Today sees the official launch of FixMyStreet’s open source codebase as a proper tool that we hope people will want to deploy in cities and countries around the world. It is based on FixMyStreet.com which we believe is the most usable, most mature street problem reporting tool in the world, but which is only available to British users.
We’re shouting about this launch a bit because we need your help to make the service ever better. First, we need feedback from programmers about whether we’ve got the install process right – whether it’s as easy and clear as we want it to be. And for non-coders who want to get involved, we want to ask for help with the process of translating the site’s text into different languages.
Over the years there have been many copies of FixMyStreet set up in many countries, often using the site’s original name, but always written by developers from scratch. We’re delighted to have inspired people, but all too often the people trying to build copies have stumbled as they realise just how hard it is to build a tool like this with the polish that users expect. We think that people everywhere would be better off if they could have a local FixMyStreet that was really usable, and really connected to the right people.
So we’re very happy to be able to open up a codebase that has been extensively modified in the last year, to help users around the world manage easy, successful deployments. Steps we have taken include:
- Putting the translation text into Transifex, so that non-technical translators can get started whenever they feel like it
- Developing Amazon Machine Images so people who want to tinker can get started in the minimum possible time
- Rewriting the entire codebase in order to make it a less confusing installation
- Building a global version of our MapIt political boundaries web service, so you can get going without having to wrestle administrative data out of your government before you get started.
Plus with the help of the wonderful OpenStreetMap, you can get maps without licensing hassles too.
Calling it version 1.0 is our way of saying two things. First, that the tool still has a lot of evolution left to do, and a long way to go before it is as good as we want it to become. But more ambitiously, calling it 1.0 is also our way of saying that it’s no longer just a codebase dumped into Github. It’s a real open source project, which we plan to support, and which we hope will make a real difference in the lives of ordinary people. Check it out.
Quick question – don’t think too hard about it: what is Amazon?
At one level, Amazon is the world’s largest online retailer, a public company listed on the NASDAQ. At another level – the physical – it is a collection of over 50,000 employees, hundreds of warehouses and zillions of servers.
But for most people Amazon is fundamentally a website.
Sure, it’s an extremely impressive website that can send you parcels in the post, and which can relieve you of money with terrifying ease. But to most people the company has very little reality beyond the big white-blue-and-orange website and the brown cardboard packages.
The same process is happening to the bits of the government that I interact with – the physical reality of bricks and mortar and people and parks is starting to disappear behind the websites.
Government is increasingly a thing I don’t have any mental images of. I don’t know what my local council looks like, nor am I even clear where it is. I’m sure you all have plenty of interactions with HM Revenue and Customs, but do you know where it is or what it looks like?
Increasingly, when I form a mental image of a branch of government in my head, what I see is the website. What else am I supposed to picture?
Governments no longer just ‘own‘ websites, they are websites.
Heartless Bourgeois Pig
Wait! Stop shouting! I know how this sounds.
I am not so out of touch that I don’t know that there are plenty of people out there who are only too familiar with the physical manifestations of government. They see the government as manifested through prison, or hospital, or the job centre. They have no problem forming a vivid mental image of what government means: a waiting room, a queue, a social worker.
And I also know that most of the poorest people in the UK aren’t online yet. It’s one of the great challenges for our country in the next decade.
The majority of citizens don’t have deep, all encompassing, everyday interactions with the state – at most they drop their kids at school every day, or visit the GP a few times a year. That’s as physically close as they get.
To these people, interacting with government already feels somewhat like interacting with Amazon. It sends them benefits, passports, recycling bins, car tax disks from mysterious dispatch offices and it demands money and information in return. The difference is in emotional tone – the Amazon online interactions tend to be seamless, the government online interactions either painful or impossible – time to pick up the phone.
Increasingly, when a modern citizen looks at a government website, they’re literally seeing the state. And if what they see is ugly, confusing or down-right-broken, increasingly that’s how they’re going to see the state as a whole.
This change in public perception means that a previously marginal problem (bad websites) is now pointing towards a rather more worrying possibility. As government websites continue to fall behind private sector websites, governments will slowly look less and less legitimate – less and less like they matter to citizens, less and less like we should be paying any taxes to pay for them. Why pay for something you can’t even navigate?
It is time for the directors and CEOs of public bodies everywhere to wake up to this possibility, before the ideologues get hold of it.
