Join us on Thursday 16th March 2023 for our online event Unlocking civic tech impact: reflections on TICTeC Labs.
Over the last 18 months, we’ve run a programme of Civic Tech activities and events: TICTeC Labs. With thanks to financial support from the National Endowment for Democracy, TICTeC Labs has discussed some of the biggest challenges facing the global civic tech/digital democracy sector. Across six themes, we’ve:
- hosted Civic Tech Surgeries – discussing challenges, existing research and experience, and identifying gaps and needs
- set up Action Lab working groups to take forward ideas generated in the Surgeries and commission work to meet some of these needs
- and funded subgrant projects to produce work to contribute to meeting these challenges.
Hear about the work produced by the subgrant projects and how these have met the needs we identified. Members of the mySociety team, Steering Group and Action Labs will also reflect on how this experimental format worked – the successes and the challenges – and which aspects of it we’ll take forward into future TICTeC activities. There will be opportunities to ask questions about the outputs and the programme as a whole. The session will run from 14:00 to 16:00 GMT and we’d love you to join us live if you can (a recording will also be available shortly afterwards)!
As you’ll know if you’re a regular reader of this blog, YourNextMP crowd-sourced details of every candidate who stood in the UK general election.
But, just because our own election is over, doesn’t mean we’ll be letting YourNextMP gather dust. On the contrary—we want to see it being re-used wherever there are elections being held, and citizens needing information! We’re already seeing the first re-use case, and we’d love to see more.
Opening up data
YourNextMP’s main purpose was to provide a free, open database of candidates, so that anyone who wanted to could build their own tools on top of it, and it was very successful with that aim.
We heard of more than twenty projects which used the data, some small scale operations built by a single developer, some big names such as Google, and national newspapers like the Guardian.
The traditional source of candidate data for such projects has been through expensive private providers, not least because the official candidate lists are published just a few days before the election.
Thanks to YourNextMP’s wonderful crowd-sourcing and triple-checking volunteers, we reckon that we had the most complete, most accurate data, the earliest. And it was free.
Directly informing over a million citizens
YourNextMP also came into its own as a direct source of information for the UK’s electorate. This hadn’t been the priority when the project was launched, but it was helped greatly by the fact that constituency and candidate pages ranked very highly in search engines from early on, so anyone searching for their local candidates found the site easily.
Once they did so, they found a list of everyone standing in their constituency, together with contact details, links to their online profiles such as web pages, social media and party websites, and feeds from spin-off projects (themselves built on YourNextMP data) such as electionleaflets.org and electionmentions.com.
YourNextMP had more than a million unique users. In the weeks just prior to the UK general election, it was attracting approximately 20,000 visitors per day, and on the day before the election, May 6th, there was suddenly a massive surge: that day the site was visited by nearly 160,000 people.
So, in a nutshell: YourNextMP has not only enabled a bunch of projects which helped people become more informed before our election—it also directly informed over a million citizens.
A reusable codebase
YourNextMP was built on Poplus Components as a Democracy Club project: PopIt (for storing the candidates’ names) and MapIt (for matching users’ postcodes with their constituencies).
And, in the spirit of Poplus, the codebase is open for anyone to re-use in any country.
It’s already being pressed into use for the upcoming elections in Argentina, and we hope that developers in many other countries will use it to inform citizens, and inspire great web tools for the electorate, when their own elections come around.
If that’s something that interests you, please come and talk, ask questions and find out what’s involved, over on the Democracy Club mailing list.
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.
Image: Phil Richards (CC)
In yesterday’s blog post we talked about using our free, Open Source software, SayIt, to create collections of statements, like our collections of Party speeches.
That’s one use of SayIt – but we actually built it with a slightly different aim in mind: the storing and publication of transcripts.
SayIt really does transform transcripts – so, if you regularly take minutes of meetings at work, or in another capacity, it’s worth a look.
That’s easy for us to say, we know. But if you play with it for half an hour, we think you’ll see the benefits.
Making online transcripts better for your readers
Traditionally, transcripts of meetings are published as PDFs or Microsoft Word documents. The information is there; you’ve done your duty in making it available – but do you ever wonder if it’s really working for your readers?
For example, let’s say you are a clerk in the local council, and you routinely publish transcripts from council meetings online.
