My last blog post ran through the history of our ‘rate the view’ site ScenicOrNot.
I was expecting to wrap up with a final paragraph describing its graceful retirement. But no — it turns out that, even as I wrote, emails were going back and forth to secure a whole new career for ScenicOrNot.
Here’s what its new owners at the Warwick Business School have to say:
Does living in picturesque areas make you feel healthier? Urban planners and think tanks have puzzled over this question for years, but have been held back by a lack of data on the beauty of our environment.
We were immensely excited to discover the data being collected by ScenicOrNot, as it gives us a crucial opportunity to finally get some answers to this age-old question.
Our initial analyses of the ScenicOrNot data suggest that people living in more scenic environments report better health, even when taking variables such as income and greenspace into account. These results suggest that the beauty of our everyday environment might have more practical importance than has previously been realised.
We’ve written a paper describing these analyses, which is currently under review. Keep in touch with us via Twitter (@thoughtsymmetry or @thedatascilab) and we’ll let you know when the paper is published.
We’re very honoured that mySociety are passing the ScenicOrNot site into our care. We’re excited about having the opportunity to customise the site and gather more data for our research, and we’d also love to expand this work to other countries. Stay tuned to hear what comes next!
We’re excited too, of course — and really pleased that ScenicOrNot has been redeployed in such a useful way.
The good news for you is that you can carry on rating photos for scenicness over at the site’s new home, all in the knowledge that you are increasing our understanding about the correlation between health and our environment.
Oh, and meanwhile: how would you rate the view from your window? You might want to talk to your doctor about that.
Today is my last day and it seems appropriate to sign off with a blog post, 11 years and 5 months after the first one that I can find.
It feels too early to share any deep thoughts on what mySociety means, where we are with civic tech, what worked and what didn’t, what I learned as a founder and what we should all be focusing on next.
One of my many reasons for wanting to move on was to regain the kind of mental freshness and detachment that comes from having fewer responsibilities for a while. So I promise that I’ll think and write more.
Follow me on Twitter if you want to, or add your email address to my new notification list if you just want a ping when I’ve written something. Or mail me direct at firstname.lastname@example.org if you want to talk about anything.
My main reason for writing today is to thank people. A lot of people gave up very significant portions of their lives to get mySociety to a point where it helps so many people in so many countries in so many different ways.
So I’ve written a huge list of thankyous. If you’re missing, ping me and I’ll thank you too 🙂
Thank you to:
Paul Lenz for his strength, energy, focus, morality, tolerance of my foibles, and his financial and legal skills that stop this happening to me.
Tim Morley for loving and caring for PledgeBank for so many years, and for bringing a little Esperanto to our lives. And for cooking.
James Crabtree for writing the original article that said that something like mySociety should exist, and for being a patient trustee from many timezones away
Tony Bowden for being the first person to try to help people outside the UK to benefit from the ideas and tools we’d built here, and for the miracle that is EveryPolitician (100+ countries, anyone?)
James Cronin for being the chair of trustees for so long, and doing so with a calm, kind level-headedness that I think would drive other charity CEO’s wild with jealousy. And for being such a key part of starting mySociety in the first place.
Mark Cridge for taking on the challenge of running mySociety, and for resisting the temptation to use me as a scapegoat for everything [n.b. this thanks may be retroactively repealed]
Ian Chard for keeping the server lights on, for making me believe I can do more with every day of my life, and for telling me about the British Library’s amazing online newspaper archive.
FOIMonkey for spotting when councils dump tons of private data out via accidental FOI. You are what other people mean by eternal vigilance.
Deborah Kerr for being eternally patient and kind to the users, even when they were taxing, and for doing super retreat organising on a shoestring.
Ganesh Sittampalam for a billion hours of patient FOI administration, helping make WhatDoTheyKnow the institution it is today.
Alex Skene for so much volunteering on WhatDoTheyKnow, for grown-up management advice that I took seriously, and for surprising me at the Olympics
Abi Broom for nothing*.
Richard Taylor for years of diligent volunteering on WhatDoTheyKnow, making us all laugh with his videos of council meetings, and being perhaps the most knowledgeable person about every vote in Parliament who has ever lived.
Adam MacGreggor for server cabinet wrangling at difficult moments.
Ben Nickolls for heading up such a happy, productive commercial team, and for helping me understand that £200 is an entirely reasonable sum to spend on bicycle pedals.
Owen Blacker for a lot of trustees meetings, and for always keeping us spiritually close to the digital rights world.
Ethan Zuckerman for helping me gain perspective, and for being my biggest fan in the USA.
