1. ScenicOrNot raw data now available for re-use

    Scenic Or Not

    Matthew’s just updated ScenicOrNot, the little game that we built to provide a ‘Scenicness’ dataset for Mapumental, to include a data dump of the raw data. The dump will update automatically on a weekly basis, but currently it contains averaged scores for 181,188 1*1km grid squares, representing 83% of the Geograph dataset we were using, or 74% of all the grid squares in Great Britain. It is, in other words, really pretty good, and, I think, unprecedented in coverage as a piece of crowd sourced geodata about a whole country.

    It’s available under the Creative Commons Attribution Noncommercial 3 Licence, and we greatly look forward to seeing what people do with it.

  2. Top 5 Internet Priorities for the Next Government (any next Government)

    To: Anyone thinking of running any reasonably developed country, any time soon.


    The most scary thing about the Internet for your government is not pedophiles, terrorists or viruses, whatever you may have read in the papers. It is the danger of your administration being silently obsoleted by the lightening pace at which the Internet changes expectations. I’m not going to give examples of this change, others can do this far better than I. But you don’t need experts’ advice to tell which way the wind blows – if you can’t find any examples of changing expectations in your own life, driven by the internet, I can’t help you anyway: please point me to your successor.

    The List

    This is a list of the top 5 major things any government of any developed nation should be doing in relation to the Internet, as I see it at the start of 2009. They are not in any order, and do not lack ambition – they are for the Next Government, after all.

    1. Hire yourself some staff who know what the Internet really means for government, and fund a university to start training more who really understand both worlds: you’re going to need them. There just aren’t enough employed in any government anywhere yet to save you from being hopelessly outstripped by external progress. The citizen discontent resulting from massive shifts in expectation could wash your entire government away without you ever having anyone skilled enough to tell you why everyone was so pissed off. Your chances of truly reinventing what your government is are basically zero without such staff.

    2. Free your data, especially maps and other geographic information, plus the non-personal data that drives the police, health and social services, for starters. Introduce a ‘presumption of innovation’ – if someone has asked for something costly to free up, give them what they want: it’s probably a sign that they understand the value of your data when you don’t.

    3. Give external parties the right to interface electronically with any government or mainly public system unless it can be shown to create substantial, irrevocable harm. Champion the right fiercely and punish unjustified refusals with fines. Your starting list of projects should include patient-owned health records, council fault reporting services and train ticket sales databases. All are currently unacceptably closed to innovation from the outside, and obscurity allows dubious practices of all kinds to thrive.

    4. Commission the world’s first system capable of large scale deliberation, and hold a couple of nation wide sessions on policy areas that you genuinely haven’t made your minds up on yet. When it is over, mail people who participated with a short, clear list of things you’ve done that you wouldn’t have done without them. Once you’ve made it work well, legislate it into the fabric of your democracy, like elections and referendums.

    5. When people use your electronic systems to do anything, renew a fishing license, register a pregnancy, apply for planning permission, given them the option to collaborate with other people going through or affected by the same process. They will feel less alone, and will help your services to reform from the bottom up.

    mySociety wants to see all these things happen. Get in touch if you are interested.

  3. Avoid exhausting train journeys!

    Last week I gave my first presentation by video conference. It was to the intriguing Circus Foundation, who are running a series of workshops on new democracy. It came about because I was a bit busy and tired to travel from Cambridge into London. Charles Armstrong, from the Circus Foundation, suggested that I present over the Internet.

    We used Skype audio and video, combined with GoToMeeting so my laptop screen was visible on a projector to an audience in London. Apparently my voice was boomed round the room. It was a slightly odd experience, more like speaking on the radio. However, I had a good serendipitous one to one chat while we were setting up, with Jonathan Gray from OKFN.

    I was asked to give a quick overview of mySociety, as a few people in the audience hadn’t heard of us, and also to talk about how I saw the future of democracy. I talked about three of our sites, and what I’d like to see in each area in 10 years time.

    • TheyWorkForYou opens up access to conventional, representational democracy, between and during elections. In 10 years time, I asked for Parliament to publish all information about its work in a structured way, as hinted at in our Free Our Bills campaign. So it is much easier for everyone to help make new laws better.
    • FixMyStreet is local control of the things people care about, a very practical democracy. In 10 years time I’d like to see all councils running their internal systems (planning, tree preservation orders… everything that isn’t about individuals) in public, so everyone can see and be reassured about what is being done, why and where.
    • WhatDoTheyKnow shows the deep interest that there is by the public in the functioning of all areas of government. In 10 years time, I’d like to see document management systems in wide use by public authorities that publish all documents by default. Only if overridden for national security or data protection reasons would they be hidden.

    Charles Armstrong, from the Circus Foundation, has written up the workshop.

