1. Mapping the Vikings’ influence on UK place names

    In the middle of the 9th Century, the territories of mainland Britain were in constant flux, with power shifting between the established Anglo-Saxon kingdoms and Viking settlers.

    Towards the end of the century, the battles and power shifts reached a kind of equilibrium, with Alfred King of Wessex and Guthrum the Danish warlord agreeing a treaty defining the boundaries of their kingdoms.

    One of these boundaries was demarcated by Watling Street, an ancient trackway that stretched from Shrewsbury in the west of England to the Thames estuary in the east.

    The boundaries of Britain are different today, but the vestiges of this ancient divide remain in the names of the places that surround us.

    To illustrate this, mySociety has been working with the British Museum, with data sourced from the University of Nottingham’s Institute for Name-Studies. We’ve created a simple interactive map as part of their Vikings Live event to show the Norse influence on around 2,000 place names in different parts of the United Kingdom and Ireland.

    A map of old Norse place names

    For each place, we’re showing its etymology, a breakdown of the different elements that make up its name and a link to the nearest cinema that will be showing the British Museum’s Vikings Live—a private view of the BP exhibition Vikings: life and legend in the company of world experts, presented live in your local cinema.

    The etymology of an old Norse place name

    So, for a completely different perspective of the place names near your home, head over to the British Museum’s site to explore the influence the Vikings had on the names where you live. And, next time you’re in a Thorpe, a Howe, a Kirkby, or even in Grunty Fen (our favourite place name), think of the Vikings who’ve left an indelible mark on the toponymy of the United Kingdom and Ireland.

  2. The People’s Assembly website launches – a one-stop parliamentary monitoring service for the people of South Africa

    People's Assembly website

    There was some excitement here at mySociety this week, as the People’s Assembly website launched in South Africa. It’s the result of a year’s partnership with PMG and a good test of some of our newest collaborative software.

    The site contains a vast amount of information, all available in the same place for the first time, and offering a simple way for South African citizens to keep an eye on what their representatives are doing. There are pages for each representative, Hansard and parliamentary Questions and Answers, records of members’ interests, and more.

    Locating, processing and displaying this data was quite a challenge: it has been taken from a wide range of sources, and came in an even greater range of formats, including PDF documents, Word documents, Excel files, CSV files and sometimes just e-mailed lists of information.

    But perhaps most significant is the site’s Representative Locator function. For the first time, South African citizens can now find out, with ease, who represents them – not as simple as it might seem at first.

    The Proportional Representative system means that members of the National Assembly and National Council of Provinces are not directly elected from constituencies.  Political parties are, however, funded to run constituency offices and to allocate representatives to those offices.  We believe that this is the first time this data has been consolidated and presented as a simple search tool.

    The software that runs the site

    As you’ll know if you read our recent blog post about SayIt, our recent focus has been reaching out to provide software for civic or democratic-focused websites anywhere in the world.

    The idea is that such groups no longer need worry about writing code from scratch, since we’ve already done it – and their energies can be better expended on gathering data or adjusting the software to work within the local governmental systems.

    People’s Assembly is a great example of this. It utilises two underpinning pieces of technology:

    Firstly, the Pombola platform, our software for running parliamentary monitoring websites.

    If you’re reading this in the UK, you may be familiar with our own parliamentary monitoring site, TheyWorkForYou. Pombola provides several tools that make it easy to do much of what TheyWorkForYou does: it provides a structured database of the names and positions of those in power; it allows people to look up their elected representatives by inputting their location, and to isolate and see what a specific MP has contributed to discussions in Parliament’s committees and plenaries; albeit, in the case of  Hansard,  after a six-month delay necessitated by South Africa’s own protocols.

    We first developed Pombola for Kenya’s Mzalendo.com, and it’s been re-used for ShineYourEye.org in Nigeria and Odekro.org in Ghana.  It’s superb to see this re-use, as it’s exactly what we set out to acheive.

    Secondly, People’s Assembly is the very first site to use SayIt, which is embedded as a Django app to power the Hansard, Questions and Committees content. SayIt is one of our Components, built under the Poplus project, and we’re truly delighted  to see it in place, proving its worth and being used as we first envisaged.

