My friend and mySociety’s first developer Chris Lightfoot died five years ago today. He killed himself in his own flat for reasons that we will never really know, but which are doubtless linked to the depression which he’d been fighting for years. He was just 28, but had already achieved so much that The Times ran an obituary of him. He would have laughed mightily about the fact that this is now behind a paywall.
To mark this occasion I wanted to write something for mySociety staff and volunteers who never knew Chris, and for a wider audience of people who work in places like GDS, Code For America or indeed anyone with an interest in politics and governance. What Chris represented is too important to be lost in the grief at his passing.
The basic fact to understand about Chris was that he was a very specific kind of polymath – one perfectly suited to the internet age. What I mean by this is that he did much more than simply master varying disciplines: he saw and drew connections between fields. He wouldn’t just master cartographic principles, engage in politics and, as Francis Irving put it, ‘write Perl like other people write English’: he invariably saw the connections and mixed them up in meaningful and often pioneering ways.
Moreover, this mixing of disciplines was conducted at a furious, restless pace, and knew absolutely no concept of ‘too hard’ – problems were either fundamentally impossible, or ‘trivially soluble’, to use one of his favourite and most gloriously under-stated phrases. Who else would build the technology to break a captcha, just to investigate what American truck rental costs tell us about internal migration in America, for fun? The answer is trivial.
That he was a genius is not what I want you to understand. Telling you that someone you never met was smarter than you is not helpful, and doesn’t fulfil my promise to tell you why understanding Chris matters.
What is fundamentally valuable about Chris’ legacy (besides piles of code that power services still running today) is that his story signals how we all need to change our conception of what it means to be ‘wise enough to rule’. Let me explain.
Unlike most of us, Chris had the luxury of being able to pick any field of study that interested him, dig up some books and papers, and teach himself a graduate-level understanding in what felt like a few days. It is hard to express quite how fast he could consume and internalise complex new information, and how relentlessly he went at it. To note that he got six A grades at A-level is too puerile a précis, but it is indicative.*
Again, I am not telling you this to make you feel stupid: what matters is what he chose to do with this gift. What he chose to do was built an ever-expanding palette of skills from which he could paint as he pleased. And what he chose to paint was a vision of a better, saner world.
This painting ranged across a huge expanse of topics and disciplines: nuclear engineering, political ideologies, constitutional law, military history, statistics, psephology, economics, security engineering, behavioural psychology, propaganda, intellectual propery law and more. His favourite brushes were Perl and a blog composed of prose so sharp and funny that George Bernard Shaw would not have been displeased by the comparison. I still wish I could write half as well as him.
What I want to communicate most is this: the disciplines he chose to study form a combined19th, 20th and 21st century curriculum of skills required by modern leaders, both leaders of political organisations and government bureaucracies. Chris’s life was the invention of a massively expanded, far more up to date version of the traditional Politics, Philosophy and Economics course that this country still uses to educate its elites.
Some of these disciplines are timeless, like the understanding of ideologies or economics. Some represent vital new issues that emerged in the 20th century, like nuclear energy and world-scale warfare. But mixed in there are wholly new, alien group of skills that the recent SOPA, Wikileaks and ID cards debacles show that modern leaders haven’t got anywhere near to internalising: they include knowledge about security engineering, intellectual property and how new technologies clash with old laws and ideologies. They are skills that nobody used to think were political, but which are now centre stage in a polity that can’t keep up.
This doesn’t mean Chris would have made a perfect leader: I used to argue with him a lot about how he weighed up the costs and benefits of different issues. But what he fundamentally had right was the understanding that you could no longer run a country properly if the elites don’t understand technology in the same way they grasp economics or ideology or propaganda. His analysis and predictions about what would happens if elites couldn’t learn were savage and depressingly accurate.
The canon of Chris’s writings and projects embody the idea that what good governance and the good society look like is now inextricably linked to an understanding of the digital. He truly saw how complex and interesting the world was when you understood power as well as networking principles in a way that few have since.
