1. No10 petitions system goes live

    I’m very pleased to announce that the petitions system we’ve built for 10 Downing Street has gone live today.

    I’m very grateful for the hard and often inspired work put into this by Chris Lightfoot and Matthew Somerville, as well as the civil servants who have helped to build a petitions system which I believe is in a real class of its own.

    The most notable features are:

    1. Petitions are accepted and published, regardless of the political slant of the petition. However, if they break the Ts&Cs (a petition that doesn’t actually ask for any action, for example) then they are put on a special rejected petitions page: they don’t just vanish. We think this transparency feature is probably unique.

    2. The site is being launched in beta, and will change over time. This might seem too commonplace to note for many of you, but it reflects a willingness to see a public IT service evolve in response to users, not simply fulfil a contract agreed in advance. mySociety exists partly to spread good practice in the public sector, and we think this is a nice example of that in action.

    3. The code, including Chris’s amazing high-load optimised engine, is all open source.

    Any questions? Come into our chat channel at www.irc.mysociety.org or mail us at hello@mysociety.org.

  2. Weekly meeting

    We just had our irregular weekly meeting, which we do most Mondays using a conference call. I thought I’d just write up what we’re all up to this week.

    • I’m continuing to test the ePetitions site for 10 Downing Street, and developing an interesting branded version of PledgeBank for CAFOD (more when it launches).
    • Matthew is going to look at various things that need doing on PledgeBank and WriteTothem. For PledgeBank more chivvying emails, I think something like this ticket but not exactly. For WriteToThem, various bits of code to do with how we handle error cases.
    • Chris is making more pretty maps for the Department for Transport.
    • Tom is working out in detail how we’re doing to spend the money from DCLG which has finally come through. It’s mentioned in this post, look for “e-Innovations Product and Marketisation strand via Kirklees MBC”. Which means, we’re being paid to do proper marketing and sales of branded version of our services, such as WriteToThem, PledgeBank, and Neighbourhood Fixit. He’s also chasing up some interesting people met at a conference in Eastern Europe (Bratislava, I think?) last week.

    Please ask questions in the comments – for example, if you’d like us to post about particular things on this blog.

  3. What we’re up to

    Much of my August seems to have been absorbed with maintenance tasks.

    For example, Chris and I spent a few days tightening up WriteToThem’s privacy. I made sure the privacy statement correctly describes what happens with backup files, and failed messages. I reduced the timeouts on how long we keep the body of failed messages. I made sure we delete old backup files of the WriteToThem database. I wrote scripts to run periodically to check that no bugs in our queueing demon can accidentally mean we keep the body of messages for longer than we say. I added a cron job to delete Apache log files older than a month for all our sites. As AOL know to their cost, the only really private data is deleted data.

    Earlier in the month, I handled some WriteToThem support email for the first time in ages. We get a couple of hundred messages a week, which Matthew mainly slogs through. It’s good for morale to do it, as we get quite a lot of praise mail. It is also hard work, as you realise how complicated even our simple site and the Internet are, and it leads to fixing bugs and improving text on the site. I made a few improvements to our administration tools, and things like the auto-responder if people reply to the questionnaire, to try and reduce the amount of support email, and make it easier to handle.

    I did some more work on the geographically cascading pledges (like this prototype one), but I’m still not happy with them. In the end, I realised that it is the structure of wording of the pledge that is the key problem. Our format of “If will A but only if N others will B” just isn’t easily adapted to get across that the pledge applies separately in different geographically areas. Working out how to fix that is one of the things we’ll brainstorm about in the Lake District (see below).

    The last couple of days I’ve been configuring one of our new servers who is called Balti, and getting the PledgeBank test harness working on it. Until now, it has only been run on my laptop. This is partly heading towards making a proper test harness for the ePetitions site, running on a server so we properly test nothing can be broken before deploying a new version.

    Matthew has wrapped up the TheyWorkForYou API now, and is working on Neighbourhood Fixit next. Chris has been doing lots more performance work for the ePetitions site. And he’s been making some funky monitoring thing to detect PostgreSQL database lock conflicts, which we get occasionally and are hard to debug

    Tom’s in Berlin at the moment, he gave a talk last night, and I think has been to see some people from Politik Digital. As we’ve been discussing on the developers email list, there’s an EU grant we’re likely to apply for in collaboration with them.