Jen Pahlka for being an even bigger fan than Ethan, and for endlessly quoting me on stages around the world.
Sam Smith for early hacking, for running OpenTech, and for reminding me that chippiness always has a place.
Dave Whiteland for the stories, and for travelling far and wide to help people take advantage of our tools and learnings. And, on a personal note, for showing me what it means to be a truly good son.
Michal Migurski for making Mapumental so beautiful, and for bringing your tech skills to Code for America
Amandeep Rehlon for being the volunteer finance department before we had a finance department, and for giving me the unique pleasure of sending my expense receipts to the Bank of England’s financial crises department.
Bill Thompson for organising the first puntcon, where I first met Chris. And for giving feedback on the very earliest versions of the mySociety plan.
Etienne Pollard for helping at every stage, whether a drama hippy, a McKinsey suit, or a harried public servant.
Stephen King for, yes, representing our biggest funder, but also for being clear, friendly, and a quiet champion for mySociety. And for sometimes helping translate from Californian to English.
Alistair Sloan for being such a dedicated WhatDoTheyKnow volunteer that he once got the bus from Glasgow to London for a meeting.
Duncan Parkes for making Mapumental performant in the post-flash era, even when it looked like it might not be possible. And for the best retreat presentation ever.
Struan Donald for the puns, the deadpan one liners, and for making both FixMyStreet and TheyWorkForYou so much better.
Micah Sifry and Ellen Miller for making me unofficial members of the US civic tech family.
Eben Upton, now Raspberry Pi legend, who booked me a speaking gig in the Cambridge Microsoft Research labs which is where I first met Francis Irving and (I think) Chris Lightfoot.
Dan Jellinek for bringing together VoxPolitics with me and James Crabtree, which was the precursor to mySociety.
Janet Haven for the money. For her ‘massive thermonuclear powered bullshit detector’ [ht Tom Longley]. And, oh yes, for becoming a friend too.
Ayesha and Keith Garrett for design help on PledgeBank, and sysadmin skills, long ago.
Tim Jackson for taking a philanthropic punt on a wild idea, long ago, which worked.
Robin Houston for doing battle on a project you didn’t really love, but that was for the right purpose.
Pierre Omidyar for making all that money at eBay, and then deciding that we deserved some of it.
Tom Loosemore for hacking together our very first web presence, and for being a positive, confidence inspiring presence in good times and bad ever since.
Mike Bracken for the vital job of helping us get out first significant grant, and then years later for successfully smuggling mySociety values into government.
Richard Pope for being a ceaseless fount of new ideas, and for driving the first redesign of TheyWorkForYou.
Edmund von der Burg for showing that you can both be a charming coder, and capable of building an office out of a shipping container, with your own hands.
Julian Todd for realising that vote data in the UK parliament deserved clear, regular, semi-automated analysis to make it useful for most people, and then for making it real in PublicWhip. If history is fair it will note him as the inventor of modern vote analyses.
Helen Goulden for helping us navigate the tricky paths to government money, back when there was any.
Doug Paulley for blazing onto the scene as an amazing new WhatDoTheyKnow volunteer.
Martin Wright for turning us from an organisation that sucked at design, to one that really rocks. And for his enduring love of Yo.
Stef Magdalinski for the name of the charity, and for trusting me with TheyWorkForYou
Nick Jackson for happy rats and research stats.
Jason Kitcat for the very first mySociety.org!
Matt Jones for mySociety’s logo, which is still going strong, albeit in a gently shaded new style.
Alex Smith for helping us through TV-driven load spikes with customarily despairing good humour.
Manar Hussain for diligent, challenging trusteeship that was always good humoured, and never afraid to bring in new ideas.
The public sector for being such a terrible employer of programming talent that it gave us both Matthew and Steve
John Cross for being a brilliant WhatDoTheyKnow volunteer.
Steve Day for being a brilliant, sensitive engineering manager, wise far beyond his age, all whilst riding a BMX.
Christoph Dowe for helping organise the series of Berlin-based conferences that first brought together Europe’s civic hackers, and which ultimately helped attract funding to the scene.
Liz Conlan for the coffee advice
Chris Mytton – for introducing the words ‘craft ales’ to mySociety’s internal discourse, for showing that not going to university has no impact on your ability to be either an amazing coder or a well rounded human being.
Steve Clift for being there to talk to about digital politics when nobody else was interested, and for loving Poplus into life.
Dave Arter for wrestling Mapumental into a truly beautiful state, for your Github robot, and for convincing me that Wales is disproportionately full of bright young coders.