There is, of course, much more to say about Chris’s life. His blog, built on software that foresaw Posterous, is wonderful, hilarious and utterly readable, so you can learn more yourself. Martin Keegan’s obituary is touching and a much better portrait of how much fun it was to be friends with Chris. I hope to memorialise what he represents to me, if I can. But for now, I’ll sign off with a quote from a blog commentor:
“Chris was kind enough to take the time to reply to me, an internet nobody whom he didn’t know from a bar of soap, on a fairly complex statistical question once. He took a lot of time and effort in his response, and he made sure I understood it properly. It’s not often you find knowledgeable people willing to take their own time to educate an unknown person. We need more people like him, not less.”
* For US readers, this is like having a GPA of 4.0, but achieved across twice as many subjects as you actually need to take.
Being strictly non-partisan mySociety has no official view on Wills & Kate, but we are unashamedly Pro People Having Parties. And recently we’ve been able to work on a project with Barnet council that has helped us make more of them.
Most councils want people to be able to have a street party if they want – I mean, who’s against a party? But closing a street has costs associated with it, and there’s no point in spending that money if the ‘Street Party Committee’ is actually just one person, and the party isn’t actually going to happen.
Tackling this particular problem seemed ideally suited to PledgeBank, which exists solely to make sure there are enough people signed up to make a particular activity worthwhile.
So after some custom hackery, here’s what happens if you live in Barnet and apply to run a street party for the Royal Wedding. First, you visit this page and give your details. Then the council makes a pledge like this one, and then emails it back to the applicant. All the pledges are of the same form, and read:
“Barnet Council will arrange free public liability insurance for a street party in [Your Street name] but only if 3 or more households will get involved.”
It is then the applicant’s task to get another couple of people (or more) to sign the pledge. Once the signers exceed the threshold, the council believes the party is bona fide and starts work. Simple.
And it works! There are 24 parties currently listed that have passed the threshold, so that’s 24 streets that are already good to go. There are another 27 that may succeed or fail, depending on their organiser’s motivation.
Strangely, though, our invitations haven’t arrived yet, but, you know… they probably got lost in the post (sniff).
It is a cliché for any manager to say that they are proud of their team, and mildly nausea-inducing to listen to anyone who goes on about it too long. However, the purpose of this post is to argue that the world would benefit from a new kind of post-graduate Masters programme – something that is hard to do without describing the virtues of the type of people who should come out of it. So please bear with me, and keep a sick bag to one hand.
mySociety’s core development team is very, very good. But they’re not just good at turning out code. Louise Crow, for example, has a keen eye for things that will and won’t make a difference in the offline world, as well as the skills to build virtually whatever she can think of. And the exact same thing is true of the whole coding team: Duncan, Matthew, Edmund and Dave in the current team, plus Francis, Chris and Angie before them.
mySociety didn’t give these people their raw talent, nor the passion to be involved with projects that make a difference. What it has given them, though, is the chance to spend a lot of time talking to each other, learning from their triumphs and their mistakes, and listening to users. This space and peer-contact made them into some of the world’s few genuine experts in the business of conceptualising and then delivering digital projects that deliver new kinds of civic and democratic benefits.
So, why am I sitting here unashamedly blowing my colleagues trumpets like this? (I don’t have these skills, after all!) Well, in order to point out that there are quite simply far too few people like this out there.
Too few experts
“Too few for what?” you may well ask. Too few for any country that wants to be a really great place to live in the 21st century, is my answer.
There is barely a not-for-profit, social enterprise or government body I can think of that wouldn’t benefit from a Duncan Parkes or a Matthew Somerville on the payroll, so long as they had the intelligence and self-discipline not to park them in the server room. Why? Because just one person with the skills, motivation and time spent learning can materially increase the amount of time that technology makes a positive contribution to almost any public or not-for-profit organisation.
