Thank you for joining us to celebrate mySociety’s 20th anniversary. It’s brilliant to be able to toast 20 years of using data and digital tools to empower people.
One of my favourite descriptions of our work was written a few years ago by the journalist Zoe Williams. She said “Any meaningful access to democracy requires that the citizen can navigate the terrain. These mini institutions – whether Democracy Club or mySociety – collate, editorialise, create digital order for the public good. The more transparent and accessible democracy is, the more obvious it is which bits could be better. It’s like sitting in on the meeting where they invented dentistry, or clean water: kind of obvious, kind of earth-shattering, kind of tedious, kind of magical.”
I think magic is a really appropriate metaphor here, maybe stage magic, where something seemingly impossible happens. Sometimes, as in mySociety, there are clever technical tricks, but mostly, what makes it seem magical is that no-one can imagine that someone would spend so many hours practising to make the trick work.
To build a thing that sustains for 20 years, is hard. I’m going to try to tell a bit of the story of the services and projects, but there’s another story, which is a story of people. People who care and go above and beyond, sometimes above and beyond what is reasonable, to make mySociety what it is. That is what makes the impossible possible.
With all the people and photos from different times in the life of the organisation, it feels a bit like the mySociety ‘eras’ tour.
So I thought maybe I would sketch out the different eras of the organisation and how they led us to this point.
Era 1: the early days
mySociety was launched in 2003, 12 years after the launch of the ‘web’ itself. I came across it three years later in January 2006 when I used a site PledgeBank.com to sign an online pledge, a novelty at that point. The pledge was to “pay £10 into a fund that aims to fill a public advertising space with something thought-provoking” if 350 other people would do the same things. According to my emails, in the same minute, I volunteered to write some code to screen scrape official information about the Northern Ireland Assembly, and later that evening joined two of the mailing lists.
I must have been excited. Lots of people were – mySociety represented a unique opportunity to use technical skills to do something good.
When I first worked for mySociety later that year, I think I was employee no 5, joining Tom Steinberg and the first three developers – Chris Lightfoot, Matthew Somerville and Francis Irving, and a group of dedicated volunteers. They were in the middle of an exceptionally creative period, having already launched three public facing services – including WriteToThem (which was born as FaxYourRepresentative). They had also taken on TheyWorkForYou, the parliamentary monitoring site, which had been developed by a group of volunteers.
That era of creativity continued, with brilliant new services:
In 2007 FixMyStreet was launched, a simple way for people to report local issues.
It was followed in 2008 by WhatDoTheyKnow – a service for making FOI requests, created as a result of multiple suggestions in an open call for proposals.
Oh, and also the first ever Downing Street e-petitions site.
So, an era of productivity, but also, like many new organisations, one of huge financial instability.
At mySociety’s 5th birthday party, Tom said: “We know from the continued influence of newspapers, some born in the 19th century, that political media needs longevity to gain the reach and legitimacy required to transform whole systems and to challenge the expectations of whole populations. mySociety needs to work out how to be here not just in 6 months, but in 20 years.”
So that first era defined two grand challenges – how can the web be used “to tip the relationship between people and government, in favour of the people”, and how can you embed that mission inside an organisation that can survive long enough to make it stick.
Era 2: International community and reuse
I think the second era of mySociety is the era of international reuse. Our code had always been open source, and there had been a couple of new sites built with it by this time.
But now we extracted and built customisable software in collaboration with partners around the world, and fostered an international community to accelerate reuse and impact. Alaveteli was the first product of that era, a framework extracted from WhatDoTheyKnow to power new FOI sites. AlaveteliCon in 2012 was our first significant international event, and was accompanied by an install lab where people could bring laptops and work together to get new FOI sites running.
This era brought efficiencies of reuse, but in the same way that the most powerful thing about civic tech can be the idea that someone, somewhere has built this tool because they expect you to want to ask a question of those in power, or check what your representative’s been doing, sometimes the most powerful part of international work is not the reuse of the code itself, but the encouragement that comes from a set of friends and colleagues around the world that don’t think that what you’re doing is crazy.
