1. FixMyTransport needs a new owner

    FixMyTransport needs an owner who can give it the attention it deserves: could that be you or your organisation?

    As we announced in our last blog post, we’ll be shutting down a number of our sites in the near future. For many of the smaller projects, that’s not such a bad thing—they had their place in the sun.

    But when it comes to FixMyTransport? Well, we think it still has relevance. It’s a great site which does good things for public transport passengers. It could continue to do so…. just not run by us.

    The FixMyTransport concept

    fmtWe launched FixMyTransport in 2011. We hoped it would do for public transport what FixMyStreet had done for potholes: put conversations (in this case between passengers and transport operators) in public, and get problems fixed. And, like FixMyStreet, it lets you contact the authority responsible for your problem, even if you don’t know who that is.

    FixMyTransport’s structure enables it to go one step further than FixMyStreet, though: it contains a mechanism that helps users identify people with the same problem, and encourages them to get together and do something about it.

    Scope and performance

    It’s an ambitious site which indexes all public transport across Britain, with a page for every bus stop, train station, and route in the country. It also holds contact details of every operator, council and Public Transport Executive, and it elegantly links all these together.

    In many ways, it’s a success. To date, FixMyTransport users have sent more than 10,000 issues to operators. It gets up to 250,000 visitors, and over 650,000 page views per month, and performs very well in Google for any search term based on a route as defined by its starting point and destination, or based on bus numbers and the areas they operate in.

    And that’s good, because (really as a side effect to the site’s core purpose of making it easy to report problems), FixMyTransport also shows transport routes really clearly, in a way that hadn’t previously been so easy to find online. So, for example, it is great for people wondering where exactly a bus stops along its route, or where to find a bus stop in an unfamiliar location.

    If you’re thinking about taking FixMyTransport over, all this is important. It works, and people visit it. There’s potential to keep running it as it is now—a service for contacting operators in public—or for uncoupling that part of the mechanism, and using it instead as an information resource.

    What you’ll need

    So, if FixMyTransport performs so well, why are we getting rid of it?

    We worked long and hard on the site, but there was one thing we didn’t predict: the technical resource required to keep the transport data current. At the site’s launch, we imported the vast National Public Transport Access Nodes (NaPTAN), National Public Transport Gazetteer (NPTG) and the National Public Transport Data Repository (NPTDR) datasets, not foreseeing how quickly they would date.

    Bus routes, in particular, change hands and alter routes frequently, and reflecting that requires frequent data refreshes. That’s not currently automated, and would need considerable changes to the source code that, given mySociety’s core mission and our limited resources, we just couldn’t justify.

    If you want to take over FixMyTransport, we hope you’ll consider the decision carefully. Unfortunately, it’s not a project we’d recommend for keen enthusiasts: you really will require some technical knowledge.

    In our opinion, FixMyTransport needs the backing of an organisation or company that will commit to it for the long term, offering more stability, resource, and perhaps even marketing, than we have been able to provide.

    We reckon you’ll need the following resource:

    • Ten to twenty minutes per day answering user support queries and performing site admin
    • A developer who is proficient in Ruby on Rails and has dedicated time to alter the code to allow the transport data to be updated regularly from the currently available data sources
    • The will and the wherewithal to take the site on as a long term project

    Still interested? Great! Drop us a line and we can talk.

    If we don’t find a new owner

    FixMyTransport will no longer accept new problems and campaigns after the end of February. Existing entries will stay live, but if we haven’t found a new home for the site by the end of June, we’ll close it.

  2. Hello again, Cardiff

    Pizza, yay

    Yes, pizza will be available…

    On 18th February the mySociety gang will yet again descend on Cardiff for another evening meet-up. We had such a nice time at the Founders Hub last year that we’re heading back!

    Our meet-ups are open to everyone. So whether you’re an open source veteran, or just a curious newbie interested in anything you see on mysociety.org, please come along.

    At this month’s event we’ll be joined by the following guest speakers:-

    Dr. Pete Burnap and Dr. Matt Williams: Pete and Matt are from Cardiff University and co-founded the Collaborative Online Social Media ObServatory aka the COSMOS project.

    This project aims to study the ‘social media ecosystem’ to better understand how user behaviours, global communication networks and flows of information interact to promote hateful and socially disruptive content.