Governments have the wrong management structures for a digital future
I don’t buy the argument that government websites are bad because all the ubermensch have gone off to work for the private sector. The public sector can often teach the private sector a lot about information design, like British road signs and tube maps, which are fantastic. And, of course, there’s the super team at Gov.uk, who represent the kind of change I’m writing about here.
The real difference is one of management structure and focus. At Amazon, CEO Jeff Bezos and his executive colleagues worry all the time about whether their site or app or Kindle are as good as the competitors. But in central and local governments around the world, the top bosses do not stress every day about whether the user experience of their website is up to scratch, or whether conversion rates are lower than desirable.
The main reason that they don’t worry is because their management boards don’t historically contain anyone whose job it is to worry about the performance of digital services. A council chief exec will worry about finance because their finance director will constantly be nagging them about money. But a council CEO won’t be worrying about whether 10,000 people left their website bitterly disappointed last week, because such issues are not ‘normal things to discuss’ at a board level.
Getting digital people to the top table
The solution, at least in the near term – is to recruit or promote people with digital remits and experience right to the top tier of decision making in government bodies. It means creating new roles like ‘CIO’ or ‘Head of Digital’ which have the same seniority as ‘Head of Adult Social Care’ or ‘Head of HR’. And it means empowering those people to make painful changes that are required to make digital services become brilliant and user-centric.
Clearly, this presents dangers. How do you know what powers to give the new role? How do you stop them damaging critical services? And, most problematic of all – how can you tell that a digital expert isn’t a charlatan? After all, they have niche expertise that you don’t have – how are you supposed to sniff them out?
The answer is that it isn’t easy, and that a lot of knowledge sharing and learning from mistakes will be required. As a shameless plug – we can help here – we can help vet candidates and define their roles in Britain and abroad. But none of this hides the fact that becoming digital – learning to run a public organisation that is a website, will be a fraught affair. The reward, though, is nothing less than helping to guarantee the ongoing legitimacy of government (quite apart from all the happier customers). To me that seems well worth going through some pain for.
The London Borough of Barnet replaced online street issue reporting forms with FixMyStreet software on their website in January 2010. Our experience with Barnet and several other councils has led to creation of FixMyStreet for Councils, a tailored service designed for local authority websites. We interviewed Chris Palmer, the council’s Assistant Director of Communications, who is responsible for online engagement, about Barnet’s experiences with FixMyStreet, and how it fits with the council’s web strategy.
Barnet is a forward-looking council when it comes to using the web to engage people and help them interact with the council. What have been your key goals in this area?
Our general aim is to get the council out of people’s way, to give people direct access to services. We don’t want residents to feel like they have to go through a complex council process in order to get anything done – so removing process from the equation as much as removing council from the equation is our goal with online.
One of our challenges, as with many other councils, is that technology moves so quickly. Nowadays people expect great, highly-usable web tools as they get this in other sectors – so we need to look at how we continually refresh that relationship with our residents.
What were you looking to achieve with FixMyStreet – and have you been successful?
Rather than putting you through a “customer service process”, FixMyStreet gives you a clear idea of what’s happening, allows you to contact your council from standing in the middle of the street with your phone, and gets you a quick response.
It has worked incredibly well. We launched at a time when a lot of people were worried about the state of the roads. So FixMyStreet was an excellent tool to allow people to feel like they were taking part, rather than just grumbling that there’s a pothole and the council hasn’t filled it. So it’s making people slightly more active citizens rather than passive grumblers. And that’s very important and quite empowering for people.
Why did you choose to have a map-based solution, as opposed to forms which are the more traditional approach to reporting?
For us, there’s two things, and one goes back to how we’ve worked with mySociety. FixMyStreet’s ease and mobility was a real seller for us.
The fact that somebody contacts their council while standing in the street is very important to us. Residents appreciate that it’s the council who comes and fills the pothole, but they don’t necessarily want to know the details of the process. So the more we can strip out that process and get them straight to the issue, the better.
What was the impact of FixMyStreet on the council’s engagement with residents?
I suspect that if you look at the figures, there hasn’t been a huge increase, because most of our online contact is about where schools are, standard things you’d expect.
But what it has done is make the council far more open and transparent and more responsive. Generally, people’s perception of the council is that stuff goes in and you never hear again. At the same time the council never hears back either once we’ve fixed the problem. FixMyStreet enables the reporter to go back, and to say ‘that’s sorted; we’re done’.
We get Facebook comments, we get tweets saying ‘I reported flytipping to Barnet Council – that mattress was gone the following day’. And that kind of stuff is gratifying.
This sort of transparency is relatively new in local government. What was your experience with FixMyStreet?
