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)!
A starting point for making civic tech more accessible
At our second Civic Tech Surgery in February 2022, we discussed ensuring that civic tech is accessible – how can we lead and popularise best practice? The subsequent Action Lab working group agreed to commission the creation of a toolkit or resource to support civic tech practitioners in making their work more accessible.
The subgrant was awarded to Technoloxia to create a beginners’ guide to accessibility. Technloxia are a training provider who specialise in digital accessibility for different audiences including civil society organisations and tech practitioners. The team working on this project included people with disabilities and trained practitioners, who worked with a focus group of users with different accessibility needs to review the material and provide feedback.
With this guide, Technoloxia look to provide a simple primer and introduce the subject while staying practical and action-oriented. This guide is in no way exhaustive but is a starting point for a larger conversation.
Step-by-step guides to better accessibility
The guide starts by explaining basic concepts and principles and then presents best practices by examining case studies. After each case study, the guide highlights a few potential challenges and how best to deal with these. It provides you with questions to ask to check whether your work is accessible, and always centres the people using the services, reminding us that accessibility goes beyond ‘technical accessibility’ to the ways in which we communicate and interact around our work.
An accessible accessibility guide
The guide is freely available on our website, to download as a PDF and as an audio file to increase the accessibility of the information itself. Please do download it and/ or pass it on to any other contacts who might find it useful: this guide will have most impact when it is widely used.
TICTeC Labs is our hands-on programme for fixing some of the prevalent problems in civic tech, supported by the National Endowment for Democracy. Each TICTeC Lab begins with a public discussion – Civic Tech Surgery – on a topic affecting the civic tech community, followed by an Action Lab, a working group who meet to discuss the challenges and commission some work to help provide solutions. To find out more about the TICTeC Labs programme and the work being produced following the series of Civic Tech Surgeries, see the TICTeC website or sign up for email updates.
The first TICTeC Labs subgrant project provides practical examples
How has civic tech helped protect the health of a small rural community in Chile, engaged citizens in decisions about their local areas in China, improved the electricity supply to a village in Kyrgyzstan and assisted people with visual impairments to take part in participatory budgeting in Argentina?
This month sees the first output from our TICTeC Labs subgrants.
TICTeC Labs is our hands-on programme for fixing some of the prevalent problems in civic tech, supported by the National Endowment for Democracy. Each TICTeC Lab begins with a public discussion – Civic Tech Surgery – on a topic affecting the civic tech community, followed by an Action Lab, a working group who meet to discuss the challenges and commission some work to help provide solutions.
Tackling the challenges
At the first Civic Tech Surgery, in October 2021, the challenges of public-private civic tech projects, as well as possible solutions to tackle them, were discussed by Aline Muylaert of CitizenLab, Amanda Clarke of Carleton University, Gabriella Razzano of OpenUp in South Africa and Ebtihaj Khan from Code for Pakistan, with valuable input from our Surgery attendees.
Action Lab #1 then convened to decide what would help the global civic tech community to work more effectively with public and private institutions. They agreed to commission a piece of work that showcases examples of where civic tech interventions have resulted in tangible improvements and benefits for governments/public institutions and their citizens, aiming to promote the benefits of civic tech and inspire and motivate government actors to start similar civic tech projects in their contexts.
Showcasing successful projects
The Action Lab #1 subgrant was awarded to People Powered, who approached the organisations who were highly rated on their digital participation platform to provide examples where their work has resulted in clear improvements and benefits for governments, institutions, and communities.
The case studies all include key lessons learned and recommendations on how to use digital platforms effectively:
- Digital platform and training boost participation in rural Kyrgyzstan – this World Bank project demonstrates how the government can empower local communities to make decisions, facilitated by a digital platform.
- In China, a popular social media platform is harnessed to increase participation – China’s Participation Center developed a “mini app” for the popular WeChat platform, and engaged 3000 of the 3,044 neighbourhoods in Chengdu city in participatory budgeting.
- Participation must be designed to ‘leave no one behind’: Argentina case study – Argentina’s municipality of Rosario is so committed to digital transformation that it has integrated it into every aspect of its operations, from education to participatory budgeting, including a commitment to make the process totally accessible to individuals with visual disabilities.