    As part of the project they have developed the COSMOS software platform that reduces the technical and methodological barriers to accessing and analysing social media and other forms of open digital data.

    This tool allows users to forecast the spread of hateful content over digital networks, providing an opportunity for intervention before such content ‘goes viral’ and potentially causes harm to individuals, minority groups and communities.

    Pete and Matt will join us to talk how they’ve used COSMOS to analyse social media for the benefit of society.

    Esko Reinikainen: Esko is a co-founder of The Satori Lab, the Cardiff-based culture hackers. They re-boot organisational culture and improve innovation skills with learning programmes & strategic advice.

    New technologies with the potential to deliver extraordinary public value are emerging every day, yet the single biggest obstacle to adoption in the public sector is what The Satori Lab describe as ‘cultural immune systems’.

    They have spent the past 3 years hacking in this space, and in this talk Esko will explain what they broke, what they fixed, and what they’ve found out in the process…

    Our very own Mark Longair: Mark will be speaking about Democracy Club’s project YourNextMP, which is a free, trustworthy, open database of General Election candidates. Mark has been heavily involved in the creation and maintenance of YourNextMP and will talk about how it was made and how you can get involved to help out in the run up to May’s elections. You can find out more about YourNextMP in our recent blog post.

    So, do come along to chat about all things ‘Tech for Good’ and enjoy a slice of pizza or two on us! Hope to see you there.

    When: Wednesday 18th February 2015, drop in any time between 6pm and 9pm
    Where: The Founders Hub, 119 St Mary Street, Cardiff, CF10 1DY
    How: Add your name to the Lanyrd page: http://lanyrd.com/2015/mysociety/, so we know you’re coming.
    Who: Anyone who fancies it.

    NB: Watch our Twitter stream on @mySociety to check for last minute advice about where we are sitting or if we have moved venues for unforseen reasons.

     

  3. Goodbye to some old friends

    That's All Folks by William MurphyWe recently shared news of some substantial funding from Omidyar Network, and the goals which that funding will help us to achieve.

    Those goals are quite ambitious, and we’re going to have to focus hard on a number of core projects to meet them. Consequently, we’ve made the hard decision to let go of a few of our other sites; sites which need time and attention, but which won’t help us towards meeting those key aims.

    A bit of background

    mySociety has built loads of websites during its time: it’s the way we’ve historically worked. When we started up, we just wanted to make cool civic sites that would do useful things; if we could get the funding, and someone was willing to build them, we’d go for it.

    All of the projects we launched were based on pretty sound ideas; all of them strove to empower people and open up democracy in one way or another.

    But, as we’ve become a more mature organisation, with responsibilities towards our partners and funders, that scattergun approach doesn’t fly any more. Running a website, no matter how small and self-sufficient it is, requires some investment, in terms of maintenance, user support, and updating, and sadly, right now we can’t maintain everything to a level that keeps it useful and functional for users.

    The keepers

    Over a decade since mySociety first started, some of those early sites have proved their worth. They’ve grown and matured with us. Here in the UK, our Freedom of Information site WhatDoTheyKnow has over 400,000 visitors a month, and sites like TheyWorkForYou, FixMyStreet and WriteToThem have become UK institutions in their own right.

    Alaveteli, the software which underpins WhatDoTheyKnow, has been adopted in 21 countries; the FixMyStreet Platform is being used in 11, with both set to increase as we concentrate on reaching out to international partners over the next few years.

    Additionally, we’ll be continuing to strengthen our international work with the Poplus federation, developing and supporting the use of Poplus Components and the Pombola platform.

    These projects are core to our Omidyar Network funding and the results we’ve promised to deliver from it.

    Goodbye to these

    Along the way, though, there have been some projects which, for one reason or another, have not gained quite as much traction.

    You might say they were before their time: Pledgebank, for example, predates Groupon, Kickstarter and similar pledging concepts.

    In some cases, the world moved on: most MPs now have their own channels for contacting constituents online, so HearFromYourMP isn’t quite as vital.

    In others, we simply don’t have the necessary resources that the project needs: FixMyTransport is a good example of that.

    It’s been a difficult decision, but if we are to focus on our targets for the coming years, we can no longer afford to dedicate ourselves to these sites. To that end, we’ll shortly be retiring:

    Pledgebank

    In February, Pledgebank will stop accepting new pledges, although users will still be able to sign up for existing ones until the end of June. We’ll be emailing all owners of pledges to let them know that the site will close at that time.

