What impact do mySociety sites actually have? We could lose a lot of sleep over this important question – or we could do something concrete, like conducting academic research to nail the answers down for once and for all.
As slumber enthusiasts, we went for the research option – and, to help us with this commitment we’ve recently taken on a new Head of Research, Rebecca Rumbul. Watch this space as she probes more deeply into whether our tools are making a difference, both in the UK and abroad.
Even before Rebecca came on board, though, we had set a couple of research projects in motion. One of those was in partnership with the University of Manchester, funded by the ESRC, which sought to understand what impact our core UK sites (FixMyStreet, WriteToThem, TheyWorkForYou and WhatDoTheyKnow) have on their users, and specifically on their level of political engagement.
Gateways to participation
It’s perhaps worth mentioning that, while our sites appear, on the face of it, to be nothing more than a handy set of tools for the general citizen, they were built with another purpose in mind. Simply put, each site aims to show people how easy it is to participate in democracy, to contact the people who make decisions on our behalf, and to make changes at the local and national levels.
Like any other online endeavour, we measure user numbers and transaction completions and time spent on site – all of that stuff. But one of the metrics we pay most attention to is whether users say they are contacting their council, their MP or a public body for the first time. Keeping track of this number ensures that we’re doing something to open democratic avenues up to people that haven’t used them before.
But there are plenty more questions we can ask about the impact we’re having. The University of Manchester study looked into one of them, by attempting to track whether there was a measurable change in people’s political activity and engagement after they’ve used one of our sites. On Monday, researchers Rachel Gibson, Marta Cantijoch and Silvia Galandini presented their findings to an attentive audience at King’s College London.
The project has taken a multi-pronged approach, asking our users to complete questionnaires, participate in online discussions, or keep a 12-week diary about political and community engagement (thanks very much to you, if you were one of the participants in this!). The result was a bunch of both qualitative and quantitative data which we’ll be able to come back to and slice multiple ways in the future – Gibson says that they haven’t as yet managed to analyse all of the free text diaries yet, for example.
In itself this study was interesting, because not much research has previously been conducted into the impact of digital civic tools – and yet, as we know from our own international activities, people (not least ourselves) are launching sites all over the world based on the premise that they work.
Some top-level conclusions
The research will be published in full at a future date, and it’s too complex to cover all of it within the confines of a short blog post, but here are just a few of the takeaway findings:
- A small but quantifiable uplift in ‘civic participation’ was noticed in the period after people had used our sites. This could include anything from working with others in the local community to make improvements, to volunteering for a charity.
- No change was found in the level of political influence or understanding that people judged themselves to have. This was a surprise to the researchers, who had thought that users would feel more empowered and knowledgeable after contacting those in power, or checking up on their parliamentary activity.
- As with our research back in 2011, the ‘average’ user of mySociety sites was found to be white, above middle-aged, and educated to at least degree level. Clearly this is a userbase which we desperately need to expand, and we’ll be looking carefully – with more research and some concentrated outreach efforts – at how we can do that.
- Users tended to identify themselves as people who already had an interest in politics. Again, here is an area in which we can improve. Of course, we’re happy to serve such users, but we also want to be accessible to those who have less of a baseline interest.
- Many users spoke of community action as bringing great satisfaction. In some cases, that was getting together in real life to make improvements, but others saw something as simple as reporting graffiti on FixMyStreet as an action that improved the local area for everyone.
Thanks to the University of Manchester researchers for these insights and for presenting them so engagingly. We’ll update when the full research is available.
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.