1. Thank you and Happy Holidays!

    Last week mySociety turned 10! And to start this blog we want to say a huge THANK YOU to everyone who sent photos, tweets and emails with birthday messages.

    [iframe src="http://www.mysociety.org/files/2013/12/happybirthday.html?" width="100%" height="300"]

    With no further ado here are a selection of your lovely smiling faces. (There were a few of you so please check out all the pictures are on Flickr !!)

     Ferocious the Ciudadano Inteligente office dog sent us personal greetings!

    The team from KuvakaZim :)

    The e-democracy.org team!

    Hindol from WhyPoll

    Gaba &….

    Daniel and Fabrizio from DATAuy

    And all the rest of you. We appreciate your messages so very much.

    As the last round up of the year, over the past month we’ve seen the launch of KuvakaZim, we’ve almost completed a Pombola site for South Africa and Alaveteli for Uganda (Launch is due for both of these sites in January). There are also versions of Alaveteli being worked on in Italy, Macedonia, Croatia and Bulgaria which are working towards launch in the first half of next year, so it’s been pretty busy.

    As a side note Uganda have entered the AskYourGov site into the Making All Voices Count global innovation competition if you’re interested in taking a look and voting!

    In FixMyStreet news, the team from DATAuy are also working with the local government in Montevideo on a FixMyStreet for Uruguay. We’re really excited to see this working because they’re also looking at mobilising the local offline communities. It will be a really interesting experiment and I can’t wait to see the site up and running.

    Finally I wanted to say Feliz Navidad, Joyeux Noel, Frohliche Weihnachten, Sretan Bozic, Buon Natale and

    أتمنى لكم عيد ميلاد مجيد

    Regardless of whether you celebrate Christmas or not, I hope you get to spend some time with the people you love this holiday season! Happy Holidays!

  2. Now we are 10

    At some point in the final quarter of this year – and the exact moment differs, depending on who you believe – mySociety turned ten.

    Our Director Tom, mySociety’s founder, describes this as “a frankly improbable milestone”. He has seen mySociety grow from an idea on the back of an envelope, to an international social enterprise with friends, partners, volunteers and clients around the world.

    Last week, at a small birthday party, Tom pulled out five key elements of  mySociety’s first decade – elements that symbolise different facets of the organisation’s growth and impact.

    Not all of our many friends, associates and partners could join us at that party, so I’m going to share those elements here.

    1. mySociety’s first project

    writetothem screenshotThis screenshot shows the brand new design for WriteToThem.com, which we have just recently put live.

    WriteToThem, our site for sending messages to politicians, was the first mySociety launch. That was way back in 2004. This launch, says Tom, was a key moment because it showed that mySociety wasn’t just ideas and bluster – it could build useful things that people actually wanted.

    WriteToThem was of course followed by sites like FixMyStreet, FixMyTransport and TheyWorkForYou, all built by marvellous developers to whom the organisation owes great thanks (see the foot of this post for a large quantity of thanks).

    2. Our volunteers

    Another of our UK websites is WhatDoTheyKnow, which lets you make or browse Freedom of Information requests, as simply as possible. It’s visited about half a million times a month, and has become a bit of a UK internet institution – a place you go for a certain kind of information.

    Confirm or Deny blog post

    Above is a screenshot from FOI blog Confirm or Deny: a list of 366 interesting things we know because of FOI requests made on the site. It was lovingly compiled by Helen, one of our volunteers; she’s a member of the truly heroic team who help keep that site running, and it represents the dedication that all our volunteers bring to their work.

    See the thanks section for lots more gratitude to our volunteers – and read more about volunteering for mySociety here.

    3. Our international partners

    kimittud screenshot

    Above you can see a screenshot of Ki Mi Tut, a Hungarian Freedom of Information site, run by a local NGO. It already contains nearly 2,000 FOI requests.  This site is a deployment of Alaveteli – the technology we spun out of WhatDoTheyKnow so that people around the world could run sites that would help citizens to chisel information out of their governments.

