1. Product of my environment

    So as announced elsewhere on the mySociety blog I am going to have a bit of a different role from now on. It has happened pretty quickly – following a conversation with Mark our Chief Exec during a (not very) West Wing-esque walk and talk through St James Park where I suggested that I might have some capacity to do more and maybe I wasn’t really doing enough of the things that got me hired.

    A couple of things have been brewing that meant this was a timely discussion. The ‘Democratic Commons’ work is something that immediately struck a chord with me – we talk about it as being;

    “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.”

    More than that though it is basically the democratic data infrastructure that Governments should provide but so often don’t and making it as widely and openly available as possible. Practically that has meant us building a relationship with Wikidata to have a truly international, sustainable and trusted platform for the data and also nurture commercial relationships with internet giants like Facebook to provide both huge reach for the data but also a funding stream that underpins the work for the commons.

    There is a careful balance to be struck for sure but the work is too important not to try.

    Also there is some work emerging from our Better Cities practice and discussions with partner organisations that is looking at broadening the reach of our services, and of civic tech tools in general, that I am really passionate about making happen. It is all quite early but you can expect some blogposts about this as well in the near future – thinking in the open – it is what we do!

    These are both exciting opportunities and exactly the sort of thing I joined mySociety to work on and so I was keen to find a way to really contribute to both.

    This post from a couple of years ago by Matt Walton at Futurelearn has been a bit of a touchstone for me about how I approach my work since I stumbled upon it. Mainly as it is always reassuring to read something by someone else that articulates much of what you are already doing but also the clarity of that articulation also highlights where the gaps are in your own approach.

    So (other) Matt identifies six priorities for a Head of Product;

    – Storytelling and inspiring
    – Providing purpose and direction
    – Exploring and reporting
    – Listening and explaining
    – Supporting and empowering
    – Coordinating and collaborating

    To one extent or another these six pretty much reflect what Mark has asked me to do (which is helpful!).

    Storytelling and inspiring
    Inspiring sounds a bit too ‘Californian’ but there is no doubt that ‘storytelling’ is a big part of the reason I got this job. Because…let us be honest…I have a reputation as a publicity hound 🙂 I have a  profile built by blogging, speaking, tweeting, arranging meet-ups and my commitment to working in the open that provides a platform to get our messages heard but I haven’t been doing enough of that. I need to do better and I think the ‘Democratic Commons’ and also the emerging ‘local’ work provide some really interesting opportunities to get out there and stir up some interest.

    Providing purpose and direction
    I don’t actually think these kind of roles ‘provide’ purpose or direction – but there is a responsibility to make sure that people understand both and are making decisions aligned with them. mySociety are a small, nimble organisation – not some huge public institution but ensuring that everyone is working towards a common goal, which they understand and support is important for any successful team. This isn’t about being heavy handed and again really comes down to communication – the more internally focused side of things.

    Exploring and reporting
    In our context this is a bit different to what (other) Matt initially had in mind I think but it works anyway. There is part of this role that is concerned with being on the lookout for opportunities – whether they be partnerships, grants, commercial leads or new challenges in our space and making sure the right people are made aware and the right actions are taken.

    Listening and explaining
    Part of this is just about being an empathic member of the team, making sure every voice is heard and that everyone understands why decisions have been taken and what the goals are. This is something that is easier in co-located teams – when you are sitting with everyone you can pick up on moods and frustrations much faster than via Slack or even Hangouts and you can preempt many situations. Working remotely provides a challenge for this sort of thing but it is an interesting one.

    There is another part of this though – listening to our users. Doing more user research and really using our analytics to make product decisions. I’m keen to make this sort of thinking much more of an integral part of any new initiative from the start.

    Supporting and empowering
    This is very much related to the first point above. It is about making sure team members are empowered (and provided sufficient cover) to make decisions to get things done without the need to second guess themselves. This is pretty second nature here at mySociety – having a small team of so many talented people makes it an obvious way to work. Still everyone needs reassurance sometimes!

    Coordinating and collaborating
    For us this isn’t about trying to coordinate across multiple product teams – we aren’t Spotify – but there is clearly a job to be done to coordinate our collaborations with partners, funders and clients on all manner of projects. Providing them with a clarity as to what we are providing for them but also what we need from them.

