In my last post I introduced the concept of 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.”
Over the next few weeks we’re going to elaborate more on what we mean by this, what we’re doing to help contribute and make more connections to help others contribute.
I’ve asked our own Matt Jukes to take on a new role as Head of Product with a remit to better articulate our vision both internally and externally about why we do what we do and why it’s important. As you might know Jukesie’s not afraid of sharing what he’s up to and he’s already been giving some insights into how we’ve been developing our Better Cities practice.
He’ll be taking this a stage further by talking about the ‘Democratic Commons’, why it is important and mySociety’s role in making it a reality. Except to hear a LOT more from Jukesie on this and our other product stories over the coming months.
We’re able to dedicate more time to this because we’ve also just hired our new Sales Director, David Eaton, who joins us from a ten year stint supporting Local Government at Public-I.
David is a really important hire for us in our Better Cities team at a perfect time. He’ll be leading the charge as we roll out FixMyStreet Pro to more councils around the UK – if you haven’t already you can try out a live demo of the service.
He’ll be joining in early October and if you’d like to find out more about FMS Pro before then please do get in touch.
Finally as we’re on a bit of a team update we made one really important promotion over the summer that we haven’t yet shouted about enough.
We’ve promoted Louise Crow to the role of Head of Development and she’s been busy with refining the day to day management of our development team and she’ll be ensuring we’ve got good plans in place for each person’s career development.
Louise has been an essential member of mySociety since joining back in 2009 and has been an invaluable support and mentor for me personally since I joined a couple of years ago.
Just as importantly Louise is also looking to ensure we’re properly connected into wider external developer networks and connecting to other friendly civic organisations who share our mission or might benefit from some support.
So congrats to Louise and Jukesie and looking forward to getting David in post in a few weeks.
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.
mySociety is funded in a variety of ways: our work is supported by the commercial services that we offer to councils and other organisations; by donations from individuals; and currently, in largest part, by grants from an array of philanthropic funders.
We were delighted to receive news recently that the William & Flora Hewlett Foundation will continue to support us — and not only to support our research activities, as they have generously done for the last two years, but with a new grant of $1.2m over three-years that will help fund our core operational costs.
This is enormously welcome, and a timely acknowledgement of our efforts to build the evidence base around civic tech, not least as we continue to keep all the various mySociety plates spinning across our work in our three practice areas: Democracy, Freedom of Information and Better Cities.
On the eve of our third The Impacts of Civic Technology Conference (TICTeC) in Florence, it’s great to know that this generous sum will ensure that we can continue to support our research team, as we explore the role that such activities have in the creation of flourishing communities and how best we can extend the benefits of these approaches to more disadvantaged individuals and marginalised groups.
But we are well aware that we’ll also need to seek additional funding from elsewhere. Significantly, over the past five years our grant from the Omidyar Network has been a game-changer for mySociety: it has allowed us to expand our team, work with more partners around the world to help them run citizen-empowering sites, and launch our own new projects such as Every Politician and Alaveteli Pro.
Our Omidyar grant comes to an end early next year, and so despite the support of funders such as Hewlett it is essential that find new and additional sources of funding in order to continue our work at scale.
As we seek to find a sustainable business model for Civic Tech we will keep developing appropriate commercial models within each of our practice areas – the recent changes to our Better Cities team have meant that we’re in a good position to increase the proportion of our income that comes from our commercial services.
However even if we are successful in securing new commercial revenues, we’ll still face a funding gap, compounded by the delicate tightrope we’re forced to walk as we balance our commercial and charitable responsibilities.
And so, the next few months will be a period of exploration, for me and the team, as we investigate the best way to meet our objectives to hold power to account, more important than ever in such volatile and unpredictable times.
If you represent a funding organisation active in this space and are looking to better understand the role that digital has to play in supporting and enriching the lives of those in disadvantaged communities, do expect to hear from us – or rather than wait, please get in touch for a chat.
It’s official, there’s going to be a General Election in the UK on June 8th.
As you might suspect mySociety has lots of tools and services that you might find useful during the campaign whether you just want to find out the voting record of your current MP or if you’re planning on building a website or app to cover the campaign.
