We 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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Not many people realise that we fund a proportion of our charitable work by carrying our commercial development and consultancy work for a wide range of clients.
Last year, we scoped, developed and delivered a real variety of digital tools and projects. Some of the projects were surprising. Some of them made us gnash our teeth, a bit, as we grappled with new problems. But all of them (and call us geeks if you like) got us very excited.
Here are just twelve of our personal high points from last year. If you have a project that you think we might be able to help you with in 2015, we’d love to hear from you!
1. We Changed the Way in Which Parliament Does Digital
This time last year, a small team from mySociety was poring over analytics, interview content and assorted evidence from Parliament projects dating back last 2-3 years, to help us put together a simple set of recommendations to conclude our review.
11 months later, Parliament have announced their first Head of Digital, fulfilling one of our key recommendations.
2. We helped the MAS and the FCA protect financial consumers
We built the Money Advice Service’s (MAS) first responsive web application, the Car Cost Calculator.
This tool takes one simple thing you know (the car you wish to buy) and tells you roughly how much it’ll cost to run that car against any others you might be interested in. It has been one of MAS’ most successful online tools in terms of traffic and conversion.
We also built the Financial Conduct Authority’s Scam Smart tool, aiming to prevent financial scams.
This tool helps users considering a financial investment to check a potential investment. Users enter information about the type of investment, how they heard about it and the details of the company offering it to them and get back tailored guidance and suggested next steps to help them ensure the investment is bona fide.
3. We Gave Power to the People of Panama (soon)
Working with the The National Authority for Transparency & Access to Information (ANTAI) and the Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO), we set up our first government-backed instance of our Freedom of Information platform, Alaveteli, in Panama.
This project will ensure that Panama’s FOI legislation is promoted and used, but it will also shine a light on ANTAI, who are responsible for ensuring ministries and organisations publish their information, and handling case appeals.
4. We Mapped All the Public Services in Wales
After we extended the Mapumental API to produce data output suitable for GIS (geographical information systems), the Welsh Government were able to map public services in Wales for their Index of Multiple Deprivation calculations.
Over the course of the year they have calculated travel times for over seventy thousand points of interest.
5. We Launched a New Organisation in Four Weeks
Simply Secure approached us in dire need of a brand, an identity and a website to accompany the launch of their new organisation to help the world build user-friendly security tools and technologies.
Cue four weeks of very intense work for mySociety’s designer, supported by members of the commercial team. And we did it.
6. We Printed Stuff BIG (and found people jobs)
Xerox will be using these with the DWP to help job seekers find work that is within reach by public transport. As a byproduct, Mapumental now handles high-fidelity print based outputs: get in touch if that is of interest.
7. We Opened Up Planning Applications
With Hampshire County Council we had the opportunity to build a new application to help assist members of the public and business better understand what was happening around them. For us, it was also the first application in which we worked closely with a provider of a linked data store, in this case Swirrl.
When Open Planning goes live, it will look to help improve social engagement and the economy of Hampshire through better understanding and transparency of planning data.
8. We Proved (Again) That FixMyStreet Isn’t All About Potholes
We launched Collideoscope on October the 7th with our first sponsor—Barts Charity, with the aim of generating data both on incidents involving cycles, and near misses.
9. We Helped Launch a Film
We built a tool for the British Museum, to go alongside the general release of Vikings Live. The Norse Names project brought a sense of context and personalisation to a dataset gathered by the University of Nottingham.
10. We Made Data More Exciting
This year, they asked us to build something similar for bus users. We’re entering the final week of development now, and the finished product should be launched in March.
The main aim of this site? To take data that could be considered pretty dry, and make it a lot more engaging.
11. We Fixed Yet More Potholes
That means that residents of those places can now make their reports direct from their council’s website, or via FixMyStreet, and either way they’ll have all the benefits of FixMyStreet’s smooth report-making interface.
12. We Showed Parliament the Way
And so, we end where we began. While Parliament were busy interviewing candidates for their new ‘Head of Digital’ position, we were commissioned to demonstrate what Hansard might look like were a platform like SayIt used instead of the largely print-based publishing mechanisms used today.
The result was shared internally. While SayIt may not be the end solution for Parliament, it’s great to have had some input into what that solution might be.
