1. YourNextMP was huge – and it ain’t over yet

    As you’ll know if you’re a regular reader of this blog, YourNextMP crowd-sourced details of every candidate who stood in the UK general election.

    But, just because our own election is over, doesn’t mean we’ll be letting YourNextMP gather dust. On the contrary—we want to see it being re-used wherever there are elections being held, and citizens needing information! We’re already seeing the first re-use case, and we’d love to see more.

    Opening up data

    YourNextMP’s main purpose was to provide a free, open database of candidates, so that anyone who wanted to could build their own tools on top of it, and it was very successful with that aim.

    We heard of more than twenty projects which used the data, some small scale operations built by a single developer, some big names such as Google, and national newspapers like the Guardian.

    The traditional source of candidate data for such projects has been through expensive private providers, not least because the official candidate lists are published just a few days before the election.

    Thanks to YourNextMP’s wonderful crowd-sourcing and triple-checking volunteers, we reckon that we had the most complete, most accurate data, the earliest. And it was free.

    Directly informing over a million citizens

    YourNextMP also came into its own as a direct source of information for the UK’s electorate. This hadn’t been the priority when the project was launched, but it was helped greatly by the fact that constituency and candidate pages ranked very highly in search engines from early on, so anyone searching for their local candidates found the site easily.

    Once they did so, they found a list of everyone standing in their constituency, together with contact details, links to their online profiles such as web pages, social media and party websites, and feeds from spin-off projects (themselves built on YourNextMP data) such as electionleaflets.org and electionmentions.com.

    YourNextMP had more than a million unique users. In the weeks just prior to the UK general election, it was attracting approximately 20,000 visitors per day, and on the day before the election, May 6th, there was suddenly a massive surge: that day the site was visited by nearly 160,000 people.

    So, in a nutshell: YourNextMP has not only enabled a bunch of projects which helped people become more informed before our election—it also directly informed over a million citizens.

    A reusable codebase

    YourNextMP was built on Poplus Components as a Democracy Club project: PopIt (for storing the candidates’ names) and MapIt (for matching users’ postcodes with their constituencies).

    And, in the spirit of Poplus, the codebase is open for anyone to re-use in any country.

    It’s already being pressed into use for the upcoming elections in Argentina, and we hope that developers in many other countries will use it to inform citizens, and inspire great web tools for the electorate, when their own elections come around.

    If that’s something that interests you, please come and talk, ask questions and find out what’s involved, over on the Democracy Club mailing list.

    Image: KayVee (CC)

  2. Tools for Learning

    Today is International day of the Girl as nominated by Plan International. The idea of commemorating this day is to highlight the lack of education opportunities for girls around the world.

    Though mySociety does not have a specific focus on women’s education our websites are still powerful tools for learning. Education doesn’t just take place in the classroom. Nor does it stop when you leave school, college or university. Websites like Mzalendo in Kenya help educate people about their politicians. They provide information about what their representatives have said in Parliament, about their political and work experience. This information can help Kenyan citizens to hold their elected representatives to account, and to understand more about the decisions that affect their lives.

    Alaveteli is perhaps an even stronger example of this. Visiting an alaveteli website not only allows you to request information, it allows you to search through information others have requested and learn from it, potentially about topics you were unaware of before. We know that in the UK each request on WhatDoTheyKnow is read by an average of 20 people. And by having that information available publicly and allowing people to educate themselves about the actions of their government, it is easier for citizens to hold those in power to account.

    It seems like a FixMyStreet site might not have a connection to education. But we think it does! At the most obvious level, FixMyStreet provides councils with information. They learn where problems are in their area and gain a deeper understanding of the issues that concern their citizens. This flow of information is not just one way though. Residents that use the site suddenly find they can take ownership of the problems in their local area, and get them resolved.  At times, governments – local or national – can appear to be vast and distant. By using something like FixMyStreet residents can begin to see the practical role they can play in improving their own lives. This is a very important thing to learn.

    Our sites are being set up and used by people of every gender, all over the world. This is an amazing thing and one we wholly support. Access to tools for learning should not be restricted dependent on race, class, gender, religion or ethnicity. The opportunity to learn should be open to all.

    The world knows Malala Yousafzai. General Ban Ki Moon said it best when he said “When the Taliban shot Malala, they showed what they feared most: a girl with a book.” Because information and education give women, and everyone else in the world, the knowledge to stand up and say “This is not right.”, to make their lives better and to take a stand for a more open, free society.

