As you may well already know, I’m leaving mySociety and taking some time off to chillax and think about what I should do next.
Today is my last day and it seems appropriate to sign off with a blog post, 11 years and 5 months after the first one that I can find.
It feels too early to share any deep thoughts on what mySociety means, where we are with civic tech, what worked and what didn’t, what I learned as a founder and what we should all be focusing on next.
One of my many reasons for wanting to move on was to regain the kind of mental freshness and detachment that comes from having fewer responsibilities for a while. So I promise that I’ll think and write more.
Follow me on Twitter if you want to, or add your email address to my new notification list if you just want a ping when I’ve written something. Or mail me direct at firstname.lastname@example.org if you want to talk about anything.
My main reason for writing today is to thank people. A lot of people gave up very significant portions of their lives to get mySociety to a point where it helps so many people in so many countries in so many different ways.
So I’ve written a huge list of thankyous. If you’re missing, ping me and I’ll thank you too 🙂
Thank you to:
Paul Lenz for his strength, energy, focus, morality, tolerance of my foibles, and his financial and legal skills that stop this happening to me.
Tim Morley for loving and caring for PledgeBank for so many years, and for bringing a little Esperanto to our lives. And for cooking.
James Crabtree for writing the original article that said that something like mySociety should exist, and for being a patient trustee from many timezones away
Tony Bowden for being the first person to try to help people outside the UK to benefit from the ideas and tools we’d built here, and for the miracle that is EveryPolitician (100+ countries, anyone?)
James Cronin for being the chair of trustees for so long, and doing so with a calm, kind level-headedness that I think would drive other charity CEO’s wild with jealousy. And for being such a key part of starting mySociety in the first place.
Mark Cridge for taking on the challenge of running mySociety, and for resisting the temptation to use me as a scapegoat for everything [n.b. this thanks may be retroactively repealed]
Ian Chard for keeping the server lights on, for making me believe I can do more with every day of my life, and for telling me about the British Library’s amazing online newspaper archive.
FOIMonkey for spotting when councils dump tons of private data out via accidental FOI. You are what other people mean by eternal vigilance.
Deborah Kerr for being eternally patient and kind to the users, even when they were taxing, and for doing super retreat organising on a shoestring.
Ganesh Sittampalam for a billion hours of patient FOI administration, helping make WhatDoTheyKnow the institution it is today.
Alex Skene for so much volunteering on WhatDoTheyKnow, for grown-up management advice that I took seriously, and for surprising me at the Olympics
Abi Broom for nothing*.
Richard Taylor for years of diligent volunteering on WhatDoTheyKnow, making us all laugh with his videos of council meetings, and being perhaps the most knowledgeable person about every vote in Parliament who has ever lived.
Adam MacGreggor for server cabinet wrangling at difficult moments.
Ben Nickolls for heading up such a happy, productive commercial team, and for helping me understand that £200 is an entirely reasonable sum to spend on bicycle pedals.
Owen Blacker for a lot of trustees meetings, and for always keeping us spiritually close to the digital rights world.
Ethan Zuckerman for helping me gain perspective, and for being my biggest fan in the USA.
Jen Pahlka for being an even bigger fan than Ethan, and for endlessly quoting me on stages around the world.
Sam Smith for early hacking, for running OpenTech, and for reminding me that chippiness always has a place.
Dave Whiteland for the stories, and for travelling far and wide to help people take advantage of our tools and learnings. And, on a personal note, for showing me what it means to be a truly good son.
Michal Migurski for making Mapumental so beautiful, and for bringing your tech skills to Code for America
Amandeep Rehlon for being the volunteer finance department before we had a finance department, and for giving me the unique pleasure of sending my expense receipts to the Bank of England’s financial crises department.
Bill Thompson for organising the first puntcon, where I first met Chris. And for giving feedback on the very earliest versions of the mySociety plan.
Etienne Pollard for helping at every stage, whether a drama hippy, a McKinsey suit, or a harried public servant.
Stephen King for, yes, representing our biggest funder, but also for being clear, friendly, and a quiet champion for mySociety. And for sometimes helping translate from Californian to English.
