South African parliamentary monitoring website People’s Assembly have added an Attendance page, allowing citizens to see at a glance what percentage of committee meetings each MP has attended.
A few weeks ago, we highlighted one major difference between the Ghanaian parliament and our own: in Ghana, they register MPs’ attendance.
This week, we received news of another of our partners who are holding their representatives to account on the matter of attendance: People’s Assembly, whose website runs on our Pombola platform. The new page was contributed by Code4SA, who have been doing some really valuable work on the site lately.
According to South Africa’s Daily Maverick, in some cases MPs’ attendance is abysmally low. There’s also a history of those who “arrive, sign the register and leave a short while later”, a practice that may soon be on the decline thanks to People’s Assembly’s inclusion of data on late arrivals and early departures.
With 57 representatives — or about 15% — floundering at a zero rate of attendance, it seems that this simple but powerful display is a much-needed resource for the citizens of South Africa. See it in action here.
Top image: GovernmentZA (CC)
As you may well already know, I’m leaving mySociety and taking some time off to chillax and think about what I should do next.
Today is my last day and it seems appropriate to sign off with a blog post, 11 years and 5 months after the first one that I can find.
It feels too early to share any deep thoughts on what mySociety means, where we are with civic tech, what worked and what didn’t, what I learned as a founder and what we should all be focusing on next.
One of my many reasons for wanting to move on was to regain the kind of mental freshness and detachment that comes from having fewer responsibilities for a while. So I promise that I’ll think and write more.
Follow me on Twitter if you want to, or add your email address to my new notification list if you just want a ping when I’ve written something. Or mail me direct at email@example.com if you want to talk about anything.
My main reason for writing today is to thank people. A lot of people gave up very significant portions of their lives to get mySociety to a point where it helps so many people in so many countries in so many different ways.
So I’ve written a huge list of thankyous. If you’re missing, ping me and I’ll thank you too 🙂
Thank you to:
Paul Lenz for his strength, energy, focus, morality, tolerance of my foibles, and his financial and legal skills that stop this happening to me.
Tim Morley for loving and caring for PledgeBank for so many years, and for bringing a little Esperanto to our lives. And for cooking.
James Crabtree for writing the original article that said that something like mySociety should exist, and for being a patient trustee from many timezones away
Tony Bowden for being the first person to try to help people outside the UK to benefit from the ideas and tools we’d built here, and for the miracle that is EveryPolitician (100+ countries, anyone?)
James Cronin for being the chair of trustees for so long, and doing so with a calm, kind level-headedness that I think would drive other charity CEO’s wild with jealousy. And for being such a key part of starting mySociety in the first place.
Mark Cridge for taking on the challenge of running mySociety, and for resisting the temptation to use me as a scapegoat for everything [n.b. this thanks may be retroactively repealed]
Ian Chard for keeping the server lights on, for making me believe I can do more with every day of my life, and for telling me about the British Library’s amazing online newspaper archive.
FOIMonkey for spotting when councils dump tons of private data out via accidental FOI. You are what other people mean by eternal vigilance.
Deborah Kerr for being eternally patient and kind to the users, even when they were taxing, and for doing super retreat organising on a shoestring.
Ganesh Sittampalam for a billion hours of patient FOI administration, helping make WhatDoTheyKnow the institution it is today.
Alex Skene for so much volunteering on WhatDoTheyKnow, for grown-up management advice that I took seriously, and for surprising me at the Olympics
Abi Broom for nothing*.
Richard Taylor for years of diligent volunteering on WhatDoTheyKnow, making us all laugh with his videos of council meetings, and being perhaps the most knowledgeable person about every vote in Parliament who has ever lived.
Adam MacGreggor for server cabinet wrangling at difficult moments.
Ben Nickolls for heading up such a happy, productive commercial team, and for helping me understand that £200 is an entirely reasonable sum to spend on bicycle pedals.
Owen Blacker for a lot of trustees meetings, and for always keeping us spiritually close to the digital rights world.
Ethan Zuckerman for helping me gain perspective, and for being my biggest fan in the USA.
Jen Pahlka for being an even bigger fan than Ethan, and for endlessly quoting me on stages around the world.
