1. Wishing Mzalendo well

    Back in February 2012, we announced the launch of a new site for Mzalendo, a parliamentary monitoring website for Kenya.

    This year, we handed the hosting, development and maintenance of the site over to the Mzalendo team on the ground. We’re delighted that they are in the position to no longer require our help.

    Supported by the Indigo Foundation, this was one of mySociety’s first formal partnerships in which we developed a website for an existing organisation — in this case, building on the work of two activists Ory Okolloh and Conrad Akunga, who had been filling a gap in Kenya’s public provision of parliamentary information by blogging and publishing MPs’ data since 2005.

    If it wasn’t for their work, Kenya would be a whole lot less informed about its own parliament: the official government website, for example, only had information about 50% of the nation’s MPs at the time, and the country’s Hansard could only be accessed by request to the Government’s Printer’s Office.

    We were able to draw upon our experience with our UK parliamentary site TheyWorkForYou to avoid the common pitfalls in building such projects, and provide useful features such as an online searchable Hansard, responsive design, MP ‘scorecards’ and an easily-updated database for representatives’ details.

    During the years of our partnership, Mzalendo kept the site maintained with data and news, while we worked on the development of new features they requested, fixing any bugs that arose, for example when the Kenyan parliament changed their data outputs, and hosting.

    But there are plenty of willing and able developers in Kenya, and it became increasingly obvious that funding could be more effectively — and efficiently — routed directly to them rather than to us in the UK.

    Like most mySociety code, the Pombola codebase on which Mzalendo was built is open source, so anyone is free to inspect, reuse or just take inspiration from it. The handover should, therefore, be reasonably painless for the new developers.

    We wish Mzalendo all the best in their ongoing efforts to keep Kenya informed and politically engaged.

    Image by Valentina Storti: a tawny eagle flying over Laikipia District, central Kenya (CC by/2.0)

  2. TheyWorkForYou — helping you hold the new parliament to account

    When you woke up this morning to check the election results, you may have visited TheyWorkForYou.

    And you’d have found it bang up to date, thanks to the new MP data that was added through the night, as the election results came in. More than a fifth of you have a new MP, and whether you voted for them or not we know you’ll want to keep them accountable.

    Donate to help us keep this service going.

    We’ve just now added one final MP — for St Ives, since weather conditions prevented ballot boxes coming over from the Isles of Scilly earlier.

    We’ll be helping you hold all MPs, new and returning, to account over the next few years, as we publish their debates and votes, expenses, interests and contact details.

    We make it as simple as possible for everyone to understand what’s going on in Parliament, and how you can play a part in your own democracy.

    Right now, you can get a headstart:

    If you’re a developer, researcher or just a good old data junkie, you might additionally like to:

    Now we need you to help us

    We’re determined to carry on providing these services, but we still need your help to do so.

    There are seven days left to run on our crowdfunder. Thanks to the generosity of hundreds of donors, we’ve already raised almost £10,000, for which we are enormously grateful.

    But we still need to raise another £15,000 so that we can continue providing these services, as well as adding new features that will improve the site and make Parliament easier for everyone to follow.

    Please donate now.

    TheyWorkForYou crowdfunder

    Image: ©UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor/ Stephen Pike (CC by-nc/2.0)

  3. Can you help TheyWorkForYou survive… and thrive?

    TheyWorkForYou is currently operating without dedicated funding, and that’s a problem. In order to keep it running for the next twelve months, we’re going to need your help.

    That’s why we’ve set up mySociety’s first ever crowdfunder. If you enjoy — or perhaps even rely on — TheyWorkForYou’s services, then please be a hero and pledge to help ensure the site can continue to provide them.

    Donate now

    Why donate?

    TheyWorkForYou has a simple aim: to make it easier for everyone to understand what happens in Parliament – from a searchable, shareable record of exactly what was said in debates, to how your MP voted. We think that it’s important in a democracy that you should be able to see who your MP is, check what they are saying and how they are voting on your behalf.

