1. mySociety in… Bristol, Belfast, Berlin, Oslo, York, Albania

    There are multiple opportunities to see mySociety people speaking in the coming weeks. From Wikidata to web design — and plenty more — they cover a broad spectrum. So if any of these events interest you, we hope you’ll come along!

    17 October, Bristol

    Rebecca Rumbul, our Head of Research, will be giving an overview of our work on the impact of Civic Technologies. It’s part of the Venturefest Smart Cities Thought Leadership conference at the Watershed in Bristol. Register for attendance here.

    21-22 October, Belfast

    Tony Bowden who’s been leading on EveryPolitician, and Head of Product Matt Jukes will both be attending Open Data Camp. It’s an unconference, meaning sessions have not yet been set, but if enough people are interested you may well hear all about mySociety’s hopes for the Democratic Commons and how our EveryPolitician project fits into that. Otherwise, grab Matt and Tony for a chat! More details here.

    28-29 October, Berlin

    WikidataCon is a must-visit for us, given the collaboration between our own EveryPolitician project and the Wikidata community. We’ll be running a couple of sessions: one on whether structured politician data for the whole world is an impossible utopia and one informal meet-up to share experiences in gathering politician data.

    And of course the conference info takes the form of a Wiki!

    2 November, Bristol again

    More from Matt Jukes, who this time will be speaking at the Agile in the City. What lessons has he learned from working in very different organisations, all of which implemented ‘agile’ very differently? More details here.

    4 November, Oslo

    That Matt Jukes again! He gets about. This time he’s speaking at The Free Society Conference and Nordic Summit (FSCONS), “a meeting place for social change, focused on the intersection between technology, culture and society.” He’ll be discussing ‘the importance of being open’ in his 6pm session. All the information you need is here.

    9 November, York

    Poor connectivity, low bandwidth, different platforms and cultural no-nos: mySociety designer Zarino Zappia runs through some of the considerations when designing websites for international usage at DotYork. We have a limited number of discounted tickets we can give out, so if you’re interested drop Zarino a line.

    17 November, Tirana, Albania

    Rebecca is a keynote speaker at an event jointly-organised by the OSCE (Organisation for Security and Co-Operation in Europe) and the ODIHR (Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights), “Leveraging New Technologies to Transform Youth Political Participation” — something we’ve been thinking about rather a lot recently. Details will be added here.


    Well, that’s certainly enough to be getting on with. We hope we’ll see you at one or more of these events.

    Image: The Climate Reality Project (Unsplash)

  2. Join the GLOW: run a Wikidata workshop in your country

    Global Legislative Openness Week (GLOW) celebrates open, participatory legislative processes across the globe.

    Back in 2015 we marked GLOW by setting up a challenge: could we get politician data for 200 countries up on EveryPolitician within the week, with the help of the global community? The answer was a resounding yes, and the challenge was a massive success. We ended up with data for 201 countries in the end, thanks to help from awesome people from all over the world.

    This year, we’re running another challenge: to get as many Wikidata workshops focusing on political data to happen during GLOW as possible.

    Fancy helping with this challenge? Read on…

    Why?

    This is all part of our Wikidata/EveryPolitician project.

    The project aims to improve political data in Wikidata, so that it can be used more easily for projects, research or investigations that hold politicians to account. Examples of where good political data is vital include in parliament-tracking websites (like in Zimbabwe, Nigeria and Ukraine) and in cross-border journalistic investigations (like the Panama Papers).

    Providing this data in consistent and structured formats across countries means the people running these accountability projects spend less of their time gathering the data and more on actually using and interpreting it, to keep tabs on those in power. This project is all part of our mission to contribute to the Democratic Commons.

    One of the best ways to improve and use political data on Wikidata is to get people together in person to work on their country’s data. So, that’s the aim with this latest GLOW challenge, and we’d love for as many groups around the world to host Wikidata workshops as possible!

    The aim of these Wikidata workshops is to:

    • Improve political information in Wikidata so that developers, researchers and journalists (or anyone!) can use the data in their investigations and accountability projects.
    • Use and query existing political data in Wikidata to see what interesting questions can be answered when data is available in consistent and structured formats.

    Workshop attendees will go away with:

    • Increased knowledge of how Wikidata works and how to contribute to it
    • A better understanding of why good political data is so vital and how it can be used
    • New connections to the global community of people who care about accountability issues
    • A warm, fuzzy feeling of satisfaction that they’ve helped with the global accountability movement 😉 (We hope so anyway!)