Sam Smith for early hacking, for running OpenTech, and for reminding me that chippiness always has a place.
Dave Whiteland for the stories, and for travelling far and wide to help people take advantage of our tools and learnings. And, on a personal note, for showing me what it means to be a truly good son.
Michal Migurski for making Mapumental so beautiful, and for bringing your tech skills to Code for America
Amandeep Rehlon for being the volunteer finance department before we had a finance department, and for giving me the unique pleasure of sending my expense receipts to the Bank of England’s financial crises department.
Bill Thompson for organising the first puntcon, where I first met Chris. And for giving feedback on the very earliest versions of the mySociety plan.
Etienne Pollard for helping at every stage, whether a drama hippy, a McKinsey suit, or a harried public servant.
Stephen King for, yes, representing our biggest funder, but also for being clear, friendly, and a quiet champion for mySociety. And for sometimes helping translate from Californian to English.
Alistair Sloan for being such a dedicated WhatDoTheyKnow volunteer that he once got the bus from Glasgow to London for a meeting.
Duncan Parkes for making Mapumental performant in the post-flash era, even when it looked like it might not be possible. And for the best retreat presentation ever.
Struan Donald for the puns, the deadpan one liners, and for making both FixMyStreet and TheyWorkForYou so much better.
Micah Sifry and Ellen Miller for making me unofficial members of the US civic tech family.
Eben Upton, now Raspberry Pi legend, who booked me a speaking gig in the Cambridge Microsoft Research labs which is where I first met Francis Irving and (I think) Chris Lightfoot.
Dan Jellinek for bringing together VoxPolitics with me and James Crabtree, which was the precursor to mySociety.
Janet Haven for the money. For her ‘massive thermonuclear powered bullshit detector’ [ht Tom Longley]. And, oh yes, for becoming a friend too.
Ayesha and Keith Garrett for design help on PledgeBank, and sysadmin skills, long ago.
Tim Jackson for taking a philanthropic punt on a wild idea, long ago, which worked.
Robin Houston for doing battle on a project you didn’t really love, but that was for the right purpose.
Pierre Omidyar for making all that money at eBay, and then deciding that we deserved some of it.
Tom Loosemore for hacking together our very first web presence, and for being a positive, confidence inspiring presence in good times and bad ever since.
Mike Bracken for the vital job of helping us get out first significant grant, and then years later for successfully smuggling mySociety values into government.
Richard Pope for being a ceaseless fount of new ideas, and for driving the first redesign of TheyWorkForYou.
Edmund von der Burg for showing that you can both be a charming coder, and capable of building an office out of a shipping container, with your own hands.
Julian Todd for realising that vote data in the UK parliament deserved clear, regular, semi-automated analysis to make it useful for most people, and then for making it real in PublicWhip. If history is fair it will note him as the inventor of modern vote analyses.
Helen Goulden for helping us navigate the tricky paths to government money, back when there was any.
Doug Paulley for blazing onto the scene as an amazing new WhatDoTheyKnow volunteer.
Martin Wright for turning us from an organisation that sucked at design, to one that really rocks. And for his enduring love of Yo.
Stef Magdalinski for the name of the charity, and for trusting me with TheyWorkForYou
Nick Jackson for happy rats and research stats.
Jason Kitcat for the very first mySociety.org!
Matt Jones for mySociety’s logo, which is still going strong, albeit in a gently shaded new style.
Alex Smith for helping us through TV-driven load spikes with customarily despairing good humour.
Manar Hussain for diligent, challenging trusteeship that was always good humoured, and never afraid to bring in new ideas.
The public sector for being such a terrible employer of programming talent that it gave us both Matthew and Steve
John Cross for being a brilliant WhatDoTheyKnow volunteer.
Steve Day for being a brilliant, sensitive engineering manager, wise far beyond his age, all whilst riding a BMX.
Christoph Dowe for helping organise the series of Berlin-based conferences that first brought together Europe’s civic hackers, and which ultimately helped attract funding to the scene.
Liz Conlan for the coffee advice
Chris Mytton – for introducing the words ‘craft ales’ to mySociety’s internal discourse, for showing that not going to university has no impact on your ability to be either an amazing coder or a well rounded human being.