As the field grew and matured enough to settle on a name – ‘civic tech’ – mySociety also took a more structured approach to understanding impact. This work stepped up a gear in 2015 with the first TICTeC – the Impacts of Civic Tech conference. TICTeC has run in person or online every year since then, convening thousands of researchers, funders and practitioners to share their knowledge and experience.
In all there have been 87 projects based on our code, with 48 still running today, including at least a dozen sites like AskTheEU across Europe, InfoProVsechny in Czechia, KiMitTud in Hungary, Mzalendo in Kenya, and QueSabes in Uruguay that have now passed their own 10th anniversaries. We learned a lot about what works and what doesn’t and not every project has lasted. But when reuse works, it’s a huge force multiplier. Alaveteli has been one of the real successes in this respect and it’s been very exciting to see new features, such as the tools we subsequently built for journalists, have immediate impact not just in the UK but across the world.
I’m very happy that we’re continuing to learn and share internationally through TICTeC and our Access to Information network where along with partners we’re sharing approaches around the technology, but also how it works with other modes of action – journalism, campaigning, and strategic litigation and legislative change.
So the first of many thanks this evening go to Transparency programme lead, Gareth Rees, who has juggled the many, often conflicting demands of running a large UK platform, a successful international open source project, a pan-european learning network and several other projects with fortitude and meticulous planning, ably supported by Graeme Porteous and Jen Bramley.
They also go to Gemma Moulder, our incredible Events Manager, who has been the heart of the TICTeC community. And please mark your calendars, now that she’s organised the hell out of this anniversary party, she’s going to be turning her attention to TICTeC 2024 next spring.
Era 3: Real products
So the first era of mySociety defined two problems to make progress against, with perhaps the more challenging one being how to run services for long enough to have impact at scale. In 2015 Mark Cridge joined as Chief Executive faced with two big tasks – to be mySociety’s first non-founder chief executive, a transition point at which many organisations fail, and to develop the commercial side of the organisation into a sustainable business.
mySociety Ltd had always taken on commercial work, but in 2016 we made a decision to focus on a product in order to scale revenue and generate profit to actually contribute significantly to the parent charity. That product became FixMyStreet Pro, designed to help councils handle fault reporting. And in time mySociety Ltd became SocietyWorks. As of today, SocietyWorks has 28 clients for FixMyStreet Pro, and 6 for our second significant product, WasteWorks. In that time FixMyStreet has gone from 850k problem reports to now 4.4 million.
This is a huge achievement, and whilst the success of FixMyStreet, like so many things at mySociety, would never have happened without Matthew, our resident non-evil genius, the transformation into a profitable business has taken a huge team effort – to research, build, price, market, sell, contract, manage and deliver a product that works for citizens and for councils. So, along with Matthew, I want to say thank you to the whole SocietyWorks team – Dave Arter, Sally Bracegirdle, Chris Mytton, Moray Jones, Lizetta Lyster, Bekki Leaver, Jacqueline Lau, Victoria Mihell-Hale, Amelia Nicholas, Nicolle Whitehead, Nik Gupta, Sally Reader and Chris Edwards.
And two special thanks – first to Sam Pearson and to Pete Stevens and co at Mythic Beasts for the seamless work behind the scenes to provide stable infrastructure to support both an unusual digital charity and a growing software as a service business. There’s tons more I could say about this but I will limit myself to this – we’ve come a long way since the days of a fax server in a cupboard.
And second to Angela Dixon – for throwing absolutely everything into SocietyWorks and mySociety and leading the team as Managing Director with the exact combination of thoughtfulness, decisiveness and boundless positive energy that we needed.
Era 4: Citizen empowerment at scale and with nuance
This brings us more or less to the present era. I quoted Tom earlier, saying that political media needed longevity in order to get reach and legitimacy. We’re starting to see the results of some longevity.
Some representative polling in 2021 showed that one in three UK adults have heard of TheyWorkForYou, and one in five have used it. In the last 10 years WhatDoTheyKnow has gone from 100k public FOI requests to close to a million, and informed countless news stories and campaigns.
