If you haven’t got a penny,
A ha’penny will do,
If you haven’t got a ha’penny,
Then God bless you.
We wish you all a merry and prosperous Christmas – and for those of you who are already feeling quite prosperous enough, may we point you in the direction of our charitable donations page?
mySociety’s work is made possible by donations of all sizes and from all sorts of people. Those donations help fund all the online projects we create; projects that give easy access to your civic and democratic rights. If that’s important to you, show your appreciation, and we promise we’ll make the best use of every penny.
Thank you for sticking with us through this month-long post. We hope you’ve found it interesting and we wish you the very merriest of Christmases.
What’s behind the door? A letter to Santa.
If you can fit them down the chimney, here’s what we’re dreaming of:
More publicly available data Of course, we were delighted to hear in Mr Osborne’s autumn statement that all sorts of previously-inaccessible data will be opened up.
We’re wondering whether this new era will also answer any of our FixMyStreet geodata wishes. Santa, if you could allocate an elf to this one, we’d be ever so pleased.
Globalisation …in the nicest possible way, of course. This year has seen us work in places previously untouched by the hand of mySociety, including Kenya and the Philippines. And we continue to give help to those who wish to replicate our projects in their own countries, from FixMyStreet in Norway to WhatDoTheyKnow in Germany.
Santa, please could you fix it for us to continue working with dedicated and motivated people all around the world?
A mySociety Masters degree We’re lucky enough to have a team of talented and knowledgeable developers, and we hope we will be recruiting more in the coming year. It’s not always an easy task to find the kind of people we need – after all, mySociety is not your average workplace – so we’ve come to the conclusion that it’s probably easiest to make our own.
Back in February, Tom started thinking about a Masters in Public Technology. It’s still something we’re very much hoping for. Santa, is it true you have friends in academic circles?
FixMyTransport buy-in – from everyone! Regular users of FixMyTransport will have noticed that there are different kinds of response from the transport operators: lovely, fulsome, helpful ones, and formulaic ones. Or, worse still, complete refusal to engage.
Santa, if you get the chance, please could you tell the operators a little secret? Just tell them what those savvier ones already know – that FixMyTransport represents a chance to show off some fantastic customer service. And with 25,000 visitors to the site every week, that message is soon spread far and wide.
What’s behind the window? 10 red-faced novice joggers.
It’s not long now until you’ll be making your new year’s resolutions. But will motivation drop off by February? Time to acquaint yourself with one of mySociety’s clever little projects: Hassleme.
Hassleme sends you reminders to do whatever it is you want to do, whether that’s to go for a run, tell someone you love them, or write another chapter of your blockbuster novel. Think of it as benign nagging.
Yes, you could set up your Google calendar to do just the same, but here’s the clever bit – Hassleme sends reminders at “semi-unpredictable intervals” . You can set a rough time period, such as every three days or every year – but you’ll never know precisely when that reminder will drop into your inbox.
You can even make a joint resolution, as a family, perhaps, or even in the office. Input multiple email addresses and we’ll randomise who gets each reminder – ideal for allocating tasks fairly.
Or use it to send a message to yourself ten years hence. Here are some examples from people who have done just that.
What’s behind the door? Santa’s little helpers.
mySociety runs some pretty ambitious projects. There’s TheyWorkForYou, which publishes all parliamentary activity since 1935, as well as representatives’ voting records. Then there’s WhatDoTheyKnow, which has sent, and archived, over 30,000 freedom of information requests.
None of these projects runs itself. mySociety’s core team only consists of a few people, so we rely on dedicated volunteers to help us manage the day-to-day maintenance of these sites. Our volunteers have been key to forging a community around each site, and to helping us understand exactly what we want the sites to be.
For example, our FixMyTransport volunteers (aka Anoraks) spend a lot of time leaving helpful comments on users’ problems, often before the operators can get around to answering themselves. Leading by example, they’re making FixMyTransport into a friendly and useful community, encouraging other users to make very constructive contributions, too.
The TheyWorkForYou volunteer team spent quite a bit of time analysing voting records earlier this year, allowing us to add more policy lines to each MP’s page, and providing a snapshot of their affiliations.
And, although WhatDoTheyKnow has been around for three years, the team still find themselves actively debating site policy.
We’re always delighted to welcome new volunteers. If you’re interested, drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org, or come along to one of our pub-meets. There’s one tomorrow! See the Dec 16th advent calendar entry, below, or watch this blog for details of the next one.
What’s behind the door? A little donkey.
If you’re using public transport this Christmas, make sure you pack all the essentials: good food, presents – and the web address for FixMyTransport.com.
We hope you have a smooth journey, but if not FixMyTransport will allow you to report overcrowding, delays, or freezing cold carriages – and all on-the-go, if you have a smartphone.
Christmas is for giving, so share that URL with family, friends, and even your fellow passengers, should you find yourself in a coach or train that’s going nowhere. The power to contact the nation’s transport operators directly may just be the greatest gift you’ll ever give.
