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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
A few months ago we won a contract from Parliament to review its digital service provision (brief advertorial – we can do this kind of work for your organisation too).
Today Parliament has published that review. Here are a few comments:
- It’s great news that the Management Boards in Parliament have agreed to implement the two recommendations contained in the report. Reviews are one thing, actions another.
- It’s great that Parliament chose to publish the review at all. They didn’t have to, but they chose to without any prodding. Big thumbs up.
- We interviewed a lot of parliamentary staff (dozens and dozens of people). They’re a fantastically dedicated, interesting bunch working under often absurd pressures, and we think Parliament overall would probably have a better reputation if they had as much visibility as the elected members. Time for a docusoap, maybe?
- The review contains only two recommendations, even though there were hundreds of good ideas floating around. The reason for such extreme minimalism was to ensure that there was no ambiguity whatsoever about what we believe to be the essential reforms*. Once those reforms are enacted, the ground will be much more fertile for specific digital projects.
- My colleagues Ben Nickolls, Dave Whiteland and Mike Thompson did the majority of the real work on this review, conducting interviews and analysing data. My thanks to them for a job well done.
Parliament is encouraging public feedback on the review. Let them know what you think via NewDigitalService@parliament.uk
* If you want a digital review filled to the brim with lots of recommendations, try this 25 point action plan from the US federal government instead. Just remember that it was published roughly three years before this.
Photo by Greg Dunlap (CC)
Until about two years ago I was quite actively involved in the Open Data movement. I sat in on the 2007 gathering in California where the first Open Data Principles were drafted, and later sat on the Transparency Board at the UK government.
I stopped being involved in early 2012 because I saw a couple of things happening. First, the Open Data baton had been picked up by dedicated, focused advocates like the Open Data Institute and the Open Knowledge Foundation, who could give 100% to fighting this fight (I always had to fit it around managing a growing organisation with other goals). And second I felt that the surge of relatively meaningful data releases in the country I live in (the UK) had pretty much come to an end. The real policy action and innovation will now happen in more rapidly-changing countries where transparency is a more visceral issue.
Still, despite walking away, I remained optimistic. It seemed more or less impossible to imagine that in twenty years’ time that there wouldn’t be quite a bit more Open Data around, especially in rich countries. But given the virtually-zero political gain to be had from this agenda in countries like the UK, where is said data actually going to come from?
Learning from Microsoft (really)
The more I thought about it, the more I realised that we’d already seen the answer in the form of Microsoft. Throughout the 1990s the .doc and .xls standard rose and took over governments around the world, even though there was never anything like a clear policy process that drove that decision.
There was certainly no high profile ‘Microsoft Government Partnership’ with international conferences and presidential speeches. Instead there was a safe, ‘no brainer’ product that governments bought to solve their problems, and these data standards came with it. The pressure on governments to do anything at all probably came from the fact that the private sector had widely adopted Office first.
I think that a recurrence of this phenomenon – change-through-replacing-old-computers – is where Open Data at real scale is going to come from. I think it’s going to come from old government computers being thrown away at their end-of-life and replaced with new computers that have software on them that produces Open Data more or less by default.
The big but
However, there’s a big BUT here. What if the new computers don’t come with tools that produce Open Data? This is where SayIt comes in, as an example of a relatively low-cost approach to making sure that the next generation of government IT systems do produce Open Data.
SayIt is a newly launched open source tool for publishing transcripts of trials, debates, interviews and so on. It publishes them online in a way that matches modern expectations about how stuff should work on the web – responsive, searchable and so on. It’s being built as a Poplus Component, which means it’s part of an international network of groups collaborating on shared technologies. Here’s JK Rowling being interviewed, published via SayIt.
But how does this little tool relate to the business of getting governments to release more Open Data? Well, SayIt isn’t just about publishing data, it’s about making it too – in a few months we’ll be sharing an authoring interface for making new transcripts from whatever source a user has access to.
We hope that having iterated and improved this authoring interface, SayIt can become the tool of choice for public sector transcribers, replacing whatever tool they use today (almost certainly Word). Then, if they use SayIt to make a transcript, instead of Word, then it will produce new, instantly-online Open Data every time they use it.
The true Open Data challenge is building brilliant products
But we can’t expect the public sector to use a tool like SayIt to make new Open Data unless it is cheaper, better and less burdensome than whatever they’re using now. We can’t – quite simply – expect to sell government procurement officers a new product mainly on the virtues of Open Data. This means the tough task of persuading government employees that there is a new tool that is head-and-shoulders better than Excel or Word for certain purposes: formidable, familiar products that are much better than their critics like to let on.