Steve Clift for being there to talk to about digital politics when nobody else was interested, and for loving Poplus into life.
Dave Arter for wrestling Mapumental into a truly beautiful state, for your Github robot, and for convincing me that Wales is disproportionately full of bright young coders.
Gareth Rees for helping make Alaveteli our most-used platform, and for bringing a little race-car glamour to our team.
Rebecca Rumbul for getting our new research programme of to a flying start, and for showing me that the art of creative swearing is never truly mastered
Jen Bramley for cheerfully travelling the world and making people feel that mySociety must be worth working with if everyone is so nice
Gemma Humphrys for bringing a tornado of efficiency to our events organisation, and for having absolutely no boundaries that I am aware of.
Rowena Young for being a person I could really moan to, when things got tough.
Myf Nixon for being our organisation’s voice, for looking after our users, and for making sure that we get noticed.
Tony Blair for starting a war that inspired Julian Todd to build PublicWhip, and much later for commissioning a petitions website that caused all sorts of fun and games.
Seb Bacon for making DemocracyClub happen in 2010, for starting the conversion of WhatDoTheyKnow.com into the generic Alaveteli, and for going off to OpenCorporates to make it harder for the b*&^&ds to get away with it.
Sym Roe for making DemocracyClub happen in 2015, and for giving a lot of his time to the cause of good political information in the UK.
Tim Green for being the new Chris Lightfoot
Tom Longley for giving us a no-nonsense introduction to how hard it was going to be to conduct successful partnerships in the developing world.
Mark Longair for making sure that technological excellence and human kindness are are the core of what we do.
Camilla Aldrich for the lungs
Angie Martin for giving all she could, for as long as she could.
Zarino Zappia for ceaseless energy and good humour, and for asking hilariously straight questions about why we made terrible design decisions previously
Karl Grundy, Kristina Glushkova and Mike Thompson for helping us grow a commercial team, over several years.
The vandal who repeatedly smashed up the phone booth on London’s Caledonian Road, and thus planted the idea for FixMyStreet
William Perrin for helping make government interested in data and tech before it was cool, and for virtually single-handedly starting the UK government’s work on Open Data. And for all the support and the ideas in his post civil service life.
Fran Perrin for the support, and for protecting me from William’s ideas.
Louise Crow for showing me what a technology leader really looks like.
Matthew Somerville for always standing up for the user, for making everything work, and for doing it all in a tenth the time expected. And for a hug when I needed it most.
Francis Irving for joining at the right time, for leaving at the right time, and being a monster of thoughtful product design and speedy, skilful implementation in between. For always being excited, and always wise.
Chris Lightfoot for giving me a brief, life-changing glimpse of what the raging, brilliant light of genius looks like. And being the person who introduced me to Anna.
Anna Powell-Smith for everything, everyday.
* Trust me, this is how she’d want it
There are quite a few people around the world who are interested in running websites like FixMyStreet.com , TheyWorkForYou.com and WhatDoTheyKnow.com in their own countries. This high level of interest is why we have set up DIY mySociety – to make it an easier to get started running your own similar sites.
One of the most common barriers to launching a new website is the lack of technology skills. This post is about finding those skills in your city, country or region.
You don’t have to be a web developer to run a website based on mySociety code, but you do need access to someone with developer skills if you’re going to launch your own successful site.
When people are thinking about setting up a new mySociety-style website, they often assume that it can’t be done, because they aren’t technical, and they don’t know anyone who is.
Even if you’re not a coder, you might still be the right person (or group of people) to run this project. Are you good at motivating people, communicating, and organising? Then you have invaluable skills for this kind of enterprise. But that doesn’t remove the need for technical skills.
Why do you need a web developer?
You need a developer because it takes specialist skills to set up a website based on mySociety’s software.
Our software helps by saving developers months or years of work that they would have to do if starting from scratch. But it does not eliminate all the technical work – you will still need someone who knows how to build websites.