    Now more than ever, the UK needs clarity over what’s said and done in Parliament. As political activity becomes more complex, and has more effect on all of our lives, TheyWorkForYou’s remit becomes all the more critical.

    However, just keeping the site going on a daily basis takes a substantial amount of staff time and expertise, not to mention the costs involved in hosting a heavily-visited website. Taking all that into consideration, it takes a good sum of money just to keep standing still. We’ve worked hard to find the support we need through our usual funding channels, but so far without success.

    Then, if we want to do more than just keep TheyWorkForYou in its current state — and we’ve got a long list of much-needed features we’d love to add, many of them suggested by you, our users — we need to reach the full target of £25,000.

    How you can help

    So if you’re in a position to do so, please put on your democracy superhero cape and donate to help keep TheyWorkForYou running.

    And if you’re not, then you can still help by sharing the link to the crowdfunder far and wide. We really appreciate it.

    Donate now

  4. Ensuring WhatDoTheyKnow is around for the next half a million requests

    If you appreciate our Freedom of Information site WhatDoTheyKnow, then you’d probably like to know that it’ll be around for the foreseeable future.

    That will only be a certainty if we can secure new volunteers across a broad range of areas; or new sources of funding for the site — or ideally, both! WhatDoTheyKnow is a free service, run on a charitable basis by a currently very thinly-stretched team of volunteers.

    We’ve identified four areas in which we need help:

    • Funding
    • Legal support
    • Admin support
    • Additional volunteers

    In this post we’ll be looking at the first of those; and in our next post we’ll talk more about various volunteer roles and ways of helping the site to operate. If you think you might be able to assist in any of these categories, please do read on.

    Some background

    WhatDoTheyKnow.com is a Freedom of Information service used by millions of people each year, from journalists and campaigners to ordinary people trying to navigate bureaucracy.

    We recently celebrated the 500,000th request made via WhatDoTheyKnow, and also the site’s tenth anniversary. Each month, it’s visited by over half a million people and over 2,500 requests are made via the site. It’s a success story — an example of civic tech that runs at scale, has lasted, and has had an impact to match.

    One of the ways that mySociety has always tried to make change in the world is by building things on the web that show how the world could be better. In the case of WhatDoTheyKnow, we asked ‘What would it be like if everyone felt able to ask questions of those with power, and get answers?’.

    Our position as a small digital charity allows us to be bold in the things we build, to act as critical friends to institutions of power, and to design for the citizen. In practical terms, it also allows us to ask forgiveness, not permission — without that freedom, many of our sites and ideas would never have seen the light of day. That we have had success with WhatDoTheyKnow is wonderful, but leads us to ask a new question: how can we, again as a small digital charity, ensure its future?

    It’s always been a necessary engineering principle for us as software developers, trying to build sites that have impact, to require as little ongoing intervention as possible. However, technology isn’t and shouldn’t be everything — a site that runs on the scale of WhatDoTheyKnow can’t run without different kinds of support. In running WhatDoTheyKnow, we’ve learned that digital institutions, like other institutions, are shaped by people. The people who originally designed them, for certain, but also those who pick up the torch, who continue to make the day-to-day decisions that keep the institution relevant, humane, responsive and responsible. It’s this support that distinguishes brilliant technical ideas that flame out from those that grow and become so embedded in our culture that they start to fundamentally change the way the world works.

    A vital part of that support for WhatDoTheyKnow comes from a handful of volunteers who run the service day to day. These volunteers handle everything from simple user support to advising on complex points of law and policy.

    Now the success of the site means that they need help on the front line. We’re always on the lookout for new volunteers — but there are also other things we need to ensure that WhatDoTheyKnow is around for the next ten years and another half a million requests.

    We need funding for admin

    It’s becoming increasingly urgent that we recruit a part-time assistant, responding to our users’ queries via email. This person would help our amazing team of volunteers support people in all walks of life as they go through the process of requesting information from public authorities.

