1. The story of Pledgebank

    Pledgebank  homepageThese days, when you think of mySociety’s major projects, you’d be forgiven for passing over the vision in purple that is Pledgebank.

    And yet, it’s among mySociety’s longest-running sites, and one that we had big plans for. It was a truly international project, too, with users in many countries.

    It even, as we’ll see, spawned one of the UK’s major transparency organisations.

    But all good things come to an end, and as we announced in a recent post, we’ll shortly be closing Pledgebank down.

    Before we do, it seems a good moment to record some of its history.

    The Pledgebank concept

    In November 2004, we announced mySociety’s second official project:

    The purpose of  PledgeBank is to get people past a barrier which strikes down endless good plans before they can are carried out – the fear of acting alone. It allows anyone to say “I’ll do X if other people also do X”, for example “I’ll write to my councillor if 5 other people on my street do the same”.

    However, there is no scale to big or too small, it could equally be used to say “I’ll start recycling if 10,000 other people in Britain also start”.

    Pledgebank officially launched on 13 June 2005. We’d opened a trial version of the site to a few users first, with early pledges including anti-ID card campaigning, carbon offsetting, and community river cleaning. People were interested. It was off to a good start. As the Guardian reported, even Brian Eno was a user.

    By that September, mySociety Director Tom was describing Pledgebank as our most popular site yet, and as of January 2006, there had been more than 200 successful pledges. In July 2006 the site won the New Statesman New Media award.

    Finding a niche for Pledgebank

    So that was all going swimmingly, and as time passed, we started building on the basic Pledgebank model.

    There were location-specific Pledgebanks, like Pledgebank London which urged folk to do a good deed for their city. Both the then PM Tony Blair and Mayor of London Ken Livingstone helped launch it, pledging to become patrons of a sports club.

    And, like FixMyStreet, we sold Pledgebank as white-label software for councils, allowing them to organise, for example, community snow clearance, and Royal Wedding street parties.

    Did we miss something?

    Here at mySociety, we’re not all about making the big bucks. But that doesn’t stop us from occasionally wondering why we never evolved Pledgebank into a lucrative service like Kickstarter or Groupon, both of which are founded on the very same idea: that there’s potential power in a pledge.

    Whether you back a project on Kickstarter, or put in for a hot stone massage on Groupon, you’re basically undertaking to buy something. But while Pledgebank did allow fundraising pledges, it didn’t take a cut of the moneys raised.

    At one point we did look into using an escrow service, but we decided in the end that each pledge organiser could sort out collection of any payments. And thus, we never quite became Kickstarter. Oh well.

    Simple concepts have many possibilities

    Pledgebank might have been founded on a simple concept, but, like so many simple concepts, it turned out that there were endless features we could add to it.

    At launch, SMS text messages were an important part of the site, and one that we spent considerable time and effort on. It was 2005, remember, and as we often said in our blog posts at the time, many people either weren’t online or had no desire to be. We wanted the site to cater for them too.

    And almost immediately after launch we added another feature: the ability to subscribe, so you’d receive an email when someone set up a pledge that was near you, geographically. This was ideal for those pledges with a local aspect, such as saving an ancient tree, or getting together to clean up a community.

    Then there was the international aspect. Pledgebank was mySociety’s first in-house project to be translated.

    In true mySociety style, the translation was crowdsourced and ultimately overseen by our diligent volunteer Tim Morley. As I write, just prior to the site’s closure, it is available in 14 languages, from Simplified Chinese to Belarusian, and including Esperanto.

    And it was taken up, enthusiastically, in many countries. Even now, we still sometimes have to deploy Google Translate in order to reply to Pledgebank’s user support emails.

    A site to change the world

    Over its lifetime, Pledgebank has been the starting point for many people to make the world a better place, in ways both large and small.

    Before we say goodbye all together, let’s take a look at some of the surprising, sometimes amazing, things it helped bring about.

