Quick question – don’t think too hard about it: what is Amazon?
At one level, Amazon is the world’s largest online retailer, a public company listed on the NASDAQ. At another level – the physical – it is a collection of over 50,000 employees, hundreds of warehouses and zillions of servers.
But for most people Amazon is fundamentally a website.
Sure, it’s an extremely impressive website that can send you parcels in the post, and which can relieve you of money with terrifying ease. But to most people the company has very little reality beyond the big white-blue-and-orange website and the brown cardboard packages.
The same process is happening to the bits of the government that I interact with – the physical reality of bricks and mortar and people and parks is starting to disappear behind the websites.
Government is increasingly a thing I don’t have any mental images of. I don’t know what my local council looks like, nor am I even clear where it is. I’m sure you all have plenty of interactions with HM Revenue and Customs, but do you know where it is or what it looks like?
Increasingly, when I form a mental image of a branch of government in my head, what I see is the website. What else am I supposed to picture?
Governments no longer just ‘own‘ websites, they are websites.
Heartless Bourgeois Pig
Wait! Stop shouting! I know how this sounds.
I am not so out of touch that I don’t know that there are plenty of people out there who are only too familiar with the physical manifestations of government. They see the government as manifested through prison, or hospital, or the job centre. They have no problem forming a vivid mental image of what government means: a waiting room, a queue, a social worker.
And I also know that most of the poorest people in the UK aren’t online yet. It’s one of the great challenges for our country in the next decade.
The majority of citizens don’t have deep, all encompassing, everyday interactions with the state – at most they drop their kids at school every day, or visit the GP a few times a year. That’s as physically close as they get.
To these people, interacting with government already feels somewhat like interacting with Amazon. It sends them benefits, passports, recycling bins, car tax disks from mysterious dispatch offices and it demands money and information in return. The difference is in emotional tone – the Amazon online interactions tend to be seamless, the government online interactions either painful or impossible – time to pick up the phone.
Increasingly, when a modern citizen looks at a government website, they’re literally seeing the state. And if what they see is ugly, confusing or down-right-broken, increasingly that’s how they’re going to see the state as a whole.
This change in public perception means that a previously marginal problem (bad websites) is now pointing towards a rather more worrying possibility. As government websites continue to fall behind private sector websites, governments will slowly look less and less legitimate – less and less like they matter to citizens, less and less like we should be paying any taxes to pay for them. Why pay for something you can’t even navigate?
It is time for the directors and CEOs of public bodies everywhere to wake up to this possibility, before the ideologues get hold of it.
Governments have the wrong management structures for a digital future
I don’t buy the argument that government websites are bad because all the ubermensch have gone off to work for the private sector. The public sector can often teach the private sector a lot about information design, like British road signs and tube maps, which are fantastic. And, of course, there’s the super team at Gov.uk, who represent the kind of change I’m writing about here.
The real difference is one of management structure and focus. At Amazon, CEO Jeff Bezos and his executive colleagues worry all the time about whether their site or app or Kindle are as good as the competitors. But in central and local governments around the world, the top bosses do not stress every day about whether the user experience of their website is up to scratch, or whether conversion rates are lower than desirable.
The main reason that they don’t worry is because their management boards don’t historically contain anyone whose job it is to worry about the performance of digital services. A council chief exec will worry about finance because their finance director will constantly be nagging them about money. But a council CEO won’t be worrying about whether 10,000 people left their website bitterly disappointed last week, because such issues are not ‘normal things to discuss’ at a board level.
Getting digital people to the top table
The solution, at least in the near term – is to recruit or promote people with digital remits and experience right to the top tier of decision making in government bodies. It means creating new roles like ‘CIO’ or ‘Head of Digital’ which have the same seniority as ‘Head of Adult Social Care’ or ‘Head of HR’. And it means empowering those people to make painful changes that are required to make digital services become brilliant and user-centric.