    FixMyTransport

    From the 1st of March, you’ll no longer be able to create a report on FixMyTransport. If you are running an active campaign or problem report, we’ll email to let you know of the site’s closure, which is planned for the end of June.

    HearFromYourMP

    MPs can continue to use HearFromYourMP to send newsletters to their constituents, but we’ll be letting them know that the service will be retired before the General Election.

    ScenicOrNot

    In February, ScenicOrNot will be mothballed so that users can no longer rate photographs. We’ll be keeping the leaderboard intact and developers will still be able to use the site’s data.

    Would you like to take over one of these sites?

    It’s not without regret that we’ll be saying goodbye to these sites – each and every one of them is based on a sound idea that fell well within mySociety’s remit to provide civic and democratic digital tools.

    Like most mySociety sites, the code of all of the above is Open Source and you are welcome to pick it up and adapt it to your needs.

    And in many cases, the sites themselves still have great potential. For that reason, we’d be delighted if there was interest, from other individuals or groups, in taking them over. Get in touch, and we’ll tell you exactly what would be involved.

    FixMyTransport is a bigger commitment, one that we think will need the backing and resource that only an organisation can provide. We’ll be posting a bit more about it tomorrow.

    Image credit: William Murphy (CC)

  4. Omidyar Network backs mySociety

    Image by Hit Thatswitch

    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)

  5. Order the map you need: Mapumental Public Transport Maps

    Mapumental order this map

    Mapumental just became self-service! Now you can order maps as images or data, right from the Mapumental website.

    Public transport travel times to Birmingham meet-up, from Mapumental by mySocietyMapumental creates maps that display transit time rather than distance. The results, showing time bands in an array of colours, are both useful and rather beautiful (see the example, right).

    We’ve added new functionality so that you can download your maps direct – just go to www.mapumental.com and click the ‘try it’ button.

    Once you’ve input a postcode and moved the slider bar to reflect the maximum travel time you want to display, you can go ahead and click on ‘order this map’, and choose parameters including direction of travel,  zoom level, size and title.

    Mapumental maps as data

    Choosing the ‘data’ option will export your map as a 500m resolution GRASS ASCII raster, which can be imported directly into your preferred GIS software.

    Mapumental maps as images

    You may prefer to simply download the end product – a graphic image that you can save to your own hard drive and use in presentations or reports, on websites, or anywhere else you choose.

    It’s as easy as that

    Payment is via a credit system: the more credits you buy, the cheaper each map is.

    We hope you’ll find the self-service Mapumental useful – we’d love to hear feedback about your experience using it, and how you utilise the resulting maps.

    Don’t forget that we can also create bespoke maps with your own data – get in touch to find out more.

  6. Launching TICTeC2015: The Impacts of Civic Technology Conference

    digital london

    25th March 2015, 9.30am – 5.30pm
    2nd Floor, 8 Eastcheap, London, EC3M 1AE

     

    mySociety is delighted to announce the launch of TICTeC2015 – or to give it its proper name, The Impacts of Civic Technology Conference.

    This is the first in an annual series of conferences from mySociety, in which we’ll focus on the impact that civic technology and digital democracy are having upon citizens, decision makers and governments around the world.

    We’ll discuss themes of engagement, participation, institution, social behaviour, politics, community, digital capability, communication and ethics relating to the use and study of civic technology.

    TICTeC2015 will bring together individuals from academic and applied backgrounds as well as businesses, public authorities, NGOs and education institutions to discuss ideas, present research and build a network of individuals interested in the civic technology landscape.

    This one day conference provides the opportunity for researchers to present theoretical or empirical work related to the conference theme.

    We also welcome proposals for individuals to lead workshops or give presentations relating to the conference theme.

    Individuals from all backgrounds are welcome to attend the conference, to learn and find out more.

    Click here for more details on the event, how to register and how to submit a proposal.

     

    Photo by Simon Hadleigh-Sparks Licence (CC)

  7. 12 exciting projects mySociety was hired to deliver last year

    Image by Craig Sunter

    Not many people realise that we fund a proportion of our charitable work by carrying our commercial development and consultancy work for a wide range of clients.

