1. It’s time to talk about Digital Public Service Corporations

    In Austerity Britain, nothing could be less fashionable or more politically unrealistic than proposing an idea that would cost a lot of public money. But I’ve never been especially fashion conscious, and some ideas are worth debating even when they are inconvenient, so I might as well say it: the world needs the modern equivalent of public service broadcasters. It needs them today, and it’s going to need them a lot more in the future.

    “Now hold on there sonny,” you might say, “the world’s already full of public service broadcasters!”.  And, indeed, you’d be right – Public Service Broadcasters across the world have developed huge websites and torrents of apps. They get massive amounts of traffic, and in the best instances they serve their users really well.

    But. Public Service Broadcasters are fundamentally storytellers. This is both their tremendous strength and their great blind spot when it comes to digital.

    The BBC, for example, is a fantastic storyteller. It tells the story of today’s news, the story of sporting heroes, the story of tomorrow’s weather.  It tells fictional stories of Time Lords and cartoon animals that define our culture and help bind us together as a country. Having grown up in Britain I have the whole warm-and-fuzzy emotional relationship with the BBC that almost everyone here has. And it gets gigantic digital traffic, as well as large TV and radio audiences. It is safe to say that the BBC does stories as well as anyone, ever, including online.

    But. The internet isn’t just about stories.

    There are plenty of stories on the internet, but a huge part of the net is about tools and services and answers, not narratives. It’s about Skype and Gmail and Wikipedia. In my sector it’s about WhatDoTheyKnow.com and IsThereSewageInTheChicagoRiver.com. At a lower level it’s about TLS and Django.

    And there’s no getting away from the fact that now, as the Web turns 25, it doesn’t feel like the market is delivering everything people need from the net. It’s not doing a great job at preventing security problems like Heartbleed. It’s not doing a great job at providing services that aren’t subsidised by advertising, or that respect privacy very much. It’s not doing a great job at providing online spaces that are safe and respectful for women. It’s not doing a great job at providing technologies that the public sector or civil society can use without being at major risk of exploitation from suppliers.

    I don’t know what a Digital Public Service Corporation should ultimately look like. I don’t know how big it should be, or what it should have as its mission, or even what country the first one should be set up in (Britain seems highly unlikely).

    However, in a world in which huge amounts of our lives are mediated digitally, it just seems improbable that every single liberal democracy will conclude that every aspect of our digital lives will happily, permanently be delivered exclusively by transnational companies. History suggests that state intervention to produce a somewhat mixed economy is just more probable. It happened in broadcasting, it happened in research, it happened in industry. And the reasons never go away – politicians eventually come to feel that a market is failing for some reason, or that there are moral or social values that are not embedded in purely private solutions.

    If there’s going to be a mixed economy, then there’s no point in avoiding the big questions. What are these new entities going to look like? How will they be regulated to stop them going bad, or smashing up healthy markets?  And, crucially, how are we going to persuade our fellow citizens that these things are worth paying serious money for?

    I wouldn’t be at all surprised if it takes decades, or if the process turns deeply political and ugly. But we have to start somewhere. Otherwise I’m not quite sure how we’ll ever end up with the web we want.

    PS Thanks to Matt Jukes  and Adrian Hon for writing things that have pushed me to propose this unfashionably big-state idea. It feels thrillingly naughty.

    PPS Updated SSL to TLS, sorry for being such a grandpa

  2. ‘Civic Tech’ has won the name-game. But what does it mean?

    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.

  3. Why SayIt is (partly) a statement about the future of Open Data

    Open Here by Troy J Morris

    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)

  4. Checking Our Privilege – Changing our job ads in response to a good challenge

    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.

  5. Tools for Learning

    Today is International day of the Girl as nominated by Plan International. The idea of commemorating this day is to highlight the lack of education opportunities for girls around the world.

    Though mySociety does not have a specific focus on women’s education our websites are still powerful tools for learning. Education doesn’t just take place in the classroom. Nor does it stop when you leave school, college or university. Websites like Mzalendo in Kenya help educate people about their politicians. They provide information about what their representatives have said in Parliament, about their political and work experience. This information can help Kenyan citizens to hold their elected representatives to account, and to understand more about the decisions that affect their lives.