    Thanks are due

    The main work on the People’s Assembly has been funded by the Indigo Trust, and the SayIt component work was funded by Google.org as part of the Poplus Project. We also wish to thank Geoff Kilpin, who helped greatly with the scrapers and templating.

  3. Introducing SayIt: a Poplus Component to bring transcript publication into the modern world

    Dictaphone Operator, via Wikimedia CommonsTranscripts – the written records of who says what in a conversation – aren’t sexy.

    However, they can be very important, or even historic. They can reveal big plans that will affect lots of people, and they are a basic requirement of political accountability.

    But the way in which transcripts are made available online today doesn’t reflect this importance. They tend to be published as hundreds of PDFs, and look more or less like they were made in the 1950s.

    We think that the people who are affected by the decisions and plans announced in transcribed meetings deserve better.

    What is SayIt?

    SayIt screenshot featuring Sienna Miller

    SayIt is an open source tool for publishing speeches, discussions and dialogues, simply and clearly, online. Search functionality is built in, you can link to any part of a transcript, and the whole thing works nicely on mobile devices.

    SayIt can be used either as a hosted service, or it can be built directly into your own website, as a Django app. Here are some examples of what it looks like in its hosted, standalone form:

    However, SayIt’s main purpose is to be built into other sites and apps.  We don’t have a live demo of this today, but one of our international partners will soon be launching a new Parliamentary Monitoring site which uses SayIt to publish years of parliamentary transcripts.

    SayIt is also 100% open data compatible, and we use a cut-down version of the Akoma Ntoso open standard for data import.

    What isn’t SayIt?

    SayIt is:

    • Not a site full of data curated and uploaded by mySociety – it’s a tool for redeployment all over the net. We’ll host deployments where that’s helpful to people, though.

    • Not primarily about Britain – whilst we’re a social enterprise based in the UK, SayIt has been built with an international perspective. We hope it will serve the needs of people watching politicians in places like Kenya and South Africa.

    • Not solely a mySociety project – it’s actually an international collaboration, via the Poplus network (see more below).

    • Not (yet) a tool to replace Microsoft Word as the way you write down transcripts in the first place. This is coming as we move from Alpha to Beta, though.

    Why are we building SayIt?

    SayIt is one of the Poplus Components. Poplus is a global collaboration of groups that believe it is currently too difficult and expensive to build effective new digital tools to help citizens exert power over institutions.

    Poplus Components are loosely joined tools, mostly structured as web services, that can be used to radically decrease the development time of empowerment sites and apps.

    SayIt is the newest component, and aims to reduce the difficulty and cost of launching services that contain transcripts – in particular websites that allow people to track the activities of politicians. Using SayIt or other Poplus components you can build your site in whatever language and framework suits your wishes, but save time by using the components to solve time-consuming problems for you.

    The founders of Poplus are FCI in Chile, and mySociety in the UK – and we are hoping that the launch of SayIt will help grow the network. The project has been made possible by a grant from Google.org, while early iterations were aided by the Technology Strategy Board.

    Interested in publishing transcripts via SayIt? Here’s what to do…

    Having taken a look at the demos, we hope at least some of you are thinking ‘I know of some transcripts that would be better if published like this’.

    If you are interested, then there are two approaches we’d recommend:

    • If you’re a coder, or if you have access to technical skills, read about how to convert your data into the open standard we use. Then talk to us about how to get this data online.

    • If you don’t have access to technical skills,  get in touch about what you’re interested in publishing, and we’ll explore the options with you.

    Note to coders – We’ve not yet spent a lot of time making SayIt easy to deploy locally, so we know it may be a challenge. We’re here to help.

    Where might SayIt help?

    SayIt comes from a desire to publish the speeches of politicians. But we know that there are many other possible uses, which is why we built the Shakespeare demo.

