That’s not really the mySociety way, though.
All the same, we wanted to share some facts and figures about everything we got up to last year. It’s in the nature of our work that people tend to know about one part of it—say, our international work, or the sites we run here in the UK—but nothing else.
Well, to give you a more rounded picture, here is the mySociety annual report, featuring, among other things, the pop group One Direction, some vikings, and the TV presenter Phillip Schofield.
Welcome to mySociety in 2014… and if you enjoy it, please do share it around!
mySociety volunteers help us in all kinds of ways, and not just with coding stuff. This time we need skills and experience that only teachers can bring.
Here’s the thing: we’ve often heard from teachers of subjects like Politics, Citizenship and Social Studies that they’d love to integrate TheyWorkForYou, WriteToThem – and maybe even FixMyStreet – into their classroom activities.
We’d love it too. Our remit is to make democratic processes more accessible to all parts of society, and if this means that a whole new generation see contacting your politician as a perfectly normal and easy thing to do, well, that’d be a big win.
We want to provide downloadable lesson plans and resources – but we are not experts and we want to make sure that we get this right. Obviously, materials need to fit in with the present curricula, and be genuinely viable for classroom use.
There’s another possibility here, too – some of our software could be used in the classroom for students interested in coding and creating a new wave of online democracy projects themselves.
So: if you’re a teacher with a particular interest in democracy or digital technology, and you’d be willing to have a quick chat and then prepare some materials that we could provide for schools all across the UK to download, well – we’d love to hear from you. Or if that sounds like too much commitment, but you just have some ideas, let us know. Please mail us on firstname.lastname@example.org.
Every day, thousands of planning applications are submitted to local councils around the country by people applying to demolish a garage, erect a fence or convert a loft. More often than not these applications disappear into proprietary systems that, despite being publicly available, make it hard for members of the public to find out what’s going on in their area.
Last week, we kicked off the first sprint of an exciting new piece of work with the Hampshire Hub Partnership to build a prototype, open source web application to help members of the public find out more about planning applications in their area.
We jumped at the chance to work on this for a number of reasons.
Serving the needs of the public
Firstly, it has the needs of the general public as its focus. The planning process can be baffling if you’re new to it and this tool aims to help make it easier to understand. We’ll be helping people answer some of the most common questions they have about planning applications: What applications are happening near me? What decisions have been made in the past on applications like mine? How likely is it that my application will be dealt with on time?
A wireframe illustrating the potential functionality of the search results page
The site will help people browse planning application data by location — whether a postcode or a street address — and by type — whether it’s an extension, a loft conversion, or a major development like a retail park or commercial warehouse.
Built on Open Data
Secondly, it’s being made possible by the release of open data from local councils, once Ordnance Survey has granted the necessary exemption for locations derived from their data. Many of our projects rely on organisations publishing open data, so it’s great to have the chance to help demonstrate the value of releasing this kind of data openly.
The Hampshire Hub team has already spent a lot of time working with the LGA, DCLG and LeGSB to define a schema for how planning application data should be published. They’ve collaborated with local authorities, in particular Rushmoor Borough Council, to gather planning application data. And they’ve worked with Swirrl to set up an open data platform to collect all of this together, publish it openly and give us and others access to it.
Reuse, don’t rebuild
And finally, rather than build something from scratch, we’ll be using the fabulous PlanningAlerts.org.au open source codebase as a starting point. Planning Alerts is a piece of software built in Ruby on Rails by our friends down under at Open Australia. It gives us a lot of the functionality that we need for free. We plan in time to repay them for their kindness by submitting the features we develop back into their codebase (if they want them, of course).
We’ll also be using a customised version of our administrative boundaries service http://mapit.mysociety.org to store and query the geographical boundaries of different planning authorities in Hampshire (including National Park boundaries from Natural England as well as local council boundaries.)
We’ve just started our second sprint of work atop the Open Australia codebase, building the search functionality we need to help people find applications by location and category. We’re looking forward to seeing the tool grow, get into the hands of users and fill up with data.