First things first: TheyWorkForYou.com already covers in lots of detail who your MPs are and how they voted. This should be your first port of call so that you can evaluate your incumbent MP, especially when you’re thinking about who to vote for next.
Over the next couple of weeks we are going to make some changes here and there to make relevant parts of the voting record more prominent, and more clearly explain how we calculate the voting records themselves.
If you’re planning on using the data we have in TheyWorkForYou you can access information on UK politicians, parliamentary debates, written answers, and written ministerial statement via our API at theyworkforyou.com/api
Tomorrow we’ll share a blog post explaining in a little more technical detail how to access the API and some advice on how to get the most out of the service.
Building a service or website that covers all or part of the country and want an easy way to let your users identify which constituency they are in? Then MapIt is your friend.
It already powers most of our own services and is widely used by the likes of Government Digital Services and our friends at Democracy Club.
You can sign up for for free at mapit.mysociety.org and if you need more calls it’s easy to upgrade to a monthly plan – you can get 10,000 calls a month for free if you are a charity or working on an open project – if you think you are going to be busier than that (a) congrats and (b) drop us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org
Helping Democracy Club
Speaking of Democracy Club we’re going to be wholeheartedly supporting their efforts to crowdsource a full set of candidate data in the run up to the election – they are gathering all of their ideas together in this Google Doc https://goo.gl/8WtZvc
We had planned to make some updates and amends to the YourNextRepresentative service that supports Democracy Club’s WhoCanIVotefor.co.uk site in the quiet period between major elections, ahem, but with the snap election called we’ll be doing what we can to make the site run faster and make whatever UI tweaks and fixes we can in the time available.
They will no doubt be looking for help in sourcing candidate data, so please do sign up to help and find out what you can do democracyclub.org.uk/blog/2017/04/18/its-ge2017
In summary and to make it easy you can find all of our relevant #GE2017 datasets and APIs here data.mysociety.org/datasets/?category=ge2017
It’s not too late to let your current MP know what you think on any subject of your choice via WriteToThem.com.
And finally, don’t forget to register to vote yourself at gov.uk/register-to-vote
Over the last two years, we’ve gathered data on the top-level politicians of almost every country in the world, and made it accessible to developers everywhere through our project EveryPolitician.
Now we’d like to take a step that we believe will benefit more people, and further extend the usefulness of this extensive dataset. We’re proposing to integrate more deeply with Wikidata, to fill the gaps in their coverage and provide consistent, linked data to their global community.
Wikidata is the central storage for the structured data each of its Wikimedia sister projects including Wikipedia, Wikivoyage, Wikisource, and others. Wikidata also provides support to many other sites and services beyond just Wikimedia projects so the combination of EveryPolitician’s data with the reach of Wikidata’s community is pretty compelling.
So in many places, the aims of the EveryPolitician and Wikidata projects are already aligned. We already synchronise EveryPolitician data with the good quality data available in Wikidata where we find it, and we feed back our own additions. As our datasets improve, it seems prudent to combine efforts, and resources, in one place.
If you play an active part within the Wikidata community, or are someone who would benefit from this initiative, we’d very much appreciate your support. Please do add your endorsements or thoughts at the foot of that page if you’d like to see the project go ahead.
A couple of months ago we started a search to find three new team members for our Better Cities practice: a Product Manager, Web Developer and Sales & Partnership Manager.
We’ve now signed up our new colleagues and I’m excited to say that Matt Jukes will be joining as Product Manager. He’ll be leading the development and expansion of our Better Cities services and building upon our recent work to launch FixMyStreet 2.0.
Matt is a familiar name to many people in the UK Civic and Gov Tech sphere — most notably for the transformation work he led over the past couple of years at the ONS (Office of National Statistics). Matt brings with him an excellent pedigree of building and leading teams. What was of particular interest to us was the way that he talks openly and publicly about the projects he’s working on, which sits very well with our approach.
