How do you get everyone working together when the community needs it most – like when there’s a heavy snowfall?
Recently, we posted a conversation with Chris Palmer of Barnet Council, where he talked about integration of FixMyStreet with the council website.
Turning complaints into action
“We took on Pledgebank in the belief that the council needs to get out of people’s way. Online communities are good at complaining about things: it’s easy to get instant outrage on the web, and actually we need mechanisms that allow people to get together creatively.
“One of the issues we had during the heavy winter of 2010 was that people complained the council wasn’t coming round and clearing their paths. Well, the council never came round and cleared the pavement outside those particular houses.
“Many people said, well if the council allowed us to, we would do it ourselves. Pledgebank allowed us to get parents at 25 schools to sign up last year. They pledged to come and spread grit and clear the snow from outside just in return for free shovels and a ton of grit.
“That kind of thing encourages residents to be active, it frees them from the frustrations that the political system gives them. If people feel, ‘Oh, there’s a legal process stopping me doing this’, it moves the council forward, to being an enabler rather than a provider of services.
“A parent can spend 15 minutes in the morning and then be confident their child will be at school for the day and that they can go off to work, so for the parents, it’s win-win.
“One of the things that surprised us was the response of local residents who live in the street but don’t necessarily have children at the school. They felt that they should be helping to clear the snow. It gave a group of active residents who we hadn’t even asked, a chance to be involved”.
Tapping into community interest
Why do you think that is? Is it just that people just want to contribute within their community?
“I genuinely think people just aren’t interested in councils. I couldn’t tell you the name of my council leader where I live, never mind the name of cabinet members. However, I am very interested in the services the council provides: the only public meeting I’ve ever been to was about parking, because it directly affected my street. And I’d probably say there’s a rule, where people will take responsibility for the space outside their own house, and be prepared to extend that a few houses either side. And this just gives people a mechanism to be involved in their local community.
“With Pledgebank, we can leave people to do things amongst themselves, with the understanding that the council is not just a provider of services, but a catalyst to people doing those things themselves”.
What else have you done with Pledgebank?
“We’re hoping residents will play a part in keeping their streets tidy with our Adopt-a-Street scheme. There’s a real sense of ownership if somebody controls the green space outside their house: do they plant the bottom of trees in the street with wild flowers, do they plant bulbs in what’s currently a grass verge? We can give them that element of ownership, and give them control of their local environment.
“So with Adopt-a-Street, we found one or two people locally with an interest in doing it, and we’re looking now at how we encourage them to leaflet their neighbours, get in contact with their neighbours.
A challenge for the marketing department
“It’s worth adding, though, that Pledgebank has taken us a lot of learning. It’s quite easy to imagine that anything you bung up on the web suddenly becomes viral: it doesn’t.
“One of the challenges for us is how we link into what we’re doing, how we publicise what we’re doing with Pledgebank and the web. So we have to look at it not so much as, here’s an interesting web device, but here’s a device that enables residents to do things. But the council has a responsibility to publicise it.
“The key challenge for us is making information available to the relevant people. It’s all about defining communities, and making information available to those communities – and mySociety has been tremendously helpful with that.
“It’s changed the way we’re using our information now and it’s fair to say it’s informed how we’ve built our new website.”
Barnet have been inventive with Pledgebank. As well as using it during the snows, they’ve managed street parties for the Jubilee and Royal Wedding; got volunteers to give IT training to residents; and encouraged visits to carehomes. See how Barnet are using Pledgebank on their website.
If you’re from a council and you think Pledgebank might work for you, drop us a line to find out more.
Image credits: Snow Big Dig by Shashi Bellamkonda, Lakeside Daisy by Matt MacGillivray, and Diamond Jubilee Street Party on Kenyon Clough by Dave Haygarth, all used with thanks under the Creative Commons licence.
Being strictly non-partisan mySociety has no official view on Wills & Kate, but we are unashamedly Pro People Having Parties. And recently we’ve been able to work on a project with Barnet council that has helped us make more of them.
Most councils want people to be able to have a street party if they want – I mean, who’s against a party? But closing a street has costs associated with it, and there’s no point in spending that money if the ‘Street Party Committee’ is actually just one person, and the party isn’t actually going to happen.
Tackling this particular problem seemed ideally suited to PledgeBank, which exists solely to make sure there are enough people signed up to make a particular activity worthwhile.