- Chilean institute harnesses digital platform to engage young people as change agents – Youth are the leaders of tomorrow (and today!), and progress toward a sustainable environment can only be made with their full engagement. Chile’s National Youth Institute understands this, and knew that to involve as many young people as possible, a digital platform was needed. It chose CitizenLab, and this post explains how the institute uses it to find and develop new leaders.
Last Wednesday a varied audience convened online for our Innovations In Climate Tech event.
The aim: to showcase some of the remarkable and effective projects being implemented in the UK and further afield, and to spark inspiration so that these, or similar projects, might be replicated in other UK regions.
mySociety has three £5,000 grants to give to innovators and local councils who work together and trial something they’ve seen, or been inspired by, during the event.
Missed the live version? Don’t worry: we have videos and notes, and you don’t have to have attended to be able to bid for a grant.
Rewatch or read up
Here’s where to find the various assets from the day:
- Watch a video of all the morning presentations, followed by the Q&A. This video features:
- Annie Pickering from Climate Emergency UK, on how they scored councils’ Climate Action Plans;
- Ariane Crampton from Wiltshire County Council on how they tackled outreach to diverse communities with their climate consultation;
- Claus Wilhelmsen from Copenhagen City Council on the practical ways in which they are tackling carbon cutting within construction industries;
- Ornaldo Gjergji from the European Data Journalism Network on how visualising temperature data from individual cities and towns helps people better understand the impacts of climate change;
- Kasper Spaan from Waternet on creating green roofs across the city to aid urban cooling and biodiversity.
- The afternoon breakout sessions weren’t recorded, but you can read notes of the presentations and subsequent discussions for:
- The Adaptation session (Padlet here) in which Josh Shimmin from Atamate talked about a data-driven approach to retrofitting housing;
- The Engagement session (Padlet here) in which Susan Rodaway from Pennard Community Council presented on a community consultation tool that helped them decide what to spend budget on; and Arnau Quinquilla from Climate 2025 talked about mapping climate movements across the world;
- The Spatial Planning session (Padlet here) in which Lora Botev from CitizenLab explained how their software enables councils to run consultations and grow an active group of residents who have a voice in decisions around climate;
- The Equity, Diversion and Inclusion session (Padlet here) in which Emma Geen from the Bristol Disability Equality Forum explained how vital it is to include disabled people in a green transition, and the ways in which the group has taken action to make this happen.
On 19 October, we’ll be running an informal session online, explaining what we’re looking for in a grant pitch, and giving you the chance to explore your ideas with potential partners. Then, if you want to go forward and bid for one of three £5,000 grants, we’ll give you everything you need to make your pitch.
You do not have to have attended the first event to join us at this stage. Please explore the resources above, add your thoughts to the Padlets, and sign up for this event via Eventbrite.
What sort of projects will we be funding?
To be eligible to bid for one of the grants, you must either be:
- a council that wants to trial an idea; or
- an organisation that wants to work with a council to trial your project.
Partnerships can be between two or more organisations, but every partnership must include at least one local council (and might only consist of councils). But don’t worry if you haven’t got a partner in mind yet – you may find one at this event.
- You might have seen an idea in the presentations that is directly applicable to your council area, and want to simply replicate it.
- Or, in a less straightforward but equally valid scenario, you might simply have seen an organisation you’d like to work with, or had a completely new idea sparked by something you saw.
- You might have no ideas at all, but a commitment to try something new… bring an open mind and see if anything at the event grabs you!
- Watch a video of all the morning presentations, followed by the Q&A. This video features:
Last week saw us come together for the fourth online TICTeC Civic Tech Surgery, our hands-on programme for fixing some of the prevalent problems in civic tech.
Each TICTeC Lab begins with a public discussion on one topic area affecting the civic tech community. Interested parties can then apply to take suggested ideas forward in a smaller working group, building solutions with the aid of a grant.
This time, the discussants examined the issues around getting our work out to the wider world: with resources always stretched and often complex stories to tell, how can small civic tech groups reach a more mainstream audience?
Discussants were Daniel Carranza of DATA Uruguay, Attila Juhász from K-Monitor in Hungary, Amy Leach of the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data, and me, Myf Nixon on behalf of mySociety.