    They’d help to deal with the diverse day to day user enquiries, make sure we meet important deadlines in handling time-sensitive issues like GDPR-based requests, and share feedback to improve our user and volunteer experience over time. The cost of a paid part-time support role would be at least £15k per year.

    We don’t currently have any funding for this increasingly essential role, nor indeed any direct funding for WhatDoTheyKnow itself.

    We need funding for development

    Although WhatDoTheyKnow hasn’t changed fundamentally over the years, there are always ways in which we could improve it — a recent example is our work to start developing features for journalists and other professional users.

    The site does also require a certain amount of ongoing development work in order to keep it running at the scale it does. That includes making sure it gets the latest security updates, and dealing with new problems that arise as it grows, such as the fact that the more popular it becomes, the more rewarding a target it becomes for spammers.

    Work to maintain Alaveteli, the code that runs WhatDoTheyKnow, also supports the community of Freedom of Information campaigners, journalists and citizens around the world that use Alaveteli-based services to exercise their right to know in 26 countries.

    We don’t currently have any financial support for developers to support and maintain WhatDoTheyKnow and it’s important we find at least project funding of £30,000 to £40,000 a year, if not general unrestricted financial support from new funders.

    Funding to date

    We should acknowledge the funding which has allowed us to run thus far, and for which we are of course very grateful. A grant from the Joseph Rowntree Trust originally got WhatDoTheyKnow off the ground; Google’s Digital News Initiative supported the development of Alaveteli Professional, and unrestricted support from a number of funders ensured that mySociety has been able to continue paying their developers to work on the project. It’s perhaps worth noting that this support has, to date, always sustained development rather than administration.

    We do have a revenue stream through WhatDoTheyKnow Pro, our FOI service for professionals such as journalists, but as yet this is very modest. As the service develops, we hope that this may one day become part of the framework that helps sustain WhatDoTheyKnow, but we’re some way from that at this point in time.

    Sourcing funding

    Can you help identify a fund or donor who might be willing to cover the costs we’ve identified above for the next year or two? Please get in touch.

    Or perhaps we can be more imaginative. One model we’ve seen used to good effect by other sites run on our FOI platform Alaveteli has inspired us to conceive of a similar (but not identical) set-up for WhatDoTheyKnow. This would involve sponsorship from one or more reputable media organisations who could make use of WhatDoTheyKnow for their own journalistic investigations, while also gaining the benefit of recognition across the site.

    Of course, that’s just one idea — there must be many other possible models for supporting the site and we’d love to hear any ideas you have in the comments below.

    Now you might like to read our second post, in which we’ll be talking about ways you might be able to help with time, rather than money.


    You can help out, with a donation large or small — every little helps.
    Donate now

    Image: CC0 Public Domain

  5. A timely new grant from the Hewlett Foundation

    mySociety is funded in a variety of ways: our work is supported by the commercial services that we offer to councils and other organisations; by donations from individuals; and currently, in largest part, by grants from an array of philanthropic funders.

    We were delighted to receive news recently that the William & Flora Hewlett Foundation will continue to support us — and not only to support our research activities, as they have generously done for the last two years, but with a new grant of $1.2m over three-years that will help fund our core operational costs.

    This is enormously welcome, and a timely acknowledgement of our efforts to build the evidence base around civic tech, not least as we continue to keep all the various mySociety plates spinning across our work in our three practice areas: Democracy, Freedom of Information and Better Cities.

    On the eve of our third The Impacts of Civic Technology Conference (TICTeC) in Florence, it’s great to know that this generous sum will ensure that we can continue to support our research team, as we explore the role that such activities have in the creation of flourishing communities and how best we can extend the benefits of these approaches to more disadvantaged individuals and marginalised groups.

    But we are well aware that we’ll also need to seek additional funding from elsewhere. Significantly, over the past five years our grant from the Omidyar Network has been a game-changer for mySociety: it has allowed us to expand our team, work with more partners around the world to help them run citizen-empowering sites, and launch our own new projects such as Every Politician and Alaveteli Pro.

