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
Throughout National Democracy Week, we’ve been focusing on women in politics: how they’re represented; how they’re affected; and how data can help us understand more about these two topics.
To wrap things up, we want to highlight some of the organisations helping women in tech, and especially in our own field of Civic Tech.
Coding, researching, designing and promoting web tools that help people to understand and engage with democracy is mySociety’s own way of participating in politics. We’d like to encourage more women to join us in this very rewarding field.
Working in Civic Tech
Civic Tech is a fairly new field, and a broad one. And while the coding side is often — rightly — highlighted as an area where there’s a minority of women, it’s also worth mentioning that there are all kinds of other career routes available (to everyone!).
We can see some of these in mySociety: in fact, browsing our Team page is one good way of seeing the diverse roles within which we’re all chipping away at the organisation’s goals.
These include research, design, events, communications, sysadmin, data analysis, sales and delivery — and of course in the wider field there are people working in hands-on activism and philanthropy.
Organisations supporting women in Civic Tech
mySociety’s gender balance fluctuates, as you’d expect, when people leave or join; but women currently make up about a third of the workforce. We’d always love to employ more women, and when we recruit it’s something we actively think about; in fact we wrote a whole longform blog post about it a while back.
But in order for that to happen, women need to know about the routes open to them, and the benefits of working in Civic Tech. For starters, here’s a selection of the organisations actively working to get more women into this field and to support them once they’re here.
- Open Heroines brings together the voices of women working in open government, open data and Civic Tech.
- Code First: Girls (UK) works with companies and with men and women directly, to help increase the number of women in tech.
- 23 Code Street (London) offers coding courses to women; for every paying student, they also teach digital skills to a woman in the slums of India.
- Women Hack For Non-Profits (London) a community of women building open source projects for non-profit organisations and charities. Learn to code and work on real life projects.
- Codebar.io (UK and worldwide) teaches coding in a supportive, collaborative environment for women, LGBTQ, and underrepresented ethnic groups.
- blackgirl.tech (UK) ‘code and chill’ workshops for black women and non binary people.
- Rails Girls (worldwide) Ruby on Rails workshops for women.
- Lesbians Who Tech (US and worldwide) a community of queer women in or around tech (and the people who love them).
- Geek Girl Meetup UK (London and worldwide) a network, for and by, women and girls interested in all things tech, design, and startup.
- Mums in Tech (UK) coding school for mums, with baby friendly courses, events and classes.
- DevelopHer (UK) non-profit community dedicated to elevating women in tech.
- Pyladies (worldwide) mentorship group for women in the python community.
- TLA Women in Tech (London) movement for gender equality in the global tech industry.
- Ada’s List (email-based community) a group for women who are committed to changing the tech industry.
- AuthorAID (worldwide) Supporting women researchers with practical advice and also provides grants to support researchers in attending a conference on the topic of gender or hosting a gender workshop in their country.
- Uscreates (UK) supporting gender equality in design leadership.
- Women who design (Twitter-based) a directory of women in the design industry.
- Double or nothing (UK) campaign for gender equality in design.
- Hidden women of design (Facebook page) a series of curated talks by Female Graphic Designers sharing insight into their creative practice.
- Women in data (UK) Annual conference for data professionals.
Words from mySociety’s staff
Louise, Head of Development: I enjoy working for an organisation that has a positive effect on the state of the world and helps a wide range of people participate in civic life. As far as tech goes, I think programming is an amazing career choice for women for a lot of reasons — but three really obvious ones are money (tech jobs tend to pay above the average), power (you can build things that change the world) and flexibility (tech jobs tend to be inherently flexible and, as mySociety demonstrates, you can work from home).
Bec, Head of Research: What I enjoy about working in Civic Tech is discovering how relatively small tools can change behaviours and change institutions. Hopefully for the better!
Abi, HR: My Top Tips for Job Applicants now include reading this great piece, Confidence and the Gender Gap: 14 tips for Women in Tech. Think you’re slightly under-qualified? APPLY ANYWAY. We have seen worse, believe me.
Myf, Communications Manager: I’ve found Civic Tech to be a really welcoming field that judges you on the quality of your work, not your gender or any other factor that’s irrelevant to the task in hand.
Like many others we were shocked to read the allegations of attempted rape, and physical and verbal abuse leveled at Clay Johnson, a former senior staff member at Sunlight Foundation – our fellow Civic Tech organisation in the USA.
