mySociety was built on its Democracy practice, a pioneer in providing simple- to-use tools that demystify the democratic process, allow citizens to understand how decisions are being made on their behalf and ensure that their voices are heard by elected representatives.
We’ve been on a long journey, from the early days of FaxYourMP which eventually became WriteToThem, to our pivotal TheyWorkForYou service which has both stretched the ambitions of Parliament in the UK and led us to develop similar services in Kenya, South Africa and beyond.
Amidst all of this has been our ongoing push to better standardise and make accessible more Open Data on politicians around the world; initially through our Poplus and Pombola projects, but more recently – and with more success – through our EveryPolitician service which has blossomed into a remarkable dataset of almost 4 million datapoints on over 72,000 politicians in 233 countries and territories.
Despite these successes I don’t think we’ve yet sufficiently cracked the challenge at scale of enabling more organisations to monitor and report upon the work of more politicians in more countries. We need to do something about that.
One of the principles that has always underpinned mySociety is that we carry our work out in the open, freely available for others to use. But, as is common with many Open Source projects, we do most of the development work ourselves internally. While community contributions are very welcome, practicality has dictated that more often than not, these are more commonly directed to raising tickets rather than making changes to the actual code.
Unchecked, this situation could lead to us being too internally focused; on developing everything ourselves rather than recognising where we can achieve our objectives by supporting other projects.
Fortunately our collaboration with Wikidata, announced earlier this year, suggests what promises to be a clear way forward to scaling up the impact of our work: we recognised that EveryPolitician could only become sustainable at scale as part of a wider community effort if we want our data to be used more widely.
By contributing to what we’ll call the Democratic Commons — a concept of shared code, data and resources where anyone can contribute, and anyone can benefit — we can help build and strengthen core infrastructure, tools and data that allow other democracy organisations and campaigners to hold their own governments to account.
This was notably put into practice for the snap General Election in the UK in June, where rather than build something new ourselves we directly supported the work of Democracy Club in their efforts to source candidate data and ensured that our existing services like MapIt, TheyWorkForYou and WhatDoTheyKnow were easily accessible for other campaigning and democracy organisations to put into use.
More recently we’ve established a commercial partnership with Facebook to provide them with accurate and independent lists of candidates and elected representatives matched to their relevant Facebook profile pages for the UK, French and Kenyan elections.
There’s a wider benefit to this kind of commercial work, beyond its being a useful source of additional revenue for mySociety. More importantly, it will allow us to feed the data that we source back into the Democratic Commons. It can contribute to EveryPolitician and Wikidata, and even improve boundary data internationally through OpenStreetMap, which in turn powers our own Global MapIt service.
Why is this important now?
Well, it’s not just the rather obvious observation that working with other people is a good idea. The reality is that we need to face the fact that our Democratic practice is just not fully funded, and, as with WhatDoTheyKnow.com, at best we’ll need to consider how more of our services in the UK can be run and directly supported by volunteers and the wider community.
At worst it’s quite possible that we’ll be forced to close some of our popular UK services and restrict the further development of our democracy work internationally.
In April next year we come to the end of our six-year grant agreement with the Omidyar Network who have given us tremendous support over that time. This will leave a substantial hole in our core funding and it’s one reason why we’ve been so diligently focused on developing appropriate new commercial services like FixMyStreetPro and WhatDoTheyKnowPro.
Without sufficient unrestricted core funding — that is, funding which can be applied wherever in the organisation it is most needed — we need to rely much more on specific project funding wherever we can find it. In most cases, however, this project funding comes with its own set of tasks to deliver, and there’s a tendency to want new shiny things, rather than supporting the maintenance of our existing projects. This is especially true of our Democracy work which relies more heavily on grant funding than commercial alternatives.
Sensibly directing our own work more towards contributions to external projects is also a hedge, should we need to find new homes for our services or shutter them for the time being.
In the meantime we’ll be speaking to more funders who we hope might recognise the importance of supporting and building the essential infrastructure of the Democratic Commons, but in the event that isn’t forthcoming we’ll do what it takes to ensure our work to date continues to have some value and impact.
As we start to map out a path to a sustainable future for mySociety and its community, I’d appreciate all thoughts on where we go next with this — after all, we can’t do this without your help.
What’s the best way to get your supporters to campaign, when the finer details of what they’re pressing for may vary from place to place? That’s the issue that faced Prostate Cancer UK as they call for better provision for men across the country with erectile dysfunction as a result of prostate cancer.