    Last year, we scoped, developed and delivered a real variety of digital tools and projects. Some of the projects were surprising. Some of them made us gnash our teeth, a bit, as we grappled with new problems. But all of them (and call us geeks if you like) got us very excited.

    Here are just twelve of our personal high points from last year. If you have a project that you think we might be able to help you with in 2015, we’d love to hear from you!

    1. We Changed the Way in Which Parliament Does Digital

    Palace of Westminster by Greg DunlapThis time last year, a small team from mySociety was poring over analytics, interview content and assorted evidence from Parliament projects dating back last 2-3 years, to help us put together a simple set of recommendations to conclude our review.

    11 months later, Parliament have announced their first Head of Digital, fulfilling one of our key recommendations.

    2. We helped the MAS and the FCA protect financial consumers

    Bubble Car by Allen WatkinTwo of our projects helped people financially.

    We built the Money Advice Service’s (MAS) first responsive web application, the Car Cost Calculator.

    This tool takes one simple thing you know (the car you wish to buy) and tells you roughly how much it’ll cost to run that car against any others you might be interested in. It has been one of MAS’ most successful online tools in terms of traffic and conversion.

    We also built the Financial Conduct Authority’s Scam Smart tool, aiming to prevent financial scams.

    This tool helps users considering a financial investment to check a potential investment. Users enter information about the type of investment, how they heard about it and the details of the company offering it to them and get back tailored guidance and suggested next steps to help them ensure the investment is bona fide.

    3. We Gave Power to the People of Panama (soon)

    Alaveteli homepageWorking with the The National Authority for Transparency & Access to Information (ANTAI) and the Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO), we set up our first government-backed instance of our Freedom of Information platform, Alaveteli, in Panama.

    This project will ensure that Panama’s FOI legislation is promoted and used, but it will also shine a light on ANTAI, who are responsible for ensuring ministries and organisations publish their information, and handling case appeals.

    4. We Mapped All the Public Services in Wales

    Bws Ysgol - Image by Aqwis via Wikimedia, CCAfter we extended the Mapumental API to produce data output suitable for GIS (geographical information systems), the Welsh Government were able to map public services in Wales for their Index of Multiple Deprivation calculations.

    Over the course of the year they have calculated travel times for over seventy thousand points of interest.

    5. We Launched a New Organisation in Four Weeks

    Simply SecureSimply Secure approached us in dire need of a brand, an identity and a website to accompany the launch of their new organisation to help the world build user-friendly security tools and technologies.

    Cue four weeks of very intense work for mySociety’s designer, supported by members of the commercial team. And we did it.

    6. We Printed Stuff BIG (and found people jobs)

    Public transport travel times to Birmingham meet-up, from Mapumental by mySocietymySociety developer Dave Arter figured out how to generate A1 sized maps from Mapumental for every job centre in the UK – all 716 of them.

    Xerox will be using these with the DWP to help job seekers find work that is within reach by public transport. As a byproduct, Mapumental now handles high-fidelity print based outputs: get in touch if that is of interest.

    7. We Opened Up Planning Applications

    open-planning-shotWith Hampshire County Council we had the opportunity to build a new application to help assist members of the public and business better understand what was happening around them. For us, it was also the first application in which we worked closely with a provider of a linked data store, in this case Swirrl.

    When Open Planning goes live, it will look to help improve social engagement and the economy of Hampshire through better understanding and transparency of planning data.

    8. We Proved (Again) That FixMyStreet Isn’t All About Potholes

    CollideoscopeAfter a spate of cyclists’ deaths in London last year, we felt that the moment was right to build something that would support cycle safety in the UK.

    We launched Collideoscope on October the 7th with our first sponsor—Barts Charity, with the aim of generating data both on incidents involving cycles, and near misses.

    9. We Helped Launch a Film

    A map of old Norse place namesWe built a tool for the British Museum, to go alongside the general release of Vikings Live. The Norse Names project brought a sense of context and personalisation to a dataset gathered by the University of Nottingham.

    10. We Made Data More Exciting

    To the Trains by Nic McPheeIn 2013, we built an interface to help people explore the data in the National Rail Passenger Survey (NRPS) data explorer  for Passenger Focus.

    This year, they asked us to build something similar for bus users. We’re entering the final week of development now, and the finished product should be launched in March.

