At mySociety we believe in an open, inclusive web and such we try to build web apps that are accessible in the broadest sense. So while we do care deeply about things like WAI and the Equality Act this post isn’t about that — this is about making a site that works if you have a weak connection or an ageing device. I’m talking about performance.
Now while it isn’t a great metric to track, the fact that the average size of a web page is now over three megabytes (and pages served for mobile devices reaching an average of 2.9mb!) demonstrates that this is an age of bloat that assumes good broadband or 4G connectivity and we don’t think that’s right.
As an example here are some numbers about the FixMyStreet site as it displays on mobile after some recent improvements.
On a desktop there’s a little bit more to add to the mix (more like 66KB of images, 19KB of CSS, plus a webfont taking 77KB) but it’s still lightning quick.
If you are interested in more details of how this was achieved, here’s a post Matthew prepared earlier on many of the same techniques, which he used on his own project traintimes.org.uk.
Back in September mySociety’s Chief Executive Mark introduced the idea of the ‘Democratic Commons’: a grand vision where political data is open to all, for the benefit of all. Since then we’ve been quietly working away on making the concept a reality, with some activity more clearly feeding into it, like our current series of events for GLOW, and some requiring a bit of explanation, like our relationship with Facebook — but what we haven’t really done to date is expand on what the Democratic Commons means and why we believe it is so important.
So let’s take a go at a clear definition.
The Open Data Institute have been promoting the idea of data infrastructure for some time now:
A data infrastructure consists of data assets, the organisations that operate and maintain them and guides describing how to use and manage the data.
It underpins transparency, accountability, public services, business innovation and civil society.
Our vision for the Democratic Commons begins with this concept and advocates for a particular strand within it. It promotes the building of an open, sustainable data infrastructure for political data on a global scale. So nothing too grand then!
In essence this is an evolution of our EveryPolitician project — it takes the lessons we learned there and uses them to underpin a new approach. But it is also the culmination of many years of running and developing projects all over the world and facing the same challenges with the data needed to get started time and again: lists of politicians not up to date, or in an unusable format; ‘unique’ IDs being less than unique; administrative boundaries not being available, available under restrictive license or in some entirely unhelpful format.
The effort and cost of just getting this initial data in place — before you can even start the real work of empowering citizens or holding power to account — is often so high that it stymies teams from the off. We want to change this. We want organisations who are interested in running transparency or accountability projects in their countries to be able to find all this infrastructure in place and get to building straight away.
Beyond this core goal we also want to provide richer open data because the better the data the better the questions that can be asked of it and if, as Giuseppe Sollazzo says, data journalism is the future of Open Data, then we need to make sure that we can provide those journalists the answers they need (and maybe help tackle #fakenews a bit in the doing so!).
In no way do we see ourselves as the gatekeepers for this data and instead we are seeking to be true to the concept of ‘commons’ from the start — working with the global communities and platforms that already exist in support of Open Data and content.
We’ve already started to work with the Wikimedia Foundation through our project with Wikidata and see this as a cornerstone of any approach to the Democratic Commons. Of course we also want to speak to members of the OpenStreetMap community about their experiences with administrative boundaries and we’ll be reaching out to them soon.
In the coming weeks we are going to be recruiting for some additional colleagues to help us with all of this so if political and or geographical data is your thing please keep an eye out.
Even with some additions to the team there’s no way we can achieve this alone — we’ve already collaborated with partner organisations like Code4Japan and Open Knowledge Foundation Deutschland — and there will be many more partnerships to come. You can expect to read much more about that in future months.
So as announced elsewhere on the mySociety blog I am going to have a bit of a different role from now on. It has happened pretty quickly – following a conversation with Mark our Chief Exec during a (not very) West Wing-esque walk and talk through St James Park where I suggested that I might have some capacity to do more and maybe I wasn’t really doing enough of the things that got me hired.
A couple of things have been brewing that meant this was a timely discussion. The ‘Democratic Commons’ work is something that immediately struck a chord with me – we talk about it as being;
“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.”
More than that though it is basically the democratic data infrastructure that Governments should provide but so often don’t and making it as widely and openly available as possible. Practically that has meant us building a relationship with Wikidata to have a truly international, sustainable and trusted platform for the data and also nurture commercial relationships with internet giants like Facebook to provide both huge reach for the data but also a funding stream that underpins the work for the commons.
There is a careful balance to be struck for sure but the work is too important not to try.
Also there is some work emerging from our Better Cities practice and discussions with partner organisations that is looking at broadening the reach of our services, and of civic tech tools in general, that I am really passionate about making happen. It is all quite early but you can expect some blogposts about this as well in the near future – thinking in the open – it is what we do!
These are both exciting opportunities and exactly the sort of thing I joined mySociety to work on and so I was keen to find a way to really contribute to both.
This post from a couple of years ago by Matt Walton at Futurelearn has been a bit of a touchstone for me about how I approach my work since I stumbled upon it. Mainly as it is always reassuring to read something by someone else that articulates much of what you are already doing but also the clarity of that articulation also highlights where the gaps are in your own approach.