    On Friday, we’re all going to the Lake district for a week, with some of the trustees and volunteers intermittently. We very conveniently and cheaply all work from home, so it’s good and necessary to meet up for a more sustained period of time at least once a year. Last year we were in Wales.

  4. Summer daze

    No lolling about in the sun for us, as we follow an endless chain of projects through the hot months. Inured to hasslebot, we’ve not been posting to this blog much. Instead, busy working on, or soon about to work on:

    • The ePetitions site for Number 10
    • On a syndicated version of PledgeBank for someone’s large global warming campaign later in the year, and another for a fundraiser for a Brazilian NGO
    • Making more maps (like these) for the Department for Transport
    • Adding an API to TheyWorkForYou, paid for by an award from the Department for Constitutional Affairs
    • Meetings endless meetings. I’ve given up trying to track Tom meeting people, and just assume at all times he is in an important meeting.
    • Supporting all our existing sites – customer support emails, nursing parliament screen scrapers, fixing up WriteToThem contact details, making sure our servers don’t break.

    And that’s without mentioning Neighbourhood Fix-it and the call for proposals. Later in the year. Have I missed anything?

    Have a good weekend!

  5. Geocascading pledges

    I haven’t posted here for a while – in late May / early June I was on holiday in China for a month. After 18 months of hectic mySociety with only a break for a week, I needed it!

    Since I got back, I’ve been busy on the no. 10 petitions site, which in the tag-team coding way that we do, Matthew has now taken over for a bit. And I’m doing something I’m hesitatingly calling “geocascading pledges”.

    I’m not quite sure what to call it yet. It lets you make one pledge, but whose target counts separately in different towns. When someone signs up, they also choose a place. Rather than having to make a separate pledge for everywhere in the world, you can just make one.

    Here’s an example pledge, which is also real (more on that later), so do sign it if you like. And then post your thoughts in the comments – it needs a bit of polishing yet.

  6. Building a petitions system for No10

    mySociety has been asked to do some work on an online petition system for Number 10 Downing street. mySociety is delighted to have been asked to bring our experience to the task, and aims to develop a new tool as easy to use, popular and trustworthy as our other non-partisan democractic web sites. In particular we are pleased to have jointly designed a system in which moderation is extremely transparent, and which we hope can be used as an exemplar of good practice elsewhere.

    Francis and Matthew have just started coding, and we plan to have a public beta running later in the year. All the code that is generated by mySociety (and which isn’t specific to the No10 site, like logos) will of course be available under open source licences, and we will be delighted to talk to other organisations who are interested in petition systems themselves.

  7. Where next for mySociety?

    mySociety started in very late 2003 by running a call for project ideas ideas. We were delighted and overwhelmed by the response – over 250 projects were submitted and vetted by our users. With those users help we picked five, and plotted to raise funds from charitable trusts and funds: we didn’t have any money of our own.

    Before we could so much as put an application in the post, we were strongly encouraged to bid for some money as part of the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister’s e-innovations scheme. We were told that we’d been granted it in March 2004, and we actually got it and started building stuff in October 2004.

    Over the course of 2005 we built a variety of sites, some big like WriteToThem and PledgeBank, other small and experimental like Placeopedia. It’s been a great time beavering away with our core team and our volunteers together, but by last autumn we’d come to a simple realisation – our original plan: get ideas, raise money, build sites was over. We needed to work out what to do next.

    Fortunately at the same time the e-innovations project was coming to an end. The Office of the Deputy Prime Minister seemed to like our work a lot (they even gave us a prize) and offered us one final chunk of money, something over £100,000, before the strings were cut permamently. The purpose of this money is simple – we are going to use it to generate some revenue streams by selling spin-offs to local government, the voluntary sector, plus anyone who can use their own versions of sites like PledgeBank.

    mySociety remains a not-for-profit project, run out of out parent charity UKCOD. We will keep making sure that everything is free to use for citizens, and we hope that by doing a bit of business we can ensure that our democratic tools and services grow and flourish in the years ahead.

    There is one final question that needs answering: what happened to GiveItAway, our final launch project? Well, the short answer is that in the intervening two years Freecycle became huge, and we didn’t want to compete against a successful social venture. Instead we decided that we’d offer GiveItAway to local authorities, offering to install it on their recycling and rubbish collection web pages, giving people the option of giving stuff away to local charities and community groups before it goes in the skip. If you think this is something your local authority should be doing, get in touch with us, and them!