Why I’d like mySociety to run a Masters in Public Technology

WWII students looking at an Engine

It is a cliché for any manager to say that they are proud of their team, and mildly nausea-inducing to listen to anyone who goes on about it too long. However, the purpose of this post is to argue that the world would benefit from a new kind of post-graduate Masters programme – something that is hard to do without  describing the virtues of the type of people who should come out of it. So please bear with me, and keep a sick bag to one hand.

mySociety’s core development team is very, very good. But they’re not just good at turning out code. Louise Crow, for example, has a keen eye for things that will and won’t make a difference in the offline world, as well as the skills to build virtually whatever she can think of. And the exact same thing is true of the whole coding team:  Duncan, Matthew, Edmund and Dave in the current team, plus Francis, Chris and Angie before them.

mySociety didn’t give these people their raw talent, nor the passion to be involved with projects that make a difference.   What it has given them, though, is the chance to spend a lot of time talking to each other, learning from their triumphs and their mistakes, and listening to users. This space and peer-contact made them into some of the world’s few genuine experts in the business of conceptualising and then delivering digital projects that deliver new kinds of civic and democratic benefits.

So, why am I sitting here unashamedly blowing my colleagues trumpets like this? (I don’t have these skills, after all!) Well, in order to point out that there are quite simply far too few people like this out there.

Too few experts

“Too few for what?” you may well ask. Too few for any country that wants to be a really great place to live in the 21st century, is my answer.

There is barely a not-for-profit, social enterprise or government body I can think of that wouldn’t benefit from a Duncan Parkes or a Matthew Somerville on the payroll, so long as they had the intelligence and self-discipline not to park them in the server room. Why? Because just one person with the skills, motivation and time spent learning can materially increase the amount of time that technology makes a positive contribution to almost any public or not-for-profit organisation.

What they can do for an organistion

Such people can tell the management which waves of technology are hype, and which bring real value, because they care more about results than this week’s craze, or a flashy presentation. They can build small or medium sized solutions to an organisation’s problems with their bare hands, because they’re software engineers. They can contract for larger IT solutions without getting ripped off or sold snake oil. And they can tell the top management of organisations how those organisations look to a digital native population, because they come from that world themselves.

And why they don’t

Except such experts can’t do any of these things for not-for-profit or public institutions: they can’t help because they’re not currently being employed by such bodies. There are two reasons why not, reasons which just may remind you of a chicken and an egg.

First, such institutions don’t hire this kind of expert because they don’t know what they are missing – they’re completely outside of the known frame of reference. Before you get too snarky about dumb, insular institutions, can you honestly say you would try to phone a plumber if you had never heard that they existed? Or would you just treat the water pouring through the ceiling as normal?

Second, these institutions don’t hire such experts because there just aren’t enough on the market: mySociety is basically the main fostering ground in UK for new ones, and we greedily keep hold of as many of our people as possible. Hands off my Dave!

Which leads me to the proposal, a proposal to create more such experts for public and non-profit institutions, and to make me feel less guilty about mySociety hoarding the talent that does exist.

Describing the Masters in Public Technology

The proposal is this: there should be a new Masters level course at at least one university which would take people with the raw skill and the motivation and puts them on a path to becoming experts in the impactful use of digital technologies for social purposes. Here’s how I think it might work.

In the first instance, the course would only be for people who could already code well (if all went well, we could develop a sister course for non-coders later on). Over the course of a single year it would teach its students a widely varied curriculum, covering the structure and activities of government, campaigns, NGOs and companies. It would involve dissecting more and less impactful digital services and campaigns, like biology students dissect frogs, looking for strengths and weaknesses. It would involve teaching the basics of social science methodologies, such as how to look for statistical significance, and good practice in privacy management. It would encourage good practice in User Experience design, and challenge people to think about how serious problems could be solved playfully. It would involve an entire module on explaining the dos and don’t of digital technology to less-literate decision makers. And most important, it would end with a ‘thesis’ that would entail  the construction of some meaningful tool, either alone or in collaboration with other students and external organisations.

