mySociety is pleased to announce the winner of our 2006 call for proposals, plus our thoughts on the best runners up, and various other lessons.
Our winner, and the next major site we are planning to build is the Freedom of Information Filer and Archive; a searchable, readable, googlable user-created archive of FOI requests and their responses. Think of a combined TheyWorkForYou and WriteToThem.com for FOI requests and their responses, and you’ll have our vision.
We believe the idea is especially powerful in a form extended somewhat beyond that submitted. We think that the best way to build a top quality archive is to simultaniously build the best possible “File an FOI request” tool, and then publish both the requests and the responses made through it in the archive. From the private desire to easily file FOI requests we hope that we can generate the public benefit of an easy to use archive.
We asked our community of users and friends to list their top three projects, and the FOIFA was named more often than any other single project as the winner: 9 out of a total of 22 people who left a comment expressing their preferences. The core team, core volunteers and trustees agreed with the users, and so we have a winner.
mySociety will start building the system in early 2007. We will try to fund it in two ways. First, we will approach donors, most probably foundations, to see if they are interested in supporting it. Secondly, we will see if we can set aside some surplus from contract work, such as branded versions of the other sites. And lastly, we’ll work with any volunteers who are willing to dig in.
Our initial estimate is that the site will take 120 full time developer days to design, build and launch to beta, for a total cost of about £25,000 including servers, management time, gathering of contact details, buying of sweets, motivational calendars and so on. The cost of running it thereafter are hard to gauge at this point, and will depend on usage patterns and the final spec we settle on.
In the run up to building and launching it we’ll gladly talk to anyone who wants to be involved, including public sector agencies who we hope might use this system to publish responses to requests made via other channels.
In no particular order, these are some of the other ideas that had some legs. We’re putting them here to suggest to the world that there might be something well worth exploring here.
1. A to B travel, by Murray, is a sort of collaborative journey planner, where people share information on journeys that they’ve made. Unfortunately, too much of this site is already done by the big and expensively run government site Transportdirect.info , but it has nice ideas that are worth someone doing. In particular the idea of local knowledge and general comments on different journeys is an excellent, and Seat61.com shows that there is some considerable appetite for journeys explained in a human form. Often I don’t want the fastest journey from A to B, I might want the best view, or the most pleasant form of transport, or the one that can be broken somewhere notable.
We’ve also come up with a feature that this site could add. It is the idea of registering to express an interest not in a specific journey, but in a general journey: “I go from Manchester to London a few times a year, and I might want to share a car in future”.
2. Get Out! by Mary Reid. This proposal was about building a site that would contain a user build database of places to go in the UK that would contain something nice and easy to do if you had an hour or two to spare and wanted to get out of the house.
We’ve felt for a while that there is a great problem with knowledge of local activities being hopelessly fractured across the UK Internet, spread across a million different sites and so worth much less than the sum of its parts. A site that could become a reference place to store interesting things to see, and a reference place to find them could be excellent indeed. Maybe a rebuild and extension of our little back o’ the envelope site YourHistoryHere.com?
3. Write To Your Newspaper by Francis Irving (again)
This proposal was about a site that makes it much easier to write to local newspapers. It is undoubtedly a good thing, but it simply didn’t beat the FOI archive because we felt the demand and public benefit just wasn’t as great as for FOIFA. One of mySociety’s volunteers has actually already written some code in this area, and we certainly think it should go further.
4. TheyWantToWorkForYou by Seb Bacon – a site where people could find out prospective politicians rather than current ones was voted for by a few people. We think it would be a good idea for such a system to exist, but the scale problem is enormous. With 20,000 current councillors, just imagine how many candidates there are at each election, and the massive problem of trying to get them to give structured views. What is missing here really is a strong motivation for candidates to go to a certain site and enter info themselves – it just doesn’t exist, and probably couldn’t without the major backing of someone like a big newspaper,or the BBC. NB, we also feel strongly that such a site would have to be permanent, and not just run at elections.
Just some thoughts about the process, really here for anyone else who might be planning to run a call like this and who stumbles across us via Google.
1. First time round, in 2003, the call for proposals got 250+ proposals, whereas this time it had more like 100, even though mySociety has moved from completely unknown to somewhat better known. Clearly despite BBC and Guardian coverage, we did something not as well this time. This might simply have not been hammering every list and person we could with personally crafted emails, or it could have just been blind chance.
2. We should have determined and published the judging process before the call for proposals was put out. Nobody seems to have been especially upset by our drawn out and ill-planned selection process, but it would have meant we would have made our decision much more quickly.
3. We should have set a timetable for all parts of the process.
4. We should have made some sort of web based voting gadget to engage people slightly more with the deciding process (despite knowing that online voting is mostly bunk, of course).
5. We could have made a shortlist and then asked the authors to do more work in polishing up their ideas.
If you’ve any further questions about the call for proposals, or the Freedom of Information Filer and Archive get in touch with us at firstname.lastname@example.org