Gareth Rees for helping make Alaveteli our most-used platform, and for bringing a little race-car glamour to our team.
Rebecca Rumbul for getting our new research programme of to a flying start, and for showing me that the art of creative swearing is never truly mastered
Jen Bramley for cheerfully travelling the world and making people feel that mySociety must be worth working with if everyone is so nice
Gemma Humphrys for bringing a tornado of efficiency to our events organisation, and for having absolutely no boundaries that I am aware of.
Rowena Young for being a person I could really moan to, when things got tough.
Myf Nixon for being our organisation’s voice, for looking after our users, and for making sure that we get noticed.
Tony Blair for starting a war that inspired Julian Todd to build PublicWhip, and much later for commissioning a petitions website that caused all sorts of fun and games.
Seb Bacon for making DemocracyClub happen in 2010, for starting the conversion of WhatDoTheyKnow.com into the generic Alaveteli, and for going off to OpenCorporates to make it harder for the b*&^&ds to get away with it.
Sym Roe for making DemocracyClub happen in 2015, and for giving a lot of his time to the cause of good political information in the UK.
Tim Green for being the new Chris Lightfoot
Tom Longley for giving us a no-nonsense introduction to how hard it was going to be to conduct successful partnerships in the developing world.
Mark Longair for making sure that technological excellence and human kindness are are the core of what we do.
Camilla Aldrich for the lungs
Angie Martin for giving all she could, for as long as she could.
Zarino Zappia for ceaseless energy and good humour, and for asking hilariously straight questions about why we made terrible design decisions previously
Karl Grundy, Kristina Glushkova and Mike Thompson for helping us grow a commercial team, over several years.
The vandal who repeatedly smashed up the phone booth on London’s Caledonian Road, and thus planted the idea for FixMyStreet
William Perrin for helping make government interested in data and tech before it was cool, and for virtually single-handedly starting the UK government’s work on Open Data. And for all the support and the ideas in his post civil service life.
Fran Perrin for the support, and for protecting me from William’s ideas.
Louise Crow for showing me what a technology leader really looks like.
Matthew Somerville for always standing up for the user, for making everything work, and for doing it all in a tenth the time expected. And for a hug when I needed it most.
Francis Irving for joining at the right time, for leaving at the right time, and being a monster of thoughtful product design and speedy, skilful implementation in between. For always being excited, and always wise.
Chris Lightfoot for giving me a brief, life-changing glimpse of what the raging, brilliant light of genius looks like. And being the person who introduced me to Anna.
Anna Powell-Smith for everything, everyday.
* Trust me, this is how she’d want it
If you need data on the people who make up your parliament, another country’s parliament, or indeed all parliaments, you may be in luck.
What’s more, it’s all provided as Open Data to anyone who would like to use it to power a civic tech project. We’re thinking parliamentary monitoring organisations, journalists, groups who run access-to-democracy sites like our own WriteToThem, and especially researchers who want to do analysis across multiple countries.
But isn’t that data already available?
Yes and no. There’s no doubt that you can find details of most parliaments online, either on official government websites, on Wikipedia, or on a variety of other places online.
But, as you might expect from data that’s coming from hundreds of different sources, it’s in a multitude of different formats. That makes it very hard to work with in any kind of consistent fashion.
Every Politician standardises all of its data into the Popolo standard and then provides it in two simple downloadable formats:
- csv, which contains basic data that’s easy to work with on spreadsheets
- JSON which contains richer data on each person, and is ideal for developers
This standardisation means that it should now be a lot easier to work on projects across multiple countries, or to compare one country’s data with another. It also means that data works well with other Poplus Components.
What can I do with it?
Need a specific example? Yesterday, we introduced Gender Balance, the game that gathers data about women in politics.
As you’ll know if you’ve already given it a try, Gender Balance works by displaying politicians that make up one of the world’s legislatures, one by one.
That data all comes from Every Politician, and it’s meant that the developers have been able to concentrate on making a smooth and functional interface, knowing that the data side of things has already been taken care of.
That’s just one way to use Every Politician data, though. If you’d like to use it in your own site or app, you can find out more here.
We still need more data
As you may have noticed, there are more than 100 parliaments in the world. In fact, despite having reached what feels like a fairly substantial milestone, we’re still barely half way to getting some data for every parliament.
So we could use your help in finding data for the parliaments we don’t yet cover, and historic information for the ones we do. Read more about how you can help out.
Back in March, mySociety’s founder Tom Steinberg, announced that he would step down.
Today, I’m pleased to announce that later this month I will be taking over the reins as Tom’s successor. I’m Mark Cridge, and I guess I should start by introducing myself.