There are five core treatments for tackling erectile dysfunction, but whether all of them will be offered to you depends on your postcode. In some areas, all are offered as standard, while in others there may be none.
The tool we built for Prostate Cancer UK used several of mySociety’s areas of expertise, from mapping to user testing — we even used Freedom of Information. And putting it all together, we have a powerful campaigning platform that responds to users’ location, while raising awareness and pushing for improvement.
Prostate Cancer UK’s Erectile Dysfunction campaign site informs people about what care should be available to those who experience the condition as a result of prostate cancer treatment, and urges them to write to their local health commissioner if provision is poor in their area.
Educating, campaigning, sharing
The user is first informed: they are shown the five factors which constitute good treatment of erectile dysfunction. After that, they are prompted to input their postcode to see how many of those measures are provided by the NHS body responsible for their region.
If provision is poor, they are encouraged to help campaign: users can opt to write to their Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG), Health Board or Health and Social Care Board to ask them to improve what’s available. They are given the choice between writing a letter from scratch, or using a pre-composed template which also contains a section for the writer to add a paragraph of their own words — a pragmatic balance that avoids an influx of identical form letters, while still addressing fact that when users are faced with a completely blank page, many will drop out of the process.
When you’ve done that, for those in England there’s also an opportunity to contact Jeremy Hunt, Secretary of State for Health to highlight the variation in treatment for erectile dysfunction and establish which organisation is responsible for the national commissioning guidelines.
Finally, the user is invited to share what they’ve learned, via Facebook, Twitter or email. Our user testing revealed that, contrary to our worries, people were happy to do this without embarrassment.
How it works
Like most of mySociety’s own sites, the ‘Better Care’ site uses MapIt to match the user’s postcode with a boundary, in this case the boundaries of the CCGs, Health Boards and Health & Social Care Boards. That’s how we deliver the information about what’s available in their local area.
When you input your postcode to see how your local provisioners are doing, MapIt also delivers information for other areas, including a couple of close neighbouring ones. This allows us to provide a nice comparison, along with the statistic that shows whether your provisioner is better, worse, or within the same range as the average.
But how did we gather the data to tell you how well each CCG, Health Board or Health and Social Care Board is catering for erectile dysfunction patients? Well, fortunately, thanks to our own WhatDoTheyKnow website, it was relatively easy to send a Freedom of Information request to every one in the country — 235 of them in total. The WhatDoTheyKnow volunteer admin team were able to help with this large batch request.
Once we had all the data and a general idea of how the tool would work, we took an early version out to test it with users. The insights we gained from this process were, as always, extremely useful, and led to us altering page layouts and other elements that made the whole process as clear as it could be.
Finally, we incorporated quite a bit of statistics-gathering into the whole tool, so that Prostate Cancer UK would be able to see where their campaign might benefit from further optimising in the future.
All in all, we’re very glad to have been part of this important campaign to help men understand what’s available to them, and where they might need to push for more.
We share the belief, set out in the recent Connected Councils report from Nesta, that open standards are key to unlocking the potential of government as platform for local government.
We want to help local authorities understand the benefits of open standards, too. So to that end we’re holding a half-day workshop at Newspeak House London on Tuesday 19th April (the day before the Digital Government conference in London).
From our perspective this is important because when councils adopt new services they often miss the opportunity to create a genuinely open platform allowing councils, third sector and commercial organisations to work well together (I’ve written more on that in a post over on Medium).
We’re inviting local authority staff who are responsible for setting strategy for open data and digital standards, and we’ll have a handful of interesting speakers, roundtable discussions and a spot of lunch as well.
We’ve been fans of the Open311 standard for reporting non-emergency local issues online for some time. This open standard makes it easy for us to submit issues from FixMyStreet.com directly into a local authority’s case management system, and, just as importantly, report back when they have been resolved.
Open standards are a fundamental aspect of digital transformation for every local council. We want to do what we can to help extend the scope and use of these standards, and learn how we can better deliver services that make use of them.
We’d love to hear from you about your use of open standards in local government, to share experiences on how this can power service development and identify opportunities to extend the take up of standards. We’d also like to ensure that we are building services that you actually want to use to help your local residents.
If you or a colleague would like to attend, or if you know people in other councils who are interested in Open311, FixMyStreet and other open standards, then please request an invite on our Eventbrite page.