And in 2015…?
Got a project that you’d like us to be involved in?
Poplus Components are interdependent, Open Source pieces of code for civic and democratic websites. Find out more on the Poplus website.
Do you have an idea for a new Poplus Component? Or would you like to add features to an existing one?
We’re currently inviting groups and individuals to apply for grants. You may apply for up to USD $5,000 to help you with development work on creating or improving a Poplus Component.
- Priority will be given to proposals for the development of new Poplus Components, or new features for existing Components.
- We will also consider grants for those planning to implement existing Poplus Components into wider projects.
How to apply
Please complete this form before 10th September 2014.
We hope to inform successful applicants by 17th September. If you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to get in touch.
Help us fund more projects
This funding will be the final expenditure from the original Poplus start-up grant.
If you represent a funding organisation, and might be interested in helping support the growth of Poplus through funding micro-grants, please do let us know! Poplus Components represent great ‘bang for your buck’, since they are re-usable across the entire eDemocracy worldwide community.
We’re starting the year with some really wonderful news: Google.org is granting us a fantastic $1.6m, to be spent over two years.
Clearly, this is a significant sum of money, which will really turbo-charge our efforts to build technologies to help groups like mySociety in countries around the world.
We will be using the money to provide developers with open source technologies to help them to more easily and quickly launch new civic apps and services. We will also be working with lots of other groups to promote greater knowledge and technology sharing amongst civil society groups of all kinds, especially in the accountability sector.
What’s the problem being tackled?
Currently, it can take a great deal of work to launch even relatively simple sites or apps with civic purposes, because the sector is not rich with mature, sector-specific tools and technologies. This high barrier to getting started has a bad effect on the range and strength of popular, impactful civic sites and apps online, globally.
Working with international partners we plan to develop some common, open source components that will reduce the effort required to launch new services in a broad range of areas: including accountability, legal, environmental, political, and more.
mySociety will work with local partners in various targeted regions to help those partners make the greatest possible benefit from using these new, common, collaboratively-developed open source components. And we’ll be working to help them contribute back, both in terms of shared code and shared knowledge.
The project will also develop new approaches to bringing together the global civic-technology community, so that it can collaborate more easily on new projects.
We’re really excited to see where this project will take us next – and we are very grateful to Google.org for the increased opportunities their funding brings us.
Photo by KayVee INC (CC)
Since its launch in 2005, WriteToThem has always covered all parts of the United Kingdom, and the Northern Ireland Assembly was the first body added to TheyWorkForYou after the UK Parliament, in late 2006. So whilst we certainly have not ignored Northern Ireland, it had always been an irritant of mine (and a cause of infrequent emails) that FixMyStreet only covered Great Britain.
This was due to the way it had originally been funded and set up, but those issues were in the past, due to a myriad of changes both internal and external, and it was now more a case of being able to find the resources to implement the necessary work. Late last year, mySociety worked with Channel 4 on the website for their series of programmes on The Great British Property Scandal. This used, in part, code similar to FixMyStreet to let people report empty homes, and it was required to work in all parts of the UK. So as part of that process, code was written or generalised that let aspects of FixMyStreet like the maps and place name lookup work for Northern Ireland locations.
It’s taken a few months since then to allocate the time, but we’ve now been able to take the code written back then, add various other bits, and incorporate it into FixMyStreet – which now covers the 26 councils of Northern Ireland, and the central Roads Service. Issues such as potholes, graffiti, and broken street lighting can be reported to Antrim or Newry and Mourne as easily as Aberdeen or Wyre Forest, and just as in the rest of the UK you can sign up for alerts based around your location or to your council.
All of us at mySociety love the fact that there are so many interesting new civic and democratic websites and apps springing up across the whole world. And we’re really keen to do what we can to help lower the barriers for people trying to build successful sites, to help citizens everywhere.
Today mySociety is unveiling MapIt Global, a new Component designed to eliminate one common, time-consuming task that civic software hackers everwhere have to struggle with: the task of identifying which political or administrative areas cover which parts of the planet.
As a general user this sort of thing might seem a bit obscure, but you’ve probably indirectly used such a service many times. So, for example, if you use our WriteToThem.com to write to a politician, you type in your postcode and the site will tell you who your politicians are. But this website can only do this because it knows that your postcode is located inside a particular council, or constituency or region.