Our thoughts are with the women affected and the staff of Sunlight and the other organisations involved.
It was brought to my attention that Johnson attended a mySociety meeting in 2008 and retreat in 2011; so I’ll take this opportunity now to condemn the behaviour described – it has no place in our community.
No field or sector is immune from the potential for abuse – just because we happen to be in the business of ‘tech for good’, that doesn’t mean as a sector we’re automatically any more or less likely to allow abuse to take place.
Whilst these higher profile and serious revelations are the ones that make the headlines, there can often exist a spectrum of abuse, bullying, and inexcusable behaviour that is tolerated, apologised for, or just plain accepted as part of the culture.
It’s the job of all of us in positions of responsibility in all organisations to take a zero tolerance approach to bullying or discriminatory behaviour which is the soil that allows these abuses to flourish.
We extend our support to the new team at Sunlight, and we are committed helping identify and call out — and ultimately stamp out — elements of the wider culture that allowed this to take place.
How can we counter Fake News — and should we even try? Do big corporations have a moral duty to share their data for the betterment of the world? Why do petitions created by women get more signatures than those created by men?
These are just a few of the questions posed — and answered — at TICTeC 2017.
If you weren’t able to attend (or indeed if you’d like to experience it all again), you’ll be glad to know that you can now access videos of the key presentations, as well as interviews where delegates share their insights and specialist expertise. Where available, we’ve also shared speakers’ slides.
You can see the whole lot on the TICTeC website, and as a taster, here’s an overview of the whole event… in just two minutes:
And don’t forget: you can join us for a special extra TICTeC conference in September this year. We’ll be hosting TICTeC@Taipei as part of Asia’s first Civic Tech Fest, an official side event of the World Congress on Information Technology. More details and how to register can be found at civictechfest.org.
Today, mySociety, in partnership with Microsoft, launch Civic Tech Cities, a new piece of research looking at the technologies local governments implement to serve and communicate with their citizens. You can download it here.
Civic Tech: whose job is it?
Debating and making decisions on behalf of the people; managing services, disseminating information — all of these have been the agreed tasks of local government for a very long time. But has citizen-facing technology now also become a core function of government? And if so, how are they doing?
We often say that mySociety was originally set up to show governments how they could be using digital better, and that one day we hope to have done ourselves out of a job.
But perhaps it’s wrong to foresee a time when we’ll be able to pack up and go home. Perhaps those within government will never be able to escape internal bureaucracies and budget constraints to provide the software that their citizens will really benefit from; perhaps the provocative NGO, one step ahead with citizen-to-government technologies, will always be a necessary agent.
We won’t know for sure until we start researching beyond our own sphere.
A vital new area for research
When we set up the mySociety research programme, as you’d expect, our first priority was to look at the impact of the services we, and other organisations like us, were providing.
Around the same time, the term ‘Civic Tech’ was gaining traction, and it carried with it an implicit reference to applications made outside government, by organisations like us, cheekily providing the tools the citizens wanted rather than those the government decided they needed.
If our aim was to wake governments up to the possibilities of digital, to some extent it has been successful. Governments around the world, at all levels, have seen the financial and societal benefits, and are producing, buying in, and commissioning civic software for their own online offerings.
It is, then, high time that the sphere of government-implemented civic technologies were more closely examined: how effective are they? Who is using them? What changes are they wreaking on the relationship between citizen and government? How, indeed, are governments themselves changing as a result of this new direction?
Civic Tech Cities
Thanks to generous funding from Microsoft, we were able to conduct research that seeks to answer these questions, in the context of municipal-level council digital offerings in five US cities.
Emily Shaw, in collaboration with mySociety’s Head of Research Rebecca Rumbul, examined standalone projects in Austin, Chicago, Oakland, Washington DC and Seattle, to produce case studies that cast a light on the state of institutional civic tech in the current age.
The technologies chosen for scrutiny were diverse in some ways, but the challenges they faced were often alike: and we can all, whether inside or outside government, recognise common pitfalls such as failing to budget for ongoing maintenance of a service that was expected to roll happily along, untended, for the foreseeable future; or building a world-changing digital service that fails to gain traction because its potential users never get to hear about it.
It’s our hope that local governments everywhere will benefit from this in-depth look at the tools US municipal governments have put in place, from LargeLots in Chicago which sold disused land in disadvantaged neighbourhoods for a nominal $1 fee, to RecordTrac in Oakland, a request and response tool for those seeking information under California’s Public Record Act.