We welcome transparency and here it has been entirely positive. I haven’t seen any particular grumbling around FixMyStreet itself. Grumbles tend to come through other media. FixMyStreet appears to be a medium for reporting rather than complaining, and that’s what we’ve found such a positive experience about it.
Before now, we’ve tended to regard almost any contact as a complaint – say somebody’s rung the council up and reported that a lightbulb in a streetlight isn’t working. In fact, it’s an entirely positive relationship with a resident. A resident has seen something in the street isn’t working, they inform the council and we’ll go and fix it. So I think it rather changes our relationship with residents – it makes them our eyes and ears on the ground .
More recently Barnet took the next step and created a direct link with the council’s CRM and FixMyStreet. What was the idea behind that?
The council has invested in an infrastructure – we’re interested in seeing if we can move to a service where not only does somebody report something, but we can tell them the processes of being fixed.
So in an ideal world we could tell somebody “Thank you for reporting this” – “It’ll be fixed tomorrow” – “It’s now been fixed”.
We’re still some way off that, but it’s that move to a greater transparency. I’m a great believer that in communications, just telling somebody what’s going to happen next, is very important to building a good relationship with the resident.
How was mySociety as a partner to work with?
Challenging, but in a good way. The strength of mySociety is that you bring new ideas and approaches. mySociety did a review of some of the old screens we had in customer services, where the information we were presenting on screens to the people answering the phones was over complex, and mySociety helped us to strip out that complexity.
Another lesson from the work we’ve done with mySociety has been about the importance of making the information that we and our public sector partners hold more easily available to the community.
It’s a very different relationship from most of our suppliers, in that there isn’t a product in a box. Because of the nature of the things we’ve done, it’s been quite testing – you’ve pushed us in one way, we’ve pushed you another way – we’ve worked together – which is both the opportunity and the pain of innovation.
That’s a good thing in terms of the people we’ve worked with in mySociety – we’ve had an incredibly positive relationship.
If you’d like to find out more about FixMyStreet for Councils, drop us a line or read more.
Image credits: Fixing up the Network by Fabio; Paaltje is kapot by Pim Geerts, both used with thanks under the Creative Commons Licence.
Back in November 2006 we launched Number 10’s petitions website. We were pretty proud of the usability-centred site we built – we can still lay a pretty good claim to it being one of the biggest democracy sites (measured in terms of people transacting) that the world’s ever seen.
Over 12 million signatures had been added to petitions by the time the site was switched off after the 2010 general election. We were particularly proud of developing a system that was highly load-tolerant: we once survived over 20,000 people signing within a single hour, all whilst running on a pair of cheap little servers. That performance on so little hardware was down to the raw brilliance represented by a coding team made up of Francis Irving, Matthew Somerville, and the late, great Chris Lightfoot.
We’re also pleased that the popularity of the site led to the irresistible rise of the belief that the public should be able to petition the government via the internet. So even though our site was mothballed, Parliament and DirectGov have taken over the idea, and the commitment has been upped a notch, from ‘we’ll send a reply’ to ‘we’ll talk about it’. To be clear, we are not, nor have ever been a community interested in replacing representative democracy with direct democracy, but anything that can squeeze any drop of change from Parliament is worth a small celebration.
What’s most pleasing, though, is that we’ve been able to take the open source code built for Number 10, improve and expand upon it to develop a hosted petitions service for local councils around the country, or the rest of the world. And this is where we found the most important lesson for us: local petitions can be awesome, and despite the much smaller numbers of signatories involved, we’ve been more widely and frequently impressed by local petitions and responses than at the more glamorous national level. We’re particular fans of Hounslow Borough Council who have given positive and detailed feedback on all sorts of genuine local issues, as well as working hard to let local residents know that the service exists.
Just recently we launched a site to make it really easy to find local council petition websites, because there are hundreds hidden away (we built some; most are supplied by other vendors). If we could see anything result from today’s huge explosion of interest in online petitions, it would be that people might start to look local, and explore what petitions in their community could mean.
Current government policy in relation to the Internet can broadly be summarised as occupying three areas:
1. Getting people online (broadband access, and lessons for people who don’t have the skills or interest)
2. Protecting people from bad things done using the Internet (terrorism, child abuse, fraud, hacking, intellectual property infringement)
3. Building websites for departments and agencies.
The government does all these things primarily because it believes that the Internet boosts the economy of the UK, and that IT can reduce the cost of public services whilst increasing their quality. Together, these outweigh the dangers, meaning it doesn’t get banned. Gordon Brown’s recent speech at Google was an exemplar of this mainly economically driven celebration of the Internet’s virtues, telling audience members that your industry is driving the next stage of globalisation”.
