In my last post I described how we’re taking stock of where and how we’re delivering against our theory of change to give greater influence to citizens over those with power.
Since starting at mySociety I’ve spent my time meeting lots of lovely people, getting to know the team, our funders, partners and peers and finding out how mySociety does what it does.
One thing I have learned is that despite our British roots, the majority of our work is now international, and we work with wonderful partners in over 35 countries around the world, from Ukraine to South Africa, Liberia to Norway. In each case they tend to be activists, journalists and NGOs who are passionate about better government, citizen empowerment, and fighting corruption.
Our success is defined by our partners’ success – so in order to best support our partners I’d like to talk a little bit about some of the practical steps we’re taking to consolidate what we already have and scale up what works.
Four Simple Goals
The core mission of mySociety remains the same: to invent and popularise websites and apps that enable citizens around the world to exert power over institutions and decision makers.
We see the need to both ‘invent’ and ‘popularise’ digital tools as equally important – digital tools can be useful in developing new approaches to difficult problems, but we must ensure they are both widely used and actually enable citizens to be capable of demanding better.
In order to best help our partners and to better understand the impact of our work we have four really simple goals that will direct our efforts over the next few years:
1. Encourage more people
to use our websites and apps
in more countries
2. Work with more partners
to help them get better at
using digital tools
3. Prove what works and
feed those learnings back into
the wider community
4. Take a lead role in
making technology more useful
to civil society
Planning For Success
In addition to running our successful UK sites TheyWorkForYou.com, WhatDoTheyKnow.com, WriteToThem.com and FixMyStreet.com, we’ll continue to work with our partners to improve our existing services, making them easier to deploy and better integrated together.
We’ve recently established a quarterly call for new proposals for potential new partners who wish to set up new sites of their own from our roster of services (FOI, Parliaments and Elections, FixMyStreet). This helps inform potential partners of what’s involved before getting started, and helps us better target our resources and plan for success upfront.
We’re also putting more effort into increasing the impact and usage of our existing sites and services, by providing targeted development support, training, direct funding and additional technical development. Helping to sustain each site through the difficult first year or two should be a major marker of success.
Proving What Works
One major thing that will change is putting our research much more front and centre to our work, in order to create a greater evidence base for the impacts of civic technology and ensuring we are able to talk about this widely and publicly.
You’ll see us carry out much more inclusive and comparative impact research on the use of civic technology encompassing individual, socio-political and sector-specific factors.
If you haven’t already read our latest research paper ‘Who Benefits From Civic Technology?’ then please do have a look. This is an important first step in laying down the case for impact, being honest about where more work is required and focusing our efforts to create a greater evidence base for civic technology as a whole.
Our long-term aim is to establish a global hub for impact research, and assist more civic tech organisations to assess and improve the impact of their own work. To this end we’ll be hosting our next TICTeC – The Impacts of Civic Technology Conference, in Barcelona on the 27th and 28th of April next year.
This will be an important opportunity to share and discuss research findings and key challenges from across the sector and we hope to see many of you there in person.
Where We Go Next
Over the past decade, through a process of experimentation, consultation and measurement, mySociety have created a portfolio of popular, proven online services, used by over 10 million people each year.
This is an amazing legacy to take on.
Over the next decade I hope that we’ll continue this work, and seek to further establish mySociety as one of the leading international civic technology institutions, providing much-needed global leadership and inspiration in our sector – if we could come to be seen as having a similar impact to that of an Article 19 or Human Rights Watch in our own field, then I think that will be a pretty good measure of success.
For the moment we’ll continue to focus on the practical steps we need to take in order to improve and build upon what we already have, but I’m excited about the plans we have for the future and I’ll share more details on what we have in store in the weeks to come.
Why we do what we do. No, not the name of a wonderfully named new mySociety product, instead it’s an excuse for me to take stock of where we are and where we go next.
Inevitably over the past decade we’ve tackled lots of issues and projects from lots of different angles. What we’re currently focused on is Freedom of Information, Parliaments and Elections, and Local Issue Reporting.
What links all of our work is the creation of civic technology that enables greater access for citizens to the work of government and the democratic process:
Lack of access to elected representatives amongst disadvantaged or underrepresented groups is a key driver of exclusion and inequality, yet governments tend only to become better at serving the needs of citizens when those citizens are capable of demanding better.
Simply put, this is our cause.