Alistair Sloan for being such a dedicated WhatDoTheyKnow volunteer that he once got the bus from Glasgow to London for a meeting.
Duncan Parkes for making Mapumental performant in the post-flash era, even when it looked like it might not be possible. And for the best retreat presentation ever.
Struan Donald for the puns, the deadpan one liners, and for making both FixMyStreet and TheyWorkForYou so much better.
Micah Sifry and Ellen Miller for making me unofficial members of the US civic tech family.
Eben Upton, now Raspberry Pi legend, who booked me a speaking gig in the Cambridge Microsoft Research labs which is where I first met Francis Irving and (I think) Chris Lightfoot.
Dan Jellinek for bringing together VoxPolitics with me and James Crabtree, which was the precursor to mySociety.
Janet Haven for the money. For her ‘massive thermonuclear powered bullshit detector’ [ht Tom Longley]. And, oh yes, for becoming a friend too.
Ayesha and Keith Garrett for design help on PledgeBank, and sysadmin skills, long ago.
Tim Jackson for taking a philanthropic punt on a wild idea, long ago, which worked.
Robin Houston for doing battle on a project you didn’t really love, but that was for the right purpose.
Pierre Omidyar for making all that money at eBay, and then deciding that we deserved some of it.
Tom Loosemore for hacking together our very first web presence, and for being a positive, confidence inspiring presence in good times and bad ever since.
Mike Bracken for the vital job of helping us get out first significant grant, and then years later for successfully smuggling mySociety values into government.
Richard Pope for being a ceaseless fount of new ideas, and for driving the first redesign of TheyWorkForYou.
Edmund von der Burg for showing that you can both be a charming coder, and capable of building an office out of a shipping container, with your own hands.
Julian Todd for realising that vote data in the UK parliament deserved clear, regular, semi-automated analysis to make it useful for most people, and then for making it real in PublicWhip. If history is fair it will note him as the inventor of modern vote analyses.
Helen Goulden for helping us navigate the tricky paths to government money, back when there was any.
Doug Paulley for blazing onto the scene as an amazing new WhatDoTheyKnow volunteer.
Martin Wright for turning us from an organisation that sucked at design, to one that really rocks. And for his enduring love of Yo.
Stef Magdalinski for the name of the charity, and for trusting me with TheyWorkForYou
Nick Jackson for happy rats and research stats.
Jason Kitcat for the very first mySociety.org!
Matt Jones for mySociety’s logo, which is still going strong, albeit in a gently shaded new style.
Alex Smith for helping us through TV-driven load spikes with customarily despairing good humour.
Manar Hussain for diligent, challenging trusteeship that was always good humoured, and never afraid to bring in new ideas.
The public sector for being such a terrible employer of programming talent that it gave us both Matthew and Steve
John Cross for being a brilliant WhatDoTheyKnow volunteer.
Steve Day for being a brilliant, sensitive engineering manager, wise far beyond his age, all whilst riding a BMX.
Christoph Dowe for helping organise the series of Berlin-based conferences that first brought together Europe’s civic hackers, and which ultimately helped attract funding to the scene.
Liz Conlan for the coffee advice
Chris Mytton – for introducing the words ‘craft ales’ to mySociety’s internal discourse, for showing that not going to university has no impact on your ability to be either an amazing coder or a well rounded human being.
Steve Clift for being there to talk to about digital politics when nobody else was interested, and for loving Poplus into life.
Dave Arter for wrestling Mapumental into a truly beautiful state, for your Github robot, and for convincing me that Wales is disproportionately full of bright young coders.
Gareth Rees for helping make Alaveteli our most-used platform, and for bringing a little race-car glamour to our team.
Rebecca Rumbul for getting our new research programme of to a flying start, and for showing me that the art of creative swearing is never truly mastered
Jen Bramley for cheerfully travelling the world and making people feel that mySociety must be worth working with if everyone is so nice
Gemma Humphrys for bringing a tornado of efficiency to our events organisation, and for having absolutely no boundaries that I am aware of.
Rowena Young for being a person I could really moan to, when things got tough.
