1. Introducing Keep It In The Community

    You might remember that we shared a post in November announcing the start of a new project, funded by Power To Change, to help communities protect Assets of Community Value.

    So we’re pleased to announce the (quiet) beta launch of our latest little site, Keep It In The Community, which we hope will become an England-wide register of Assets of Community Value (ACVs).

    Improving legislation

    The Localism Act 2011 was introduced with a great hope. Its provision for giving groups the right to bid on buildings or land that contribute to community life would allow the protection these assets, potentially taking them into direct community control should they come up for sale.

    Sadly, as currently implemented, the law hasn’t yet delivered on that promise.

    In Scotland, the legislation comes with an actual right to buy, but in England, that’s not the case, and with developers finding ways around the legislation more often than not, often the best the Act can bring about is the delay of an inevitable change of control. For the moment we’re not expecting the legislation to be given any more teeth.

    With Keep It In The Community we intend to at least help support a greater takeup of registration by local communities.

    Keep It In The Community Logo

    In yet another project built on the flexible FixMyStreet Platform, Keep It In The Community has three main roles:

    1. We’re gathering together existing asset listings from the 300+ English councils who hold them, to provide a single synchronised and complete record of all listed and nominated ACVs.

    2. We’re providing a straightforward route for established community groups to nominate new ACVs in their community.

    3. We’ll allow community members to provide more details, photographs, and useful anecdotes about each registered asset, beyond that required by the legal listing process.

    Plans for the summer

    So far we have data from around 20 local authorities on the live service, with another 50 or so due to be added over the next few weeks. The remaining councils will be added over the summer. All the data is drawn directly from each local authority and as new assets are nominated or their status changes we’ll update their status on Keep It In The Community.

    Keep It In The Community Screen Shot

    Whilst we complete final testing we’re restricting the ability of community groups to nominate assets, but hope to fully switch that on shortly, once more of the existing assets are displayed on the site.

    The initial process for connecting each council listing is fairly low tech, relying on the scraping of a commonly formatted spreadsheet hosted on each council website.

    So for the moment. there will still be a fair amount of manual tweaking to keep things in sync. This is one of those important elements that will be fine to manage when the service is starting out, but may start to creak further down the line if it becomes well used – a classic ‘known known’ issue we’ll need to keep on top of.

    Over the summer we’ll be working with a representative set of community groups to extend the features of Keep It In The Community to improve how to submit assets for nomination, and how best to celebrate the listed assets by adding all sorts of local detail and background.

    Have a look and let us know what you think so far.

    In addition to the initial grant from Power To Change, this project has been implemented with the support of the Plunkett Foundation and the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government.

    Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

  2. Recycling Collideoscope

    In 2014, along with Integrated Transport Planning (ITP), we created Collideoscope — a service based on our FixMyStreet Platform to map collisions and near misses between motor vehicles and cyclists.

    Through a mix of imported Department of Transport Data and user submitted reports, the service highlighted potential dangerous hotspots before cyclists were killed or seriously injured.

    Since the launch of Collideoscope, cycling has seen even more of an increase in popularity, and we suspect that there have been numerous new initiatives and campaigns developed to highlight and tackle the dangers faced by cyclists through insufficient provision of safe cycling infrastructure and dangerous driving.

    So a recent approach from the Merseyside Road Safety Partnership (MRSP) was of great interest: they wanted to explore how we might revisit this task and determine if Collideoscope still has a role to play — or whether some other approach might be more beneficial.

    Over the next three months, with the help of funding from MRSP, we plan to carry out a fresh discovery exercise to identify up to date user needs around collision prevention, and also determine how well served these issues are already by other similar initiatives around the country.

    In addition to speaking to cyclists, campaign groups and safety experts, we’ll also be working with MRSP and in particular the Cycling Safety team within Merseyside Police to better understand how submission of reports can actually contribute to the development of actionable policy.