    The smaller pledges were sometimes just as interesting:

    …and many more. Over time, Pledgebank became an archive of inspirational, utopian, and sometimes plain eccentric pledges. It brought thousands of people together in common causes, and multiplied the power of a single person’s desire to do good.

    We’d love to hear how you used Pledgebank: let us know in the comments below.

     

  2. Launching mySociety Services with a bang

    Thanks to everyone who came out to celebrate the launch of mySociety Services. It was great to see you all!

    mySociety Services launch party by Patrick Straub

    A cold February night it might have been, but it was certainly worth venturing out to the Nash Room at the ICA.

    The company was great. The drinks flowed. Plus, the view from the balcony, across the Mall to the London skyline was stunning.

    mySociety Services launch party by Patrick Straub

    You can see the full gallery of photos, by photographer Patrick Straub, here.

    mySociety Services launch event - photo by Patrick Straub

    If you couldn’t make it: we’re sorry you couldn’t be there, and we hope to see you soon.

    And if you hadn’t heard about it at all… well, now’s the time to sign up to the mySociety Services newsletter and make sure you’ll never miss our events, briefings and talks.

  3. TICTeC: Early bird booking closes today

    TICTeC-logos_general with yearHurry: today’s the last day to book your place at TICTeC, our conference on the Impacts of Civic Technology, if you want to take advantage of the early bird pricing.

    You have until midnight tonight to save yourself £100 on your ticket price. Here’s where to book.

    Speakers

    We’re still firming up the final schedule and session titles, but let us whet your appetite by listing some of the speakers.

    We’ve already introduced our two keynotes, Dr Shelley Boulianne and Ethan Zuckerman.

    Here are some of the other speakers who’ll be helping to shape the agenda at TICTeC:

    Luke Bacon of Open Australia Foundation, Sydney

    Jonathan Bright of Oxford Internet Institute, UK

    Tim Davies of Practical Participation, London

    Kerry Brennan of Reboot, New York

    Blair Glencorse of Accountability Lab, Washington DC

    Nanjira Sambuli of ihub research, Nairobi

    Linda Sandvik of the Guardian, London

    Sandy Schuman of New College, Oxford University

    Martin Szyszlican of Congreso Interactivo, Buenos Aires

    Dr Nick Taylor of University of Dundee

    Dr Loren Treisman of Indigo Trust, London

    Gail Ramster of The Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design, London

    Jonathan Mellon of the World Bank/Nuffield College, Baltimore

    Jean Brice Tetka of Transparency International, Berlin

    We’re really delighted to be presenting such a diverse group of speakers bringing insights from so many parts of the world… and we can hardly wait to hear what they all have to share.

    If you feel the same, well, now’s the time to book your ticket.

  4. Meet Dr. Shelley Boulianne, a TICTeC keynote speaker

    Dr Shelley BoulianneDr. Shelley Boulianne, of MacEwan University in Alberta Canada, studies civic engagement and political participation. That makes her a perfect fit for our conference on the Impact of Civic Technology, TICTeC, where she’ll be one of two keynote speakers.

    Her current research examines how social media is used to recruit youth for volunteer work in the community. This research employs interview data from youth and non-profit organisations, as well as a content analysis of Facebook and Twitter data. If that sounds right up your street, be sure to grab your TICTec tickets soon.

    Meanwhile, we put a few questions to Shelley.

    What will you be talking about at TICTeC?

    I will present a bird’s eye view of the effects of civic technology on civic and political life. This perspective allows us to ask tough questions about technology: Does civic technology have a positive effect on civic and political life? Does it have a negative effect? Does it have any effect at all? I will present the results of a meta-analysis of more than 80 studies documenting the effects of the internet on civic and political life.

    What’s your involvement in civic tech?

    Most of my experience is studying the role of news websites and social networking sites on civic and political life. These tools are most interesting to me, because they engage the masses. However, I am also studying the use of online versus face to face methods for facilitating citizens’ involvement in deliberative exercises designed to inform public policy.