    We think SayIt could be useful for publishing and storing transcripts of:

    • Local council meetings

    • Court hearings

    • Election hustings

    • Academic research interviews and focus groups

    • Academic seminars, lectures, etc

    • Plays

    • Market research focus groups

    • Historic archives of events such as a coronation or key debate

    These are just a few of our ideas, but we bet you have others – please do tell us in the comments below.

    What’s coming next

    At the moment, SayIt only covers publishing transcripts, not creating them. Needless to say, this lack of an authoring interface is a pretty big gap, but we are launching early (as an Alpha) because we want to know how you’ll use it, what features you want us to build, and what doesn’t work as well as we anticipated. We also want to see if we can attract other people to co-develop the code with us, which is the real spirit of the Poplus network.

    We’ll also be adding the ability to subscribe to alerts so that you’ll get an email every time a keyword occurs (just as you can on our other websites, such as FixMyStreet, TheyWorkForYou and WhatDoTheyKnow). This feature will come into its own for ongoing series of transcripts such as council meetings.

    Image by Columbia Phonograph Co. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

  4. 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…)

  5. 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.

  6. Qué Sabes: Changing the face of FOI requesting in Uruguay

    Uruguayan public transport license plate

    Uruguay has one of the most successful e-government initiatives in Latin America. The president supported the development, a generous budget was made available and international cooperation was welcomed. Despite this fact, and an access to information law passed in 2008, up until 2012 there was uncertainty and resistance on the part of the government, both to responding to FOI requests and to accepting e-FOI requests.

    All of this changed with the launch of Qué Sabes, a freedom of information requesting platform using the Alaveteli code created by mySociety. For DATA, an organisation working towards more online open government in Uruguay, this allowed them to change laws on email requests. For mySociety, it’s further proof that our platform can be adapted to any jurisdiction, language, and geography by any organisation with some small technical ability.

    In the beginning…

    To DATA it was obvious that the authorities shouldn’t get away with ignoring requests made by email. Fabrizio Scrollini, one of DATA’s co-founders tells us, “In 2012 at the University of Oxford a group of activists took part in a conference on access to information hosted by British NGO mySociety.” The conference demonstrated the success of online FOI platforms in other countries, so why not Uruguay. This meeting of minds inspired Fabrizio and Gabriela Rodriguez, a software engineer for DATA, to make the leap and create their own FOI platform.

    But was mySociety’s code difficult to implement? “Over a week (with some sleep deprivation) the first prototype was ready to go and was quietly online.”

    Why Alaveteli?

    “The platform decision was based on very basic criteria about technology support and usability,” Fabrizio says. “In terms of technology the team looked for relatively clean code, Open Source software, and a community that could support long term work. By that time, Alaveteli was the only software doing the former.”

    It also helped that there was an existing Spanish Alaveteli platform up and running from another mySociety partner, TuDerechoASaber, which made translation of the website components easier.

    challenging lift sign in Hotel Palacio

    What was the most challenging?

    According to DATA, the biggest challenge was collecting data from the government, something that they were best placed to do alone. This was anything from email addresses to finding out if the information they had gathered was out of date.

    “The Uruguayan state is not a small one (albeit the country is small),” Fabrizio tells us. “And email [addresses] were not easily available. We made use of an official agenda of authorities (in closed format) to get the first emails.”

    Collaboration with other local, sometimes non-technical, NGOs was also key. “Present[ing] a united front [...] solve[d] the crucial issue of making the site work.” It was also crucial in pushing the authorities to accept email freedom of information requests as a valid legal format.

    Launch and results

    Qué Sabes launched in October 2012 with significant local and international publicity, thanks to DATA’s coordination with both Latin American and European NGOs.

    Currently the site has had 228 requests sent through it. Its sister site WhatDoTheyKnow, launched by mySociety four years previously, has over 160,000 requests, which shows the possible growth for a site of this kind.

    But for DATA, the biggest result has to be influencing a change in the law. “In January 2013,” writes Fabrizio, “after 170 requests were filed online and [with] significant public pressure, [the] Uruguayan authorities conceded that online access to information requests are legal. Access to information is now a right that Uruguayans can exercise just by sending an email.”

    So what have DATA taken away from the process?