Stuart Harrison will be joining us in January from the ODI (Open Data Institute) as a new Web Developer on our commercial and Better Cities work. Stuart brings a wealth of public sector experience and is already an avid user of mySociety’s services. We’re very lucky to have snagged him, not least as he brings masses of insight and experience into how Open Data meets the commercial world.
Finally our new Sales & Partnership Manager Rachel Baker will start in early January
(we’ll let you know who they are once we’ve got that all wrapped up shortly). She comes with valuable entrepreneurial and marketing experience from previous startups and will also be working from our growing base around Bristol and Bath.
Rachel will work with our Local Authority partners in the UK and around the world, on FixMyStreet for Councils which has undergone a substantial revamp over the last few months. And will help us better connect with like-minded partners who might benefit from making use of our services — if this is of interest please get in touch.
And one departure
Finally and sadly we also say goodbye to our dear friend and colleague Ben Nickolls.
Ben has been with us as Head of Services for the past four years, working with me and the commercial team. He has been instrumental in turning around the fortunes of our services team over the past 18 months, giving us a firm basis for the public sector product and service business we are seeking to grow over the next couple of years.
Now with the groundwork done, Ben is off to pursue his startup ambitions with the wonderful Libraries.io project, which aims to document and provide access to all of the Open Source libraries in the world. This is a hugely ambitious project. We’re very excited for Ben and wish him all the luck — we’ll be watching his progress closely.
So all change for the new year in our Better Cities practice. There will be lots more to share on our progress in the coming months.
Post updated 20th December with news that Rachel is joining as our Sales & Partnership Manager.
Earlier this year we tweaked our strategy to better align our commercial work with our charitable projects. We’re now looking to hire a couple of experienced and motivated individuals to help us really turn up the heat on this approach.
Our work at mySociety covers three practice areas; Freedom of Information, Democracy and Better Cities. Each in their own way use different methods to give citizens more influence over those with power. Making it easy to access public information, or easier to understand what decisions mean and their implications for all of us.
Most of our work to date has been funded through grants and donations, but we believe that we can often make greater impact on a longer term basis where we work on a commercial footing, especially if we can bring in appropriate revenue which would complement our charitable income and help provide a more sustainable future for our organisation.
To boost the commercial skills we have within our team we are looking for an experienced Product Manager who can help set the strategy for how we position our products, develop the wider markets we operate in, bring in more public sector clients, help serve our current clients and create an environment in which our products can thrive.
To aid them in this quest we’re looking for a Sales and Partnership Manager to help us identify and engage with community groups, citizen engagement services, local authorities, technology providers and end users who would benefit from working with us to help more citizens to demand better.
To top it off we urgently need to hire at least one additional Web Developer to our commercial team with at least three years of programming experience in Ruby, Python, and/or Perl.
For each of these roles we’re looking for experience of working with or within local authorities or the wider public sector and civil society. They’ll be comfortable speaking with a broad range of people within local and central government, and their service providers, and will understand the needs of their end users – generally local residents. Importantly they’ll be comfortable working within a geographically distributed development team.
Help us learn and improve
The aim our Better Cities practice is to help people exert a little more control within their local communities – especially people who have never previously tried to make any such difference, or members of marginalised groups who might believe they have little chance of success in getting things changed. In particular we want to learn more about how best to deliver local community level services and to understand the complex needs of those currently under-represented by local government and public services.
Whilst we have over 10 years experience of delivering local services via FixMyStreet.com, we want to understand if such services actually give agency to those who lack it most to affect and impact their local communities, and if so in what way? Does this lead to further civic engagement and participation, if so how? If not can we adapt our approach to make this more likely? And where we currently fall short of representing these needs within our current services, what measures can we take to adapt existing services, or what new services might we create in their place?
As we continue to learn we’ll further build upon the FixMyStreet principles of issue reporting and resolution to cater for a variety of interesting and practical new use cases,targeting hot button policy areas around housing provision, health, education quality, work and benefits.
Importantly we’ll succeed if we ensure that our services are well used by a wider diversity of people in a wider spread of regions.
So if you think you can help us in these goals, have ample experience in creating and leading on the development of digital products and are motivated and energised by working with local communities, government and the public sector we’d very much like to hear from you.