    Ki Mi Tut symbolises the growing success of our international team, and mySociety’s international focus more generally. If you know mySociety as the builder of  UK sites, you might not know that the great majority of our development efforts today goes towards helping groups like this to run services around the world: helping people to keep an eye on their politicians, obtain information from governments, get streets fixed and so on.

    4. Our commercial work

    empty homes spotter

    mySociety isn’t just a charity any more – mySociety ltd is our trading subsidiary, and is growing fast. It’s twice the size the whole of mySociety used to be, and it’s still growing.

    As a symbol of this success, we proffer mySociety’s first Emmy nomination - yes, we were surprised too! – for a site and app we made for a campaigning TV show in conjunction with Channel 4.

    5. mySociety’s future

    Tom finished by giving a glimpse at a new tool we have in development – SayIt – focused on helping people around the world find out more about what decision makers have been saying about things that matter to their lives, their homes, their jobs their kids or their communities. SayIt will go into a public alpha early in the New Year, and we’ll talk more about it then.

    Unlike our earlier projects, SayIt isn’t being built for Britain first – it’s being built to work anywhere.  We’re not building it alone: it’s just one of the components that form the Poplus partnership, a federation of collaborative empowerment tech builders that we have kicked off in conjunction with FCI Chile. And we promise we’ll let you all have a play very soon.

    So, that’s it – a whistlestop tour of our first decade, and a glimpse at what’s to come.

    We’d like to thank you for reading this far – and talking of thanks…

     

    (more…)

  3. KuvakaZim Launches!

    Transparency, accountability and open government are huge themes for African citizens as the number of internet and mobile phone users jump up across the continent. People are connecting and realising that the internet provides them with a quick and easy way to engage with politics, be that via social media or citizen engagement websites.

    One group have just launched a parliamentary monitoring platform for Zimbabwe using our Pombola platform. We helped them with the original set up, some small technical issues and some general platform advice, but KuvakaZim has only gotten to launch due to the huge dedication and work of its founders, Regina and Peter.

    The beginning

    “The KuvakaZim project was born from a general concern regarding the accountability and activities of Zimbabwean Members of parliament and their duties in regard of their representative role,” Regina Dumba, lead volunteer of the project, tells the world in her press release.

    “Many articles, books and studies have explored the issue of good governance in African countries and how it relates to transparency, accountability, and Government performance. Knowing the causes and effects of these plights, we believe it is now time for action in Africa and in Zimbabwe. Until we start putting words into action, only then can we rebuild our country.” She continues on the KuvakaZim blog.

    Creating the site.

    Regina, Cleopatra and Peter, who has been volunteering technical skills for the project, contacted mySociety in July after being inspired by Kenya’s Mzalendo. Since then they have been working tirelessly to gather MP data and information on constitutional rights, how democracy works in Zimbabwe, electoral law and political parties. The site now allows Zimbabweans to learn more about how their government works, as well as the duties of their MP and whether they are carrying these out. This has been especially timely because of the recent elections on July 31, 2013.

    That’s not to say that the site has got to this stage without any hitches however..

    It’s been difficult to find official boundary data for Zimbabwe, which means we haven’t yet managed to load an MP look up onto the site. The hope is that this will come in the future, along with other features such as Hansard and the potential to write to your politician.

    Despite this the team have managed to gain some on the ground volunteer support and launch the site this week. If you want to learn more about KuvakaZim the check out their blog and their twitter stream. We’ll be following their progress too!

    Image credits: Patola Connection by Whologwhy Hands up by Pim Geerts | Bend in the Road by Andrew Ashton | All Creative Commons licensed photographs. Thank you for making your content creative commons.

  4. Checking Our Privilege – Changing our job ads in response to a good challenge

    I recently read a post by Ashe Dryden which has led me to edit a job advert we currently have online. I thought the story might be of interest.

    Ashe notes that it is becoming increasingly common to look at a coder’s public GitHub pages and contributions as a way of getting a quick view of their skills and energy. The basic idea is that someone with loads of public, well documented code is probably a good coder you want to have on board – and someone with an altruistic interest in free and open source technology to boot. What could be wrong with that?