Clearly, this presents dangers. How do you know what powers to give the new role? How do you stop them damaging critical services? And, most problematic of all – how can you tell that a digital expert isn’t a charlatan? After all, they have niche expertise that you don’t have – how are you supposed to sniff them out?
The answer is that it isn’t easy, and that a lot of knowledge sharing and learning from mistakes will be required. As a shameless plug – we can help here – we can help vet candidates and define their roles in Britain and abroad. But none of this hides the fact that becoming digital – learning to run a public organisation that is a website, will be a fraught affair. The reward, though, is nothing less than helping to guarantee the ongoing legitimacy of government (quite apart from all the happier customers). To me that seems well worth going through some pain for.
If you live anywhere in Britain, it won’t have escaped your attention that it’s been raining a bit, recently.
This has been causing quite a bit of flooding. And when flooding happens, people need to know if it is going to affect them.
Unfortunately, the Environment Agency flood warning website leaves something to be desired. It is, quite frankly, a usability dogs’ breakfast, with problems including:
- It doesn’t answer the main question: Most users arriving at this page simply want to know if they might be in danger. The page should be all about answering that question.
- It is trying to serve national and local needs: Information about flooding across the whole country might be useful to journalists or civil servants, but it shouldn’t be the main element.
- Clutter, clutter: A massive grid of numbers which don’t really mean anything, plus lots of sidebar links.
- Confusing graphics: The page contains a national map which doesn’t actually make it clear that the colours relate to the seriousness of flooding, or that it provides links to further content.
There are also some non-design problems with the postcode lookup, but today we want to stick to just the design issues.
Not just moaning minnies
At mySociety we try to be constructive in our criticism, and so whilst the flood waters are still draining from many people’s homes, we thought that we could do something positive. We want to show that a flood warning page could be an exemplar of clear, user-centered information design. So we made a mockup.
Some of the improvements we’d like to point out are:
- A big page title that makes it obvious what this page is, and the fact that it is official information.
- All the main elements on the page are now focussed on the most likely needs of potential flood victims – journalists can follow a link to a different page for their needs.
- We’ve removed roughly 90% of the links on the page for clarity.
- We’ve removed all numerical data because it wasn’t adding value. Nobody can know if ‘5 warnings’ is a lot or a little without some context. As a nod to the overall context we’ve put in a simple graph, similar to a sparkline.
- It presents a clear button to click on if you’re actually endangered by a flood.
- It gives you a way to find out if other people near you are talking about local flooding via social media.
We hope you like this. It’s just the product of a couple of hours’ work, so if you have any suggestions on how it could be better, please let us know.
And, of course, we’re always happy to do similar work for other people.
These ‘websites in a box’ are a key part of our strategy to help people develop more successful civic and democratic websites around the world, but they are only the first half of our plan. Today I wanted to talk about the other half.
There are some use-cases for software in which most people are entirely happy to take some software off the shelf, press ‘Go’, and start using it. WordPress is a good example, and so is Microsoft Office.
However, there are some kinds of social issues that vary so much between different countries and regions that we believe one-size-fits-all tools for attacking them are impracticable.
This problem is particularly acute in the arena of sites and apps that allow people to track the activities of politicians. In this area there are several dozen different sites globally, almost all of which are powered by software that was written bespoke for that particular usage.
What drives this pattern of people re-writing every site from scratch is that people in different places care about different aspects of politics. In some countries what really counts is how politicians vote, in others the crux is campaign finance contributions, in others it is information on who has criminal records, and in others still it is whether public money has been vanishing suspiciously.
To build an off-the-shelf software platform that could handle all this data equally well in every country would be an immense coding task. And more important than that, we believe that it would create a codebase so huge and complex that most potential reusers would run away screaming. Or at least ignore it and start from scratch.
In short – we don’t believe there can be a WordPress for sites that monitor politicians, nor for a variety of other purposes that relate to good governance and stronger democracies.