    Alaveteli is perhaps an even stronger example of this. Visiting an alaveteli website not only allows you to request information, it allows you to search through information others have requested and learn from it, potentially about topics you were unaware of before. We know that in the UK each request on WhatDoTheyKnow is read by an average of 20 people. And by having that information available publicly and allowing people to educate themselves about the actions of their government, it is easier for citizens to hold those in power to account.

    It seems like a FixMyStreet site might not have a connection to education. But we think it does! At the most obvious level, FixMyStreet provides councils with information. They learn where problems are in their area and gain a deeper understanding of the issues that concern their citizens. This flow of information is not just one way though. Residents that use the site suddenly find they can take ownership of the problems in their local area, and get them resolved.  At times, governments – local or national – can appear to be vast and distant. By using something like FixMyStreet residents can begin to see the practical role they can play in improving their own lives. This is a very important thing to learn.

    Our sites are being set up and used by people of every gender, all over the world. This is an amazing thing and one we wholly support. Access to tools for learning should not be restricted dependent on race, class, gender, religion or ethnicity. The opportunity to learn should be open to all.

    The world knows Malala Yousafzai. General Ban Ki Moon said it best when he said “When the Taliban shot Malala, they showed what they feared most: a girl with a book.” Because information and education give women, and everyone else in the world, the knowledge to stand up and say “This is not right.”, to make their lives better and to take a stand for a more open, free society.

    That’s one of the reasons we create the websites we create, to help people educate themselves to gain knowledge and skills which can start the process of making their societies more open, transparent and participative.

    Happy International day of the Girl.

     

    Image credits: Blackboard by Audra B | Hands up by Pim Geerts | Malala by United Nations Information Centres

  6. The folly of trying to limit demand for public services by hiding them behind bad digital interfaces

    Open Means Never Having To Say You're Sorry by Alan Levine

    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)

  7. An Alternative use of Pombola

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/chiperoni/4467058836/in/photolist-7NJQXN-7NESjr-9tPnhS-9tPnJw-9tP7oW-9tLh3i-9tKYcx-9tLtZ4-9tLmuX-9tKZqe-9tPm1Y-9tLjVg-9tPizA-9tLBpv-9tLxTZ-9tP31u-9tLzM8-9tPwX1-9tNZLL-aeUJWV-9tKW4c-9tP3uq-9tPbsd-eUubvP-eUuc8x-9tPe6j-9tLg3D-9tKZJz-9tPMob-8irgZe-9tLxwB-bL43TX-9oSJRR-9u9dGq-9u9eu1-bx9khd-bx9jXw-bL3Zqv-dhtnm5-a88jno-7NJQJb-9tPzmo-9oQPY8-7EXEfD-9Berx8-9Bhjuq-9BddRG-9BddAL-9BaDr6-9oS2CX-bwdzz1/lightbox/

    A few weeks ago I wrote a blog about the Flexibility of FixMyStreet. Well, this is the second in that series. I’m aiming to give other ideas for uses of the code for Pombola, our monitoring website, which is currently used for Parliamentary monitoring platforms in a number of countries.

    I say currently because as with all our platforms it doesn’t *have* to be used for parliamentary monitoring. In Pombola you can create a database of people, speeches and organisations, along with news streams (as a blog), social media streams and scorecards. You also have a geographical element which allows you to search for relevant local information in those databases that feed Pombola, such as your local MP.

    We’re really interested in how our platforms could be used for unique uses, so if you have any other ideas don’t hesitate to get in touch!

    Here are my ideas:

    1) Monitoring progress towards climate change goals

    The background: Climate change is a politically charged topic and many of the worlds governments have pledged to meet specific goals by 2020. [1] Organisations like Greenpeace are lobbying for wider recognition and stricter goals from participants. [2] And the impact of climate change is being attributed to everything from flooding to violence [3][4]

    The concept: Create a site using the Pombola code base which has profiles of each government that has pledged to reach specific targets by 2020. The profiles would include a contact address for the department dealing with climate change, information on how often the speakers mention climate change, and information on the targets they have pledged to meet. You could scorecard each country to show how well they’ve progressed towards their goals and the best and worst would be showcased on the front page. If you had some time to do your own modifications then using a promise tracker and some infographics like a heatmap would really add to this!

