1. Chatting about e-democracy and e-philosophy in Cardiff

    Thanks to everyone who came to Wednesday night’s meet-up at the uber-cool Founders Hub in Cardiff: it was great to meet you all.

    Apart from being fascinated by the Founders Hub’s 3D printer (we managed to print a bottle opener to crack open our beers!), we were really impressed with the interesting conversations and provocative debate that followed Daniele Procida and Sam Knight’s presentations.

    sam knightYour Senedd: Motivations for creation and the development process

    First up, it was really inspiring to hear Sam Knight talk about his motivations behind setting up and developing Your Senedd. Your Senedd is your go-to website to find out about the Welsh Assembly; whether you want to know who your Assembly Member is, their background and what speeches they’ve made, or read recent debates, it’s all there. You can even sign up for the weekly newsletter that gives an overview of what the Assembly is working on that week and what odd Assembly terminology actually means.

    It’d be fantastic if TheyWorkForYou also covered the Welsh Assembly, as we do with the Northern Ireland Assembly and the Scottish Parliament, but we don’t currently have the time or resources ourselves — in fact, both those assemblies were mainly done by volunteers.

    If you’re interested in volunteering to help out, please join the mailing list.

    Sam set up Your Senedd back in 2011 in order to help more Welsh people engage with their Assembly, after hearing that only half of Welsh people knew who their first minister was. He also wanted to find a way to provide the Welsh public with information from the Assembly that wasn’t just inflammatory or sensational, as in the pre-Your Senedd days most of the Welsh Assembly debates reported by the mainstream media were ones that provoked anger, meaning that the public didn’t get to hear about the debates that really did matter to them. Your Senedd provides the public with impartial information about all Assembly debates.

    The future of Your Senedd

    Sam has improvements in mind for the website too: as with TheyWorkForYou, he plans to show Assembly Members’ voting history; he’d like to produce easy-to-read guides on how the Assembly works and how the public can get involved; and he would like the site to become more of a two-way conversation, instead of a one-way broadcaster. He plans to put all of the Assembly’s Statements of Opinion (similar to Westminster’s Early Day Motions) on the site and encourage the public to vote on them. What a great way to get people more involved with politics!

    Group of guysYour Senedd doesn’t just encourage the public to engage more in Welsh politics – Sam said that one Assembly Member was so scared that his lack of participation in debates shown on his Your Senedd page would damage his reputation, that he’s been involved with every debate since! Scaring Assembly Members into action wasn’t part of Sam’s original motivation, but it’s certainly an added benefit!

    If you have any questions for Sam, or any ideas of how Your Senedd could be improved or shared, please give him a tweet.

    Daniele Procida: ‘The Bodiless Head of the Programmer’

    skeleton at Founders HubOur second talk of the night was by Daniele Procida, who gave us an exclusive preview of his presentation for DjangoCon Europe, where he’ll be presenting in May. Daniele is co-organiser of DjangoCon Europe and runs DjangoCMS, as well as managing the University of Cardiff’s School of Medicine’s website.

    Daniele’s presentation was called ‘The Bodiless Head of the Programmer’ and drew from his background in philosophy. Daniele asked provocative questions such as ‘Who are the programmers that are increasingly building the world we live in and determining the systems that govern our lives?’ and ‘Does it matter who they are or just what they do?’.

    The liberalist stance is that it only matters what people do and not who they are – which as Daniele pointed out, is perfectly good and the correct approach when it comes to the justice system for example, but he questioned this approach when thinking about programmers. According to Daniele, we need to be more concerned about who programmers are, to make sure that not only one type or group of people are building our virtual new world, and therefore not taking into account the needs of those who are different from them.

    Daniele’s opinion is that there are currently too many white males in programming which liberalism says doesn’t matter (because the things they make should matter) but actually it does matter, because their inherent privilege affects the things they make and the way they see problems, meaning they can never fully understand the experience of someone who has lived without said privilege.

