those in power; it allows people to look up their elected representatives by inputting their location, and to isolate and see what a specific MP has contributed to discussions in Parliament’s committees and plenaries; albeit, in the case of Hansard, after a six-month delay necessitated by South Africa’s own protocols.
We first developed Pombola for Kenya’s Mzalendo.com, and it’s been re-used for ShineYourEye.org in Nigeria and Odekro.org in Ghana. It’s superb to see this re-use, as it’s exactly what we set out to acheive.
Secondly, People’s Assembly is the very first site to use SayIt, which is embedded as a Django app to power the Hansard, Questions and Committees content. SayIt is one of our Components, built under the Poplus project, and we’re truly delighted to see it in place, proving its worth and being used as we first envisaged.
Thanks are due
The main work on the People’s Assembly has been funded by the Indigo Trust, and the SayIt component work was funded by Google.org as part of the Poplus Project. We also wish to thank Geoff Kilpin, who helped greatly with the scrapers and templating.
You may be familiar with WhatDoTheyKnow, our website which simplifies the process of making a freedom of information request.
mySociety also provides the underlying software as a service for councils: it sits on the council website, templated and branded to fit their site’s style. When someone submits a request, it goes directly into the council’s own back-end processes.
Just like WhatDoTheyKnow, the system publishes all requests, and their answers, online. This helps the council show a commitment to transparency – it also has the effect of cutting down on duplicate requests, since users can browse previous responses.
Brighton and Hove Council are the first council to implement the software.
Now, ordinarily, when we sign off a new project for a client, we write up a case study for our blog. But this time, we were delighted to read an interview by Matt Burgess on FOI Directory, which has done all the hard work for us. With Matt’s permission, we are reproducing the piece in full.
The number of Freedom of Information requests public authorities receive is generally rising and central government dealt with more requests in 2012 than in any year since the Act was introduced. One council has decided to try and open up access to their requests using custom software from mySociety.
Brighton and Hove City Council have implemented a custom version of the popular WhatDoTheyKnow website where more than 190,000 requests have been made.
The council hope it will allow others to easily browse requests that have been made and make them more accountable.
We spoke to council leader Jason Kitcat about why the council decided to implement the new system – which was soft-launched at the beginning of November.
Why did you decide to implement the new system?
JK: I personally, and we collectively as a Green administration, believe passionately in openness and transparency. That’s the primary motivation. So digital tools to support making it easier for citizens to access council information I think are strongly in the interest of our city and local democracy.
We also were seeing an increase in the number of FOI requests, many of them similar. So using a system like this helps people to find the information that’s already published rather than submitting requests for it, when it’s actually already been published.
How does it work?
JK: It’s a customised version of the mySociety WhatDoTheyKnow site, delivered by mySociety for us in the council’s branding. It allows anyone to submit their FOI request in a structured way through the web and others can see the requests and any responses. The requests are linked in with the main WhatDoTheyKnow site to help further reduce duplication of requests and enable consistent commenting.
Behind the scenes it also offers workflow management to assist the council team who are responding to the requests.
What benefits will the system have to those answering and making FOI requests?
JK: It opens up the process, helps others to see what is going on even if they aren’t making requests themselves. Particularly important is that it by default puts requested information out there on the web without any more effort by the council or those making the requests.
Were there any obstacles in setting the system up and how much did it cost the council?
JK: Obstacles were mainly stretched resources within the council to prepare for the changed workflow, making sure our information governance was ready for this and that our web team could support the minor integration work needed.
Given this is a web-based ’software as a service’ offering it’s pretty straightforward to implement in the grand scheme of things. I don’t have the final costs yet as we’ve been doing some post-launch tweaks but, as is the way with nimble organisations like mySociety, I think pricing is very reasonable.
Do you think it will improve the council’s performance in responding to FOI requests and make the council more transparent to the public?