What’s behind the door? A cup of good cheer.
Our last pub-meet of the year will be the usual chance to come and have a chat with the mySociety team and volunteers. Reindeer antlers and Santa hats are optional, but welcome. Mulled wine may be in evidence. Mince pies could well be found on the premises.
When? This Wednesday, the 21st of December, from about 6pm and into the evening.
One of our New Year’s resolutions is to have meet-ups in places other than London, so if you live outside the capital, watch this space.
Spread the word Because we’re one of those new-fangled digital-type organisations, we encourage use of a hashtag: #mySocial. And you can let us know you’re coming by dropping us a tweet on @mySociety.
What’s behind the door? A half-dead Christmas tree.
Christmas comes but once a year… and in its wake, the inevitable slew of dumped Christmas trees and uncollected bins.
Perhaps worse (certainly when it comes to timing), Midnight Mass was made considerably less pleasant for this church-goer in Appledore when he stepped in some dog poop.
We know councils are doing their best to clear things up in the new year, up and down the country – but if those browning Christmas trees, overflowing bins and bottle-littered streets are getting you down, don’t forget FixMyStreet.com.
What’s behind the door? A steaming Christmas pudding.
TheyWorkForYou.com keeps a complete record of parliamentary business as far back as 1935. So not only does it help you stay up to date with the latest business in Parliament, it also acts as a fascinating, searchable archive.
Consider, for example:
- Why was an American actress refused permission to act in the pantomime Mother Goose? (More details in this 1936 newspaper)
- Just two months after WW2 broke out, which German goods were found on British shelves?
- How many Christmas cards did Tony Blair send in 2004?
- If church bells could only be rung as a signal of invasion, would ringing them on Xmas day cause confusion?
- Was Aberdeen worse hit than the rest of the country when it came to making Christmas puddings?
- Who played Father Christmas at the Westminster party this year?
You can search for any word or phrase on TheyWorkForYou.com. Click on ‘more options’, and you can also restrict the dates you search within.
What’s behind the door? An icy pothole.
Does it count as bleak mid-winter yet? After the mild start to the season, in some parts of the country it still feels as if the really cold weather is yet to come.
And yet, the freeze won’t be long in coming. Uneven pavements and potholes turn from a mild inconvenience to a real hazard in the ice – and you will certainly have already noticed if your streetlights aren’t coming on, now that the dark evenings are here.
So here’s for one last big push on our Fix Before the Freeze campaign. Make sure you report all those pesky potholes, uneven pavements, and broken street lights before the snow and ice get here in earnest, and help make your local community a safer place this winter.
What’s behind the door? An angelic host, complete with shiny halos.
Our website Pledgebank has been used for some good causes around Christmas time. It’s based on the simple idea of promising that you will do something if other people promise to, too. It’s an effective way of taking an action and multiplying its impact.
If you’ve got plans this Christmas – say, donating to charity, giving gifts to the poor, or even organising a party, Pledgebank could be the tool that tips the balance and helps you get the people-power you need.
Pledgebank isn’t just for individuals: Barnet council have been innovative in their usage of the Pledgebank software for the good of their community. Check out how they are using it to arrange a collection of gifts for the needy, and gritting.
What’s behind the door? Frosty the headless snowman.
FixMyStreet is our website for reporting problems such as potholes or broken streetlights, but last January, one user in Brighton and Hove wanted to express his outrage about something else.
Unfortunately, the council have rather less control over the kicking down of snowmen. Much as we sympathise with the frustrated anonymous reporter, we can’t really blame the council for not responding to this particular complaint.
Meanwhile, in Midlothian, we see nature doing the fixing but the council apparently taking the credit, much to our user’s displeasure.
If your neighbourhood suffers from uncleared snow, by all means use FixMyStreet.com to report it this year. If you feel the gritting could have been better, report it. If your snowman suffers an injury, however, maybe keep it to yourself.
What’s behind the door? A boring old bauble again.
What is a “Christmas Tree bill”?
A search through Hansard reveals that this is a commonly-used term in Parliament, and it refers to a bill which, as it passes through its various stages, has all sorts of “baubles” hung on it – that is to say, small, unrelated issues which are added to the main legislation.
The term apparently originated in the States, but has become commonplace in UK parliamentary discourse – and indeed provides an opportunity for some florid extemporising, as David Burrowes, Private Secretary, demonstrated recently in a debate about knife crime:
“As we look forward to Christmas and see today the Third Reading of a criminal justice Bill, I am reminded of previous Government Bills that ended up as Christmas tree Bills with baubles being hung on them at any given opportunity as they went through Parliament. I am sure that as this Bill goes to the other place, Ministers will want to ensure that further baubles are not hung on it in the form of extra pieces of law that take the fancy of noble Lords, as well as any little elves.”
Did you know that you can subscribe to any word or phrase on TheyWorkForYou? It’s very handy for making sure you know whenever your pet topic is debated. Set up your alert here.