Myf Nixon for being our organisation’s voice, for looking after our users, and for making sure that we get noticed.
Tony Blair for starting a war that inspired Julian Todd to build PublicWhip, and much later for commissioning a petitions website that caused all sorts of fun and games.
Seb Bacon for making DemocracyClub happen in 2010, for starting the conversion of WhatDoTheyKnow.com into the generic Alaveteli, and for going off to OpenCorporates to make it harder for the b*&^&ds to get away with it.
Sym Roe for making DemocracyClub happen in 2015, and for giving a lot of his time to the cause of good political information in the UK.
Tim Green for being the new Chris Lightfoot
Tom Longley for giving us a no-nonsense introduction to how hard it was going to be to conduct successful partnerships in the developing world.
Mark Longair for making sure that technological excellence and human kindness are are the core of what we do.
Camilla Aldrich for the lungs
Angie Martin for giving all she could, for as long as she could.
Zarino Zappia for ceaseless energy and good humour, and for asking hilariously straight questions about why we made terrible design decisions previously
Karl Grundy, Kristina Glushkova and Mike Thompson for helping us grow a commercial team, over several years.
The vandal who repeatedly smashed up the phone booth on London’s Caledonian Road, and thus planted the idea for FixMyStreet
William Perrin for helping make government interested in data and tech before it was cool, and for virtually single-handedly starting the UK government’s work on Open Data. And for all the support and the ideas in his post civil service life.
Fran Perrin for the support, and for protecting me from William’s ideas.
Louise Crow for showing me what a technology leader really looks like.
Matthew Somerville for always standing up for the user, for making everything work, and for doing it all in a tenth the time expected. And for a hug when I needed it most.
Francis Irving for joining at the right time, for leaving at the right time, and being a monster of thoughtful product design and speedy, skilful implementation in between. For always being excited, and always wise.
Chris Lightfoot for giving me a brief, life-changing glimpse of what the raging, brilliant light of genius looks like. And being the person who introduced me to Anna.
Anna Powell-Smith for everything, everyday.
* Trust me, this is how she’d want it
If you live almost anywhere in the UK, you can use FixMyStreet to report problems to councils.
The vast majority of councils have no problem with this, and they do a good job of responding to and dealing with reported problems. A bunch of councils even like the service enough that they’ve actually become clients, paying for customised versions that sit on their own websites.
But there have always been a small number of councils that have said ‘no dice’ to FixMyStreet: they either refuse to accept reports at all, or they tell FixMyStreet users to re-submit problems through another channel. Today the total number in the ‘no thanks’ column stands at ten councils – that’s out of about 430 in total.
Idealism versus Pragmatism
Recently we had a bit of a debate about what to do. On the one hand we want users to succeed in getting their problems fixed. But on the other we don’t want councils to simply opt out of the transparency and convenience that FixMyStreet offers.
We could digress into a long post with many other related issues, but today we’re simply talking about how we have decided to change the user interface for users trying to report problems to the minority of councils that claim not to be able to cope.
What to expect if you report a problem in the unlucky 2% of the UK
When you first try to report a problem, you’ll be alerted that the council doesn’t accept our reports.
In order not to leave you high and dry, we’ll provide a link to the council’s own reporting system—because, irrespective of the platform, your report still needs to be made.
But we don’t think that this situation should be quietly accepted, by us or by our users, especially since it means some councils get to simply opt out of transparency about problem handling.
So at the same time we’re telling a user how to report the problem, we’ll also invite them to tweet about it, and/or contact their local councillors.
Why the situation arose
You may be wondering why some authorities won’t accept our reports. We do not, after all, ask councils to adapt or modify their internal systems in any special way, unless they actively want to adopt the Open311 standard.
The messages our users generate are just plain text emails, and they go into the same email inboxes as any other message to a council would.
These reports are carefully appended with lots of useful details, too, including the category of the problem, its exact longitude and latitude, and the postcode or street address where available. Users can also attach photos.
Generally the reason cited for not accepting such email reports (or the same reports made by the industry standard Open311 API) is that the computer system inside the council can only handle problems reported via the council’s own official web interface. Why this is only a problem in 2% of councils is a mystery that remains to be solved.