About 6 weeks ago we arrived back from Monrovia, having just undertaken our first design exercise out there. Paul wrote about our experience in this blog as a broad overview. After further long distance design calls we wanted to delve a little more deeply into the process we’re following and what we’re learning about it.
To begin with, I should mention is that this is the first project where mySociety International will be leading on the implementation of a project using Design Thinking (the South African was a trial using a cut-down version of the approach and furthermore the implementation is being carried out solely by a local team).
Another important point for us is that the Design Thinking approach encompasses far more than just thinking about software development. The aim of the process is to develop an understanding what is required to ensure that the users’ need is addressed. Some of the solution might be technical, but much is likely to be about the processes and people that are required to ensure that needs are met.
For example, in the case of the Liberian FOI project where the internet penetration is low and the day to day obstacles people need to overcome are significantly more difficult than in the global north, a large proportion of the project time and resources will be dedicated to delivering offline services.
These provision of these services will tend to take a shape that fits into citizens’ current experiences. An example might be setting up an SMS short-code that allows people to contact a support team to call them back, in order to draft an FOI request on their behalf. They will then physically deliver hard copies of those FOI requests to the relevant ministries in Monrovia. This type of solution could be particularly beneficial for people who live outside the capital and do not have the time or resources to travel there to submit requests directly themselves.
There are two critical differences between the Design Thinking approach and other projects we have run with groups in the past. The first is that, with non-design centred partnerships, most groups start the process with a firm sense of the “type” of thing that they want from the outset – for example an instance of our Pombola platform that is used to power Mzalendo.com.
This is totally understandable, and in many cases what the funders of these projects are looking for, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that the users will get the most impactful solution.
Where we have sufficient funding to undertake this process available we intend for all of our new international projects to be starting with no expectations about the ultimate product – the outcome might even be that we don’t end up producing any software at all, because the best solution might consist of a desk, a phone and some radio advertising.
The second difference is that we have usually relied upon the local implementing partner to provide the insight and define the specification.
For our Design Thinking based projects we’ll have a closer relationship with the local partner and together we’ll identify potential end user groups we can talk to about their needs.
After doing a first round of in-depth interviews, the team then synthesise the information – essentially sharing what we’ve learnt with the rest of the group to pick out the most important points. The next stage is empathy mapping, where we figure out what people have said, thought, felt and done. This is a key stage in helping to identify the needs of the users.
It might seem simpler to ask them what they need, and often we did say something like “What would make this process easier for you?”. Yet actually analysing what they’re saying about the process and at what points they seemed frustrated or blocked – that tells us a lot more about points where we could change and hopefully improve the process than a straight up “What do you need?” question.
This is the stage we’re in at the moment with the Liberian project, though we have done some brief forays into Ideation – coming up with ideas for how to address the needs, and we are now starting to thinking about prototyping these ideas.
Of course, this method doesn’t mean we’ll completely stop using software solutions, or looking at A/B testing and Analytics as measures of the success of website. However we will also be looking at other measures of success or failure based on the product we’re building and the change we’re trying to achieve.
In the case of the Liberia FOI project, many of the users are likely to have no direct contact with the software themselves so we’ll need to design a monitoring system that measures the effect the changes have on their experience of making FOI requests.
One thing we’ve learnt is that a Design Thinking approach doesn’t only affect the first iteration of a solution. This may seem obvious, but from our brief work with this process we’ve seen that uses/users can be hard to predict at the outset – though in the case of the latter group we worked hard to spread the net widely in order to find potential users in Liberia.
So we’re interested to see, when we get to that point, what the prototype testing brings back and what new changes, improvements and tweaks need to be made.
More about our experiences with this process will be shared the lifetime of the project, as we learn, change and iterate ourselves.
The right conference, held at the right time and attended by people with common problems, can sometimes give birth to whole new organisations. I was at OpenTech when the Open Rights Group was born, and on a grander scale the Red Cross and the UN both featured conferences at catalytic moments in their early history.