A summary of the issues identified during the chat and by the audience.
Resource and capacity Civic tech organisations tend to be quite small and focused on the creation of their services. Communications can be seen as a luxury, or something that is spread between the team as a bit of an afterthought. Even if there’s a dedicated comms person, they often can’t focus deeply on all the tasks that need doing, and bringing in a freelancer doesn’t always work if they don’t have a full understanding of your work.
Complexity of our offerings Talking to the public about our work often means that we’re also having to explain things that are taken as a given within the civic tech world: for example, Freedom of Information; how governments work, what open source is, etc.
Temptation to speak at a technical level It’s important to use simple language, but because we’re ‘experts’ in our field we have to make an effort to not use jargon – especially if you’ve also been involved with the development side personally. Users probably don’t care about things like how it was coded or whether it’s open source: it’s more important to talk about what it can do for them.
Narratives aren’t always clear-cut People want stories with a nice narrative, but if you are making systemic change it can be iterative and messy, and take time.
We are in a polarised world Some areas that civic tech operates within, eg migration or health, are divisive issues that get boiled down to clickbait/soundbites on social media.
Projects can be longterm but enthusiasm doesn’t last As with funding, it can be easier to get attention at launch, but it’s harder to find stories and get interest once a project has been going for a while.
We can’t always find the interesting stories We can be sure that our software is being used in some really interesting ways; but we’re not always aware of them. There’s no compulsion for users or site-runners to tell us how they’re using our sites or software.
The range of potential audiences is really broad We might be trying to talk to ‘everyone’ – or if not, we’re trying to put messaging out to citizens (with varying amounts of knowledge), governments, funders and several other potential user groups.
We don’t always reach every sector of society It takes focus and effort to reach a more diverse audience in terms of race, education, deprivation etc.
It is hard to maintain a stable team Small organisations can’t pay market rates, which means that there’s a higher staff turnover, and the narrative thread can be lost as a result.
The issues we tackle are often quite abstract It’s hard to represent concepts like ‘corruption’ or ‘transparency’ in image form.
Simplify your language Assume basic knowledge in your audience: run it by a relative if you want to check how an ‘outsider’ will receive and understand it. Create a style guide so everyone in the organisation understands how to talk about your services simply.
Don’t worry about technical details If concepts like ‘open source’ and ‘open data’ are vital to your work, you can always work them in at the end of your communications – but they are very rarely the main story.
Find the story that resonates with people What will make people connect on a personal level with your software or service? Show how it solves the problems they encounter on a daily basis.
Create communities mySociety has set up mailing lists, events like TICTeC and when funds allow, runs conferences. These are all ways of discovering the stories around how people are using our software.
Be systematic about audiences Spend half a day thinking about where your work will have the most impact and who you’ll need it to reach. Once you know who you want to talk to, it is much easier to pinpoint where you will find them and what you will need to say.
Build comms into your funding applications Comms is an important part of any project launch, so make sure you include a budget line that allows for it.
Consider volunteers Can you offer jobs that will benefit people who volunteer – eg by giving them specialised experience that they can use elsewhere – and which will also give your comms a boost?
Make sure your services all promote one another A cheap and relatively quick way to spread the word is to tell users of one service about all the others you offer.
Pool efforts with your partner organisation/s They are likely to have different networks and audiences that you can really benefit from, especially if they are larger than you.
Find open source images and other sources for visuals You can often find Creative Commons images. If there is budget, illustrations and animations can be very effective for abstract concepts.
Time upgrades to coincide with new funding or partners That means that when you have something to talk about, you also have the capacity and resource to put out your comms.
Forge relationships with journalists When you send them a press release you’re helping them out and writing the story for them. Or go even further and train up journalists in using your tools so they can generate their own stories.
Look for stories around your tools How are people using them? How does this tie in with whatever is more widely in the news at the moment? Even a surge in users can be a story if it relates to the main news story that day.
How the grant could help
Media training for civic tech comms people.
Set up a journalism prize for the best news story to come from one of our services.
Or a civic tech fellowship for local journalists.
Run a conference specifically for journalists to meet civic tech people.