JK: Yes absolutely. Not only will the council’s FOI performance be more publicly accountable but I’m hoping we can reduce duplicate requests through this so that our resources are better focused.
Would you say it has been worth creating and why should other public authorities follow suit?
JK: Yes it’s worth it. I think we as councils have to be ever more open by default, use digital tools for transparency and relentlessly publish data. I believe this will result in better local democracy but also is one of the ways we can truly challenge cynicism in the whole political system.N.B.: The website current shows a large number of requests that appear to be unanswered. We asked about these and it includes the number of historic requests that were loaded into the site.————————————Many thanks to Matt of FOI Directory for allowing us to reproduce this interview in full.
You know, we can write all we like about our latest launch, SayIt – but it’s often easier to understand stuff face-to-face.
So we’ll be in a Google Hangout on Thursday, 13th February at 4pm GMT, talking through SayIt’s various features and our plans for future development.
You might like to join us if you’re:
- A member of an organisation anywhere in the world, and you want to know how you can use SayIt to put transcripts online
- A developer who would like to try working with SayIt
- Someone with technical knowledge who is interested in volunteering to help us parse other people’s transcripts
- Anyone who is just plain intrigued, or has questions
What is a Hangout?
It’s a Google tool that allows people to chat from an internet browser, with video – similar to Skype, but you can access it simply by pasting a URL into your browser.
How to join
You don’t need a Google account or even a webcam to view our Hangout.
Not a good time?
Don’t worry if you can’t make it – we’ll be recording the whole chat for posterity, and we’ll post the link here once it’s available.
Until about two years ago I was quite actively involved in the Open Data movement. I sat in on the 2007 gathering in California where the first Open Data Principles were drafted, and later sat on the Transparency Board at the UK government.
I stopped being involved in early 2012 because I saw a couple of things happening. First, the Open Data baton had been picked up by dedicated, focused advocates like the Open Data Institute and the Open Knowledge Foundation, who could give 100% to fighting this fight (I always had to fit it around managing a growing organisation with other goals). And second I felt that the surge of relatively meaningful data releases in the country I live in (the UK) had pretty much come to an end. The real policy action and innovation will now happen in more rapidly-changing countries where transparency is a more visceral issue.
Still, despite walking away, I remained optimistic. It seemed more or less impossible to imagine that in twenty years’ time that there wouldn’t be quite a bit more Open Data around, especially in rich countries. But given the virtually-zero political gain to be had from this agenda in countries like the UK, where is said data actually going to come from?
Learning from Microsoft (really)
The more I thought about it, the more I realised that we’d already seen the answer in the form of Microsoft. Throughout the 1990s the .doc and .xls standard rose and took over governments around the world, even though there was never anything like a clear policy process that drove that decision.
There was certainly no high profile ‘Microsoft Government Partnership’ with international conferences and presidential speeches. Instead there was a safe, ‘no brainer’ product that governments bought to solve their problems, and these data standards came with it. The pressure on governments to do anything at all probably came from the fact that the private sector had widely adopted Office first.
I think that a recurrence of this phenomenon – change-through-replacing-old-computers – is where Open Data at real scale is going to come from. I think it’s going to come from old government computers being thrown away at their end-of-life and replaced with new computers that have software on them that produces Open Data more or less by default.
The big but
However, there’s a big BUT here. What if the new computers don’t come with tools that produce Open Data? This is where SayIt comes in, as an example of a relatively low-cost approach to making sure that the next generation of government IT systems do produce Open Data.
SayIt is a newly launched open source tool for publishing transcripts of trials, debates, interviews and so on. It publishes them online in a way that matches modern expectations about how stuff should work on the web – responsive, searchable and so on. It’s being built as a Poplus Component, which means it’s part of an international network of groups collaborating on shared technologies. Here’s JK Rowling being interviewed, published via SayIt.
But how does this little tool relate to the business of getting governments to release more Open Data? Well, SayIt isn’t just about publishing data, it’s about making it too – in a few months we’ll be sharing an authoring interface for making new transcripts from whatever source a user has access to.