Last week in Santiago, Chile, a conference took place that felt like exactly such a moment – PoplusCon. People from 27 countries spent two days talking about their shared goals and desires, and from it the skeleton of a new federation – the Poplus federation – started to take shape.
Not everyone at the conference worked on identical projects, or had identical skills. Some people were specialists in tracking suspicious relationships (‘This guy’s brother-in-law gets all the contracts’), others were big into training journalists how to use FOI, others specialised in making important datasets more accessible to members of the public, others still were journalists, skilled at constructing stories. But one theme emerged pretty quickly – people wanted better, easier, more reliable ways of sharing knowledge and sharing technology, so that they could all save time, effort and money.
What could a new federation do for you?
And so that is how the conversation turned to the idea of founding a new federation – an organisation that could serve the needs of many different groups without being run or owned by any one of them. In a brainstorm session about what people wanted from a new federation, the following ideas were raised:
- Running events to facilitate more sharing of ideas and tech
- Publishing stories about successful and unsuccessful projects, especially where those stories need to cross language barriers to spread
- Vetting and endorsing data standards
- Access to a community of peers (for sharing experience, encouragement, tips and tricks etc)
- Resources for projects that are running short
- Help and advice on making projects sustainable
- Certification of what counts as a Poplus Component
- Where groups face common challenges, perhaps coordinate advocacy
- Organisation of mentorship, exchanges and placements
This wish list is clearly far more than a nascent organisation could arrange in the near future, but there was some informal voting and the top priorities fairly quickly emerged. People really wanted access to their peers, and to the stories that they tell. And there was a strong wish to see Poplus Components become more official, and better explained.
Getting Real – Getting Involved
But a list is just a list without people willing to make it real. And so without doubt the most awesome thing that took place at PoplusCon was that eight people immediately volunteered to form a committee that would bring Poplus into being, representing half a dozen countries in different parts of the world.
This committee, which is completely open for anyone to join, will be meeting a couple of times in the next few weeks to agree on a plan for the first 12 months of the Poplus federation. It will work out how the new-born federation should govern itself, and what the first things that this entirely volunteer-run group should be doing. It’s an exciting, fragile moment and I’ve not seen anything like it in my ten-odd years working in this field. There’s no boss, no leader, just some people trying to build something of shared value.
Right now there are no rules, no barriers to entry, no bureaucracy. In fact there’s nothing but some hope, enthusiasm and some shared dreams of a stronger community of individuals and organisations.
I hope that if you read this and think that Poplus sounds cool, that you’ll consider joining the committee too. All you have to do is join the mailing list and ask where and when to show up. If you come to online committee meetings a couple of times, you’re de facto one of the people who runs Poplus. What happens next is – quite literally – down to you.
In the middle of the 9th Century, the territories of mainland Britain were in constant flux, with power shifting between the established Anglo-Saxon kingdoms and Viking settlers.
Towards the end of the century, the battles and power shifts reached a kind of equilibrium, with Alfred King of Wessex and Guthrum the Danish warlord agreeing a treaty defining the boundaries of their kingdoms.
One of these boundaries was demarcated by Watling Street, an ancient trackway that stretched from Shrewsbury in the west of England to the Thames estuary in the east.
The boundaries of Britain are different today, but the vestiges of this ancient divide remain in the names of the places that surround us.
To illustrate this, mySociety has been working with the British Museum, with data sourced from the University of Nottingham’s Institute for Name-Studies. We’ve created a simple interactive map as part of their Vikings Live event to show the Norse influence on around 2,000 place names in different parts of the United Kingdom and Ireland.
For each place, we’re showing its etymology, a breakdown of the different elements that make up its name and a link to the nearest cinema that will be showing the British Museum’s Vikings Live—a private view of the BP exhibition Vikings: life and legend in the company of world experts, presented live in your local cinema.