Our Theory Of Change
Citizens will only demand better from governments if they have access to a mix of often scarce resources: from education, to wealth, to knowledge about government failings. At mySociety we are highly aware that we can’t give people most of these things: we can’t boost business in failing economies or bring teachers into schools that have none. These are the tasks of development funders, political leaders and well-regulated markets.
Tremendous human suffering happens when governments fail to serve the needs of their citizens, and human welfare is dramatically increased when governments serve citizens’ needs well. Some governments are excellent at meeting some citizen needs, but weak at meeting others, harming a minority, often invisibly. Others make no attempt to meet any of their citizens’ needs, robbing, starving and failing them in every possible way.
Our theory of change is based on a reading of political history, and specifically of the history of reform campaigns, such as those that drove the democratisation of nations from the 17th to the 20th century. We believe that governments tend only to get better at serving the needs of citizens when citizens are capable of demanding better, creating a virtuous circle that leads steadily to better government.
Each of our services give citizens the skills, confidence and knowledge they need in order to be capable of demanding better.
Freedom of Information
FOI is a core plank of a healthy, transparent and accountable democracy. Every citizen should have the right to query and understand the workings of government and public bodies on their own terms.
Alaveteli is our platform for FOI request websites. We currently support partners in over 20 countries, from Australia to Hungary, Nicaragua to Ukraine, as well as a pan-European site AskTheEU. Our most successful site is WhatDoTheyKnow in the UK, with almost 300,000 individual FOI requests alone – drawn from over 16,000 UK public bodies.
Over the next year we will continue to refine and develop Alaveteli to better support the expansion and proper use of FOI around the world. At the same time, we’ll be actively campaigning to preserve FOI in the UK which is currently under threat from the Government’s FOI commission.
Parliaments and Elections
The activities of Government can often be opaque and difficult to interpret. We improve access to elected representatives, providing clarity, context and understanding to the decisions they make on our behalf.
We tackle the workings of government at a variety of points throughout the electoral cycle; YourNextMP/Rep for candidate information, TheyWorkForYou and WriteToThem allow people to query and explain the workings of government at all levels.
Increasingly central to these efforts is EveryPolitician, our crowdsourcing effort to sustainably store and share a structured open data set of every national politician around the world. It currently holds data on more than 60,000 politicians from over 230 territories.
In the next few weeks we’ll complete work to integrate all of our existing Parliament services with EveryPolitician and continue to encourage more journalists, developers, and NGOs to create the tools they need in their own countries.
Local Issue Reporting
FixMyStreet gets right to the root of any disconnect between citizens and those who provide their local services. Literally dealing with street-level issues, FixMyStreet can help turn our everyday feelings of frustration into action.
The original and much emulated FixMyStreet.com makes it easy to report street faults like broken street lights or potholes, raising over 650,000 reports in the last 8 years.
We’ve extended the principle of issue – reporting – resolution, to create a generalised platform catering to a variety of interesting and practical new use cases; with projects as varied as empty home identification, or logging road collisions and near misses for cyclists.
Citizens feel more in control. Local councils can target their efforts more effectively. Together this can contribute to better government.
For the moment we’ll continue to consolidate our offer in these three areas.
There’s ample scope for further development, refinement of concepts and of course directly increasing the impact of currently deployed sites.
What gets really interesting is when we start to scale up the delivery of each of these in more countries, delivered to more people, ensuring we see more citizens gain greater influence over those with power.
I’ll post again later this week about some of the practical changes that we are making to better encourage the take up of our services and how we’re improving the way we work with our partners.
Today is my last day and it seems appropriate to sign off with a blog post, 11 years and 5 months after the first one that I can find.
It feels too early to share any deep thoughts on what mySociety means, where we are with civic tech, what worked and what didn’t, what I learned as a founder and what we should all be focusing on next.
One of my many reasons for wanting to move on was to regain the kind of mental freshness and detachment that comes from having fewer responsibilities for a while. So I promise that I’ll think and write more.
Follow me on Twitter if you want to, or add your email address to my new notification list if you just want a ping when I’ve written something. Or mail me direct at firstname.lastname@example.org if you want to talk about anything.
My main reason for writing today is to thank people. A lot of people gave up very significant portions of their lives to get mySociety to a point where it helps so many people in so many countries in so many different ways.