The chances are that residents access your transcripts when they have an interest in one specific topic. Typically your meetings cover many subjects, and readers have to wade through pages to find the part they want. On SayIt, searching is very easy, even for people who are not very familiar with internet technology.
Or suppose that you are a member of a pressure group, and you’ve transcribed a local community meeting to share on your website. You might want to highlight particular parts of the meeting. With SayIt, you can link to individual statements, so it’s simple to share them by email, social media, or on your website.
See some examples
If you’d like to see how your meeting transcripts will look, once they’ve been published on SayIt, have a browse through these two examples:
Ready to have a go? Here’s how to start your own SayIt site:
- Go to this page and sign up.
We’ll ask you for:
- Part of the URL (web address) for your site – for example, if you choose “TotnesCouncil”, your new URL will be http://TotnesCouncil.sayit.mysociety.org. Note that URLs can’t contain spaces or non-regular characters.
- A title: this will appear in the top bar of your website. Don’t sweat too much: you can always change this later. In this example we might choose “Totnes Council meetings”.
- A description (optional): this is a good place to explain the purpose of your site at a little more length. You might write something like “Transcripts from local council meetings in Totnes, UK, 2014 onwards”. Again, you will have the chance to change this later if you like.
2. Confirm your email address
If this is the first time you have used SayIt, you will need to input your email address, then go to your email and find our automated message so you can click on the confirmation link.
Keep a note of your password, as you will need it whenever you want to edit your site.
SayIt is currently in Beta – that’s to say, it’s functional and live, but we’re still developing it.
In this phase, you can manually type (or copy and paste) each statement of your transcript in. Soon, it will also be possible to import a document of the entire meeting, as long as it’s in the required format – if you have a lot of existing transcripts and you’d like to try this, get in touch and we may be able to help.
In this post, we’ll look at the manual input of speeches.
You will need either a copy of your transcript, or a recording of the meeting you wish to transcribe.
Here’s how to begin:
1. Click on the ‘add your first statement’ button.
2. You can paste, or type, your content directly into the box marked “text”.
In the fields below the text box, you have the option to add more details about this piece of text. None of these fields are mandatory, but all of them add functionality or information to your transcript:
- Date and time If you know these, they are useful because they will help SayIt to order your speeches chronologically. Don’t worry if you don’t know them, though – SayIt automatically arranges speeches in the order that you input them, unless the timestamps tell it otherwise.
- Event and location What sort of meeting was it, and where did it happen? For our example, we might input “Totnes Town Council Meeting” and “Guildhall, Totnes”.
- Speaker Enter a name, and then click on the underlined text to add it to your database. As with all text fields on SayIt, once you have added it, it will be offered as an auto-fill option for subsequent speeches. Attaching names to your speeches also means that SayIt can do clever things, like display everything said by one speaker.
If you are not sure who spoke, don’t worry – you can leave this field blank, or enter a name such as ‘Unknown’.
- Section Meetings often have distinct sections: an introductory period, apologies for absences, following up on agreed actions, etc. Or you might use Section to identify items on the agenda. If you use the Section field, SayIt will automatically arrange your transcript into groups of associated content.
- Source URL If you are taking speeches from a source such as a news report or another website, you can add the web address so that interested people can see it in context.
- Title and tags: These enable you to tag your content – for example, you might want to tag everything to do with road-building, and everything to do with tourism, et cetera. That means that your readers will be able to find the sections of the content they are most interested in.
When you’ve added everything you want to for this part of speech, click “Save speech”.
Well done! You’ve just added your first speech to SayIt.
You can go back and edit it at any time – and that applies to every field.
3. Continue adding speeches.
As you do so, SayIt will be making connections and organising things neatly.
Tip: If you click ‘add another speech like this’ then fields such as ‘event and location’ will automatically be filled for you – you can overwrite them if they are incorrect for your next speech.
Click on ‘Speakers’ to see an icon for everyone you’ve added:
– and click on any one of those icons to see just their speeches:
Clicking on ‘Speeches’ in the top bar will show you every speech you’ve input; if you used Sections, they will be divided up neatly:
Click on any of those sections to see its content:
You’ve done it
So there you are, now you’ve seen what SayIt can do – we hope you liked it enough to consider using it in the future. Remember, it’s completely free.