Or just pay for some civic tech people to attend journalism conferences and speak about the potential stories in our work.
Set up a portal where all civic tech groups can place their stories, and let journalists know it’s available as a resource for them.
Pool resources Look into bulk-buying Google ads or Facebook ads etc, across multiple organisations. It will be cheaper and we can also share expertise (or commission a contractor together).
Create an image library and advice around making good photographs with your phone. This could be used by all civic tech groups everywhere.
Or commission a generic set of visual explainers that anyone could pick up, alter and reuse.
Create a sharing community More widely, a space like Slack or Matrix could be used to share tips, advice, images and comms opportunities.
Make universal logos for some of our common themes There is no logo for ‘open data’ etc – we could commission one.
Some of this discussion also took place on Padlet and you can see more ideas there.
We are now inviting people to join the working group (aka Action Lab), which will comprise up to six people who are keen to use this discussion to inform the group as they pin down how the grant will be spent.
In the first post in this series I introduced our new focus around repowering democracy, and in the second I outlined how we think we need to change as an organisation to make this happen. In this final post we’ll give an overview of the new behaviours we’ll adopt across the organisation so that we’re better able to help repower democracy.
Over the next 10 years, we might have two general elections; maybe three rounds of various local elections; and quite possibly a vote for Scottish independence in 2023 – but by and large the elected leaders, civil servants, community leaders and institutions we already have in place today are the ones who will be making the big decisions about democracy and climate over the next decade.
With this in mind we’ve identified seven cross-cutting behaviours we need to adopt in order to deliver our strategy. Below, we introduce each behaviour and the key events and outcomes we are seeking to deliver as we incorporate these into our day to day work.
1. Partner for impact and diversity
We can deliver our greatest impact through and with others. We look for partners with the ‘same goals, different skill sets’: organisations and groups that want to achieve similar outcomes to ourselves, but that might be approaching it in a different way, or have a distinct set of skills so we can each complement what the other is doing.
Understanding, learning from, and seeking to collaborate with the systematic connections and existing networks already active in tackling the democratic and climate challenges ensure that we can best understand the unique contribution we can make to drive the most positive outcomes.
2. Build community everywhere
We’ll seek to build community everywhere, inside and outside our organisation – stewarding and supporting the growth of participant communities around our existing services, enabling a greater sense of ownership by those communities. We’ll help users to help each other more, reach new users, and provide more evidence for the benefits of becoming active citizens.
Building community is a core concept for understanding how to put more power into more people’s hands and better understanding societal needs beyond the needs of individuals. To make this happen we’ll become a more porous organisation, helping us improve at working with and collaborating with others to achieve our shared goals.
3. Advocate for change
Our research work to date has played a relatively passive role in putting forward practical and actionable ideas for how things might be done differently. Considering the scale of the crises we face, we need to advocate and push for more significant and swifter change – pulling the levers of power where they are open to us; aligning with movements for change where they are not.
At its simplest this means getting the word out about how people can work with us, find common cause, and pool our resources in order to increase active pressure for change. We’ll seek to expand our public policy and public affairs skills directly and through partnering, increasing our capacity to really dig into institutions to identify key decision makers and allies.
4. A drumbeat of experimentation
We want to recapture the early approach to experimentation which kickstarted mySociety by placing new bets within each of our programmes, to try new approaches and engage new users and participants who might not be familiar with our work or how they can make use of it.
We will look for every opportunity to move quickly and experiment widely – doing what’s necessary to learn, putting that into practice and looking for ways to ‘put money behind what works’.
5. Everyday equity and inclusion
Whilst technology can achieve many things, it can often serve to reinforce structural inequality. Representation in civic tech suffers from the same shortcomings as the wider tech and civil society fields: with predominantly white leadership and staff, the majority of technical roles and positions of power held by men, limited opportunities for those from historically excluded and as a result underrepresented groups – particularly racially minoritised and disabled people.
We need to better understand and deliver our services in the UK so that they benefit more marginalised communities, and actively work to diversify our workforce – leading to better outcomes for everyone.
6. Home is where the heart is
We started in the UK and we still run our largest active services here. Over the past 18 years we’ve worked with fellow civic technologists around the globe as part of the civic tech community, sharing, adapting and collaborating on building a movement of technology led participation.