So (other) Matt identifies six priorities for a Head of Product;
– Storytelling and inspiring
– Providing purpose and direction
– Exploring and reporting
– Listening and explaining
– Supporting and empowering
– Coordinating and collaborating
To one extent or another these six pretty much reflect what Mark has asked me to do (which is helpful!).
Storytelling and inspiring
Inspiring sounds a bit too ‘Californian’ but there is no doubt that ‘storytelling’ is a big part of the reason I got this job. Because…let us be honest…I have a reputation as a publicity hound 🙂 I have a profile built by blogging, speaking, tweeting, arranging meet-ups and my commitment to working in the open that provides a platform to get our messages heard but I haven’t been doing enough of that. I need to do better and I think the ‘Democratic Commons’ and also the emerging ‘local’ work provide some really interesting opportunities to get out there and stir up some interest.
Providing purpose and direction
I don’t actually think these kind of roles ‘provide’ purpose or direction – but there is a responsibility to make sure that people understand both and are making decisions aligned with them. mySociety are a small, nimble organisation – not some huge public institution but ensuring that everyone is working towards a common goal, which they understand and support is important for any successful team. This isn’t about being heavy handed and again really comes down to communication – the more internally focused side of things.
Exploring and reporting
In our context this is a bit different to what (other) Matt initially had in mind I think but it works anyway. There is part of this role that is concerned with being on the lookout for opportunities – whether they be partnerships, grants, commercial leads or new challenges in our space and making sure the right people are made aware and the right actions are taken.
Listening and explaining
Part of this is just about being an empathic member of the team, making sure every voice is heard and that everyone understands why decisions have been taken and what the goals are. This is something that is easier in co-located teams – when you are sitting with everyone you can pick up on moods and frustrations much faster than via Slack or even Hangouts and you can preempt many situations. Working remotely provides a challenge for this sort of thing but it is an interesting one.
There is another part of this though – listening to our users. Doing more user research and really using our analytics to make product decisions. I’m keen to make this sort of thinking much more of an integral part of any new initiative from the start.
Supporting and empowering
This is very much related to the first point above. It is about making sure team members are empowered (and provided sufficient cover) to make decisions to get things done without the need to second guess themselves. This is pretty second nature here at mySociety – having a small team of so many talented people makes it an obvious way to work. Still everyone needs reassurance sometimes!
Coordinating and collaborating
For us this isn’t about trying to coordinate across multiple product teams – we aren’t Spotify – but there is clearly a job to be done to coordinate our collaborations with partners, funders and clients on all manner of projects. Providing them with a clarity as to what we are providing for them but also what we need from them.
So that’s the sort of things I’m thinking about…what this looks like in more detail will emerge in the days and weeks to come I’m sure. You can expect to get royally fed up with my blogposts and hopefully get bored of me talking about our work at meet-ups and conferences (organisers if anything sounds interesting for your event give me a shout!).
LocalGovCamp will soon be upon us, so we thought we’d share a few thoughts about why this event, and similar unconferences, are important — and why we at mySociety wanted to support this one.
This immediately throws up a couple of questions for the uninitiated.
What is an unconference?
There are quite a few definitions of ‘unconferences’ out there but all that really matters is that it’s an event where the participants design the agenda on the day, the sessions are informal (eg slidedecks are discouraged) and the law of two feet is encouraged.
This video – itself from an early LocalGovCamp – does a good job of getting the concept across:
What is LocalGovCamp?
Well, LocalGovCamp is the largest and longest running ‘unconference’ for people who work in or are interested in local government. It has been an annual event since 2009 with attendees giving up their Saturdays to travel to various locations across the UK to contribute to the day, listen and learn.
What is special about unconferences?
There is a certain magic that occurs at these events when you bring a group of like-minded souls together, in their own time, without the constraints of a prearranged agenda that really fosters a community spirit that has a lasting effect. Useful as the sessions are, it is often the opportunity to find your tribe, to share war stories and to just speak to people who understand what you are working on that is what you come away remembering. A certain amount of unconference as group therapy is certainly not unusual.
The thing is these connections, these networks that spawn from such events can have real power. They can be impressive catalysts for change and the days when the attendee lists were junior staff lamenting the lack of decision-makers in the room are gone – at a recent central government GovCamp two Permanent Secretaries attended and at this upcoming LocalGovCamp the newly announced first Chief Digital Officer for London will be there, amongst other senior leaders.
Local government is obviously something that mySociety is passionate about – our FixMyStreet service in particular is entirely embedded in that domain – and we were keen to help sponsor the event this year… and not just because getting a ticket to attend is like gold dust! We’re really looking forward to meeting and chatting to friends old and new, finding out what are the big challenges (and opportunities) facing teams in local government at the moment and hopefully contributing to a few sessions.
We are happy to confirm that FixMyStreet Professional (the service formerly known as FixMyStreet for Councils) has been accepted onto the GCloud9 procurement framework.
Why is this important?
Using GCloud9, which is overseen by the Crown Commercial Service, removes much of the admin burden from public sector teams who are seeking to procure cloud based software and makes it easier to get down to the question of who has the best product for their needs.