Does your council accept FixMyStreet reports? Input your postcode on the site, and see if you get the alert. If not – there’s no problem.
Image: Nick Veitch (CC)
Websites and apps that help people work out which party or candidate to vote for are all the rage (the biggest one in Germany got used over 13 million times in 2013). Partly for public interest, and partly for my own curiosity, I thought I’d publish a list of these ‘Voter Advice Applications’ (or VAAs for short), and I’ll try to keep it updated as the election approaches. Please leave comments or tweet @steiny if you come across any new suggestions – I’m certain this list will grow a lot.
YourCandidates.org.uk – added 30th March
Tickbox – added 30th March
Whoshallivotefor.com – added 30th March
WhoGetsMyVoteUK – added 3rd April
Verto – added 3rd April
Voting Counts Policy Matrix – added 21st April
Your Democracy – added 21st April
Awedience – added 22nd April
Fantasy Frontbench – added 27th April
The Telegraph’s deployment of Vote Match – added 3rd April. I think this was the biggest in 2010, not sure.
Election Compass UK – added April 8th – appears to be embedded into various local newspaper websites, but have no presence of its own online.
The Economist’s 2015 Election Quiz – added April 24th
The Mash ‘Who to Vote for’ test – Parody and *warning* midly NSFW <– But officially a sign that VAAs are now bona fide cultural phenomena – added 27th April
Votr (mobile app) – added May 5th
If you just want to check your your candidates yourself
If you don’t want a policy quiz, but do want to check out your candidates one at at time, try the mySociety-supported YourNextMP.com. It isn’t a VAA but it’s really good anyway 🙂 More info here.
Image credit – The Puzzled Voter – By Walter Montgomery [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
* Disclosure: This is partly run as a spare-time project by mySociety’s own Paul Lenz
As I announced recently, I’m going to be stepping down from mySociety and handing over to a new CEO. This diminutive blog post is simply to point out that the job advert is now online, and ready to accept applicants.
I’ve had a lot of fun doing this job, and whilst it can be demanding you’ll never get to work with a better tech team and still get to focus on things that matter. Please tell your nicest and most thoughtful friends to apply.
Today, after several months of quiet planning, I’m announcing that I will be stepping down as Director of mySociety, although I will remain in the post for the next few months to ensure a smooth handover. An open call for my successor will be published within the next two weeks.
Why now? Quite simply because the coming year will be the most stable period, in terms of effecting a leadership transition, that mySociety has ever had. I want to seize the opportunity to hand over before I start to tire of a job that has been the great privilege of my life.
Thanks to our generous donors and our commercial team’s success we have an unprecedented window of financial security, a terrific team of wide-ranging talents, and a clear three year plan that’s already starting to roll out (I’ll be writing more on this plan, soon). In short, we’ve got a good map, a solid car, and we’ve got enough money for fuel. When could be a better time to change the driver?
For those of you who are our partners, whether charitable or commercial, and wherever you are in the world: don’t worry – this switch isn’t going to change any of our plans to support you and your use of mySociety’s open source technologies. In fact I expect my successor to double down on serving your needs.
And what will I, Tom, do next? I really don’t know – I’ve not got a job lined up, and I’d really like some time off to think about it before I make any big decisions. My main reward – very rare for any founder – is that I get to hand over an organisation that is stable, harmonious, mission-focused and with bags of talent onboard. I greatly look forward to seeing what mySociety’s amazing staff and volunteers achieve next.
Update: the job advertisement for the mySociety CEO position can now be seen here.
Much of mySociety’s work is only possible thanks to generous funding from a number of philanthropic foundations.
Today, we are delighted to announce that we have been awarded a major strategic investment from Omidyar Network totalling up to $3.6m over three years.
This is the third time we’ve been supported by Omidyar Network, and this represents the biggest investment we’ve ever had. Alongside organisations like the Open Society Foundation, Google.org and the Indigo Trust, Omidyar has been central in our transformation from a tiny UK-focused non-profit, to a global social enterprise of nearly 30 staff.
