At some point in the final quarter of this year – and the exact moment differs, depending on who you believe – mySociety turned ten.
Our Director Tom, mySociety’s founder, describes this as “a frankly improbable milestone”. He has seen mySociety grow from an idea on the back of an envelope, to an international social enterprise with friends, partners, volunteers and clients around the world.
Last week, at a small birthday party, Tom pulled out five key elements of mySociety’s first decade – elements that symbolise different facets of the organisation’s growth and impact.
Not all of our many friends, associates and partners could join us at that party, so I’m going to share those elements here.
1. mySociety’s first project
This screenshot shows the brand new design for WriteToThem.com, which we have just recently put live.
WriteToThem, our site for sending messages to politicians, was the first mySociety launch. That was way back in 2004. This launch, says Tom, was a key moment because it showed that mySociety wasn’t just ideas and bluster – it could build useful things that people actually wanted.
WriteToThem was of course followed by sites like FixMyStreet, FixMyTransport and TheyWorkForYou, all built by marvellous developers to whom the organisation owes great thanks (see the foot of this post for a large quantity of thanks).
2. Our volunteers
Another of our UK websites is WhatDoTheyKnow, which lets you make or browse Freedom of Information requests, as simply as possible. It’s visited about half a million times a month, and has become a bit of a UK internet institution – a place you go for a certain kind of information.
Above is a screenshot from FOI blog Confirm or Deny: a list of 366 interesting things we know because of FOI requests made on the site. It was lovingly compiled by Helen, one of our volunteers; she’s a member of the truly heroic team who help keep that site running, and it represents the dedication that all our volunteers bring to their work.
See the thanks section for lots more gratitude to our volunteers – and read more about volunteering for mySociety here.
3. Our international partners
Above you can see a screenshot of Ki Mi Tut, a Hungarian Freedom of Information site, run by a local NGO. It already contains nearly 2,000 FOI requests. This site is a deployment of Alaveteli – the technology we spun out of WhatDoTheyKnow so that people around the world could run sites that would help citizens to chisel information out of their governments.
Ki Mi Tut symbolises the growing success of our international team, and mySociety’s international focus more generally. If you know mySociety as the builder of UK sites, you might not know that the great majority of our development efforts today goes towards helping groups like this to run services around the world: helping people to keep an eye on their politicians, obtain information from governments, get streets fixed and so on.
4. Our commercial work
mySociety isn’t just a charity any more – mySociety ltd is our trading subsidiary, and is growing fast. It’s twice the size the whole of mySociety used to be, and it’s still growing.
As a symbol of this success, we proffer mySociety’s first Emmy nomination – yes, we were surprised too! – for a site and app we made for a campaigning TV show in conjunction with Channel 4.
5. mySociety’s future
Tom finished by giving a glimpse at a new tool we have in development – SayIt – focused on helping people around the world find out more about what decision makers have been saying about things that matter to their lives, their homes, their jobs their kids or their communities. SayIt will go into a public alpha early in the New Year, and we’ll talk more about it then.
Unlike our earlier projects, SayIt isn’t being built for Britain first – it’s being built to work anywhere. We’re not building it alone: it’s just one of the components that form the Poplus partnership, a federation of collaborative empowerment tech builders that we have kicked off in conjunction with FCI Chile. And we promise we’ll let you all have a play very soon.
So, that’s it – a whistlestop tour of our first decade, and a glimpse at what’s to come.
We’d like to thank you for reading this far – and talking of thanks…
The thank yous
During his speech, Tom thanked many, many people who have been instrumental to mySociety’s inception, continued growth, and successes – and rightly so. But I didn’t want to interrupt your flow as you read the above, so I’m putting them all at the bottom, here.
We’re bound to have missed some people – consider yourself thanked and appreciated, nonetheless!
mySociety’s midwives The people who helped turn an idea into money, people, a plan and a registered charity to hold it all together: Mike Bracken, James Cronin, Tom Loosemore, James Crabtree, Tim Jackson.
Our earliest developers The people who built WriteToThem: Francis Irving, Matthew Somerville, Chris Lightfoot, Angie Martin – of the last two in this list, Tom says During our first few years mySociety lost two of our own, lost them when both they and the organisation were absurdly young. They were mySociety’s first and fourth developers, and they they died in 2007 and 2009 respectively. No words can describe the depth of the loss. I owe Angie and Chris – we all owe them – a special debt for their roles in mySociety’s early successes, a debt that I am full aware can never be repaid.
Our volunteers All fabulous human beings: as well as Helen, mentioned above, the WhatDoTheyKnow volunteers John, Ganesh Sittampalam, Richard Taylor, Alex Skene and Alistair Sloan who are “a repository of almost limitless good will, dedication and FOI expertise that make WhatDoTheyKnow so great. It’s a huge job and the site’s success is easily as much down to them as to our staff”.
Mark Jones, Peter Dixon, Paul Hollinghurst, the dedicated ‘anoraks’ from FixMyTransport; Tim Green from our election quiz; and Francis Davey our tireless barrister, all of who make mySociety a much more impactful organisation that it would otherwise be, and who stop our ethos ever getting too corporate.
A heartfelt thank you to everyone who’s ever volunteered.
Our funders We wouldn’t have been able to do projects of this sheer level of ambition without major funders who were willing to support work that simply doesn’t have any precedents – the Omidyar Network, the Open Society Foundation, the Indigo Trust and Google.org to name but the obvious ones. And – of course – thank you to those of you who give a bit every month: your support is as motivating as it is appreciated in financial terms.
The international team Allowing for international spin-off projects has taken a lot of invisible, really difficult programming work that isn’t always the most glamorous. The Alaveteli platform was largely built on top of Francis Irving’s original code by three ex-volunteers who became staffers – Louise Crow, Seb Bacon and Mark Longair. They put their all into a truly immense software challenge – making code built for the UK work anywhere. But that’s not the only international tool we’ve built, and countless hours of work have been put in by Matthew, Struan Donald, Edmund von der Burg and others on an array of tools like the FixMyStreet platform that have been built for customisation and deployment all over the world.
There’s no point building great tools if nobody knows about them, or if they’re badly used. Paul Lenz, Jen Bramley, Dave Whiteland, Jessica Musila and Tony Bowden – thank you for all the hours you’ve spent on planes, and all the injections you’ve had to take.
The commercial team Ben Nickolls, Mike Thompson, Steve Day, Dave Arter, Hakim Cassimally, Edmund von der Burg and Chris Mytton, all of who contribute so vitally to our long term financial security. And thanks also to Jedidiah Broadbent and Martin Wright, our designers.
The clairvoyant Stef Magdalinski – the first person to see how popular online transcripts could be, back when TheyWorkForYou started.
And you. For being a supporter, a reader of our blog, a user of our sites, someone who tells your friends and neighbours what we do…. it all helps.
Happy anniversary! Very impressive and inspiring track record, keep up the good work.