1. A future for HassleMe

    Image by Heartlover1717HassleMe, mySociety’s nifty little reminders site, will continue to send ‘semi-unpredictable’ emails to subscribers – but under new ownership.

    Not gone yet

    Some canny commenters noticed that we’d tagged HassleMe in our post about closing down some of our sites, but then hadn’t actually included it in the list of projects that were due for closure.

    That came about because, although we’d initially added HassleMe to the list of sites headed for the dumpster, there was also some internal debate about saving it.

    A small cohort of mySociety staff members were so fond of the site that they wondered whether they might take on its running and maintenance in their own time.

    The good news is that the answer is ‘yes’, and thus HassleMe’s new owners are Hakim, Ian, Paul, and Zarino.

    If you have an active Hassle, you’ll have received an email to inform you of this change in ownership (and offer an opt-out, if you’d prefer).

    A bit of HassleMe history

    HassleMe began as a small piece of script, intended purely for internal mySociety use.

    Back in mySociety’s early years, there were only a few members of staff, almost all coders. They knew it was important to keep communicating with the public about what they were doing, but blogging often fell by the wayside in favour of other tasks.

    HassleMe was a coders’ solution: a programme that would periodically send an email to a random member of staff and tell them that it was their turn to blog.

    Crucially, the reminders were not equally spaced: they would come *about*, but not *exactly* as frequently as you’d set them to. This element of surprise seemed to make the reminders more effective.

    Clean the toilet, walk the dog, write a poem

    In time, HassleMe was turned into a public service, and people used it for all kinds of things.

    Perhaps it was the hassles set to the longest frequencies that were the most interesting. Hassles could be set to recur at frequencies up to ten years, and so people soon realised that they could send messages to a future self. Some of them were prescient:

    Are there men on Mars already? What are the plans?

    Check back in another ten years with that one, we’re almost there.

    Of course, we’re fond of all our projects, past and present, but we’re glad to be able to tell you that HassleMe has a future, under new ownership. If you’d like to set up your own little reminders, or send a letter to your future self, you can do so here.

     

    Image: Heartlover1717 (CC)

  2. The story of Pledgebank

    Pledgebank  homepageThese days, when you think of mySociety’s major projects, you’d be forgiven for passing over the vision in purple that is Pledgebank.

    And yet, it’s among mySociety’s longest-running sites, and one that we had big plans for. It was a truly international project, too, with users in many countries.

    It even, as we’ll see, spawned one of the UK’s major transparency organisations.

    But all good things come to an end, and as we announced in a recent post, we’ll shortly be closing Pledgebank down.

    Before we do, it seems a good moment to record some of its history.

    The Pledgebank concept

    In November 2004, we announced mySociety’s second official project:

    The purpose of  PledgeBank is to get people past a barrier which strikes down endless good plans before they can are carried out – the fear of acting alone. It allows anyone to say “I’ll do X if other people also do X”, for example “I’ll write to my councillor if 5 other people on my street do the same”.

    However, there is no scale to big or too small, it could equally be used to say “I’ll start recycling if 10,000 other people in Britain also start”.

    Pledgebank officially launched on 13 June 2005. We’d opened a trial version of the site to a few users first, with early pledges including anti-ID card campaigning, carbon offsetting, and community river cleaning. People were interested. It was off to a good start. As the Guardian reported, even Brian Eno was a user.

    By that September, mySociety Director Tom was describing Pledgebank as our most popular site yet, and as of January 2006, there had been more than 200 successful pledges. In July 2006 the site won the New Statesman New Media award.

    Finding a niche for Pledgebank

    So that was all going swimmingly, and as time passed, we started building on the basic Pledgebank model.

    There were location-specific Pledgebanks, like Pledgebank London which urged folk to do a good deed for their city. Both the then PM Tony Blair and Mayor of London Ken Livingstone helped launch it, pledging to become patrons of a sports club.

    And, like FixMyStreet, we sold Pledgebank as white-label software for councils, allowing them to organise, for example, community snow clearance, and Royal Wedding street parties.

    Did we miss something?

    Here at mySociety, we’re not all about making the big bucks. But that doesn’t stop us from occasionally wondering why we never evolved Pledgebank into a lucrative service like Kickstarter or Groupon, both of which are founded on the very same idea: that there’s potential power in a pledge.

    Whether you back a project on Kickstarter, or put in for a hot stone massage on Groupon, you’re basically undertaking to buy something. But while Pledgebank did allow fundraising pledges, it didn’t take a cut of the moneys raised.

    At one point we did look into using an escrow service, but we decided in the end that each pledge organiser could sort out collection of any payments. And thus, we never quite became Kickstarter. Oh well.