So how do we use that longevity and reach most effectively? We have some ideas.
Between them, our services span the practical issues that introduce people to civic life – dog mess, housing issues and bin collection, through the many facets of the tens of thousands of public institutions covered by the FOI act, to the fundamental building blocks of our democracy – voting and representation in the UK’s parliaments.
People want to participate in civic life but only if they have a reason to believe it makes a difference. One thing that has become clearer over time is that the real core of our mission with respect to government is not to get it to do better at digital, but to use digital to get it to do better at democracy – to show the kind of transparency, responsiveness and interest in people’s lives that makes participation meaningful. The scale and openness of our platforms gives us a unique perspective on the challenges people hit when they try to engage with democratic institutions. The fact that the platforms sit outside those institutions gives us a point of leverage.
We’ll be using what we’ve learned from our services, and support from the communities that use them, to bring about changes in policy and practice that are directly targeted at those challenges. That way, we’re not just helping people work around obstacles, but removing those obstacles for good.
Alex Parsons has given us hugely valuable insights into how our services are being used, and a credible voice on Access to Information, democratic participation and yes, potholes and dog poo too. Thank you Alex, for being an incredible fount of ideas on where we can go from here.
Reach more and more kinds of people
There are also responsibilities that come with scale, and one is to make sure that our services do more than empower the already empowered. We want to reach more and more kinds of people, with a focus on those who are being democratically underserved, and who are underrepresented amongst our service users.
We recognise that this is an area where we need to learn from others and we’re taking multiple approaches – conducting outreach and research on how we can better support people from marginalised and under-served communities using our core services, and developing partnership work that gives us opportunities to learn, such as the FixMyBlock project with TowerBlocks UK – helping tower block residents understand and exercise their rights, or the Stop and Search Data dashboard we’ve developed with Black Thrive.
Respond on climate
We also need to recognise the era we are entering. This is one in which climate change is no longer the story, but the setting in which all stories take place. In the next decades we have to rapidly make changes across our society – in how we travel, what we eat, how we heat our homes. In order to do that fairly, the decisions we are faced with need participation from all kinds of people: to reduce the harms and share the benefits of this enormous transition. It’s a huge democratic challenge. We’re going to need to continue to learn and experiment, not least in getting people in all kinds of roles the information they need to act together. We’ve been working on a suite of services in our Climate programme to help people track, challenge, coordinate and collaborate. I want to share a couple of examples of that work.
In the Climate Action Scorecards, a project led by Climate Emergency UK scoring local authority plans and action on climate, we see several interesting elements come together – the use of WhatDoTheyKnow Projects to rapidly create datasets from batches of FOI requests, along with research and policy work, so that we can present simple headlines on local climate action that anyone can understand, and at the same time, make an evidenced case to policymakers for better publication of the underlying data. Come to our webinar together with the Centre for Public Data on fragmented data on the 28th of this month to hear more about that.
In the Local Intelligence Hub, we’re working with the Climate Coalition, a coalition with more than 100 member organisations, representing 22 million people across the UK, exploring how a digital service can help them share data to work better as a coalition to have effective conversations about climate action with politicians, and to better understand local areas, and their own movement.
Finally our latest service, Neighbourhood Warmth will bring back a little of the ‘I will if you will’ spirit of Pledgebank to the challenge of home energy across the UK, encouraging neighbours to take action to explore energy efficiency improvements together.
Zarino Zappia leads the climate team – Struan Donald, Alexander Griffen, Emily Kippax, Siôn Williams and Julia Cushion. Thank you to you all for inventing and realising a new generation of mySociety services. And thanks to Zarino for being a collaborative and multi-talented leader, and for quietly rolling his sleeves up and improving everything he touches, across the organisation.
I hope I’ve given you a flavour of how we’ve evolved as an organisation, and how I think we can have the greatest impact in our next era. I’m excited, because I think we are starting to see the shape of what mySociety could be for the long term – a stable and effective institution working with citizens, civil society and digital technologies in the service of a democracy capable of meeting the challenges we now face.