So I’ve written a huge list of thankyous. If you’re missing, ping me and I’ll thank you too
Thank you to:
Paul Lenz for his strength, energy, focus, morality, tolerance of my foibles, and his financial and legal skills that stop this happening to me.
Tim Morley for loving and caring for PledgeBank for so many years, and for bringing a little Esperanto to our lives. And for cooking.
James Crabtree for writing the original article that said that something like mySociety should exist, and for being a patient trustee from many timezones away
Tony Bowden for being the first person to try to help people outside the UK to benefit from the ideas and tools we’d built here, and for the miracle that is EveryPolitician (100+ countries, anyone?)
James Cronin for being the chair of trustees for so long, and doing so with a calm, kind level-headedness that I think would drive other charity CEO’s wild with jealousy. And for being such a key part of starting mySociety in the first place.
Mark Cridge for taking on the challenge of running mySociety, and for resisting the temptation to use me as a scapegoat for everything [n.b. this thanks may be retroactively repealed]
Ian Chard for keeping the server lights on, for making me believe I can do more with every day of my life, and for telling me about the British Library’s amazing online newspaper archive.
FOIMonkey for spotting when councils dump tons of private data out via accidental FOI. You are what other people mean by eternal vigilance.
Deborah Kerr for being eternally patient and kind to the users, even when they were taxing, and for doing super retreat organising on a shoestring.
Ganesh Sittampalam for a billion hours of patient FOI administration, helping make WhatDoTheyKnow the institution it is today.
Alex Skene for so much volunteering on WhatDoTheyKnow, for grown-up management advice that I took seriously, and for surprising me at the Olympics
Abi Broom for nothing*.
Richard Taylor for years of diligent volunteering on WhatDoTheyKnow, making us all laugh with his videos of council meetings, and being perhaps the most knowledgeable person about every vote in Parliament who has ever lived.
Adam MacGreggor for server cabinet wrangling at difficult moments.
Ben Nickolls for heading up such a happy, productive commercial team, and for helping me understand that £200 is an entirely reasonable sum to spend on bicycle pedals.
Owen Blacker for a lot of trustees meetings, and for always keeping us spiritually close to the digital rights world.
Ethan Zuckerman for helping me gain perspective, and for being my biggest fan in the USA.
Jen Pahlka for being an even bigger fan than Ethan, and for endlessly quoting me on stages around the world.
Sam Smith for early hacking, for running OpenTech, and for reminding me that chippiness always has a place.
Dave Whiteland for the stories, and for travelling far and wide to help people take advantage of our tools and learnings. And, on a personal note, for showing me what it means to be a truly good son.
Michal Migurski for making Mapumental so beautiful, and for bringing your tech skills to Code for America
Amandeep Rehlon for being the volunteer finance department before we had a finance department, and for giving me the unique pleasure of sending my expense receipts to the Bank of England’s financial crises department.
Bill Thompson for organising the first puntcon, where I first met Chris. And for giving feedback on the very earliest versions of the mySociety plan.
Etienne Pollard for helping at every stage, whether a drama hippy, a McKinsey suit, or a harried public servant.
Stephen King for, yes, representing our biggest funder, but also for being clear, friendly, and a quiet champion for mySociety. And for sometimes helping translate from Californian to English.
Alistair Sloan for being such a dedicated WhatDoTheyKnow volunteer that he once got the bus from Glasgow to London for a meeting.
Duncan Parkes for making Mapumental performant in the post-flash era, even when it looked like it might not be possible. And for the best retreat presentation ever.
Struan Donald for the puns, the deadpan one liners, and for making both FixMyStreet and TheyWorkForYou so much better.
Micah Sifry and Ellen Miller for making me unofficial members of the US civic tech family.
Eben Upton, now Raspberry Pi legend, who booked me a speaking gig in the Cambridge Microsoft Research labs which is where I first met Francis Irving and (I think) Chris Lightfoot.
Dan Jellinek for bringing together VoxPolitics with me and James Crabtree, which was the precursor to mySociety.
Janet Haven for the money. For her ‘massive thermonuclear powered bullshit detector’ [ht Tom Longley]. And, oh yes, for becoming a friend too.
Ayesha and Keith Garrett for design help on PledgeBank, and sysadmin skills, long ago.
Tim Jackson for taking a philanthropic punt on a wild idea, long ago, which worked.
Robin Houston for doing battle on a project you didn’t really love, but that was for the right purpose.