The first challenge for the government is to understand that whilst these beliefs are true, they are only a minor part of the picture. Tellingly, Browns’ speech contained almost no language that couldn’t have been used to explain the positive impact of electrification or shipping containers.
The way in which the Internet Is not like Electrification or Shipping Containers
The Internet has been relentlessly undermining previous practices in the running of businesses, dating, parenting, spying, producing art and many other areas. So, however, did electrification and shipping containers. From cheaper raw materials, to cheaper cars to have sex in the back of, economic and social change has always been driven by technological change.
What is different is the way in which the Internet changes social and economic practices – the vector of attack. In the 20th century, advancement of human welfare went hand in hand with the rise of companies that used economies of scale to deliver better goods and services for customers. Technology effectively made it possible and much easier to be a big, highly productive company, to gather expertise and capital together and to target markets for maximum yields.
Now take a look for a moment at Wikipedia, MoneySavingExpert, Blogger or Match.com – all big websites, all doing different things. Each one, however, is in its own way is reducing the ability of large, previously well functioning institutions to function as easily.
These services are reducing traditional institutions ability to charge for information, seize big consumer surpluses, limit speech or fix marriages. It has, in other words, become harder to be a big business, newspaper, repressive institution or religion. Nor is this traditional ‘creative destruction’ going on in a normal capitalist economy: this isn’t about one widget manufacturer replacing another, this is about a newspaper business dying and being replaced by no one single thing, and certainly nothing recognisable as a newspaper business.
This common pattern of more powerful tools for citizens making life harder for traditional institutions is, for me, a cause for celebration. However, I am not celebrating as a libertarian (which I am not) I celebrate it because it marks a historic increase in the freedom of people and groups of people, and a step-change in their ability to determine the direction of their own lives.
How the government can be on the side of the citizen in the midst of the great Internet disruption
Disruption like this is scary for any institution, which will tend to mean that as a public entity which interfaces with other institutions the temptation will be to hold back the sea, not swim with it. Government must swim with the tide, though, not just to help citizens more but to avoid the often ruinous tension of a citizenry going one way and a government going another. There are various things government can do to be on the right side.
1. Accept that any state institution that says “we control all the information about X” is going to look increasingly strange and frustrating to a public that’s used to be able to do whatever they want with information about themselves, or about anything they care about (both private and public). This means accepting that federated identity systems are coming and will probably be more successful than even official ID card systems: ditto citizen-held medical records. It means saying “We understand that letting train companies control who can interface with their ticketing systems means that the UK has awful train ticket websites that don’t work as hard as they should to help citizens buy cheaper tickets more easily. And we will change that, now.”
2. Seize the opportunity to bring people together. Millions of people visit public sector websites every day, often trying to achieve similar or identical ends. It is time to start building systems to allow them to contact people in a similar situation, just as they’d be able to if queuing together in a job centre, but with far more reach and power. This does open the scary possibility that citizens might club together to protest about poor service or bad policies, but given recent news, if you were a minister would you rather know about what was wrong as soon as possible, or really late in the day (cf MPs‘ expenses, festering for years)?
3. Get a new cohort of civil servants who understand both the Internet and public policy, and end the era of signing huge technology contracts when the negotiators on the government’s side have no idea how they systems they are paying for actually work. Coming up with new uses of technology, or perceiving how the Internet might be involved with undermining something in the future is an essential part of a responsible policy expert’s skill-set these days, no matter what policy area they work in. It should be considered just as impossible for a new fast-stream applicant without a reasonably sophisticated view of how the Internet works to get a job as if they were illiterate ( a view more sophisticated than generated simply by using Facebook a lot, a view that is developed through tuition ). Unfashionably, this change almost certainly has to be driven from the center.
4. Resist calls from institutions of all sorts to change laws to give them back the advantages they previously had over citizens, and actively appoint a team to see where legislation is preventing possible Internet-enabled challenges to institutions that could do with shaking up. At the moment, this is mostly seen in the music and video fields, but doubtless it will occur in more fields in the next decade, many of them quite possibly less sexy but more economically and socially significant than a field containing so many celebrities.
