1. Now we are 10

    At some point in the final quarter of this year – and the exact moment differs, depending on who you believe – mySociety turned ten.

    Our Director Tom, mySociety’s founder, describes this as “a frankly improbable milestone”. He has seen mySociety grow from an idea on the back of an envelope, to an international social enterprise with friends, partners, volunteers and clients around the world.

    Last week, at a small birthday party, Tom pulled out five key elements of  mySociety’s first decade – elements that symbolise different facets of the organisation’s growth and impact.

    Not all of our many friends, associates and partners could join us at that party, so I’m going to share those elements here.

    1. mySociety’s first project

    writetothem screenshotThis screenshot shows the brand new design for WriteToThem.com, which we have just recently put live.

    WriteToThem, our site for sending messages to politicians, was the first mySociety launch. That was way back in 2004. This launch, says Tom, was a key moment because it showed that mySociety wasn’t just ideas and bluster – it could build useful things that people actually wanted.

    WriteToThem was of course followed by sites like FixMyStreet, FixMyTransport and TheyWorkForYou, all built by marvellous developers to whom the organisation owes great thanks (see the foot of this post for a large quantity of thanks).

    2. Our volunteers

    Another of our UK websites is WhatDoTheyKnow, which lets you make or browse Freedom of Information requests, as simply as possible. It’s visited about half a million times a month, and has become a bit of a UK internet institution – a place you go for a certain kind of information.

    Confirm or Deny blog post

    Above is a screenshot from FOI blog Confirm or Deny: a list of 366 interesting things we know because of FOI requests made on the site. It was lovingly compiled by Helen, one of our volunteers; she’s a member of the truly heroic team who help keep that site running, and it represents the dedication that all our volunteers bring to their work.

    See the thanks section for lots more gratitude to our volunteers – and read more about volunteering for mySociety here.

    3. Our international partners

    kimittud screenshot

    Above you can see a screenshot of Ki Mi Tut, a Hungarian Freedom of Information site, run by a local NGO. It already contains nearly 2,000 FOI requests.  This site is a deployment of Alaveteli – the technology we spun out of WhatDoTheyKnow so that people around the world could run sites that would help citizens to chisel information out of their governments.

    Ki Mi Tut symbolises the growing success of our international team, and mySociety’s international focus more generally. If you know mySociety as the builder of  UK sites, you might not know that the great majority of our development efforts today goes towards helping groups like this to run services around the world: helping people to keep an eye on their politicians, obtain information from governments, get streets fixed and so on.

    4. Our commercial work

    empty homes spotter

    mySociety isn’t just a charity any more – mySociety ltd is our trading subsidiary, and is growing fast. It’s twice the size the whole of mySociety used to be, and it’s still growing.

    As a symbol of this success, we proffer mySociety’s first Emmy nomination – yes, we were surprised too! – for a site and app we made for a campaigning TV show in conjunction with Channel 4.

    5. mySociety’s future

    Tom finished by giving a glimpse at a new tool we have in development – SayIt – focused on helping people around the world find out more about what decision makers have been saying about things that matter to their lives, their homes, their jobs their kids or their communities. SayIt will go into a public alpha early in the New Year, and we’ll talk more about it then.

    Unlike our earlier projects, SayIt isn’t being built for Britain first – it’s being built to work anywhere.  We’re not building it alone: it’s just one of the components that form the Poplus partnership, a federation of collaborative empowerment tech builders that we have kicked off in conjunction with FCI Chile. And we promise we’ll let you all have a play very soon.

    So, that’s it – a whistlestop tour of our first decade, and a glimpse at what’s to come.

    We’d like to thank you for reading this far – and talking of thanks…

     

    (more…)

  2. A WhatDoTheyKnow milestone: 50,000 subscribers

    Information Overload by Peter Asquith

    This month, our Freedom of Information site WhatDoTheyKnow passed a significant milestone: 50,000 registered users.

    That doesn’t mean that 50,000 people have used the site to send a request for information – many have signed up simply to receive email alerts*, or to add annotations to existing requests. They’re all part of the WhatDoTheyKnow community, as are the 500,000 monthly visitors who browse the site.

    And incidentally, we should give thanks to the bedrock of that community – the WhatDoTheyKnow volunteers, who work on the site’s admin, as well as giving advice and support to users. Alex, John, Richard, Ganesh, Alistair and Helen have given up many, many hours of their own time to make sure that WhatDoTheyKnow runs smoothly.

    By coincidence, I’ve recently been reading through our archived blog posts, so WhatDoTheyKnow’s history is fresh in my mind.