Better tools make better policy
Interestingly, one of the key findings of this report is that developing digital tools alongside policy, rather than bolting these tools on afterwards, results not only in better tools, but better policy too.
The user-centred design principles that have been central to the Civic Tech movement had a knock-on effect beyond the software development departments of municipal government. They began to shape the ways in which policy itself was developed, resulting in services that were more accessible and appropriate to the communities they serve.
Finally, it’s not just governments who will learn from this examination of best practices, potential problems and unexpected bonuses; we, and other NGOs like us, can gain crucial insights from the sector which, after all, is pursuing the same aim that we are.
You can read the research paper here. Many thanks to Microsoft for making it possible, and to Emily Shaw for putting in the time and effort to make it a reality.
Image: Jindong H
Audrey is Taiwan’s Minister for Digital, and is part of a massive shake-up that has seen that country embrace unprecedented levels of transparency, accountability and citizen participation. Her keynote will describe some of the ground-breaking methods they’ve introduced.
One of these is Audrey’s famous accessibility. Using a public platform, she is happy to answer questions from anyone, and endeavours to do so within 48 hours. We posed ours there, but we’re replicating them below for our readers to follow.
Such is her schedule that Audrey will be delivering her keynote virtually, but there will be an opportunity for delegates to put questions to her live. Accordingly, we’ve gone a little more in-depth with this conversation.
Why haven’t we in the West heard more about the transformations that have been happening in Taiwan? They really are so ground-breaking — do you have any idea why they might not have received more global coverage?
There is reasonable regional coverage in Korea, Japan and Hong Kong. However, global awareness is limited by Taiwan’s restricted participation in multilateral organisations, as well as the relative lack of English material (somewhat ameliorated by recent advances in machine translation).
How would we go about encouraging our own governments to follow in your footsteps? You visited the UK Parliament recently: what was your perception of how they are doing on the Open Government front?
While rules, playbooks and tools are reusable, each government’s political context is unique, so I would encourage everyone to pave their own path instead.
I didn’t stay long enough to learn about UK’s progress — looking forward to learn more from mySociety folks in the future, perhaps when TICTeC comes to Asia. 🙂
TICTeC is all about measuring the impact of civic technologies. Do you have systems in place that help you assess the effectiveness of the measures you put in place?
Yes, there are quantitative engagement metrics and surveys, though they are mostly in Chinese — for example for the petition platform [opens as document; in Chinese].
Clearly, it’s early days yet, but have your implementations been an unqualified success?
For the past 100 days, our main contributions are proceeding well — providing an internal collaboration platform (sandstorm.io) for participation officers from every ministry; requiring all regulations and trade-related laws to be open for public discussion (join.gov.tw); as well as help codifying an open multi-stakeholder mechanism into the draft of Digital Communications Act.
What feedback have you had from citizens and the national press?
In Taiwan’s post-2014 political climate, mainstream press and citizens would never call for “less transparency”, so people mostly respond favourably — of course, there are calls for more accountability and more informed participation, for meaningful conversations to form around divisive issues.
What proportion of the population has taken part in your crowd-sourcing projects? Do you worry about the elderly or less connected not being sufficiently represented in decision-making?
As a proponent of assistive civic tech, it is important that we seek diversity of opinion (not zero-sum voting) and each engagement venue opens up access for previously unavailable folks (not taking existing venues away) — see this write-up by LÜ Chia-Hua.
Of course, even in a democracy of feelings, there will still be some people who lose out, or see a decision that doesn’t go the way they wanted. Are you sensing more understanding from these people, since they’ve gone through the online debates process?
Yes. Generally we come up with rough consensus that people can live with — as long as the procedure are transparent and accountable, we are seeing people who did not get what they initially demanded nevertheless help defending the result.
How stressful is it for a human being to hold themself up to constant public scrutiny? Transparency is of course a laudable aim, but might it sometimes be at the cost of a person’s own downtime or privacy?
Private meetings and on-the-record transcripts are fully compatible; note that we allow each participant to make corrections for ten days after the meeting: here are our guidelines.
A large proportion of Taiwanese politicians are Independents. Do you think party politics is now an outdated system?
In the cabinet there are more independents than members of any party, but in the parliament every party has more MPs than independents.
How can digital technologies bridge the gap between citizen and state without simply reverting to irrelevant soundbite politics or Twitter trolling?
We need to partner with (and become) media to make relevant facts as easy — and eventually easier — to spread.