    What are you most looking forward to about TICTeC?

    I consider myself to be first and foremost a research methodologist, so I look forward to exciting discussions about how to study the effects of civic technology.

    We’re looking forward to it too! If you’d like to be at TICTeC, info and a link to ticket-booking is here. But hurry: early bird registration closes on 20 February.

    Meet our other keynote, Ethan Zuckerman, here.

  5. Meet Ethan Zuckerman, a TICTeC keynote speaker

    Ethan ZuckermanWe’re more than delighted that Ethan Zuckerman will be one of the keynote speakers at our upcoming conference on the Impacts of Civic Technology.

    Ethan is Director of the Center for Civic Media at MIT Media Lab, and a longtime digital activist and thinker. He’s on the directorial board of Ushahidi and Global Voices, as well as being a member of the Wikimedia Foundation Advisory Board.

    As if that wasn’t impressive enough, Ethan is also the originator of the Cute Cat Theory of Digital Activism- a theory which, one might say, is highly relevant to at least two of the interests of many mySociety folk.

    We asked Ethan a few questions in advance of his keynote presentation.

    What will you be talking about at TICTeC?

    I’m going to talk about civics through the lens of efficacy. What can individuals do to influence their communities, their societies and their nations? Are they more effective working through existing institutions, through building new ones or through influencing opinion via making media? And how can we know what forms of civics are most effective?

    What’s your involvement in civic tech?

    I’ve been building media systems for twenty years, and have focused for the last ten years on civic media, tools that help citizens make change in their communities through media. High points have included working on Global Voices, Ushahidi and now Promise Tracker.

    There’s […] lots of evidence that this work is really, really hard and that we need to think more carefully about what we’re actually seeking to accomplish.

    What are your best concrete examples of the impact of civic tech?

    I think there’s good evidence that projects like SeeClickFix and mySociety’s various projects can help citizens feel their government is more responsive. There’s some evidence that tools like Ushahidi have allowed relief organizations to respond better to emergencies. But there’s also lots of evidence that this work is really, really hard and that we need to think more carefully about what we’re actually seeking to accomplish.

    How can research help those of us in the field?

    My research focuses on the question of how making media might be a path towards making change. We’re building tools that help individuals and advocacy organisations track the spread of ideas in social and journalistic media, offering nuanced pictures of the structure of a particular story or controversy.

    What are you most looking forward to about TICTeC?

    I’m hoping to leave with a better map of what research questions are most pressing in this space.

    What (excepting mySociety, for modesty) are your favourite examples of good civic tech?

    As I mentioned above, I’m an admirer of SeeClickFix and (immodestly) Ushahidi. I think Code for America is doing a good job of building a pipeline of civicly motivated techies. I think Kickstarter, while not explicitly civic tech, has been masterful in helping communities figure out how to fundraise together.

    Thanks Ethan!

    If you’d like to join us at TICTeC, tickets are still available. But hurry: early bird registration closes on 20 February.

    Meet our other keynote, Dr Shelley Boulianne, here.

  6. Welcome to mySociety Services

    mysocietyservicesNeed someone to develop a web application or an online tool for your organisation?

    Enjoy what we do here at mySociety?

    The good news is that mySociety’s experience and skills can be all yours… and now we have a brand new website that gives us enough space to really go into detail about what we offer.

    Open for business

    At mySociety Services you’ll find everything you need to know about hiring us for your organisation.

    We’ve included a bunch of case studies—in fact, they make up the bulk of the new site—because we reckon that’s the most immediate way to show you how we work, and how we’d approach your projects, too.

    Elsewhere, we’ve divided our services up, so there’s an obvious place to look whether you need a web application building, or perhaps something nifty with maps, or your organisation could benefit from a little direction with everything digital. Plus, there’s a page about our “off the peg” products such as FixMyStreet for Councils.