    The gist of Ashe’s argument is that there’s actually quite a big problem with this. What it all boils down to is the fact that contributions to GitHub aren’t just a sign of someone’s enthusiasm or skill, it’s also a sign that they have the good fortune to have lots of spare time. And guess what – the people who have lots of spare time are also people who tend to have a lot of other privileges in life.

    So, as a response to Ashe’s challenge, I have removed the requirement in our latest job advert to have proof that you have been willing and able to do impressive things in your spare time. We will still vet people for enthusiasm and passion – especially important at a mission-driven non-profit like mySociety – but we won’t do it in ways that potentially exclude people who could make a big contribution to our goals.

    NB We are advertising for three different roles right now, not just coders. Do please take a look.

  5. Open Source: trying to make it more open

    Hopeful Helping Hands by Matt Katzenberger

    This month we released a new version of FixMyStreet. Amongst the new features, fixes, and thingamajigs were some small improvements added by two volunteers, Andrew and Andy.

    Even though these are not core pieces of functionality — in fact, precisely because they are not — we want to draw your attention to why they were included, and why this is a Very Good Thing. And perhaps, if you’re a coder who wants to put something into an Open Source project but hasn’t quite found a way in, Andrew and Andy’s work will nudge you into becoming a contributor too.

    One of the axioms of Open Source is that, because anyone can read the source code, in theory anyone can contribute to it. In practice, though, it’s not really as simple as that. Both ends of the “anyone can contribute” idea require effort:

    • Before contributing to a project of any complexity (as we hope you want to do), there’s often a lot to learn, or figure out, before any work can even begin;
    • Before accepting contributions to such a project (keen as we are to do so), there’s an overhead of testing, checking, and managing the incoming code.

    The ugly real world

    The basic issue here is that software is complex — no matter how well-written, tested and documented program code is, if the problem it’s solving is in the real world, it’s not going to be simple.

    This is especially true of anything used by the public, because often you can only make things seem simple at the front (such as a clean web interface or “user journey”) by working hard behind the scenes with data structures and processes that handle the underlying complexity. It’s inevitably true of any projects which have been developed over time — programmers like to use the term “legacy code” to describe anything that wasn’t written then way they’d choose to write it now.

    Often the problems that software is solving are not quite as obvious as they first appear. At mySociety we’ve got a wealth of experience and actual usage data that ultimately changes the way we build, and develop, our platforms. We understand the fields we work in well (technically, the nerds like to call these the “problem domain”), whether it’s governmental practice or civic user behaviour, and that’s often knowledge that’s not encapsulated anywhere in the program code.

    Furthermore, any established platform must protect against the risk that new changes break old behaviour — something that regression testing is designed to catch. This is especially important on platforms like FixMyStreet or Alaveteli where the software is already running in multiple installations.

    This is why we have a team of full-time, experienced, and (thanks to our rigorous recruitment process) talented programmers who can invest the time and effort to be familiar with all these things when they set to work coding.

    But this builds up to an impediment: sensitivity to any of these issues is enough to make anyone think twice about simply forking our code and starting to hack on it for us.

    How it sometimes works

    In practice, then, how does anything get contributed? How come it doesn’t all get written by our own coders?

    The answer is, of course, we do work with major contributors outside our own team (have a look at the activity on our github repos to see them) — but it always requires a period of support and on-line discussion both before and during the process. There’s also the business of testing, and sometimes politely pushing back on, pull requests (which is how code contributions are submitted). But the fact of the matter is that this is only possible for people who are willing to spend time familiarising themselves with the specific code, technologies, and practices that we’re using on that project. These tend to be hard-code devs, and — here’s the point — they’re always experienced Open-Sourcers: this will never be the first time they’ve worked on such a project.

    Which is where the little features come in.

    The joy of small

    We noticed this problem — that contributing code to our projects is simply not easy for us or for contributors. Importantly, it’s not just us: it’s Open Source everywhere. But we can’t simply dismiss the opportunity for contribution. We want to encourage coders to do this, because we believe that Open Source is intrinsically a good thing.