    So that’s the sort of things I’m thinking about…what this looks like in more detail will emerge in the days and weeks to come I’m sure. You can expect to get royally fed up with my blogposts and hopefully get bored of me talking about our work at meet-ups and conferences (organisers if anything sounds interesting for your event give me a shout!).

     

    Image: Suyash Dwivedi (BY-SA)

  2. Contributing to the Democratic Commons

    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.


    Image: Ander Burdain (Unsplash)

  3. Making sure everyone understands the General Election

    Would you say you’re pretty clued up about the political system in the UK? If you’re reading this blog, it’s fair to assume that you know a bit more about politics than the average bear.

    But that’s not true of everyone who uses our sites, and that’s why we’ve put out a Beginners’ Guide to the General Election.

    It’s in three short parts — each takes only 5 minutes or so to read — and they cover the background and timetable of the Election; how to make an informed vote; and finally the logistics of actually casting your ballot.

    There’s also a summary countdown so you can make sure you’ve done everything you need to.

    Think this is a bit simplistic? Through the emails we receive via User Support, we have a really immediate insight into the common questions, worries and misconceptions around UK politics. Some of them are complex and esoteric. Others make us realise that if we haven’t set out the basics, we’re failing in our aim of making democracy easier for everyone to understand.

    Equally, if we step away from the mySociety bubble and dip into social media, it’s easy to see the level of confusion around the pending General Election. Questions I’ve seen recently on my local community’s Facebook page include:

    Do we vote twice, once for Corbyn/May and once for our local MP?

    You don’t have to join a party to vote for it, do you?

    Can I vote in my neighbouring constituency to help my chosen party win, if they’re a dead cert in my own constituency?

    These were the real spur towards writing a simple explainer. If you come across friends, family or workmates who have similar queries, we hope you’ll find it useful to share our beginners’ guide.

    Image: Jay Allen (Crown Copyright)


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  4. Here’s how mySociety can help you during the 2017 General Election

    It’s official, there’s going to be a General Election in the UK on June 8th.

    As you might suspect mySociety has lots of tools and services that you might find useful during the campaign whether you just want to find out the voting record of your current MP or if you’re planning on building a website or app to cover the campaign.

    TheyWorkForYou

    First things first: TheyWorkForYou.com already covers in lots of detail who your MPs are and how they voted. This should be your first port of call so that you can evaluate your incumbent MP, especially when you’re thinking about who to vote for next.

    Over the next couple of weeks we are going to make some changes here and there to make relevant parts of the voting record more prominent, and more clearly explain how we calculate the voting records themselves.

    If you’re planning on using the data we have in TheyWorkForYou you can access information on UK politicians, parliamentary debates, written answers, and written ministerial statement via our API at theyworkforyou.com/api

    Tomorrow we’ll share a blog post explaining in a little more technical detail how to access the API and some advice on how to get the most out of the service.

    MapIt

    Building a service or website that covers all or part of the country and want an easy way to let your users identify which constituency they are in? Then MapIt is your friend.

    It already powers most of our own services and is widely used by the likes of Government Digital Services and our friends at Democracy Club.

    You can sign up for for free at mapit.mysociety.org and if you need more calls it’s easy to upgrade to a monthly plan – you can get 10,000 calls a month for free if you are a charity or working on an open project – if you think you are going to be busier than that (a) congrats and (b) drop us an email at mapit@mysociety.org

    Helping Democracy Club

    Speaking of Democracy Club we’re going to be wholeheartedly supporting their efforts to crowdsource a full set of candidate data in the run up to the election – they are gathering all of their ideas together in this Google Doc https://goo.gl/8WtZvc

    We had planned to make some updates and amends to the YourNextRepresentative service that supports Democracy Club’s WhoCanIVotefor.co.uk site in the quiet period between major elections, ahem, but with the snap election called we’ll be doing what we can to make the site run faster and make whatever UI tweaks and fixes we can in the time available.

    They will no doubt be looking for help in sourcing candidate data, so please do sign up to help and find out what you can do democracyclub.org.uk/blog/2017/04/18/its-ge2017

     

    In summary and to make it easy you can find all of our relevant #GE2017 datasets and APIs here data.mysociety.org/datasets/?category=ge2017

    It’s not too late to let your current MP know what you think on any subject of your choice via WriteToThem.com.

    And finally, don’t forget to register to vote yourself at gov.uk/register-to-vote

    Image courtesy of Maurice on Flickr.com