    We’d also like to better understand the process of evidence submission, especially video evidence, in cases of near misses and collisions, and improve how that might lead to appropriate enforcement action.

    For the moment we’re approaching all of this with a very open mind. We’re not going to assume that Collideoscope as it currently exists is necessarily the correct approach, and even if it does have a role to play we suspect it may need to be substantially altered to cater to any newly identified user needs.

    Whilst this exploratory part of the project is going to be centred on Merseyside, we’re keen to hear from groups across the country and if you’d like to be consulted or participate in the research we would be keen to hear from you.

    In the meantime, ride safe and we’ll update with progress reports over the next few weeks.

    Photo by Roman Koester on Unsplash

  3. Zero tolerance for bullying and abusive behaviour in the Civic Tech community

    Like many others we were shocked to read the allegations of attempted rape, and physical and verbal abuse leveled at Clay Johnson, a former senior staff member at Sunlight Foundation – our fellow Civic Tech organisation in the USA.

    Our thoughts are with the women affected and the staff of Sunlight and the other organisations involved.

    It was brought to my attention that Johnson attended a mySociety meeting in 2008 and retreat in 2011; so I’ll take this opportunity now to condemn the behaviour described – it has no place in our community.

    No field or sector is immune from the potential for abuse – just because we happen to be in the business of ‘tech for good’, that doesn’t mean as a sector we’re automatically any more or less likely to allow abuse to take place.

    Whilst these higher profile and serious revelations are the ones that make the headlines, there can often exist a spectrum of abuse, bullying, and inexcusable behaviour that is tolerated, apologised for, or just plain accepted as part of the culture.

    It’s the job of all of us in positions of responsibility in all organisations to take a zero tolerance approach to bullying or discriminatory behaviour which is the soil that allows these abuses to flourish.

    We extend our support to the new team at Sunlight, and we are committed helping identify and call out — and ultimately stamp out — elements of the wider culture that allowed this to take place.

     

    Photo by Ricardo Gomez Angel on Unsplash

  4. Where there’s muck there’s brass

    We created FixMyStreet Pro to help councils and city governments better manage inbound street reports and issues from their residents.

    In the past few months we’ve rolled out the FixMyStreet Pro service to new customers including Bath & North East Somerset, Buckinghamshire and Rutland councils; each of whom are taking the opportunity to get rid of legacy software, simplify their operations and make use of a much simpler and intuitive way for their residents and staff to make and manage reports.

    We’re now looking for input from councils to help us guide the next phase of our service development on FixMyStreet Pro.

    Having spoken to dozens of councils we think we can help them save more money by extending FixMyStreet Pro to other areas like waste and environment services and we would like to explore how much development work that might entail.

    Not just for streets

    As FixMyStreet’s name would suggest our focus so far has been on handling issues related to highways like potholes, lighting and gullies (drains to me and you), but FixMyStreet Pro already handles reports for a whole range of issues beyond streets.

    Typically council users of FixMyStreet Pro have around 13 to 15 different self-selected categories that they accept reports on – each of which can be directed to different teams or departments. Tree reports can be sent directly to the parks department, graffiti or abandoned cars can be passed along to the just the right team in street cleansing.

    These ‘front end reports’ all have one thing in common: all we need to make the report is a location and description, plus a contact for the reporter, which could be as simple as an email address or phone number.

    But once you get deeper into the glamorous world of bins and waste services for individual residents the situation gets a little more complicated.

    Missed bin collections, requests for recycling bags, bulky waste collection – these all require the resident to be identified, the particular property to be checked with the UPRN (Unique Property Reference Number), and in some cases payments levied and collected.

    FixMyStreet Pro doesn’t currently offer these additional waste services, although it doesn’t require a huge leap of imagination to see how we could add these adjacent features to the service, not least because we already do a lot of the pieces across our other commercial services.