Today, with the launch of MapIt Global , we are opening up a boundaries lookup service that works across the whole world. So now you can lookup a random point in Russia or Haiti or South Africa and find out about the administrative boundaries that surround it. And you can browse and inspect the shapes of administrative areas large and small, and perform sophisticated lookups like “Which areas does this one border with?”. And all this data is available both through an easy to use API, and a nice user interface.
We hope that MapIt Global will be used by coders and citizens worldwide to help them in ways we can’t even imagine yet. Our own immediate use case is to use it to make installations of the FixMyStreet Platform much easier.
We’re able to offer this service only because of the fantastic data made available by the amazing OpenStreetMap volunteer community, who are constantly labouring to make an ever-improving map of the whole world. You guys are amazing, and I hope that you find MapIt Global to be useful to your own projects.
The developers who made it possible were Mark Longair, Matthew Somerville and designer Jedidiah Broadbent. And, of course, we’re also only able to do this because the Omidyar Network is supporting our efforts to help people around the world.
From Britain to the World
For the last few years we’ve been running a British version of the MapIt service to allow people running other websites and apps to work out what council or constituency covers a particular point – it’s been very well used. We’ve given this a lick of paint and it is being relaunched today, too.
MapIt Global is also the first of The Components, a series of interoperable data stores that mySociety will be building with friends across the globe. Ultimately our goal is to radically reduce the effort required to launch democracy, transparency and government-facing sites and apps everywhere.
If you’d like to install and run the open source software that powers MapIt on your own servers, that’s cool too – you can find it on Github.
About the Data
The data that we are using is from the OpenStreetMap project, and has been collected by thousands of different people. It is licensed for free use under their open license. Coverage varies substantially, but for a great many countries the coverage is fantastic.
The brilliant thing about using OpenStreetMap data is that if you find that the boundary you need isn’t included, you can upload or draw it direct into Open Street Map, and it will subsequently be pulled into MapIt Global. We are planning to update our database about four times a year, but if you need boundaries adding faster, please talk to us.
If you’re interested in the technical aspects of how we built MapIt Global, see this blog post from Mark Longair.
Commercial Licenses and Local Copies
MapIt Global and UK are both based on open source software, which is available for free download. However, we charge a license fee for commercial usage of the API, and can also set up custom installs on virtual servers that you can own. Please drop us a line for any questions relating to commercial use.
Over the next three years, the Omidyar Network is granting mySociety an amazing $2.9m.
This unprecedented donation is tied to clear targets which, when translated relate to the following goals:
- Internationalising our current British websites, and helping people around the world to build sites and apps that will drive greater transparency and accountability.
- Growing an ever-stronger commercial team, to help cover our costs which remain unfunded (still substantial).
- Continuing to grow the impact of our UK sites.
If you’re someone who’s ever given us £5 or £10 to support our work, or who’s given your time volunteering on any of our projects, we have a special message for you: we would never have been able to get to the sort of scale of support that today’s grant represents if people like you didn’t believe in us all along. Thank you, and thank you for your continued support – our growing ambitions to make ever greater positive impacts on the world means we need more friends than ever, not fewer.
We’re Open for Business, Partnerships and Conversations
The overall impact of this grant, plus continued support from groups like the Open Society Foundation, Hivos, the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation, Indigo Trust – and many smaller donations – is a huge increase in our overall capacity. We can build more software, help more partners, work with more clients, give more advice.
On Wednesday this week, mySociety’s Tom and Paul were in Southampton, competing in the Geovation finals.
Geovation is an initiative coordinated by Ordnance Survey which gives out funding to projects that help “communities address their unmet needs through the application of geographic data, skills and expertise”. When we discovered that the theme this time was “How can we improve transport in Britain?” we knew we had to enter.
As many of you will know, mySociety has been working for some time on FixMyTransport, a project for reporting problems with public transport. Taking much of what we’ve learned from FixMyStreet, we are, in the trademark mySociety way, building a website that will make the process easy, whilst hiding all the complexities out of sight.
FixMyTransport is well under way, and we’re hoping to launch shortly. But with Geovation funding, we hoped to be able to roll out an accompanying mobile application.