5. Spend any money whatsoever on a centrally driven project to cherry pick the best opportunities to ‘be on the side of the citizen’ and drive them through recalcitrant and risk averse departments and agencies. Whilst UK government is spending £12-13bn a year on IT at the moment, almost none of that is being spent on projects which I would describe as fitting any of the objectives described above. And the good news, for a cash strapped era, is that almost anything meaningful that the government can do on the Internet will cost less than even the consulting fees for one large traditional IT project.
There are, obviously, more reasons why the Internet isn’t like electrification or shipping containers. But keeping the narrative simple is always valuable when proposing anything. The idea that a wave is coming that empowers citizens and threatens institutions makes government’s choice stark – who’s side do we take? History will not be kind to those that take the easy option.
mySociety has today emailed (and in one case, posted) a set of 3 Principles which we believe it is important that all candidates for Speaker endorse, before the election of a new Speaker by MPs.
1. Voters have the right to know in detail about the money that is spent to support MPs and run Parliament, and in similar detail how the decisions to spend that money are settled upon.
2. Bills being considered must be published online in a much better way than they are now, as the Free Our Bills campaign has been suggesting for some time.
3. The Internet is not a threat to a renewal in our democracy, it is one of its best hopes. Parliament should appoint a senior officer with direct working experience of the power of the Internet who reports directly to the Speaker, and who will help Parliament adapt to a new era of transparency and effectiveness.
We will be posting the status of requests on the likely candidates web pages where we expect large numbers of people to see them before the vote in late June. We have also taken the unusual step of allowing possible candidates to leave a statement of up to 150 words on the principles.
(NB no candidates have actually declared at this stage, so we are starting with the BBC’s list of possibles)
mySociety helped lead the campaign back in January to prevent the last ditch attempts to conceal MPs’ expenses. We did so not because, like the newspapers, we wanted to revel in embarrassment and scandal, but because we believe that in the Internet age, the only way for our democracy and government to thrive is if they are open and connected to the net as the rest of us expect them to be. The dramatic events seen in Parliament in recent days vindicate the view that secrecy breeds poor policies and seeds untrustworthy behaviour in the weaker willed.
Furthermore, more than a simple attitude of openness is required of the new Speaker: the public needs a genuine will to push for technological reform using the power of the Internet that will take both open-mindedness and a willing to tread on toes, especially in some parts of the unelected establishment.
Case in point: Over the last two years we have been trying to persuade Parliament to acknowledge that the way it publishes its Bills online is hopelessly inadequate for the Internet age. The campaign has faltered, despite multi partly endorsement from 140 MPs and a campaign membership of thousands. To see why, just take a look at this colourful and error-crammed internal email that we uncovered using the Freedom of Information Act, published for the first time today.
The new Speaker will have a tough job on their hands to overcome resistance of this kind. The best thing we can do is help the new Speaker, whoever they are, assume their new job with a clear mandate from the public, as well as from members.
That is why, as a final part of this call, we are asking you, our community, to write to your MP today to let them know that you expect them to vote for a candidate that has endorsed the principles above. Your voices to your own constituency MPs can resonate in a way that no blog post or newspaper article ever can. Go to it.
One of the most striking uses of PledgeBank in recent times was the pledge made by 1700 people to commemorate Ada Lovelace’s birthday by blogging about an inspiring woman in the technology world.
I have had several possible choices, but I’ve decided on Angie Ahl, mySociety’s 4th and most recent full time developer.
Angie is mySociety through and through. A born perl hacker, never happier than knee deep in some grungy regular expressions, she’s also gifted with an inate understanding of the possibilities of technology for democratic reform. At interview I asked her what change she’d like to see happen from the government side of our sector, and she replied that she thought the biggest possible win was to publish Bills in parliament in a proper format. You might have heard all this before, thanks to Free Our Bills, but Angie was commenting several months before we ever discussed the idea for the campaign with anyone else. She’d just looked at the world and the obvious problem had jumped out, clear as day.
Sadly, it’s no secret than Angie’s been seriously ill for some time. Despite this she’s managed things that’d be beyond me in the best of health: I’m only typing into wordpress now because she migrated the whole of this site from our previous system. She came to our retreat back in January and showed an unerring ability to ask tough questions of the right people, even when tired.
Angie beat a 100% male field to get the job she has now. She’s unpretentious, straight talking and as glowingly warm to be near as a roaring log fire. She’s also getting married within the next few days. Congrats, Angie: Tommy couldn’t have done better.
To: Anyone thinking of running any reasonably developed country, any time soon.