Pierre Omidyar for making all that money at eBay, and then deciding that we deserved some of it.
Tom Loosemore for hacking together our very first web presence, and for being a positive, confidence inspiring presence in good times and bad ever since.
Mike Bracken for the vital job of helping us get out first significant grant, and then years later for successfully smuggling mySociety values into government.
Richard Pope for being a ceaseless fount of new ideas, and for driving the first redesign of TheyWorkForYou.
Edmund von der Burg for showing that you can both be a charming coder, and capable of building an office out of a shipping container, with your own hands.
Julian Todd for realising that vote data in the UK parliament deserved clear, regular, semi-automated analysis to make it useful for most people, and then for making it real in PublicWhip. If history is fair it will note him as the inventor of modern vote analyses.
Helen Goulden for helping us navigate the tricky paths to government money, back when there was any.
Doug Paulley for blazing onto the scene as an amazing new WhatDoTheyKnow volunteer.
Martin Wright for turning us from an organisation that sucked at design, to one that really rocks. And for his enduring love of Yo.
Stef Magdalinski for the name of the charity, and for trusting me with TheyWorkForYou
Nick Jackson for happy rats and research stats.
Jason Kitcat for the very first mySociety.org!
Matt Jones for mySociety’s logo, which is still going strong, albeit in a gently shaded new style.
Alex Smith for helping us through TV-driven load spikes with customarily despairing good humour.
Manar Hussain for diligent, challenging trusteeship that was always good humoured, and never afraid to bring in new ideas.
The public sector for being such a terrible employer of programming talent that it gave us both Matthew and Steve
John Cross for being a brilliant WhatDoTheyKnow volunteer.
Steve Day for being a brilliant, sensitive engineering manager, wise far beyond his age, all whilst riding a BMX.
Christoph Dowe for helping organise the series of Berlin-based conferences that first brought together Europe’s civic hackers, and which ultimately helped attract funding to the scene.
Liz Conlan for the coffee advice
Chris Mytton – for introducing the words ‘craft ales’ to mySociety’s internal discourse, for showing that not going to university has no impact on your ability to be either an amazing coder or a well rounded human being.
Steve Clift for being there to talk to about digital politics when nobody else was interested, and for loving Poplus into life.
Dave Arter for wrestling Mapumental into a truly beautiful state, for your Github robot, and for convincing me that Wales is disproportionately full of bright young coders.
Gareth Rees for helping make Alaveteli our most-used platform, and for bringing a little race-car glamour to our team.
Rebecca Rumbul for getting our new research programme of to a flying start, and for showing me that the art of creative swearing is never truly mastered
Jen Bramley for cheerfully travelling the world and making people feel that mySociety must be worth working with if everyone is so nice
Gemma Humphrys for bringing a tornado of efficiency to our events organisation, and for having absolutely no boundaries that I am aware of.
Rowena Young for being a person I could really moan to, when things got tough.
Myf Nixon for being our organisation’s voice, for looking after our users, and for making sure that we get noticed.
Tony Blair for starting a war that inspired Julian Todd to build PublicWhip, and much later for commissioning a petitions website that caused all sorts of fun and games.
Seb Bacon for making DemocracyClub happen in 2010, for starting the conversion of WhatDoTheyKnow.com into the generic Alaveteli, and for going off to OpenCorporates to make it harder for the b*&^&ds to get away with it.
Sym Roe for making DemocracyClub happen in 2015, and for giving a lot of his time to the cause of good political information in the UK.
Tim Green for being the new Chris Lightfoot
Tom Longley for giving us a no-nonsense introduction to how hard it was going to be to conduct successful partnerships in the developing world.
Mark Longair for making sure that technological excellence and human kindness are are the core of what we do.
Camilla Aldrich for the lungs
Angie Martin for giving all she could, for as long as she could.
Zarino Zappia for ceaseless energy and good humour, and for asking hilariously straight questions about why we made terrible design decisions previously
Karl Grundy, Kristina Glushkova and Mike Thompson for helping us grow a commercial team, over several years.
The vandal who repeatedly smashed up the phone booth on London’s Caledonian Road, and thus planted the idea for FixMyStreet
William Perrin for helping make government interested in data and tech before it was cool, and for virtually single-handedly starting the UK government’s work on Open Data. And for all the support and the ideas in his post civil service life.