We believe that the wrong answer to this challenge is to just say “Well then, everyone should build their own sites from scratch.” Over the years we at mySociety have been witness to the truly sad sight of people and organisations around the world wearing themselves out and blowing their budgets just trying to get the first version of a transparency website out the door. All too often they fail to create popular, long lasting sites because the birthing process is just so exhausting and resource-consuming that there’s nothing left to drive the sites to success. Often they don’t even get to launch.
A painful aspect of this problem is that the people who work on such sites are genuine altruists who are trying to solve serious problems in their part of the world; too much of their passion and energy is used up on building tools, when there’s still so much work beyond that that’s needed to make such sites successful. However, as we pointed out above, giving them a complete package on a plate isn’t an option. So what can we do?
Our Proposed Answer – The Components
We start from the following observation: coders and non-coders like simple, minimal, attractive tools that help them achieve bigger goals. Simple tools don’t make anyone run away screaming – they encourage exploration and deliver little sparkles of satisfaction almost immediately. But simple tools have to be highly interoperable and reliable to form the foundation of complex systems.
Our plan is to collaborate with international friends to build a series of components that deliver quite narrow little pieces of the functionality that make up bigger websites. These include:
There will be more, possibly many more. Our goal is to radically collapse the time it takes to build new civic and democratic (and possibly governmental) websites and apps, without putting constraints on creativity.
- PopIt – A Component to store and share the names of politicians, and the jobs they have.
- MapIt – A Component to store and share information on the locations of administrative boundaries, like counties, regions or cities.
- SayIt – A Component to store and share information on the words that public figures say or put out in writing.
Characteristics of each Component
There are some crucial architecture decisions that have been baked into the Components, to truly make them ‘small pieces loosely joined’.
- Each Component is fundamentally a tool for storing and sharing one or two kinds of common data – they’re intentionally minimalist.
- As a developer, you just use the Components that make sense for your goals – you simply don’t have to look at or learn about the Components that contain functionality that doesn’t matter to you.
- You don’t have to install anything to get started – you can always begin by playing with a hosted Component.
- We won’t impose our taste in programming languages on you. You can code your website in whatever language you want. The Components are not ‘modules’ – they don’t plug into some overarching framework like Drupal or WordPress. They are stand-alone tools which just present you data over REST APIs, and which you can write data into using REST APIs.
- Each Component’s data structures will offer as much flexibility as makes sense given the goal of keeping each Component really good at one or two tasks. We’ll listen to feedback carefully to get this right.
- Each Component has a clean, simple web front end so you can explore the data held in a store without having to write lots of SQL queries. Often you will be able to edit the data this way, too.
- Get started in seconds – each Component offers at least some functionality which is available inside a minute after getting involved.
- Non coders are welcome – we are building the Components so that non-coders can start gathering, editing and sharing data straight away, possibly long before they are in a position to launch a ‘real site’.
- Data can be added to the Components both through write APIs and through manual editing interfaces, suitable for non-coders.
- Learn from our mistakes – it is really easy to get the wrong data structure for civic, democratic or governmental data. Good practice data structures are baked into the Components, to save you pain later.
- Use our hosted versions, or install open source code locally. It will normally be quicker to get started in using the Components in a hosted environment, but if you want to run them locally, you’re entirely welcome. The code will be open source, and we’ll work hard to make sure it’s attractive and easy to install.
- The Components will talk to each other, and to the rest of the web using simple open schemas which will evolve as they are built. Where possible we’ll pick up popular data standards and re-use those, rather than building anything ourselves.
What the Components Aren’t
Sometimes in life it can be easier to describe things by what they aren’t:
- The Components are definitively not modules in a framework or platform. Each one is totally independent, and they will frequently be written in different languages – partly to force us to ensure that the APIs are truly excellent.
- The Components aren’t either Hosted or Local, they’re both. We’ll always offer a hosted version and a downloadable version, and you’ll always be able to move any data you have stored on the hosted versions down to your local copies.