    We do two things to make it easier to contribute:

    • We identify small features that a coder can approach without a full understanding of the code and the problem domain;
    • We help people (like you!) get started by opening up a laptop at our weekly meetups.

    The first of these seems obvious now: when we add issues (an idea for a new feature, or maybe a bugfix) to our github repos, if we think they’re candidates for manageable, isolated work, we tag them with the label: Suitable for volunteers (like this).

    Often these turn out to be “nice-to-haves” that one of our full-time devs can’t be pulled off more pressing problems to add just now. (Case in point: Andrew added a date-picker to the FixMyStreet admin stats page, and three of our own staff had stumbled upon and applauded the difference it had made within a week of it going live).

    It means it’s much easier for you to get involved, because often it’s a little, isolated piece of code. And it’s much more manageable for us, because the change you’ll be submitting is also isolated.

    So if you’re looking for something to tackle, pick one of those issues, and let us know (just to check nobody else has baggsied it already). Fork the repo, cut the code, write the tests, submit a pull request!

    But wait — if that last paragraph made you gulp, here’s the second thing we do: meetups. Of course, this is less helpful if you can’t make it to London on Wednesdays, but the concept is sound. Put simply, if there is a barrier to entry to diving in, and if one-on-one time with a dev, and some pizza, is what it takes to overcome that, it’s time well spent for you to come and see us.

    Not 100% confident with git? Not sure when db/schema.sql gets used or how we like to handle migrations? No problem: we’re happy to guide you.

    You?

    If this has struck a chord with you — you’d love to be an Open Source contributor one day, and you think mySociety projects make the world a better place — perhaps you should take a poke in our repos, or come along to a meetup. Start small, but do start.

    Oh, and Andrew and Andy — thanks guys ;-)

    More about volunteering for mySociety

    Photo by Matt Katzenberger (CC)

  6. Meet us in Birmingham

    Old Contemptibles by Andy Howell17th December is the date to mark in your diaries if you’re local to Brum – that’s when we’ll be in the pub. Come along  for drinks and a chat.

    When: 6pm onwards, Tues 17th December
    Where:  The Old Contemptibles on Edmund Street B3 2HB. Map
    How: Add your name to our Lanyrd page to let us know you’re coming.
    Who: Anyone who fancies it.
    Hashtag: #mysocial

    Not sure how long it would take you to get there? Take a look at our handy public transport times map.

    NB: Look out for the mySociety hoodie (they look like this, only usually with a person inside). Watch our Twitter stream on @mySociety to check for last minute advice about where we are sitting or if we have moved venues for unforseen reasons.

    Photo by Andy Howell (CC)

  7. What we’re doing on TheyWorkForYou

    Image by William WarbyLast week we asked what  improvements you’d like to see on TheyWorkForYou. Thanks so much for all the comments on that post (do keep them coming). They’ve all been carefully documented on our development list.

    Our standard way of working on a project like this is in ‘sprints’ – short periods of activity after which we can spend some time reflecting on what went well, and what could have gone better.

    This system is great for ensuring that we don’t get involved in a large piece of work, only to realise that it doesn’t do what was intended, or hasn’t had the desired effect. So, for example, if we’ve added a new feature, we might be asking ourselves, ‘Is anyone using it?’, ‘Have there been any bug reports?’, and ‘Has it fulfilled our original aim?’. We’re striving to be as analytical and methodical as possible about these assessments, so part of the process has also been figuring out which types of metrics to collect, and how.

    That said, what have we already done?

    It’s easier to find a specific representative

    Where previously our pages listing all MPs, all MSPs and all MLAs just contained one very long list of names that you had to search or scroll through, there’s now an A-Z navigation at the top. We also added the ability to find your own MP from this page.
    AZ navigation on TheyWorkForYou

    Why? This is an example of a small usability tweak which should make a difference to a large number of people – not everyone knows how to search a web page with Ctrl+F. It’s also a fix that’s been on our to-do list for two years!

    The addition of the ‘find your MP’ box helps to serve one of our core aims: to make democracy easy to understand for the uninitiated.