    Still doing good

    So far, so much like any other digital agency. But there is, of course, the little thing that makes us different: when you commission us, all the revenue goes to support the mySociety charitable projects that you know and love.

    Growing up

    The mySociety Services site is a step forward for us, and it represents a coming of age for our commercial team. You might like to think of us as an agency in our own right from here on in.

    But meanwhile, we’ll still be retaining the same ethos and working methods that inform everything we do at mySociety. Hopefully, you’ll find that it’s the best of both worlds.

    Enough of the chit-chat. We’re ready to talk commercial: come and see what we offer.

     

     

     

  7. Get involved with Poplus

    PoplusThe open federation for sharing civic tech, Poplus, is inviting YOU to get involved.

    If you’re not sure what Poplus is, or how it works, there’s a great opportunity coming up to learn more.

    On Wednesday February 18th there will be a Poplus live online Hangout which everyone is welcome to watch via Google Hangouts-on-Air. The specific aim of this Hangout is to invite new people and explain just what Poplus is. There will also be the opportunity to ask questions.

    Steven Clift, Poplus’ Engagement Lead, writes:

    Poplus is a global federation for the next generation of civic tech. We share knowledge and technology to help our organisations help citizens.

    We do this through collaborative civic coding. We share reusable open source civic technology components. We leverage open government data or make our own across many countries.

    This online video-based event specially invites those new to Poplus. Everyone is welcome.

    RSVP here to watch live (13:00 UTC, see your local time) on Feb 18.

    The presentation includes Tom Steinberg with mySociety and a few project participants from around the world on the Hangout-on-Air “stage.” Questions will be taken via comments on the Hangout event page. The video stream is one-way, commenting two-way.

    About Poplus

    Founded by CiudadnoInteligente.org based in Chile, and mySociety.org based in the UK, the international civic tech federation was launched at the first PoplusCon in April 2014.

    Watch this short video to see civic tech collaboration in action! Visit Poplus.org (in English/en español) for full details.

    How to get involved

  8. Vikings, One Direction and Phillip Schofield: mySociety in 2014

    Year in reviewAnnual reports: they’re dry, boring and full of corporate buzzwords, right?

    That’s not really the mySociety way, though.

    All the same, we wanted to share some facts and figures about everything we got up to last year. It’s in the nature of our work that people tend to know about one part of it—say, our international work, or the sites we run here in the UK—but nothing else.

    Well, to give you a more rounded picture, here is the mySociety annual report, featuring, among other things, the pop group One Direction, some vikings, and the TV presenter Phillip Schofield.

    Welcome to mySociety in 2014… and if you enjoy it, please do share it around!

  9. HearFromYourMP: a little piece of mySociety history

    HearFromYourMP homepage

    It’ll shortly be the end of the line for HearFromYourMP, so let’s take a little time to look back on why we made it, and what we learned along the way.

    HearFromYourMP was one of mySociety’s earliest projects, launched in November 2005. As we said back then, we wanted to “improve long term relationships between MPs and constituents by giving both an easy, trusted way of discussing local issues”.

    In other words, it was, like many a mySociety project, an attempt to break down the barriers between the ordinary citizen and their elected representatives—even if, as with a large percentage of the population, they didn’t know who those representatives were.

    But why?

    You may be wondering why the world needed such a thing. Did MPs really need a way to talk to constituents? After all, that’s one of their key duties, and surely one that they’d already got down pat.

    To really understand the context into which HearFromYourMP was born, you have to consider that this was fairly early in the history of the internet. Twitter hadn’t been invented, and Facebook was just for US college students. It certainly wasn’t a given that every MP would have a website,  and it was more than likely that they contacted their constituents on paper rather than via email.

    HearFromYourMP, among other things, acted as a gentle way to encourage MPs to join the 21st century, or, as it was known back then, (cue futurist music) cyberspace.