What they can do for an organistion
Such people can tell the management which waves of technology are hype, and which bring real value, because they care more about results than this week’s craze, or a flashy presentation. They can build small or medium sized solutions to an organisation’s problems with their bare hands, because they’re software engineers. They can contract for larger IT solutions without getting ripped off or sold snake oil. And they can tell the top management of organisations how those organisations look to a digital native population, because they come from that world themselves.
And why they don’t
Except such experts can’t do any of these things for not-for-profit or public institutions: they can’t help because they’re not currently being employed by such bodies. There are two reasons why not, reasons which just may remind you of a chicken and an egg.
First, such institutions don’t hire this kind of expert because they don’t know what they are missing – they’re completely outside of the known frame of reference. Before you get too snarky about dumb, insular institutions, can you honestly say you would try to phone a plumber if you had never heard that they existed? Or would you just treat the water pouring through the ceiling as normal?
Second, these institutions don’t hire such experts because there just aren’t enough on the market: mySociety is basically the main fostering ground in UK for new ones, and we greedily keep hold of as many of our people as possible. Hands off my Dave!
Which leads me to the proposal, a proposal to create more such experts for public and non-profit institutions, and to make me feel less guilty about mySociety hoarding the talent that does exist.
Describing the Masters in Public Technology
The proposal is this: there should be a new Masters level course at at least one university which would take people with the raw skill and the motivation and puts them on a path to becoming experts in the impactful use of digital technologies for social purposes. Here’s how I think it might work.
In the first instance, the course would only be for people who could already code well (if all went well, we could develop a sister course for non-coders later on). Over the course of a single year it would teach its students a widely varied curriculum, covering the structure and activities of government, campaigns, NGOs and companies. It would involve dissecting more and less impactful digital services and campaigns, like biology students dissect frogs, looking for strengths and weaknesses. It would involve teaching the basics of social science methodologies, such as how to look for statistical significance, and good practice in privacy management. It would encourage good practice in User Experience design, and challenge people to think about how serious problems could be solved playfully. It would involve an entire module on explaining the dos and don’t of digital technology to less-literate decision makers. And most important, it would end with a ‘thesis’ that would entail the construction of some meaningful tool, either alone or in collaboration with other students and external organisations.
I would hope we could get great guest lecturers on a wide range of topics. My fantasy starter for 10 would include names as varied in their disciplines as Phil Gyford, David Halpern, Martha Lane Fox, Ben Goldacre, Roz Lemieux, William Perrin, Jane McGonigal, Denise Wilton, Ethan Zuckerman, as well as lots of people from in and around mySociety itself.
What would it take?
I don’t know the first thing about how universities go about creating new courses, so having someone who knew about that step up as a volunteer would be a brilliant start!
Next, it would presumably take some money to make it worth the university’s time. I would like to think that there might be some big IT company that would see the good will to be gleaned from educating a new generation of socially minded, organisation-reforming technologists.
Third, we’d actually need a university with a strong community of programmers attached, willing and ready to do something different. It wouldn’t have to be in the UK, either, necessarily.
Then it would need a curriculum, and teaching, which I would hope mySociety could lead on, but which would doubtless best be created and taught in conjunction with real academics. We’d need some money to cover our time doing this, too.
And finally it would need some students. But my hunch is that if we do this right, the problem will probably be fending people off with sticks.
I’m genuinely not sure – I hope this post sparks some debate, and I hope it provokes some people to go “Yeah, me too”. Maybe you could tell me what I should do next?
Note: This post is a work in progress, I need your help to improve it, especially with knowledge of non-English sites
I was recently in Washington DC catching up with mySociety’s soul-mates at the Sunlight Foundation. As we talked about what was going on in the field of internet-enabled transparency, it came clear to me that there are now more identifiable categories of transparency website than there used to be.
Identifying and categorising these types of site turns out to be surprisingly useful. First, it can help people ask “Why don’t we have anyone doing that in our country?” Second, it can help mySociety to make sure that when we’re planning ahead we don’t fail to consider certain options that be currently off our radar. Also, it gives me an excuse to tell you about some sites that you may not have seen before.