- The Components aren’t all about mySociety. We’re planning to build the first ones in conjunction with some friends, and we’ll be announcing more about this soon. We want the family of Components to be jointly owned by a group of loving parents.
When can I see some of the Components in Action?
We’ll be blogging more about that tomorrow…
Footnote – To see the provenance of the extremely useful ‘small pieces loosely joined’ concept, see this.
One of the most common grumbles heard within the political and governmental classes is that the public doesn’t understand the need for compromise.
The argument goes something like this: left to themselves the public will vote for low tax and high public spending, resulting in eventual bankruptcy and collapse. The State of California is usually wheeled out as exhibit A here.
Assuming that this is even true, I find it hard to blame the public for a general lack of awareness about the compromises involved in running a functional government.
This is not because big budgets are complicated (although they are) but because most governments waste hundreds of thousands of opportunities a day to explain the nature of compromises. They waste them because they’re still thinking about the world from a paper-centric mindset.
Linking to explanations
My argument is this: key compromises or decisions should be linked to from the points where people obtain a service, or at the points where they learn about one. If my bins are only collected once a fortnight, the reason why should be one click away from the page that describes the collection times.
Currently, in order to obtain an explanation for why a service functions as it does, I’d probably have to pick up the phone to my local councillor, or use this handy service to make a few FOI requests. In terms of effort and clicks, these explanations describing why a service is like it is are so far away from the service itself that they might as well be on Mars.
Here are some of the wasted opportunities to explain which I would like to see seized upon:
- A “Why aren’t there more bin collections?” link on local government waste pages, linking through to an explanation about council budgets, what would have to be sacrificed to have more bin collections, and who made the decision to adopt the current compromise.
- Updates by local governments on FixMyStreet that say “We’re not going to fix this problem because it wouldn’t be good value for money”, linking through to an appropriate analysis about money spent on street fixing, versus other things.
- On the NHS’s ‘Choose and Book’ website, I’d like to see links saying “Why can’t I get an appointment sooner?” These would then be linked to data on NHS waiting lists, budget constraints and specific decisions that set the current availability.
Obviously cynics out there will say that governments don’t want people to know that they can’t solve all the world’s ills – and that they want to preserve a mystique of omnipotence, so that people will be miserably grateful to them for the bounty bestowed. In this model, governments don’t offer explanations lest citizens see them as merely mortal, and boot them out.
Now, I don’t know about you, but servile gratitude and illusions of infinite power doesn’t sound much like the current attitude to government from most people I know. We live in politically disillusioned times where many people worry if the government can actually fix anything, never mind everything.
If ever there was a time to start routinely explaining to citizens that government is a process of ceaseless compromises it is now, in the hard times. There are plenty of those around the world right now.
I believe that citizens could be both more forgiving of governments, and more empowered to demand change if services were closely connected to explanations of why compromises have been made. I think that the reason it hasn’t happened before isn’t really politics: it’s simply because it wouldn’t have been possible on paper. On paper you can’t link through to an animated narrative, or a set of votes, or a transcript of a key decision. I think the main reason we don’t connect services with explanations is because governments haven’t really grokked the meaning of simple linking yet – not really. I’m looking for the first government, national or local, willing to give it a shot.
Governments, companies and large organisations of all kinds regularly spend astonishing amounts of money on computer systems that are either completely broken, or which are instances of what I call Hateware – software that appears to have been designed by people who actually hate users.
Why does this happen? Obviously there are multiple, terribly complicated factors. But I’m going to boil down one of the biggest problems to a little story.
[Dreamy fade sequence]
Imagine you have been made responsible for replacing the desk chairs in your office. The old ones have gone all sweat coloured, and you’re worried one might collapse.
So you put out a competitive tender for furniture companies. You wait, vet and score all their bids, and finally you invite the finalists in to make their pitch.
