The response so far to our Call For Proposals has been astonishing. We had more submissions in the first round alone than we suspected we might get over the whole period, and there were so many good ideas that we’ve had a hard time narrowing them down. However, we’re finally able to release our shortlist of what we think could be the most promising projects from the first round.
When we launched the call, we knew we were looking for sites that were “mySociety-esque”. We didn’t set out any explicit guidelines for what that meant, but based on certain patterns in the submissions so far, we can enumerate some of what we’re looking for. In general we prefer sites which:
- don’t require significant ongoing manual work.
- The primary focus of the project should be in setting up clever technological solutions to automate the ongoing maintenance. After launch, it should be possible for the site to be run almost entirely by its users. This rules out, for example, most of the “Politifact” types of sites, which although certainly very useful and important, require considerable significant ongoing research to avoid becoming a ghost town.
- don’t require government buy-in or legislative change to be successful.
- A site to visualise Parliamentarians’ travel expenses, for example, is unlikely to be successful unless there is already a mechanism for the release of the underlying data.
- don’t need a significant amount of users before becoming useful.
- Sites that function well with even a handful of users and are able to build up slowly are usually more effective and have significantly less risk than ones that are a failure unless they reach a certain critical mass.
- aren’t so trivial they shouldn’t need our help
- If a site could be built using something like WordPress or Drupal with very little additional customisation, it’s likely not a good fit for this program, even if it might otherwise be a worthwhile project.
We also prefer ideas that are focussed and practical with a clear understanding of the technological requirements, rather than those which talk solely in buzzwords and seem to expect unspecified technical wizardry to magically solve big social problems.
A number of the most promising submissions from this round are for Parliamentary informatics sites, focusing on the activities of politicians and parties in government. One of the most important stories in the history of mySociety involved taking an already started, but non-funded and unsustainable project called TheyWorkForYou, and growing it into what it is today. So in addition to funding one or more similar sites to do likewise in their own countries, we are hoping that we will also be able to use this opportunity to help create something slightly bigger that can help make it easier for others to build this sort of site in future. This is unlikely to be as simple as a common technology platform, but we hope that if we can foster some degree of joint effort in this area we can help bootstrap a community of interested parties who can work together. The primary candidates we’re considering in this area from the first round are:
We are also very interested in projects aiming to providing increased transparency into government spending. In this area, however, it’s not enough to simply build some fancy reports on currently existing data (useful as that might be). To meet our criteria, it’s important to build something that can run with minimal human involvement: regularly spidering official datasources, converting them into usable formats, and updating the site with the results. Four proposals from the first round particularly impressed us in this regard, and we want to investigate further with each of them as to which could work best:
- Tracking Public Money
- Who Gets The Big Money In Construction
- Public Procurement Journal Watch
Finally, we have shortlisted one proposal in a narrower version than was submitted:
The full project here wasn’t a clear fit with our preferences: it’s a one-off site, rather than something with a longer lifespan, and a significant part of building something this is in the work of creating the questions to ask the candidates, rather than creating the site itself. However, after discussion with the submitting organisation, we believe there could be value in creating a more generic questionnaire-to-website tool that could be used in building not only this site, but also similar sites in future, and in other countries. In its basic form, this tool would take a list of candidates’ contact details, and a series of questions, generate both a web-based and offline interactive-PDF based version of the questionnaire, send these to the candidates, with automatic follow-up at regular intervals to candidates who have not yet answered, and then automatically build a website from responses in real-time as they come in.
We’ll be following up with these projects over the next week or two, but in the meantime we’d love your comments on them too. These certainly weren’t the only plausible proposals from the first round — some of the others are strong contenders we’ll be reconsidering in the later rounds. And if anyone wants to resubmit any of their proposals, adjusted based on anything above, we’re perfectly happy with that. And with the final deadline for submissions coming up, perhaps some of this might give you some last minute ideas!
- don’t require significant ongoing manual work.
The first deadline for our Call For Proposals is approaching this weekend, and we’ve had suggestions from almost every eligible country. The only ones missing so far are Albania, Lithuania, Montenegro, and Serbia. Let’s see if we can get at least one from each of those in the next couple of days!
mySociety has teamed up with the Open Society Institute (OSI) to help people in Central and Eastern Europe build transparency and democracy websites suited to the needs and realities of their countries. In the UK mySociety runs a variety of sites such as TheyWorkForYou.com, FixMyStreet.com, and our Freedom of Information website WhatDoTheyKnow.com. As a result of running these, we know that there are lots of people outside the UK longing to build similar sites that help increase transparency and accountability in their own government institutions.
We have now launched a Call for Proposals for participants in Central and Eastern Europe, similar to the one we recently ran in the UK. The big difference is that this time we’re not looking for projects that we will build. We’re looking for projects you want to build, but that for lack of funds or lack of the right skills, you can’t get started yourself, so could use our help.
Over the coming months we will be selecting a series of projects to fund and mentor — up to ten in total. At each of four monthly intervals, starting November 15th, OSI and mySociety will convene to consider and choose from the proposals submitted so far. To help us understand project strengths and weaknesses in the given local or national context we can draw on the knowledge of regional OSI staff, but we’ll also be paying very close attention to the public comments on the submissions — so please join in the discussion. The shortlisted projects, and the people behind them, will then undergo a formal vetting process, during which project funding details will be requested (but we can help you with that if you’ve no previous experience of budget planning). mySociety will work closely with the winning projects to develop specifications for the launch version of the tool, advise on technology choices and usability decisions, help hire suitable technical talent if needed, and help connect winners to the nascent but growing international network of transparency and accountability website builders.
It’s crucial to note that this call isn’t solely for existing NGOs: the process is absolutely open to submissions from individuals or groups with no prior direct experience of working in the transparency and accountability sector. Experience from around the world suggests that some of the best websites in this field have been set up by individuals with no specific NGO background, such as New Zealand’s TheyWorkForYou.co.nz. Others are run by NGOs with strong track records — we will not discriminate either way. We will, however, look most favourably on applicants who already have access to the advanced programming skills required to build sites like this.
The criteria are simple, though demanding:
- The projects have to generate some kind of meaningful transparency, accountability, or democratic empowerment of another kind.
- The projects must seize the unique benefits that the Internet brings with it, such as scalability, two way communication, easy data analysis and so on.
Projects will be required to follow Free/Open Source licensing and development practices and to adhere to appropriate Open Data principles. Projects making use of mobile communications tools will also be considered. And although projects will obviously be delivered in appropriate local languages, proposals through this website must be in English.
If you are based in one of the eligible countries and have an idea for a project (or, even better, more than one!), please submit a proposal. Even if you don’t, please help us spread the word! Tell everyone you know about this. Blog it. Link to it on Twitter or Facebook. Go to local events and make sure everyone knows about it (or ask us to come talk about it) — just talking about it could be the difference between someone building a KildareStreet or an OpenCongress in your country and them never getting started. For more ideas on how to help, please join our mailing list, or follow us on Twitter.
Within the next couple of weeks we’ll be launching a joint project with the Open Society Institute Information Program to help individuals and organizations in Central and Eastern Europe use the Internet to increase transparency and accountability in their countries by building mySociety-esque websites.