1. Goodbye to some old friends

    That's All Folks by William MurphyWe 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.

    The keepers

    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.

    Additionally, we’ll be continuing to strengthen our international work with the Poplus federation, developing and supporting the use of Poplus Components and the Pombola platform.

    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:

    Pledgebank

    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.

    FixMyTransport

    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.

    HearFromYourMP

    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.

    ScenicOrNot

    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.

    Would you like to take over one of these sites?

    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.

    And in many cases, the sites themselves still have great potential. For that reason, we’d be delighted if there was interest, from other individuals or groups, in taking them over. Get in touch, and we’ll tell you exactly what would be involved.

    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.

    Image credit: William Murphy (CC)

  2. Play our GroupsNearYou game and map the world

    One of mySociety’s most below-the-radar projects is GroupsNearYou.com , a project to build a web service that eventually will allow other websites, such as FixMyStreet, to tell their users “Look! There’s a local email list here. Why not join it and discuss what you can do to stop those phoneboxes being smashed up?””

    However, in order for GroupsNearYou to become a useful web service for mySociety and the rest of the geospatial Internet, it really needs a good pile of pre-existing groups adding from across the globe. To help with this process Richard Pope has built a little game, rather in the spirit of our video timestamping game. To play it involves trying to identify which Yahoo Groups (and soon others, like Google Groups) cover which areas on the ground.

    Reasons we think you should have a play include:

    1. That strange instinct we all sometimes have that compels us to scrabble to the top of any league table.
    2. The chance to learn about the most random community groups and what they’re up to in strange places you’ll never visit.
    3. The warm glow of knowing you’re helping build up a little piece of the web of small pieces.
    4. The prospect of free food, hoodies and love from the mySociety community.
    5. Chance to come to our sold-out 5th birthday party in London
    6. Your day job is less fun than this game.

    Thanks Richard!

  3. Amazing Volunteers do Entire Year of TheyWorkForYou Video Clip Timestamping in weeks

    The epic task of manually matching each of the 42,019 video clips of MPs was started way, way back, ooh, about 12 whole weeks ago. Two days ago the Number 1 rated volunteer timestamper in our league table, Abi Broom, completed the last clip in our database, bringing her personal tally to 8,543 clips.

    Abi Broom, No1 timestamping league table champ

    Last night we went out and met with Abi and Robert Whittakker, one of the other super-timestampers who had done over 2,000 himself.

    As a result of their efforts, and those of hundreds of other volunteers, we have put all the video that we have of the House of Commons sitting over the last year online, next to the text of the debates. The many thousands of people per day who visit TheyWorkForYou can, as a direct consequence of this work, now see video of most of the debates for the last year. When people embed clips on their own sites, that’ll also be thanks in part to our volunteers.

    We went out for ice-cream at the end of the evening.

    Robert Whittaker, down in 5th place with a measly 2047 clips to his name

    When Parliament starts again in the Autumn there’ll be another 300-400 clips a day to do, but we have a feeling the only problem doing them will be who gets to them first.

    In the meantime, we’ll soon be working on another game-like toy to help create more data. Hint – it might have something to do with GroupsNearYou.

  4. Richard Pope’s GroupsNearYou.com launches

    Say hello to GroupsNearYou.com.

    The Short Geeky Explanation

    GroupsNearYou.com is an entirely user generated API-queryabledatabase of the location and nature of local online communities, irrespective of the platform they are hosted on. A piece of the programmable web, in short, with local community building focus. The syndicated community information can easily be layered onto a map, for example.

    The Business Problem it Solves

    Do you run a site that tells people stuff about their local area? Do you suspect that there might be quite a lot of internet enabled community activity going on in local areas that you’d like to tell your users about? Use our feeds.

    The Social Problem It Solves:

    There’s a proven real world social value to people belonging to very local email lists and other forms of local online community. However there is no eBay or Craiglist or other market dominant player in the local online community world, instead there’s a myriad of google groups, yahoo groups, Facebook & other YASN groups, extremely old school CCed email lists, online forums and so on. As a consequence of not having one big simple place to go to find and join local groups (many of which are not even on the web for Google to find) far fewer people ever find out about and join their local online groups. GroupsNearYou.com is about getting more people to join groups, groups that are not hosted by us, and (hopefully) mainly discovering them via uses of our syndicated info on sites that aren’t run by us. It’s a piece of pure internet infrastructure, with a positive social bent.

    Who did it?

    Astonishingly, the project was almost entirely built by a volunteer, Richard Pope assisted in design by another brilliant volunteer Denise Wilton. Their only reward is a highly sought after mySociety Hoodie, plus the love and gratitude of all our users.

    Richard has been an amazingly dedicated volunteer for mySociety and on his own projects for over two years, and deserves the reputation he is rapidly gaining as one of the world’s truly great civic minded web innovators. The project was funded by the UK’s Government’s Ministry of Justice who have been trying to run experiments of different kinds in the realm of electronic democracy. Their money will go to help improve and grow the site, rather than building it, which is a very interesting funding model in its own right. The several hundred groups already in the system are mainly added by users of WriteToThem.com

    Next steps

    Almost all the groups listed in the database are in the UK at the moment, and they’re all from users of our other sites. We’re interested in working with anyone who runs sites that might want to either take information out of it, or put information into it (Hello email list/social network providers!)

    Anyway, it’s dead simple really, just a little brick in the internet wall, albeit one that I hope will help a few more people meet their neighbours and improve their communities.

  5. Freedom on Rails

    This week has been quite bitty. I’ve been doing more work on the Freedom of Information site, have been getting into the swing of Ruby on Rails. Once you’ve learnt its conventions, it is quite (but not super) nice.

    As far as languages are concerned, Ruby seems identical in all interesting respects to Python. It’s like learning Spanish and Italian. Both are super languages. Ruby has nice conventions like exclamation marks at the end of function names to indicate they alter the object, rather than return the value (e.g. .reverse!). But then Python has a cleaner syntax for function parameters. It is swings and roundabouts.

    Rails has lots of ways of doing things which we already have our own ways of doing for other sites. The advantage of relearning them, is that other people know them too. So Louise was able to easily download and run the FOI site, and make some patches to it. Which would have been much harder if it was done like our other sites. Making development easier is vital – for a long time I’ve wanted a web-based cleverly forking web application development wiki. But while I dream about that, Rails packaging everything you need to run the app in a standard way in one directory that quite a few people know how to use, helps.

    Other things… I’ve been helping Richard set up GroupsNearYou on our live servers, it should be ready for you to play with soon. It looks super nice, and is easy to use. I’ve had some work to do with recruitment. And catching up on general customer support email for TheyWorkForYou and PledgeBank. I’ve also been updating the systems administration documentation on our internal wiki, so others can work out how to run our servers.