Anyway, enough preamble. Here they are as I see them – please give me more suggestions as you find them. As you can see there’s a lot more activity in some fields than others.
1. Transparency blogs & newspapers – At the technically simplest, but most manual labour-intensive end of the scale is sites, commercial and volunteer driven, whose owners use transparency to help them to write stories. Given almost every political blog does this a bit, it can be hard to name specific examples, but I will note that Heather Brooke is the UK’s pre-eminent FOI-toting journalist/blogger, and we’ve just opened a blog for our awesome volunteers on WhatDoTheyKnow to show their FOI skills to an as-yet unsuspecting public.
2. What Politicians do in their parliaments – These sites primarily include lists of politicians, and information about their primary activities in their assemblies, such as voting or speaking. This encompasses mySociety’s TheyWorkForYou.com, Rob McKinnon’s one man labour of love TheyWorkForYou in NZ, Italy’s uber-deep OpenPolis.it (6 layers of government, anyone?), Germany’s almost-un-typable Abgeordnetenwatch, Romania’s writ-wielding IPP.ro, Josh Tauberer’sGovTrack.us, plus the bonny bouncing babies OpenAustralia and Kildare Street (Ireland). Of special note here are Mzalendo (Kenya) who unlike everyone else, can’t reply on access to a parliamentary website to scrape raw data from, and Julian Todd’s UNDemocracy (International), that has to fight incredible technical barriers to get the information out.
3. Databases of questions and answers posed to politicians – These sites let people post politicians questions, and the publish the questions and answers. The Germans running Abgeordnetenwatch (Parliament Watch) seem to have had considerable success here, with newspapers citing what politicians say on their site. Yoosk has some politicians in the UK on it, too.
4. Money in politics – This comes in two forms, money given to candidates (MAPlight), and money bunged by politicians to their favourite causes (Earmark watch). In the UK, as far as I know, the Electoral Commission’s database remains currently unscraped, perhaps because the data is so ungranular.
5. Government spending – where the big money goes. In the US the dominant site is FedSpending.org, and in the UK we have ukpublicspending.co.uk.
6. Websites containing bills going through parliament, or the law as voted on – This includes the increasingly substantial OpenCongress in the US which saw major traffic during the Health Care debates, and the UK government’s own Acts database and Statute Law Database. Much of the legal database field, however, remains essentially private.
7. Services that create transparency as a side effect of delivering services – Our own sites lead the way here: FixMyStreet‘s public problem reports and WhatDoTheyKnow’s FOI archive are both created by people who aren’t primarily using the site to enrich it – they’re using it to get some other service.
8. Election websites – These come in many forms, but what they have in common is their desire to shed light on the positions and histories of candidates, whether incumbents or new comers. The biggest beast here is Stemwijzer (Netherlands), probably in relative terms the most used transparency or democracy site ever. However these sites are popular in several places, the big but highly labour intensive VoteSmart (US), Smartvote.ch (Switzerland), plus others. mySociety is shortly to start to recruit constituency volunteers to help with our take on this problem, keep an eye on this blog if you want to know more.
9. Political document archives - This is a new category, now occupied by Sunlight’s Partytime archive for invitation to political events, and TheStraightChoice, Julian Todd and Richard Pope’s wonderful new initiative for archiving election leaflets and other paper propoganda.
10. Bulk data - Online transparency pioneer Carl Malamud doesn’t do sites, he does data. Big globs zipped up and made publicly available for coders and researchers to download and process. The US government has now stepped into this field itself with Data.gov, doubtless soon to be followed by data.gov.uk.
Please don’t shoot me if I’ve missed anything here, the world is a big place. But I thought that was a useful and interesting exercise, and I hope you’ll both find it useful, and help me improve it too. Comment away.