    Not sure what such an event might look like? Read up on our recent Wikifying Westminster workshop: it really showed us how much can be done when a few people get together in a room.

    Funding and support available

    Thanks to the Wikimedia Foundation, we’re able to offer some support to individuals/groups who are interested in running Wikidata workshops like these during GLOW. This will differ on a case by case basis but includes:

    • A small amount of funding to help cover event costs
    • A review of your country’s existing political information in Wikidata and some pointers about possible next steps
    • Ideas for how you and your attendees can:
      a) Use the data for interesting research and projects, and
      b) Improve the data for future research queries/projects
    • In-person support during your event – if you’d like one of our EveryPolicitian/Wikidata team to come to your event to present and participate, we can do this (if our budget allows!)
    • Access to a dedicated Slack channel which connects you with other groups around the world who are also running events during GLOW.

    Workshops can take place at any time within GLOW week, which is from 20th-30th November 2017 (yes, that is a long week!).

    Get involved!

    So, if you’d like to be part of this global challenge to improve and use political information in Wikidata, we’d be thrilled to hear from you. Please do get in touch: gemma@mysociety.org

  3. Croatia gets creative with Alaveteli

    Code for Croatia are one of many groups around the world who have used our software Alaveteli to set up a Freedom of Information site — ImamoPravoZnati (“We have the right to know”) was launched in 2015 and has processed more than 4,000 requests.

    Many organisations might count that a success and leave it there, but Code for Croatia are clearly a little more ambitious. We’ve been interested to hear about their two latest projects.

    A platform for consumer complaints

    http://reklamacije.net/

    The Alaveteli code was written to send FOI requests to public authorities. But in essence, it’s little more than a system for sending emails to a predetermined list of recipients, and publishing the whole thread of correspondence online.

    Change that list of recipients, and you can create a whole new type of site. Reklamacije (“Complaints”) puts the process of making consumer complaints online. It’s early days as yet — the site’s still in the beta phase, during which testers are putting it through its paces. There have been messages about bank closures, insurance policies… and even the inconsistent quality of the quesadillas at a Mexican food chain.

    As we’ve often mentioned here on this blog, our FixMyStreet codebase has been put to many different purposes that require map-based reporting, but as far as we’re aware this is the first non-FOI use of Alaveteli so we’ll be watching with interest. Perhaps it might give you ideas about setting up a similar service elsewhere?

    Probing travel expenses

    Code for Croatia have also launched a campaign asking users to request details of ministers’ travel expenses.

    If that sounds familiar, you’ll be remembering that back in January, AccessInfo did much the same with EU Commissioners and their expenses on the European Union FOI site AskTheEU. We can tentatively say that they were successful, too: it’s been announced that the EU expenses will be proactively published every two months. AskTheEU say they welcome the move ‘cautiously’, so let’s see how it all pans out.

    The key to both these campaigns is pre-filled requests that make it really simple for supporters to make a request to a specific politician, while ensuring that the requests aren’t duplicated.

    That’s something that Gemma explained how to do in this blog post — it’s a massive benefit of the friendly global Alaveteli community that we can all share insights like this, and especially that other groups can try out initiatives that have proved successful.

     

  4. Six stories from WhatDoTheyKnowPro

    Our Freedom of Information toolkit for journalists, WhatDoTheyKnowPro, will have its official launch very soon — and we’re glad to see that it’s already beginning to help generate high-profile news stories based on FOI requests.

    During development, several journalists have been putting it through its paces and offering us invaluable feedback which has helped us shape the service — and meanwhile their activity is also uncovering stories of genuine interest. These give a taste of exactly what kind of investigative stories can be supported by WhatDoTheyKnowPro, which makes requests to multiple bodies simpler, as well as organising the responses so that they’re easier to manage.

    Here are the WhatDoTheyKnowPro-generated stories we’ve heard about so far:

    Student Brexit campaign received ‘as much funding as necessary to win’

    Open Democracy and the Ferret uncovered how Vote Leave used a loophole to funnel hundreds of thousands of pounds through a student’s small-scale campaign. The story was subsequently run by multiple other news outlets and legal proceedings towards a judicial review have begun.

    British police trained officers in repressive regimes

    Scrutiny of documents from the College of Policing revealed that much of its income was coming from countries where there is concern about human rights. The story, by Lucas Amin, was run by the Guardian in September.

    Public servants and Scottish ministers paid thousands of pounds to dine with Obama

    Investigative journalism platform the Ferret uncovered this story in July, detailing how much public money was spent on senior staff attending a charity dinner with Barack Obama.

