mySociety was built on its Democracy practice, a pioneer in providing simple- to-use tools that demystify the democratic process, allow citizens to understand how decisions are being made on their behalf and ensure that their voices are heard by elected representatives.
We’ve been on a long journey, from the early days of FaxYourMP which eventually became WriteToThem, to our pivotal TheyWorkForYou service which has both stretched the ambitions of Parliament in the UK and led us to develop similar services in Kenya, South Africa and beyond.
Amidst all of this has been our ongoing push to better standardise and make accessible more Open Data on politicians around the world; initially through our Poplus and Pombola projects, but more recently – and with more success – through our EveryPolitician service which has blossomed into a remarkable dataset of almost 4 million datapoints on over 72,000 politicians in 233 countries and territories.
Despite these successes I don’t think we’ve yet sufficiently cracked the challenge at scale of enabling more organisations to monitor and report upon the work of more politicians in more countries. We need to do something about that.
One of the principles that has always underpinned mySociety is that we carry our work out in the open, freely available for others to use. But, as is common with many Open Source projects, we do most of the development work ourselves internally. While community contributions are very welcome, practicality has dictated that more often than not, these are more commonly directed to raising tickets rather than making changes to the actual code.
Unchecked, this situation could lead to us being too internally focused; on developing everything ourselves rather than recognising where we can achieve our objectives by supporting other projects.
Fortunately our collaboration with Wikidata, announced earlier this year, suggests what promises to be a clear way forward to scaling up the impact of our work: we recognised that EveryPolitician could only become sustainable at scale as part of a wider community effort if we want our data to be used more widely.
By contributing to what we’ll call the Democratic Commons — a concept of shared code, data and resources where anyone can contribute, and anyone can benefit — we can help build and strengthen core infrastructure, tools and data that allow other democracy organisations and campaigners to hold their own governments to account.
This was notably put into practice for the snap General Election in the UK in June, where rather than build something new ourselves we directly supported the work of Democracy Club in their efforts to source candidate data and ensured that our existing services like MapIt, TheyWorkForYou and WhatDoTheyKnow were easily accessible for other campaigning and democracy organisations to put into use.
More recently we’ve established a commercial partnership with Facebook to provide them with accurate and independent lists of candidates and elected representatives matched to their relevant Facebook profile pages for the UK, French and Kenyan elections.
There’s a wider benefit to this kind of commercial work, beyond its being a useful source of additional revenue for mySociety. More importantly, it will allow us to feed the data that we source back into the Democratic Commons. It can contribute to EveryPolitician and Wikidata, and even improve boundary data internationally through OpenStreetMap, which in turn powers our own Global MapIt service.
Why is this important now?
Well, it’s not just the rather obvious observation that working with other people is a good idea. The reality is that we need to face the fact that our Democratic practice is just not fully funded, and, as with WhatDoTheyKnow.com, at best we’ll need to consider how more of our services in the UK can be run and directly supported by volunteers and the wider community.
At worst it’s quite possible that we’ll be forced to close some of our popular UK services and restrict the further development of our democracy work internationally.
In April next year we come to the end of our six-year grant agreement with the Omidyar Network who have given us tremendous support over that time. This will leave a substantial hole in our core funding and it’s one reason why we’ve been so diligently focused on developing appropriate new commercial services like FixMyStreetPro and WhatDoTheyKnowPro.
Without sufficient unrestricted core funding — that is, funding which can be applied wherever in the organisation it is most needed — we need to rely much more on specific project funding wherever we can find it. In most cases, however, this project funding comes with its own set of tasks to deliver, and there’s a tendency to want new shiny things, rather than supporting the maintenance of our existing projects. This is especially true of our Democracy work which relies more heavily on grant funding than commercial alternatives.
Sensibly directing our own work more towards contributions to external projects is also a hedge, should we need to find new homes for our services or shutter them for the time being.
In the meantime we’ll be speaking to more funders who we hope might recognise the importance of supporting and building the essential infrastructure of the Democratic Commons, but in the event that isn’t forthcoming we’ll do what it takes to ensure our work to date continues to have some value and impact.
As we start to map out a path to a sustainable future for mySociety and its community, I’d appreciate all thoughts on where we go next with this — after all, we can’t do this without your help.
Image: Ander Burdain (Unsplash)
Two thoughts for you, which might both be off-beam, but offered in the spirit of friendship – and in the context of a recognition that there really ought to be direct unrestricted funding supporting your key services on an ongoing basis, so the below both less than ideal.
First thought is whether you (maybe with some likeminded friends who are great at process design and facilitation…) could construct a service that could replace government consultations and calls for evidence. These are constantly running, and there must be an ongoing business model in developing a better structure for them.
Second is whether there is a membership model out there for mySociety… I’d join.
Thanks Jon – thoughtful and insightful comments as always.
On the first point we’ve considered looking at related areas like transcripts of proceedings such as the Levenson Enquiry using our SayIt service – not a leap to consider the wider area of consultations, although as you hint at, a number of existing players in this field who could be potential collaborators.
On the second point we’ve not given this as much thought as we could, however there are already aspects of mySociety that with more concerted effort could benefit from a membership approach. Off the cuff I’d assume we’d need to dig into a definition of what membership means, what members can contribute to and what they might get back out of it.
All of our successful work internationally is possible because we have such dedicated local partners – again not a leap of imagination to consider this might be a good starting point for reconsidering what being a partner to mySociety might mean. Or closer to home WhatDoTheyKnow is almost entirely run by volunteers – at a minimum we’re considering whether this is a model that could work for TheyWorkForYou.
Lots to consider and would benefit from further discussion.
I’d love to help – we faced (and solved, mostly) this problem at FrontlineSMS years ago.
This problem is also why I’m working on Digital Civic Trusts – a way to ensure that your community and principles are an embedded, integral part of what you build, no matter their financial status.
You can learn more at digitalpublic.io
Or feel free to reach out – firstname.lastname@example.org
That sounds like a conversation well worth having – I’ll get in touch to arrange a chat.
Whatever we do next the imperative is that we secure what value we’ve helped create to date and put it on a footing that it can be most useful in the future.
There’s a market for WhatDoTheyKnow Pro2 giving back-office tools to organisations to manage FOI and DSA requests.
Thanks Neil – there is no doubt there is a market for these type of FOI management tools, and we know FOI inside out more than most – and it is something we’re actively having some conversations with a few forward thinking local authorities about.
The challenge we have is not so much thinking up ideas for new service extensions, rather we already have important, impactful and much needed services in our Democracy practice that we’ve already built or are building that aren’t sufficiently funded and don’t have an alternative commercial model to fund them.
There’s only so far we can use revenue from one side of the organisation to fund our core work.