    Here’s the clever bit

    One of HearFromYourMP’s strong points was the ingenious way in which it encouraged MPs to commit to its use. When a user visited the homepage, they saw this message:

    If you enter your details, we’ll add you to a queue of other people in your constituency. When enough have signed up, your MP will get sent an email. It’ll say “25 of your constituents would like to hear what you’re up to. Hit reply to let them know”. If they don’t reply, nothing will happen, until your MP gets a further email which says there are now 50, then 75, 100, 150 — until it is nonsensical not to reply and start talking.

    And 5,701 users did just that, even before the official site launch.

    In other words, HearFromYourMP gathered a ready audience first, rather than assuming that we needed every MP to be on there before we could open it to the general public, which might have been the conventional way of doing things.

    And even though there was no compulsion for MPs to sign up—beyond that niggling email in their inbox, telling them that people were waiting to hear from them—they did. By January 2007, there were almost 100 MPs on board.

    “That’s one sixth in a year, and I’d be surprised if any other new technology has been taken up at that rate,”

    said mySociety Director Tom Steinberg at the time, in an interview with the Guardian. And, talking now about constituents, of which, by that time, 28,000 had signed up:

    “At this rate, in two to three years’ time, there will be as many people signed up to hear from their MP as are signed up members of the Lib Dems.”

    Apparently the Liberal Democrat membership currently stands at 44,576 while, as I write, admittedly some five years beyond that two to three year forecast, there are 230,455 constituents registered on HearFromYourMP.

    This kind of usage of ‘the crowd’ went on to become a bit of a mySociety hallmark, and something that you can see to a greater or lesser extent in most of our following projects.

    Two-way traffic

    Newsletters tend to be a one-way conversation, with the MP broadcasting the wonderful things he or she has done lately.

    Conversely, HearFromYourMP was built to encourage debate: users could respond to the mail-outs. Everything remained accountable, since the conversations were published on the site for anyone to read. To prevent abuse, users could only comment on an MP’s message if they were signed up to receive mails within that MP’s constituency.

    To the present day

    Today, as we have seen, over 230,000 people are signed up to hear from their MPs. Over half of all MPs have used the service to send out a newsletter.

    Meanwhile, 78% of the UK population can’t name their representative in Parliament*.

    Nonetheless, we’re confident that our decision to close HearFromYourMP is the right one. People can still use our other sites, TheyWorkForYou and WriteToThem, to discover who their MP is.

    And once they’ve found out, there are now many channels via which an MP can engage with their constituents—some, like Twitter and Facebook, where exchanges can be held in public.

    We’ll be sorry to see HearFromYourMP go, but we’re glad that it played the part it did. Thank you to all its users, whether you’re a constituent or an MP.

    *Hansard Society Audit of Public Engagement 2013 (PDF)

  10. We Know A Lot More: a quarter of a million pieces of information since 2008

    Back in January 2012, I wrote a blog post to mark a milestone: WhatDoTheyKnow, our Freedom of Information site, had processed 100,000 requests.

    Just three years later, that number now stands at 250,000.

    That represents a quarter of a million requests for information that have been processed through the site, and published for anyone to access.

    Everything we said in that previous blog post still stands:

    WhatDoTheyKnow was set up to give everyone, not just experts, access to information.

    By publishing the requests and responses, it strives to create efficiencies for all.

    And none of it would have been possible were it not for our wonderful, dedicated team of volunteers, who manage the site admin, help users with their queries, and diligently discuss and process any legal challenges that arise. Thank you, Ganesh, Alex, Alistair, Helen, John, Richard and Ben, and thank you, Francis for your legal advice.

    As well as performing a service for the people of the UK, WhatDoTheyKnow also stands as an example of what’s possible. Much of our international activity focuses on helping partners use Alaveteli, our FOI software, to get Right To Know sites up and running in jurisdictions all over the world. It is great to be able to show them that an Alaveteli-based FOI site can thrive.


    Image: Peaceful-jp-scenery (CC)