We won’t insist on being addressed this way, but you can now append ‘BAFTA and Emmy nominated’ to our name. We were very chuffed to be nominated for two television awards in the last month: the BAFTA for Digital Creativity in Television Craft, and the Emmy for best Digital Non-fiction Programme.
‘TV?’, you might be thinking, ‘I thought mySociety were all about digital stuff.’ Well, increasingly, of course, the lines are blurred. Television programmes come bundled with their own website, Twitter hashtag, or app. These days, TV is less about being a passive viewer, more about becoming part of an active, engaged conversation online.
Last year, we worked with Channel 4 and TV production company Tiger Aspect to create the app and the website tools that accompanied their programme about empty houses – The Great British Property Scandal. A repurposing of the software that underlies FixMyStreet, the app enabled viewers to report empty homes; the site petition amassed 119k signatures – so the audience certainly got involved.
We were, of course, delighted to have been recognised, along with C4 and Tiger Aspect. In the end, we didn’t need the space we’d hastily cleared on the mySociety mantelpiece, but as the BAFTA went to the incomparable Paralympics, we really can’t begrudge it.
And of course, if you’re a TV company looking for help with your digital tie-ins, we’re happy to help.
The Open Democracy Advice Centre (ODAC) in South Africa will be using mySociety’s Alaveteli software in their latest project – and, with a bit of match-making from mySociety, the preparation period has been rigorous.
Alaveteli is our open source Freedom of Information platform. It underlies our own UK-based WhatDoTheyKnow, and right-to-know sites around the world. Alaveteli sites make it easy for citizens to ask questions of those bodies who operate under Freedom of Information law and, significantly, they automatically publish all responses.
Before any coding or implementation began, we got ODAC together with the “Governance Collaboratory”, an initiative from the d.school in Stanford University that seeks to apply the “design thinking” approach to projects that intend to make government more open, more effective, and more accountable. We’ve observed quite a few Alaveteli installs, but while we’re always on hand to offer support and answer development queries, we’ve never prepared the ground quite like this.
Gabriella Razzano of ODAC welcomed Jeremy Weinstein and Jenny Stefanotti, both from the d.school, to Cape Town for an intensive few days of assessing how the design thinking approach could shape the project. Two staff from mySociety also went along — Paul (our Head of International Projects) and Dave (one of our developers) — because we’re keen to understand how the d.school’s approach might improve the way we go about building our new projects.
Now, at mySociety we already know a thing or two about building civic systems that engage with the public, because we have considerable experience in the field. We are expert at combining user experience and current tech to create simple, usable interfaces (see our DIY blog for some example details). We conduct usability tests, we apply A/B testing, and we think hard about what our analytics tell us. But actually much of this is reactive, iterative design: it’s being applied after the core product has already been built.
Design thinking challenges this approach by suggesting that the user on which initial designs are often based is purely imaginary. As a result, the site inevitably includes the assumptions and prejudices of its creators. This won’t necessarily lead to a bad design — especially if the creators are benign and experienced — but it must fail, by definition, to account for the unexpected things that may motivate or concern actual users. The design thinking process attempts to change this by approaching the initial problem in a prescribed way and following a process that isolates genuine, existing requirements. This includes, in design thinking terms, processing the initial interviews into empathy maps from which requirements emerge, and which themselves become features that are rapidly prototyped in isolation from other parts of the system.
This is uncomfortable for those of us used to building loose iterations from the bottom up and refining them later. It means introducing empathy and rapid, offline prototyping much earlier in the process than we’d normally expect. Certainly in the commercial world it’s common for a company to prototype against their target consumers early on. But for civic projects such as mySociety’s, it’s often much harder to identify who the users will be, for the impressive yet overwhelming reason that often we are building our platforms for everybody. This can lead to generalisations which may miss specific issues that could make a huge difference to some users.
The d.school advocates a “learning by doing” way of teaching, so the days we spent in Cape Town were a busy mix of practice as well as theory. We interviewed people who had a variety of reasons to want to make Freedom of Information requests, including an activist who’s already used South Africa’s Freedom of Information legislation to make requests regarding housing projects, the head of a rape crisis centre, and law students who may well become a nation’s most empowered activists. From these interviews we isolated specific needs, which at this stage were nearly all unconnected to any digital or web requirement. Jeremy and Jenny then led us through the process of rapid, analogue prototyping intended to address those needs.
