…so what of the future?
First, I am more convinced than ever that mySociety offers something quite unique, and something must survive if technology is going to be best applied on the side of the citizen. Despite the explosion of so called web 2.0 technologies being adapted by newspapers, government and other media companies, the tools mySociety builds remain unique. They don’t just involve repurposing generic new communications tools like blogs, they involve conceptualising how technology can empower people from first principles. Nobody else is in the UK even attempts to build services like WhatDoTheyKnow or TheyWorkForYou, they’re just too different from what’s out there to copy. And when we do build them, they get copied across the world – one of the things I didn’t expect five years ago is that I’d be celebrating tonight with Rob McKinnon, the man who took TheyWorkForYou and made it work in New Zealand, and being toasted from Australia via Twitter. But we know from the continued influence of newspapers, some born in the 19th century, that political media needs longevity to gain the reach and legitimacy required to transform whole systems and to challenge the expectations of whole populations. mySociety needs to work out how to be here not just in 6 months, but in 20 years.
To do this, however, we must do something about our funding. mySociety remains deeply financially insecure, and if we’re to celebrate our 6th birthday, let alone our 10th something urgent has to happen.
Next, we need to admit that we’ve shifted the culture of government internet usage less than we might have hoped over the last five years. Nevertheless, I honestly believe that a relatively minor shake-up at relatively low cost can see a massive step change in the way that government delivers services online, the way that it talks to citizens, and the way that it makes information available. But so long as the cult of outsourcing everything computer related continues to dominate in Whitehall, and so long as experts like Matthew and Francis are treated as suspicious just because they understand computers, little is going to change. Government in the UK once led the world in its own information systems, breaking Enigma, documenting an empire’s worth of trade. And then it fired everyone who could do those things, or employed them only via horribly expensive consultancies. It is time to start bringing them back into the corridors of power.
In one way that’s great for mySociety’s reputation that government progress has been so slow – even on a bankruptcy budget mySociety will continue to at least appear to out-innovate the entire UK government. But from a public welfare perspective it’s a tragic farce.
What we want from the government is technologies that empower and uplift, not depersonalise and degrade. mySociety wants to be part of this change, and I hope we don’t have to wait until a new government comes in to have a decent shot at slaying some of the shiboleths that stand in our way to decent reform.
Last, but not least, I want as many of you as possible to be part of making mySociety’s vision of easier, more accessible, more responsive democracy the minimum that people expect, not the best they can hope for. This will take lots of volunteers, and lots of funding funding and ideas and newspaper stories. It’ll take lots of brilliant coding and better design. It will take political leaders who understand that the internet is the big, unique chance their generation has to shake things up and get into the history books.
And, more than anything else, I want to do it with you people. I want to do it with mySociety.
“People often say they could run Britain better than the political parties. A web-based revolution may give them the chance”
Nice article in the Sunday Times today mentioning lots of our sites and others.
Say hello to GroupsNearYou.com.
The Short Geeky Explanation
GroupsNearYou.com is an entirely user generated API-queryabledatabase of the location and nature of local online communities, irrespective of the platform they are hosted on. A piece of the programmable web, in short, with local community building focus. The syndicated community information can easily be layered onto a map, for example.
The Business Problem it Solves
Do you run a site that tells people stuff about their local area? Do you suspect that there might be quite a lot of internet enabled community activity going on in local areas that you’d like to tell your users about? Use our feeds.
The Social Problem It Solves:
There’s a proven real world social value to people belonging to very local email lists and other forms of local online community. However there is no eBay or Craiglist or other market dominant player in the local online community world, instead there’s a myriad of google groups, yahoo groups, Facebook & other YASN groups, extremely old school CCed email lists, online forums and so on. As a consequence of not having one big simple place to go to find and join local groups (many of which are not even on the web for Google to find) far fewer people ever find out about and join their local online groups. GroupsNearYou.com is about getting more people to join groups, groups that are not hosted by us, and (hopefully) mainly discovering them via uses of our syndicated info on sites that aren’t run by us. It’s a piece of pure internet infrastructure, with a positive social bent.
Who did it?
Astonishingly, the project was almost entirely built by a volunteer, Richard Pope assisted in design by another brilliant volunteer Denise Wilton. Their only reward is a highly sought after mySociety Hoodie, plus the love and gratitude of all our users.