    Fortunately there has already been a lot of work done to define common standards, such as the Local Waste Service Standards Project from 2016 and more recent work by individual councils to apply some of this work – we also have a lot of our own research and experience to draw upon with numerous specific feature requests from our current local authority clients.

    Let’s talk

    To make this happen we’d like to recruit at least two or three friendly councils available for interviews and possibly a workshop or two, to help us determine specific requirements and test out some of our early prototypes and hypotheses. From here we’d aim to develop these features into fully working aspects of FixMyStreet Pro over the summer.

    If this is of interest to you, if you’re already grappling with this in your own council, or you’d just like to find out more, please get in touch with enquiries@fixmystreet.com and we can have a chat.

    In the meantime you can always find out more about what FixMyStreet Pro can do on one of our regular Friday Webinars.

    Image: Smabs Sputzer CC BY 2.0

  5. Making better FOI requests in Hackney

    We’re in the process of conducting a discovery and prototyping exercise to understand how Hackney Council currently respond to FOI requests — and also Subject Access Requests (SAR) — ahead of the new General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), coming into force in May 2018.

    The aim is to explore how we can help members of the public find the information they are looking for when attempting to submit an FOI or SAR request and subsequently, when a request is complete, making it easier to publish the non-personal responses to requests through a searchable public disclosure log.

    Information should be free

    When someone makes a Freedom of Information request to a public body, we like to think that the information provided, often at a not insignificant cost, should be available freely to everyone, in public.

    That’s the basis of our Alaveteli software which runs in at least 28 countries, and WhatDoTheyKnow in the UK which has grown to become a vast database approaching half a million FOI requests and responses over the last 10 years, from almost 19,000 public bodies.

    From our own research we know that at least 15% of all FOI requests made in the UK pass through WhatDoTheyKnow, and that rises to over 30% of all requests to some central government departments. That still leaves somewhere over 70% of all requests that feasibly could be made available to the public.

    What usually happens instead is that these individual requests remain hidden away in private mailboxes and probably won’t ever see the light of day.

    Our FOI strategy

    In response to this we’re on a mission to expand the share of FOI requests that are catalogued and released in public through WhatDoTheyKnow. This requires us to have an understanding of the nature and source of these other requests.

    Broadly speaking around one third of these remaining requests are made by commercial businesses seeking contractual information from councils, NHS trusts and the like. About a fifth are from journalists researching for stories, another slice come from students or academics, and the remainder from individuals who are often making just a single request.

    Our overall strategy is pretty simple: expand the scope of WhatDoTheyKnow where we can to capture more requests directly, and create new services to cater to specific user needs.

    This thinking is what led to our service for journalists and campaigners, WhatDoTheyKnow Pro. (So far we’ve been reluctant to directly cater to FOI requests made by commercial businesses, although on balance it would be better if these requests did eventually make it into the public domain.)

    Working with Hackney

    Through WhatDoTheyKnow we’ve been pretty firmly focused on helping citizens make good FOI requests. Some readers may remember our previous forays into this area, with WhatDoTheyKnow for Councils (since retired). We found issues with that: specifically, the assumption of immediate publication in particular placed us in position as both poacher and gamekeeper, creating a conflict of interest we weren’t comfortable with.

    However when we consider the full lifecycle of creating a response to an FOI request we still believe that we can use our experience of FOI to help public bodies support better drafting of initial requests and aid the management of responding to these requests.

    Which brings us back to our new collaboration with Hackney.

    More specifically, we are working with Hackney to explore how we can:

    • help users better submit clear and valid requests
    • integrate this request form with other sources of information (including with a disclosure log) to try and help users find what they need more quickly and conveniently
    • integrate with case management services so that queries are answered quickly and information published openly wherever possible
    • use information from previous requests to speed the allocation of a particular request to a specific council service
    • support compliance with current legislation, and pre-empt forthcoming changes (GDPR).