So in order for SayIt to replace the current tools used by any current transcriber, it’s going to have to be really, really good. And really trustworthy. And it’s going to have to be well marketed. And that’s why we’ve chosen to build SayIt as an international, open source collaboration – as a Poplus Component. Because we think that without the billions of dollars it takes to compete with Microsoft, our best hope is to develop very narrow tools that do 0.01% of what Word does, but which do that one thing really really well. And our key strategic advantage, other than the trust that comes with Open Source and Open Standards, is the energy of the global civic hacking and government IT reform sector. SayIt is far more likely to succeed if it has ideas and inputs from contributors from around the world.
Regardless of whether or not SayIt ever succeeds in penetrating inside governments, this post is about an idea that such an approach represents. The idea is that people can advance the Open Data agenda not just by lobbying, but also by building and popularising tools that mean that data is born open in the first place. I hope this post will encourage more people to work on such tools, either on your own, or via collaborations like Poplus.
Photo by Troy Morris (CC)
I recently read a post by Ashe Dryden which has led me to edit a job advert we currently have online. I thought the story might be of interest.
Ashe notes that it is becoming increasingly common to look at a coder’s public GitHub pages and contributions as a way of getting a quick view of their skills and energy. The basic idea is that someone with loads of public, well documented code is probably a good coder you want to have on board – and someone with an altruistic interest in free and open source technology to boot. What could be wrong with that?
The gist of Ashe’s argument is that there’s actually quite a big problem with this. What it all boils down to is the fact that contributions to GitHub aren’t just a sign of someone’s enthusiasm or skill, it’s also a sign that they have the good fortune to have lots of spare time. And guess what – the people who have lots of spare time are also people who tend to have a lot of other privileges in life.
So, as a response to Ashe’s challenge, I have removed the requirement in our latest job advert to have proof that you have been willing and able to do impressive things in your spare time. We will still vet people for enthusiasm and passion – especially important at a mission-driven non-profit like mySociety – but we won’t do it in ways that potentially exclude people who could make a big contribution to our goals.
NB We are advertising for three different roles right now, not just coders. Do please take a look.
Put yourself, for a moment, into the shoes of a manager in a big public sector organisation, in almost any country in the richer parts of the world (well, except Norway, maybe). Times are tough. Budgets are shrinking. And yet some annoying nerd from the corporate web team keeps nagging you about the fact that the organisation’s website and social media usage are not up to scratch.
You sigh. How can they not get it? Last year you had to serve a million people with £x, and this year you’ve got to serve 1.1 million with £x minus a lot. You’re desperately trying to think of ways to avoid serving extra people with services that you already can’t afford. You’re tightening eligibility, closing branches, laying people off, shortening hours.
And yet this annoying ‘webmaster’ person keeps saying how important it is to make your site easier to use. Don’t they understand that ideally the site would be virtually impossible to use? Don’t they know that most big IT projects turn into massive black-holes for money anyway? And how can they not see the obvious truth, which is that we should leave the stupid website well alone until the good times return?
Seductive logic but the wrong conclusion
This seems like a pretty open-and-shut argument. If you want to spend less, why on earth make it easier for people to ask you for more services?
But as seductive as this argument is, it’s also wrong. Here’s why.
1. Using bad design to limit demand is a way of guaranteeing that you spend more of your money on the people who need it least. Skilled computer users can get past all the hurdles and pain points created by bad digital services. Those people also tend to be the richest and best educated people in society. So bad digital service design is a filter that almost guarantees that you’ll be serving the people who need your services least. And you still want next year’s budget renewed, do you?
2. It creates unnecessary costs that will keep rising as times get tougher. If you can’t effectively use digital channels to explain what you do and don’t offer people, then those people aren’t all going to vanish. In fact most of them will persist. And once they find it impossible to use your digital channels, they’re going to phone up, then send you letters and emails, then visit your offices and perhaps even complete entire application forms that you’ll have to process and reject. That’s all a lot more expensive than a simple, well written, easy to find page that says what services are and are not offered, and to whom.
3. You’re missing a fantastic chance to generate empathy from the public. Public servants often complain that the public doesn’t understand the constraints and compromises that have to be made when delivering public services. But what better time and place to explain about limited budgets and hard choices than when someone is trying to access a service that cannot be provided? High quality digital services are a fantastic platform to explain these dilemmas. I would love to see councils using comments on FixMyStreet and FixMyTransport reports to say – in public – that ‘we can’t afford to fix this’. From that clear, accessible confession, we could all benefit from a wider public debate about why services are being limited.
4. Bad design makes people think you’re lazy and incompetent, not that you are making hard, difficult choices with limited budgets. When I try to buy a book on Amazon and it’s out of stock, it doesn’t just crash, or give me false information, or become unusable. Instead it says sorry and I say ‘oh well’ and move on. If Amazon lied to me about the stock, or became impossible to use, I’d think it was run by a bunch of incompetents. It would not cross my mind for a nanosecond that this was a bold, difficult choice made by people managing tough problems.
Tom Steinberg is the director of mySociety, and a consultant at mySociety ltd, our subsidiary that aims to help our clients serve the public with brilliantly simple online tools.
Photo by Alan Levine (CC)