You can apply here;
Product Manager – Closing date, 10am Friday 11th November
Sales and Partnership Manager – Closing date, 10am Friday 11th November
Web Developer – Closing date, 10am on Wednesday 26th October
In May of this year we began our search for new Trustees and Directors to join our charitable and commercial boards at mySociety.
I’m very glad to say that we’ve now completed our search and today we can announce the appointment of three new Trustees to the board of our parent charity UK Citizens Online Democracy (UKCOD) and three new independent non-executive Directors to mySociety Ltd.
Our three Trustee appointments are Rachel Rank, Tony Burton and Nanjira Sambuli who join our Chair, James Cronin and fellow long-standing trustees Manar Hussain, Owen Blacker and Stephen King of the Omidyar Network on the UKCOD board.
Rachel Rank is Chief Executive of 360Giving where she is aiming to make grant funding in the UK much more transparent. Previously she was Deputy Director of Publish What You Fund, leading the organisation’s research and monitoring work, including the development of an annual transparency index.
Rachel has previously held positions with the Commonwealth Secretariat, DFID, DAI, Transparency International and the Overseas Development Institute. She has researched and written several publications on transparency, good governance and accountability.
Tony Burton founded Civic Voice – the national charity for the civic movement; he is Vice Chair of the Big Lottery Fund (chairing its Audit and Risk Committee), Vice Chair of Friends of the Earth, Executive Chair of Sustainable Homes, Vice Chair of HS2’s Independent Design Panel and a trustee of TCV (The Conservation Volunteers).
With 25 years’ executive experience on the boards of national charities working with communities on environment, heritage and land use, he has a strong track record in strategy, campaigning, volunteer development and external affairs for conservation, community, regeneration, planning and the environment.
Nanjira Sambuli was until recently Research Lead at iHub, in Nairobi Kenya, providing strategic guidance for the growth of technology research in East Africa and has just taken on a new role as Digital Equality Advocacy Manager at the Web Foundation. She focuses on the unfolding impacts of ICT adoption to governance, innovation, entrepreneurship and societal culture in Kenya, and across Africa, with a particular passion for the gendered aspects to technology access and adoption.
Nanjira is on the Advisory Board (Africa) for Sum of Us, board member at Kenya’s Media Policy Research Centre, and sits on the UN High Level Panel on Women’s Economic Empowerment where she works with panel members to demonstrate high-level leadership and renewed commitment and action towards making women’s economic empowerment a reality in our lifetime.
At the same time we are enlarging our commercial board with three new non-executive Directors joining mySociety Ltd. Tim Hunt, Jonathan Flowers and Anno Mitchell join our Chair James Cronin, trustee representative Owen Blacker and myself Mark Cridge, Chief Executive of mySociety.
Tim Hunt is Marketing Director of The Guardian, leading the expansion of the global audience into the US and Australia whilst driving increased newspaper revenue of £64m last year.
Tim began his career in advertising – where he was Managing Partner of St. Lukes; he also founded his own successful consultancy practice and launched Sky Italia as Marketing Director.
Over the past 15 years he has held senior digital and tech marketing roles including board roles at YouView, Freeview and launch Marketing Director of Project Kangaroo, the internet joint venture between BBC Worldwide, ITV and Channel 4.
Jonathan Flowers is a portfolio non-executive Director, strategic advisor for three companies and Coach, with deep experience in Local Government.
He was formerly a member of the independent service transformation challenge panel appointed by Treasury and DCLG, Managing Director of a consulting business, Commercial Development Director for a major Financial Services company, Deputy Chief Executive of a County Council, Local Government Executive headhunter and advisor, and local government sector strategist for a FTSE-50 company.
Jonathan is an alumnus of the Cabinet Office Top Management Programme, Fellow of the OR Society, Chartered Management Institute, Institute of Directors and the RSA.
Anno Mitchell is a specialist in digital organisational change. Over the past twenty years she has helped a diverse range of organisations to clarify their vision and purpose; helping them understand how this drives product and capability development and marketing. She was recently Chief Strategy Officer at the agency We Are Friday, where she created new digital strategies and services for international clients such as HSBC and Barnardo’s.