Image credit Deborah Fitchett https://flic.kr/p/7EyMVT
Undertaking client work through our commercial subsidiary mySociety Services has been a vital part of our identity, and it provides an important source of additional revenue to complement our core grant funding.
We’ve worked with numerous organisations that share our principles and focus on impact such as Médecins Sans Frontières, The Financial Conduct Authority, the NHS, and notably we produced the UK Parliamentary Digital Report which led to the establishment of the Parliamentary Digital Service.
This is good work, but it’s meant we’ve had to support two teams, two marketing efforts and often had to juggle priorities with our charitable work.
Our overall aim is to create impactful services that benefit as many people as possible. So rather than continue to spread ourselves too thinly, from now on we’re going to concentrate primarily on appropriate commercial services that sit alongside our three thematic areas of focus: Freedom of Information, Democracy and Better Cities.
We’re taking the first step today with the announcement of a new grant from the Google Digital News Initiative, for which we’re extremely grateful. We’ll be making use of the grant to develop a new toolset for journalists using Freedom of Information.
In the next few weeks we’ll share more details on what for the moment we’ve codenamed Alaveteli Professional. Our intention is that this toolset will sit alongside as a companion service to our free FOI platform Alaveteli.org, and should it become viable we may offer a version as a commercial service through mySociety Ltd.
In the interim we’ll be speaking to lots of users, especially journalists and campaigning organisations on their use of FOI. If you’re are interested in helping us shape this product, please get in touch with us at email@example.com and we’ll keep you up to date.
This new approach will mean we can better develop complementary commercial services that fully realise their potential and better support our charitable aims and objectives.
Last year, we blogged about the work we did for Médecins Sans Frontiers, suggesting improvements for their Patents Oppositions Database.
Need a quick recap? Two things you should know:
- When medicines are re-patented, it prevents the development of generic versions. One company retains the monopoly, and costs remain high, where otherwise the generics would have provided a cheaper option.
- Médecins Sans Frontiers support those who challenge patents in court by providing resources, such as arguments which have previously succeeded in similar cases, via their Patents Oppositions Database site.
As we explained in our last post, it was clear to MSF that while the idea of the Patents Opposition Database was sound, it relied on active take-up from community members — members who were often too busy to engage in a site that was anything less than simple and inviting.
That’s when they came to us, first for consultation, and then to put our suggestions into action. It’s exactly the sort of work we enjoy: it potentially changes lives, and it involves using good design and coding to do so.
Getting to the bottom of things
MSF had a good idea of why their site wasn’t enjoying the kind of take-up they’d hoped for, and in that initial phase we were able to confirm this through research.
As we talked directly to a number of the site’s users, and gave the site a rigorous analysis ourselves, we found some recurring frustrations:
- It was difficult to find content
- While there was patent information from a variety of sources, linking it together was a chore
- People weren’t contributing to the site because it took too long to do so
- There was no feeling of community, so users didn’t feel a strong compulsion to help one another
And that pretty much brings you up to speed with where we were last time we blogged this project. Since then, we’ve been beavering away on making improvements.
How do you encourage community?
People tend to look at community as a nebulous concept: all the more so with online communities, where success is often seen as a coincidental factor rather than one that you can foster.
But for this project, it was clear what to do. And the site has the odds stacked in its favour: visitors have a very strong motivation to contribute, so we just needed to make that as simple as possible.
We worked on two broad areas: the site’s design, and some new core functionality.
New design that removes barriers
- The first thing to do was to ensure the site met modern standards, breaking down any impediments to participation. It’s now responsive (ie it displays well on any size of screen), clear, and accessible.
- Then we made sure that, when visiting the homepage, it was obvious what to do next. This was achieved with a prominent search function, and some clearly signposted ‘next steps’.
- We wanted to reward people and organisations for playing an active part, so we created profile pages which highlight their activity.
- Documents are the mainstay of the site, so they’re now highlighted as the main resource on any pages where they’re relevant. We also tidied up the way they were being stored, so they’re consistent across the board.
- We tackled that user frustration and made sure that patent data from sources such as WIPO and EPO were cross-referenced and brought together.
New functionality that fosters participation
- Users can now view and mark up documents right on the site, and then share what they’ve discovered with other users, thanks to the ‘add an annotation’ function.