    Impact it would hope to achieve: The aim would be to create an easily understandable tool for monitoring government pledges to combat climate change worldwide. It would be a great tool for lobbyists and journalists, presenting data as both visualisation and statistics. It would also allow concerned citizens to raise their views through comments on each country profile, thus starting a public dialogue on the site (though this would need moderation).

    2) Monitoring hospital performance in the Middle East and Africa

    The background: Hospitals in the Middle East and Africa were surveyed in 2012 by an independent research group. The group found that an average of 8.2% of patients suffered adverse effects [5] of healthcare management. The WHO believed that this is a failing in training and healthcare management systems [6], which could be addressed.

    The concept: Creating a website that would keep a database of hospitals across a country. Each hospital would have a profile with a breakdown of the services they offered, the area they covered and statistics about their performance, cleanliness and staff training initiatives. A user would be able to search for their city or district and find the best closest hospital to go to for care. You would be able to scorecard the hospitals to give users a first glance view of what the care is like. This really focusses on the core functionality that Pombola gives; a database of people and organisations linked to geographical locations to make it easy for people to see useful local information at a glance.

    Impact it would hope to achieve: As well as giving people the information to make the best choices about their health care, this platform could provide important data for donors to enable them to target aid money to the most needy areas. The overall aim would be to hopefully help improve the quality of care by providing the best easily accessible data to people who can help with training.

    3) Stripped down disaster response database

    The background: Disaster response teams respond to numerous emergencies each year but sometimes the scope of the disaster can be overwhelming [7]. People are often separated and collecting information on who remains missing can be difficult, causing psychological strain. [8] Dependent on the scope and type of disaster people may be displaced for a significant amount of time.

    The concept: A stripped down version of Pombola, simply involving mapping and people databases, to allow people to submit their names and the names of their families. Each person would have a status assigned to them (either missing or found) and people would be able to submit their updates via email to the central database. You could also associate found people with the aid organisation that has taken them in, so families would know who to contact. This could also allow the aid organisations to have a profile themselves, giving people the chance to comment to see if their loved ones had been found. The idea is that it would keep both the records of who is searching for people as well as the people themselves.

    Impact it would hope to achieve: The idea behind this would be to bring psychological relief to friends and families searching for lost loved ones. It would be an electronic bulletin board of missing and found people, and even if people had no access to the internet, NGOs or civil society groups coordinating relief efforts could have, therefore would be able to provide a non-internet version of this service.

    What would you use a site like Pombola for? Ideas on a postcard to international@mysociety.org

    Photo credit cycler: Will Vanlue  | Photo credit G20 Sticker:Toban B  |  Photo credit Chocolate spread:nchenga

    [1] http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2013/aug/02/emissions-reduction-target-15-percent

    [2] http://www.greenpeace.org.uk/groups/cardiff/blog/hey-g8-what-about-climate

    [3] http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-23538771

    [4]http://science.time.com/2013/07/17/the-costs-of-climate-change-and-extreme-weather-are-passing-the-high-water-mark/

    [5] http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-17359796

    [6]http://www.redorbit.com/news/health/1112494030/study-finds-developing-countries-suffer-from-poor-hospital-care/

    [7] Page 3 http://goo.gl/khZBPn

    [8] http://en.wikibooks.org/wiki/ICT_for_Disaster_Management/ICT_for_Disaster_Response

  8. Co-brands, code additions and pull requests

    More and more people are starting to build websites to help people become more powerful in their civic and democratic lives. Some of these are on codebases that mySociety has created which is so great. There are some things which we would love to happen when you take our code and re-use it.

    We want people using our code to keep it as up to date as they can, so that they gain the benefits of any changes made to the code by us or by other users. There are a few reasons for this:

    • You can co-brand the site without breaking anything.

    Dave, one of our developers, explains how you do this. “So suppose, instead of calling it FixMyStreet you want to call it FixMyBorchester with a Borchester logo. Obviously this is a very real requirement, because people want to rebrand. One very feasible (but wrong! As you’ll see…) way of doing this is downloading the FixMyStreet code, finding the bit that paints the FixMyStreet logo and replacing it with the words <h1>FixMyBorchester</h1> and an image. This would work as far as the FixMyBorchester branding would appear on the site.