So after some custom hackery, here’s what happens if you live in Barnet and apply to run a street party for the Royal Wedding. First, you visit this page and give your details. Then the council makes a pledge like this one, and then emails it back to the applicant. All the pledges are of the same form, and read:
“Barnet Council will arrange free public liability insurance for a street party in [Your Street name] but only if 3 or more households will get involved.”
It is then the applicant’s task to get another couple of people (or more) to sign the pledge. Once the signers exceed the threshold, the council believes the party is bona fide and starts work. Simple.
And it works! There are 24 parties currently listed that have passed the threshold, so that’s 24 streets that are already good to go. There are another 27 that may succeed or fail, depending on their organiser’s motivation.
Strangely, though, our invitations haven’t arrived yet, but, you know… they probably got lost in the post (sniff).
We’ve been doing some work with Barnet Borough Council recently, such as this nice planning alerts tool. Simple, useful, well built stuff that meets an obvious need – exactly the sort of stuff we’re keen to work on with all our clients.
During our conversations with the officers at Barnet, it became apparent that one thing they were thinking about a lot was how to support all the people who want to have Royal Wedding street parties. The dilemma was pretty simple: they want people to have a good time, but each street party means closing a street to traffic and doing other things that take time and money. And this isn’t worth doing if it turns out the people on the street weren’t really up for it anyway.
Reducing a risk like this sounded like exactly the sort of problem that PledgeBank was built to tackle, so we’ve customized it a bit for this specific purpose, added a big, cheesy picture of the happy couple, and launched Barnet’s Royal Wedding Street Party page.
The mechanic is nice and simple – you tell the council who you are and what street you live on. They then send you a back link to a street-specific pledge that needs signing by people in three households. You pass this around your neighbours, get the signatures, and presto, Barnet will support your party.
Lovingly built by mySociety’s Dave Whiteland, this might not exactly be the biggest story in local government history. However I do think it’s a nice and surprisingly rare example of developing a small bit of policy that aligns just so with a new bit of technology. It’s not trying to ram a square technology peg into a round policy hole. I hope we get to work on more things like this in future.
Heard the song ‘We Built this City (on rock and roll)’ by Starship? No? Not to worry, I am just trying to draw parallels with how mySociety.org is organised and managed. You may not have realised, but a good sized chunk of the work that we do is actually carried out by volunteers, that includes everything from translating a single page to full website development
In other words, volunteers make our organisation tick and thought it about time that we shed some light on who they are and what they do. First out being subject to closer scrutiny is Tim Morley who looks after the everyday running of PledgeBank.com.
Tim has been volunteering for mySociety.org since 2005. Having heard about us through an article in the Guardian, he started out by translating content to Esperanto, and has through the years progressed to his current role.
Being a trained primary school language teacher, Tim estimates that he spends anything from five minutes to 3-4 hours a day on his volunteering work depending on how much there is to do. Task varies from helping users with technical queries to help out organising events.
Challenge was an initial motivating factor in deciding to start volunteering. He could also see the benefit of PledgeBank.com as a tool for the Esperanto speaking community, to help and encourage people to organise happenings in what is a very widely- and thinly-spread group. Three years later what keeps him going are the people involved with mySociety.org, the fact that he’s impressed with other things that we are doing and is proud to be associated with our organisation. Making a contribution and taking PledgeBank.com forward still feels important.
If you are interested in volunteering for mySociety.org don’t hesitate to get in touch. As can be seen above, Tim is a highly involved volunteer. But all contributions to the running of our organisation are appreciated so don’t let him put you off. :-)) Further info on some of our other volunteers is in the pipeline if you are looking for inspiration on how you can help out.
This pledge helps kids in Ooty, India to broaden their horizons by providing books containing knowledge they would otherwise not have access to. Sirukathai, the organisation behind the pledge, believes that reading material outside the child’s usual textbooks helps opening up new worlds, develop thinking processes, aid communication, foster self confidence and create a better, more balanced and compassionate citizen.
With two days to go before deadline, the getachild2read pledge has 205 people signed up to donate books. That’s five over target and there’s still time join if you wish to make a contribution!
Kalyani, the man behind this worthy project, and his “aids” are already in the process of collecting and cataloguing items coming in. To some it seems that this is a most interesting task and not at all that laboursome :-)). A more thorough follow-up report is on the way so stay tuned.