Through this strategy we are recommitting to incubating solutions to democratic and climate challenges here in the UK first of all – and working in the open to support partners to adopt this work elsewhere. Through TICTeC we seek to better connect and equip others to undertake effective, evidence-based and impactful work that enhances public participation, transparency and accountability.
7. A bigger idea of team
We have an excellent, experienced and committed team. But we are often thinly spread and constrained around our capacity to explore new ideas at pace and scale and we need to be more inclusive and diverse both as a team and through the partners and communities we serve.
If we’re going to operate in a way that is commensurate with the crises we face, we’ll need to find new and imaginative ways to do more; enhancing our collective skills further, with new staff who can help us collaborate more effectively and work better with others to achieve our goals.
We’ll invest in community building roles, with outreach and network skills to give us more capacity to better connect, learn and collaborate; we’ll rejuvenate our approach to volunteering, expanding the ways for more people to contribute their time in more meaningful ways to support and extend our work – becoming a more open and porous organisation along the way.
We’ll work in partnership with people, communities and institutions to harness digital technology in service of civic participation.
We’ve learned a lot about what we need to change in order to make the shifts we’ve identified, in order to be ready to repower democracy.
Our experience over the past 18 years has taught us that advocacy campaigns and policy influencing is more effective when it’s done in partnership, and that we offer a specific set of skills and experience that many organisations do not have inhouse. We plan to partner more with a broad range of experienced people and partners outside of the organisation.
We need to rethink our definition of the team beyond the confines of just the staff – our volunteers, board members, and not least the wider community of which we are all part helps forge a bigger, better definition of what mySociety needs to be.
We’ve recognised that we can’t just play one side of the game: it’s not enough just to empower citizens, we need to prime institutions to be capable of responding to that empowerment.
And along with all of this we’ll need to increasingly rethink where power lies, and where we refocus our activity beyond government and the public sector.
Where we go next
The thoughts outlined in these three posts set out the direction of travel for our work over the next few years – over the next few months we’ll be working through what this means for our existing programmes and services, how we live up to the three shifts and fully incorporate our new behaviours.
In developing this thinking we’ve drawn upon support from across our whole team, board members, staff and volunteers, with lots of input from external peers and advisors. I’m especially grateful to the New Citizenship Project who have helped us imagine what the #citizenshift means for our day to day work and have helped us work though how we might put that into practice.
If you have any thoughts on how you might help repower democracy, I’ll put all three of these posts on Medium for comments and further discussion.
Image: Ussama Azam
Last week saw the first TICTeC Civic Tech Surgery, a new format for us and a hands-on approach to fixing some of the pervasive problems in civic tech.
The TICTeC Labs programme goes like this: we gather experts together to lead a discussion on the challenges, potential solutions and ideas within one topic area affecting the civic tech community. If interested, participants can apply to take suggested ideas forward in a smaller working group, building solutions with the aid of a grant to support their work.
Our first Surgery saw four experts tackling the problems that occur when NGOs and non-profits take on work within governments and public authorities, something mySociety is well acquainted with thanks to our activity — now all under the banner of SocietyWorks — selling Software as a Service.
Adding their ideas and experience to the conversation were Aline Muylaert of CitizenLab; Amanda Clarke, Associate Professor at Carleton University; Gabriella Razzano of OpenUp in South Africa and Ebtihaj Khan from Code for Pakistan.
Procurement in government It can be hard for small organisations to compete against the big players, especially because bidding for a piece of work often involves jumping through many bureaucratic hoops.
The structure of governments Set ways of doing things can often be incompatible with the Agile approach that is most favoured by civic technologists. Also, if you are affecting how one department of government works, ideally the benefits would ripple out across all other departments, but the siloed nature of government departments often prevents this.
The short-term nature of governments When building anything, of course you want it to have a lasting effect; but elections and changes in political control often mean that a project is thrown out when a new regime takes over.
The world view of governments An added task comes in educating governments about the motivations of civic technologists, and the value of putting citizens at the centre of work. They also need to know about the benefits of keeping projects running longterm.
The knowledge within governments As government staff often don’t have detailed technical skills themselves, the door is open for big players to demand high dollar contracts that lock clients into a single vendor.