    But if you then saved and committed your change to git and passed it back to us as a push request, we would reject it. This is for the obvious reason that if we didn’t, next time we deployed FixMyStreet in the UK it would have your logo on it.

    However, say we suddenly discover there is a bug with FixMyStreet. For (a bizarre) example, if someone put the number 0 in instead of a postcode and the site returns a huge picture of a kitten. We love kittens, but that’s not what the site is trying to do. So, we make some fixes to the code that rejects zeros, commit it, update the repo, and it’s now there on the master branch. We write to everyone saying “really everyone, update to the latest (most up-to-date) place on the master branch” And you think, “yeah OK!” and you download the latest version.

    If you just download it and copy it into place, you’re going to lose your FixMyBorchester changes, because there’s a more recent version of that file from us that hasn’t got them. If you did a “git pull” (which roughly means, “git! get me the latest version of master branch”) then git will refuse because there’s a conflict on that file.

    So, instead of inserting your FixMyBorchester stuff over ours, which can’t work, you make a new directory in the right place called ‘FixMyBorchester‘, put your stuff in there and switch the FixMyStreet config — which knows this is something people want to do — to use that cobrand. Any templates FixMyStreet finds in there will now be used instead of ours. You can now safely update the codebase from our repo from time to time and FixMyStreet and git will never damage your templates, because they are in a place it doesn’t mess with.”

    • You can add new features

    Dave continues. “Say when someone uses FixMyBorchester it’s essential that you have their twitter handle, because every time a problem is updated, FixMyBorchester direct-tweets them a kitten for fun. Right now there is no capacity to store a twitter handle for a user in FixMyStreet.

    You simply add a column to the users table in your database and add some code for accepting that twitter handle when you register, and sending the kittens etc. That’s new code that isn’t in FixMyStreet at all. Sooner or later you’ll need to put at least one line into the main FixMyStreet program code to make this happen. As soon as you do that you have the same problem we had before, only this time it’s in code not in an HTML template.

    What we would encourage you to do is put all your new code in a branch that we can look at, and maybe set it to run only if there’s a config setting that says USE_TWITTER=true. That way any implementation that doesn’t want to use twitter, which is — at this point — every other FixMyStreet installation in the world — won’t be affected by it. You send that to us as a pull request and a developer checks it’s not breaking anything, and is up to scratch in quality, and has good test coverage. Then we’ll accept it.

    Even though currently nobody else in the world wants your twitter feature, it’s not breaking anything and it’s now in the repo so you can automatically update from our master when we change bits of our files, and the installation/overwrite/git-pull will work. Plus anyone that does decide they want this feature will now be able to enable it and use it.

    And all of this helps everyone using the code; you have a secure website that can be patched and updated each time we release something, other people have access to features you’ve built and vice versa. And overall, the project becomes more feature rich.

    Please do make changes and push them back to the main codebase!

    Image credit: US Coast Guard CC BY-NC-ND

  9. What should we do about the naming deficit/surplus? – Part 2

    As I wrote in my last post, I am very concerned about the lack of comprehensible, consistent language to talk about the hugely diverse ways in which people are using the internet to bring about social and political change. Pleasingly, it seems I’m not entirely alone in this, as some good posts from Nathaniel Heller and Tiago Peixoto make clear. So, to continue the discussion, I’m going to use this post to set out some suggested language that I’ve been thinking about for a while.

    We need a family of terms – not another one-off slogan

    First up, let’s talk about scope. The problem with so many tech buzzwords is that they’re one-offs, they don’t link to other more familiar ideas nicely. So I started from the view that we need a family of several terms that can be used to describe everything from Wikileaks to Votizen, and that they shouldn’t be too novel or new. We need a family of interlinked terms that concisely and clearly describes both how projects in this broad field are similar and how they are different.

    But before I can set out my suggested family of terms, I need to step back and ask ‘what is this sector we’re talking about naming and segmenting, anyway?’

    A name for the whole sector

    Obviously defining any area of human endeavour is a fraught process: you can’t ever draw a definitive ring around a bunch of ideas, activities or organisations and say ‘this group is perfectly defined and totally unambiguous’.  So instead of losing sleep over that I’m simply going to say that I would find it useful if there was a name for the sector that includes everything from Obama for America to Anonymous to Avaaz to Nation Builder to the Sunlight Foundation.