I’ve had a diverse 20-year career doing digital things. Most recently I was chief operating officer with the lovely folks at BERG, a London-based technology and design consultancy many of you might know. For the past year I was a senior advisor at Blue State Digital in London, the team responsible for the digital strategy used in President Obama’s electoral campaigns.
I began my career back in 1996 in a small web design agency in Birmingham, before setting up glue London, a digital advertising agency, going on to become global managing director of Isobar, following glue’s acquisition in 2005. I originally studied Architecture before realising that wasn’t quite my cup of tea, and that the internet held more immediate attractions.
I’m genuinely excited to take what I’ve learned over my time to date, and to apply it to help build on Tom’s achievements as mySociety’s founder — by creating even more digital tools that make a difference to the lives of citizens in Britain and around the world.
What I’ll be focusing on
mySociety’s mission is unchanged: we exist to invent and popularise new digital tools that enable citizens to exert power over institutions and decision makers.
My initial priorities will be to ensure that mySociety’s existing sites keep pushing the boundaries of what is possible in the world of civic technologies, whilst also thinking through where we can move into new and exciting areas.
I want to make a new push to ensure that charities, activists and journalists around the world are able to run successful, high profile sites of their own, powered by mySociety’s open source technologies.
We will also be building up our research team over the next few years, to ensure that we are providing tools and services that have genuine impact, which we ourselves are able to measure.
All of which will build towards a reaffirmation of mySociety’s place as a key player within the global civic technology movement.
Making this all possible
Of course, all of this is possible only thanks to the generous support of our many funders — and needless to say we are always looking for more, if you think you can help then please do let me know. In particular, I will be spending a good deal of time delivering the three-year vision we developed with our friends at the Omidyar Network, with whom we announced a major $3.6m funding partnership earlier this year.
That said, one of mySociety’s great assets is that we are not entirely reliant on donor funding, so I will also retain our strong focus on helping our commercial clients — from UK local councils and charities to global technology giants — to serve their own users better, by working with mySociety Commercial Services.
All in all, I am indebted to Tom for leaving mySociety with sound finances and a world-class team of developers, both of which will be invaluable in helping me to take the organisation to the next level over its second decade.
I am also grateful to Tom and mySociety’s trustees for putting their trust in me. I’ve been an admirer of mySociety, and a user of its sites, for many years. It is a great privilege to be appointed as CEO.
I will be spending the next few months with the team as we plot and plan the next phase of our development which you can read more about here on this blog in the coming months. So if any of this sounds interesting to you then please get in touch.
And Tom says…
A big welcome to Mark!
I am excited that someone with so much digital experience has come along to guide mySociety in our second decade. We’ve always been an unusual social enterprise in that while we have a social mission, we also operate a first class software development and design team in-house. With Mark on board we will retain and grow that digital credibility, whilst focusing ever more deeply on the needs of our international partners, our UK clients, and growing our research capacity so that we know what is (and isn’t) working.
I am looking forward to spending the next month brain-dumping to Mark, before I slip quietly out the door in early August.
It’s an exciting time for mySociety, and I hope everyone will join me in celebrating Mark’s arrival!
This is a public service announcement for any organisations that have been making use of Google Ad Grants to run Adwords for free.
We’re the grateful recipient of a Google Ad Grant ourselves, which is why you might see our ads appearing on some Google searches. We find that Google Ads are a great channel to bring our sites to the attention of people who might not already know about them, but who are searching for phrases like “Who is my MP?”, “How did my MP vote?”, or “How can I report a pothole?”. Every year they bring us thousands of new visitors.
The single-domain rule
A couple of years ago, the rules around Google Ad Grants changed, stipulating that recipients must only link to a single domain, and that that should be the domain of the grantee organisation. For us, with our multiple sites, that meant making some changes. Our ads currently point at a series of landing pages here on the mySociety.org site, each of which acts as a springboard to one of our other domains.
This is permitted behaviour and in many cases it resulted in a pretty good user experience, allowing us to focus on exactly what the user was searching for, and deliver them there.
For example, if someone searches for ‘report a pothole’ and clicks on our ad, they’ll land on this page.
Inputting their postcode takes them directly to the second page of FixMyStreet, with no extra clicks than if they had gone through the homepage, plus there’s the opportunity for us to talk a bit about what the site does and why it exists at all.
Linking to additional domains
However, we recently discovered that Google Ad Grants’ rules have been relaxed a little (at least, they have here in the UK. As terms and conditions vary from territory to territory, you should check your own region’s Google Ad Grants terms and conditions). Here’s what they look like in the UK:
In certain cases, you may be able to promote multiple domains in a Google Ad Grants account after your original Grants application has been approved.