    “Setting up a website such as Qué Sabes involved a significant amount of [non-technical] time and effort.” We at mySociety, as much as we may want to, are not in a position to support these sites with grants, only technical help and practical advice. “An initial group of 5 highly motivated (DATA) volunteers went from installing the software to launching it, covering several areas such as programming, legal expertise, communication and policy issues.”

    The volunteers are essential. Fabrizio tells us, “We hope to organise them so eventually they can run the website and provide support to each other. [...] Yet the crucial point has been made: the state has to answer FOI requests through email in the 21st century.”

    Image credits:
    Uruguay, Montevideo 1970s public transport plate by woody1778a CC BY-SA
    Frightening elevator sign in Hotel Palacio by Chris Hamby CC BY-NC

  7. FixMyZürich: FixMyStreet goes Swiss

    Need FixMyStreet for your own council? Find out more here.

    Orange Man Group by Clemens v. Vogelsang

    It’s known for being one of the cleanest and most efficient cities on earth – but even Zürich suffers from potholes and graffiti.

    Zürich’s residents can now report infrastructure faults via their city council’s own dedicated installation of the FixMyStreet platform: Züri wie neu, which translates as ‘Zürich: Good As New’.

    For Zürich, it’s a new online channel for its infrastructure reports. Meanwhile, for mySociety it’s further proof that our platform can be adapted to any jurisdiction, language, and geography.

    We spoke to GIS Project Managers Tobias Brunner and André Graf about the process of installation, and whether or not the launch has been a success.

    How it all began

    “The project came about as the result of a government competition,” explains Tobias. “Through the eZürich vision, they solicited ideas that would help the city use ICT (Information and Communications Technology).

    “FixMyZürich, as the idea was initially presented, was one of the top three suggestions. It clearly matched the competition’s stated aims of increasing transparency and modernising communication channels. Plus there was a strong likelihood that it would also increase civic participation and improve the image of the council – wins all round.”

    But Switzerland has a reputation throughout the world for being spotless and efficient – and could Zürich, which ranks second in the world for high standard of living, really have any problems to report?

    There was definitely a fear that the service would barely be used. Only after launch would they see whether that fear was justified.

    Why FixMyStreet?

    Prior to this, Zürich didn’t have an online channel for infrastructure fault reporting: citizens had to use phone, email, or even fax if they wanted to tell the council about a problem in their community. So it was high time for modernisation. eZürich’s winning entry had mentioned the UK platform FixMyStreet, and so Zürich was well aware of mySociety’s custom software.

    They assessed other systems. But a number of factors led to the decision to go with FixMyStreet, rather than either buying a different option, or building a system themselves.

    Firstly, says Tobias, “It’s simple! And after the design revamp, it looks stunning.” And then, “mySociety was able to adapt the software to our specific needs, which is very customer-friendly.” And finally, “mySociety has a lot of experience in the field, which also persuaded senior council decision-makers.”

    Adapting to Zürich’s needs

    To complicate matters, each department had its own incident management system – and in fact they still do. In order to get the pilot scheme up and running, Züri wie neu has had to be a standalone system, although eventually the dots will be connected and a unified system will be introduced.

    Zuri Wie Neu

    Anyone familiar with the original version of FixMyStreet will immediately notice one big difference with Züri wie neu – the maps. They’re satellite, unlike the Ordnance Survey maps that our UK users know and love.

    “People are used to Google Maps,” says Tobias. “We have nice orthophotos [aerial photographs that are geometrically corrected to show uniform distances]. This way, people can view more details, like trees or landmarks, and therefore will hopefully be able to better locate their problem”.

    There are less obvious differences, too. For example, users of the original UK FixMyStreet are required to confirm their reports by clicking on an email link. In Zürich, not so. In fact, all reports are verified on the council side: “We didn’t want to let any reports slip by!”  That’s admirable commitment.

    Installation

    With mySociety in one country, and our clients in another, there was always going to be a degree of collaboration from a distance. For mySociety, this isn’t so unusual: many of us work from home habitually, and we have all the tools in place for co-coding, shared documentation, and instant communication.