    The project came about as a result of a mySociety call for proposals – we asked you what we should build next, and the idea of an ‘FOI archive’ came out tops.

    By December 2006, we had received funding to make it possible, and we were asking for example requests to help us see how the tool needed to work.

    In February 2008,  WhatDoTheyKnow launched. It’s worth mentioning that the concept of FOI requests being made in public was a very new one, and not one that was met by universal delight from public authorities.

    Just six months later, the ability to add annotations was added. Since then, we’ve created Alaveteli, our software that lets anyone in the world run their own Right To Know site, anywhere in the world.

    Hmm, now what would the number be if we counted the registered users of all the Alaveteli sites around the world…? In any case, we’re really glad to see WhatDoTheyKnow continuing to be used by so many. Thank you for being part of it.

     

    *There are a several ways you can track information on WhatDoTheyKnow:

    • Receive an alert whenever someone requests information from a specific body. Locate the public authority on this page, then click the green button marked ‘Follow’. Subscribe to your local council, for example, and you’ll really be up to date with the major issues in your own community.
    • Receive an alert whenever a specific word or phrase is mentioned in an FOI request. Search for any phrase, and you’ll also see that green button, inviting you to ‘track this search’. This is useful for campaigners who want to know when certain topics come up, or anyone with a specific interest.
    • Follow a request. If you see a request that is of interest to you, again, just find the green ‘follow’ button. Once you’ve subscribed, we’ll email you every time there’s some activity on the request, whether it’s a response from the public authority or a comment from another user.

  3. FixMyTransport one year on: the operators who won’t play ball

    Image by Magnus Franklin

    Exactly one year ago today, we quietly put FixMyTransport.com live. We’d built it as a place where you could contact transport operators, and receive their responses, in public. But would it work?

    That depended, of course, on the transport companies, and how they would rise to the challenge. A year on, we’re in a position to see how things have panned out.

    As you will know if you have submitted a message to them, there are a handful of operators who refuse to engage via FixMyTransport, even though this requires less effort for them than holding the conversation in private. Worst offenders include Northern Rail, Scotrail, Arriva Trains Wales and South West Trains.

    These operators are starting to look as if they might have some customer service secrets to hide. You can see some of their excuses in our archive of correspondence, and frankly, they aren’t all that persuasive:

    Scotrail: “We encourage our customers to contact us directly to help give them the service they expect and deserve.”
    South West Trains: “In order to guarantee a full and consistent response to the concerns raised, would you please advise our customer to use one of our established methods of contact.”
    Arriva Trains Wales: “Receiving feedback from our customers is important to us, and I am grateful for you taking time to report these issues. However, we would ask any customer wishing to log an issue with us to make direct contact with us, rather than submit it to us via a third party.”

    Meanwhile, Northern Rail – perhaps not coincidentally one of our most-contacted operators – has a policy of sending a one-liner to say that comments have been ‘passed on to the relevant teams’. That does not comfort those who submit some of their more upsetting or important complaints.

    While we are disappointed by this lack of communication, we still think it’s worthwhile using FixMyTransport to make initial contact with such companies.

    Why? Because you gain the benefit of comments, advice and support from other users – and your complaint is in public for everyone to see. Even if the operator doesn’t respond, that has to make a difference. Plus, FixMyTransport users will often suggest next steps, such as contacting pressure groups or passenger watchdogs.

    You see, while we may have faced difficulties with some operators, there were no such issues with the general public. You came to the site, and you quickly understood what FixMyTransport was trying to achieve. And you chose to use it in preference to the transport companies’ own channels. Perhaps the operators might like to think about why that is.

    But let’s not dwell on the negatives. We have to give kudos to East Midlands Trains, First Capital Connect, First Great Western, London Midland, Southern and Virgin, all of whom stepped up to the mark and had no problems whatsoever replying to you via FixMyTransport. Equally, praise is due to Transport for London who act as the central contact for a variety of operators across the city, and Stagecoach Buses’ many subsidiaries.

    These companies, along with many other smaller outfits, have consistently responded to your complaints via the site. As a result they have created a large public archive of their good customer service.

    A helpful, friendly community has grown, too, aided by our team of volunteers. Over 3,500 people have sent messages through FixMyTransport, and with monthly visitors to the site now coming in at over 180,000, each of those messages has had an average of 50 readers.

    This is our first year of many. We’re certainly here for the long haul, and confident that eventually, even the most reluctant operators will come on board. If they don’t, increasingly, their customers are going to be asking why. The last year has shown that there is a demand for our service, and we see ourselves as part of a wider shift towards holding companies to account in public. Think how often you’ve seen a disgruntled customer tweeting or blogging their experience.

