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.
Today I’m very happy to be able to tell our community that mySociety is to be the recipient of $575,000 of grants from the US based Omidyar Network.
The grants cover two areas:
- Building organizational capacity
- The provision of expertise to develop open source websites for transparency-focused organizations in Africa
We’re really delighted because these grants help us do two things we really need to – share our knowledge and skills more widely, and improve our ability to run ourselves as a mature organization, better able than before to look after our legal and financial affairs on the one hand, and our community and users on the other.
Omidyar Network is a philanthropic investment firm dedicated to harnessing the power of markets to create opportunity for people to improve their lives. Established in 2004 by eBay founder Pierre Omidyar and his wife Pam, the organization invests in and helps scale innovative organizations to catalyze economic and social change. To date, Omidyar Network has committed more than $330 million to for-profit companies and nonprofit organizations that foster economic advancement and encourage individual participation across multiple investment areas, including microfinance, property rights, government.
Omidyar Network also funds some projects by friends of mySociety, such as Ushahidi and Global Voices. A fine day, all in all.
I must admit that I’m pretty happy to announce mySociety’s plans to build our first major new non-comercial website since WhatDoTheyKnow.com launched in 2008. Late in 2010 we plan to launch FixMyTransport , a site focussed on connecting and empowering people who share transport problems of different kinds. The fantabulous Louise Crow will be lead developer.
Crucially, we at mySociety are under no illusions that it is an order of magnitude more difficult to get a new ticket machine in your station than it is to get your local council to fill a pothole (FixMyStreet surveys report 2371 problems fixed in the last month alone). The difficulty of achieving even minor changes to transport services and infrastructure is why we are simultaneously announcing our plan to build FixMyTransport on top of a major new back end system called Project Fosbury.
Project Fosbury is about helping people get over difficult obstacles. It is a modular platform for breaking down a complicated civic task into pieces which can then be allocated to one or more people. So someone asking their council to change the timing on some traffic lights might be allocated the tasks of:
- Writing to their councillors
- Obtaining local policy on traffic light timings from the council
- Getting people to join a mini-campaign group
- Videoing the problem
- Sending a letter to a local newspaper
Each task will ultimately be carried out entirely within a joined up infrastructure, each module being built to mySociety’s habitually stringent rule that “it must be easy and satisfying to someone who’s never engaged politically before”. We will work to create incentive structures, peer pressure, and hopefully a sense of fun. There will be a single public home page for each mini campaign, showing recent activities on the site, as well as integrating with external social media. We hope to repeat the FixMyStreet phenomena where some ‘insoluble’ problems suddenly become soluble once they’re in the public domain.
Now for the credit where it is due. mySociety’s sysadmin Keith Garrett suggested FixMyTransport back in January 2008.
The actual mechanics of breaking the problem into pieces (the idea that became Project Fosbury) came from a wide discussion at our retreat, with excellent suggestions coming particularly from Richard Pope. But the more general idea that the Internet hasn’t yet produced a really good system for bringing people together to solve everyday problems (as opposed to chat, or win the US presidency) came from numerous Call for Proposals submissions, including ones from Mark W, Rob Shorrock, Peter Silverman, Mahmood Choudhury and more.
mySociety will be building this site using money donated by people like you, profits from commercial projects, and any specific funding we can raise around it. If you know of anyone or any organisation that you think might like to support FixMyTransport or Project Fosbury, please do get in touch.
If you’ve met me recently and I seem distracted, it’s because I’ve been trying to pin down a vision that’s been slowly forming in my mind, a vision of something mySociety isn’t currently trying to do, but something that it should try. It’s often tricky to see the big picture through the fog of spreadsheets, email and largely fruitless government meetings that make up my life, but for some reason today the vision seems to have come together.
Let me start with one of my favourite quotes, from the well known cyber-pundit David Lloyd-George:
“Don’t be afraid to take a big step if one is indicated. You can’t cross a chasm in two small jumps”
mySociety has always tried to act as a pioneer in the democratic internet field, and has watched like a proud parent as children (like TheyWorkForYou in NZ) and cousins grow up around the world. The time has come for us to continue our tradition of direction-setting by shouting the following as loud as we can: the next step forward for our field is to commence building systems that hold people’s hands as they try to solve problems too hard for tools like WriteToThem or FixMyStreet to be of much help. And this next step forward in our field cannot be achieved in two small steps.
One of our key insights has started to become a hindrance. We love sites like FixMyStreet partly because they show how wonderful success can be achieved at implausibly low cost: about £6000 in the case of that site. They take maintenance, sure, many tens of thousands of pounds a year once you have a number of such sites, but they are essentially elegant, scaleable small pieces of the web ecosystem. We love them partly because they are so small and simple, and that affection can lead to a dangerous narrative that only small and zero-cost scalable can ever be seriously considered.
And there’s the rub. The systems required to hold people’s hands through the process of lobbying for more serious changes at a local or national level will have to be semi, rather than fully automatic, and therefore by definition more expensive to build and run. We need to cross-breed the scaleability, attractiveness and usability of services like WriteToThem with some of the community knowledge generation of Wikipedia, Netmums or Money Saving Expert. And we need to do it whilst never letting go of the hand of the person who’s come to us for help, never leaving them to flounder round a forum looking for help even though they can barely use a mouse.
Don’t get me wrong here, I’m not talking about us branching out into training courses, or the construction of massive Microsoft Windows style monoliths-of-coding-pain: if we can’t make this stuff modular and cheaply scaling they won’t be mySociety projects. What I mean is that we can build systems where each person who is helped to solve a problem leaves a trail of advice, contacts, insider information and new user-friendly web services behind them, ready to lower the costs of helping the next person witha similar problem. Look at how users of WhatDoTheyKnow enrich the service, and the state of common knowledge about our government, just by serving their own interests. We need to generalise that design philosophy, and target it more at the problems our users reveal that they have with government.
But this is, by mySociety’s standards, big money stuff. We’d need to hire some more world class coders, an expert or two in getting things changed in public institutions, some marketing and legal help, and (most important) enough spare cash to afford to go down various unsuccessful avenues without the mistakes killing us.
The vision of hand-holding systems as the next phase of civic coding, is now very clear in my mind, as are some of the specs of the tools we’d build. This is hard stuff: harder and less certain even than building TheyWorkForYou, and it needs to be funded allowing for a level of uncertainty and radical-direction changes. But the rewards could be massive, akin to totally reinventing the Citizens Advice Bureau, and I don’t think our field will remain vibrant if we don’t give it a go.
If you want to know how I think mySociety could change the world, this is your answer. I don’t want a million quid because I want some sort of open source empire: I want a million quid because we can’t cross this chasm with any less.
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.