Which makes this a good point to talk about the role of our trustees and directors – a truly inspirational set of people who give up their time and expertise on a voluntary basis to advise, challenge, and connect us, and to help us be the organisation that we aspire to be.
A huge thank you to Ade Adewunmi, Cam Ross, Devin O’Shaugnessy, Jen Thornton, Onyeka Onyekwelu, Rachel Rank, Steve Skelton and Tony Burton, and Gen Maitland Hudson as our Chair of Trustees, and Mandy Merron as the Chair of the SocietyWorks board, as well as all their predecessors, for being sound advisors, and making board meetings something to look forward to.
I also want to take a moment to mark the very sad recent loss of Francis Mainoo, a hugely valued member of both boards, and a kind and generous leader. Like early staff members Chris Lightfoot and Angie Ahl, Francis’ many contributions here and elsewhere will long be remembered.
mySociety simply would not have got to this milestone without the dedication and selflessness of the many people who have supported the organisation in volunteer roles.
Along with our trustees, that is particularly true of the people who have volunteered around WhatDoTheyKnow, where scale brings challenges as well as impact. Running a service like WhatDoTheyKnow responsibly takes a significant amount of work – 364 new requests are now made every day through the site and we know that the responsible governance of digital platforms is crucially important to their effect on society.
Richard Taylor, John Cross, Martyn Dewar, William Fitzpatrick, Matt Knight, Luis Lago, Alison Bellamy, Doug Paulley and more before them have put countless hours in helping and supporting WhatDoTheyKnow’s users – thank you all.
And for absolutely invaluable on the spot pro-bono legal advice – when you need it, you really need it – many thanks to Francis Davey, and Matt Lewin.
And thank you too to Helen Cross who, having been a long time volunteer, has taken on the challenge of managing the service with the help of her robot friends, and now with the help of Georgia Kelsey, who has been gamely spelunking into the support mailbox over the last few months.
I’ve talked about the significant progress we’ve made in sustaining ourselves as an organisation. That problem is not yet solved – and I know this is a sympathetic audience, as many of you have played a part in getting us to where we are. The funding question keeps me up at night, because I think it is a genuinely hard problem of finding a financial model to deliver services which are a public good.
So two more sets of thank yous here.
First, to all the funders who have supported our work – with some notables in somewhat chronological order – Tim Jackson for our very first seed funding and Joseph Rowntree for our first philanthropic institutional funding. Long term early support came from OSF, the Omidyar Network and Luminate, Google, and the Indigo Trust. The Quadrature Climate Foundation and the National Lottery are supporting our climate team and the Adessium Foundation, Swedish Postcode Foundation and NED are supporting our international work. Porticus, and the Patrick McGovern Foundation are supporting work across all our programme areas.
Second, to those who’ve worried, along with the Chief Execs, about the money in various different ways – alumnis Abi Broom and Paul Lenz (Abi Broom’s graphs of doom!), Angela and her finance team Yolanda Gomes, and Jill Aquarone and on fundraising the eloquent Asha Pond, and now our latest recruit Alice Williams.
There are many names I haven’t named here – after twenty years, the list becomes too long. But I’m particularly happy to have many people from different points in the life of mySociety, because I think one thing you can see from the vantage point of twenty years is that effort and planning pays off over time in a way that can be hard to see when you’re in the midst of it. If you are at this party, it’s because you are part of the story of mySociety and your help and support has got us to this milestone. And if you don’t think that’s true, perhaps it’s because you’re going to be part of our future in some way.
So I hope you’ll read through a copy of the impact report and feel proud. Thank you to Myf Nixon and Lucas Cumsille Montesinos for telling our story in such a beautiful way, in the impact report and across our sites.
And finally thank you to everyone who has used our services to try to make things better for their communities. Which must be my cue to stop talking and hand over to Myf and Zarino for the second phase of the evening, our anniversary awards, where we recognise some of the incredible stories of change that we’ve been a little part of.