Being supported by Omidyar Network means more than just vital financial support. It means access to their amazing networks of other investees, and advice and guidance from a range of sources. And, also crucial for an organisation that seeks technical excellence, it means the stamp of support from an organisation that ultimately traces its DNA back to the giant internet successes that are eBay and Paypal.
What is the money for?
mySociety’s main ambition, over the next three years, is to help a couple of dozen other organisations, spread around the world, to grow popular citizen empowerment tools that are big enough to really matter to the citizens of a wide range of countries. This means building and growing tools that help people to check up on politicians, demand information and answers, or report and track problems, in hugely varying contexts.
In addition to this, we will continue to maintain and grow the network of users of our technology and support the growing Poplus federation.
It’s a tough goal, and one that will require even more from the organisations we partner with, than from our own colleagues. But the very fact that we can even try to help groups at this scale, is because Omidyar Network enables us to imagine it.
Image: Hit ThatSwitch (CC)
Let’s Not Reinvent the Wheel When We Can All Use the Same Wheel
Every general election there are a load of projects that all need the same thing – a nicely formatted, accurate list of the candidates who are standing at the election.
Loads of people need this data – journalists, app builders, campaigners, Wikipedians, everyone.
But the government doesn’t actually publish the lists until right before the election, and when it does the data isn’t the least bit suitable for modern use (think unstructured PDFs and worse). It’s way too little and way too late.
That’s why we’re big fans of the new YourNextMP.com, a collaborative project headed up by our friends at Democracy Club, and endorsed by various other organisations, including mySociety.
YourNextMP.com is a totally free, open database of candidates, that is made partly from screen scraping and partly from volunteer contributions from people who think that having a single good quality list is a sane idea. It publishes the open data gathered both through a nice clean website, and through a nice modern API. Soon it’ll also provide csv export,too. And it means we can have nice shared identifiers for candidates, meaning greater potential connectivity between election-related journalism, tools, sites and projects run by different people and organisations.
The builders of YourNextMP have also taken steps to ensure accuracy and deter abuse, most strikingly by forcing all new data to be sourced, and keeping nice public logs of all the changes (and who made them).
To be clear, YourNextMP is not a mySociety project. We are just very happy to endorse the idea, and to supply one of our open source tools (PopIt) to help store and share the data in useful ways. Plus some of us have been chipping in in our spare time, for instance by adding data.
How can you help?
There are two main ways:
1) Add data! The main thing needed today, 146 days before the election, is the most basic data on who is known to be standing, today. We think that YourNextMP is probably already the most up to date candidate list out there, despite being very much unfinished.
Additional data, about candidates’ Facebook pages, birth dates and so on, isn’t such a high priority right now. You can help by looking up your constituency on the site, or choosing a random constituency, and just using your best Googling/telephoning skills to find out who’s definitely standing this time.
If you want to chat to other people who are doing the same thing, use the #yournextmp hashtag.
We’ve put together a few tips on canny ways to find information on prospective candidates, here.
Don’t feel you have to stop when you’ve filled in your own constituency – there are plenty more to complete.
2) Spread the word that a single, high quality, free and shared database of candidates is just A Good Thing that people should support.
Who loves time-wasting? Nobody! What is YourNextMP if not an anti time-wasting project? Nothing! So, please, if you’re planning an election-related project, tell people that YourNextMP is a good idea, and consider letting them use your logo on their site, as a sign of good will.
And if you see someone in your office about to pay for a proprietary database of candidates, why not suggest they give the money to YourNextMP instead?
Image: Duncan Harris (CC)
In Austerity Britain, nothing could be less fashionable or more politically unrealistic than proposing an idea that would cost a lot of public money. But I’ve never been especially fashion conscious, and some ideas are worth debating even when they are inconvenient, so I might as well say it: the world needs the modern equivalent of public service broadcasters. It needs them today, and it’s going to need them a lot more in the future.
“Now hold on there sonny,” you might say, “the world’s already full of public service broadcasters!”. And, indeed, you’d be right – Public Service Broadcasters across the world have developed huge websites and torrents of apps. They get massive amounts of traffic, and in the best instances they serve their users really well.