Inevitably we could only scratch the surface in the few days we had available, but we hope ODAC will be able to apply the process to the development of their project, just as we aim to use it to benefit the work on ours.
Image credit: Procavia capensis (Rock-dwelling Hyrax or Dassie) by Arthur Chapman, released under CC BY-NC-SA on Flickr.
They tell visitors that dassies such as these live atop Table Mountain. We went up there and saw none. Similarly, Freedom of Information requests exist in South Africa under the Promotion of Access to Information Act 2000 (PAIA), but most people have never seen one — fewer than 200 PAIA requests were made nationally in 2012. This tenuous comparison allows us to illustrate the blog post with a cute picture of fuzzy mammals.
We’re starting the year with some really wonderful news: Google.org is granting us a fantastic $1.6m, to be spent over two years.
Clearly, this is a significant sum of money, which will really turbo-charge our efforts to build technologies to help groups like mySociety in countries around the world.
We will be using the money to provide developers with open source technologies to help them to more easily and quickly launch new civic apps and services. We will also be working with lots of other groups to promote greater knowledge and technology sharing amongst civil society groups of all kinds, especially in the accountability sector.
What’s the problem being tackled?
Currently, it can take a great deal of work to launch even relatively simple sites or apps with civic purposes, because the sector is not rich with mature, sector-specific tools and technologies. This high barrier to getting started has a bad effect on the range and strength of popular, impactful civic sites and apps online, globally.
Working with international partners we plan to develop some common, open source components that will reduce the effort required to launch new services in a broad range of areas: including accountability, legal, environmental, political, and more.
mySociety will work with local partners in various targeted regions to help those partners make the greatest possible benefit from using these new, common, collaboratively-developed open source components. And we’ll be working to help them contribute back, both in terms of shared code and shared knowledge.
The project will also develop new approaches to bringing together the global civic-technology community, so that it can collaborate more easily on new projects.
We’re really excited to see where this project will take us next – and we are very grateful to Google.org for the increased opportunities their funding brings us.
Photo by KayVee INC (CC)
mySociety is looking to recruit new trustees to help us, as we transition from being a small digital non-profit into a mature international social enterprise.
If you are interested in helping to guide one of the earliest ‘digitally native’ charities through to its next stage of growth, this may be an opportunity of interest to you.
Our mission is to discover how technology can (or cannot) help make people more powerful. As a team and a community we are driven by a desire to build tools that help people exert a little control over the world around them – especially people who have never tried to do so, and who don’t think they would succeed if they tried.
If that is a goal that motivates you in the way it motivates our staff and volunteers, we should have a conversation.
What is a trustee?
Trustees oversee charities to ensure that they are well-run, solvent, operating within the law, and making the right strategic decisions. These are unpaid roles with an ultimate legal responsibility for the charity. To understand more about what being a trustee means legally, please see this introduction from the charities commission.
mySociety is the public brand of the registered charity UK Citizens Online Democracy: the positions we are advertising for today are trustees of that charity.
As a UKCOD trustee, you will advise on the organisation’s priorities, help with the approval of budgets and staffing, and assess legal matters. In concrete terms, that means attending meetings in London every three months, and dealing with the associated emails and documents – a commitment of about six hours per month.
Between 2003 and the present day, mySociety has built and grown a series of British democratic and civic websites and apps, including FixMyStreet.com, WhatDoTheyKnow.com, WriteToThem.com and TheyWorkForYou.com.
In the last two years our organisation has experienced a great deal of growth, with our staff tripling in number (to nearly 20) and our objectives becoming ever more international. This is largely due to major investments by groups like the Omidyar Network and the Open Society Foundation, as well as an increase in our commercial software and consultancy services, which generate about half our revenues.
We have numerous challenges to face as we approach our 10th birthday, in late 2013.
- How do we balance the need to maintain and improve the quality of UK services, whilst working increasingly in other countries?
- How do we ensure that the people trying to build copies of the services we run in other countries succeed in adapting them to very different environments?
- How do we become a successful, substantial social enterprise that can drive quality improvement and higher ethical standards across the entire government IT sector?
- How do we do all this whilst ensuring that the high standards of talent – and niceness – of the people within our organisation do not slip?
What we’re looking for in trustees
mySociety is still small enough that it often needs very practical support from the trustees, such as opinions on legal matters. This means we need trustees equally comfortable with big questions and small ones.