    Downsides of the video conferencing were that I couldn’t hear others speak, as they didn’t have the audio equipment. I had to take questions via Charles. This meant I also couldn’t participate in the rest of the evening, or easily generally chat to people. All very solvable problems, with a small amount of extra effort – Charles is going to work on it for another time.

    Of course this also all saves on carbon emissions (cheekily, taking off my mySociety hat for a moment, sign up to help lobby about that).

  4. Unlock your public data here

    The Office of Public Sector Information (snappy name, lads) has launched a simple new service where you can publicly lodge a request for some public sector data that you can’t get, but need for some reason. They’ll then act as your behind-the-scenes champions and attempt to lever it out of which ever bit of government is trying to keep hold of it for no good reason.

    You can also read other people’s requests, which hopefully will help people realize how much good data there is out there, and leave comments suggesting further reasons why it might be a good idea to let it loose.

    Full disclosure, this was my idea, as part of the Power of Information review, so I’m not neutral in wanting to see people get what they want through it.

    Go, post!

  5. The Free Our Bills Campaign launches

    mySociety has never run a campaign before today. And we’re not sure anyone’s ever run a campaign featuring a charismatic duck-billed platypus escaping from under the closing jaws of a Parliamentary portcullis.


    Update 15.34 25/03/2008
    Conservative Party leader David Cameron has just endorsed the campaign in a video.

    Update 17.14 25/03/2008
    Now kind words from techy Lib Dem MP Lynne Featherstone.

    Update 11.38 1/04/2008
    We’ve just recieved this fantastic endorsement from Nick Clegg, leader of the Liberal Democrats:

    “Parliament belongs to the people. It’s time to open it up so people can find out what’s going on. mySociety has done a brilliant job in recent years in doing that – and it’s time to take this project to the next level and get information about the laws Parliament passes into the public domain.

    “It takes a new MP months to figure out how the tortuous bills procedures work – so how we expect the voters to know what’s going on, I have no idea. The changes MySociety are calling for are vital so that every MP is fully accountable for the decisions they take on behalf of their constituents.

    “I fully support the Free our Bills campaign, and will do all I can in Parliament to win this battle.”

    Thanks Nick!

  6. Two speeches

    Some of the work we do at mySociety these days is policy related, and happens behind the scenes. I’m conscious that we haven’t been blogging here like we did in the early days, and that is partly because advice and consultancy often have to be confidential.

    Two speeches, both of which mention TheyWorkForYou, were recently given by senior members of the UK’s two main opposing parties. They’re both worth reading, and will set you thinking about how much further mySociety’s work can be taken.

    First a recent speech by Tom Watson MP, a Cabinet Office Minister on “Transformational Government”. He talks about the massive change we are living through, in terms of how IT can and will improve Government.

    Less than a decade ago, people were just recipients of information, they got what they were given when they were given it. Today, the most successful websites are those that bring together content created by the people who use them (Tom Watson)

    Second a speech by David Cameron, Leader of the Opposition, which talks a lot about open knowledge [link removed Oct 20013 as no longer available]. Can local government be transformed by better information? TheyWorkForYou for local councils?

    We will require local authorities to publish this information – about the services they provide, council meetings and how councillors vote – online and in a standardised format. (David Cameron)

  7. He was a man, take him for all in all

    Chris Lightoot died a year ago today (or yesterday, by a few minutes).

    I’m just sitting here reading the very first emails I ever got from him, back in 2003. Within the first few mails he’s invented and hacked up the idea that is now Richard Pope’s PlanningAlerts.com, coded and developed the idea that persuaded YouGov to donate vast amounts of free polling data to form PoliticalSurvey2005.com (a wider understanding of which would greatly help in the US election if the methodology was only applied there) and in this post he’s foreseen the Google maps mashup craze and offered it on a plate to the Ordnance Survey to pioneer, two years before Google started.

    The invention and brilliance comes so thick and fast reading these mails that I now realise that I’d persuaded myself over the year that I’d mis-remembered quite how insanely creative he was, trying to correct for rose-tinted lenses. But he was a proper, bona fide, no-holds-barred cantankerous genius. Most days I think about Chris at least once: I try to make sure we live up to his standards (he wouldn’t have tolerated my use of ‘But’ at the start of the last sentence, for example). Reading these mails tonight drives home the scale of what we all lost, amongst our friends, on the Internet and in society at large. It aches to contemplate.

  8. What are your big goals?

    Sadly this year, the day long pre-Christmas hackathon that previously created HassleMe.co.uk and, ahem, DirectionlessGov didn’t happen.

    However, we have thrown up this list of big goals we would like to see achieved in the next year or two. They’re more ambitious than things we’ve done before because most of them involve persuading other people to do things differently, rather than us just charging ahead uninvited.

    What do you think? What else should be on there? And if you work in this area yourself, what are your big goals?