    We’re just at the beginning of this process but we’ll be blogging and sharing more updates over the next couple of months. We will also be speaking to other public sector bodies, councils in particular, about how they manage the process of responding to FOI requests, the challenges they face, and the opportunities this offers them to proactively release more publicly available data.

    Hackney are a great partner to work with. As you might be already aware they have been very active in adopting user-centred, agile methods to develop new services, they are comfortable and vocal talking about their work in public (check out the HackIT blog here) and they are especially focused on bringing their staff along with them as they evolve their approach.

    We’ve got a lot to learn from them, and hopefully they can benefit from some of our experience representing the needs of citizens.

    Get involved

    If you’re responsible for managing FOI requests or data protection in your own public sector body and you’d like to follow this project in more detail — or if you’d like to participate in some of the discovery work — then please get in touch at hello@mysociety.org.

    Update: See part 2 of this blog post here.

    Image: Simon Blackley CC BY-ND 2.0

  6. Further thoughts on TheyWorkForYou and parental leave

    Last week TheyWorkForYou received criticism from some MPs following requests from Emma Reynolds MP to include a note on her voting record that acknowledged time she spent off on parental leave. Our initial response was not sufficient and we’re sorry.

    You can see our more nuanced follow up response on Twitter here:

    In summary we’ve committed to doing two things:

    1. We’ll speak to Parliament to see if a feed of absences could be made available to update the relevant section of TheyWorkForYou.com
    2. In the meantime we have made some changes so we can manually append a note on long-term absences due to paternal leave or ill-health on request from MPs offices

    TheyWorkForYou.com allows citizens to understand how their MPs are voting on issues on their behalf. We’re able to do this because we take the official record of what’s been discussed in Parliament, Hansard, and we represent it in a more ordered form that gathers together all of the votes from a particular issue together in one place.

    We can only work with what is provided via the official feeds from Parliament – we don’t actively try to gather additional data; we do however manually categorise each vote to allow them to be grouped together, but everything else is automated.

    So whilst we are reliant on what we’re able to source from the official Parliament feed, there is an extent to which we are re-presenting the original data in a more transparent way. Arguably that will change how people see it. As such we want to ensure that we properly represent as true a picture as possible.

    MPs, like anyone else, often have to spend time away from their jobs for extended periods, either on parental leave, or due to illness. As this is not reflected in voting records from Parliament and thus not displayed on TheyWorkForYou it can paint an inaccurate picture of an individual MP’s commitment – this is an issue that we have been aware of for a couple of years.

    This is particularly relevant in the case of women who take time off after having a child; the current practice in Parliament is that there is no provision for parental leave or ability for MPs to appoint a proxy to vote on their behalf, and that’s the issue that MPs were debating on Thursday when Emma Reynolds made her observation about TheyWorkForYou.

    It’s a situation we agree is unfair and in need of urgent reform. We completely support any initiatives to stamp out practices that disproportionately discriminate against women in Parliament.

    The list of things that Parliament needs to address in order to improve its working conditions is long and and deep-seated, that’s not something that mySociety can fix – the only people who can do that are MPs and staff in Parliament themselves and we’ll continue to support these changes where we can.

    We know that records of attendance aren’t kept for MPs and we blogged about it previously. We also know that this should in principle be possible as they do publish absences of leave for Lords.

    So what we have at least done in the meantime is put in place a workaround for TheyWorkforYou.

    If we can get the aforementioned list of absences from an official Parliament feed then we’ll look to include that alongside relevant sections of voting records on TheyWorkForYou. This would be our preferred solution.

    If, as we suspect, this just is not available or may be some time in coming, then for the moment we will manually append a note to an MPs voting record on request from their office.

    This will at least allow us take care of the most clear cut cases.

    However as a solution this is far from ideal as it will mean that we are entirely reliant on being notified when an MP is away and when they return, which leaves a lot of opportunity for inaccurate record keeping.