    That’s one of the reasons we create the websites we create, to help people educate themselves to gain knowledge and skills which can start the process of making their societies more open, transparent and participative.

    Happy International day of the Girl.

     

    Image credits: Blackboard by Audra B | Hands up by Pim Geerts | Malala by United Nations Information Centres

  3. What should we do about the naming deficit/surplus?

    I don’t think it is too controversial to make the following – rather boring – assertions: Greenpeace is part of the environmental movement. Oxfam is an international development charity. Human Rights Watch is part of the human rights movement. Obama for America is a political campaign. Facebook dominates the social networking sector. I hope none of these simple, descriptive statements has caused you to turn purple with semantic rage.

    But what primary movement or sector is mySociety part of? Or Avaaz? Or Kiva? Or Wikileaks? When I ask myself these questions, no obvious words or names race quickly or clearly to mind. There is a gap – or at best quite a bit of fuzziness – where the labels should go.

    This lack of good labels should surprise us because these groups definitely have aims and goals, normally explicit. Also, it is unusual because social and political movements tend to be quite good at developing names and sticking to them. If you were given a time machine you could tell a Victorian that you were ‘pro-democracy’ or ‘anti-slavery’ and the locals would have no trouble understanding you. Terms like ‘gender equality’, ‘small government’, ‘cancer research’, ‘anti-smoking’, even ‘anti-capitalist’, can comfortably be used by news media companies without fear of baffling the audience. The public can also easily understand terms that referred to methods of achieving change, rather than goals, terms like ‘political TV advertising’, ‘protests’, ‘petitions‘ and ‘telethons’.

    But now let’s look at some of the common terms that are used to talk about the (very) wide field of digital social change projects. These include ‘digital transparency’, ‘hacktivism’, ‘peer production’, ‘edemocracy’, ‘clicktivism‘ and ‘open data’. But if you tried to slip one into a newspaper headline, the terms would definitely fall beneath the sub-editor’s axe before they could make it to print. They are too niche, and too likely to confuse readers.

    The first thing to note about most of these terms is the way that they refer to methods, rather than goals of social change. But this isn’t completely unprecedented, and isn’t a reason to dismiss these terms out of hand. The name ‘Chartists‘ does indeed refer to people who used the publication of a charter as a political tool, but the name signified a huge bundle of values, methods and goals which went way beyond the deployment of that document.

    Nevertheless, to me it still just doesn’t feel like the broad, loosely coupled fields of human endeavour which stretch from Anonymous to JustGiving  have decent labels yet – especially not labels that signify the ways in which two things can be both similar and different (e.g. ‘rail station’ and ‘bus station’). And this worries me because consistent names help causes to persist over time. If the field of AIDS research had been renamed every 6 months, could it have lasted as it did? Flighty, narrowly used language confuses supporters, prevents focus and is generally the enemy of long term success.

    So, why does this dearth of decent sector labels exist, and can we do anything about it? The short version is, I don’t know. But I do know that the easy answer, ‘It’s all too new to have names’ cannot be right any more, not now that millions have signed petitions, joined Avaaz, donated to Obama online and so on.

    I don’t know why the category terms in these sectors are so weak and changeable, but I am posting today because I would love to hear the thoughts of other people who might have some ideas as to the causes, and possible solutions. Here are some theories about the lack of good labels, off the top of my head:

    1. I think some of the terms currently in circulation were coined in anticipation of the development of possible projects, not after retrospectively reviewing them. So the category terms sometimes seem to define what a field might look like, rather than what it ends up looking like (think ‘edemocracy‘, from a decade ago). This means the terms often feel like they don’t describe real projects very well.

    2. In the traditional (for-profit) internet industry a certain amount of money can be made from coining or becoming associated with new terms (think of IBM and ‘smarter cities’). Because there is a profit motive, there may be a structural incentive to rapidly create new terms which displace older ones which haven’t been widely adopted yet. There are probably similar incentives in some academic fields too – career rewards for coining a key term.

    3. Terms in these fields we work in are usually minted one at a time – ‘only children’ as opposed to born as whole families of interconnected terms. This is unlike the sciences which, since Linnaeus came up with his elegant way of naming living things, have been good at developing naming systems, not just one-off names. Organic chemistry and inorganic chemistry are related, but different in important ways – the names helpfully show that.  To explain how 38 Degrees and mySociety are similar in some ways but different in other very significant ways needs a way of naming things that can signal both commonality and difference.