Fran Perrin for the support, and for protecting me from William’s ideas.
Louise Crow for showing me what a technology leader really looks like.
Matthew Somerville for always standing up for the user, for making everything work, and for doing it all in a tenth the time expected. And for a hug when I needed it most.
Francis Irving for joining at the right time, for leaving at the right time, and being a monster of thoughtful product design and speedy, skilful implementation in between. For always being excited, and always wise.
Chris Lightfoot for giving me a brief, life-changing glimpse of what the raging, brilliant light of genius looks like. And being the person who introduced me to Anna.
Anna Powell-Smith for everything, everyday.
* Trust me, this is how she’d want it
Websites and apps that help people work out which party or candidate to vote for are all the rage (the biggest one in Germany got used over 13 million times in 2013). Partly for public interest, and partly for my own curiosity, I thought I’d publish a list of these ‘Voter Advice Applications’ (or VAAs for short), and I’ll try to keep it updated as the election approaches. Please leave comments or tweet @steiny if you come across any new suggestions – I’m certain this list will grow a lot.
YourCandidates.org.uk – added 30th March
Tickbox – added 30th March
Whoshallivotefor.com – added 30th March
WhoGetsMyVoteUK – added 3rd April
Verto – added 3rd April
Voting Counts Policy Matrix – added 21st April
Your Democracy – added 21st April
Awedience – added 22nd April
Fantasy Frontbench – added 27th April
The Telegraph’s deployment of Vote Match – added 3rd April. I think this was the biggest in 2010, not sure.
Election Compass UK – added April 8th – appears to be embedded into various local newspaper websites, but have no presence of its own online.
The Economist’s 2015 Election Quiz – added April 24th
The Mash ‘Who to Vote for’ test – Parody and *warning* midly NSFW <– But officially a sign that VAAs are now bona fide cultural phenomena – added 27th April
Votr (mobile app) – added May 5th
If you just want to check your your candidates yourself
Image credit – The Puzzled Voter – By Walter Montgomery [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
* Disclosure: This is partly run as a spare-time project by mySociety’s own Paul Lenz
In Austerity Britain, nothing could be less fashionable or more politically unrealistic than proposing an idea that would cost a lot of public money. But I’ve never been especially fashion conscious, and some ideas are worth debating even when they are inconvenient, so I might as well say it: the world needs the modern equivalent of public service broadcasters. It needs them today, and it’s going to need them a lot more in the future.
“Now hold on there sonny,” you might say, “the world’s already full of public service broadcasters!”. And, indeed, you’d be right – Public Service Broadcasters across the world have developed huge websites and torrents of apps. They get massive amounts of traffic, and in the best instances they serve their users really well.
But. Public Service Broadcasters are fundamentally storytellers. This is both their tremendous strength and their great blind spot when it comes to digital.
The BBC, for example, is a fantastic storyteller. It tells the story of today’s news, the story of sporting heroes, the story of tomorrow’s weather. It tells fictional stories of Time Lords and cartoon animals that define our culture and help bind us together as a country. Having grown up in Britain I have the whole warm-and-fuzzy emotional relationship with the BBC that almost everyone here has. And it gets gigantic digital traffic, as well as large TV and radio audiences. It is safe to say that the BBC does stories as well as anyone, ever, including online.
But. The internet isn’t just about stories.
There are plenty of stories on the internet, but a huge part of the net is about tools and services and answers, not narratives. It’s about Skype and Gmail and Wikipedia. In my sector it’s about WhatDoTheyKnow.com and IsThereSewageInTheChicagoRiver.com. At a lower level it’s about TLS and Django.
And there’s no getting away from the fact that now, as the Web turns 25, it doesn’t feel like the market is delivering everything people need from the net. It’s not doing a great job at preventing security problems like Heartbleed. It’s not doing a great job at providing services that aren’t subsidised by advertising, or that respect privacy very much. It’s not doing a great job at providing online spaces that are safe and respectful for women. It’s not doing a great job at providing technologies that the public sector or civil society can use without being at major risk of exploitation from suppliers.
I don’t know what a Digital Public Service Corporation should ultimately look like. I don’t know how big it should be, or what it should have as its mission, or even what country the first one should be set up in (Britain seems highly unlikely).