But. Public Service Broadcasters are fundamentally storytellers. This is both their tremendous strength and their great blind spot when it comes to digital.
The BBC, for example, is a fantastic storyteller. It tells the story of today’s news, the story of sporting heroes, the story of tomorrow’s weather. It tells fictional stories of Time Lords and cartoon animals that define our culture and help bind us together as a country. Having grown up in Britain I have the whole warm-and-fuzzy emotional relationship with the BBC that almost everyone here has. And it gets gigantic digital traffic, as well as large TV and radio audiences. It is safe to say that the BBC does stories as well as anyone, ever, including online.
But. The internet isn’t just about stories.
There are plenty of stories on the internet, but a huge part of the net is about tools and services and answers, not narratives. It’s about Skype and Gmail and Wikipedia. In my sector it’s about WhatDoTheyKnow.com and IsThereSewageInTheChicagoRiver.com. At a lower level it’s about TLS and Django.
And there’s no getting away from the fact that now, as the Web turns 25, it doesn’t feel like the market is delivering everything people need from the net. It’s not doing a great job at preventing security problems like Heartbleed. It’s not doing a great job at providing services that aren’t subsidised by advertising, or that respect privacy very much. It’s not doing a great job at providing online spaces that are safe and respectful for women. It’s not doing a great job at providing technologies that the public sector or civil society can use without being at major risk of exploitation from suppliers.
I don’t know what a Digital Public Service Corporation should ultimately look like. I don’t know how big it should be, or what it should have as its mission, or even what country the first one should be set up in (Britain seems highly unlikely).
However, in a world in which huge amounts of our lives are mediated digitally, it just seems improbable that every single liberal democracy will conclude that every aspect of our digital lives will happily, permanently be delivered exclusively by transnational companies. History suggests that state intervention to produce a somewhat mixed economy is just more probable. It happened in broadcasting, it happened in research, it happened in industry. And the reasons never go away – politicians eventually come to feel that a market is failing for some reason, or that there are moral or social values that are not embedded in purely private solutions.
If there’s going to be a mixed economy, then there’s no point in avoiding the big questions. What are these new entities going to look like? How will they be regulated to stop them going bad, or smashing up healthy markets? And, crucially, how are we going to persuade our fellow citizens that these things are worth paying serious money for?
I wouldn’t be at all surprised if it takes decades, or if the process turns deeply political and ugly. But we have to start somewhere. Otherwise I’m not quite sure how we’ll ever end up with the web we want.
PS Thanks to Matt Jukes and Adrian Hon for writing things that have pushed me to propose this unfashionably big-state idea. It feels thrillingly naughty.
PPS Updated SSL to TLS, sorry for being such a grandpa
This weekend Micah Sifry helpfully restarted the debate on what names we should give to the sort of stuff that mySociety does, or that Code for America does, or that Meetup.com does.
In the time since I last wrote on this topic, it seems that one term has emerged as the clear brand-of-the-minute, and that’s the term Civic Tech. Here you can see how it has bested some veterans like ‘eGovernment’ and ‘Gov 2.0’ (although ‘Digital Government’ is a clear outlier, too).
If I were to speculate why it has won out, I’d go for two things. First is that it is easy to say. Civic Tech has just three syllables and trips off the tongue quite easily. Second, the Knight Foundation (disclosure – a mySociety funder) has had a big impact by publicly mapping the field using civic tech as their key term.
So what does Civic Tech mean?
And this is where things get immediately tricky. Because in the last week I’ve seen and heard people using it to mean both:
- Tech that’s all about citizens exerting and obtaining power
- Tech that’s all about improving government services
With the exception of voter registration, these are normally quite separate things, so this term is definitely a big tent.
Personally I have no problem with a high level term encompassing diverse ideas. There’s a massive variety of variance and specialisation under a word like ‘lobbying’, for example, but it doesn’t stop it being a useful concept.
However, we do need to be careful to make sure that Civic Tech doesn’t simply become the new word for e-government (now that that term is e-mbarrasingly ant-i-quated). If it does become the ‘new e-government’ then everyone who builds tools that exist to do things to governments (Change.org, Nationbuilder, etc etc) will walk away from ‘Civic Tech’ and invent yet another term to describe what they do.