I would hope we could get great guest lecturers on a wide range of topics. My fantasy starter for 10 would include names as varied in their disciplines as Phil Gyford, David Halpern, Martha Lane Fox, Ben Goldacre, Roz Lemieux, William Perrin, Jane McGonigal, Denise Wilton, Ethan Zuckerman, as well as lots of people from in and around mySociety itself.

What would it take?

I don’t know the first thing about how universities go about creating new courses, so having someone who knew about that step up as a volunteer would be a brilliant start!

Next, it would presumably take some money to make it worth the university’s time. I would like to think that there might be some big IT company that would see the good will to be gleaned from educating a new generation of socially minded, organisation-reforming technologists.

Third, we’d actually need a university with a strong community of programmers attached, willing and ready to do something different. It wouldn’t have to be in the UK, either, necessarily.

Then it would need a curriculum, and teaching, which I would hope mySociety could lead on, but which would doubtless best be created and taught in conjunction with real academics. We’d need some money to cover our time doing this, too.

And finally it would need some students. But my hunch is that if we do this right, the problem will probably be fending people off with sticks.

What next?

I’m genuinely not sure – I hope this post sparks some debate, and I hope it provokes some people to go “Yeah, me too”. Maybe you could tell me what I should do next?


  1. The OU might be worth talking to about the academia side of it – they’re used to running flexible courses and it’s entirely possible that some of their existing modules would be relevant. The Centre for Research in Computing may be able to suggest who would be the best person to discuss it with. http://crc.open.ac.uk/

  2. Excellent idea. It applies to the global groups too. In my time I’ve had opportunities to present myself to the EU and the UN, also to ITER, which I view as a social as well as a scientific project, but the leaders have no understanding of the broad potential of applied technology. It’s a huge, huge waste.

    Frankly, as a member, albeit a very critical member, of the BCS, they should be doing something about this too, and are probably worth talking to.

  3. You could start smaller with a module in an MPA – Warwick might be a good place to start here, as they have a good background in compsci stuff, and they do a well regarded MPA. Judge Management School at Cambridge might also be interested.

  4. Also my little sister runs courses for the Open University – happy to put the two of you in touch if helpful.

  5. One of the reasons I really like this is that I think it’ll help facilitate a dribble down the curriculum to help get content around these issues in schools too, which I think is really important.

  6. Like Alice, I think getting this sort of content into the school curriculum is equally important. I wonder if a Masters would actually be the most impactful starting point. Could these ideas be migrated down to undergraduate level or even directly in schools. There are lots of discussions going on at the moment about the nature of ICT education in schools. At present it tends to be about teaching proficiency in MS Office apps. I really think putting some thought into how these ideas could be introduced to school age students might have a wider, and more meaningful, impact

  7. A fascinating idea and well worth the exploration. As others have mentioned the focus on coders only may be worth rethinking. My experience on the Oxford Internet Institute’s Social Science of the Internet MSc last year was that the interdisciplinary nature of the course – bringing together coders, lawyers, social scientists, philosophers, media people etc. – had a lot of benefits to it. It could produce not only the coders who get both technology and government; but the managers; lawyers; and researchers too.

    The challenge perhaps with that course (and with the Web Science Masters in Southampton, which is perhaps one of the few other courses sort of in the ‘what Internet technologies do for society’ space), is that students have to choose to carve out a focus on public service impacts of technology – the courses are not vocational in that sense.

    One possible alternate approach starting from looking at course which do almost all the bits needed, and then looking to add in the extra modules that would make for a MySociety Masters may be one route – perhaps even taking the route of creating open learning content that could be used both within formal courses, and in a more self-service way (either funding backed a la My Learning Pool type approach), or open a la MIT Open Course Ware http://ocw.mit.edu/index.htm

    All of which said, a dedicated, practice-led course/qualification could well be the route to go.

    Not sure how I can help in taking ideas forward – but happy to support if I can.

  8. Great post.
    A dumb question from someone whose also interested in building up education at the earlier level (though i agree with your case for the masters)- When you say ‘code well’ what languages and level would you expect?

  9. Like the idea, But (it seems such a small but) it will not be the guest lectureships that make the MA it will be the regulars.

    So the real question is, given your desire for this, which university has the ability to provide the support and the basic teaching for this course?