    Simple concepts have many possibilities

    Pledgebank might have been founded on a simple concept, but, like so many simple concepts, it turned out that there were endless features we could add to it.

    At launch, SMS text messages were an important part of the site, and one that we spent considerable time and effort on. It was 2005, remember, and as we often said in our blog posts at the time, many people either weren’t online or had no desire to be. We wanted the site to cater for them too.

    And almost immediately after launch we added another feature: the ability to subscribe, so you’d receive an email when someone set up a pledge that was near you, geographically. This was ideal for those pledges with a local aspect, such as saving an ancient tree, or getting together to clean up a community.

    Then there was the international aspect. Pledgebank was mySociety’s first in-house project to be translated.

    In true mySociety style, the translation was crowdsourced and ultimately overseen by our diligent volunteer Tim Morley. As I write, just prior to the site’s closure, it is available in 14 languages, from Simplified Chinese to Belarusian, and including Esperanto.

    And it was taken up, enthusiastically, in many countries. Even now, we still sometimes have to deploy Google Translate in order to reply to Pledgebank’s user support emails.

    A site to change the world

    Over its lifetime, Pledgebank has been the starting point for many people to make the world a better place, in ways both large and small.

    Before we say goodbye all together, let’s take a look at some of the surprising, sometimes amazing, things it helped bring about.

    The smaller pledges were sometimes just as interesting:

    …and many more. Over time, Pledgebank became an archive of inspirational, utopian, and sometimes plain eccentric pledges. It brought thousands of people together in common causes, and multiplied the power of a single person’s desire to do good.

    We’d love to hear how you used Pledgebank: let us know in the comments below.

     

  3. Mapping the Vikings’ influence on UK place names

    This post describes work for a museum exhibit which has now come to an end.
    If you would like to commission similar technologies, please visit the mySociety Services website.

    In the middle of the 9th Century, the territories of mainland Britain were in constant flux, with power shifting between the established Anglo-Saxon kingdoms and Viking settlers.

    Towards the end of the century, the battles and power shifts reached a kind of equilibrium, with Alfred King of Wessex and Guthrum the Danish warlord agreeing a treaty defining the boundaries of their kingdoms.

    One of these boundaries was demarcated by Watling Street, an ancient trackway that stretched from Shrewsbury in the west of England to the Thames estuary in the east.

    The boundaries of Britain are different today, but the vestiges of this ancient divide remain in the names of the places that surround us.

    To illustrate this, mySociety has been working with the British Museum, with data sourced from the University of Nottingham’s Institute for Name-Studies. We’ve created a simple interactive map as part of their Vikings Live event to show the Norse influence on around 2,000 place names in different parts of the United Kingdom and Ireland.

    A map of old Norse place names

    For each place, we’re showing its etymology, a breakdown of the different elements that make up its name and a link to the nearest cinema that will be showing the British Museum’s Vikings Live—a private view of the BP exhibition Vikings: life and legend in the company of world experts, presented live in your local cinema.

    The etymology of an old Norse place name

    So, for a completely different perspective of the place names near your home, head over to the British Museum’s site to explore the influence the Vikings had on the names where you live. And, next time you’re in a Thorpe, a Howe, a Kirkby, or even in Grunty Fen (our favourite place name), think of the Vikings who’ve left an indelible mark on the toponymy of the United Kingdom and Ireland.


    Image: Hans Splinter (CC)

  4. TheyWorkForYou back to 1935

    Hansards Parliamentary Debates by hugovk (cc)

    Hansard's Parliamentary Debates by hugovk (cc)

    The House of Commons debate coverage on TheyWorkForYou has recently extended back from the 2001 general election to the 1935 general election, and our knowledge of MPs now extends back to the start of the 19th century. This means TheyWorkForYou now includes things such as Anthony Eden on the Suez Canal in 1956, saying “there was not foreknowledge that Israel would attack Egypt“; the debate the day after Bloody Sunday in 1972; Geoffrey Howe’s resignation statement in 1990; Neville Chamberlain on the eve and start of the second World War in 1939; and Winston Churchill‘s speeches to the House, such as We shall fight on the beaches and This was their finest hour in 1940. This and much, much more are available and searchable using our new improved advanced search, which allows you to filter by e.g. date range or person. We hope people enjoy researching this huge wealth of information (I certainly do), and add useful annotations to the text to help other people.

    This would not have been possible without the original project by Parliament to digitise historical copies of Hansard and make them available, nor the internal Parliamentary project to clean up the data, match up speaker names, and so on. The project was kindly funded by the Ministry of Justice’s Innovation Fund, which also supported the creation of FixMyStreet and GroupsNearYou.