Richard has been an amazingly dedicated volunteer for mySociety and on his own projects for over two years, and deserves the reputation he is rapidly gaining as one of the world’s truly great civic minded web innovators. The project was funded by the UK’s Government’s Ministry of Justice who have been trying to run experiments of different kinds in the realm of electronic democracy. Their money will go to help improve and grow the site, rather than building it, which is a very interesting funding model in its own right. The several hundred groups already in the system are mainly added by users of WriteToThem.com
Almost all the groups listed in the database are in the UK at the moment, and they’re all from users of our other sites. We’re interested in working with anyone who runs sites that might want to either take information out of it, or put information into it (Hello email list/social network providers!)
Anyway, it’s dead simple really, just a little brick in the internet wall, albeit one that I hope will help a few more people meet their neighbours and improve their communities.
A few weeks ago mySociety and Politik Digital held a small unconference in Berlin. The idea was to get together some of the best practioners building and running democracy websites across Europe, regardless of their size or status.
I’ll try to write this up more fully soon, but for the moment I wanted to share some email interviews I did with some of the participants after the event. The first is with Guglielmo Celata from the Italian group D.E.P.P. We first came across them a couple of years ago when they borrowed some code from PublicWhip.org.uk (the independent volunteer vote analysis project run by Julian Todd and mySociety senior developer Francis Irving) for their website OpenPolis.
Anyway, enough for the context – D.E.P.P have some great, boundary-pushing work coming up and I thought people in the English speaking community would want to know.
What is the organisation you work for?
The name of the Association is D.E.P.P., that stands for Electronic Democracy and Public Partecipation.
It’s a relatively small group of people (four) who work on e-partecipation projects with local administrations (the municipality of Rome and the Regione Lazio, for examples). We also have an self-financed project, named Openpolis, to map politicians, their charges, their declarations, both at a national and at a local level. More on this later.
What is the main purpose of the site(s) that you run?
We have a project named eDem 1.0 which has been so far installed twice: municipiopartecipato.it focuses in enabling e-participation of local communities on the “participatory budget”; and edem-regione on the budget of the Regione Lazio (the link points to an alpha version).
I think the participatory budget for the local community is far more interesting. The site shows a list of issues categorized by theme and territory. Registered users can vote up issues and make them emerge as important. Issues are created by the users. Users can also create proposals related to issues and vote them. The integration with Google Maps, allows user to see how issues and proposals distribute in their territory; it makes the user interface immediate (and of course makes the site sooo stylish).
The proposals emerging as the most voted are approved and follow a workflow to be actually financed and implemented.
Online activities and offline physical assemblies (which exist), are linked together by a group of paid people, called enablers. They take care of moderating both offline and online activities, too.
The other project has almost the same features, but applied to the budget document of the Regione Lazio. Of course, the issues here are not created by the citizens, being the chapters (or sections) of the official budget document. The citizens can create and rate proposals, but such proposals are never going to be implemented.
This happens a lot, administrators are intersted in e-participation projects, but they want to reduce the possibility of issues emerging directly from citizens, and€ of course they try to change the nature of the project from a participative one, into a consultative one. A kind of Poll 2.0, if one wants to be cynical.
Can you tell us about your next site, the one you showed us in Berlin?
Openpolis is a project to gather informations on our political class and make them transparent. How they vote once elected, what laws they propose, their charges in institution, political parties and private organisations, public declarations, financial interests, judicial positions etc. The aim of the project is to revive the bond between the citizens and their representatives. We would like to give individuals or organized group of citizens, a set of tools to enable them to perform lobbying activities.
We want to work both at a national level and at a very local level, and to do this we plan to allow users to create part of the content on the site, and hope this way to create communities, wiki-style.
However, the site is not a wiki, since content has to be well-structured; we want to export statistics and make analysis on data added by users.
You are planning to combine information gathered from formal sources, and submitted by users. Can you tell us where you’re getting the formal information from, and how you are going to handle the information submitted by users?
We have different levels, and correspondingly different sources. At a national level, we are harvesting the official web sites of the Camera and Senato (the two houses of national representatives) and the web site of European Parliament. At local levels we rely on official biographical data from the Ministero degli Interni (Interior Ministry). We double check politician’s data for the 20 major cities in italy, but of course can’t possibly dream of doing that for the 109 provinces and 8100 municipalities.
For data on charges, declarations, financial interests and judicial positions, and for a complete double check on details and biographical data, we plan to leverage the community of users. The more users, the more data and verification.
