mySociety Away Weekend

A couple of weekends ago when it was still sunny, a group of 20 or so mySociety developers, trustees, and volunteers went away together to a farmhouse in Warwickshire (thanks to everyone especially Tim Morley and Tom Loosemore for their help). This was not only an opportunity for people like me to finally meet all those I’ve been emailing for months if not years, but also to discuss various things about mySociety.

It was an excellent weekend – we learnt lots of new things, like how UKCOD and mySociety have developed over the last 10 years(!), Rob’s excellent NZ TheyWorkForYou, and Richard’s We also discussed what mySociety’s core aims and principles should be – here are some thoughts:


1) Build sites that build civic value, using the internet natively as a medium and that scale elegantly
2) Build sites that are easy to use for those without experience
3) Build sites that are focused on meeting one simple need
4) mySociety should become self-sustaining, financially and staff-wise

Principles for developing mySociety services and products

1) Build things that meet people’s needs, and that they can’t express yet
2) Do one thing really, really, really well (brand on one thing)
3) Treat the entire world as a creative canvas (plug-ins, widgets, etc.)
4) Do not attempt to do everything yourself; use other people’s content
5) Back success, get rid of failure
6) The web is a conversation; join in
7) Any website is only as good as its worst page
8) Make sure your content can be linked to forever
9) Your granny will never use Second Life
10) Maximize roots to content; optimize your site to run high on Google
11) One size does not fit all – users should know they’re on your site
12) Accessibility is not an optional extra
13) Let people paste their content on their own sites
14) Link to discussions on the web, not necessarily host them
15) Personalization should be unobtrusive and coherent

And some more thoughts:

1) Only use html and CSS
2) Ensure accessibility
3) Ensure usability
4) Make it work across the spectrum – screen readers to mobile phones
5) Build things that don’t require key “stick in the muds?? to do anything
6) Don’t ever build anything that might become an empty cupboard, or if you do, make it very easy for people to fill that cupboard.
7) Don’t rely on network effect, but do seek out network effect
8) Engineer serendipity
9) Help users connect with other users
10) Set the bar high for privacy

However, we still have some challenges ahead: we need to think about how to make the most of our existing sites, and had a very good session on how to improve PledgeBank’s outreach; we also need to engage better with both our current and potential volunteers; and, of course, move towards becoming financially self-sustaining to keep up our good work without always relying on grants.

And finally, because we like tangible actions, we launched the UKCOD site on Saturday night too.

So what happens next? Well some of the things have already happened, like Matthew and others transforming FixMyStreet and Francis developing some widgets. We’ll also see what the new PM wants to do with e-petitions (keep it, apparently, which is good), and how the e-democracy landscape is changing. And, soon we hope, we’ll give this site a bit of a facelift.

But we still have much to do, and the weekend wasn’t long enough to get through everything we wanted. So here are a few more things to chew over.

• Have you wanted to volunteer for mySociety but found it difficult, e.g. the tasks were too technical, or didn’t really know where to start?
• Is there something you want to know about mySociety, or our sites, but not been able to find?
• How can we improve our existing sites?
• Do you know any nice millionaires with some spare cash burning a hole in their pockets, and they just don’t know what to do with it?

Let us know why and we’ll try to do something about it.


  1. I’ve noticed that a lot of the technical volunteer tasks require a lot more effort than they suggest – although they might be labelled as ‘will take half an hour’ that doesn’t factor in the need to learn how all the surrounding code works. I tried fixing one of those 30 minute tasks before and gave up because it took too long to figure out the rest of the code which I needed to understand in order to do the original task. I’m not entirely sure how you would fix that though.

  2. Ah yes, things that take Matthew 30mins can take mere mortals (or even very good mortals) longer. One suggestion from the weekend was to run workshops for volunteers, and one on coding might be a good topic – thanks for the feedback.

  3. Christoforos Korakas

    Really nice set of rules-of-thumb!

    unfortunately I haven’t spotted yet the Ideal millionaire … I will let you know !

    Keep it up!

  4. Just a thought: Why the focus on “building sites”?

    Two reasons why I feel that does miss the point of MySociety (imho).

    First, a general one: I think your overall aim is not to build sites but to further eParticipation, civic involvement etc. (with the help of technology) and your web sites are just a tool to do it.

    Second, a more defined one: Today it is websites but two or three years from now opportunities to get people involved might be delivered completely differently (you already mention mobile phones). Maybe it would be better to say something like “services”, or does that sound too much like business speak?