Let us know if you hit any problems, or if there are features you’d like us to add. SayIt is in active development at the moment, so your feedback will help shape it. We’d also love to hear if you are using it.
Manual inputting is clearly only practical for shorter meetings (or people who have plenty of time on their hands!). As mentioned above, we’ll be adding the ability to import your transcripts.
They will need to be in the format that SayIt accepts, which is Akoma Ntoso, a schema for Parliamentary document types – you can read more about that here.
If you already have documents in Akoma Ntoso, get in touch and we can get them imported for you.
You can host SayIt on your own servers, but for beginner users it’s quicker and easier to start by creating a version that we host, as described in the steps above.
If you decide later on that you want to host the content yourself, and perhaps embed it on your own website, that option will remain open to you.
SayIt is a Poplus Component – open-source software that is designed to underpin digital democracy projects. It can stand alone, or work with other Poplus Components. The source code is also available for developers to modify and improve, so if you are already imagining more ambitious ways that you might use SayIt on your website, let us know.
Other ways to use SayIt
We’ve recently written about:
– Using SayIt to make collections of statements.
– Using SayIt to store interviews from your research project
We’ll also be looking at the following soon:
– Collaborating with other users on SayIt transcripts
Image: A scribe from the Book of Hours (public domain)
When we developed SayIt, we envisioned it primarily as a tool for publishing transcripts of meetings, but there’s another way you can use it, too: to create a collection of statements.
Our recent publication of Labour and Conservative party speeches is a good example of this kind of use. Each speech is published as an isolated item – not as part of a chronological conversation – but SayIt still gives you benefits such as being able to see and search within everything said by a specific speaker.
We hope that the Labour and Conservative SayIts might encourage others to set up similar projects. You could, of course, just as easily publish everything said by Liberal Democrats, the Green Party, UKIP, et cetera (do let us know if you’d like to do this, and we can help you). There are other potential uses too, as we’ll see below.
In this post, we’ll be looking at how to set up this kind of SayIt instance.
A collection of statements on one topic
You can use SayIt to collect together statements from one person or many different people, on a specific theme, or at a specific event, or within a specific place. Some examples might be:
- Quotes about your home town
- Statements about a local contentious topic
- Everything said about a certain public figure
- Quotes on a single subject
- Comments from conference attendees
For me, a Brighton resident, the West Pier makes a great subject: it’s a long-time political hot potato here in Brighton, surrounded by rumour and controversy.
Plenty of different public figures have made plenty of statements about it, over a period of many years.
Why use SayIt this way?
Those statements can all be found quite easily on the web, but by gathering them together, you get quite a different picture from the one you get if you are hopping from one source to another.
Reading news stories is one thing; a collection of direct quotes from key figures is much more immediate, and gives an accessible snapshot of all views around the issue.
Also, once your statements are in place, SayIt organises them neatly so that they can be viewed by speaker, read chronologically, or searched for any keyword. You have to see it in action to really understand the benefits, so why not give it a go?
How to make your own SayIt collection
Convinced? In this post, I’m going to walk through the process of creating the West Pier SayIt – follow along, and you’ll see how to make a SayIt on your own chosen subject. It’ll take less than half an hour.
1. Sign up
Begin by going to this page.
You’ll need to input:
- A portion of the URL (web address) – choose a word or phrase that relates to your topic, and it’ll help search engines find it. This needs to be lower case and without spaces or irregular characters (ie, just letters and numbers).
- A title – keep it short; this will go on the top bar of every page of your site.
- A description – again, not too long; this will sit next to the title on every page.
Don’t worry too much about the title and description, though: you can go back and edit them at any time in the future.
In part 2 of the sign-up process, you need to input an email address, choose a username and pick a password. We’ll send an automated message to your email which you click to confirm your account.
Or, if you have a Twitter account, you can link your SayIt account to that, avoiding the confirmation step.
You’ll only have to go through this sign-up phase one time: once you have an account, you can start any number of new SayIt sites without signing up again.
2. Start adding statements
Now you can start assembling your collection. Click on the big green button marked “Add your first statement”.
Here’s my first statement about the West Pier, found after a quick Google, and copied and pasted into the SayIt interface.
I can leave it like that – all other fields are optional – but to capitalise on SayIt’s full potential, it’s best to add information to as many of the fields as you can:
- Speaker: Who made this statement? Type in the name and then click the blue underlined text to add it to your database.