Shaking up procurement One solution that can be effective is in ‘micro contracting’ – breaking a large requirement into several smaller pieces of work, thus allowing smaller organisations to bid for them. Mandates that procurement should be for open source development would also be beneficial.
Clever contracts Civic tech providers can add clauses to their contracts which mean that time is dedicated for user-centred research, for example, or make clear that Agile methods will be used. Adding goals around impact is one way to try to ensure that the real reason for the development isn’t forgotten. Once contracts have been drawn up, the templates could be shared for other governments or civic technologists to use.
Nurturing government staff If they are around long enough for relationships to be built, staff can be inducted into healthy civic tech approaches; for example they can be included in bootcamp sessions.
Writing case studies It’s really useful to be able to share concrete examples of where civic tech interventions have resulted in tangible improvements, and government clients can find these very motivating and exciting. At the same time we could look to write some case studies with examples of where the problems we’ve identified were solved, eg by introducing Agile methods into the work, as a persuader.
Research We can learn a lot of research conducted 40-50 years ago, when many of the issues with public/private contracting, a new idea back then, were the same as they are now. We also need new qualitative data from the people working on data projects: if we can uncover corruption (which we know is an issue in places across the world) it will cause an uproar.
Some of this discussion also took place on Padlet and you can see more ideas there.
We are now inviting people to join the working group (aka Action Lab), which will comprise up to 6 people who are keen to further develop solutions together, for the benefit of the wider civic tech community.
TICTeC – mySociety’s long running research conference – continues to offer a convening place for the global civic tech community. Of course, like every other event we’ve moved to an online environment, and we’re keen to keep things fresh in an era of screen fatigue.
With that in mind, the TICTeC Show and Tell sessions are just an hour long, feature six different speakers, and move fast. We’re putting them on monthly until May, and the first, ‘Scrutiny, oversight, and the data that makes it possible‘, took place this week.
Given the speed of the proceedings, you may be glad to know that a variety of outputs are available for you to review via whichever format you prefer:
- The videos are all available over on our YouTube channel. You can watch the entire event, or pick and choose from the individual presentations, as below.
- Speakers have shared their slides. Access them via the links to each presentation on the TICTeC website.
- Questions from the audience were answered after the event, and you can see the responses on this document, or on the individual presentation pages linked to from this page.
- There’s also a collaborative notes document here.
Six 7-minute presentations on using tech for transparency and accountability.
How to monitor emergency procurement with open data: lessons from 12 countries
Camila Salazar from Open Contracting Partnership kicked things off with a look at OGP’s research into the data around emergency procurement in 12 countries. As you might expect, the availability and quality of data varied widely, but the project was able to provide an outcome of useful recommendations across the board.
Civic tech for smartphone beginners: is the future binary?
Next up, Arran Leonard of Integrity Action took us through a variety of iterations in a promise-tracking app, each of which built on learnings from the last. Monitors on the ground may have a strong motivation to report on progress, but low tech skills – here we see how a simple interface can still provide the data that’s needed to effectively oversee public services and infrastructure projects.
Find that Charity: a tool to help find charities and improve charity data
David Kane, Project Lead at 360Giving introduced the Find that Charity tool, while discussing the importance of standardised data in the grant-making world and beyond. With charities often being known to the public by different names than the ones they’re registered under, a searchable register is invaluable for the sector.
Civic tech vs. illicit pharmacies
We next turned to the issue of unlicensed pharmacies, with Ibraheem Saleem of Code for Pakistan. A project to digitise the previously manual licencing process and cut down on counterfeit medicines has been widely successful, saving government hours and bringing transparency and accountability to the sector.
Keeping track of open data in times of political change
Silvana Fumega of ILDA and David Zamora from Latin American and the Caribbean Open Data Barometer talked us through how data was gathered in the most recent update that would inform and contribute to the improvement and extension of open data policies and projects in the region. With the inclusion of lessons learned, this was a practical overview of how to manage such a snapshot.
How AfricanLII saves its users $100million a year
Finally, Paul Lenz of Indigo Trust and Amy Sinclair from AfricaLII explained why the latter is such an inviting prospect for funders: just a small investment can provide very substantial returns in the form of access to legal documents, brining significant positive, social, legal, and financial impacts for their users.
