1. Old lessons…

    I’ve had the good fortune to talk with a few folks over the past several days who have echoed many of the things that we’ve been learning at PledgeBank over the past several months and years, and I thought I’d share…

    First, I chatted yesterday with Jason Dick, who blogs at A Small Change. The blog focuses on nonprofit fundraising, and in our conversation we chatted about the tendency of nonprofits to be more than a bit behind the curve when it comes to adoption of new ideas/technologies…but that’s old news. We also chatted about the organizations that have decided to take a bit of a chance on online fundraising, and that have done some incredible things. We’ve seen the same thing happen at PledgeBank — a small organization (or a not-yet-formed organization) trusts its supporters enough to put some modicum of responsibility in their hands, and gets a tremendous response.

    I also chatted yesterday with Peter Dietz of Social Actions and the impressive lot behind the Social Actions Mashup (selected as a finalist in the NetSquared competition, btw). There was great conversation about the value in aggregating information, what the nonprofit sector can gain from the syndication of social actions, and how we can all work together to create more ways for more people to do more good. Really.

    Finally, I had the pleasure of reconnecting with an old friend, Susannah Cowden, who is now working with Be the Change. As an organization that’s still forming and growing, there’s significant pressure to both be different and be innovative — I hear the same struggle from a lot of organizations in the U.S. While there are many folks who have every intention of trusting their supporters to act on their behalf and equipping them with the tools to do so, there are very few who actually do it.

    I wanted to capture these conversations because these themes are not at all unique. We all know that nonprofits move slowly when it comes to technology. We all know that those willing to take a chance are, more often than not, rewarded. And we all know that there’s a delicate balance between controlling your organization’s message (especially if your tax status is 501(c)3 in the U.S.) and empowering your organization’s members.

    What I think these conversations illuminated for me is the need for someone to cut through all of these lessons and to find ways to make real stuff happen, with real impact. That’s what mySociety is about: giving people “simple, tangible benefits in the civic and community aspects of their lives.” And (I hope) that’s what PledgeBank enables. Holler (heather at pledgebank dot com) if you’re interested in working together to create a larger platform for collective community action.

  2. The Mashup to End All Mashups

    Well, I doubt that this will end the mashup trend going on out in the interwebs, but I thought folks might be interested in seeing this…

    NetSquared (based in the U.S.) has launched their newest summer contest, the N2Y3 (that’s NetSquared Year Three) Mashup Challenge. You can see the 100+ projects that have been submitted here. One of mySociety’s projects, PledgeBank, is featured in one of the submissions: Social Actions. OK, the name isn’t super-sexy. But the idea is. Peter Deitz is developing a way to lead any given user (an individual or an organization) through the process of selecting a social action platform. Do you want to raise money? Do you need to integrate with a specific CRM? Do you need an online donation processing tool? Do you need a widget for your site? This mashup with combine 29+ (the list keeps growing) “action” tools (including PledgeBank) in that wizard, helping the average Joe or Jane figure out which tool would work best for them.

    Of course, in order to move forward in the competition for mentoring and money, Peter needs your vote. To vote for this mashup (and at least four more — NetSquared is smarter than to just let everyone vote for one), just create a free account on the site and add at least five projects to your ballot. There are some really cool ones out there, so browse around a bit. The polls opened on Monday at 8am PST, and they will be closing on Friday at 5pm PST. The 20 mashup proposals with the most votes will attend the annual NetSquared Conference in San Jose, May 27 & 28, 2008. During the conference, the mashup creators will have a chance to pitch their projects to funders, foundations, and fellow nonprofit tech professionals.

    As they say in Chicago, vote early and vote often!

  3. Another podcast…featuring a pledge campaign!

    A lot has been happening with PledgeBank in the U.S. over the past few months, but an exciting podcast just went up that’s a great synthesis of some of that work. Idealist just launched a podcast featuring PledgeBank, and also telling the story of one of our favorite pledge campaigns. You can hear the podcast here.

    You can also see more from the Bakul Foundation on their new website. Good things are happening, my friends…please help spread the word about PledgeBank to those folks you know who want to do incredible things like what the Bakul Foundation has done!

  4. Welcome, Angie / Thursday’s tech talk

    Whew. It’s exciting times.

    As you know, we’ve been looking for a new developer for a little while, and I’m pleased to say we’ve found one. We’re very picky, as we have lots of really convulted, diverse software amazing award winning websites to keep going.

    Just as important as finding someone technically skilled, it’s important that they are motivated and excited about what mySociety is doing. If you’re hiring any programmer you should be looking for that, especially so for a small, nimble charity like us. We had lots of good applicants, and were sorry we could only afford to choose one.

    Please welcome Angie Ahl! She lives in Cumbria, so keeping with our policy of having staff scattered to the four winds. I can see mountain climbing in my future. Angie runs a web design company working mainly in the film and music industries. I’ll try and persuade her to post here about what she gets up to with us.

    Other things – there’s another one of our Disruptive Technology talks in London next Thursday. It’s by Jason Kitcat, who not only is head of technology at netmums.com, but also co-ordinated the Open Rights Group’s electronic voting trials observations earlier in the year. Read the fascinating report – there’s a bit where overall control of the Scottish Parliament literally hung off the edge of the page of an Excel spreadsheet. Sign up now to come and see Jason speak next week.

    Speaking of the Open Rights Group, it is astonishingly two years since a PledgeBank pledge got them started with 1000 supporters. Danny O’Brien has written a fun summary [removed broken link; cannot find replacement] of what they’ve been up to. If they can do this, then what could you do with PledgeBank?