    My approach to finding an appropriate name was to look at the way that other internet industry sectors are named, so that I could choose a name that sits nicely next to very familiar sectoral labels. For example, there’s ecommerce, which deals with people’s need to shop. There’s online dating, which is about people’s need for relationships. There are social networks, which are about serving people’s needs to keep up with their friends. What divides these sectors, broadly speaking? The answer is that each sector is primarily focussed on serving a different kind of user need (please note the ‘primarily’ there – there are obviously overlaps).  Whether you need music, or games, or financial services, or medical advice – there’s a relatively clearly named sector already online to help you.

    So what is the unifying need that ties together things are different as Wikileaks, Anonymous, Kiva or the Open Knowledge Foundation? I would argue that despite their many differences, all of the organisations in this sector are about serving people’s need to obtain and deploy power.

    Now I know that power can sound like a negative word (as in ‘power mad’ or ‘absolute power’), but I am using it in a non-judgemental way. Wikipedia defines power as ‘the ability to influence the behaviour of people’. When you vote, or sign a petition, or retweet a political link you’re trying to exert some power over someone somewhere, and that doesn’t make you a bad person!

    So I suggest that we name the broad field in which we work the Civic Power sector. Why these two words? Because unlike ‘open’ or ‘peer’ or ‘digital’ I think that most people will have a rough sense of what these two words mean, especially when sandwiched together.  I hope you can see Civic Power sitting reasonably nicely alongside existing fields like ecommerce, gaming, streaming video, online news and so on.

    Segmenting the Civic Power sector

    Choosing a single sectoral name – Civic Power – is not really the point of this exercise. The real benefit would come from being able to segment the many projects within this sector so that they are more easy to compare and contrast.

    Here is my suggested four part segmentation of the Civic Power sector:

    1. Decision Influencing organisations

    2. Regime Changing organisations

    3. Citizen Empowering organisations

    4. Digital Government organisations

    So, what do these terms mean?

    I’ve tried to keep the names as self explanatory as I can. Here’s what I mean by my four titles:

    1. Decision influencing organisations try to directly shape or change particular decisions made by powerful individuals or organisations.
    2. Regime changing organisations try to replace decision makers, not persuade them.
    3. Citizen Empowering organisations try to give people the resources and the confidence required to exert power for whatever purpose those people see fit, both now and in the future.
    4. Digital Government organisations try to improve the ways in which governments acquire and use computers and networks. Strictly speaking this is just a sub-category of ‘decision influencing organisation’, on a par with an environmental group or a union, but more geeky.

    Putting Organisations into Categories

    To make it all a bit more practical, here’s a table where I put various well known digital-native groups into different categories, based on each organisation’s primary mission. Note that many organisations listed below will have activities that fit into several of these categories, but I am segmenting them by their core purposes, or, to put it another way – their founders’ main desires:

     

     

    FYI the ‘REBEL’ logo refers to Tamarod, in Egypt, and their massive anti-Morsi petition.

    Can you sub-segment these even further?

    Even these categories are still pretty big. I can certainly see how further sub-segmentations might work, like ‘Transparency-based decision influencing organisations’ (e.g. Human Rights Watch) vs ‘Legal challenge-based decision influencing organisations’ (e.g. EFF). But I don’t think it is worth delving deeper down the hierarchy until a debate has been had about the top of the tree.

     

    Feedback

    So there we go, one part-baked naming system awaiting your feedback. Please let me know if you have any problems with this structure, or if you can see better ways of saying the same things. For me, I’m just pleased that I have some terms which I can try to use to make slightly more sense of the complex world in which mySociety finds itself.

  10. The Flexibility of FixMyStreet

    A lot of people come to mySociety to reuse our code having seen the UK websites, which is great! Then you can see what we’re trying to do in the UK and how you could replicate it abroad. But what I wonder, and what lead me to write this blog post, is are we reining in your imagination for what these platforms could be used for?

    9 times out of 10, when someone contacts me about FixMyStreet, it’s for street reporting problems. Naturally, it’s in the name of the platform!  But we do get the occasional request to use it differently, which is something we’re really keen to explore. Here are some things I think it could be used for, that aren’t street related:

     

    1) Antiretroviral Drug shortages in clinics in Africa.