    With the best will in the world, we all know that human error can creep in to manual systems — of course we’d never suggest that an MP would lie about taking a leave of absence, that’d be ridiculous; but it would be easy for those about to go on maternity leave to forget to engage in a piece of admin that isn’t even required by Parliament. TheyWorkForYou is familiar to a lesser or greater extent by different MPs and they regard it as significant to a greater or lesser degree. This being so, we’d never be entirely confident that we were presenting a completely consistent and accurate record.

    It puts us in a position where we are inadvertently going to be held responsible for keeping track of each MP’s attendance without the means of actually carrying out this role to an acceptable standard. It also raises the issue of where we draw the line – there are many reasons an MP may not be able to attend Parliament other than long-term illness or parental leave; having received such requests over the years from MPs, we can be sure this is going to come up again and again, so we suspect that this won’t be the end of the discussion.

    That being said we agree that applying a short term patch to support the cause of parental leave in Parliament is a price worth paying and we’ll deal with the follow ups as best we can in the meantime.

    Image: Andrew Bowden CC BY-SA 2.0

  7. Protecting Assets of Community Value

    A couple of years ago we started discussing a collaboration with the Plunkett Foundation to create a searchable and maintainable public register of Assets of Community Value in England.

    After a few delays I’m glad to say that this project, thanks to the generous support of Power To Change, is now taking place and we’re already well under way with initial prototyping and development work.

    Now, what’s an Asset of Community Value I hear you ask? According to Locality, who are pretty good source of information on these sort of things, Assets of Community Value (ACVs) are places and spaces in your community that are important to local people and if they come up for sale, the community has the opportunity to bid for them.

    ACVs can be anything from your local pub, to a sports pitch or community hall, churches or even the local cinema. Whatever is of most importance to you and your community; and especially what you might want to protect should it change hands or come up for sale.

    The Localism Act 2011 requires district and unitary councils to publish a list of nominated, approved and rejected community assets, which can be viewed by the public.

    The vast majority of councils publish this information online, but formats and levels of information vary widely, from very basic information to more comprehensive details and support. As a result knowledge and awareness of the community right to bid is very low and take up is equally patchy, so with this project we’d like to help change that.

    Building off the back of our FixMyStreet Platform we’re creating a single register that will gather together all of the currently listed ACVs — including those that were rejected or are currently going through the process of nomination. Just as FixMyStreet publishes its reports, these assets will be displayed on the map for anyone to view, share and discuss.

    With the help of the DCLG we’ll work with local councils and provide them with support to list and manage ACVs in their area, as well as embed their own listings on their website. The service will provide help and guidance for organisations that are eligible to nominate an asset for consideration and we’ll standardise this submission process.

    As the service develops, local community members will also be able to highlight assets they believe should be put forward for consideration, as well as add additional detail such as pictures and notes to registered ACVs on the site.

    What we need help with

    At this stage we’re looking for more collaborators who are already active in this space to come forward and get involved. We’re already in touch with CAMRA, Sport England, the Woodland Trust, and the Land Registry, but if you would like to offer some help or support please do get in touch.

    We’re particularly keen to connect with Local Councils who are already actively making use of ACVs, so if you’re an officer responsible for managing the ACV process for your council we’d love to hear from you.

    We know from Locality that there were at least 5,000 registered ACVs this time last year, but that list was already a little out of date and there will be more to add. Keeping everything up to date from the usual mix of web pages, spreadsheets and PDFs is going to make things challenging as well.

    This is a particularly interesting extension of the FixMyStreet Platform and it’s a useful way for us to explore how to best extend the citizen engagement features of FixMyStreet beyond issue reporting and into celebrating what makes each local community unique and valuable.

    Image: Garry Knight (CC BY 2.0)

     

  8. A Shuffle and Some Hustle

    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.

    Image: Sam Bloom (Unsplash)

  9. Contributing to the Democratic Commons

    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)

  10. A timely new grant from the Hewlett Foundation

    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.

    Image: Bart Busschots (cc)