- We created an email alerts service, drawing on our experience running TheyWorkForYou, which sends out thousands of alerts to people tracking topics in Parliament. This kind of alerting system is great for bringing people back to the site at their own convenience. So now, when there’s a new case concerning a specific drug, anyone with an interest in that drug will receive an email. If someone leaves a note on one of your annotations, you’ll know about it too.
- Search is absolutely crucial to the site, so we implemented a powerful new search facility which can look through not just the site’s own pages, but the documents it hosts, too. We added filtering tools to give the user more control over what they see.
- Advanced users can also obtain search results in a standardised csv format for download, so they can be used for their own reporting, or even as a data source for other sites.
- We created a new ‘call for help’ service, so users can ask the community to contribute to a patent opposition. These become touchpoints across the site, where users are urged to help if they can.
Our improvements were presented at the AIPPI (International Association for the Protection of Intellectual Property) World Congress, and the new site is now live at www.patentoppositions.org.
Of course, we’ll be keeping an eye on its performance, and until April we’ll be refining and tweaking until we know that the much-needed community is up and running happily.
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.
We’ve recently made a few small changes to FixMyStreet. Nothing new there; we’re often tweaking things to make FixMyStreet more usable. Except, these changes weren’t our own idea: they were based on feedback from a council.
Oxfordshire County Council, who use FixMyStreet for Councils as their main fault reporting system, requested these features, which are now available to all client councils (and which, in two cases, are now also benefiting users on our own FixMyStreet.com):
Much easier, especially in some of the very report-dense areas of the country.
Different coloured pins
But Oxfordshire spotted an opportunity to make things a little clearer. Where a council has opted for full integration, FixMyStreet can automatically update the status of reports as they go through the fix cycle.
So why not reflect these statuses on the colours of map pins? Red, green and grey pins now indicate problems that are fixed, unfixed or closed. See for yourself how this looks on the Oxfordshire website:
When you go to report your problem on FixMyStreet, you can zoom in and out of the map and pan it around until you find exactly the right spot in which to place your pin. There was just one thing, though: while the streets and other map features got bigger and smaller as you zoomed in or out, the pins remained the same size.
Not any more! Now, in one of those ‘you probably don’t notice it but it does make things easier’ moves, pins shrink and expand at the same rate as the map:
Expanded userbase = more insights
Several councils around the country use FixMyStreet as the main problem-reporting system on their own websites—so if you report a problem on the Stevenage, Oxfordshire, Bromley or Warwickshire council websites (among others) you may find the interface very familiar.
There are obvious benefits for us in supplying FixMyStreet as software for councils—not least that the revenue goes to support our charitable work! But cases like this highlight a more subtle benefit: with the increased userbase, and with the additional council administrators who are actually thinking about the FixMyStreet experience at any one time, we gain valuable insights into its usability.
Where we can, we’ll make the changes for our clients, and, if desirable, we can push the same code onto the main FixMyStreet.com site.
That benefit goes two ways: equally, improvements we make to FixMyStreet are generally available on FixMyStreet for Councils. So, those frequent tweaks we talked about at the beginning? They get rolled out for our clients, too.
The winner in all of this is the user, which is just as it should be.
If you’re from a council and would like to know more, please visit our FixMyStreet for Councils page.
But there’s more: combined with other datasets, it can answer a wide variety of questions, be put to a wide variety of uses across many industries.
Most recently, we worked on a version for the Dolphin Square Foundation. Their remit requires them to find properties within a specific travel time from the centre of London, and with the best net yield—a perfect challenge for Mapumental. You can read what we did here.
You may see some similarities with our Mapumental Property, which combines house prices with transit time, so property hunters can see what’s available both within their budget and within a tolerable commute of their workplace.
We’ve used Mapumental for many a time-based travel conundrum, like our project with the Fire Protection Agency that drew on fire engine response times to calculate risk-based insurance premiums for any given postcode. Or the work we did for the Welsh Government, plotting accessibility of schools.
Like we said, Mapumental is flexible enough to work in all sorts of fields, for all sorts of purposes. Take a look at our Dolphin Square case study to find out more about its latest incarnation.
You’ve probably seen the recent news story about the guy who bought, then vastly increased the price of a vital drug: it’s been widely shared on social media in the last couple of days.
Not long ago, we blogged about the work we’d done on the Patent Oppositions Database.
You may have found the concepts involved somewhat abstract. If so, now’s a great time to go and read it again, with this news story in mind. It’s an excellent example of what that project is hoping to prevent.
Image: David Goehring (CC)