In they come: smart, sober, dressed in a way that suggests success whilst avoiding ostentation. They set up their presentation, and start to tell you about the range of office furniture they have. The pitch is fantastic. They’ve already thought about all your concerns. They have an impressive array of happy clients who are just like you. Their slides are polished and focussed. They’ve brought fabric swatches to flick through. The chairs are handsome, with just the right number of pleasing gizmos. And they can ship next week.
The presentation draws to a close – any questions?
“Well, that was fantastic – I particularly like your X1 basic office chair. Just one question, what’s the cost?”
A few minutes pass as they reflect on the wide range of maintenance contract options, chair customisations and bulk purchasing reductions. Eventually, with a little nudging, you get the price for one chair.
“The base price of the X1 office chair is currently one millions pounds, with a £500,000 yearly licensing contract. Plus tax.”
Moments later the presenters, laptops, suits and fabric swatches bump to earth on the pavement outside the office door. Security is instructed never to let anyone from the company in, ever again.
How does this little story explain anything about ICT?
Well, re-read the story above, but replace ‘chair’ with ‘payroll system’. And replace ‘fabric swatch’ with ‘lovingly photoshopped mockups, customised for your company branding’. Go on – I’ll wait.
The pitch no longer seems so crazy, and you certainly wouldn’t kick someone out when they announce the price. Why? Because you don’t know what is a sane price for a payroll system, and what’s an absurd, insulting price.
The moral here is quite simple: you can’t make good decisions if you are lacking even the most basic frame of reference about what something should cost, or how it works.
The problem is that when it comes to identifying technology needs, and procuring successfully to fill them, you can’t simply rely on general life experience to save you. It’s a specialist skill, and one that requires knowledge to be constantly relearned and unlearned as technologies change.
Too few large organisations understand this. They see buying a new computer system as very much like buying new furniture – it’s just ‘all stuff the office needs’, along with car parks, printer paper or tea bags. This attitude fails to see that many modern organisations don’t have IT systems and websites, they are IT systems and websites. They can no more delegate this to some junior staffer than they can delegate the strategy of the whole business.
Almost all large organisations today need at least one person right up at the top level of the company who can spot the million pound chairs without the help of subordinates.
Once organisations understand that they are regularly buying million pound chairs, their CEOs and boards face another problem: how do they know which of their staff can actually spot the million pound chair, if any?
Unfortunately, the solution isn’t obvious.
As of right now there are no professional qualifications that would guarantee the right skills set. Worse, there’s even an unfortunate association in my mind between people with lots of qualifications like ‘MSCE’ and ‘SAP Certified Associate’ and projects that are triply gold plated, entirely missing user-centered design, and inevitably compromised by a tribal loyalty to one vendor.
So what’s a CEO to do? The answer, for now, unfortunately has to be to hire through trust and reputation networks. Find people who appear to have delivered nimble, popular user-centred projects on limited budgets, and get them to help you hire and restructure.
Trust networks, of course, can backfire: trust the wrong person and you can be in trouble. But the Enterprise computing world has backfired into the laps of leaders and managers enough times in the last two decades.
It is time for leaders to bring some people who have got their hands dirty in the guts of digital projects into the decision making rooms, and onto the decision making boards.
Tom will be talking more on this theme at the Local Government Association Conference next week.
At mySociety we take some pride in knowing that FixMyStreet has helped rid the world of thousands of potholes over the years, but of course our contribution to unbroken roads is merely the start of the process. Certainly, reporting a hole on FixMyStreet is easy (we’ve gone out of our way to make sure that is the case), but we do appreciate that a hole remains a hole until somebody takes the trouble to actually fill it in. So really it is all the inspectors, despatchers, logistic and supply teams, fleet mechanics, and repair crews who make the world a smoother, less perforated place.
We’re currently working on a pilot project in the city of Cebu (the “second city” of the Philippines) with the World Bank and transport experts ITP that will implement a FixMyStreet-based reporting service as part of the ongoing battle to keep its roads and streetlights in good repair. Later in the year we will have more to report, but for now—before anything is up and running—we can start by saluting the work of some of the remarkable people who fix the roads (and replace the bulbs) there.