- Important, but not the same as the Internet (photo CC photohome_uk )
Current government policy in relation to the Internet can broadly be summarised as occupying three areas:
1. Getting people online (broadband access, and lessons for people who don’t have the skills or interest)
2. Protecting people from bad things done using the Internet (terrorism, child abuse, fraud, hacking, intellectual property infringement)
3. Building websites for departments and agencies.
The government does all these things primarily because it believes that the Internet boosts the economy of the UK, and that IT can reduce the cost of public services whilst increasing their quality. Together, these outweigh the dangers, meaning it doesn’t get banned. Gordon Brown’s recent speech at Google was an exemplar of this mainly economically driven celebration of the Internet’s virtues, telling audience members that your industry is driving the next stage of globalisation”.
The first challenge for the government is to understand that whilst these beliefs are true, they are only a minor part of the picture. Tellingly, Browns’ speech contained almost no language that couldn’t have been used to explain the positive impact of electrification or shipping containers.
The way in which the Internet Is not like Electrification or Shipping Containers
The Internet has been relentlessly undermining previous practices in the running of businesses, dating, parenting, spying, producing art and many other areas. So, however, did electrification and shipping containers. From cheaper raw materials, to cheaper cars to have sex in the back of, economic and social change has always been driven by technological change.
What is different is the way in which the Internet changes social and economic practices – the vector of attack. In the 20th century, advancement of human welfare went hand in hand with the rise of companies that used economies of scale to deliver better goods and services for customers. Technology effectively made it possible and much easier to be a big, highly productive company, to gather expertise and capital together and to target markets for maximum yields.
Now take a look for a moment at Wikipedia, MoneySavingExpert, Blogger or Match.com – all big websites, all doing different things. Each one, however, is in its own way is reducing the ability of large, previously well functioning institutions to function as easily.
These services are reducing traditional institutions ability to charge for information, seize big consumer surpluses, limit speech or fix marriages. It has, in other words, become harder to be a big business, newspaper, repressive institution or religion. Nor is this traditional ‘creative destruction’ going on in a normal capitalist economy: this isn’t about one widget manufacturer replacing another, this is about a newspaper business dying and being replaced by no one single thing, and certainly nothing recognisable as a newspaper business.
This common pattern of more powerful tools for citizens making life harder for traditional institutions is, for me, a cause for celebration. However, I am not celebrating as a libertarian (which I am not) I celebrate it because it marks a historic increase in the freedom of people and groups of people, and a step-change in their ability to determine the direction of their own lives.
How the government can be on the side of the citizen in the midst of the great Internet disruption
Disruption like this is scary for any institution, which will tend to mean that as a public entity which interfaces with other institutions the temptation will be to hold back the sea, not swim with it. Government must swim with the tide, though, not just to help citizens more but to avoid the often ruinous tension of a citizenry going one way and a government going another. There are various things government can do to be on the right side.
1. Accept that any state institution that says “we control all the information about X” is going to look increasingly strange and frustrating to a public that’s used to be able to do whatever they want with information about themselves, or about anything they care about (both private and public). This means accepting that federated identity systems are coming and will probably be more successful than even official ID card systems: ditto citizen-held medical records. It means saying “We understand that letting train companies control who can interface with their ticketing systems means that the UK has awful train ticket websites that don’t work as hard as they should to help citizens buy cheaper tickets more easily. And we will change that, now.”
2. Seize the opportunity to bring people together. Millions of people visit public sector websites every day, often trying to achieve similar or identical ends. It is time to start building systems to allow them to contact people in a similar situation, just as they’d be able to if queuing together in a job centre, but with far more reach and power. This does open the scary possibility that citizens might club together to protest about poor service or bad policies, but given recent news, if you were a minister would you rather know about what was wrong as soon as possible, or really late in the day (cf MPs‘ expenses, festering for years)?
3. Get a new cohort of civil servants who understand both the Internet and public policy, and end the era of signing huge technology contracts when the negotiators on the government’s side have no idea how they systems they are paying for actually work. Coming up with new uses of technology, or perceiving how the Internet might be involved with undermining something in the future is an essential part of a responsible policy expert’s skill-set these days, no matter what policy area they work in. It should be considered just as impossible for a new fast-stream applicant without a reasonably sophisticated view of how the Internet works to get a job as if they were illiterate ( a view more sophisticated than generated simply by using Facebook a lot, a view that is developed through tuition ). Unfashionably, this change almost certainly has to be driven from the center.