    All the same, there were several additional keys to making sure the process went smoothly:

    “A lot of email contact and feedback. Feedback from mySociety was really swift – way faster than what we’re used to from Swiss companies!”

    And it was invaluable that there were two face to face meetings at crucial points in the development process. Here’s how it went, according to Tobias:

    “First, a lot of talk with council members and other responsible people. Then, even more talks!”

    “After that, we provided firm requirements for mySociety to implement. There was a lot of testing throughout. And we provided detailed feedback to mySociety about each implementation sprint.”

    The process was not entirely without challenges: for example, we needed to build the accompanying app from scratch, which of course added to development time. And Tobias reckons that another face to face meeting would have been useful, especially as regards the app.

    Launch

    Züri wie neu attracted a real blaze of publicity – clearly, this was an idea whose time had come in Switzerland.

    “The media went crazy. Every newspaper in Zürich reported the story. Even European television picked it up. Even now, a month after the launch, the media is still covering us”.

    Results

    Of course, the outcomes are the important part. We saw at the beginning that Zürich’s main aim was to increase transparency and modernise communication channels. We are sure that all councils are also keen to cut costs and increase efficiency.

    In the first month after launch, there were 600-900 reports. Zürich’s population is approximately 400,000: comparable to Reading in the UK, and somewhere between Leicester and Bristol. Zürich’s report rate is way in excess of what we see in any of those cities – but it’s early days for this project, and we expect the number of reports to settle down somewhat as the launch publicity subsides.

    It’s interesting to hear that Tobias and André reckon the users of the website are ‘new customers’ – people who never would have been in touch before. You can argue whether that creates extra work, or increases efficiency as more faults are reported that would never previously have been fixed.

    Meanwhile, feedback from Zürich residents has been overwhelmingly positive. Zürich council themselves are pleased: their next step is to look into adapting the FixMyStreet system so that it can be used by internal departments too, and, significantly, they are in discussion with other councils across Switzerland.

    The final analysis

    Would André and Tobias recommend FixMyStreet to other councils, including those abroad?

    “mySociety were great. They were always very kind, and they brought a large amount of input from their previous experience. We’d definitely recommend them.

    “Working in different countries turned out not to be a problem – so long as someone in your organisation speaks English. But I would definitely say that meetings are vital.

    “As an extra plus point, you also gain knowledge about English culture – comic shops, real ale, all that sort of thing!”

    We’re not going to guarantee a crash course in comics and beer, but we can promise a street fault reporting system that will suit your needs. Get in touch to find out more.

    Photo by Clemens v. Vogelsang (CC)

  8. Mapumental Property Launches

    If you’ve been following mySociety for a while, you’ll know that we have been interested in making maps that show commuting times for several years.

    However, we’ve never made public a simple, free, useful version of our slidy-swooshy Mapumental journey times technology. Until today.

    Today we pull the wraps off Mapumental Property , a house-hunting service covering England, Scotland and Wales, designed to help you work out where you might live if you want a public transport commute of a particular maximum duration. Have a go, and we guarantee you’ll find it an oddly compelling experience.

    We think it’s a genuinely useful tool – especially since unlike some of the other players in this space, we’ve got all the different kinds of public transport, right across the whole of Great Britain. We hope that some of you will find it helpful when deciding where to live.

    However, this launch doesn’t mean mySociety is bent on taking over the property websites sector. Mapumental Property isn’t a challenger to the likes of Rightmove, it’s a calling card – an advertisement for our skills – which we hope will help mySociety to attract people and organisations who want beautiful, useful web tools built for them.

    In particular we’d like people interested in Mapumental to note that:

    • We like to build attractive, usable web tools for clients of all kinds.
    • We know how to use complex data to make simple, lovely things.
    • We can do some mapping technology that others haven’t worked out yet.

    If any of that is of interest, please get in touch, or read about our software development and consulting services.