So, for a completely different perspective of the place names near your home, head over to the British Museum’s site to explore the influence the Vikings had on the names where you live. And, next time you’re in a Thorpe, a Howe, a Kirkby, or even in Grunty Fen (our favourite place name), think of the Vikings who’ve left an indelible mark on the toponymy of the United Kingdom and Ireland.
Though mySociety does not have a specific focus on women’s education our websites are still powerful tools for learning. Education doesn’t just take place in the classroom. Nor does it stop when you leave school, college or university. Websites like Mzalendo in Kenya help educate people about their politicians. They provide information about what their representatives have said in Parliament, about their political and work experience. This information can help Kenyan citizens to hold their elected representatives to account, and to understand more about the decisions that affect their lives.
Alaveteli is perhaps an even stronger example of this. Visiting an alaveteli website not only allows you to request information, it allows you to search through information others have requested and learn from it, potentially about topics you were unaware of before. We know that in the UK each request on WhatDoTheyKnow is read by an average of 20 people. And by having that information available publicly and allowing people to educate themselves about the actions of their government, it is easier for citizens to hold those in power to account.
It seems like a FixMyStreet site might not have a connection to education. But we think it does! At the most obvious level, FixMyStreet provides councils with information. They learn where problems are in their area and gain a deeper understanding of the issues that concern their citizens. This flow of information is not just one way though. Residents that use the site suddenly find they can take ownership of the problems in their local area, and get them resolved. At times, governments – local or national – can appear to be vast and distant. By using something like FixMyStreet residents can begin to see the practical role they can play in improving their own lives. This is a very important thing to learn.
Our sites are being set up and used by people of every gender, all over the world. This is an amazing thing and one we wholly support. Access to tools for learning should not be restricted dependent on race, class, gender, religion or ethnicity. The opportunity to learn should be open to all.
The world knows Malala Yousafzai. General Ban Ki Moon said it best when he said “When the Taliban shot Malala, they showed what they feared most: a girl with a book.” Because information and education give women, and everyone else in the world, the knowledge to stand up and say “This is not right.”, to make their lives better and to take a stand for a more open, free society.
That’s one of the reasons we create the websites we create, to help people educate themselves to gain knowledge and skills which can start the process of making their societies more open, transparent and participative.
Happy International day of the Girl.
In a break from tradition, I’m going to start this blog with an appeal.
We on the international team at mySociety are trying to improve the install process and documentation for all of our internationalised websites. Since we built the original sites, we’re not the best people to ask on what needs to be improved, as I’m sure you understand. If you’re interested in helping us out doing this I’ve created two surveys, you’ll find them at the end of this post! Or email me at email@example.com so I can ask you a few questions. On to other exciting things…
In site news we are working on Alaveteli sites for Uganda and Italy. Both of these should be finished and ready for launch soon, thanks to our developers and of course our partners for showing interest.
We’ve also been helping set up a FixMyStreet site in Cape Verde and a demo FixMyStreet site for Whypoll in India. While these two sites are being installed on mySociety’s servers, three people from Singapore and two people from South Africa are also working on FixMyStreet for their countries, as self installs.
And in Pombola news we are helping with websites in South Africa, Zimbabwe and are hoping to work with a team in Malawi.
But these are just the most recent sites! People are working on sites in Uruguay, Bosnia, Croatia, Italy and a number of other countries. Follow our twitter @mysocietyintl to find out more.
We’d love to help you set up your own site, or just give you advice on why sites like these can be useful. Send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org to find out how!
15th to 19th September – OKCon, Geneva (Jen and Dave)
27th to 28th September – OverTheAir, Bletchley Park (Dave)
30th Sept to 3rd October – African Entrepreneurship Summit, Mauritius (Paul)
25th to 27th October – Mozfest, London (Dave)
30th October to 1st November – OGP London (Paul and Jen)
27th to 29th November – World Forum for Democracy, Strasbourg (Jen)
Please do drop by and say hello!