- Section: This field is useful when you are transcribing a meeting: you can use it to indicate different agenda items. But, for this ‘scrapbook’ type of usage, you might group together certain statements: for example, are they fact or conjecture? Official or off the record?
- Source: Put in the URL where you found the statement, and then your readers will be able to click through to see it in its original context.
- Date and time: You don’t have to have both, but filling in this field means that SayIt will automatically arrange your statements in a chronological order.
- Event and location: Here you can note the type, and place of the event: was it at a meeting in the town hall? A press conference at the council offices?
- Title and tags: Filling in this field helps people who are interested in specific topics to find the statements they are really interested in. I might tag this statement with words like ‘arson’ or ‘policy’.
Like almost everything else in SayIt, all these fields – including the statement itself – can be edited in the future. And, once you’ve input a name or date or URL, it’ll be suggested for all future fields, as soon as you’ve typed two characters that match.
Click ‘save speech’ and you’ll see a green button inviting you to add another speech – you can go on doing so for as long as you like.
3. SayIt begins to organise your data
Once you’ve added a few statements, you might like to click around – try ‘speakers’, ‘speeches’, and the homepage of your site to see what SayIt is doing to your data.
On the Speeches page are all the statements I’ve input:
On the homepage, it tells visitors how many speeches and speakers there are, and gives the chance to search them:
And on the Speakers page, there’s an icon for each person in my database:
Click one, and you can see everything said by that person (or body, in this case):
You can add more detail to each speaker, as well. Click on the ‘edit speaker’ button, top right.
There are a number of options here, some of which may be useful to you, depending on the context of your project. For example, if you are collecting historic statements, you may wish to include birth and death dates for each speaker.
If your speakers are politicians, it may be useful to add details of their posts and the dates they held them.
In many cases, you may like to add the short or longer biographical statement.
And, if you’re not a fan of the Cluedo-like avatars that SayIt automatically allocates each speaker, you may like to add a headshot for yours. I added a couple of logos.
Note that, at the moment, SayIt just asks for a link to an image that’s already on the web. Take care, though: any image you add to the site should belong to you, or be freely available under a licence like Creative Commons.
4. Get help
For big topics, it makes sense to collaborate! Click on the button marked ‘invite some friends to help you’ on the speech input page, and you’ll be able to send emails that invite your associates to log in and join you.
And that’s it
I hope I have demonstrated how useful SayIt can be for this sort of collection. Please do let us know if you have a go. We’d love to find out what projects it’s being used for – and your suggestions for new features will be very useful in helping us decide priorities for development.
Other ways to use SayIt
– Using SayIt to publish transcripts of meetings
– Using SayIt to store interviews from research projects
We’ll be posting soon on:
– Collaborating with other people on SayIt
Alaveteli is our platform for anyone who wants to run their own Freedom of Information website. It’s what underpins our own site, WhatDoTheyKnow, and it’s open source software available for anyone, in any part of the world, to use.
Over the past few weeks, we’ve been making improvements to Alaveteli – the aim is to make it as easy as possible to install and use.
You’ll now find that – as well as a snazzy new look for the Alaveteli site – there’s much better documentation and installation instructions. We’ve also consolidated documentation into one place, and we’re working through it all, making sure that everything in there is completely up to date.
In short, if you’ve been thinking about running your own Right To Know site, there’s no better time to get started! The Alaveteli community are standing by to help you – and the documentation’s never been clearer.
There was some excitement here at mySociety this week, as the People’s Assembly website launched in South Africa. It’s the result of a year’s partnership with PMG and a good test of some of our newest collaborative software.
The site contains a vast amount of information, all available in the same place for the first time, and offering a simple way for South African citizens to keep an eye on what their representatives are doing. There are pages for each representative, Hansard and parliamentary Questions and Answers, records of members’ interests, and more.
Locating, processing and displaying this data was quite a challenge: it has been taken from a wide range of sources, and came in an even greater range of formats, including PDF documents, Word documents, Excel files, CSV files and sometimes just e-mailed lists of information.
But perhaps most significant is the site’s Representative Locator function. For the first time, South African citizens can now find out, with ease, who represents them – not as simple as it might seem at first.