    Meanwhile, we hope you’ll keep using the site, and telling others about it. You might even consider telling your local transport operators how FixMyTransport can work for them.

    We hope, too, that you’ll carry on telling us what works or doesn’t work, via the feedback button at the top of every FixMyTransport page. We’re still in active development, and every suggestion is discussed and considered.

    Thanks for helping make FixMyTransport what it is. Now, have a piece of birthday cake.

     

    Image credit: Magnus Franklin

    This post is cross-posted from the FixMyTransport blog.

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

  4. FixMyStreet – another big number

    CAT 320D L Excavator Diecast Diorama: Demolition site by PMC 1stPix

    Just a week after WhatDoTheyKnow’s big, round number, FixMyStreet also passed a significant milestone.

    200,000 reports have been sent through FixMyStreet since its launch in February 2007. It currently sends an average of 250+ messages about potholes, broken streetlights, and other problems to local authorities each day. So far this month, we’ve processed just over 5,000 reports.

    Those reports are the work of over 87,000 people, 52% of whom had never before reported an issue to the council. That statistic is important to us: we aim to make it easy to access civic rights, especially for people doing so for the first time.

    FixMyStreet.com is a site with a simple premise, and it hasn’t changed greatly since 2007 – though it is currently undergoing a facelift, bringing it more in line with today’s design expectations. Last year we introduced user accounts and zoomable maps, along with a few tweaks here and there.

    Like other mySociety projects, FixMyStreet is, of course, built on open code, so that it can be replicated by anyone with a little technical knowledge. The FixMyStreet interface is already up and running in Norway, and soon, the Philippines will see trials of their own version – proving that the model can work in very different infrastructures. Meanwhile, the basic FixMyStreet concept has been replicated in Brazil, New Zealand, and South Korea. Here in the UK, some councils have bought FixMyStreet to embed into their own websites.

    FixMyStreet sends reports to the council, and also publishes them online – so each report is read by many people. This simple system helps them find out more about their local community, and what the council are doing to get things fixed.

    Uneven paving stones and malfunctioning pelican crossings may not be the stuff of high drama, but against expectations, FixMyStreet does make for fascinating reading sometimes. Take a look at this page if you’d like to see some of the more unusual reports. And if you’d like some insight into some of the issues our developers deal with, you might like to read Matthew Somerville’s solution to the dog poo problem. It’s all glamour at the cutting edge of FixMyStreet.

  5. WhatDoTheyKnow.com’s public archive now contains 100,000 Freedom of Information requests

    The Cupcake 100000 by Adam Tinworth

    Some time in the middle of last night, our Freedom of Information site WhatDoTheyKnow.com was used to send its 100,000th FOI request. It was a simple one, made to the Queen Victoria Hospital NHS Foundation Trust.

    WhatDoTheyKnow was launched in February 2008, with these aims: to make it easy to file a FOI request, and to keep a public archive of the requests and (more importantly) the responses received from public bodies. The Freedom of Information Act had been in force since 2005, but we wanted to make it fully accessible to people who were not journalists, lobbyists or professional operatives – it is a law that gives us all a right, not just those experts.

    At base, mySociety is about giving people power to people who don’t believe that they have any way of affecting the world around them. Giving practical access to the right enshrined in this Act was and is a meaningful way of advancing that goal.

    Then, thanks to a flash of inspiration from our late colleague Chris, we saw a great opportunity to increase the value created by the existence of the Act: we built a system that published the entire exchange of messages between users and public bodies online.

    We believe that because of this decision to publish all exchanges with public bodies, WhatDoTheyKnow represents a very unusual phenomenon: a third-party web site that takes an existing piece of legislation and makes it better value for money for the taxpayer. Public money was already being spent answering FOI, but by running WhatDoTheyKnow we could magnify the value generated by each request by making it public, without requiring anyone who worked in a public sector to retrain, buy a new computer system or spend any new money.

    And this theory turned out to be right. For every request made on the site, around twenty people come to read materials contained on WhatDoTheyKnow. The multiplier is remarkable, and one of the things that we think is most worth celebrating about this site.

    WhatDoTheyKnow’s success is only possible because of a team of fantastically dedicated volunteers. These loyal enthusiasts have helped countless users, and do a simply amazing amount of maintenance work to keep the site friendly, helpful and effective. They are astonishingly talented, principled and knowledgeable, and mySociety owes them a debt of gratitude it will never really be able to pay back.