However, in a world in which huge amounts of our lives are mediated digitally, it just seems improbable that every single liberal democracy will conclude that every aspect of our digital lives will happily, permanently be delivered exclusively by transnational companies. History suggests that state intervention to produce a somewhat mixed economy is just more probable. It happened in broadcasting, it happened in research, it happened in industry. And the reasons never go away – politicians eventually come to feel that a market is failing for some reason, or that there are moral or social values that are not embedded in purely private solutions.
If there’s going to be a mixed economy, then there’s no point in avoiding the big questions. What are these new entities going to look like? How will they be regulated to stop them going bad, or smashing up healthy markets? And, crucially, how are we going to persuade our fellow citizens that these things are worth paying serious money for?
I wouldn’t be at all surprised if it takes decades, or if the process turns deeply political and ugly. But we have to start somewhere. Otherwise I’m not quite sure how we’ll ever end up with the web we want.
PPS Updated SSL to TLS, sorry for being such a grandpa
This weekend Micah Sifry helpfully restarted the debate on what names we should give to the sort of stuff that mySociety does, or that Code for America does, or that Meetup.com does.
In the time since I last wrote on this topic, it seems that one term has emerged as the clear brand-of-the-minute, and that’s the term Civic Tech. Here you can see how it has bested some veterans like ‘eGovernment’ and ‘Gov 2.0’ (although ‘Digital Government’ is a clear outlier, too).
If I were to speculate why it has won out, I’d go for two things. First is that it is easy to say. Civic Tech has just three syllables and trips off the tongue quite easily. Second, the Knight Foundation (disclosure – a mySociety funder) has had a big impact by publicly mapping the field using civic tech as their key term.
So what does Civic Tech mean?
And this is where things get immediately tricky. Because in the last week I’ve seen and heard people using it to mean both:
- Tech that’s all about citizens exerting and obtaining power
- Tech that’s all about improving government services
With the exception of voter registration, these are normally quite separate things, so this term is definitely a big tent.
Personally I have no problem with a high level term encompassing diverse ideas. There’s a massive variety of variance and specialisation under a word like ‘lobbying’, for example, but it doesn’t stop it being a useful concept.
However, we do need to be careful to make sure that Civic Tech doesn’t simply become the new word for e-government (now that that term is e-mbarrasingly ant-i-quated). If it does become the ‘new e-government’ then everyone who builds tools that exist to do things to governments (Change.org, Nationbuilder, etc etc) will walk away from ‘Civic Tech’ and invent yet another term to describe what they do.
Extending ‘Civic Tech’
So, how can we preserve the popularity of this new term, but not alienate people who don’t consider themselves to work in the digital government sector? Here’s a go, based on the categories I wrote about last time:
- Meetup and mySociety are Civic Tech groups focused on citizen empowerment
- Code for America and GDS are Civic Tech groups focused on better digital government
- Netroots Nation and Nationbuilder are Civic Tech groups focused on regime changing
- Wikileaks and 38 Degrees are Civic Tech groups focused on influencing decisions
As always with this debate, these examples are more tentative suggestions in an ever-fluid field. I don’t for a moment mind that the somewhat-clunky ‘Civic Power Sector’ has died the death, names have to be catchy to stick.
I hope these bullets and ideas stimulate a bit more discussion, and who knows, maybe even some day some sort of rough consensus…
Lastly, I’m conscious that most of Micah’s post was actually about evaluating success or failure in civic tech. That’s a vital issue, but one that I think can be separated from the basic language of the field. I hope to come back to that in future posts.
Until about two years ago I was quite actively involved in the Open Data movement. I sat in on the 2007 gathering in California where the first Open Data Principles were drafted, and later sat on the Transparency Board at the UK government.
I stopped being involved in early 2012 because I saw a couple of things happening. First, the Open Data baton had been picked up by dedicated, focused advocates like the Open Data Institute and the Open Knowledge Foundation, who could give 100% to fighting this fight (I always had to fit it around managing a growing organisation with other goals). And second I felt that the surge of relatively meaningful data releases in the country I live in (the UK) had pretty much come to an end. The real policy action and innovation will now happen in more rapidly-changing countries where transparency is a more visceral issue.
Still, despite walking away, I remained optimistic. It seemed more or less impossible to imagine that in twenty years’ time that there wouldn’t be quite a bit more Open Data around, especially in rich countries. But given the virtually-zero political gain to be had from this agenda in countries like the UK, where is said data actually going to come from?