The Proportional Representative system means that members of the National Assembly and National Council of Provinces are not directly elected from constituencies. Political parties are, however, funded to run constituency offices and to allocate representatives to those offices. We believe that this is the first time this data has been consolidated and presented as a simple search tool.
The software that runs the site
As you’ll know if you read our recent blog post about SayIt, our recent focus has been reaching out to provide software for civic or democratic-focused websites anywhere in the world.
The idea is that such groups no longer need worry about writing code from scratch, since we’ve already done it – and their energies can be better expended on gathering data or adjusting the software to work within the local governmental systems.
People’s Assembly is a great example of this. It utilises two underpinning pieces of technology:
Firstly, the Pombola platform, our software for running parliamentary monitoring websites.
If you’re reading this in the UK, you may be familiar with our own parliamentary monitoring site, TheyWorkForYou. Pombola provides several tools that make it easy to do much of what TheyWorkForYou does: it provides a structured database of the names and positions of those in power; it allows people to look up their elected representatives by inputting their location, and to isolate and see what a specific MP has contributed to discussions in Parliament’s committees and plenaries; albeit, in the case of Hansard, after a six-month delay necessitated by South Africa’s own protocols.
We first developed Pombola for Kenya’s Mzalendo.com, and it’s been re-used for ShineYourEye.org in Nigeria and Odekro.org in Ghana. It’s superb to see this re-use, as it’s exactly what we set out to acheive.
Secondly, People’s Assembly is the very first site to use SayIt, which is embedded as a Django app to power the Hansard, Questions and Committees content. SayIt is one of our Components, built under the Poplus project, and we’re truly delighted to see it in place, proving its worth and being used as we first envisaged.
Thanks are due
The main work on the People’s Assembly has been funded by the Indigo Trust, and the SayIt component work was funded by Google.org as part of the Poplus Project. We also wish to thank Geoff Kilpin, who helped greatly with the scrapers and templating.
We’re good friends with the people at Mozilla. Every Wednesday, they welcome us into their London Moz space for our weekly meet-ups. They are champions of empowering possibilities of the web through Open Source software (a world we’re part of too). And they’re all so smart and lovely. So of course we’d been looking forward to this year’s Mozilla Festival for some time.
We had a table at the “Science Fair” on Friday night, where we literally had buckets of sweets (OK, they were little plastic buckets). Tom, our director, and Dave, from our international team, talked about mySociety’s work with anyone who came close. Perhaps people were drawn in by those sweets, or the FixMyStreet demo on the monitor, or even the (new!) stickers we had to give away… but regardless of the lure, we think they all learned a little bit more about how our platforms help empower people’s civic lives: from something as simple as reporting a flickering streetlight, to holding a public authority to account, to monitoring a whole parliament. (That’s FixMyStreet, Alaveteli, and Pombola, if you were wondering).
The Mozilla Festival’s venue was, once again, London’s astonishing Ravensbourne, right next to the O2 Millenium Dome. The setting magnifies the wonder of the event. Those big round windows make it feel like being in a spaceship made of Swiss cheese. The place is so open, and so vertical, that the activity and enthusiasm doesn’t just spread out, it spreads up. There is making and teaching, learning and sharing, going on across nine floors, and it’s easy to drift up and down from one themed space to another.
We met old friends. We got to hang out some more with our Chilean brothers-in-code from Ciudadano Inteligente, and the excellent Gaba from Uruguay’s DATA, together with the good people from the OKFN. We made lots of new friends too. And all this didn’t just happen at the sessions. A lot of serendipitous encounters took place by the Alchemy coffee stations. Or on the stairs (khun Toy and khun Hui — hi!). Or in the Alphabet City party venue, afterwards.
So a big “thank you” to that Fiery Fox, and an enthusiastic high five (yes, there was an unLondonlike amount of enthusiasm on show — possibly because quite a few of the attendees were over from the USA — which it is impossible not to be caught up by) to all the people we met at the event. Dave grinned his way through a wonderful Scratch tutorial from Code Club, met a whole array of cool people, got answers to some nerdy coding questions, and learnt about the awesome Hive learning networks… and lots more things besides. That already describes a great weekend. But beyond that, we hope we might see a few new mySociety-powered sites spring up elsewhere in the world due to sparks that were sparked at mozfest last weekend.
Our Wednesday hack nights are fast turning into the place to be – if you’re into civic tech, coding, and chat with friendly people, that is.