What is FixMyStreet Pro?
FixMyStreet Pro represents the outcome of our co-design project with Oxfordshire County Council to take our popular FixMyStreet platform and build in a new set of features that genuinely made it as useful as possible for their staff (and Council staff all over the UK).
With a focus on retaining the user focused design and approach FixMyStreet was known for we have added or improved functionality for Council customer service staff and introduced a whole new set of tools to support Council inspectors including the ability to manage their tasks from within the app and to work offline when out and about.
This project has also made some improvements to the wider user experience for citizens with new front-end features being added all the time based on user research and feedback.
Want to learn more?
You can find out more about the service over on the GCloud Digital Marketplace or check out our own product pages where you can also get in touch with us if you would like to see a demonstration of the service or learn more about how we might be able to help.
It’s that time of year again. Local elections are on the 4th of May and we have updated our boundary change checker. It also helpfully lets you know if your ward is not having elections (not that your author was unaware of course.)
On May 4th elections will be taking place across English, Welsh and Scottish councils as well as the the elections for the new ‘combined authority’ Mayors.
Ward boundaries are changing
You might think you already know where to vote, and who’s standing for election in your area.
But both are dictated by which ward you live in — and that may not be the one you’re used to, thanks to ongoing changes in ward boundaries.
There’s no need to worry, though. As before, we’ve got the data that will tell you whether your ward has changed. Just enter your postcode here.
MapIt has had a bit of a refresh to bring the look into line with the rest of the mySociety projects. At the same time, we thought we’d take the opportunity to make it a bit easier for non-technical folk to understand what it offers, and to make the pricing a little less opaque.
You may not be familiar with MapIt, but all the same, if you’ve ever found your MP on TheyWorkForYou, written to your representatives on WriteToThem, or reported an issue through FixMyStreet, you’re a MapIt user!
That’s because MapIt does the heavy lifting in the background when you enter a postcode or location, matching that input to the boundaries it falls within (ward, constituency, borough, etc). It is, if you like, the geographic glue that holds mySociety services together.
Like most of mySociety’s software offerings, MapIt is available for others to use. So for example, the GOV.UK website uses it to put users in touch with the right council for a number of services, and Prostate Cancer UK uses it on their campaign site, using MapIt’s knowledge of CCG (Clinical Commissioning Group) region boundaries.
And you can use MapIt too: if your app or website needs to connect UK locations with areas like constituencies or counties, it will save you a lot of time and effort.
Pricing and payment is a lot slicker now: while it was previously managed manually, you can now purchase what you need online, quickly and without the need for human intervention. It’s also quite simple to see the pricing options laid out.
We hope that this will make it easier for people to make use of the service, and better understand what level of usage they need. But if you need to experiment, there’s a free ‘sandbox’ to play about with!
As ever, we’re happy to provide significant discounts for charity and non-profit projects: see more details on the licensing page.
If you have any questions or comments please do get in touch.
As Mark mentioned last month I have recently joined mySociety as Product Manager in the Better Cities team. This is something of a departure for me as I have spent most of my career working for large, publicly funded institutions — places like the Office for National Statistics, Medical Research Council and Department for Environment, Farming and Rural Affairs to name but three.
That said a large part of all those roles was trying to convince colleagues of the benefits of using the kind of products and services organisations like mySociety provide so maybe it isn’t that big a leap after all.
It has been a long held ambition of mine to work for mySociety — looking back it was almost 10 years ago when I first mentioned them/us on my blog and the organisation has been a consistent influence on me ever since with a number of former staff, trustees and volunteers becoming friends and colleagues over the intervening years.
It was my gateway to the wider world of the ‘civic tech’ community to which I have been a proud contributor for many years now — most recently mainly through running a weekly jobs list for public service minded organisations seeking digital staff.
At the moment I am primarily focused on learning as much as I can about our FixMyStreet platform (including the ‘..for Councils’ product) and investigating the MapIt service as well. As I get up to speed with things I am also taking the opportunity to get about and about — attending events and trying to meet people who make use of our projects.
In the weeks to come I’ll be attending MeasureCamp in Cardiff (4th February), giving a talk at World IA Day in Manchester (18th February), speaking at BathHacked on the 22nd February (Bath), helping out at day one of Open Data Camp in Cardiff (25th February), going to ProductCampon the 4th March (London) and giving a lightning talk at the launch of the new Tech4Good group in Bristol on the 23rd March. All this as well as hosting my regular ‘minimal viable meet-up’ on the 8th February in Bristol.
If you are attending any of these events please and want to chat ‘Better Cities’, civic tech or just want to get hold of one of our lovely stickers please come and say hi — there are rarely any other attendees who sound as Bristolian as I do so I am usually easy to find. Also if there are any events you’d like to suggest I attend — either to give a talk about the mySociety ‘Better Cities’ work or just generally an opportunity for me to learn more about how people are using digital tools to engage with and influence local democracy please do let me know.
I am @jukesie on Twitter (be warned — I am something of a prolific tweeter!) and my email is firstname.lastname@example.org so please get in touch.