    Links between Mark Hoban and Price Waterhouse Cooper

    The Times and the Daily Mail both ran this story from Patrick Hosking, which revealed the former financial secretary’s ‘forgetfulness’ over prior links with Price Waterhouse Cooper.

    Infighting in UKIP over the name Patriotic Alliance

    Both anti-far right activists and UKIP officials tried to stop Arron Banks from registering a new political party called the Patriotic Alliance, another story run by the Ferret revealed.

    Where British holiday-makers get arrested most often

    Back in June, this story by Claire Miller and James Rodger analysed figures from the FCO on where Brits had been detained and obtained consular support, allowing them to state which countries had the most arrests, and how figures had changed over time. The story ran in the Birmingham Mail and was also picked up by other publications in the Trinity Mirror Group.

    We’re delighted to see such good use being made of WhatDoTheyKnowPro, and we anticipate many more stories emerging once it has fully launched.


    Image: Michael Pittman (CC by-sa/2.0)

  5. Highlights from TICTeC@Taipei

    Well, what an amazing few days in Taipei!

    On 11-13 September we co-hosted TICTeC@Taipei, our Impacts of Civic Technology Conference, with our wonderful Taiwanese partners Open Culture Foundation (OCF).

     

     

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  6. New (to us) media

    We’ve recently been trying out a few new ways of spreading the word about our Democracy websites.

    New to us, that is. Clearly, leaflets, videos and posters aren’t exactly groundbreaking concepts in the wider world, but as a digital organisation with limited budgets for marketing, we’ve not really explored them in any depth before.

    The motivation was something that’s one of our major drivers across lots of our work these days. Our own research has shown that our services are simply not reaching those sectors of society who might need them most: the least well-off, the less-educated, the young, and all sorts of minority demographics.

    Ever-conscious of this shortcoming, we’re doing what we can to address it on multiple fronts. These latest experiments in print and video represent an attempt to learn more about what might work, and as with everything we do at mySociety, we’re keeping a careful eye on the outcomes. If we see good results then there’s an argument for rolling out similar approaches more widely and to different communities.

    A video

    Recent funding from the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust helped us to try initiatives that would help publicise TheyWorkForYou and WriteToThem to younger people, like this animated video.

    A video will only work if we can get people watching it though, so please help us spread the word by sharing it, especially if you know people aged around 16-25 who might find it of interest!

    Leaflets and posters for schools

    We wanted to let schoolchildren know that TheyWorkForYou and WriteToThem can provide a channel to get things changed, ask for help or express their views.

    While we’d love to send leaflets and posters to every school in the country, that’d be rather expensive. So as a first step we identified 100 schools in the most deprived areas of the country (using the areas of deprivation index) and sent them a batch each. That way, we hope to reach young people who also might be most in need of empowerment.

    We also kept back a limited number of surplus posters and leaflets, so if you’re from a school and you’d like us to send you some, drop us a line (first come first served).

    TheyWorkforYou leaflets for schools

    MPs’ outreach

    It’s not quite in the same category, but we’ve also been in touch with every MP in the country, to let them know what we’re all about and how they (and their staff) can use our websites to best advantage.

    Now and again we hear MPs saying things that show they’ve misunderstood our aims, funding, principles or provenance — our recent blog post shows a couple of examples of this — and to be fair, we haven’t made much effort recently to talk to representatives directly. So this is an attempt to redress that, and invite any elected representative to get in touch if they’d like to ask us some questions.

    Outreach leaflet to MPs' offices

    We’ll be keeping an eye on whether our user demographics change at all in the near future, and you can be sure we’ll report back if we see anything notable.


    Top image: Thomas William, Unsplash

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  7. Democratic Commons: working with Facebook

    Earlier this month, Mark laid out the concept of a Democratic Commons for the Civic Tech community: shared code, data and resources where anyone can contribute, and anyone can benefit.

    He also talked about exploring new models for funding the kind of work that we do in our Democracy practice at mySociety.

    For many years, our Better Cities work has been proof of concept for one such model: we provide data and software as a service (FixMyStreet, MapIt, Mapumental) to paid clients, the revenue from which then funds our charitable projects. Could a similar system work to sustain our Democracy practice?

    That’s the hope, and with Facebook who we first worked with during the UK General Election in June, providing the data that helped people see and connect with their elected representatives, we’ve already seen it in action.

    This kind of project is positive on multiple levels: it brings us an income, it brings the benefits of democratic engagement to a wider audience than we could reach on our own, and it contributes data back into EveryPolitician and Wikidata, that everyone can use.