    4. The knowledge-sharing disconnect between the academic and activist/practitioner communities is really, truly terrible, everywhere except data-driven voter-targeting. People who run services or campaigns normally never hear about what the brightest academics are saying about their own work. And if they do try to pay attention to the ideas coming out of academia then the signal to noise ratio is too bad and the filters are too few and too busy having day jobs.

    5. And, of course, I should namecheck the sceptic’s probable theory: this would argue that good, clear terms don’t exist because all these widely differing organisations are nothing more than meaningless feel-good bunk, so language slides off them like an egg off Teflon. I don’t subscribe to this theory, of course, but it’s worth noting because I’m sure some people would provide this answer to my question.

    I am planning to write a follow-up blog post to this containing some suggested terms we might use to reflect what the many digital projects out there have in common, and how they are different.

    But before I do, I would like to hear people’s thoughts on whether this is a real problem at all, and if so why that might be, and what we might do about it. Who knows, maybe someone will even write a blog post about it, like we’re back in 2003 or something…

     

     

  4. Installing FixMyStreet and MapIt

    A photo of some graffiti saying "SIMPLE"

    Photo credit: duncan on Flickr

    One of the projects we’ve been working on at mySociety recently is that of making it easier for people to set up new versions of our sites in other countries.  Something we’ve heard again and again is that for many people, setting up new web applications is a frustrating process, and that they would appreciate anything that would make it easier.

    To address that, we’re pleased to announce that for both FixMyStreet and MapIt, we have created AMIs (Amazon Machine Images) with a default installation of each site:

    You can use these AMIs to create a running version of one of these sites on an Amazon EC2 instance with just a couple of clicks. If you haven’t used Amazon Web Services before, then you can get a Micro instance free for a year to try this out.  (We have previously published an AMI for Alaveteli, which helped many people to get started with setting up their own Freedom of Information sites.)

    Each AMI is created from an install script designed to be used on a clean installation of Debian squeeze or Ubuntu precise, so if you have a new server hosted elsewhere, you can use that script to similarly create a default installation of the site without being dependent on Amazon:

    In addition, we’ve launched new sites with documentation for FixMyStreet and MapIt, which will tell you how to customize those sites and import data if you’ve created a running instance using one of the above methods.

    These documentation sites also have improved instructions for completely manual installations of either site, for people who are comfortable with setting up PostgreSQL, Apache / nginx, PostGIS, etc.

    Another notable change is that we’re now supporting running FixMyStreet and MapIt on nginx, as an alternative to Apache, using FastCGI and gunicorn respectively.

    We hope that these changes make it easier than ever before to reuse our code, and set up new sites that help people fix things that matter to them.

    Photo credit: duncan

  5. mySociety in Central and Eastern Europe

    We know from our inboxes that there are people all over the world who would love to start sites like TheyWorkForYou.com, FixMyStreet.com, or WhatDoTheyKnow.com in their own countries. Building and running these sites is hard, though, and takes time, money, and love. Until now we haven’t been able to do much for these keen correspondents beyond sharing our ideas, sharing our code, and wishing people the very best of luck. We’re happy to say that for at least some of these people, things are about to change for the better.

    CEE

    derived from http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Eastern-Europe-map2.svg

    If you live in Central or Eastern Europe, we’re now in a position to help you get effective democracy and transparency websites built. mySociety have teamed up with the Open Society Institute (OSI) and together we are now looking for determined people with great ideas for new digital transparency and accountability services in their countries.

    Over the next few months we are running a Call for Proposals, similar to the one we recently ran in the UK. The big difference is that this time we’re not looking for projects that we will build. We’re looking for projects you want to build, but that for lack of funds or lack of the right skills, you can’t get started yourself.

    Each month the Open Society Institute and mySociety will work closely together to select a series of projects to fund and mentor. Crucially, the call isn’t solely for existing NGOs: the process is absolutely open to submissions from individuals or groups with no prior direct experience of working in the transparency and accountability sector, but who have a good idea that addresses a problem they see in their country. We will, however, look more favourably on applicants with access to the advanced programming skills required to build sites like this.

    The criteria are simple, though demanding:

    1. The projects have to generate some kind of meaningful transparency, accountability, or democratic empowerment of another kind.
    2. The projects must seize the unique benefits that the Internet brings with it, such as scalability, two way communication, easy data analysis and so on.