We are interested in acquiring trustees from a range of different occupational backgrounds. If you have skills in any of the disciplines listed below, you could really help us.
- Campaigning and community organising
- International development
- Human resources
- Governance structures
- Digital product development
- Local Government
- Quality assurance
We also welcome applications from mySociety volunteers, whether past or present.
We will be happy to meet people and arrange phonecalls for no-commitment discussions up to 21st December 2012. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org if you would like to book in a conversation with someone who could tell you a bit more about the role.
If you would actually like to apply, please send a CV and covering letter, explaining why becoming a trustee is of interest, to email@example.com by 5th January 2012 latest.
We will conduct interviews on Monday and Tuesday 21st and 22nd January – we can arrange them in the evenings if that is necessary.
We will notify applicants of our appointment decisions on Monday 28th January.
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.
One of the key differences between the UK’s national parliament and its local governments is that Parliament produces a written record of what gets said – Hansard.
This practice – which has no actual legal power – still has a huge impact on successful functioning of Parliament. MPs share their own quotes, they quote things back to one-another, journalists cite questions and answers, and every day TheyWorkForYou sends tens of thousands of email alerts to people who want to know who said what yesterday in Parliament. Without freely available transcripts of Parliamentary debates, it is likely that Parliament would not be anything like as prominent an institution in British public life.
No Local Hansards
Councils, of course, are too poor to have transcribers, and so don’t produce transcripts. Plus, nobody wants to know what’s going on anyway. Those are the twin beliefs that ensure that verbatim transcripts are an exceptional rarity in the local government world.
At mySociety we think the time has come to actively challenge these beliefs. We are going to be building a set of technologies whose aim is to start making the production of written transcripts of local government meetings a normal practice.
We believe that being able to get sent some form of alert when a council meeting mentions your street is a gentle and psychologically realistic way of engaging regular people with the decisions being made in their local governments. We believe transcripts are worth producing because they show that local politics is actually carried out by humans.
The State of the Art Still Needs You
First, though – a reality check. No technology currently exists that can entirely remove human labour from the production of good quality transcripts of noisy, complicated public meetings. But technology is now at a point where it is possible to substantially collapse the energy and skills required to record, edit and publish transcripts of public meetings of all kinds.
We are planning to develop software that uses off-the-shelf voice recognition technologies to produce rough drafts of transcripts that can then be edited and published through a web browser. Our role will not be in working on the voice recognition itself, but rather on making the whole experience of setting out to record, transcribe and publish a speech or session as easy, fast and enjoyable as possible. And we will build tools to make browsing and sharing the data as nice as we know how. All this fits within our Components strategy.
But mySociety cannot ourselves go to all these meetings. And it appears exceptionally unlikely that councils will want to pay for official transcribers at this point in history. So what we’re asking today is for interest from individuals – inside or outside councils – willing to have a go at transcribing meetings as we develop the software.
It doesn’t have to be definitive to be valuable
Hansard is the record of pretty much everything that gets said in Parliament. This has led to the idea that if you don’t record everything said in every session, your project is a failure. But if Wikipedia has taught us anything, it is that starting small – producing little nuggets of value from the first day – is the right way to get started on hairy, ambitious projects. We’re not looking for people willing to give up their lives to transcribe endlessly and for free – we’re looking for people for whom having a transcript is useful to them anyway, people willing to transcribe at least partly out of self interest. We’re looking for these initial enthusiasts to start building up transcripts that slowly shift the idea of what ‘normal’ conduct in local government is.
Unlike Wikipedia we’re not really talking about a single mega database with community rules. Our current plans are to let you set up a database which you would own – just as you own your blog on Blogger or WordPress, perhaps with collaborators. Maybe you just want to record each annual address of the Lord Mayor – that’s fine. We just want to build something that suits many different people’s needs, and which lifts the veil on so much hidden decision making in this country.
Get in touch
The main purpose of this post is to tell people that mySociety is heading in this direction, and that we’d like you along for the ride. We won’t have a beta to play with for a good few months yet, but we are keen to hear from anyone who thinks they might be an early adopter, or who knows of other people who might want to be involved.
And we’re just as keen to hear from people inside councils as outside, although we know your hands are more tied. Wherever you sit – drop us a line and tell us what sort of use you might want to make of the new technology, and what sort of features you’d like to see. We’ll get back in touch when we’ve something to share.
The local press in Islington has just reported the accidental release of quite a bit of sensitive personal data by Islington council.