    Interesting challenges

    The UK election was only the first for which we did this work: we’ve gone on to provide the same service for the French elections and more recently for the rather more eventful Kenyan ones — currently on hold as we await the re-run of the Presidential election next month. And now we’re doing the same for the German elections, where candidate data is being shared this week.

    As we’re learning, this is definitely not one-size-fits-all work, and each country has brought its own interesting challenges. We’re learning as we go along — for example, one significant (and perhaps obvious) factor is how much easier it is to work with partners in-country who have a better understanding of the sometimes complex political system and candidates than we can ever hope to pick up. Much as we might enjoy the process, there’s little point in our spending days knee-deep in research, when those who live in-country can find lists of candidates far more quickly, and explain individual levels of government and electoral processes far better.

    Then, electoral boundaries are not always easy to find. We’ve used OpenStreetMap where possible, but that still leaves some gaps, especially at the more granular levels where the data is mainly owned and licensed by the government. It’s been an exercise in finding different sources and putting them all together to create boundary data to the level required.

    Indeed, that seems to be a general pattern, also replicated across candidate data: at the national level, it’s easy to find and in the public domain. The deeper you go, the less those two descriptors hold true. It was also at this point that we realised how much, here in the UK, we take for granted things like the fact that the spelling of representatives’ names is usually consistent across a variety of sources — not always a given elsewhere, and currently something that only a human can resolve!

    Giving back

    What makes all the challenges more worthwhile, though, is that we know it’s not just a one-off push that only benefits a single project. Nor is the data going straight into Facebook, never to be seen again.

    Much of what we’re collecting, from consistent name data to deep-level boundaries data, is  to be made available to all under open use licenses. For example, where possible we can submit the boundaries back to OpenStreetMap, helping to improve it at a local granular level across whole countries.

    The politician data, meanwhile, will go into Wikidata and EveryPolitician so that anyone can use it for their own apps, websites, or research.

    There are also important considerations about how this type of data will be used and where and when it is released in the electoral process; finding commercial models for our Democracy work is arguably a more delicate exercise than on some of our other projects. But hopefully it’s now clear exactly how a project like this can both sustain us as a charity, and have wider benefits for everyone — the holy grail for an organisation like us.

    At the moment it’s unclear how many such opportunities exist or if this is a one-off. We’re certainly looking for more avenues to extend the scope of this work and keen to hear more ideas on this approach.


    Your contributions help us keep projects like EveryPolitician up and running, for the benefit of all.
    Donate now


    Photo: Justin Tietsworth, Unsplash

  8. TheyWorkForYou strives to be unbiased, reliable and truthful. Here’s how.

    Just recently, we’ve noticed a couple of MPs dismissing TheyWorkForYou as ‘not an official source’, with one even claiming that it ‘distorts the truth’.

    This pains us a little. Because, while it’s true that we’re not ‘official’ — we’re not run by Parliament — we think that these assertions are slightly misleading themselves.

    So, here’s a handy rundown of our methods and provenance to clear a few points up. Feel free to share it next time you see someone questioning the authority of data shared from TheyWorkForYou.

    1. We do not have a political agenda

    We do not pursue a party political agenda, and in fact we go to great pains to ensure that TheyWorkForYou, as with all mySociety’s output, is entirely politically neutral.

    We tread this line both because we believe it is the right thing to do, and because it’s a condition of our charitable status that we do not campaign on behalf of any political party.

    That said, we do have one agenda: that of making the democratic process more accessible for everyone. Just like the name of the website says, MPs work on behalf of us. That being the case, shouldn’t everyone be able to understand exactly what it is that they do, and hold them accountable if they don’t live up to expectations?

    We provide facts and tools that anyone can use to make up their own mind — not just political experts or those who already understand the jargon. That was the point behind the site when we launched back in 2004, and it remains the driving force behind TheyWorkForYou.

    2. Our data is largely created by Parliament

    We are not of Parliament, nor are we funded by it (we’re an independent charity). However, the vast majority of the content on TheyWorkForYou comes directly from official Parliamentary sources such as Hansard, the official record of each day’s debates.

    Parliament, rather handily, provides the raw data to anyone who wants it, in the form of a ‘feed’ that can be used in websites, apps or other tools.

    TheyWorkForYou takes this data and presents it in a way that’s easy to read, browse, search, etc. We add a few features, such as email alerts, and through the use of some light coding we create and present statistics like the number of times an MP has spoken, or whether they have rebelled against the way that the majority of their party voted.