Of course, data inserted by the users must be always connected to sources (i.e a web link, a reference to a book, an article in a newspaper, or a radio or television program). Data will be verified by moderators, and the community of moderators will grow on trust basis (using a karma-based system, so that when a subscribed user reach a certain treshold of trust, he is proposed as moderator to the board of administrators). We all know that this part is a real challenge and that handling a community online is a daunting task, but, hey, let’s try.
Users can be banned and content can be censored (after publishing), but any banning or censorship will be performed transparently, so that anyone, in any moment will be able to know the reason why a user was banned.
Do you ever face claims that the effects you have on politicians aren’t entirely positive? If so, how do you respond?
We actually have not yet started, but we do plan on receiving a lot of such claims. Of course we are trying to create something that the politicians should use, as well, so the most interested and active users should be the politician themselves.
Are there any other features of your site that you think are unusual or unique?
We plan to release an API, in order to make integration of our data and analysis possible directly from other web applications. Starting from RSS feed, to a proper API, it should be possible to integrate pieces of our applications directly into people’s blog or other similar applications.
What other projects around the world excite you the most, and why?
Well, of course the TheyWorkForYou project was a real kick off, we just thought: “wow, we have to do that here in Italy!” Then I really appreciate the work at GovTrack.us, especially from the technical standpoint, for the innovative way of using RDF and the Semantic Web approach.
Here in Italy, a project I forgot to mention in Berlin is: http://fainotizia.radioradicale.it.
FaiNotizia means Make Your Own News, it’s a project by Radio Radicale, an historical radio broadcast of the Italian Radical Party. It provides one of the first citizens journalism website in Italy and we plan to integrate with them in the future.
Do you use the law to help you get information? If so, how have you gone about it, and what have you obtained?
We haven’t so far, every information that we gathered was publicly available, we just wrote tons of parser code.
We plan to push the release of data on financial interests and judicial positions, though. Those data are public, but poorly accessible (no electronic format, no scanning, phtos or copies possible). This will require some legal actions or some fantasy to get them. We’ll see.
So there we are. If you’ve any further questions or clarifications, just post a comment here and I’ll update this post with Guglielmo’s help.
Despite being strictly non-partisan, mySociety is still indisputibly a political entity that seeks to encourage new and better sorts of things to happen in our democracy. But ‘new’ and ‘better’ are vague words without a clear understanding of what democracy is, or what it could become.
Consequently, mySociety needs a theory of British democracy of the same robustness and quality as the code written by our developers. I am not as good a theorist as my team are programmers, but I will do my best to spell out where we see the weaknesses and opportunities for improvement in the current system.
What I am publishing here is explicity my view, not mySociety’s, and it is most definitely a first draft. I would be very grateful if you would be kind enough to leave comments containing your thoughts and suggestions, so that eventually (perhaps) it can be published as a proper essay or pamphlet and, with luck, enjoy the endorsement of the mySociety developers, trustees and volunteers.
Part 1. Democracy is about far more than voting
Once every four years a majority of all those elegible to vote in the UK make their way to schools and community centres to cast their ballots at the general election. These voters, picking from a range of options usually somewhat smaller than their supermarket choice of canned tuna, put their cross next to their preferred candidate and then make their way home.
The crosses that the voters leave on their ballot papers are painstakingly aggregated to determine the next occupents of 646 prized jobs; few of the jubilant winners understanding at the time what a seismic career mistake they have just made. But the individual constituency results are only the side-show to the main attraction. The real purpose of spending all that time and money on holding an election is to send two bits of information back to Parliament, the public and the Queen: who gets to govern, and how easily. When written down, the main output of the huge logistical exercise of a general election is astonishingly small: Lab 343, Con 196, Lib 63. Just 24 characters to dictate who gets to run the country, and how.
This seemingly esoteric observation highlights of the most remarkable things about democracies: despite the tiny amount of formal instruction given by the public to the political classes, democracies tend to be very different places compared to non-democracies. Clearly these 24 characters (bytes) are very important. With few exceptions democratic states come with a host of other institutions which are rare or unheard of in countries without them: fair courts, freedom of speech, freedom of association and so on.
These institutions haven’t just been created from scratch by democratically formed laws: they’re also the foundations upon which democracies have grown – they’re both the chicken and the egg. But why mention them here?