You need a web developer to:
- Install the software on a computer
- Configure the software to work in your local language(s)
- Make changes to the wording and graphic design of the site
- To add or remove features that are important to users in your country, city or region
You will need a developer to work on the project not only at the start, but for regular maintenance and improvements once it’s up and running.
What are my options for getting a developer to help?
If you are not a developer yourself, you have three basic choices for getting hold of some help.
Obviously the third of these options looks the most attractive, but please be aware that when you are asking somone to volunteer on a website like this you are asking them to work for days and weeks for free – this is not a question of helping our for an hour or two once a week.Working with an individual vs a company is also a decision. An individual will normally charge less per day worked, but an agency may reduce your risk of hiring someone who just can’t do the work at all. It is a balance. If you find someone who you think might be good, but you’re not sure, please don’t hesitate to ask mySociety for help in deciding.
- Pay a developer to set up your website
- Pay a web company to set up your website
- Ask a volunteer to set up your website
What are you looking for in a web developer?
Judging web developers thoroughly is a tricky, expert task. However, the following rules of thumb will help you:
1. Check that they care about using the internet to help with democracy or transparency. If they are excited then they are more likely to stick with the project, and make it succeed. Do not assume that just because they know about computers, they do not care about the rest of the world!
2. Ask them to show you some kind of website or mobile app that they build entirely or mostly on their own. If they can’t show you anything then that might cause you concern. If they have something good, that’s a good sign.
3. If they really keen to win your business or volunteer, they might be willing to try setting up a basic version of the website before you start working together. If they can do this then that’s a pretty good sign that they might be the right person to help you in the longer run.
4. If they tell you “there’s no need to re-use mySociety’s software – I can build this new website from scratch more easily”, this is a bad sign. Less good web developers often underestimate how hard it is to build a website like mySociety runs, and saying this is a common give-away that you are talking to someone who might not be very likely to succeed in launching your website.
Where on earth can I find someone?
Whether they are being paid or are volunteering, the question remains: where do you find such people? The answers might surprise you – it’s not as simple as ‘put an advert in the newspaper’.
Linux User Groups are found in many countries around the world, and often contain people interested in working on interesting projects.
OpenStreetMap is a global map that is made by normal people who live around the world. It has many local branches, and can also be a good place to mail or meet to find local people to talk to.
Digital democracy and transparency mailing lists are email discussion forums for people with common interests. Developers often join mailing lists that deal with their areas of expertise or passions, so emailing a message to see if people are interested in working with you is a good way of reaching out quickly to people who are interested in the same kinds of projects as you are.
To find such mailing lists, try searching the internet for phrases like “Digital democracy mailing list” and “transparency mailing list” in your own language, or try one of the mailing lists below to see if there is anyone interested in working with you in or near your country:
- Transparency Tech Google Group – for anyone using technology to aid transparency.
- Open Government mailing list – for those interested in open government data.
- DoWire.org – international exchange on e-democracy and online news.
- Sunlight Labs – for software developers interested in open government, government transparency, and civic hacking.
- Alaveteli mailing list – for those interested in starting a Right-to-Know website.
- FixMyStreet mailing list – for those interested in starting a street problem-reporting website.
- mySociety Community – our general mailing list.
The Open Knowledge Foundation is a network of regional groups which bring together people interested in open data, including developers. Joining your local group – or starting a new one – will help you meet people with common interests. You’ll find a list of all local groups at the foot of this page.
BarCamps are workshop-style events, often focusing on web applications, open source technologies and open data – and are a great place to meet people with the skills you need. They happen all over the world – search for ‘barcamp‘ + the name of your city or region. If there are none near you, you can organise your own.
CityCamps are a specific type of Barcamp. They bring together local government officials, municipal employees, experts, programmers, designers, citizens and journalists to share perspectives and insights about the cities in which they live. You can check whether there’s a city camp near you here – and if there isn’t, you can start one.
If you try all the above approaches, and try to meet with local people from all these kinds of group where you live, it will not be long before you find some sympathetic people who may well be interested in your project.
Lastly, Ask here
If you’re looking for developers or any other people to join your project, feel free to leave a comment at the end of this post – make sure you say where you are and what you’re hoping to achieve.