Learning from Microsoft (really)
The more I thought about it, the more I realised that we’d already seen the answer in the form of Microsoft. Throughout the 1990s the .doc and .xls standard rose and took over governments around the world, even though there was never anything like a clear policy process that drove that decision.
There was certainly no high profile ‘Microsoft Government Partnership’ with international conferences and presidential speeches. Instead there was a safe, ‘no brainer’ product that governments bought to solve their problems, and these data standards came with it. The pressure on governments to do anything at all probably came from the fact that the private sector had widely adopted Office first.
I think that a recurrence of this phenomenon – change-through-replacing-old-computers – is where Open Data at real scale is going to come from. I think it’s going to come from old government computers being thrown away at their end-of-life and replaced with new computers that have software on them that produces Open Data more or less by default.
The big but
However, there’s a big BUT here. What if the new computers don’t come with tools that produce Open Data? This is where SayIt comes in, as an example of a relatively low-cost approach to making sure that the next generation of government IT systems do produce Open Data.
SayIt is a newly launched open source tool for publishing transcripts of trials, debates, interviews and so on. It publishes them online in a way that matches modern expectations about how stuff should work on the web – responsive, searchable and so on. It’s being built as a Poplus Component, which means it’s part of an international network of groups collaborating on shared technologies. Here’s JK Rowling being interviewed, published via SayIt.
But how does this little tool relate to the business of getting governments to release more Open Data? Well, SayIt isn’t just about publishing data, it’s about making it too – in a few months we’ll be sharing an authoring interface for making new transcripts from whatever source a user has access to.
We hope that having iterated and improved this authoring interface, SayIt can become the tool of choice for public sector transcribers, replacing whatever tool they use today (almost certainly Word). Then, if they use SayIt to make a transcript, instead of Word, then it will produce new, instantly-online Open Data every time they use it.
The true Open Data challenge is building brilliant products
But we can’t expect the public sector to use a tool like SayIt to make new Open Data unless it is cheaper, better and less burdensome than whatever they’re using now. We can’t – quite simply – expect to sell government procurement officers a new product mainly on the virtues of Open Data. This means the tough task of persuading government employees that there is a new tool that is head-and-shoulders better than Excel or Word for certain purposes: formidable, familiar products that are much better than their critics like to let on.
So in order for SayIt to replace the current tools used by any current transcriber, it’s going to have to be really, really good. And really trustworthy. And it’s going to have to be well marketed. And that’s why we’ve chosen to build SayIt as an international, open source collaboration – as a Poplus Component. Because we think that without the billions of dollars it takes to compete with Microsoft, our best hope is to develop very narrow tools that do 0.01% of what Word does, but which do that one thing really really well. And our key strategic advantage, other than the trust that comes with Open Source and Open Standards, is the energy of the global civic hacking and government IT reform sector. SayIt is far more likely to succeed if it has ideas and inputs from contributors from around the world.
Regardless of whether or not SayIt ever succeeds in penetrating inside governments, this post is about an idea that such an approach represents. The idea is that people can advance the Open Data agenda not just by lobbying, but also by building and popularising tools that mean that data is born open in the first place. I hope this post will encourage more people to work on such tools, either on your own, or via collaborations like Poplus.
Photo by Troy Morris (CC)
I recently read a post by Ashe Dryden which has led me to edit a job advert we currently have online. I thought the story might be of interest.
Ashe notes that it is becoming increasingly common to look at a coder’s public GitHub pages and contributions as a way of getting a quick view of their skills and energy. The basic idea is that someone with loads of public, well documented code is probably a good coder you want to have on board – and someone with an altruistic interest in free and open source technology to boot. What could be wrong with that?
The gist of Ashe’s argument is that there’s actually quite a big problem with this. What it all boils down to is the fact that contributions to GitHub aren’t just a sign of someone’s enthusiasm or skill, it’s also a sign that they have the good fortune to have lots of spare time. And guess what – the people who have lots of spare time are also people who tend to have a lot of other privileges in life.
So, as a response to Ashe’s challenge, I have removed the requirement in our latest job advert to have proof that you have been willing and able to do impressive things in your spare time. We will still vet people for enthusiasm and passion – especially important at a mission-driven non-profit like mySociety – but we won’t do it in ways that potentially exclude people who could make a big contribution to our goals.
NB We are advertising for three different roles right now, not just coders. Do please take a look.
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.
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)