By the way, if you are hosting a conference and want us to come along and speak (for free! We don’t charge, and a lot of the time we try to pay our own way!) please drop a note to email@example.com . We love to connect with new people and would be delighted to be involved!
One more thing, as a p.s. Hopefully these “What we’ve been up to” updates will soon come to you in video format! Be kind to me if the first one is awkward!
More and more people are starting to build websites to help people become more powerful in their civic and democratic lives. Some of these are on codebases that mySociety has created which is so great. There are some things which we would love to happen when you take our code and re-use it.
We want people using our code to keep it as up to date as they can, so that they gain the benefits of any changes made to the code by us or by other users. There are a few reasons for this:
You can co-brand the site without breaking anything.
Dave, one of our developers, explains how you do this. “So suppose, instead of calling it FixMyStreet you want to call it FixMyBorchester with a Borchester logo. Obviously this is a very real requirement, because people want to rebrand. One very feasible (but wrong! As you’ll see…) way of doing this is downloading the FixMyStreet code, finding the bit that paints the FixMyStreet logo and replacing it with the words <h1>FixMyBorchester</h1> and an image. This would work as far as the FixMyBorchester branding would appear on the site.
But if you then saved and committed your change to git and passed it back to us as a push request, we would reject it. This is for the obvious reason that if we didn’t, next time we deployed FixMyStreet in the UK it would have your logo on it.
However, say we suddenly discover there is a bug with FixMyStreet. For (a bizarre) example, if someone put the number 0 in instead of a postcode and the site returns a huge picture of a kitten. We love kittens, but that’s not what the site is trying to do. So, we make some fixes to the code that rejects zeros, commit it, update the repo, and it’s now there on the master branch. We write to everyone saying “really everyone, update to the latest (most up-to-date) place on the master branch” And you think, “yeah OK!” and you download the latest version.
If you just download it and copy it into place, you’re going to lose your FixMyBorchester changes, because there’s a more recent version of that file from us that hasn’t got them. If you did a “git pull” (which roughly means, “git! get me the latest version of master branch”) then git will refuse because there’s a conflict on that file.
So, instead of inserting your FixMyBorchester stuff over ours, which can’t work, you make a new directory in the right place called ‘FixMyBorchester‘, put your stuff in there and switch the FixMyStreet config — which knows this is something people want to do — to use that cobrand. Any templates FixMyStreet finds in there will now be used instead of ours. You can now safely update the codebase from our repo from time to time and FixMyStreet and git will never damage your templates, because they are in a place it doesn’t mess with.”
You can add new features
Dave continues. “Say when someone uses FixMyBorchester it’s essential that you have their twitter handle, because every time a problem is updated, FixMyBorchester direct-tweets them a kitten for fun. Right now there is no capacity to store a twitter handle for a user in FixMyStreet.
You simply add a column to the users table in your database and add some code for accepting that twitter handle when you register, and sending the kittens etc. That’s new code that isn’t in FixMyStreet at all. Sooner or later you’ll need to put at least one line into the main FixMyStreet program code to make this happen. As soon as you do that you have the same problem we had before, only this time it’s in code not in an HTML template.
What we would encourage you to do is put all your new code in a branch that we can look at, and maybe set it to run only if there’s a config setting that says USE_TWITTER=true. That way any implementation that doesn’t want to use twitter, which is — at this point — every other FixMyStreet installation in the world — won’t be affected by it. You send that to us as a pull request and a developer checks it’s not breaking anything, and is up to scratch in quality, and has good test coverage. Then we’ll accept it.
Even though currently nobody else in the world wants your twitter feature, it’s not breaking anything and it’s now in the repo so you can automatically update from our master when we change bits of our files, and the installation/overwrite/git-pull will work. Plus anyone that does decide they want this feature will now be able to enable it and use it.”
And all of this helps everyone using the code; you have a secure website that can be patched and updated each time we release something, other people have access to features you’ve built and vice versa. And overall, the project becomes more feature rich.
Please do make changes and push them back to the main codebase!
