The response so far to our Call For Proposals has been astonishing. We had more submissions in the first round alone than we suspected we might get over the whole period, and there were so many good ideas that we’ve had a hard time narrowing them down. However, we’re finally able to release our shortlist of what we think could be the most promising projects from the first round.
When we launched the call, we knew we were looking for sites that were “mySociety-esque”. We didn’t set out any explicit guidelines for what that meant, but based on certain patterns in the submissions so far, we can enumerate some of what we’re looking for. In general we prefer sites which:
- don’t require significant ongoing manual work.
- The primary focus of the project should be in setting up clever technological solutions to automate the ongoing maintenance. After launch, it should be possible for the site to be run almost entirely by its users. This rules out, for example, most of the “Politifact” types of sites, which although certainly very useful and important, require considerable significant ongoing research to avoid becoming a ghost town.
- don’t require government buy-in or legislative change to be successful.
- A site to visualise Parliamentarians’ travel expenses, for example, is unlikely to be successful unless there is already a mechanism for the release of the underlying data.
- don’t need a significant amount of users before becoming useful.
- Sites that function well with even a handful of users and are able to build up slowly are usually more effective and have significantly less risk than ones that are a failure unless they reach a certain critical mass.
- aren’t so trivial they shouldn’t need our help
- If a site could be built using something like WordPress or Drupal with very little additional customisation, it’s likely not a good fit for this program, even if it might otherwise be a worthwhile project.
We also prefer ideas that are focussed and practical with a clear understanding of the technological requirements, rather than those which talk solely in buzzwords and seem to expect unspecified technical wizardry to magically solve big social problems.
A number of the most promising submissions from this round are for Parliamentary informatics sites, focusing on the activities of politicians and parties in government. One of the most important stories in the history of mySociety involved taking an already started, but non-funded and unsustainable project called TheyWorkForYou, and growing it into what it is today. So in addition to funding one or more similar sites to do likewise in their own countries, we are hoping that we will also be able to use this opportunity to help create something slightly bigger that can help make it easier for others to build this sort of site in future. This is unlikely to be as simple as a common technology platform, but we hope that if we can foster some degree of joint effort in this area we can help bootstrap a community of interested parties who can work together. The primary candidates we’re considering in this area from the first round are:
We are also very interested in projects aiming to providing increased transparency into government spending. In this area, however, it’s not enough to simply build some fancy reports on currently existing data (useful as that might be). To meet our criteria, it’s important to build something that can run with minimal human involvement: regularly spidering official datasources, converting them into usable formats, and updating the site with the results. Four proposals from the first round particularly impressed us in this regard, and we want to investigate further with each of them as to which could work best:
- Tracking Public Money
- Who Gets The Big Money In Construction
- Public Procurement Journal Watch
Finally, we have shortlisted one proposal in a narrower version than was submitted:
The full project here wasn’t a clear fit with our preferences: it’s a one-off site, rather than something with a longer lifespan, and a significant part of building something this is in the work of creating the questions to ask the candidates, rather than creating the site itself. However, after discussion with the submitting organisation, we believe there could be value in creating a more generic questionnaire-to-website tool that could be used in building not only this site, but also similar sites in future, and in other countries. In its basic form, this tool would take a list of candidates’ contact details, and a series of questions, generate both a web-based and offline interactive-PDF based version of the questionnaire, send these to the candidates, with automatic follow-up at regular intervals to candidates who have not yet answered, and then automatically build a website from responses in real-time as they come in.
We’ll be following up with these projects over the next week or two, but in the meantime we’d love your comments on them too. These certainly weren’t the only plausible proposals from the first round — some of the others are strong contenders we’ll be reconsidering in the later rounds. And if anyone wants to resubmit any of their proposals, adjusted based on anything above, we’re perfectly happy with that. And with the final deadline for submissions coming up, perhaps some of this might give you some last minute ideas!