    Our Omidyar grant comes to an end early next year, and so despite the support of funders such as Hewlett it is essential that find new and additional sources of funding in order to continue our work at scale.

    As we seek to find a sustainable business model for Civic Tech we will keep developing appropriate commercial models within each of our practice areas – the recent changes to our Better Cities team have meant that we’re in a good position to increase the proportion of our income that comes from our commercial services.

    However even if we are successful in securing new commercial revenues, we’ll still face a funding gap, compounded by the delicate tightrope we’re forced to walk as we balance our commercial and charitable responsibilities.

    And so, the next few months will be a period of exploration, for me and the team, as we investigate the best way to meet our objectives to hold power to account, more important than ever in such volatile and unpredictable times.

    If you represent a funding organisation active in this space and are looking to better understand the role that digital has to play in supporting and enriching the lives of those in disadvantaged communities, do expect to hear from us – or rather than wait, please get in touch for a chat.

    Image: Bart Busschots (cc)

  6. Tweet if you’d like to bring Alaveteli Professional to Kenya

    We’d love to bring our Alaveteli Professional project to Kenyan journalism.

    So with Article 19 East Africa, we’ve applied to innovateAFRICA, which is seeking disruptive digital ideas to improve the way that news is collected and disseminated.

    As of this year, Kenyan citizens are enjoying a new right to know, thanks to their Freedom Of Information Act, pending since 2007 and finally passed this year.

    Alaveteli Professional will provide Kenyan journalists with a toolset and training to help them make full use of FOI legislation, so they can raise, manage and interpret requests more easily, in order to generate high-impact public interest stories.

    But the project will also bring benefits to all Kenyans. By helping journalists and citizen reporters to make full use of the Act, it will ultimately make it easier for everyone to hold power to account.

    How you can help

    Now here’s the bit you need to know about: please tweet using the hashtag #innovateAFRICA explaining why you think Alaveteli Professional in Kenya is an important digital solution.

    This will demonstrate that you agree that Alaveteli Professional is worthy of innovateAFRICA’s support — every tweet helps to give our application more traction.

    Tweets from everyone are welcome, but yours will have extra leverage if you’re a mySociety partner, a Kenyan journalist or activist who would use the project, a funder or a digital innovator yourself.

    Please use your 140 characters to help us bring better FOI capabilities to Kenya! And don’t forget that hashtag: #innovateAFRICA.

    Thank you.

     

    Image: Innovate Africa

     

  7. Heads up, nonprofits: Google Ad Grants is allowing multiple domains again

    This is a public service announcement for any organisations that have been making use of Google Ad Grants to run Adwords for free.

    We’re the grateful recipient of a Google Ad Grant ourselves, which is why you might see our ads appearing on some Google searches. We find that Google Ads are a great channel to bring our sites to the attention of people who might not already know about them, but who are searching for phrases like “Who is my MP?”, “How did my MP vote?”, or “How can I report a pothole?”. Every year they bring us thousands of new visitors.

    The single-domain rule

    A couple of years ago, the rules around Google Ad Grants changed, stipulating that recipients must only link to a single domain, and that that should be the domain of the grantee organisation. For us, with our multiple sites, that meant making some changes. Our ads currently point at a series of landing pages here on the mySociety.org site, each of which acts as a springboard to one of our other domains.

    This is permitted behaviour and in many cases it resulted in a pretty good user experience, allowing us to focus on exactly what the user was searching for, and deliver them there.

    For example, if someone searches for ‘report a pothole’ and clicks on our ad, they’ll land on this page.

    Inputting their postcode takes them directly to the second page of FixMyStreet, with no extra clicks than if they had gone through the homepage, plus there’s the opportunity for us to talk a bit about what the site does and why it exists at all.