This is incredibly important because, after all, the best time to make a transport report is immediately you experience the problem.
mySociety has, of course, always been into maps and geodata – we use them in what we hope are fun and innovative ways across many of our sites, including (obviously) Mapumental, and (less obviously) TheyWorkForYou and WriteToThem. We’re also rather fond of public transport.
We also really enjoyed meeting the other contestants, particularly Cyclestreets whose project looks like it will be one to watch.
At the end of the day, we were delighted to learn that we had been awarded £27,000 to develop a simple, intuitive, cross-platform mobile application for FixMyTransport. We can’t wait to get started. We really believe it’s going to be of real benefit to public transport users across the UK (and possibly further, given the open-source nature of all our work).
Are you a keen follower of political developments in Kenya or Nigeria? Are you also passionate about transparency, and interested in the possible role of digital technologies in enhancing it in these countries? If so, you might be just the person to run mySociety’s Africa Project.
mySociety is a project of registered charity UK Citizens Online Democracy, currently running award-winning civic and democratic websites within the UK, including TheyWorkForYou.com and FixMyStreet.com.
We have recently received funding from the Omidyar Network to mentor transparency organisations in Kenya and Nigeria about how mySociety assesses value in technology, and how it goes about delivering projects. We’re looking to recruit an Africa Project Lead who will be responsible for shaping and running the project.
The role will be for 12 months in the first instance, with possibility of extension. The salary is competitive, and reflects the skills and experience we are seeking. Reasonable travel expenses will be fully paid, however no relocation expenses are available.
mySociety has ten full time staff, and a wider community of energetic and creative volunteers, all but one currently based in the UK. We are a very techy organisation, made up of people who care passionately about using technology to make services that are not just popular, but which offer their users some sort of tangible, offline benefit.
Running the Africa Project successfully will involve using the expertise of mySociety to enable Kenyan and Nigerian transparency organisations to become more effective. Whilst doing this, the Africa Lead will also be scoping for future opportunities where Omidyar Network and mySociety would be able to make meaningful contributions to the transparency and accountability sector in Africa.
Whilst we have good, knowledgeable friends who have helped us scope this project, mySociety’s current staff and volunteers have only limited knowledge of Kenya and Nigeria, and of the technical or political circumstances within them. The Africa Project Lead will enable the rest of the organisation in learning what is needed to deliver projects that are of value.
Key Responsibilities and Deliverables
- Build relationships with two partner organisations in Kenya and Nigeria and, with them, deliver specific digital services (or measurable improvements to existing digital services) which are appropriate to their national settings, utilising expertise from the mySociety team.
- Develop an in-depth understanding of the role of transparency in a number of key African countries, which can be shared with the mySociety core team and the wider mySociety network.
- Demonstrate through presentations how mySociety has built successful services in the UK and develop relationships with organisations and individuals with which we or Omidyar Network may work in the future.
- Towards the end of the first year of the Africa Project, the Africa Project Lead will run an ideas generation process to identify further organisations worth partnering with, and specific projects worth building.
- Help our Internationalisation Developer to understand how to successfully deliver technological contributions in conjunction with our partners.
- At least 12 months prior knowledge of the role of transparency and accountability organisations in at least one African country, preferably working directly with such groups, in country.
- Strong mentoring skills
- At least 12 months working either professionally or voluntarily with developers of internet technologies.
- Graduate level spoken and written English
- A willingness to travel on a regular basis
- Prior experience of working independently with limited or no direct supervision, required because in this position your line management will be light touch and physically remote
- Prior familiarity with digital transparency projects
- A high level of technical literacy
- A preexisting social network in either the local web technology community, or the transparency and accountability community
We are looking for a candidate to be based in or near Nairobi’s iHub . However, this job will entail considerable travel, including several weeks a month working with one of our partners in Abuja. The successful candidate must be able to travel between Kenya and Nigeria without undue restriction.
How to apply
To apply please send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org with the tag msjob9 in the subject line. Your application must consist of a covering letter, a CV and a 250-300 word written piece on “The similarities and differences between classic transparency projects and digital transparency projects”.
Closing date for applications – 7pm on the 11th April 2011 and interviews will be taking place in Nairobi April 12th, 13th 14th and in the UK on April 16th, 17th.