And that’s not all
The next TICTeC Show and Tell, Hearing every voice: lessons learned from online deliberation projects focuses on public engagement, and takes place on April 20. See who’s speaking, and sign up for free, here.
mySociety has been a leading light in the Civic Tech movement since 2003, helping to shape and define the sector and building services used by over ten million people each year in over 40 countries worldwide.
During this time Civic Tech has grown and matured; delivering plenty of impact, but also hitting numerous stumbling blocks along the way. In mySociety’s fifteenth year we’re taking stock of the best way to achieve our long term goals and ambitions.
So today at the Code for All summit, Heroes of Tech in Bucharest, we announced our intention to become an affiliate member of the Code for All network.
mySociety and Code for All both recognise the power of working in partnership, of being honest and self-critical about the effects of our work, of working openly and transparently and seeking the best outcomes for citizens in their dealings with governments and the public sector.
Code for All is probably best known for Code for America, which set out the blueprint for a civic tech group working closely with government. Now that Code for All is growing beyond these early roots to become more than a collection of individual ‘Code For’ organisations it is broadening its own perspective to include more groups outside of government, we feel that this is a good time for mySociety to deepen our collaboration within this growing movement.
Every success we’ve had has come from working well with our partners. Each of our services internationally is run by a local partner with mySociety providing development help and support and the benefit of our service development and research experience.
In recent months through our Democratic Commons project we’ve worked with numerous Code for All partners, including CodeForPakistan, OpenUp, CodeForJapan, ePanstwo, G0v and others. Those of you who have attended our TICTeC conferences will know that they attract many members of the Code for All network as participants each year.
What mySociety can bring to the network is a unique international aspect, a commitment to collaborate and combine our efforts on cooperative democratic projects, a willingness to more widely share our research and evidence building experience and a desire to improve the positive impact of our work.
We would benefit from more of our work being seen as truly collaborative, and are no strangers to the challenges of seeking grant and project funding and the importance of working together to achieve this.
With all the challenges facing democracy — governments struggling under austerity; fake news and dark money distorting the truth; a slow burn environmental catastrophe playing out around us; hard won rights and the norms of a fair and just society under threat — now more than ever feels like an important time to be working more closely together.
So we’re excited by the opportunities that this timely partnership will deliver and keen to see where this takes us.
You may remember that thanks to a grant from the Wikimedia Foundation, mySociety has been working to support increasingly authoritative data on the world’s politicians, to exist on Wikidata as a key part of developing the concept of the Democratic Commons.
And, this summer mySociety welcomed two members of staff to support with the community work around both Wikidata and the Democratic Commons. In May, I (Georgie) joined in the role of ‘Democratic Commons Community Liaison’ and in late June I was joined by Kelly, mySociety’s first ever ‘Wikimedia Community Liaison’… and it’s about time you started to hear more from us!
I’ve been climbing the learning curve: exploring the potential moving parts of a global political data infrastructure, finding out how the communities of Wikidata and Wikipedia operate, attempting to take meaningful notes at our daily meetings for the tool the team developed to improve political data on Wikidata and making sense of the complexity in creating interface tools to interpret the political data already in Wikidata. Oh, and supporting a “side-project” with Open Knowledge International to try and find every electoral boundary in the world (can you help?).
And if you are in any of the relevant open Slack channels (what is Slack?), you may have seen my name on the general introduction pages, as I have been shuffling around the online community centres of the world — off Wikidata Talk that is — trying to find the people interested in, or with a need for, consistently and simply formatted data on politicians, but who aren’t already part of the Wikidata community.
That’s because, the issue the Democratic Commons seeks to address is the time-consuming business of finding and maintaining data on politicians, work that we suspect is duplicated by multiple organisations in each country (often all of them having a similar aim), that is slowing down delivering the stuff that matters. This has certainly been mySociety’s experience when sharing our tools internationally.
And the solution we propose — the Democratic Commons — is that if people and communities worked together to find and maintain this data, it would be better for everyone… ah the paradox of simplicity.
