1. 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)

  2. Here’s how mySociety can help you during the 2017 General Election

    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.

    TheyWorkForYou

    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.

    MapIt

    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 mapit@mysociety.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

    Image courtesy of Maurice on Flickr.com

  3. Help us share EveryPolitician’s data where it will make even more impact

    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.

    You can see our proposal to make this happen here.

    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.

    Image: Opensource.com (CC by-sa/2.0)

  4. A new year, a new Better Cities team

    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.


    Image: Helen Alfvegren (CC-by/2.0).

    Post updated 20th December with news that Rachel is joining as our Sales & Partnership Manager.

  5. Three great jobs for our Better Cities projects

    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

    Image courtesy of barynz on Flickr

  6. Six new board members and one departure

    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 mySociety TrusteeRachel 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 mySociety TrusteeTony 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 mySociety TrusteeNanjira 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 mySociety Non-ExecutiveTim 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 mySociety Non-ExecutiveJonathan 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 mySociety Non-ExecutiveAnno 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

  7. In memory of Peter

    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.

     

    Image: Sodanie Chea (CC)

  8. Become a mySociety board member

    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.

    You can apply for the charitable Trustee role here, and the commercial Non-Exec Director role here.

    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)

  9. Where Next for Open Standards

    Earlier this week we hosted our Open Standards in Local Government workshop at Newspeak House in London, with the aim of unpicking where open standards might be of benefit and what might be stopping us from making more progress.

    We were joined by 20 smart people representing a bunch of local councils across the UK and it’s fair to say we made a good bit of progress. A number of consistent themes arose through our discussions.

    It was widely agreed that Open Standards are key to getting the basics right, and standardising the ability of different services to speak to one another is a prerequisite for a sustainable local authority service strategy. The insistence on compliance with open standards at the procurement stage should place an imperative on suppliers to build-in interoperability and reduce the fear of vendor lock in – councils shouldn’t inadvertently replace one set of closed systems for another.

    This link between adoption of open standards and the procurement process was fundamental.

    In our opinion demanding compliance from suppliers to agreed open standards up front, is probably the single most important thing that central government could do to help local government.

    Phil Rumens from LocalGovDigital introduced recent progress on the development of the Local Government Digital Standard. Notably, it goes further than the equivalent in central government, with an emphasis on reuse of existing data and services, and commitment to make more data open and reuseable.

    Both the LGA through LG Inform, and GDS via standards.data.gov.uk already look to gather standards for use in central and local government; however adoption by local government often lags substantially behind. Simply put this is a conversation that doesn’t really happen outside a small number of web or digital staff within councils, and the wider group of service staff don’t yet understand the opportunity that open standards represent.

    Indeed, Tom Symons from Nesta who introduced the Connected Council’s reporthighlighted that the councils furthest ahead are those that have both put in the hours to achieve proper internal Governance standards, and have benefitted from leadership by the Chief Exec and Senior management team.

    The biggest need we identified was to showcase great examples of how open standards can lead to better outcomes in practice.

    Showing what’s possible, both with case studies and live services that can be adopted was seen as essential, especially when this leads to actual financial savings and better outcomes for the citizen. This is something we’re keen to put some time into in the future.

    Sarah Prag and Ben Cheetham shared their experiences of collaborating on the DCLG led Waste Standards project. The most interesting thing for me was how a group of committed individuals just decided to get on with it and find some funding to make it happen – a proper coalition of the willing.

    Practical Next Steps

    The second half of the workshop looked at what we should focus on next.

    We were particularly keen to build on the progress that we’ve made in popularising the Open311 standard, which we can use to integrate FixMyStreet.com with each local authorities’ systems.

    We heard two contrasting experiences, firstly from Chris Fairs at Hertfordshire, who employ an extensive internal management system for issue reporting including individual definitions for fault types. They discovered that citizens are not so good at judging the severity of potholes – and through triage inspection, around 40% of reports are downgraded due to misreporting.

    This contrasted secondly with the experience of Nigel Tyrell and his team at Lewisham who have recently adopted an Open311 enabled service, now linked into both FixMyStreet.com and LoveCleanStreets.

    Lewisham Open311 App Results

    Perhaps the most surprising aspect of Lewisham’s experience is that well over half of reports actually come from their own internal staff using the system. This peer to peer approach has been transformative for them, with frontline staff motivated, more in control, more engaged with and connected to residents, and better able to integrate citizen reports into their own workflow – a very neat solution.

    From this discussion we identified three specific actions that we’re going to help take forward;

    1. Identify local authority service areas that would benefit from the development of open standards
    2. Review output from the DCLG Waste Standards project, to determine how a similar approach can be applied elsewhere
    3. Feed back with suggested improvements to Open311.org for non-emergency reporting and update the list of UK Open311 endpoints

    As with any such event the real value comes in the following weeks and months as we look for ways to collaborate together and opportunities to put into practice some of the things that we discussed.

    We’ll certainly be planning follow-up events in the future, so if you’d like to get involved sign up for our newsletter, post a comment below or get in touch at hello@mysociety.org.

  10. Open Standards Workshop on April 19th

    We share the belief, set out in the recent Connected Councils report from Nesta, that open standards are key to unlocking the potential of government as platform for local government.

    We want to help local authorities understand the benefits of open standards, too. So to that end we’re holding a half-day workshop at Newspeak House London on Tuesday 19th April (the day before the Digital Government conference in London).

    From our perspective this is important because when councils adopt new services they often miss the opportunity to create a genuinely open platform allowing councils, third sector and commercial organisations to work well together (I’ve written more on that in a post over on Medium).

    We’re inviting local authority staff who are responsible for setting strategy for open data and digital standards, and we’ll have a handful of interesting speakers, roundtable discussions and a spot of lunch as well.

    We’ve been fans of the Open311 standard for reporting non-emergency local issues online for some time. This open standard makes it easy for us to submit issues from FixMyStreet.com directly into a local authority’s case management system, and, just as importantly, report back when they have been resolved.

    Open standards are a fundamental aspect of digital transformation for every local council. We want to do what we can to help extend the scope and use of these standards, and learn how we can better deliver services that make use of them.

    We’d love to hear from you about your use of open standards in local government, to share experiences on how this can power service development and identify opportunities to extend the take up of standards. We’d also like to ensure that we are building services that you actually want to use to help your local residents.

    If you or a colleague would like to attend, or if you know people in other councils who are interested in Open311, FixMyStreet and other open standards, then please request an invite on our Eventbrite page.

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    Image credit Deborah Fitchett https://flic.kr/p/7EyMVT