  5. Freedom on Rails

    This week has been quite bitty. I’ve been doing more work on the Freedom of Information site, have been getting into the swing of Ruby on Rails. Once you’ve learnt its conventions, it is quite (but not super) nice.

    As far as languages are concerned, Ruby seems identical in all interesting respects to Python. It’s like learning Spanish and Italian. Both are super languages. Ruby has nice conventions like exclamation marks at the end of function names to indicate they alter the object, rather than return the value (e.g. .reverse!). But then Python has a cleaner syntax for function parameters. It is swings and roundabouts.

    Rails has lots of ways of doing things which we already have our own ways of doing for other sites. The advantage of relearning them, is that other people know them too. So Louise was able to easily download and run the FOI site, and make some patches to it. Which would have been much harder if it was done like our other sites. Making development easier is vital – for a long time I’ve wanted a web-based cleverly forking web application development wiki. But while I dream about that, Rails packaging everything you need to run the app in a standard way in one directory that quite a few people know how to use, helps.

    Other things… I’ve been helping Richard set up GroupsNearYou on our live servers, it should be ready for you to play with soon. It looks super nice, and is easy to use. I’ve had some work to do with recruitment. And catching up on general customer support email for TheyWorkForYou and PledgeBank. I’ve also been updating the systems administration documentation on our internal wiki, so others can work out how to run our servers.

  6. Disturbing election avoided

    Last week we seemed to spend all week in London. Partly interviewing people, partly redesigning PledgeBank, partly plotting the overthrow of Parliament (joke), partly preparing for the election (thank god it didn’t happen – we’d be far too busy). We even did some general work, scurrying wifi out of the ICA and at one of our trustee’s offices.

    As if that wasn’t enough, Stef gave the first of our disruptive technology talks, mainly about Farm Subsidy and UNDemocracy. It was interesting, engaging, fantastically attended, and turned into beer and Sushi. Adam’s posted up a recording of the talk (scroll down in the comments). Make sure you come to the next one on 1st November.

  7. Another day, another podcast

    Hello, all. Just wanted to let you know about another podcast interview I did about PledgeBank…this time on the 501c3Cast. This podcast is geared toward folks in the nonprofit/philanthropic world (the tax code classification for many nonprofits in the U.S. is “501(c)3″) to spread the word about new tools, ideas, and conversations in the sector. You can find the podcast here (though, be forewarned, it’s a bit long…).

  8. “Truth lies within a little and certain compass, but error is immense.”

    I’ve been working on PledgeBank quite a bit recently. As well as adding survey emails asking whether signers have done their pledge, and a feature for people to contact a pledge’s creator, I’ve been fixing numerous bugs that have sprung up along the way. For starters, people on the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands now get a much more helpful error if they try and enter their postcode anywhere on the site, rather than the confusing postcode not recognised they were getting previously.

    Other errors I found turned out not to be with our code. The PledgeBank test suite (that we run before deploying the site to check it all still works) was throwing lots of warnings about “Parsing of undecoded UTF-8 will give garbage” when it got to the testing of our other language pages. Our code wasn’t doing anything special, and there were multiple places the warning came from – upgrading our libwww-perl removed one, and I’ve submitted bug reports to CPAN for the rest (having patched our copies locally – hooray for open source).

    The Perl warnings were at least understandable, though. While tracking down why the site was having trouble sending a couple of emails, I discovered that we had a helper function splitting very long words up to help with word-wrapping – which when applied to some Chinese text was cutting a UTF-8 multibyte character in two and invalidating the text. No problem, I think, I simply have to add the “/u” modifier to PHP’s regular expression so that it matches characters and not bytes. This didn’t work, and after much playing had to submit a bug report to PHP – apparently in PHP “non-space character followed by non-space character” isn’t the same as “two non-space characters in a row”…

  9. Sending PledgeBank into the podcast ether

    The “um’s” and “uh’s” on the interview are embarrassing, to say the least, but PledgeBank just got its first podcast coverage. Check out my NetSquared interview here. I’m hoping this gets us a bit of exposure in the U.S.

    And I’ll do better next time with all the incidental sounds… :-)

  10. Love and support

    I’m still busy beavering away at the Facebook / PledgeBank integration. It all works now, but will take a bit more polishing to get just right. Matthew is, I think adding surveys to PledgeBank. So it finds out later if people have or have not done their pledge. Or is he updating to a new version of BoundaryLine at the moment, so our postcode lookup on WriteToThem and everywhere else gets better? Hard to keep track when he does so much at once.

    Keith is upgrading our internal documentation, so new people at mySociety can learn how to keep things going. Heather is stalking all of America, finding people to use and promote PledgeBank. Tom is on a much deserved holiday, after seemingly a zillion meetings per day for months.

    There’s lots of ongoing maintenance for all our sites. We’re lucky that large chunks of our customer support email are done by volunteers (thanks Anna, Louise, Tim and Tomski/James) and by Debbi (yay Debbi!). Much of this is routine – changing pledge text, updating council email addresses, giving MPs posting links for HearFromYourMP, putting new MP photos up on TheyWorkForYou etc. A lot of it is unique – handling new translations, answering questions from MPs and Lords about their voting record. I’ll let the others give some more examples of the kind of thing we answer.

    Speaking of which, do you know any good web developers who would like to work for mySociety? If so, put them in touch.