    However, to give them a bit of the credit they deserve, and to highlight some of the countless uses of WhatDoTheyknow, we asked them to pick out some notable requests from the last four years.

    Helen “The use of the site by campaign groups like the Campaign for Better Transport to find out about bus subsidy cuts as part of their save our buses campaign.”

    John “There was the accidental release of how tax is applied to the Royal Family – which resulted in a Daily Mail front page story.”

    Alex “This request about the Warmfront boiler installation scheme has a significant number of annotations. What makes it different is that the user patiently persisted with her original FOI requests, and then has carried on by continuing to help loads more people with details of how to complain and lobby for help and general warm encouragement.”

    WhatDoTheyKnow is one of mySociety’s most visited sites, with one and a half million unique visitors in 2011. Like our other projects, it was built as an open source project. Thanks to the Open Society Foundation, we are in the process of making it much easier to re-deploy around the world, under the brand name ‘Alaveteli’.  As we speak, there are sites based on our code in places as far apart as New Zealand, Kosovo, Brazil, and the EU, and we’re looking forward to helping people from around the world create more grandchild sites in the years ahead.

    Our 100,000 request milestone comes at an interesting time for the Freedom of Information Act. It’s currently under scrutiny by the Justice Select Committee, who are investigating whether it works effectively and in the way that it was intended.

    As you might expect, at mySociety, we’re passionate about the right to information. We’ll be submitting evidence to the Justice Select Committee to show just how vital FOI is to good government and a good society. If FOI has touched your life, you might want to do the same.

  6. Summing up 2008

    According to some, today is the day when the world is going to be saved. Not sure if I agree with that, but recognise that the inauguration of Barack Obama is of some importance :-)). And, naturally, so is the work carried out by mysociety.org. I therefore thought today would be a good time to point to some of its achievements in 2008.

    So where to begin? Well, personally I think the work with the Commuting Time Maps is worth mentioning. Developed in collaboration with the Department of Transport it enables users to work out commuting distances from one point to another. This is arguably very useful information if you are house hunting, looking for a new office or if you are an estate agent wanting to provide clients with that extra information.

    Or how about picking up an award for FixMyStreet at the SustainIT eWell-Being Awards. The judges said it was “[a]n excellent example of an independent website which empowers the general public in their dealings with their local council. It is a relatively simple application, yet highly effective and replicable.” Very well done indeed.

    I know I have mentioned it before, but an obvious achievement is for the charity to have stayed alive and kicking for five years. The main man behind mySociety.org, Tom Steinberg, was around the time of the anniversary featured in an article in the Guardian. Check it out for some more in-depth information about Tom and the rise of mySociety.org!

    Full details of all the achievements and general ongoings in 2008 can be found on the blog, especially the successes and 2008 pages.

  7. mySociety in the spotlight

    Felt inclined today to Google mySociety and came up with 746,000 search results. Not bad. Being a new volunteer with mySociety I was intrigued by reading about the organisation and its work from various angles, in newspaper articles, blogs and even seeing a couple of video clips. The word is out there so no need to take drastic measures like in the Charlie Brooker experiment!

    As you may know, mySociety recently celebrated its fifth birthday, something that made a few headlines. The ambition appears to be to keep on going for at least as many, finances permitting. I certainly hope that something can be worked out – real and potential work is a plentiful and output is making a difference from an e-democracy perspective.

    Tom (founder and director of mySociety) has already written a blog post about how to best use mySociety sites, the best way to get started is to … get in touch. If you are just interested in keeping an eye on what’s going on, there are numerous email alerts on all the sites with the possibility to sign up for keyword alerts. And of course to set up RSS-feeds.

    My research on mySociety trivia revealed that projects are not always used quite as intended. For example, Francis Irving (web developer at mySociety) informed journalism.co.uk that early on somebody used WriteToThem to get their boiler moved in their council house – it had been in their living room for years. Also that somebody reported some dumped boxes of mozzarella on FixMyStreet. Don’t want to give you any ideas but it appeared to have rectified the problems …

  8. A few words on the Guardian

    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.

  9. Some words on the future from my 5th anniversary address

    …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.

  10. 100 spreadsheets

    Public authorities have now sent back 100 Excel files in response to FOI requests on WhatDoTheyKnow.

    The nice thing is, that if somebody bothered to use a spreadsheet, it must contain useful, factual, numerical data across either time or space. Everything from job advert expenditure in Kings Lynn council, to school budgets in the Western Isles.

    Have a mine.

    P.S. Don’t forget to click “Track things matching ‘filetype:xls’ by email” to be emailed when there are new spreadsheets to look at :)