    The background: 34% of the world’s HIV positive population currently live in Southern or Eastern Africa [1]. These people need antiretroviral drugs to survive, some of which could be supplied by the Government’s medical stores, some of which could be supplied by charities, but it is often reported that there are shortages of drugs at some clinics [2][3]

    The concept: A mobile responsive FixMyStreet site which health clinic staff can use to report the status of their stock to the relevant supplier. The site would instantly send an email to the clinic supplier when the staff member dropped a pin on their clinic on a map in the site. There could be different alert categories such as “stock running low”, “stock critically low” and “Out of stock”

    Impact it would hope to achieve: The aim would be to enable clinics to report on the status of their stock far enough in advance that the supplier could order and deliver stock before they hit the Critically low or Out of Stock status. This would mean that people would always be supplied with ARVs if they need them. Another point would be that patients could check the map to see if the clinic in their area has stock of the ARVs they need, and potentially choose another clinic if there is a shortage.

     

    2) Contributing data on endangered wildlife

    The background: It’s no surprise to anyone to hear that some species of wildlife are under threat. Wildlife conservation charities, like the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), annually monitor population levels for endangered species [4] to ensure they have accurate data on population growth or decline and the lifestyles and habitats of the wildlife they are aiming to preserve.

    The concept: A mobile responsive FixMyStreet site which allows people to report sightings of endangered animals to wildlife conservation charities. The site would be tailored for area (eg the endangered animals native to certain countries) or could simply be per species (eg mammals, avians etc). The public would then be able to take a picture of the animal, attach it to the report and leave a short message, like “2 adult bitterns accompanied by young seen at 10:41am). The report will give the charities the location the animal was spotted in and they will be able to add this to their research data.

    Impact it would hope to achieve: Hopefully this idea would contribute valuable data to the research of Wildlife Conservation charities. Another hope is that it would make people more interested in the wildlife in their surrounding area, thus more involved in conserving it and its habitat.

     

    3) Reporting polluted Waterways

    The background: You may have seen the reports from China earlier this year about the dead pigs found in the Huangpu River [5]. It’s not just a Chinese phenomenon: around the world rivers, canals and lakes are becoming more and more polluted. [6] In fact the statistics coming from the UN are quite shocking[7]. This not only has a harmful effect on wildlife in the river, but could lead to longer term issues with clean drinking water, especially in countries where cleaning polluted water is an expensive option.

    The concept: This is very similar to the classic FixMyStreet. A website would be set up where a person could submit a photo and report of a polluted waterway by dropping a pin on a map at the position of the river. This report would then get sent to the local council or persons responsible for caring for the waterway.

    Impact it would hope to achieve: Similarly to FixMyStreet in the UK, this would help to get citizens more actively involved in their local area and government. The idea would also be that the council would hopefully start dedicating more resources to clear rivers and waterways. Or local residents could form a group to remove litter themselves. In the case of chemical or oil spills this would obviously not be advised. However if chemical waste or oil spillages were noticed to be originating from specific buildings then the council would have the opportunity to bring this up with the residents or companies in these buildings.

     

    So those are some of my ideas! What are yours?

    We’re actively looking to support non-street uses of FixMyStreet so please do get in contact  on international@mysociety.org with your ideas and we’ll work together to see how we can achieve them!

    Oh, and, don’t worry if you still want a classic FixMyStreet, we’ll help you with that too!

     

    References:

    [1]http://www.unicef.org/esaro/5482_HIV_AIDS.html

    [2]http://allafrica.com/stories/201307070100.html

    [3]http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3194149/

    [4]http://www.rspb.org.uk/ourwork/projects/details/258718-annual-bittern-monitoring-

    [5]http://behindthewall.nbcnews.com/_news/2013/03/18/17357810-china-rivers-dead-pig-toll-passes-13000-but-officials-say-water-quality-is-normal?lite

    [6]https://www.gov.uk/government/consultations/tackling-water-pollution-from-the-urban-environment

    [7]http://www.unwater.org/statistics/en/

    [8] Orangutan by Matthew Kang

    [9] Primary colours by Vineet Radhakrishnan