Looking back: our experience of the Google Summer of Code

Summer may seem like a long time ago, but despite the cold outside, we’ve been looking back over our participation in Google’s Summer of Code project. It’s almost enough to warm us up!

This post is an attempt to record the process from our point of view. We hope it will be useful for other organisations considering participating next year, and for students who want to know more about how the scheme works.

What is Google Summer of Code?

It’s a programme sponsored by Google’s philanthropic arm, giving students the chance to experience real-life coding on open source software.

The scheme is open to students all over the world, who are then paired up with open source organisations like us. The students gain paid work experience and mentoring; the organisations gain willing workers and some fresh new perspectives; the world gains some more open source code to use or develop further.

Everyone’s a winner, basically.

The beginnings

2012 was our first year on the programme: once we had been accepted on the scheme, we were given two student slots – the maximum allowed for a first-time organisation.

Given mySociety’s wide suite of codebases, there were several projects that could have benefited. We listed all our ideas, and let people apply for the ones they found appealing.

Goodness, there were a lot of applicants! It was very heartening to discover that there is such an enthusiastic community of young coders all around the world – even if it did take us a long time to sift through them all and make our choices.

You might remember our post back in May, when we announced that we’d made our choices. We were delighted to get working with Dominik from Germany and Chetan from India.

The project

As things turned out, our students ended up working on a project that wasn’t even on our original list: PopIt, our super-easy ‘people and positions’ software.

That’s because once we spoke to our chosen students, we realised they had the skills that could really help us forge ahead with this project – and once we discussed it with them, they were keen. So PopIt it was.


Germany and India are a bit of a commute away, but fortunately development work can be managed remotely. We know this particularly well at mySociety: our core team work from home and are scattered across the UK.

The only difference here was the 6+ hour time difference between us and India: it was important to be rigorous about checking in at times when Chetan would be awake!

We communicated via IRC (instant chat), email, and occasionally Skype, and it all worked well.

Edmund, the team member chosen to be mentor, broke the required tasks down into big pieces so that the students would have realistic work units of several days each.

What was achieved

PopIt is primarily a tool for helping people create and run parliamentary monitoring websites (like TheyWorkForYou) with minimal coding knowledge/effort, though we anticipate that it will have many other uses too.

Our students spent the first half of the summer learning and improving the PopIt codebase. Once they were confident in it, they created their own sites using PopIt as a datasource to test the API, and, hopefully, create a valuable reference resource for the community.

Dominik added a migration tool to PopIt, which lets you upload data as a CSV. This means that you can start a site with a database of names, positions and dates at its heart – within seconds.

His test site was a professors’ database (the code is here). Dom also wrote some helpful posts on the dev blog like this one.

Chetan created an image proxy that lets us serve images in a smart way that makes sense for APIs. His test site was for Indian representatives (here’s the code).

Neither site is being maintained now, which just confirms that it is harder to run a site than to start it. This is not a failing, though. The creation of these sites, along with Chetan and Dom’s feedback, helped us understand where improvements needed to be made. In the course of one summer, PopIt became much more mature.

Looking back on the Summer of Code

Edmund attended a follow-up ‘mentors’ summit’ at the Googleplex in California – he found it very helpful to compare notes with other organisations and find out what had worked best for them all, and he made some good contacts too.

Assuming we get the chance again, would we participate in 2013? Our experience was very positive, but as yet we are undecided, purely because of the fluid nature of our workflow: we don’t yet know whether time and resources will permit.

Obviously, we have enjoyed great benefits from the scheme, but that has depended on quite a bit of input from our side, and we need to be sure that we can ensure that happens again.

Edmund has compiled a list of advice, from the practical (ask students to treat the placement like a full-time job; test coding skills before acceptance) to the desirable (a weekly blog post from participants; make sure you over-estimate the time you’ll spend mentoring). If you’re thinking of participating next year, he’d be happy to pass on his tips for ensuring that you, and your assigned students, get the best out of the Google Summer of Code. Just drop him a line.