We hope that having iterated and improved this authoring interface, SayIt can become the tool of choice for public sector transcribers, replacing whatever tool they use today (almost certainly Word). Then, if they use SayIt to make a transcript, instead of Word, then it will produce new, instantly-online Open Data every time they use it.
The true Open Data challenge is building brilliant products
But we can’t expect the public sector to use a tool like SayIt to make new Open Data unless it is cheaper, better and less burdensome than whatever they’re using now. We can’t – quite simply – expect to sell government procurement officers a new product mainly on the virtues of Open Data. This means the tough task of persuading government employees that there is a new tool that is head-and-shoulders better than Excel or Word for certain purposes: formidable, familiar products that are much better than their critics like to let on.
So in order for SayIt to replace the current tools used by any current transcriber, it’s going to have to be really, really good. And really trustworthy. And it’s going to have to be well marketed. And that’s why we’ve chosen to build SayIt as an international, open source collaboration – as a Poplus Component. Because we think that without the billions of dollars it takes to compete with Microsoft, our best hope is to develop very narrow tools that do 0.01% of what Word does, but which do that one thing really really well. And our key strategic advantage, other than the trust that comes with Open Source and Open Standards, is the energy of the global civic hacking and government IT reform sector. SayIt is far more likely to succeed if it has ideas and inputs from contributors from around the world.
Regardless of whether or not SayIt ever succeeds in penetrating inside governments, this post is about an idea that such an approach represents. The idea is that people can advance the Open Data agenda not just by lobbying, but also by building and popularising tools that mean that data is born open in the first place. I hope this post will encourage more people to work on such tools, either on your own, or via collaborations like Poplus.
Photo by Troy Morris (CC)
UKgovcamp14 took place at London’s City Hall last weekend — mySociety was one of the sponsors. It’s a great opportunity to meet people, many of whom are currently working inside local or national government, who don’t need further convincing that civic services can be improved by sensible use of well-designed online technologies. Furthermore UKgovcamp is an unconference, which effectively means people get to talk about what they really want to talk about, with a spontaneous agenda — ideal for sharing experience, suggestions, and enthusiasm.
City Hall is an intriguing venue: it looks like a giant spacewoodlouse getting ready to pounce across the Thames onto the Tower of London. The main chamber has unnervingly clear accoustics (ideal for an event like this) and a history-rich view (HMS Belfast, the White Tower, and Tower Bridge); and we set our stall up on a floor that was tiled with — what else? — a huge, detailed aerial view of London.
So this blog post is just a quick “hello” to all the people we talked to at the event, and a hearty “thanks” to the hard-working, grey-hoodied crew who made it all run so smoothly. Our Ben led a session at the end of the day on Open Standards. In the discussion that followed, we referred to two specific examples. When we built the new transcript tool SayIt, we decided it should initially work with transcripts in the Akoma Ntoso open standard for parliamentary documents — the SayIt site shows some examples of the subset we’re currently using. The point of course is not that transcripts need to be anything to do with parliament (see, for example, the plays of Shakespeare), but that the problem of structuring such documents has already been addresssed, shared, and adopted by others who happen to be in that field.
We ended the day by getting soaked by an unexpectedly horizontal rainstorm the moment we left the sanctuary of City Hall’s glass carapace. Luckily we were able to dry out whilst continuing the networking in the pub just across the road. So, all in all, a splendid day.
Image credit: via Flickr from David J Pearson CC BY-SA 2.0
However, they can be very important, or even historic. They can reveal big plans that will affect lots of people, and they are a basic requirement of political accountability.
But the way in which transcripts are made available online today doesn’t reflect this importance. They tend to be published as hundreds of PDFs, and look more or less like they were made in the 1950s.
We think that the people who are affected by the decisions and plans announced in transcribed meetings deserve better.
What is SayIt?