    We’ve added ‘like’ and ‘follow’ buttons

    social media buttons on TheyWorkForYouWe thought you might not notice these discreet additions to our page footers – but we’ve certainly seen an upturn on the rate at which people are ‘liking’ our Facebook page. Whereas Twitter – not so much. Maybe TheyWorkForYou users are just more Facebook-inclined?

    Why? In part, this addition is for our own benefit – we welcome the opportunity that social media gives our users to spread the word. As a small organisation with no advertising budget, this kind of grass roots promotion is invaluable. Then, we are hoping that it will help us to understand our users. Clicking that ‘like’ button can be seen as a form of positive affirmation and enagement that it’s very hard to quantify by other means.

    We are still considering the addition of  buttons which would allow you to share specific debates with your social circles.

    We have noted the comments on our last post which made it clear that some of our users do not welcome integration with social media. That’s fine – we’ll never do anything that excludes you from the core activities of the site, whether you use Facebook and Twitter or not – our intention is simply to provide the functionality for those who want it.

    Those comments have been a useful reminder to us that we should continue to consult our users, because we can’t always predict what you might object to!

    You can change your email address

    If you have an account, now you can change your email address yourself.

    Why? This was identified as a common request that often puzzled users, and took up support time on our side.

    MPs’ pages will look better

    You can’t see these yet, because they’re still in progress. Due to some quirks of the code in which the site was originally built, the new design for the MPs’ pages has taken longer to implement than we’d anticipated. But we’re getting there.

    Why?  MPs’ pages contain an awful lot of information, from voting history to recent appearances, and more. The redesign will help us present all this information more clearly, making the page just as easy to read on a mobile device as it is on a desktop, and simply bringing the (frankly, dated) pages a more current look.

    Bullets are bullets

    alert for kittens on TheyWorkForYouThis is almost ridiculous, but we think it was worth attending to. In recent user tests, we noticed some confusion, caused by the fact that our bullet points were in the form of small squares – they were frequently mistaken for check boxes.

    Why? Just to rid the world of that one small piece of frustration that occurs when you try to tick a box that is not, in fact, a checkbox.

    What now?

    As I say, we are still actively collecting and working on your feedback, so please do keep it coming. Comment below this post, or drop us a line on hello@mysociety.org. I’ll be reporting back after our next sprint.

    Photo by William Warby (CC)

  8. See you in Manchester

    Edge Street Window by Duncan Hill

    Yep, now it’s Manchester’s turn. We’ve been having mySociety meet-ups in towns all over the UK -  it’s been great to meet people for a friendly chat and a drink.

    If you’re local to Manchester and you’d like to know more about what mySociety do, drop by. There’s no agenda, but we’re always happy to talk about open data, eDemocracy, and online civic stuff in general. And we hear that our chosen venue does excellent pancakes.

    We’re in town ahead of the Capita Channel Shift conference. If you’re also attending, you’d be welcome to come and join us for a drink and a chat about digital tech for local government.

    When: 7pm onwards, Weds 4th December
    Where:  Home Sweet Home on Edge Street, M4 1HE. Map
    How: Add your name to our Lanyrd page to let us know you’re coming.
    Who: Anyone who fancies it.
    Hashtag: #mysocial

    NB: Look out for the mySociety hoodie (they look like this, only usually with a person inside). Watch our Twitter stream on @mySociety to check for last minute advice about where we are sitting or if we have moved venues for unforseen reasons.

  9. We’re still offering help!

    11 months ago we put up a post offering free development time for people wanting to reuse our software.

    Since then we’ve had loads of responses and helped a few dozen people take their first steps. But this week, in a short and succinct post, I wanted to remind you that this offer still stands.

    There are some caveats.

    In order to qualify, you must be a group or an individual who can show us that you have a desire to run online civic and democratic projects like FixMyStreet or WhatDoTheyKnow in the long term, and that you have access to some kind of web developer skills. You can be anywhere in the world bar the USA (apologies US people, our funding won’t cover your country :( ).