    In a nutshell: although we’re dealing with exactly the same data that Parliament outputs, we also provide a few services that Parliament doesn’t, or which it didn’t when we first launched TheyWorkForYou.

    3. TheyWorkForYou is mostly updated by machines

    Contrary to popular belief, TheyWorkForYou is not compiled by a roomful of elves with keyboards. Nor do humans do very much editing of the site on a day-to-day basis. Almost all the content is fetched from those parliamentary sources and then published out automatically, through the magic of code.

    It’s also code that does automated calculations so that we can present statistics like the number of speeches made, or written questions submitted, by each MP.

    4. But there are some things we have to do by hand

    So in large part, TheyWorkForYou is a machine that we just keep ticking over smoothly.

    However, there is one important function of the site which can’t be entirely compiled by code, and that’s the summaries of how MPs have voted.

    TheyWorkForYou is the only place to present votes in the way that we do. On each MP’s page you can see a list of where they stand on key topics, and you can also dive in more deeply to understand the individual votes that went to make up that stance.

    Why can’t a machine output information like this? Well, it can (and does) do the first part, which is to fetch every record of where an MP has participated in a vote. But what it can’t do is categorise the votes into topic areas, and tell us how much significance to attach to a vote within a wider topic.

    For example: imagine a series of votes on an initiative to bring more women into the workplace. A key vote might push for legislation requiring all workplaces to work towards a 50/50 gender split.

    But there might also be votes on issues such as workplaces being obliged to run annual audits, or to publish their gender-based employment statistics; or on whether the government should allocate a chunk of budget towards helping workplaces meet their targets in this area, or on which date the legislation should be implemented by.

    While it’s clear that all of these votes are relevant to the topic, some of them can be seen to have more weight when we consider the question, ‘has this MP voted for or against (or a mixture of for and against) encouraging equality in the workplace?’.

    That is the part where we employ a human being to assess each vote and decide how much importance it should be given. You can read more about this process in this blog post.

    5. We are committed to transparency

    Because of our drive for neutrality, we are super-scrupulous about ensuring that everything to do with the voting records we publish is as transparent and measured as possible.

    We often debate the wording used to describe a vote (for clarity as well as to expunge any bias), and other nuances too, as they arise. We have these discussions in public, on TheyWorkForYou’s Github repository.

    (Note: this exchange has been edited to exclude some information not relevant to the point it illustrates; the full text can be seen on Github).

    Since introducing dedicated, easy-to-follow voting pages for each MP on the site back in 2015, we’ve gone on to make improvements where needed.

    For example, we’ve added contextual data underneath each topic, because one thing that’s become clear is that even factual data can be misleading if you don’t present the whole picture:

    More recently, our attention was drawn towards potential confusion around the fact that recently-elected MPs voting in 2016 on a newly-arisen point about an inquiry into the Iraq war were being compared to those MPs who participated in multiple votes back in 2002-2003.

    This is the sort of nuanced issue that can be difficult to foresee when writing the code that runs the site: fortunately, TheyWorkForYou undergoes a continual process of refinement.

    Which leads us to the next point:

    6. We’re still working on it

    Sometimes, putting an automated action in place can bring unforeseen results.

    One example of this is the fact that if an MP has voted only once within the group of votes which go to make up a topic — let’s say, they’ve participated in a single vote on same-sex marriage, but perhaps all the other votes in that category predated their entry to the House — at the moment TheyWorkForYou marks them as voting ‘consistently’ for or against same-sex marriage. Which is accurate when looked at in one way, but at the same time, not.

    When this sort of thing arises, we add it to our development list for discussion, and implement a fix as soon as we can fit it in to our other priorities. You can join in the debate, too. If you spot something that you think should be done differently, you can let us know.

    7. Facts are facts

    But back to the overall aim of presenting accurate, trustworthy facts. One thing that’s worth remembering is that when it comes to votes, we can only publish one thing: whether the MP voted for, or against, the motion.

    We cannot speculate on whether an MP has voted one motion through against his or her conscience, because it has been bundled in with other matters which they considered a higher priority.

    We can’t detect those occasions when an MP of one party has traded votes with an MP from the opposite party, so that neither of them need turn up, nor do we know if an MP is ill, having a baby, or tied up with important diplomatic duties abroad.

    We do not attempt to include context such as ‘this MP spoke prior to the vote to give nuance to their decision’ — although you can, of course, find all debates on TheyWorkForYou and research the background for yourself. Perhaps the closest thing we have to this kind of context is that the site automatically detects when an MP has voted differently to the majority of his or her party colleagues, in which case we flag it up as a ‘rebellion’.