SayIt is an open source tool for publishing speeches, discussions and dialogues, simply and clearly, online. Search functionality is built in, you can link to any part of a transcript, and the whole thing works nicely on mobile devices.
SayIt can be used either as a hosted service, or it can be built directly into your own website, as a Django app. Here are some examples of what it looks like in its hosted, standalone form:
The complete works of Shakespeare – as a demonstration of SayIt’s flexibility in handling different kinds of transcript
However, SayIt’s main purpose is to be built into other sites and apps. We don’t have a live demo of this today, but one of our international partners will soon be launching a new Parliamentary Monitoring site which uses SayIt to publish years of parliamentary transcripts.
SayIt is also 100% open data compatible, and we use a cut-down version of the Akoma Ntoso open standard for data import.
What isn’t SayIt?
Not a site full of data curated and uploaded by mySociety – it’s a tool for redeployment all over the net. We’ll host deployments where that’s helpful to people, though.
Not primarily about Britain – whilst we’re a social enterprise based in the UK, SayIt has been built with an international perspective. We hope it will serve the needs of people watching politicians in places like Kenya and South Africa.
Not solely a mySociety project – it’s actually an international collaboration, via the Poplus network (see more below).
Not (yet) a tool to replace Microsoft Word as the way you write down transcripts in the first place. This is coming as we move from Alpha to Beta, though.
Why are we building SayIt?
SayIt is one of the Poplus Components. Poplus is a global collaboration of groups that believe it is currently too difficult and expensive to build effective new digital tools to help citizens exert power over institutions.
Poplus Components are loosely joined tools, mostly structured as web services, that can be used to radically decrease the development time of empowerment sites and apps.
SayIt is the newest component, and aims to reduce the difficulty and cost of launching services that contain transcripts – in particular websites that allow people to track the activities of politicians. Using SayIt or other Poplus components you can build your site in whatever language and framework suits your wishes, but save time by using the components to solve time-consuming problems for you.
The founders of Poplus are FCI in Chile, and mySociety in the UK – and we are hoping that the launch of SayIt will help grow the network. The project has been made possible by a grant from Google.org, while early iterations were aided by the Technology Strategy Board.
Interested in publishing transcripts via SayIt? Here’s what to do…
Having taken a look at the demos, we hope at least some of you are thinking ‘I know of some transcripts that would be better if published like this’.
If you are interested, then there are two approaches we’d recommend:
If you’re a coder, or if you have access to technical skills, read about how to convert your data into the open standard we use. Then talk to us about how to get this data online.
If you don’t have access to technical skills, get in touch about what you’re interested in publishing, and we’ll explore the options with you.
Note to coders – We’ve not yet spent a lot of time making SayIt easy to deploy locally, so we know it may be a challenge. We’re here to help.
Where might SayIt help?
SayIt comes from a desire to publish the speeches of politicians. But we know that there are many other possible uses, which is why we built the Shakespeare demo.
We think SayIt could be useful for publishing and storing transcripts of:
Local council meetings
Academic research interviews and focus groups
Academic seminars, lectures, etc
Market research focus groups
Historic archives of events such as a coronation or key debate
These are just a few of our ideas, but we bet you have others – please do tell us in the comments below.
What’s coming next
At the moment, SayIt only covers publishing transcripts, not creating them. Needless to say, this lack of an authoring interface is a pretty big gap, but we are launching early (as an Alpha) because we want to know how you’ll use it, what features you want us to build, and what doesn’t work as well as we anticipated. We also want to see if we can attract other people to co-develop the code with us, which is the real spirit of the Poplus network.
We’ll also be adding the ability to subscribe to alerts so that you’ll get an email every time a keyword occurs (just as you can on our other websites, such as FixMyStreet, TheyWorkForYou and WhatDoTheyKnow). This feature will come into its own for ongoing series of transcripts such as council meetings.
Image by Columbia Phonograph Co. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons