HassleMe, mySociety’s nifty little reminders site, will continue to send ‘semi-unpredictable’ emails to subscribers – but under new ownership.
Not gone yet
Some canny commenters noticed that we’d tagged HassleMe in our post about closing down some of our sites, but then hadn’t actually included it in the list of projects that were due for closure.
That came about because, although we’d initially added HassleMe to the list of sites headed for the dumpster, there was also some internal debate about saving it.
A small cohort of mySociety staff members were so fond of the site that they wondered whether they might take on its running and maintenance in their own time.
If you have an active Hassle, you’ll have received an email to inform you of this change in ownership (and offer an opt-out, if you’d prefer).
A bit of HassleMe history
HassleMe began as a small piece of script, intended purely for internal mySociety use.
Back in mySociety’s early years, there were only a few members of staff, almost all coders. They knew it was important to keep communicating with the public about what they were doing, but blogging often fell by the wayside in favour of other tasks.
HassleMe was a coders’ solution: a programme that would periodically send an email to a random member of staff and tell them that it was their turn to blog.
Crucially, the reminders were not equally spaced: they would come *about*, but not *exactly* as frequently as you’d set them to. This element of surprise seemed to make the reminders more effective.
Clean the toilet, walk the dog, write a poem
In time, HassleMe was turned into a public service, and people used it for all kinds of things.
Perhaps it was the hassles set to the longest frequencies that were the most interesting. Hassles could be set to recur at frequencies up to ten years, and so people soon realised that they could send messages to a future self. Some of them were prescient:
Are there men on Mars already? What are the plans?
Check back in another ten years with that one, we’re almost there.
Of course, we’re fond of all our projects, past and present, but we’re glad to be able to tell you that HassleMe has a future, under new ownership. If you’d like to set up your own little reminders, or send a letter to your future self, you can do so here.
We recently shared news of some substantial funding from Omidyar Network, and the goals which that funding will help us to achieve.
Those goals are quite ambitious, and we’re going to have to focus hard on a number of core projects to meet them. Consequently, we’ve made the hard decision to let go of a few of our other sites; sites which need time and attention, but which won’t help us towards meeting those key aims.
A bit of background
mySociety has built loads of websites during its time: it’s the way we’ve historically worked. When we started up, we just wanted to make cool civic sites that would do useful things; if we could get the funding, and someone was willing to build them, we’d go for it.
All of the projects we launched were based on pretty sound ideas; all of them strove to empower people and open up democracy in one way or another.But, as we’ve become a more mature organisation, with responsibilities towards our partners and funders, that scattergun approach doesn’t fly any more. Running a website, no matter how small and self-sufficient it is, requires some investment, in terms of maintenance, user support, and updating, and sadly, right now we can’t maintain everything to a level that keeps it useful and functional for users.
Over a decade since mySociety first started, some of those early sites have proved their worth. They’ve grown and matured with us. Here in the UK, our Freedom of Information site WhatDoTheyKnow has over 400,000 visitors a month, and sites like TheyWorkForYou, FixMyStreet and WriteToThem have become UK institutions in their own right.
Alaveteli, the software which underpins WhatDoTheyKnow, has been adopted in 21 countries; the FixMyStreet Platform is being used in 11, with both set to increase as we concentrate on reaching out to international partners over the next few years.
These projects are core to our Omidyar Network funding and the results we’ve promised to deliver from it.
Goodbye to these
Along the way, though, there have been some projects which, for one reason or another, have not gained quite as much traction.
You might say they were before their time: Pledgebank, for example, predates Groupon, Kickstarter and similar pledging concepts.
In some cases, the world moved on: most MPs now have their own channels for contacting constituents online, so HearFromYourMP isn’t quite as vital.
In others, we simply don’t have the necessary resources that the project needs: FixMyTransport is a good example of that.
It’s been a difficult decision, but if we are to focus on our targets for the coming years, we can no longer afford to dedicate ourselves to these sites. To that end, we’ll shortly be retiring:
In February, Pledgebank will stop accepting new pledges, although users will still be able to sign up for existing ones until the end of June. We’ll be emailing all owners of pledges to let them know that the site will close at that time.
From the 1st of March, you’ll no longer be able to create a report on FixMyTransport. If you are running an active campaign or problem report, we’ll email to let you know of the site’s closure, which is planned for the end of June.
MPs can continue to use HearFromYourMP to send newsletters to their constituents, but we’ll be letting them know that the service will be retired before the General Election.
In February, ScenicOrNot will be mothballed so that users can no longer rate photographs. We’ll be keeping the leaderboard intact and developers will still be able to use the site’s data.
It’s not without regret that we’ll be saying goodbye to these sites – each and every one of them is based on a sound idea that fell well within mySociety’s remit to provide civic and democratic digital tools.
Like most mySociety sites, the code of all of the above is Open Source and you are welcome to pick it up and adapt it to your needs. We’d be delighted if there was interest, from other individuals or groups, in running something similar, based on our code.
FixMyTransport is a bigger commitment, one that we think will need the backing and resource that only an organisation can provide. We’ll be posting a bit more about it tomorrow.
If you haven’t got a penny,
A ha’penny will do,
If you haven’t got a ha’penny,
Then God bless you.
We wish you all a merry and prosperous Christmas – and for those of you who are already feeling quite prosperous enough, may we point you in the direction of our charitable donations page?
mySociety’s work is made possible by donations of all sizes and from all sorts of people. Those donations help fund all the online projects we create; projects that give easy access to your civic and democratic rights. If that’s important to you, show your appreciation, and we promise we’ll make the best use of every penny.
Thank you for sticking with us through this month-long post. We hope you’ve found it interesting and we wish you the very merriest of Christmases.
What’s behind the door? A letter to Santa.
If you can fit them down the chimney, here’s what we’re dreaming of:
More publicly available data Of course, we were delighted to hear in Mr Osborne’s autumn statement that all sorts of previously-inaccessible data will be opened up.
We’re wondering whether this new era will also answer any of our FixMyStreet geodata wishes. Santa, if you could allocate an elf to this one, we’d be ever so pleased.
Globalisation …in the nicest possible way, of course. This year has seen us work in places previously untouched by the hand of mySociety, including Kenya and the Philippines. And we continue to give help to those who wish to replicate our projects in their own countries, from FixMyStreet in Norway to WhatDoTheyKnow in Germany.
Santa, please could you fix it for us to continue working with dedicated and motivated people all around the world?
A mySociety Masters degree We’re lucky enough to have a team of talented and knowledgeable developers, and we hope we will be recruiting more in the coming year. It’s not always an easy task to find the kind of people we need – after all, mySociety is not your average workplace – so we’ve come to the conclusion that it’s probably easiest to make our own.
Back in February, Tom started thinking about a Masters in Public Technology. It’s still something we’re very much hoping for. Santa, is it true you have friends in academic circles?
FixMyTransport buy-in - from everyone! Regular users of FixMyTransport will have noticed that there are different kinds of response from the transport operators: lovely, fulsome, helpful ones, and formulaic ones. Or, worse still, complete refusal to engage.
Santa, if you get the chance, please could you tell the operators a little secret? Just tell them what those savvier ones already know – that FixMyTransport represents a chance to show off some fantastic customer service. And with 25,000 visitors to the site every week, that message is soon spread far and wide.
A few Christmases ago Chris Lightfoot and Etienne Pollard built a little throwaway website called HassleMe.co.uk as a one-day coding challenge. The purposes of HassleMe was to let people nag themselves into doing things that needed doing by arranging to be sent automated emails.
The genius of HassleMe lay in the timing of the responses. Instead of it mailing users exactly 5 days or 2 weeks after they subscribed, it mails people approximately when they ask. As a consequence you never know when the mail’s going to arrive, making it strangely more effective as a nag.
After Chris died the site sat running on his server for a couple of years, and mySociety didn’t have access to it. Last week Francis migrated the site to our own machines with the help of Pete Stevens from Mythic Beasts. When Francis looked at the database he saw that there were 16,000 hassles that users had agreed could be made public. However, the feature to show them was never built.
Now it has been added on this page, and makes for a fascinating, often foul mouthed insight into what it is that people need to motivate themselves to do. There are thousands of examples, each stranger than the next, so just hit refresh for more. And please do paste and favourites as comments to this post.
PS And as always, if you like any of mySociety’s services, or even just find the comments amusing, please donate – we’re a charity!
Sadly this year, the day long pre-Christmas hackathon that previously created HassleMe.co.uk and, ahem, DirectionlessGov didn’t happen.
However, we have thrown up this list of big goals we would like to see achieved in the next year or two. They’re more ambitious than things we’ve done before because most of them involve persuading other people to do things differently, rather than us just charging ahead uninvited.
What do you think? What else should be on there? And if you work in this area yourself, what are your big goals?
No lolling about in the sun for us, as we follow an endless chain of projects through the hot months. Inured to hasslebot, we’ve not been posting to this blog much. Instead, busy working on, or soon about to work on:
- The ePetitions site for Number 10
- On a syndicated version of PledgeBank for someone’s large global warming campaign later in the year, and another for a fundraiser for a Brazilian NGO
- Making more maps (like these) for the Department for Transport
- Adding an API to TheyWorkForYou, paid for by an award from the Department for Constitutional Affairs
- Meetings endless meetings. I’ve given up trying to track Tom meeting people, and just assume at all times he is in an important meeting.
- Supporting all our existing sites – customer support emails, nursing parliament screen scrapers, fixing up WriteToThem contact details, making sure our servers don’t break.
Have a good weekend!
mySociety started in very late 2003 by running a call for project ideas ideas. We were delighted and overwhelmed by the response – over 250 projects were submitted and vetted by our users. With those users help we picked five, and plotted to raise funds from charitable trusts and funds: we didn’t have any money of our own.
Before we could so much as put an application in the post, we were strongly encouraged to bid for some money as part of the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister’s e-innovations scheme. We were told that we’d been granted it in March 2004, and we actually got it and started building stuff in October 2004.
Over the course of 2005 we built a variety of sites, some big like WriteToThem and PledgeBank, other small and experimental like Placeopedia. It’s been a great time beavering away with our core team and our volunteers together, but by last autumn we’d come to a simple realisation – our original plan: get ideas, raise money, build sites was over. We needed to work out what to do next.
Fortunately at the same time the e-innovations project was coming to an end. The Office of the Deputy Prime Minister seemed to like our work a lot (they even gave us a prize) and offered us one final chunk of money, something over £100,000, before the strings were cut permamently. The purpose of this money is simple – we are going to use it to generate some revenue streams by selling spin-offs to local government, the voluntary sector, plus anyone who can use their own versions of sites like PledgeBank.
mySociety remains a not-for-profit project, run out of out parent charity UKCOD. We will keep making sure that everything is free to use for citizens, and we hope that by doing a bit of business we can ensure that our democratic tools and services grow and flourish in the years ahead.
There is one final question that needs answering: what happened to GiveItAway, our final launch project? Well, the short answer is that in the intervening two years Freecycle became huge, and we didn’t want to compete against a successful social venture. Instead we decided that we’d offer GiveItAway to local authorities, offering to install it on their recycling and rubbish collection web pages, giving people the option of giving stuff away to local charities and community groups before it goes in the skip. If you think this is something your local authority should be doing, get in touch with us, and them!
So, HassleMe launched today (despite mostly having been written just before Christmas). Good work by Etienne getting it all together. Today Matthew and I have been working on adding “instant-messenger” functionality to the site, which turns out to be a bit painful. Right now it seems like the most robust solution will be to use bitlbee, a proxy which allows you to interact with the various and wretched instant messenger protocols through the less varied and marginally less wretched IRC protocol.
Integrating a website with instant messenger is an interesting problem. I’m not yet sure how much of the experience of building sites which send and receive email will carry over. We’ll see….
We’ve decided that we should use this website more effectively to explain what we’re doing day to day. To that end, the developers have set up a developers blog, wired into a small program called ‘Hasslebot’. This marvellous invention uses email and IRC to nag one randomly chosen victim from the team once a day, and demands that we immediately post to the blog concerning what we’re up to then and there. It’s been implausibly effective for the last few days. So, if you want to know what’s going on day to day in mySociety, Take a look .
Earlier, Francis referred to an “evil plan”. So, here’s the plan:
Purely for my own entertainment, I’ve decided that the way to get us writing more updates for mySociety home page is to break the old rule that you should “never solve a social problem with a technical solution”. Here is my technical solution; let’s see how badly it breaks….