The answer is that these institutions attempt to provide guidance as to what government should actually do between elections. There are many millions of political decisions that need to be made in between our widely spaced elections, and the 24 bytes of instruction data generated at a general election just doesn’t contain enough detail. The non-electoral institutions of a democratic society are history’s solution to getting as many of those millions of decisions as possible right.
And what a bewildering array there are: from Quangos, to newspapers, to community groups, to industry lobbyists, to PTAs and NGOs to blogs. All ceasely pour out decisions that are vary from pure punditry to powerful statutory judgement.
Collectively these institutions and the decisions they make create a democratic culture which actually shapes our lives more frequently than bellweather issues at elections. Whether a school accepts our child, whether we get to add a skylight to our roof, and whether or not we feel afraid on our streets are determined by organisations that have almost never been subject to elections. And yet these institutions and the decisions they make are normally thought of as ‘democractic’, even though most of them are not formally elected. A community group of a dozen pensioners somehow seems far more democratic than Pravda, despite the latter being read by millions, and neither being elected.
The culture of democratic states isn’t some wishy washy backdrop against which real power politics happens, either. The institutions that shape our democratic culture often act as some of the hardest checks and balances against which politicians bang their heads. Just speak to a politician who has ever been foiled by a concerted media campaign to understand the power of democratic culture.
Where does mySociety fit into this? Well, we build tools that enable people to get better decisions made between elections. Whether that means writing direct to your politicians, or forming a campaign, or keeping politicians on their toes through publishing data on what they say and do, most of the things we build are about enabling our users to get the decisions made that they want to be made.
However, we’re far from alone in the arena of decision-influencing. The next section looks at how it has happened in the past, and how it may change in the future.
It’s very quiet today. I’ve been updating the projects page now that HearFromYourMP is truly launched. This means we’ve built all the original launch projects, except GiveItAway (more about what is happening with that another time). And it’s over a year since mySociety began. I feel exhausted, and definitely need to take some holiday – I was going to go to Egypt last month, but moved house instead.
This week was usability week. Or was that last week, I’ve got confused. Anyway, Tom made about a million tickets with little usability tweaks to all the sites. Most of these have been put in now, but there’s still lots to do. Good software is about polish polish polish polish, and more polish. I could spend another few years just polishing these sites without making any more.
I’ve also been doing a bit of work on “cobranding”. An ugly marketing term, but there you go. We’ve had a Cheltenham version of WriteToThem for some time. As well as local government, we’re also looking at campaigns groups. So we’ve done a version for AnimalAid, which they’ll be using from their website soon. Apart from the logo and colours, cobranding has some benefits for the user. It’ll make them think they haven’t changed website, and be less disconcerting. In particular, it’ll take them back to other campaigns actions when they’re done.
Best comment so far:
“Those terribly terribly clever mySociety chaps have been drinking their fortifyingly strong tea again. They’ve cogitated and coded, and come up with HearFromYourMP.com. Read the page – it’s so simple, one wonders how it can possibly be a new thing.
Dashed clever. Bravo!”
Thanks Jonathan! such things make us happy. And when we are happy, we build more cool stuff.
We’ve been invited to appear at Headstar’s e-Democracy 05 Conference on 9th November. A quick look at the agenda suggests it’ll be a good chance to get up to date on the various government and non-government parts of the UK edemocracy scene. Watch out for us by the big green mySociety logo! more details here.
mySociety is proud to announce the launch of WriteToThem.com, the successor to the multi-award-winning FaxYourMP.com. WriteToThem lets people write to any of their elected representatives: MPs, MSPs, MEPs, Welsh or London assembly members, and last (but certainly not least) their local councillors.
Many thanks to the hard working developers and volunteers who have got it to this stage, and who will keeping looking after it and improving it in the future. And thanks to the ODPM and West Sussex County Council for giving us the funding to rebuild FaxYourMP.
If you’d like to get in touch to ask a question please drop us a line to firstname.lastname@example.org . And if you are from outside the UK and you’re interested in our code, or what we have to offer check this.
Mysociety is proud to announce the launch of DowningStreetSays.com, a site where you can leave and read comments on Number 10’s press briefings.
This isn’t a full mySociety project, and was thrown together by some amazing volunteers over the last few days. We hope that in a small way it helps to improve the quality of debate at the heart of government, by letting the public at government without first passing through the lens of the mass media.
[July 2013 – dead link replaced with Internet Archive link]