    And — perhaps the one that MPs object to the most often — we cannot include details of whether they were whipped (ie, told how to vote by the party) because that is not officially recorded anywhere. If we could, we’d love to — but TheyWorkForYou, as per point 2, can only import data that exists.

    Besides, some MPs will vote against the whip, if they feel strongly enough. As Peter Lilley noted in 2013, that has become more and more common. Why? He credits the internet, the ease with which constituents can contact their MPs to put forward their points of view and  —  oh, what’s this?  —  “websites such as theyworkforyou.com [that] make it easier than ever to see how an MP voted on gay marriage, war or Europe”.

    As one of our team puts it, “Politicians should be held accountable for what they actually do, not what they claim they might have done under different circumstances”. A vote is a vote, and it is sometimes remarkable to us how many MPs object to seeing a factual list of how they have voted, in black and white.

    8. We must be doing something right…

    175,000 people use TheyWorkForYou every month; hundreds of thousands have signed up to receive email alerts when their chosen keyword is mentioned or their MP has spoken.

    When there’s an election, some important political news, or someone new is appointed to a position in the Cabinet, we see a huge upturn in the number of times our content — and especially voting records — is shared on social media. There’s a real thirst for this information to be provided in a way that anyone can understand: how else can we make important decisions such as who to vote for?

    It’s not just the electorate, though. Each month brings around 5,000 visits from within Parliament itself, which is a good measure that we’re providing, at least, some things which aren’t as accessible via the official channels.

    9. We’re open to discussion

    We are more than happy to hear from MPs who, having understood the points above, believe that their activity has been misrepresented.

    As we say, there is always room for improvement as we try to keep the balance between making information as easy as possible for non-experts to follow, and ensuring that it’s non-biased and non-ambiguous as we do so.

    But we hope this piece has shown the steps we are taking as we strive to do just that.

    10. We are a charity, and we need new sources of funding

    Historically, TheyWorkForYou, as with mySociety’s other projects, has been largely supported by grant funding: money that has come from foundations and philanthropic organisations who believe that there should be a service like TheyWorkForYou that makes the UK’s parliaments easier to understand for everyone.

    Right now, though, there is no such income for our Democracy work. We are having to explore new models for its survival. Meanwhile if you’d like to help ensure that TheyWorkForYou can keep running, please make a donation.


    Donate now

    Image: Gordon Williams (Unsplash)

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  9. Product of my environment

    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!).

     

    Image: Suyash Dwivedi (BY-SA)

  10. A Shuffle and Some Hustle

    In my last post I introduced the concept of the Democratic Commons:

    “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.”

    Over the next few weeks we’re going to elaborate more on what we mean by this, what we’re doing to help contribute and make more connections to help others contribute.

    I’ve asked our own Matt Jukes to take on a new role as Head of Product with a remit to better articulate our vision both internally and externally about why we do what we do and why it’s important. As you might know Jukesie’s not afraid of sharing what he’s up to and he’s already been giving some insights into how we’ve been developing our Better Cities practice.

    He’ll be taking this a stage further by talking about the ‘Democratic Commons’, why it is important and mySociety’s role in making it a reality. Except to hear a LOT more from Jukesie on this and our other product stories over the coming months.

    We’re able to dedicate more time to this because we’ve also just hired our new Sales Director, David Eaton, who joins us from a ten year stint supporting Local Government at Public-I.

    David is a really important hire for us in our Better Cities team at a perfect time. He’ll be leading the charge as we roll out FixMyStreet Pro to more councils around the UK – if you haven’t already you can try out a live demo of the service.

    He’ll be joining in early October and if you’d like to find out more about FMS Pro before then please do get in touch.

    Finally as we’re on a bit of a team update we made one really important promotion over the summer that we haven’t yet shouted about enough.

    We’ve promoted Louise Crow to the role of Head of Development and she’s been busy with refining the day to day management of our development team and she’ll be ensuring we’ve got good plans in place for each person’s career development.

    Louise has been an essential member of mySociety since joining back in 2009 and has been an invaluable support and mentor for me personally since I joined a couple of years ago.

    Just as importantly Louise is also looking to ensure we’re properly connected into wider external developer networks and connecting to other friendly civic organisations who share our mission or might benefit from some support.

    So congrats to Louise and Jukesie and looking forward to getting David in post in a few weeks.

    Image: Sam Bloom (Unsplash)