4. Resist calls from institutions of all sorts to change laws to give them back the advantages they previously had over citizens, and actively appoint a team to see where legislation is preventing possible Internet-enabled challenges to institutions that could do with shaking up. At the moment, this is mostly seen in the music and video fields, but doubtless it will occur in more fields in the next decade, many of them quite possibly less sexy but more economically and socially significant than a field containing so many celebrities.
5. Spend any money whatsoever on a centrally driven project to cherry pick the best opportunities to ‘be on the side of the citizen’ and drive them through recalcitrant and risk averse departments and agencies. Whilst UK government is spending £12-13bn a year on IT at the moment, almost none of that is being spent on projects which I would describe as fitting any of the objectives described above. And the good news, for a cash strapped era, is that almost anything meaningful that the government can do on the Internet will cost less than even the consulting fees for one large traditional IT project.
There are, obviously, more reasons why the Internet isn’t like electrification or shipping containers. But keeping the narrative simple is always valuable when proposing anything. The idea that a wave is coming that empowers citizens and threatens institutions makes government’s choice stark – who’s side do we take? History will not be kind to those that take the easy option.
- Speaker’s Chair (Parliamentary Copyright)
mySociety has today emailed (and in one case, posted) a set of 3 Principles which we believe it is important that all candidates for Speaker endorse, before the election of a new Speaker by MPs.
1. Voters have the right to know in detail about the money that is spent to support MPs and run Parliament, and in similar detail how the decisions to spend that money are settled upon.
2. Bills being considered must be published online in a much better way than they are now, as the Free Our Bills campaign has been suggesting for some time.
3. The Internet is not a threat to a renewal in our democracy, it is one of its best hopes. Parliament should appoint a senior officer with direct working experience of the power of the Internet who reports directly to the Speaker, and who will help Parliament adapt to a new era of transparency and effectiveness.
We will be posting the status of requests on the likely candidates web pages where we expect large numbers of people to see them before the vote in late June. We have also taken the unusual step of allowing possible candidates to leave a statement of up to 150 words on the principles.
(NB no candidates have actually declared at this stage, so we are starting with the BBC’s list of possibles)
mySociety helped lead the campaign back in January to prevent the last ditch attempts to conceal MPs’ expenses. We did so not because, like the newspapers, we wanted to revel in embarrassment and scandal, but because we believe that in the Internet age, the only way for our democracy and government to thrive is if they are open and connected to the net as the rest of us expect them to be. The dramatic events seen in Parliament in recent days vindicate the view that secrecy breeds poor policies and seeds untrustworthy behaviour in the weaker willed.
Furthermore, more than a simple attitude of openness is required of the new Speaker: the public needs a genuine will to push for technological reform using the power of the Internet that will take both open-mindedness and a willing to tread on toes, especially in some parts of the unelected establishment.
Case in point: Over the last two years we have been trying to persuade Parliament to acknowledge that the way it publishes its Bills online is hopelessly inadequate for the Internet age. The campaign has faltered, despite multi partly endorsement from 140 MPs and a campaign membership of thousands. To see why, just take a look at this colourful and error-crammed internal email that we uncovered using the Freedom of Information Act, published for the first time today.
The new Speaker will have a tough job on their hands to overcome resistance of this kind. The best thing we can do is help the new Speaker, whoever they are, assume their new job with a clear mandate from the public, as well as from members.
That is why, as a final part of this call, we are asking you, our community, to write to your MP today to let them know that you expect them to vote for a candidate that has endorsed the principles above. Your voices to your own constituency MPs can resonate in a way that no blog post or newspaper article ever can. Go to it.
You may have seen a few months ago that mySociety led the campaign to stop the Freedom of Information Act being changed to conceal MPs expenses. And we won, which was nice.