Last night saw some concerted scraping of the Leveson Inquiry hearings, which were then imported onto our work-in-progress SayIt platform. Now if THAT doesn’t sound like fun, we don’t know what to tell you.
You’d be welcome to join us – every Wednesday night, 6:00 to 9:00 pm at the Open Data Institute.
Numbers are limited, so add your name to one of our Lanyrd pages, or drop us a line.
Image credit: HackNY (cc).
The last few weeks since the US election have seen an explosion in articles and blog posts about how Obama’s tech team pulled out the stops in their race against the Republicans. It’s been an exciting time to learn about the new techniques dreamed up, and the old ones put to the test.
For those of us who develop non-partisan services to help people report broken street lights or make Freedom of Information Requests, such stories certainly seem unimaginably glamorous: I don’t think any of my colleagues will ever get hugged by Barack Obama!
But it has also been an interesting time to reflect on the difference between choosing to use tech skills to win a particular fight, versus trying to improve the workings of the democratic system, or helping people to self-organise and take some control of their own lives.
At one level there’s no competition at all: the partisan tech community is big and economically healthy. It raises vast amounts of cold hard cash through credit card payments (taking a cut to pay its own bills) and produces squillons of donors, signers, visitors, tweeters, video watchers and so on. The non-partisan tech community is much smaller – has fewer sustainable organisations, and with the exception of some big online petitions, doesn’t get the same sort of traffic spikes. By these metrics there’s absolutely no doubt which use of tech is the most important: the partisan kind where technology is used to beat your opponent, whether they are a political candidate, a policy, company, or an idea.
But I am still filled with an excitement about the prospects for non-partisan technologies that I can’t muster for even the coolest uses of randomized control trial-driven political messaging. The reason why all comes down to the fact that major partisan digital campaigns change the world, but they don’t do it in the way that services like eBay, TripAdvisor and Match.com do.
What all these sites have in common – helping people sell stuff they own, find a hotel, or a life partner – is that they represent a positive change in the lives of millions of people that is not directly opposed by a counter-shift. These sites have improved the experience of selling stuff, finding hotels and finding life partners in ways that don’t attract equal and opposite forces, driven by similar technologies.
This is different from the case of campaigning tech: here a huge mailing list is pitted against another even huger mailing list. Epic fund-raising tools are pitched against even more epic fund-raising tools. Orca vs Narwhal. Right now, in US politics, the Democrats have a clear edge over the technology lined up against them, and I totally understand why that must feel amazing to be part of. But everything you build in this field always attracts people trying to undo your work by directly opposing it. There is something inate to the nature of partisanship which means that one camp using a technology will ultimately attract counter-usage by an opposing camp.
This automatic-counterweighting doesn’t happen with services that shift whole sectors – like TripAdvisor did. In the hotel-finding world, the customer has been made stronger, the hotel sector weaker, and the net simply doesn’t provide tools to the hotel industry to counter what TripAdvisor does.
It is this model – the model of scaleable, popular technology platforms that help people to live their lives better – that I aspire to bring to the civic, democratic and community spheres in my work. Neither I nor mySociety has yet come up with anything even remotely on the scale of a TripAdvisor, but there remains the tantalising possibility that someone might manage it – a huge, scaleable app of meaningful positive impact on democratic, civic or governance systems*. Our sites are probably about as big as it gets so far, and that’s not big enough by far.
If someone does manage to find and deliver the dream – some sort of hugely scalable, impactful non-partisan civic or democratic app & website, it is unlikely that the net will instantly throw up an equal and opposite counterweight. There is a real possibility that the whole experience of being a citizen, the whole task of trying to govern a country well will be given a shot in the arm that won’t go away as soon as someone figures out how to oppose it. I’m not talking Utopia, I’m just talking better. But what motivates me is that it could be better for good, not just until the Other Team matches your skills.
And that – in rather more words than I meant to use – is why I am still excited by non-partisan tech, and why I really hope that some of the awesome technologists who worked in the political campaigns of 2012 get involved in our scene.
I’m on Twitter if anyone wants to talk about this more.
* You can certainly make an argument that Twitter and Facebook sort-of represent non-partisan democracy platforms that have scaled. But some people disagree vehemently, and I don’t want to get into that here.