Extending ‘Civic Tech’
So, how can we preserve the popularity of this new term, but not alienate people who don’t consider themselves to work in the digital government sector? Here’s a go, based on the categories I wrote about last time:
- Meetup and mySociety are Civic Tech groups focused on citizen empowerment
- Code for America and GDS are Civic Tech groups focused on better digital government
- Netroots Nation and Nationbuilder are Civic Tech groups focused on regime changing
- Wikileaks and 38 Degrees are Civic Tech groups focused on influencing decisions
As always with this debate, these examples are more tentative suggestions in an ever-fluid field. I don’t for a moment mind that the somewhat-clunky ‘Civic Power Sector’ has died the death, names have to be catchy to stick.
I hope these bullets and ideas stimulate a bit more discussion, and who knows, maybe even some day some sort of rough consensus…
Lastly, I’m conscious that most of Micah’s post was actually about evaluating success or failure in civic tech. That’s a vital issue, but one that I think can be separated from the basic language of the field. I hope to come back to that in future posts.
The right conference, held at the right time and attended by people with common problems, can sometimes give birth to whole new organisations. I was at OpenTech when the Open Rights Group was born, and on a grander scale the Red Cross and the UN both featured conferences at catalytic moments in their early history.
Last week in Santiago, Chile, a conference took place that felt like exactly such a moment – PoplusCon. People from 27 countries spent two days talking about their shared goals and desires, and from it the skeleton of a new federation – the Poplus federation – started to take shape.
Not everyone at the conference worked on identical projects, or had identical skills. Some people were specialists in tracking suspicious relationships (‘This guy’s brother-in-law gets all the contracts’), others were big into training journalists how to use FOI, others specialised in making important datasets more accessible to members of the public, others still were journalists, skilled at constructing stories. But one theme emerged pretty quickly – people wanted better, easier, more reliable ways of sharing knowledge and sharing technology, so that they could all save time, effort and money.
What could a new federation do for you?
And so that is how the conversation turned to the idea of founding a new federation – an organisation that could serve the needs of many different groups without being run or owned by any one of them. In a brainstorm session about what people wanted from a new federation, the following ideas were raised:
- Running events to facilitate more sharing of ideas and tech
- Publishing stories about successful and unsuccessful projects, especially where those stories need to cross language barriers to spread
- Vetting and endorsing data standards
- Access to a community of peers (for sharing experience, encouragement, tips and tricks etc)
- Resources for projects that are running short
- Help and advice on making projects sustainable
- Certification of what counts as a Poplus Component
- Where groups face common challenges, perhaps coordinate advocacy
- Organisation of mentorship, exchanges and placements
This wish list is clearly far more than a nascent organisation could arrange in the near future, but there was some informal voting and the top priorities fairly quickly emerged. People really wanted access to their peers, and to the stories that they tell. And there was a strong wish to see Poplus Components become more official, and better explained.
Getting Real – Getting Involved
But a list is just a list without people willing to make it real. And so without doubt the most awesome thing that took place at PoplusCon was that eight people immediately volunteered to form a committee that would bring Poplus into being, representing half a dozen countries in different parts of the world.
This committee, which is completely open for anyone to join, will be meeting a couple of times in the next few weeks to agree on a plan for the first 12 months of the Poplus federation. It will work out how the new-born federation should govern itself, and what the first things that this entirely volunteer-run group should be doing. It’s an exciting, fragile moment and I’ve not seen anything like it in my ten-odd years working in this field. There’s no boss, no leader, just some people trying to build something of shared value.
Right now there are no rules, no barriers to entry, no bureaucracy. In fact there’s nothing but some hope, enthusiasm and some shared dreams of a stronger community of individuals and organisations.
I hope that if you read this and think that Poplus sounds cool, that you’ll consider joining the committee too. All you have to do is join the mailing list and ask where and when to show up. If you come to online committee meetings a couple of times, you’re de facto one of the people who runs Poplus. What happens next is – quite literally – down to you.