What’s behind the door? A kindly Santa Claus
Our website WriteToThem.com allows you to contact your elected representatives – even if you don’t know who they are.
When you input your postcode, you’re given a list of your local councillors, MPs, MEPs and anyone else who represents you in any of our governmental bodies. The site then allows you to contact them directly.
That’s all very well, but what about the highest administration of them all – the one who decides if you’ve been naughty or nice? Sadly, WriteToThem.com does not cover Lapland, but we do have a helpful page providing Santa’s postal address in full.
Meanwhile, it’s just a thought – but you might find that putting your wishlist in front of your local representatives actually has more effect than a letter sent up the chimney, especially if it concerns your civic or community rights. Start here.
Our parents always told us that if decorations weren’t removed by Twelfth Night, terrible things would happen – but it seems that some councils are not so superstitious. Users of our website FixMyStreet reveal the occasionally erratic handling of this tradition.
It gets worse. In Birmingham, one lonely decoration was spotted on the 31st of January. In Consett, not only were the decorations taken down after Epiphany had passed, but they had been on 24 hours a day for the entire Xmas period. In the village of Cark, the Christmas tree was blocking access to a car park in early February. But we think Bournemouth takes the prize, with a Christmas decoration reported as still being in place on the 15th of March.
People are always complaining that Christmas starts too early – and now it seems it’s also dragging on too late. If you’d like to report council decorations that have outstayed their welcome, don’t forget FixMyStreet.com this January.
The 5th of January, in fact, if you’d like to adhere to Twelfth Night superstition. We’ll be looking out for the spike in users on that day.
What’s behind the door? An inn, with no vacancies over the Christmas period
It’s more than 2,000 years since a heavily pregnant Mary was told there was no room at the inn. With zoning restrictions a thing of the far-distant future, an empty stable was repurposed for her use, and… well, you know the rest.
Today, if there’s an empty stable (or, more likely, a house) near you, Channel 4 want to know about it. They are broadcasting the first in their Great British Property Scandal series tonight, examining the causes behind homelessness.
Key to the campaign is the fact that there are over a million empty properties in the UK, while two million families need a home. On their site you’ll find an empty property spotter tool, which allows you to report any vacant buildings to your council. There’s also an app.
Those tools have been built by a crack team of mySociety developers, drawing on our extensive experience of mashing up postcode and constituency data, and sending reports off to the right council contacts. If you’re wondering where we honed such skills, look no further than FixMyStreet, WriteToThem, and TheyWorkForYou, among other mySociety projects.
Not everyone knows that mySociety are available for contracting. All revenue from our commercial activities goes towards funding our not-for-profit projects. It’d really make our Christmas special if you were to spread the word, next time you hear of someone in need of innovative and really rather well-priced development work.
What’s behind the door? Ten Lords a-tweeting
Why is a Christmas card better than a tweet? It turns out not to be the start of a bad joke…
As Roger Gale MP revealed in a debate on the use of electronic devices (including mobile phones) in the Chamber of the House of Commons, “multi-tasking and a dual use of time” means that in the six weeks before Christmas “committee tables will suddenly be piled with Christmas cards being signed while Members are also participating in Committee business”.
Gale’s point is that such behaviour is excusable, but that having MPs updating their Twitter and Facebook statuses in the Chamber would be a bridge too far. What do you reckon? Personally we’d rather have a stream of useful comment, accessible from our phones or desktop computers, than a hastily-signed Christmas card.
Whether you’re a social media junkie, or agree that such things are unwelcome in the workplace, the entire debate is worth a read – along with hundreds of thousands of other speeches and statements from Lords and MPs, available on mySociety’s TheyWorkForYou.com.
Children everywhere open the first door of their Advent calendars today – and we’re digging deep into the mySociety vat of Christmas spirit and presenting our very own countdown to the 25th. Didn’t think a civic and democratic charity had much in common with Christmas? Well, we’re here to prove otherwise.
Between now and the 25th, we’ll be updating this post each weekday with a Christmassy nugget from our archives. Enjoy them, and here’s hoping that Santa brings you whatever your heart desires, whether it’s the reply to that FOI request you put in on WhatDoTheyKnow.com, or the improved bus service you asked for on FixMyTransport.com.
What’s behind the door? A string of flashing lights
As Christmas lights go on in towns and cities across the country, your inner Scrooge might be prompted to ask just how much they’re costing the public purse.
Never fear, Bah Humbuggers, for this is a topic that has been thoroughly explored by the users of our Freedom of Information request website WhatDoTheyKnow.com. See, for example, how Manchester cannily bartered for free celebrity appearances last year, while Lewisham puts importance on low-energy lightbulbs.
You can also check Westminster, Lewes, and Cardiff’s costs – and plenty more besides. We think that Leeds has the highest expenditure mentioned, at £477,600 for this year, but leave us a comment if you find a higher one.
Don’t forget that if you want to know how much your own council spent on Christmas decorations – or indeed anything else – you have the right to submit an FOI request. Just remember to check that the information isn’t already available online before you do.