    I’d like to thank quite a few people for helping with this launch. Duncan Parkes was the lead developer, Matthew Somerville ably assisted. Jedidiah Broadbent did the design. The idea originally came from the late Chris Lightfoot, and me, Tom Steinberg. Francis Irving built the first version, and Stamen came up with the awesome idea of using sliders in the first place (and built some early tech). Kristina Glushkova worked on business development, and Zoopla’s API provides the property data. I’m also grateful to Ed Parsons of Google for very kindly giving us a hat tip when they built some technology that was inspired by Mapumental.  Thanks to everyone – this has been a long time coming.

    We’ll follow up soon with a post about the technology – and in particular how we got away from using Flash. It has been an interesting journey.

  9. mySociety Launches FixMyStreet Platform Version 1.0 – Testers and Translators Sought

    FixMyStreet logo (square)Today sees the official launch of FixMyStreet’s open source codebase as a proper tool that we hope people will want to deploy in cities and countries around the world. It is based on FixMyStreet.com which we believe is the most usable, most mature street problem reporting tool in the world, but which is only available to British users.

    We’re shouting about this launch a bit because we need your help to make the service ever better. First, we need feedback from programmers about whether we’ve got the install process right – whether it’s as easy and clear as we want it to be. And for non-coders who want to get involved, we want to ask for help with the process of translating the site’s text into different languages.

    Over the years there have been many copies of FixMyStreet set up in many countries, often using the site’s original name, but always written by developers from scratch. We’re delighted to have inspired people, but all too often the people trying to build copies have stumbled as they realise just how hard it is to build a tool like this with the polish that users expect. We think that people everywhere would be better off if they could have a local FixMyStreet that was really usable, and really connected to the right people.

    So we’re very happy to be able to open up a codebase that has been extensively modified in the last year, to help users around the world manage easy, successful deployments. Steps we have taken include:

    • Putting the translation text into Transifex, so that non-technical translators can get started whenever they feel like it
    • Developing Amazon Machine Images so people who want to tinker can get started in the minimum possible time
    • Rewriting the entire codebase in order to make it a less confusing installation
    • Building a global version of our MapIt political boundaries web service, so you can get going without having to wrestle administrative data out of your government before you get started.

    Plus with the help of the wonderful OpenStreetMap, you can get maps without licensing hassles too.

    Calling it version 1.0 is our way of saying two things. First, that the tool still has a lot of evolution left to do, and a long way to go before it is as good as we want it to become. But more ambitiously, calling it 1.0 is also our way of saying that it’s no longer just a codebase dumped into Github. It’s a real open source project, which we plan to support, and which we hope will make a real difference in the lives of ordinary people. Check it out.

  10. Installing FixMyStreet and MapIt

    A photo of some graffiti saying "SIMPLE"

    Photo credit: duncan on Flickr

    One of the projects we’ve been working on at mySociety recently is that of making it easier for people to set up new versions of our sites in other countries.  Something we’ve heard again and again is that for many people, setting up new web applications is a frustrating process, and that they would appreciate anything that would make it easier.

    To address that, we’re pleased to announce that for both FixMyStreet and MapIt, we have created AMIs (Amazon Machine Images) with a default installation of each site:

    You can use these AMIs to create a running version of one of these sites on an Amazon EC2 instance with just a couple of clicks. If you haven’t used Amazon Web Services before, then you can get a Micro instance free for a year to try this out.  (We have previously published an AMI for Alaveteli, which helped many people to get started with setting up their own Freedom of Information sites.)

    Each AMI is created from an install script designed to be used on a clean installation of Debian squeeze or Ubuntu precise, so if you have a new server hosted elsewhere, you can use that script to similarly create a default installation of the site without being dependent on Amazon:

    In addition, we’ve launched new sites with documentation for FixMyStreet and MapIt, which will tell you how to customize those sites and import data if you’ve created a running instance using one of the above methods.

    These documentation sites also have improved instructions for completely manual installations of either site, for people who are comfortable with setting up PostgreSQL, Apache / nginx, PostGIS, etc.

    Another notable change is that we’re now supporting running FixMyStreet and MapIt on nginx, as an alternative to Apache, using FastCGI and gunicorn respectively.

    We hope that these changes make it easier than ever before to reuse our code, and set up new sites that help people fix things that matter to them.

    Photo credit: duncan