To request adding new domains to your account, fill out the Additional Website Domain Request form. Your request should be reviewed within 5 business days.
Reasons you can request an exception
You can request an exception to the website policy if you have other websites that:
- Promote ongoing projects with similar content owned by your organization
- Contain the same information as your main domain but for a different language
- Replace your original website because you’ve changed your domain since applying for Ad Grants
We applied and within just a couple of hours, we were authorised to link directly to our own websites.
This is brilliant for us because it means we can really maximise the value we get from the grant. We can now point searchers directly to deep content such as MPs’ voting records on TheyWorkForYou, and specific public authorities on WhatDoTheyKnow. We’ll probably also keep our landing pages, at least for the time being, because we think they are a good user path for the relevant search terms.
So, if this is a ruling that was causing you headaches, it is worth revisiting the terms and conditions and seeing whether you are now eligible to do the same. Let us know how you get on!
Have you ever typed a phrase like ‘what’s the time in New York’ or ‘what is 28 km in miles’ into Google? If you’ve done so in the last couple of years, you’ll have seen answers given on the results page itself, inside dedicated answer boxes.
We’re delighted to share the news that these answers are being supplied as open standard data from Democracy Club’s brilliant, volunteer-powered YourNextMP project, as well as our own long running TheyWorkForYou. The aim is to make information easily accessible to anyone who seeks it: we are one of a few data sources to be supplying Google.
We think that adoption of open standards data by companies as big as Google points towards a promising world in which there is a lot more good quality, open standard data on political issues of all kinds.
How was this made possible?
We’re so delighted to see essential civic data being brought to the search engine’s vast numbers of users. It’s all down to the power of open standards and re-usable open source software.
YourNextMP provides feeds via an API, which are available for anyone—large organisations like Google, or individual people like you, perhaps—to use in their own projects.
YourNextMP’s use of the Popolo open standard for government means that the data is clean, machine-readable and easy to slot in anywhere—including Google.
We think a few shout-outs are due. This simple but far-reaching usage of YourNextMP data is only possible because of many good people bringing good things together:
- Democracy Club, and the huge amount of work that this volunteer-run organisation put in to gather and check candidate data
- The many volunteers who gave their time in adding and refining that data
- Popolo, driven by the work of James McKinney
- Poplus, because YourNextMP is based on the people-and-positions storing Component, PopIt
- Google.org, whose funding allowed the creation of Poplus in the first place.
What YourNextMP has achieved
Just as was hoped, YourNextMP data has been used to underpin a variety of projects by many individuals and organisations.
Google may be the latest and the biggest, but we’re no less pleased to see how it has made possible numerous tools to educate or inform the public before the election, as well as powering stories and infographics in several national newspapers. See our previous post for more details on this.
And there’s more. YourNextMP, because it’s built on Open Source code, won’t be going into hibernation until the next election in this country.
The UK voting may be over on May 8, but there are elections all over the world still to come. Our friends in Latin America will be taking the code and adapting it for use in Argentina whose election process starts in August. ¡Viva YourNextMP!
If you’re a teacher, looking to spend the Easter holidays planning lessons, our latest news could save you a little time.
mySociety has collaborated with the Citizenship Foundation on the creation of materials for use in schools.
These activities, written and tested in consultation with teachers, introduce students to concepts of democracy, citizenship and community. A number of the materials also show students how they can use mySociety websites such as WriteToThem, WhatDoTheyKnow or FixMyStreet to bring about change.
We hope that you will find these activities useful. They span years 1 to 13, will fit into a variety of curricula from Politics to Geography, and are completely free to download and use. Access them here – and please do pass the word on to your teacher colleagues.
As I announced recently, I’m going to be stepping down from mySociety and handing over to a new CEO. This diminutive blog post is simply to point out that the job advert is now online, and ready to accept applicants.
I’ve had a lot of fun doing this job, and whilst it can be demanding you’ll never get to work with a better tech team and still get to focus on things that matter. Please tell your nicest and most thoughtful friends to apply.
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.
As mySociety Services continues to develop, we seek a new member to join the team.
We’re looking for a Sales Consultant who will bring their own experience and give us the capacity to discover and explore new leads. As with all mySociety positions, it’s a work-from-home job, but will be based around the Bath/Bristol areas where several of the mySociety Services team are already situated.
mySociety’s commercial work supports our charitable projects, so every new project for a client also does good in the wider world.
Do you know someone who might fit the bill? Send them over to this page where they can see all the details.