    More details are available over at our new CEE site, but even if you don’t live in one of the eligible countries please help us spread the word about this exciting new opportunity!

  6. Why I Want a Million Quid

    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.

  7. The Cute Cat Theory is a challenge worth of contemplation

    In March this year Ethan Zuckerman gave a talk at ETech called The Cute Cat Theory of Digital Activism.

    The summary of his theory is that web sites that successfully enable people to post nonsense like pics of their cats are the same systems that get used for activism.

    The line that has motivated me to post, reflects something I’ve been noting for a while:

    … She became an activist because she was forced to and she reached out for the tools she had access to – which hapened to be MSN spaces. MSN is heavily censored in China – it’s certainly not what we would have chosen for her. But you don’t get to choose the tools – activists use what’s at hand. It’s fine to build tools for activists, but even better to build tools for folks who don’t know they’re activists yet.

    Then, as a sort of apology Ethan adds:

    (In making this point, I should be very, very careful to point out that I have deep respect for tools that have been developed successfully for activist uses, tools like Martus or FrontlineSMS. My point is simply that there are huge numbers of web users who don’t yet think of themselves as activists who are likely to reach for the tools they have at hand, not to look specifically for tools designed for activists.)

    I’m posting because I don’t think Ethan should be apologising, I think that those of us who run civic, democratic and activism websites should be thanking him for expressing a perhaps uncomfortable truth plainly. What Ethan’s pointing out is that for most people doing grass roots activism online means is using one of the megasites like Facebook, Blogger, MySpace, MSN or Hotmail to express your views to you friends and (hopefully) to more people. It’s bigger campaigns with higher starting capital that tend to use their own plaforms successfully, like Obama or Avaaz.

    A few months ago it really struck me when reading Clay Shirky’s much praised Here Comes Everybody that even as he told the stories of a number of different bits of online activism, not a single one used a dedicated campaigning platform. It was Blogger, Twitter and email all the way.

    Just to make things clear, I’m not posting this to moan that people don’t use the right platforms: after all mySociety doesn’t build anything that competes directly with Twitter, say. However, I would like to encourage some discussion about what role there is for smaller dedicated activist-coder groups like mySociety in a world where the first step on a just-born activist’s fight will almost always be their own IM, email, blogging or social networking tools.

    Right now I’m trying to work out what sorts of path we should pursue in a universe where most users will behave like this. I don’t think the answer is as simple as ‘build widgets and plugins for all these sites’ either, none of our widgets has ever been as well used as simply providing permalinks to bits of debate in TheyWorkForYou which people link to in volumes. I hope this post can provoke some thoughts about how we can best strike a symbiotic relationship with the big beasts, especially seeking analogies from other sectors.

  8. Phew!

    It’s very quiet today. I’ve been updating the projects page now that HearFromYourMP is truly launched. This means we’ve built all the original launch projects, except GiveItAway (more about what is happening with that another time). And it’s over a year since mySociety began. I feel exhausted, and definitely need to take some holiday – I was going to go to Egypt last month, but moved house instead.

    This week was usability week. Or was that last week, I’ve got confused. Anyway, Tom made about a million tickets with little usability tweaks to all the sites. Most of these have been put in now, but there’s still lots to do. Good software is about polish polish polish polish, and more polish. I could spend another few years just polishing these sites without making any more.

    I’ve also been doing a bit of work on “cobranding”. An ugly marketing term, but there you go. We’ve had a Cheltenham version of WriteToThem for some time. As well as local government, we’re also looking at campaigns groups. So we’ve done a version for AnimalAid, which they’ll be using from their website soon. Apart from the logo and colours, cobranding has some benefits for the user. It’ll make them think they haven’t changed website, and be less disconcerting. In particular, it’ll take them back to other campaigns actions when they’re done.

  9. WriteToThem.com Launches

    mySociety is proud to announce the launch of WriteToThem.com, the successor to the multi-award-winning FaxYourMP.com. WriteToThem lets people write to any of their elected representatives: MPs, MSPs, MEPs, Welsh or London assembly members, and last (but certainly not least) their local councillors.

    Many thanks to the hard working developers and volunteers who have got it to this stage, and who will keeping looking after it and improving it in the future. And thanks to the ODPM and West Sussex County Council for giving us the funding to rebuild FaxYourMP.

    If you’d like to get in touch to ask a question please drop us a line to team@writetothem.com . And if you are from outside the UK and you’re interested in our code, or what we have to offer check this.