    The main aim of this site? To take data that could be considered pretty dry, and make it a lot more engaging.

    11. We Fixed Yet More Potholes

    Fixed, by Tup WandersThis year Warwickshire, East Sussex, Hart & Harrogate joined the list of councils using FixMyStreet as their main street fault reporting platform.

    That means that residents of those places can now make their reports direct from their council’s website, or via FixMyStreet, and either way they’ll have all the benefits of FixMyStreet’s smooth report-making interface.

    12. We Showed Parliament the Way

    Parliament Square by Duncan HarrisAnd so, we end where we began. While Parliament were busy interviewing candidates for their new ‘Head of Digital’ position, we were commissioned to demonstrate what Hansard might look like were a platform like SayIt used instead of the largely print-based publishing mechanisms used today.

    The result was shared internally. While SayIt may not be the end solution for Parliament, it’s great to have had some input into what that solution might be.

    And in 2015…?

    Got a project that you’d like us to be involved in?

    Get in touch and tell us about it.

    Image credits:

    Eggs: Craig Sunter; Parliament: Greg Dunlap; Bubble car: Allen Watkin; To the Trains: Nic McPhee; Potholes: Tup Wanders; Parliament Duncan Harris. All Creative Commons.

     

  8. Join us at our meet-up in Oxford (and do a lightning talk if you fancy it!)

    Oxford is for bikesHappy New Year to you all.

    Next Wednesday 7th January we’ll be hosting an evening of talks, drinks and lively discussion in the beautiful city of Oxford.

    As it’ll be exactly 4 months until the General Election, we thought we’d invite along speakers who are involved in projects which aim to help us better understand the election process and the outcomes.

    We’re also really keen to hear about civic projects that you are involved in to help citizens better understand the General Election, so please do apply to present a lightning talk if you’d like to spread the word. (more…)

  9. Another private data leak, this time by Hackney Council

    News has just hit the press of a leak of a significant amount of private data by Hackney Council in a Freedom of Information response to our WhatDoTheyKnow website.

    This is a problem we have been warning about for some time. Islington Council were fined £70,000 for a similar incident in 2012. In light of this fresh incident we again urge all public authorities to take care when preparing data for release.

    Note: we understand all affected residents should have received a letter from Hackney Council. If you have any concerns please contact them or the Information Commissioner’s Office.

    As with the Islington incident, the information was in parts of an Excel spreadsheet that were not immediately visible. It was automatically published on 14th November when Hackney Council sent it in response to a Freedom of Information request, as part of the normal operation of the WhatDoTheyKnow website. All requests sent via the website make it clear that this will happen.

    This particular breach involved a new kind of hidden information we hadn’t seen before – the released spreadsheet had previously been linked to another spreadsheet containing the private information, and the private information had been cached in the “Named Range” data in the released spreadsheet.

    Although it was not straightforward to access the information directly using Excel, it was directly visible using other Windows programs such as Notepad. It had also been indexed by Google and some of it was displayed in their search previews.

    The breach was first hit upon by one of the data subjects searching for their own name. When they contacted us on 25th November to ask about this, one of our volunteers, Richard, realised what had happened. He immediately hid the information from public view and notified the council.

    We did not receive any substantive response from the council and therefore contacted them again on 3rd December. The council had investigated the original report but not understood the problem, and were in fact preparing to send a new copy of the information to the WhatDoTheyKnow site, which would have caused the breach to be repeated.

    We reiterated what we had found and advised them to consult with IT experts within their organisation. The next day, 4th December, we sent them a further notification of what had happened, copying the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO). As far as we are aware, this was the first time the ICO was informed of the breach.

    From our point of view it is very disappointing that these incidents are still happening. Freedom of Information requests made via WhatDoTheyKnow are a small fraction of all requests, so it is very likely that this kind of error happens many more times in private responses to requesters, without the public authority ever becoming aware.

    Our earlier blog post has several tips for avoiding this problem. These tips include using CSV format to release spreadsheets, and checking that file sizes are consistent with the intended release. Either of these approaches would have averted this particular breach.

    We would also urge the ICO to do as much as possible to educate authorities about this issue.

  10. mySociety endorses YourNextMP – let’s pull together to make a free, trustworthy, open database of General Election candidates

    Parliament Square by Duncan HarrisLet’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)