My friend and mySociety’s first developer Chris Lightfoot died five years ago today. He killed himself in his own flat for reasons that we will never really know, but which are doubtless linked to the depression which he’d been fighting for years. He was just 28, but had already achieved so much that The Times ran an obituary of him. He would have laughed mightily about the fact that this is now behind a paywall.
To mark this occasion I wanted to write something for mySociety staff and volunteers who never knew Chris, and for a wider audience of people who work in places like GDS, Code For America or indeed anyone with an interest in politics and governance. What Chris represented is too important to be lost in the grief at his passing.
The basic fact to understand about Chris was that he was a very specific kind of polymath – one perfectly suited to the internet age. What I mean by this is that he did much more than simply master varying disciplines: he saw and drew connections between fields. He wouldn’t just master cartographic principles, engage in politics and, as Francis Irving put it, ‘write Perl like other people write English’: he invariably saw the connections and mixed them up in meaningful and often pioneering ways.
Moreover, this mixing of disciplines was conducted at a furious, restless pace, and knew absolutely no concept of ‘too hard’ – problems were either fundamentally impossible, or ‘trivially soluble’, to use one of his favourite and most gloriously under-stated phrases. Who else would build the technology to break a captcha, just to investigate what American truck rental costs tell us about internal migration in America, for fun? The answer is trivial.
That he was a genius is not what I want you to understand. Telling you that someone you never met was smarter than you is not helpful, and doesn’t fulfil my promise to tell you why understanding Chris matters.
What is fundamentally valuable about Chris’ legacy (besides piles of code that power services still running today) is that his story signals how we all need to change our conception of what it means to be ‘wise enough to rule’. Let me explain.
Unlike most of us, Chris had the luxury of being able to pick any field of study that interested him, dig up some books and papers, and teach himself a graduate-level understanding in what felt like a few days. It is hard to express quite how fast he could consume and internalise complex new information, and how relentlessly he went at it. To note that he got six A grades at A-level is too puerile a précis, but it is indicative.*
Again, I am not telling you this to make you feel stupid: what matters is what he chose to do with this gift. What he chose to do was built an ever-expanding palette of skills from which he could paint as he pleased. And what he chose to paint was a vision of a better, saner world.
This painting ranged across a huge expanse of topics and disciplines: nuclear engineering, political ideologies, constitutional law, military history, statistics, psephology, economics, security engineering, behavioural psychology, propaganda, intellectual propery law and more. His favourite brushes were Perl and a blog composed of prose so sharp and funny that George Bernard Shaw would not have been displeased by the comparison. I still wish I could write half as well as him.
What I want to communicate most is this: the disciplines he chose to study form a combined19th, 20th and 21st century curriculum of skills required by modern leaders, both leaders of political organisations and government bureaucracies. Chris’s life was the invention of a massively expanded, far more up to date version of the traditional Politics, Philosophy and Economics course that this country still uses to educate its elites.
Some of these disciplines are timeless, like the understanding of ideologies or economics. Some represent vital new issues that emerged in the 20th century, like nuclear energy and world-scale warfare. But mixed in there are wholly new, alien group of skills that the recent SOPA, Wikileaks and ID cards debacles show that modern leaders haven’t got anywhere near to internalising: they include knowledge about security engineering, intellectual property and how new technologies clash with old laws and ideologies. They are skills that nobody used to think were political, but which are now centre stage in a polity that can’t keep up.
This doesn’t mean Chris would have made a perfect leader: I used to argue with him a lot about how he weighed up the costs and benefits of different issues. But what he fundamentally had right was the understanding that you could no longer run a country properly if the elites don’t understand technology in the same way they grasp economics or ideology or propaganda. His analysis and predictions about what would happens if elites couldn’t learn were savage and depressingly accurate.