The most scary thing about the Internet for your government is not pedophiles, terrorists or viruses, whatever you may have read in the papers. It is the danger of your administration being silently obsoleted by the lightening pace at which the Internet changes expectations. I’m not going to give examples of this change, others can do this far better than I. But you don’t need experts’ advice to tell which way the wind blows – if you can’t find any examples of changing expectations in your own life, driven by the internet, I can’t help you anyway: please point me to your successor.
This is a list of the top 5 major things any government of any developed nation should be doing in relation to the Internet, as I see it at the start of 2009. They are not in any order, and do not lack ambition – they are for the Next Government, after all.
Hire yourself some staff who know what the Internet really means for government, and fund a university to start training more who really understand both worlds: you’re going to need them. There just aren’t enough employed in any government anywhere yet to save you from being hopelessly outstripped by external progress. The citizen discontent resulting from massive shifts in expectation could wash your entire government away without you ever having anyone skilled enough to tell you why everyone was so pissed off. Your chances of truly reinventing what your government is are basically zero without such staff.
Free your data, especially maps and other geographic information, plus the non-personal data that drives the police, health and social services, for starters. Introduce a ‘presumption of innovation’ – if someone has asked for something costly to free up, give them what they want: it’s probably a sign that they understand the value of your data when you don’t.
Give external parties the right to interface electronically with any government or mainly public system unless it can be shown to create substantial, irrevocable harm. Champion the right fiercely and punish unjustified refusals with fines. Your starting list of projects should include patient-owned health records, council fault reporting services and train ticket sales databases. All are currently unacceptably closed to innovation from the outside, and obscurity allows dubious practices of all kinds to thrive.
Commission the world’s first system capable of large scale deliberation, and hold a couple of nation wide sessions on policy areas that you genuinely haven’t made your minds up on yet. When it is over, mail people who participated with a short, clear list of things you’ve done that you wouldn’t have done without them. Once you’ve made it work well, legislate it into the fabric of your democracy, like elections and referendums.
When people use your electronic systems to do anything, renew a fishing license, register a pregnancy, apply for planning permission, given them the option to collaborate with other people going through or affected by the same process. They will feel less alone, and will help your services to reform from the bottom up.
mySociety wants to see all these things happen. Get in touch if you are interested.
Obviously it’s always great when any paper gives mySociety coverage – it helps get the word about our services out and helps more people get things done that help their lives.
However, today’s look at mySociety’s 5 years in the Guardian makes a few claims I think it’s important to challenge, so instead of writing to the readers editor I thought I’d just seize the power of Citizen Media(TM) to note them here.
First, has the No10 petitions site had “little notable impact” on government policy? Given that that project appears almost single handedly to have bounced Parliament into developing an online petitioning system and devoting debate time to major petitions, I’d say that it certainly has had some impact. But there is indeed a bigger problem of pointing at No10 petitions and going “That one changed policy.” It’s a problem of two halves: scale, and deniability. Governments almost never acknowledge that they were forced into anything, ever. Policy announcements are almost always framed as if the right course of action was being followed all along. So apart from the fact that I don’t know how one could possibly assess the impacts of so many thousands of petitions without a huge research project, I would expect that even those that do have in impact will still usually be denied by the government, even when shifting policy. I would encourage No10 and the whole of Government to take a look at directly challenging this culture, and employ someone whose job it is to find out which petitions are having an impact, and shout about them in plain English.
Second, the majority of mySociety’s sites are programmed by staff and contractors, not volunteers. The volunteers are super-essential to mySociety running every day, but the sheer size of some of our projects makes it unlikely a volunteer could have built them without giving up their day job for many months. This needs mentioning to explain why it matters if our finances are precarious!
Next – do councils find FixMyStreet an irritation or an asset? Well, last time we did a count a few weeks ago, we had 4 complaining emails from councils, and 62 supportive ones, with several linking directly to us. As for the Customer Relationship Management at councils, we’d be delighted to send reports straight into their databases without going via email first, it’s just that only one council has set up such an interface so far. I hope that FixMyStreet can put pressure on councils and their suppliers to build a small number of standardised interfaces for the good of everyone. And yes, we are building FixMyStreet for iPhone and Android, and I’m happy to talk to anyone who wants to build UIs for any other phones.
There – hope that doesn’t come across as too ungrateful to Michael Cross et al. See you at the next birthday party, I hope!
Update: I also meant to mention that I’ve never been a ‘Downing Street Insider’. I was a junior civil servant in the Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit, which is not in Downing Street and more loosely affiliated than the name might suggest.
…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.