One of our volunteers, Helen, was responsible for spotting that Islington had made this mistake, and so we feel it is appropriate to set out a summary of what happened, to inform journalists and citizens who may be interested.
Note – Concerned residents should contact Islington Council or the Information Commissioner’s Office.
On 27th May a user of our WhatDoTheyKnow website raised an FOI request to Islington Borough Council. On the 26th June the council responded to the FOI request by sending three Excel workbooks. Unfortunately, these contained a considerable amount of accidentally released, private data about Islington residents. In one file the personal data was contained within a normal spreadsheet, in the two other workbooks the personal data was contained on four hidden sheets.
All requests and responses sent via WhatDoTheyKnow are automatically published online without any human intervention – this is the key feature that makes this site both valuable and popular. So these Excel workbooks went instantly onto the public web, where they seem to have attracted little attention – our logs suggest 7 downloads in total.
Shortly after sending out these files, someone within the the council tried to delete the first email using Microsoft Outlook’s ‘recall’ feature. As most readers are probably aware – normal emails sent across the internet cannot be remotely removed using the recall function, so this first mail, containing sensitive information in both plain sight and in (trivially) hidden forms remained online.
Unfortunately, this wasn’t the only mistake on the 26th June. A short while later, the council sent a ‘replacement’ FOI response that still contained a large amount of personal information, this time in the form of hidden Excel tabs. As you can see from this page on the Microsoft site , uncovering such tabs takes seconds, and only basic computer skills.
At no point on or after the 26th June did we receive any notification from Islington (or anyone else) that problematic information had been released not once, but twice, even though all mails sent via WhatDoTheyKnow make it clear that replies are published automatically online. Had we been told we would have been able to remove the information quickly.
It was only by sheer good fortune that our volunteer Helen happened to stumble across these documents some weeks later, and she handled the situation wonderfully, immediately hiding the data, asking Google to clear their cache, and alerting the rest of mySociety to the situation. This happened on the 14th July, a Saturday, and over the weekend mySociety staff, volunteers and trustees swung into action to formulate a plan.
The next working day, Monday 16th July, we alerted both Islington and the ICO about what had happened with an extremely detailed timeline.
The personal data released by Islington Borough Council relates to 2,376 individuals/families who have made applications for council housing or are council tenants, and includes everything from name to sexuality. It is for the ICO, not mySociety, to evaluate what sort of harm may have resulted from this release, but we felt it was important to be clear about the details of this incident.
Ah, summer: walks in the park, lazing in the long grass, and the sound of chirping crickets – all overlaid with the clatter of a thousand keyboards.
That may not be your idea of summer, but it’s certainly the ways ours is shaping up. We’re participating in Google’s Summer of Code, which aims to put bright young programmers in touch with Open Source organisations, for mutual benefit.
What do the students get from it? Apart from a small stipend, they have a mentored project to get their teeth into over the long summer hols, and hopefully learn a lot in the process. We, of course, see our code being used, improved and adapted – and a whole new perspective on our own work.
Candidates come from all over the world – they’re mentored remotely – so for an organisation like mySociety, this offers a great chance to get insight into the background, politics and technical landscape of another culture. Ideas for projects that may seem startlingly obvious in, say, Latin America or India would simply never have occurred to our UK-based team.
This year, mySociety were one of the 180 organisations participating. We had almost 100 enquiries, from countries including Lithuania, India, Peru, Georgia, and many other places. It’s a shame that we were only able to take on a couple of the many excellent applicants.
We made suggestions for several possible projects to whet the applicants’ appetite. Mobile apps were popular, in particular an app for FixMyTransport. Reworking WriteToThem, and creating components to complement MapIt and PopIt also ranked highly.
It was exciting to see so many ideas, and of course, hard to narrow them down.
In the end we chose two people who wanted to help improve our nascent PopIt service. PopIt will allow people to very quickly create a public database of politicians or other figures. No technical knowledge will be needed – where in the past our code has been “Just add developers”, this one is “Just add data”. We’ll host the sites for others to build on.
Our two successful applicants both had ideas for new websites that would use PopIt for their datastore, exactly the sort of advanced usage we hope to encourage. As well as making sure that PopIt actually works by using it they’ll both be creating transparency sites that will continue after their placements ends. They’ll also have the knowledge of how to set up such a site, and in our opinion that is a very good thing.