The canon of Chris’s writings and projects embody the idea that what good governance and the good society look like is now inextricably linked to an understanding of the digital. He truly saw how complex and interesting the world was when you understood power as well as networking principles in a way that few have since.
There is, of course, much more to say about Chris’s life. His blog, built on software that foresaw Posterous, is wonderful, hilarious and utterly readable, so you can learn more yourself. Martin Keegan’s obituary is touching and a much better portrait of how much fun it was to be friends with Chris. I hope to memorialise what he represents to me, if I can. But for now, I’ll sign off with a quote from a blog commentor:
“Chris was kind enough to take the time to reply to me, an internet nobody whom he didn’t know from a bar of soap, on a fairly complex statistical question once. He took a lot of time and effort in his response, and he made sure I understood it properly. It’s not often you find knowledgeable people willing to take their own time to educate an unknown person. We need more people like him, not less.”
* For US readers, this is like having a GPA of 4.0, but achieved across twice as many subjects as you actually need to take.
As a result of research conducted by bloggers and contributors of Technology for Transparency Network an interesting report was published recently. “Global mapping of technology for transparency and accountability” contains specific case studies of projects related to transparency, but also interesting trends and insights. If you download the report from this site you will find that Sejmometr and KohoVolit projects are included in sections about our region. We are looking forward to similar reports and if you think that there are projects that should have been included in the above mentioned report (we have talked to a few already and hope to feature them here), do let us know!
Being strictly non-partisan mySociety has no official view on Wills & Kate, but we are unashamedly Pro People Having Parties. And recently we’ve been able to work on a project with Barnet council that has helped us make more of them.
Most councils want people to be able to have a street party if they want – I mean, who’s against a party? But closing a street has costs associated with it, and there’s no point in spending that money if the ‘Street Party Committee’ is actually just one person, and the party isn’t actually going to happen.
Tackling this particular problem seemed ideally suited to PledgeBank, which exists solely to make sure there are enough people signed up to make a particular activity worthwhile.
So after some custom hackery, here’s what happens if you live in Barnet and apply to run a street party for the Royal Wedding. First, you give your details. Then the council makes a pledge, and then emails it back to the applicant. All the pledges are of the same form, and read:
“Barnet Council will arrange free public liability insurance for a street party in [Your Street name] but only if 3 or more households will get involved.”
It is then the applicant’s task to get another couple of people (or more) to sign the pledge. Once the signers exceed the threshold, the council believes the party is bona fide and starts work. Simple.
And it works! There are 24 parties currently listed that have passed the threshold, so that’s 24 streets that are already good to go. There are another 27 that may succeed or fail, depending on their organiser’s motivation.
Strangely, though, our invitations haven’t arrived yet, but, you know… they probably got lost in the post (sniff).
It is a cliché for any manager to say that they are proud of their team, and mildly nausea-inducing to listen to anyone who goes on about it too long. However, the purpose of this post is to argue that the world would benefit from a new kind of post-graduate Masters programme – something that is hard to do without describing the virtues of the type of people who should come out of it. So please bear with me, and keep a sick bag to one hand.
mySociety’s core development team is very, very good. But they’re not just good at turning out code. Louise Crow, for example, has a keen eye for things that will and won’t make a difference in the offline world, as well as the skills to build virtually whatever she can think of. And the exact same thing is true of the whole coding team: Duncan, Matthew, Edmund and Dave in the current team, plus Francis, Chris and Angie before them.
mySociety didn’t give these people their raw talent, nor the passion to be involved with projects that make a difference. What it has given them, though, is the chance to spend a lot of time talking to each other, learning from their triumphs and their mistakes, and listening to users. This space and peer-contact made them into some of the world’s few genuine experts in the business of conceptualising and then delivering digital projects that deliver new kinds of civic and democratic benefits.
So, why am I sitting here unashamedly blowing my colleagues trumpets like this? (I don’t have these skills, after all!) Well, in order to point out that there are quite simply far too few people like this out there.