What is the importance of TICTeC? Why assess the impact of civic technologies?
Informed discussions need to be rooted in evidence. If we are to build a global democratic network of feelings, we need to make sure that these feelings are reflective — this is only possible when they are built upon facts.
Finally: what are your next steps? Are there any more big innovations you plan to introduce during your time in cabinet?
For scalable listening to work, we need to engage people who prefer interactive & tangible understanding, including children. This post outlines the initial steps; and this one outlines the main vision.
Book your place at TICTeC
If you enjoyed reading this interview, it’s time to book your ticket for TICTeC, where every conversation will directly examine the impacts of civic technologies.
And for those who would like to present their own insights, better hurry: the call for papers runs until February 10.
Videos from TICTeC — our Impacts of Civic Technologies Conference — are now available for viewing.
So, whether you were there and you want to experience it all over again, or you just want to see what you missed out on, settle down and enjoy accounts from some of the most interesting civic tech projects around the world right now.
What is TICTeC?
Here’s mySociety CEO Mark Cridge explaining what TICTeC is, and why we run it:
And if that’s left you hungry for more, make sure you visit our YouTube channel to watch the other TICTeC videos.
You might also enjoy the slides, photos and other media that have all been collected together on the TICTeC 2016 page.
How do researchers accumulate knowledge about civic technology? So far, many of our most active discussions still happen at conferences and in the informal writing of blog posts. Individual organizations (like mySociety) are investing more heavily in the production of academic-quality research, so we can all see more clearly what happens when we try to use technology to bring people and governments together. But is this work yet diffusing into academic use?
I wrote about this question while researching the context of mySociety’s current work on US city-led civic tech. Although the term “e-government” seems to have been largely bypassed in current civic technology practice, it’s useful to see that “e-government” is still a very important concept. For those of us trying to see how governments approach the use of technology in connecting to citizens, research on e-government provides a useful perspective. At the same time, however, the perspectives of e-government and civic technology also diverge — and that too is important to note.
Why Civic Technologists Should Still Care About E-Gov
As a recovering academic, I spend more time than I should going down rabbit holes: reading articles which cite interesting studies, which I then go find and read, and then they cite interesting papers, and pretty soon way too much time has gone by. I’m currently researching the role of civic technology projects enacted by U.S cities for mySociety, so I’ve been actively looking for those civic tech rabbit holes.
There’s just one hitch: civic technology barely exists in the academic context. E-government, on the other hand, continues to have an active research program.
Searching “e-government” in Google Scholar returns 169,000 cited works—10,600 published since 2015 alone. Searching “civic technology,” meanwhile, nets a total of 185. (And one of the top results references technology in the Honda Civic.)
Read more at Civicist.
I’m Emily, a newer addition to the team here at mySociety. My current project is researching the effects of civic technology on US cities. mySociety is driven by a mission to develop useful tools for increasing people’s power, but we’re also increasingly seeking to understand what elements or conditions make these tools useful and effective — and our project in the US is an example of this work.
This particular project, supported by Microsoft, will focus on the impact of government-led civic tech projects in cities. By studying five of these implementations in cities across the US, we’ll be able to provide some answers to the questions: What kinds of effects can government-led civic tech projects have? How do they affect their communities? How do they affect their own governance? The answers we get will inform our own work, and may also affect the work of other people who are asking similar questions.
This project is fairly specific in the way that it operationalizes the concept of effects from civic technology, and I’m looking forward to sharing more about the methodology in a future post. At a deeper level, and what ties this project to the overall mission of mySociety, is that it also asks the central question: What is it that makes civic technology effective?
In my own mind, there’s a question even more fundamental than that: What is the intended effect of all of this work?
This question brings us back to a very interesting conversation kicked off (on this very blog) by mySociety founder Tom Steinberg in the spring of 2013. Tom asked what we should call the sector of which mySociety is part. The ensuing posts naturally circled around the identification of like purposes across organizations–taxonomies of purpose–that would clarify the labelling of our sector. As Tom also pointed out, the label “civic tech” won. Although that was the clear winning answer to the question of “what are we?”, it did not fully satisfy the next-level question, which is “why are we?”
That question is still in active debate. This weekend, I added another log on the campfire with a piece I published on Medium called “Debugging Democracy.” I invite you to go take a look, and respond with your own take on what it is we’re all doing here.
Because just like a democracy can’t function without your participation, what’s the point of this conversation if you don’t add your two cents?