    And if no university has the quality of lecturers available, would mySociety be willing to diversify into education and yourself teach (along with the infamous Dave, Francis et al?)

  10. Thanks @Andy Mabbett for mentioning us in relation to this.

    BCU is in its second year offering a taught postgraduate programme that responds to the sort of things you are discussing in this post. We called it “MA Social Media” rather than “MA Public Technology” but get past the names and we’re on the same page.

    When I proposed the award to colleagues at BCU, the aims were very much in line with your objectives, and it was pitched as being an award that explores the social part of social media, or to borrow a phrase from Nick Booth (@podnosh on twitter) “social media for social good”.

    We start from a broader technical base than you want to pitch at (not all of our students are coding experts), but there are sound reasons for this which are a little too complex and nuanced to explain here. Otherwise we map well onto the model you’re proposing, right down to the final thesis / project stage.

    Why “social media” and not “social technology”? That’s in part a quirk of our institution (we have a technology faculty, they offer technology degrees and we can’t/don’t). But also it relates to the course content – it’s an MA not an MSc. Your pitch sounds more like an MA to me as its concerned with structures, power, culture, content, empowerment, policy…

    We’ve attracted and recruited people who want to work with new technologies from the “social media for social good” angle and graduates from the first intake work in the sort of consultancy roles you discuss in this article. Our curriculum is very much geared towards this sort of work, for example a key area of work in the first year of the course was working with police on uses of technology for community engagement.

    More info on the course is here:http://www.bcu.ac.uk/pme/school-of-media/courses/social-media-pgcert-pgdip-ma

    but you’re best off contacting the Award Leader, Dave Harte, (@daveharte dave.harte@bcu.ac.uk) or me if you’d like to chat about what we do.

    I hope this all makes sense. I’ve only had one coffee. Just ping me back if I’m talking nonsense…

  11. Maybe there’s an argument to ensure that dots are joined, lessons learned etc. Apart from the MA in social media available at BCU, we offer an entry level ‘Understanding social media’ course via the OCN framework. Relevant? I don’t know but thought I’d just mention what’s happening a bit lower down the skills ladder.

  12. Sounds interesting.

    We use a broader desciptor for our course (at Birmingham City University) that attracts and welcomes the non-coders. We’ve found that students from home or overseas that may not have the technical skills still have a desire to study the role that Social Media can play in transforming established power relationships.

    For example, the Egyptian student in our current intake (@NohaAtef) is demonstrating how use of existing social media tech can have significant real world impacts. She doesn’t need to build new stuff, just make effective use of what’s already there.

    Just to note Tim’s comments above about building modules rather than courses. Skillset have a mechanism to allow for this and which gives a degree of flexibility in how students acheive an MA across institutions.

    Take a look at: http://courses.skillset.org/build_your_own_ma – we’re currently thinking of adding an Open Data module to the mix and would be happy to chat about facilitating a MySociety style module as you describe.

  13. One thing to consider is whether a master course is the best way to spread this knowledge, or whether some shorter specialist course for people on the job or a training academy may be better.

  14. Great idea Tom. But I am not sure universities are the best places to undertake this kind of initiative. They may be good as “hosts” (providing space and infrastructure). I think the Americans are better in devising these kind of schemes, mainly via cross-organizational cooperations. For example, it would be e better bet to involve a foundation/s, with the right inclination, providing the funding, and cooperating with an educational institution to provide the infrastructure. Proper foundations are numerous in the USA but I am not sure about Europe. Maybe Bertelsmann (http://goo.gl/JkPt2), but one needs to research a lot about the proper ones. There are also some Social Entrepreneurship Funds around.
    On a different, but interesting note, have a look at this idea of a “social technology incubator”, in Washington, Big Window Labs (http://bigwindowlabs.com) which I think is a very interesting tangential idea.
    The bottom line though is that Yes, there is a great need to cultivate and steer people towards social technologies. Good to raise this issue.

  15. Further to Alice and Feargal’s posts regarding the school curriculum – the Royal Society is currently working on a project looking at the way computing is taught in schools (see http://royalsociety.org/Education-Policy/Projects).

    There was a call for evidence which closed in late 2010, and a series of stakeholder engagement meetings has been arranged for mid/late March (see link above for further background and how to get in touch).