We hope to bring you more details as their projects progress, throughout the long, hot (or indeed short and wet) summer.
PS: There is a separate micro-blog where we’re currently noting some of the nitty gritty thoughts and decisions that go into building something like PopIt. If you want to see how the project goes please do subscribe! The Components mailing list is also a good way of staying in touch.
Top image by Elaine Millan, used with thanks under the Creative Commons licence.
mySociety’s sites are all open-source, which means that anyone can take our code and build their own sites with it. That’s been a core mySociety principle from the very beginning, but as time has passed, we’ve realised that we could have made the process easier.
Until recently, you had to be pretty techie to use our code. But now, under the banner DIY mySociety, we’re actively working to lower the bar. Firstly, and most importantly, we’re in the process of rewriting much of our code so that it’s nearer ‘plug and play’ status than previously. Then, we’re backing it up with documentation in the form of easy-to-read handbooks, and supportive communities.
If you’ve ever thought of replicating a mySociety-style site in your own neck of the woods, take a peek over at diy.mysociety.org. We’ll be regularly updating with news and advice.
Image by Kenny Louie, used with thanks under the Creative Commons licence.
FixMyStreet, our site for reporting things like potholes and broken street lights, has had something of a major redesign, kindly supported in part by Kasabi. With the help of Supercool, we have overhauled the look of the site, bringing it up to date and making the most of some lovely maps. And as with any mySociety project, we’d really appreciate your feedback on how we can make it ever more usable.
The biggest change to the new FixMyStreet is the use of responsive design, where the web site adapts to fit within the environment in which it’s being viewed. The main difference on FixMyStreet, besides the obvious navigation changes, is that in a small screen environment, the reporting process changes to have a full screen map and confirmation step, which we thought would be preferable on small touchscreens and other mobiles. There are some technical details at the end of this post.
Along with the design, we’ve made a number of other improvements along the way. For example, something that’s been requested for a long time, we now auto-rotate photos on upload, if we can, and we’re storing whatever is provided rather than only a shrunken version. It’s interesting that most photos include correct orientation information, but some clearly do not (e.g. the Blackberry 9800).
We have many things we’d still like to do, as a couple of items from our github repository show. Firstly, it would be good if the FixMyStreet alert page could have something similar to what we’ve done on http://planningalerts.barnet.gov.uk/, providing a configurable circle for the potential alert area. We also are going to be adding faceted search to the area pages, allowing you to see only reports in a particular category, or within a certain time period.
Regarding native phone apps – whilst the new design does hopefully work well on mobile phones, we understand that native apps are still useful for a number of reasons (not least, the fact photo upload is still not possible from a mobile web app on an iPhone). We have not had the time to update our apps, but will be doing so in the near future to bring them more in line with the redesign and hopefully improve them generally as well.
The redesign is not the only news about FixMyStreet today
As part of our new DIY mySociety project, we are today publishing an easy-to-read guide for people interested in using the FixMyStreet software to run versions of FixMyStreet outside of Britain. We are calling the newly upgraded, more re-usable open source code the FixMyStreet Platform.
This is the first milestone in a major effort to upgrade the FixMyStreet Platform code to make it easier and more flexible to run in other countries. This effort started last year, and today we are formally encouraging people to join our new mailing list at the new FixMyStreet Platform homepage.
Coming soon: a major upgrade to FixMyStreet for Councils
As part of our redesign work, we’ve spoken to a load of different councils about what they might want or need, too. We’re now taking that knowledge, combining it with this redesign, and preparing to relaunch a substantially upgraded FixMyStreet for Councils product. If you’re interested in that, drop us a line.
Kasabi: Our Data is now in the Datastore
Finally, we are also now pushing details of reports entered on FixMyStreet to Kasabi’s data store as open linked data; you can find details of this dataset on their site at http://kasabi.com/dataset/fixmystreet. Let us know if it’s useful to you, or if we can do anything differently to help you.
On a mobile, you can see that the site navigation is at the end of the document, with a skip to navigation link at the top. On a desktop browser, you’ll note that visually the navigation is now at the top. In both cases, the HTML is the same, with the navigation placed after the main content, so that it hopefully loads and appears first. We are using display: table-caption and caption-side: top in the desktop stylesheet in order to rearrange the content visually (as explained by Jeremy Keith), a simple yet powerful technique.
If you have any technical questions about the design, please do ask in the comments and I’ll do my best to answer.