    Linking to additional domains

    However, we recently discovered that Google Ad Grants’ rules have been relaxed a little (at least, they have here in the UK. As terms and conditions vary from territory to territory, you should check your own region’s Google Ad Grants terms and conditions). Here’s what they look like in the UK:

    In certain cases, you may be able to promote multiple domains in a Google Ad Grants account after your original Grants application has been approved.

    To request adding new domains to your account, fill out the Additional Website Domain Request form. Your request should be reviewed within 5 business days.

    Reasons you can request an exception

    You can request an exception to the website policy if you have other websites that:

    • Promote ongoing projects with similar content owned by your organization
    • Contain the same information as your main domain but for a different language
    • Replace your original website because you’ve changed your domain since applying for Ad Grants

    We applied and within just a couple of hours, we were authorised to link directly to our own websites.

    This is brilliant for us because it means we can really maximise the value we get from the grant. We can now point searchers directly to deep content such as MPs’ voting records on TheyWorkForYou, and specific public authorities on WhatDoTheyKnow. We’ll probably also keep our landing pages, at least for the time being, because we think they are a good user path for the relevant search terms.

    So, if this is a ruling that was causing you headaches, it is worth revisiting the terms and conditions and seeing whether you are now eligible to do the same. Let us know how you get on!

     

    Image: Martin Deutsch (cc)

  8. A ‘yay for Poplus’ moment: one bid, six countries

    Image by Dave WhitelandThe Knight Foundation’s News Challenge offers funding to innovative projects. We wonder whether they’ve ever had a bid whose collaborators span six different countries before.

    Well, now they have: the plan to extend YourNextMP to work in Guatemala, Chile, Argentina, Peru, Scotland, and Minnesota is a great example of the Poplus federation in action.

    You can read more about the plans on the bid page—and please click the little pink heart to give us ‘applause’!

     

    The bid

    In short, we want to build on the success that the YourNextMP crowdsourcing platform has had here in the UK.

    Right now, YourNextMP offers open data on every candidate for the UK general election. That data is being used by major media companies and internet giants, and underlies several innovative online tools. On top of that, it’s getting thousands of visits every day from people who simply want more information about who’s standing in their area.

    With some modification, other countries could use the same tech in advance of their own elections, giving their citizens the same opportunities to become more informed about those standing, and to develop still more useful online tools.

    This is a ‘Yay for Poplus’ moment

    Because Poplus is an international federation of organisations with similar needs, we can come together to forge plans that will benefit all of us, and then work together to make them a reality.

    Our plans wouldn’t just benefit those six countries, either. Like every bit of Poplus tech, it’d be available as open source software for anyone to use, anywhere in the world. And that’s what Poplus is all about: maximum impact from every bit of code.

    So now..

    Join the Poplus mailing list to find out more about Poplus activities

    Give some applause to our Knight Foundation News Challenge bid

  9. Goodbye to some old friends

    That's All Folks by William MurphyWe recently shared news of some substantial funding from Omidyar Network, and the goals which that funding will help us to achieve.

    Those goals are quite ambitious, and we’re going to have to focus hard on a number of core projects to meet them. Consequently, we’ve made the hard decision to let go of a few of our other sites; sites which need time and attention, but which won’t help us towards meeting those key aims.

    A bit of background

    mySociety has built loads of websites during its time: it’s the way we’ve historically worked. When we started up, we just wanted to make cool civic sites that would do useful things; if we could get the funding, and someone was willing to build them, we’d go for it.

    All of the projects we launched were based on pretty sound ideas; all of them strove to empower people and open up democracy in one way or another.

    But, as we’ve become a more mature organisation, with responsibilities towards our partners and funders, that scattergun approach doesn’t fly any more. Running a website, no matter how small and self-sufficient it is, requires some investment, in terms of maintenance, user support, and updating, and sadly, right now we can’t maintain everything to a level that keeps it useful and functional for users.