Update on efforts to support the Democratic Commons concept
With each interaction and conversation that we’ve had about the Democratic Commons with partners, we’ve continued to learn about the best role for us to play. Here are some initial actions and thoughts that are shaping the work; please feel free to comment, or even better, get involved 🙂
Making sure the concept is a good fit through user research
We have set a goal to carry out user research on the concept of the Democratic Commons. So far, we have lined up calls with campaign staff (who are interested in using and supporting open political data through their UK campaigning work) and journalists in Nigeria (who have expressed a need for the data) and I am lining up more calls — if you have a need for or can contribute political data, let’s talk.
Bringing the Open Data/Civic Tech and Wiki communities together?
From my experience to date, the Civic Tech and Wiki communities appear to operate quite separately (I am very open to being proved wrong on this point!).
I am just getting started within the Wikidata/ Wikimedia communities (that’s more for Kelly) but on the Open Data/ Civic tech side, there are questions about data vandalism and the potential to trust the data from Wikidata, arguments on the benefit of using Wikidata (especially where you already have a lot of useful data) and on whether there is a need to invest time in learning SPARQL, the query language that allows faster retrieval and manipulation of data from databases.
Misconceptions are not unusual in communities online or offline, but it is a gap that our work focus, communications and tools hope to help close. If you have ideas on blogs, video tutorials or articles to share to read around these concepts, please get in touch.
Working openly in existing global communities (off Wiki)
We are aware that, off-Wiki mySociety is leading the work to develop the Democratic Commons, however, we know that we need to be delivering this work in the open for it to be owned by other people outside of mySociety, and finding the right homes to talk about it (off Wiki) has been important. In order to work openly, we have a shared #DemocraticCommons Slack channel with mySociety and Code for All; see ‘Get involved’ below to find out how to join the conversation.
We also plan to document the learning involved in the process through blog posts and documentation, to be uploaded publicly.
And, supporting local communities to develop, where possible
A global network such as Code for All is very useful in supporting a concept like the Democratic Commons, however, the bulk of need for the data will likely be country-specific. Together with our partners and collaborators, we are exploring what is needed and how to support local communities:
- Through the remainder of our Wikimedia Foundation Grant, we are supporting community events and editathons: in Lebanon with SMEX, in France with newly formed organisation F0rk, and in Spain with Wikimedia España.
- Some groups we are working with, such as Code for Pakistan, plan to set up a channel on their Slack instance and use their Whatsapp community to discuss the data use and maintenance.
- In my own country, the UK, we are talking to mySociety’s community and collaborators to understand how the Democratic Commons could benefit organisations and work in practice here. If you want to be involved in this work, please contact me.
- We are listening to understand what support is needed with collaborators in the global South, as we’re well aware that it is a lot to ask people to work on a voluntary basis and that adequate support is needed. I hope we can share the learning and use it to shape any future projects that may emerge.
How to get involved in the Democratic Commons?
- Contribute to the Wikidata community: If you are Wikidata user, or keen to learn, visit the Wikidata project page on political data. If you need guidance on tasks, do feel free to add to the Talk page to ask the community, or get in touch with Kelly, our Wikimedia Community Liaison: email@example.com.
- Join the conversation on Code for All Slack: If you would like to join the Slack conversation, join here: https://codeforall.org/ (scroll down and find the ‘Chat with us’ button).
- Look for electoral boundary data: We are working with Open Knowledge to find electoral boundary data for the whole world. See more about that here.
- Keep up to date and subscribe to our Medium blog: Sometimes these Democratic Commons posts are a bit too in-depth for the general mySociety readership, so for those who are really interested, we plan to share all we are learning here.
- Share the concept with contacts: Please share the message on your platforms and encourage potential users to take part in research and get involved. We recognise that our view — and reach — can only be anglo-centric, and we’d so appreciate any translations you might be able to contribute.
- Tell us (and others) how you think you would use the data: This can’t just be about collecting data; it’s about it being used in a way that benefits us all. How would the Democratic Commons help your community? We would love people to share any ideas, data visualisations, or theories, ideally in an open medium such as blog posts. Please connect with Georgie to share.
- Something missing from this list? Tell us! We’re @mySociety on Twitter or you can email firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com .
Image: Toa Heftiba