Previously she has worked with government and third sector organisations, as Strategic Lead for Digital Engagement in the Department of Health, Product Strategist for iCan / Action Network at the BBC, and Innovation Consultant to Horsesmouth, a peer to peer mentoring platform for younger people funded by the Edge Foundation.
Together these new Trustees and Directors bring a formidable range of important experience to our boards; drawn from fundraising, communications, marketing, product development, local government, finance, governance and international development. They also bring much needed balance in gender and our first non-UK board member.
We all look forward to working with each of them over the next few years and we’re excited about the new connections, critique and possibilities these appointments bring.
And to the single departure
We are also saying thank you and goodbye to James Crabtree, Senior Visiting Research Fellow at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy and Contributing Editor at the Financial Times, who is stepping down from the UKCOD board after 13 years.
James pretty much coined the idea for mySociety in his 2003 Open Democracy article which called for the UK Government to establish a civic hacking fund. This in turn prompted original founder Tom Steinberg and others to start mySociety.
For that we are incredibly grateful and extend many thanks to James for his long and distinguished service.
Image courtesy of Bart Heird
We were shocked and saddened to learn that Peter Williams, one of our WhatDoTheyKnow volunteers passed away earlier this week.
Peter only joined WhatDoTheyKnow as a volunteer in March of this year, however in that short time he had become a valued member of the team.
No stranger to Freedom of Information, he had been using the rights provided for in the FOI Act since shortly after it came into force here in the UK, and had been a user of WhatDoTheyKnow since 2012.
Education and senior executive pay and benefits were some of his particular areas of interest, and Peter was researching the reasons why some public bodies sometimes fail to respond to requests.
As a consequence, Peter had helpfully been collecting information on specialist colleges and schools, and proposing additions and edits to the site. Following the same route that has led to several of our keenest users becoming volunteer administrators, he was invited to join the team so that he could make the changes he was proposing himself.
By all accounts he made a strong impression during his short time on the team, both with his fellow volunteers and across the mySociety team.
“Many aspects of the site’s operation, including dealing with correspondence from users, considering requests to remove material from the site, and discussing our policies and the future development of the service, benefited from Peter’s input”, says one.
Others say: “He was a valued volunteer and a great person”; and “he was a funny, thoughtful and committed guy”.
We were saddened to learn of death of someone who shared our beliefs in the value of making information held by public bodies accessible, and who shared our passion for activism.
All are feeling the loss of a colleague who approached his role with such enthusiasm and diligence, and our team will be the poorer for his absence. On behalf of mySociety, our Trustees and the WhatDoTheyKnow volunteers our thoughts are with Peter’s family and friends.
Whilst election fever grips the UK, we’re seeking some new representatives of our own, to join our two company boards.
We are inviting candidates to put themselves forward to become a Trustee of our parent charity UK Citizens Online Democracy or as an independent Non-Executive Director of our commercial business mySociety Ltd.
This is a unique opportunity to join a very smart group of board members in helping guide the development of the UK’s original civic tech agitator, as we plot out a course over the next few years.
As our work has become increasingly global we would like to expand our charitable board with at least two additional trustees who can bring a combination of experience of international development, campaigning and research. If you’ve helped grow an organisation and have a good head for figures and legal matters, that would be of great benefit as well.
On the commercial side we’re especially looking to expand our service provision to the public sector in the UK, and wish to appoint up to three new directors, who will ideally bring in some mix of experience from government, public sector, digital product development and importantly marketing and commercial skills. Again finance and legal expertise is appreciated, along with an entrepreneurial streak.
There’s no getting past the fact that our current boards are entirely male. So for both roles we’d like to use this as an opportunity to redress the balance on each board, as well as add more diversity to better reflect the users of our services both in the UK and internationally.
We’ll be accepting applications until 10am on Monday 6th June – but don’t leave it until the last minute to apply!
Image courtesy of Shell Vacations Hospitality (please note this is not our real boardroom)