    The keepers

    Over a decade since mySociety first started, some of those early sites have proved their worth. They’ve grown and matured with us. Here in the UK, our Freedom of Information site WhatDoTheyKnow has over 400,000 visitors a month, and sites like TheyWorkForYou, FixMyStreet and WriteToThem have become UK institutions in their own right.

    Alaveteli, the software which underpins WhatDoTheyKnow, has been adopted in 21 countries; the FixMyStreet Platform is being used in 11, with both set to increase as we concentrate on reaching out to international partners over the next few years.

    Additionally, we’ll be continuing to strengthen our international work with the Poplus federation, developing and supporting the use of Poplus Components and the Pombola platform.

    These projects are core to our Omidyar Network funding and the results we’ve promised to deliver from it.

    Goodbye to these

    Along the way, though, there have been some projects which, for one reason or another, have not gained quite as much traction.

    You might say they were before their time: Pledgebank, for example, predates Groupon, Kickstarter and similar pledging concepts.

    In some cases, the world moved on: most MPs now have their own channels for contacting constituents online, so HearFromYourMP isn’t quite as vital.

    In others, we simply don’t have the necessary resources that the project needs: FixMyTransport is a good example of that.

    It’s been a difficult decision, but if we are to focus on our targets for the coming years, we can no longer afford to dedicate ourselves to these sites. To that end, we’ll shortly be retiring:

    Pledgebank

    In February, Pledgebank will stop accepting new pledges, although users will still be able to sign up for existing ones until the end of June. We’ll be emailing all owners of pledges to let them know that the site will close at that time.

    FixMyTransport

    From the 1st of March, you’ll no longer be able to create a report on FixMyTransport. If you are running an active campaign or problem report, we’ll email to let you know of the site’s closure, which is planned for the end of June.

    HearFromYourMP

    MPs can continue to use HearFromYourMP to send newsletters to their constituents, but we’ll be letting them know that the service will be retired before the General Election.

    ScenicOrNot

    In February, ScenicOrNot will be mothballed so that users can no longer rate photographs. We’ll be keeping the leaderboard intact and developers will still be able to use the site’s data.

    The future?

    It’s not without regret that we’ll be saying goodbye to these sites – each and every one of them is based on a sound idea that fell well within mySociety’s remit to provide civic and democratic digital tools.

    Like most mySociety sites, the code of all of the above is Open Source and you are welcome to pick it up and adapt it to your needs. We’d be delighted if there was interest, from other individuals or groups, in running something similar, based on our code.

    Image credit: William Murphy (CC)

  10. Omidyar Network backs mySociety

    Image by Hit Thatswitch

    Much of mySociety’s work is only possible thanks to generous funding from a number of philanthropic foundations.

    Today, we are delighted to announce that we have been awarded a major strategic investment from Omidyar Network totalling up to $3.6m over three years.

    This is the third time we’ve been supported by Omidyar Network, and this represents the biggest investment we’ve ever had. Alongside organisations like the Open Society Foundation, Google.org and the Indigo Trust, Omidyar has been central in our transformation from a tiny UK-focused non-profit, to a global social enterprise of nearly 30 staff.

    Being supported by Omidyar Network means more than just vital financial support. It means access to their amazing networks of other investees, and advice and guidance from a range of sources. And, also crucial for an organisation that seeks technical excellence, it means the stamp of support from an organisation that ultimately traces its DNA back to the giant internet successes that are eBay and Paypal.

    What is the money for?

    mySociety’s main ambition, over the next three years, is to help a couple of dozen other organisations, spread around the world, to grow popular citizen empowerment tools that are big enough to really matter to the citizens of a wide range of countries. This means building and growing tools that help people to check up on politicians, demand information and answers, or report and track problems, in hugely varying contexts.

    In addition to this, we will continue to maintain and grow the network of users of our technology and support the growing Poplus federation.

    It’s a tough goal, and one that will require even more from the organisations we partner with, than from our own colleagues. But the very fact that we can even try to help groups at this scale, is because Omidyar Network enables us to imagine it.

     

    Image: Hit ThatSwitch (CC)