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.”
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.
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!
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 …
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.
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 🙂
mySociety will be 5 years old in October. We’re holding a party in London to celebrate, but numbers are limited. Sign up here if you want to come.
Update: It’s full, sorry!
Just a week after doing the proper press launch Neighbourhood Fix-It has passed its 1000th confirmed problem report.
The next two features to add, in response to demands from users and councils are:
- The integration of the Ordnance Survey’s Address-Point dataset, so we can give councils a nearest street address, not just a map.
- A facility so that councils can enter and update different contact email addresses for different sorts of problem, if the central email address we use at the moment isn’t what they want. We’ll base the categories on the government standards for these things.
Matthew is doing these, so they’ll probably be finished before I finish this post 🙂
98 MPs have now sent at least one message via HearFromYourMP. Who will be 100th? Should we tell them? Should we give them a prize? Will there be an auction style-frenzy at the end? Should I be thinking about more important things? Only one of these questions can be answered with any certainty.
Today is the first anniversary of the launch of HearFromYourMP.com. Whilst a bit lower profile than some of our other sites, being driven mainly by email, HearFromYourMP has had a very pleasing first year. Not only have over 25,000 people signed up across the UK, but perhaps more remarkably 84 MPs have used the service to talk with (not to) their constituents. That’s about one in five MPs asked making use within the first year, which we guess must be amongst the fastest adoptions of a new communications tool ever by parliamentarians.
The most important thing to remember about HearFromYourMP, though, is that it is designed to be there for the long haul, gently engaging with that 44% of WriteToThem users who have never written to a politician before and coaxing them into a slow but personal relationship with their representatives. And as a final thought, I note that the Liberal Democrats had 72,721 members in 2004: I wonder how long it will take this little birthday site to get there?