Ian has used PledgeBank to start a residents association for a new block of flats in Cambridge, UK.
Unfortunately, I’ve had to disable the PledgeBank Facebook application. It used to let you sign and share pledges from within Facebook.
Facebook recently changed their platform (again!), breaking our code for sending success/failure messages. Obviously, it is no good signing up to a pledge if you don’t get informed when it succeeds.
I tried to fix it, but couldn’t work out how to do so quickly. We don’t have the time and money at the moment to chase after this, so I’ve disabled the application entirely. Links to PledgeBank pages on Facebook now redirect to pledgebank.com.
Hopefully it’ll be back one day – do send us emails if you miss it (or money if you have a large pledge that really needs it!). I think there may be a better solution with a simpler interface – the current application tried too hard to reimplement all of PledgeBank within Facebook. And besides, we should be supporting OpenSocial now it exists. It’s an open standard, Facebook isn’t.
Technical details: We used infinite session keys to send notifications from cron jobs. Quite reasonably, this no longer works. However, I couldn’t find out what to use instead. I think Facebook should respect backwards compatibility of its APIs a lot more, and if it breaks it they should give clear instructions about what to use instead. This does put me off ever wanting to develop anything on their platform again.
I’m enjoying the weather at the moment, seems to be sunnier than the summer, but cool with an atmospheric autumnal taste in the air.
mySociety is changing as ever, leaping forward in our race to try and make it easier for normal people to influence, improve or replace functions of government. More on this as it happens.
Meanwhile, I’ve been continuing to hack away at WhatDoTheyKnow. A little while ago Google decided to deep index all our pages – causing specific problems (I had to tell it to stop crawling the 117th page of similar requests to another request), and also ones from the extra attention. There have been quite a few problems to resolve with authority spam filters (see this FOI officer using the annotation function), and with subtle and detailed privacy issues (when does a comment become personal? if you made something public a while ago, and it is now a shared public resource, can you modify it or take it down?).
Right, I’ve got to go and fix a bug to do with the Facebook PledgeBank app. It’s to do with infinite session keys, and how we send messages when a pledge has completed. Facebook seem to change their API without caring much that applications have to be altered to be compatible with it. This is OK if the Facebook application is your core job, but a pain when you just want your Facebook code to keep running as it did forever.
(the autumn photo thanks to Nico Cavallotto)
The latest “Giving Carnival” question is being organized this month by Peter Deitz, the brains behind Social Actions.
Peter’s question: “Is person-to-person fundraising dead, or just getting started???”
I’ll give my brief answer. Person-to-person fundraising is either dead or slowly dying, but that could be good news. Let me explain.
We’ve all probably had some experience with person-to-person fundraising — me, I sold Girl Scout Cookies. Now, I wasn’t selling Girl Scout cookies because I deeply cared about raising money for the organization or because I was interested in sharing the story of the Girl Scouts with those whose doorbells I rang. I was in it for the badges and stuffed unicorns that I could win by selling the most boxes of cookies. Person-to-person fundraising has reached a point, I think, at which there is such commodification of an organization’s story that there is little meaning left in the actual transaction…just stuffed unicorns.
Person-to-person action, however, is a different story — and I think that’s where there is tremendous potential. Take, for instance, what’s happening on PledgeBank. Individuals create a pledge to do “something,” but must make asks of their social network (friends, family, co-workers, etc.) in order to make that “something” happen. Rather than operating via a “transactional” outlook, it’s actually necessary to tell the story of why this “something” is important. There are few drive-by fundraisers on the site — you have to interact with folks and let them know why they should sign up to this social contract with you in order to meet your pledge’s target number of signers.
Similarly, I recently chatted with David Stoker, who’s working with Ashoka’s Citizen Base Initiative. They’re addressing the problem of superficial interactions by encouraging organizations to rally a fan base of individuals who support them…much like a sports team. The analogy is lost when you start imagining people painting their faces on behalf of the Red Cross, but the idea of organizations looking to their network for more than just a donation is certainly compelling.
Don’t get me wrong — I still buy and love Girl Scout cookies. But if I had to place bets on where the future of online organizing lies, it’s on peer-to-peer action that requires interaction, that illuminates an individual’s values, and that is part of a meaningful narrative arc. Thin Mint, anyone?