    What does commitment mean? Nothing impossible, but to make a project successful you will need a few things:

    You need long-lasting enthusiasm. We’ll be looking to make sure that you understand the ongoing time and energy commitments a project like this will involve. The technical set up may be easy, but there is a lot of data that needs to be collected. There’s also awareness raising, user support and general love for the site that you’ll need to keep things going. Things start slowly…You have to give them attention to drive usage!

    You may need access to a web developer – at least sometimes. While these kinds of sites do, to some extent, run themselves, some work will always be necessary to keep them running smoothly. And while our developers will help you get your site off the ground, you will need your own developer too, both at set-up, and as the site continues to run.

    If you don’t have access to a developer, or you’re an NGO that’s doing a wider project of which this could be a small part. We’re also happy to talk to you to see if we can still help! Either way,  just fill in this form to get in touch and give us some information about your project!

    Image credit: Building by bartb_pt from Flickr under the creative commons licence.

  10. What changes would you like to see on TheyWorkForYou?

    Kenya Electricity Corporation Suggestion Box by Lindsay Bremner

    mySociety is an organisation with many priorities, and they often compete for attention. Right now, we have some time and budget to lavish on TheyWorkForYou. We need your input to help us understand what development we should prioritise for the site.

    Note: if you don’t know much about TheyWorkForYou, your opinion still counts! See the foot of this blog post for an overview of the site and its aims.

     Some suggested improvements

    Below is a list of improvements that other users have suggested, or that we think are desirable. Which improvements would you most like to see – from this list, or based on your own needs?

    1. Easier sharing via social media If you see a debate you want to share with your Twitter or Facebook buddies, all you’d have to do is click a button. More details
    2. When your MP voted Letting you know, via email alerts, when your MP has taken part in a vote. More details
    3. Option to search just headings At the moment, search covers all content of debates, including everything anyone said. This option would allow you to only search headings, meaning that you could be sure the results were entirely focused on your topic. More details
    4. Tweeting debate headings or future business A Twitter account which would tweet, and link to, every debate in Parliament, or upcoming events. More details
    5. Signposting of big ‘events’ such as the Budget These are not always easy to find if you don’t know your way around, so we’d make sure the big events were always trumpeted on the site. More details

    Great ideas, or utter bunkum? Let us know. You can give us feedback via any of the following methods:

    1. Leave a comment under this blog post;

    2. Tweet at us on @TheyworkForYou, comment on our Facebook page, or drop us a mail;

    3. If you’d like to see the whole list of suggestions and issues, you can do so on our development list at Github (and the ‘more details’ links in the list above go to the issues on there). Note that anyone is welcome to add comments to these issues, or even to create your own (please search first to make sure you’re not duplicating an existing issue). Github may look complex, but it’s easy enough to use – you just need to set up a user account here.

    We’re keen to understand whether we’re serving all kinds of users, so it’d also be helpful if you could tell us whether you consider yourself to be someone who knows a bit about Parliament (through work, interest, or experience) or a novice user.

    Noteyou can see what we’re currently working on here. Some changes were obvious – for example, we’re improving MPs’ individual pages.

    What is TheyWorkForYou for?

    TheyWorkForYou has been running since 2004. We know why we launched it, though the way you use it may be totally different – and if so, we want to hear about that. Its aim is to give a window into Parliament, for everyone, but including people who may never have previously thought that parliamentary proceedings had anything to do with them.

    TheyWorkForYou does a lot of things. It lets you find out who your MP is – if you don’t know – and then it tells you all about them.

    It publishes the written record of debates in Parliament, and lets you search it, and link to it easily.

    It allows you to set up alerts, so you get an email every your chosen words or phrases are mentioned in Parliament – or every time a particular person speaks.

    It publishes future business (there are alerts for that, too), written answers, Public Bill Committees, and more.

    So, it does a lot – but we know that it still doesn’t do everything our users request, and it doesn’t neccessarily do everything in the way that they want, either. Some changes are obvious, and we’re working on them – right now, for example, we are improving individual MPs’ pages. But we want your thoughts too.

    Photo by Lindsay Bremner (CC)