Given the wall-to-wall revelations about taxpayer funded moats and bathplugs, and the new wave of resignations and repayments, we want to exercise a little accountability by reminding readers of the arguments that were used to conceal this information twice in the last two years. These helpful examples should assist mySociety’s friends in keeping an eye out for similar dubious logic in the future.
First, in 2007, a concealment bill was tabled by a backbencher, but which oddly made it all the way to the Lords before failing (it would normally have been struck down by the government). The argument used then was that private mail sent by constituents to MPs would end up in the hands of unscrupulous characters, even though there was already another law to prevent this, and even though hardly anyone appears to have complained to the Information Commissioner about what the proposing MP described as a ‘vexed problem‘.
Then, back in January this year, a different and bold explanation was given: none. Instead, a strange pretence was played out in Parliament, in which the fact that MPs were being given the opportunity to vote to overrule a court-mandated order to publish was simply not mentioned: Watch the video of the Leader explaining what’s going to be voted for – any idea why people might be laughing as she stands up? Can you spot where she explains why the court needs overruling? The only explanation I could find anywhere for this reversal of openness was an anonymous quote in the Guardian.
So here we are after both attempts to hide expenses were defeated, watching as the rules around expenses change substantially and as MPs reach deep into their own pockets: all things that would not have taken place if either of the above proposals had passed. Simply the fact that the rules are changing and that the leaders of parties are apologising must make it clear that the excuses and non-excuses given above were, even if unintentionally, blocking better government.
Despite the obvious pain for MPs this week, and the fact that the whole act is doubtless being cursed across Westminster, we must shout from the hilltops that this week is a great success for the Freedom of Information Act, and a clear justification for why it is worth having on our books.
Bad policies that both wasted money and eroded public trust are being swept away, and it is entirely down to the Act and its supporters. More Freedom of Information will mean more such improvements, and people of good will should support its defence and its extension.
Note: When can the rest of us have the data, please?
One of the most striking uses of PledgeBank in recent times was the pledge made by 1700 people to commemorate Ada Lovelace’s birthday by blogging about an inspiring woman in the technology world.
I have had several possible choices, but I’ve decided on Angie Ahl, mySociety’s 4th and most recent full time developer.
Angie is mySociety through and through. A born perl hacker, never happier than knee deep in some grungy regular expressions, she’s also gifted with an inate understanding of the possibilities of technology for democratic reform. At interview I asked her what change she’d like to see happen from the government side of our sector, and she replied that she thought the biggest possible win was to publish Bills in parliament in a proper format. You might have heard all this before, thanks to Free Our Bills, but Angie was commenting several months before we ever discussed the idea for the campaign with anyone else. She’d just looked at the world and the obvious problem had jumped out, clear as day.
Sadly, it’s no secret than Angie’s been seriously ill for some time. Despite this she’s managed things that’d be beyond me in the best of health: I’m only typing into wordpress now because she migrated the whole of this site from our previous system. She came to our retreat back in January and showed an unerring ability to ask tough questions of the right people, even when tired.
Angie beat a 100% male field to get the job she has now. She’s unpretentious, straight talking and as glowingly warm to be near as a roaring log fire. She’s also getting married within the next few days. Congrats, Angie: Tommy couldn’t have done better.
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.
A few moments ago the team rolled out changes to our biggest and best known site, TheyWorkForYou.com meaning that every visitor to any page of the site will be greeted with a call to arms on the issue of some MPs voting this Thursday to conceal their expenses. And after the vote, we’ll be prominently publishing who voted which way – there should be a couple of million visitors at least before the next election.
Our explicit goal is to have a lot of constituents from around the country let their MPs know they won’t be impressed with a ‘yes’ vote or an abstention (the same thing in this case), and to build our Facebook group to the point where the mainstream media starts to take notice of this Net driven discontent.
Please do everything you can to get as many people as possible writing to their MPs and joining that Facebook group. We’re doing our bit – please do yours. Together we can stop the encouraging trend of more openness in our Parliament scrunching into reverse.