    Daniele’s presentation and thoughts fuelled a really good debate amongst those who came along – a healthy mix of agreement and disagreement was great to see, reminding us that we’re all entitled to our own opinions!

    If you’re intrigued by Daniele’s talk and viewpoints – try and check him out at DjangoCon in May.

    Many thanks to both Sam and Daniele for coming to do presentations – hope to see you again when we’re back in Cardiff!

    mySociety Monthly Meet-upspizza

    Our meet-ups now take place at different cities across the UK on the first Wednesday of every month. The next one will be in Bath on 7th May. Sign up here.

    Our programme of meet-ups is open to everyone. So whether you’re an open source veteran, or just a curious newbie interested in anything you see on mysociety.org, please come along.

     

  2. We’re coming back to Cardiff

    Welsh daffodils Cardiff CastleInterested in civic coding, open data and eDemocracy?

    Then come and join mySociety for a chat, beer and pizza at the Founders Hub in Cardiff on Wednesday 2nd April!

    We’ll be joined by guest speakers:

    Sam Knight: Founder and developer of Your Senedd and Labour Councillor for Cathays.

    Your Senedd was launched in 2011 and aims to make the Welsh Assembly more accessible to the public by providing information on all Assembly Members and publishing all Assembly debates. Sam will be chatting about his motivations behind setting up Your Senedd and the development process.

    Daniele Procida: Daniele manages Cardiff University’s School of Medicine’s website, and the applications that publish it. These include Arkestra and other open-source Python/Django applications.

    Come along to hear Daniele’s talk “The bodiless head of the programmer”.

    He’ll also be around to chat about his work on django CMS and encouraging others to contribute to open source software.

    When: Wednesday 2nd April, drop in any time between 6pm and 9pm
    Where: The Founders Hub, 119 St Mary Street, Cardiff, CF10 1DY
    How: Add your name to the Lanyrd page: http://lanyrd.com/2014/mysocial-2-april/, so we know you’re coming.
    Who: Anyone who fancies it.

    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 [Duncan] (CC)

  3. Myanmar’s first hackathon

    Myanmar Hackathon

    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.

    As he kicked off the final presentations, event organiser David Madden (representing Internews and Code for Change Myanmar) summed the event up in numbers:

    • 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:

    1. impact: does this make you think “wow”?
    2. practical: can the NGO actually use it?
    3. creative: has the team done something unexpected?
    4. execution: did the team implement it well?
    5. 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.

  4. Join us, as we set the agenda for collaborative coding

    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.

    There’s lots more information over on the Poplus website.
    poplus

  5. Hang out and learn more about SayIt

    Find us in the Google hangout here

    SayIt from mySocietyYou 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

    Find us in the Google hangout here

    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.

  6. mySociety at UKgovcamp14

    city hall
    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.

    The other example was the Open311 standard, which regular blog readers will recall from previous blog posts.

    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

  7. 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…)

  8. 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)

  9. 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.

  10. This Wednesday, come and meet Henare from Open Australia

    Image by Open Source Way

    If you’ve been thinking of popping along to one of our Wednesday night meet-ups, but the cold weather has been discouraging you, here’s a little incentive.

    This week, we’ll be joined by Henare Degan, one of the directors of the OpenAustralia Foundation. In Henare’s words, “You can talk to me about civic hacking down under, but I’ve also been on the road for over seven months now, so come and chat to me about travelling too”.

    Open Australia run an Alaveteli-based RightToKnow site (like WhatDoTheyKnow) and a Parliamentary monitoring site (like TheyWorkForYou), among other projects. Come and find out how things differ in Australia.

    Or just come, as usual, for the good times.

    • When: Wednesday 6th November, drop in any time between 6 and 9pm.
    • Where: Mozilla Space London
    • How: Add your name to the Lanyrd page, so we know you’re coming.

    Photo by OpenSourceWay (CC)