Image credit: US Coast Guard CC BY-NC-ND
A lot of people come to mySociety to reuse our code having seen the UK websites, which is great! Then you can see what we’re trying to do in the UK and how you could replicate it abroad. But what I wonder, and what lead me to write this blog post, is are we reining in your imagination for what these platforms could be used for?
9 times out of 10, when someone contacts me about FixMyStreet, it’s for street reporting problems. Naturally, it’s in the name of the platform! But we do get the occasional request to use it differently, which is something we’re really keen to explore. Here are some things I think it could be used for, that aren’t street related:
1) Antiretroviral Drug shortages in clinics in Africa.
The background: 34% of the world’s HIV positive population currently live in Southern or Eastern Africa . These people need antiretroviral drugs to survive, some of which could be supplied by the Government’s medical stores, some of which could be supplied by charities, but it is often reported that there are shortages of drugs at some clinics 
The concept: A mobile responsive FixMyStreet site which health clinic staff can use to report the status of their stock to the relevant supplier. The site would instantly send an email to the clinic supplier when the staff member dropped a pin on their clinic on a map in the site. There could be different alert categories such as “stock running low”, “stock critically low” and “Out of stock”
Impact it would hope to achieve: The aim would be to enable clinics to report on the status of their stock far enough in advance that the supplier could order and deliver stock before they hit the Critically low or Out of Stock status. This would mean that people would always be supplied with ARVs if they need them. Another point would be that patients could check the map to see if the clinic in their area has stock of the ARVs they need, and potentially choose another clinic if there is a shortage.
The background: It’s no surprise to anyone to hear that some species of wildlife are under threat. Wildlife conservation charities, like the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), annually monitor population levels for endangered species  to ensure they have accurate data on population growth or decline and the lifestyles and habitats of the wildlife they are aiming to preserve.
The concept: A mobile responsive FixMyStreet site which allows people to report sightings of endangered animals to wildlife conservation charities. The site would be tailored for area (eg the endangered animals native to certain countries) or could simply be per species (eg mammals, avians etc). The public would then be able to take a picture of the animal, attach it to the report and leave a short message, like “2 adult bitterns accompanied by young seen at 10:41am). The report will give the charities the location the animal was spotted in and they will be able to add this to their research data.
Impact it would hope to achieve: Hopefully this idea would contribute valuable data to the research of Wildlife Conservation charities. Another hope is that it would make people more interested in the wildlife in their surrounding area, thus more involved in conserving it and its habitat.
3) Reporting polluted Waterways
The background: You may have seen the reports from China earlier this year about the dead pigs found in the Huangpu River . It’s not just a Chinese phenomenon: around the world rivers, canals and lakes are becoming more and more polluted.  In fact the statistics coming from the UN are quite shocking. This not only has a harmful effect on wildlife in the river, but could lead to longer term issues with clean drinking water, especially in countries where cleaning polluted water is an expensive option.
The concept: This is very similar to the classic FixMyStreet. A website would be set up where a person could submit a photo and report of a polluted waterway by dropping a pin on a map at the position of the river. This report would then get sent to the local council or persons responsible for caring for the waterway.
Impact it would hope to achieve: Similarly to FixMyStreet in the UK, this would help to get citizens more actively involved in their local area and government. The idea would also be that the council would hopefully start dedicating more resources to clear rivers and waterways. Or local residents could form a group to remove litter themselves. In the case of chemical or oil spills this would obviously not be advised. However if chemical waste or oil spillages were noticed to be originating from specific buildings then the council would have the opportunity to bring this up with the residents or companies in these buildings.
So those are some of my ideas! What are yours?
We’re actively looking to support non-street uses of FixMyStreet so please do get in contact on firstname.lastname@example.org with your ideas and we’ll work together to see how we can achieve them!
Oh, and, don’t worry if you still want a classic FixMyStreet, we’ll help you with that too!
 Orangutan by Matthew Kang
 Primary colours by Vineet Radhakrishnan