Too few experts
“Too few for what?” you may well ask. Too few for any country that wants to be a really great place to live in the 21st century, is my answer.
There is barely a not-for-profit, social enterprise or government body I can think of that wouldn’t benefit from a Duncan Parkes or a Matthew Somerville on the payroll, so long as they had the intelligence and self-discipline not to park them in the server room. Why? Because just one person with the skills, motivation and time spent learning can materially increase the amount of time that technology makes a positive contribution to almost any public or not-for-profit organisation.
What they can do for an organistion
Such people can tell the management which waves of technology are hype, and which bring real value, because they care more about results than this week’s craze, or a flashy presentation. They can build small or medium sized solutions to an organisation’s problems with their bare hands, because they’re software engineers. They can contract for larger IT solutions without getting ripped off or sold snake oil. And they can tell the top management of organisations how those organisations look to a digital native population, because they come from that world themselves.
And why they don’t
Except such experts can’t do any of these things for not-for-profit or public institutions: they can’t help because they’re not currently being employed by such bodies. There are two reasons why not, reasons which just may remind you of a chicken and an egg.
First, such institutions don’t hire this kind of expert because they don’t know what they are missing – they’re completely outside of the known frame of reference. Before you get too snarky about dumb, insular institutions, can you honestly say you would try to phone a plumber if you had never heard that they existed? Or would you just treat the water pouring through the ceiling as normal?
Second, these institutions don’t hire such experts because there just aren’t enough on the market: mySociety is basically the main fostering ground in UK for new ones, and we greedily keep hold of as many of our people as possible. Hands off my Dave!
Which leads me to the proposal, a proposal to create more such experts for public and non-profit institutions, and to make me feel less guilty about mySociety hoarding the talent that does exist.
Describing the Masters in Public Technology
The proposal is this: there should be a new Masters level course at at least one university which would take people with the raw skill and the motivation and puts them on a path to becoming experts in the impactful use of digital technologies for social purposes. Here’s how I think it might work.
In the first instance, the course would only be for people who could already code well (if all went well, we could develop a sister course for non-coders later on). Over the course of a single year it would teach its students a widely varied curriculum, covering the structure and activities of government, campaigns, NGOs and companies. It would involve dissecting more and less impactful digital services and campaigns, like biology students dissect frogs, looking for strengths and weaknesses. It would involve teaching the basics of social science methodologies, such as how to look for statistical significance, and good practice in privacy management. It would encourage good practice in User Experience design, and challenge people to think about how serious problems could be solved playfully. It would involve an entire module on explaining the dos and don’t of digital technology to less-literate decision makers. And most important, it would end with a ‘thesis’ that would entail the construction of some meaningful tool, either alone or in collaboration with other students and external organisations.
I would hope we could get great guest lecturers on a wide range of topics. My fantasy starter for 10 would include names as varied in their disciplines as Phil Gyford, David Halpern, Martha Lane Fox, Ben Goldacre, Roz Lemieux, William Perrin, Jane McGonigal, Denise Wilton, Ethan Zuckerman, as well as lots of people from in and around mySociety itself.
What would it take?
I don’t know the first thing about how universities go about creating new courses, so having someone who knew about that step up as a volunteer would be a brilliant start!
Next, it would presumably take some money to make it worth the university’s time. I would like to think that there might be some big IT company that would see the good will to be gleaned from educating a new generation of socially minded, organisation-reforming technologists.
Third, we’d actually need a university with a strong community of programmers attached, willing and ready to do something different. It wouldn’t have to be in the UK, either, necessarily.
Then it would need a curriculum, and teaching, which I would hope mySociety could lead on, but which would doubtless best be created and taught in conjunction with real academics. We’d need some money to cover our time doing this, too.
And finally it would need some students. But my hunch is that if we do this right, the problem will probably be fending people off with sticks.
I’m genuinely not sure – I hope this post sparks some debate, and I hope it provokes some people to go “Yeah, me too”. Maybe you could tell me what I should do next?