My friend and mySociety’s first developer Chris Lightfoot died five years ago today. He killed himself in his own flat for reasons that we will never really know, but which are doubtless linked to the depression which he’d been fighting for years. He was just 28, but had already achieved so much that The Times ran an obituary of him. He would have laughed mightily about the fact that this is now behind a paywall.
To mark this occasion I wanted to write something for mySociety staff and volunteers who never knew Chris, and for a wider audience of people who work in places like GDS, Code For America or indeed anyone with an interest in politics and governance. What Chris represented is too important to be lost in the grief at his passing.
The basic fact to understand about Chris was that he was a very specific kind of polymath – one perfectly suited to the internet age. What I mean by this is that he did much more than simply master varying disciplines: he saw and drew connections between fields. He wouldn’t just master cartographic principles, engage in politics and, as Francis Irving put it, ‘write Perl like other people write English’: he invariably saw the connections and mixed them up in meaningful and often pioneering ways.
Moreover, this mixing of disciplines was conducted at a furious, restless pace, and knew absolutely no concept of ‘too hard’ – problems were either fundamentally impossible, or ‘trivially soluble’, to use one of his favourite and most gloriously under-stated phrases. Who else would build the technology to break a captcha, just to investigate what American truck rental costs tell us about internal migration in America, for fun? The answer is trivial.
That he was a genius is not what I want you to understand. Telling you that someone you never met was smarter than you is not helpful, and doesn’t fulfil my promise to tell you why understanding Chris matters.
What is fundamentally valuable about Chris’ legacy (besides piles of code that power services still running today) is that his story signals how we all need to change our conception of what it means to be ‘wise enough to rule’. Let me explain.
Unlike most of us, Chris had the luxury of being able to pick any field of study that interested him, dig up some books and papers, and teach himself a graduate-level understanding in what felt like a few days. It is hard to express quite how fast he could consume and internalise complex new information, and how relentlessly he went at it. To note that he got six A grades at A-level is too puerile a précis, but it is indicative.*
Again, I am not telling you this to make you feel stupid: what matters is what he chose to do with this gift. What he chose to do was built an ever-expanding palette of skills from which he could paint as he pleased. And what he chose to paint was a vision of a better, saner world.
This painting ranged across a huge expanse of topics and disciplines: nuclear engineering, political ideologies, constitutional law, military history, statistics, psephology, economics, security engineering, behavioural psychology, propaganda, intellectual propery law and more. His favourite brushes were Perl and a blog composed of prose so sharp and funny that George Bernard Shaw would not have been displeased by the comparison. I still wish I could write half as well as him.
What I want to communicate most is this: the disciplines he chose to study form a combined19th, 20th and 21st century curriculum of skills required by modern leaders, both leaders of political organisations and government bureaucracies. Chris’s life was the invention of a massively expanded, far more up to date version of the traditional Politics, Philosophy and Economics course that this country still uses to educate its elites.
Some of these disciplines are timeless, like the understanding of ideologies or economics. Some represent vital new issues that emerged in the 20th century, like nuclear energy and world-scale warfare. But mixed in there are wholly new, alien group of skills that the recent SOPA, Wikileaks and ID cards debacles show that modern leaders haven’t got anywhere near to internalising: they include knowledge about security engineering, intellectual property and how new technologies clash with old laws and ideologies. They are skills that nobody used to think were political, but which are now centre stage in a polity that can’t keep up.
This doesn’t mean Chris would have made a perfect leader: I used to argue with him a lot about how he weighed up the costs and benefits of different issues. But what he fundamentally had right was the understanding that you could no longer run a country properly if the elites don’t understand technology in the same way they grasp economics or ideology or propaganda. His analysis and predictions about what would happens if elites couldn’t learn were savage and depressingly accurate.
The canon of Chris’s writings and projects embody the idea that what good governance and the good society look like is now inextricably linked to an understanding of the digital. He truly saw how complex and interesting the world was when you understood power as well as networking principles in a way that few have since.
There is, of course, much more to say about Chris’s life. His blog, built on software that foresaw Posterous, is wonderful, hilarious and utterly readable, so you can learn more yourself. Martin Keegan’s obituary is touching and a much better portrait of how much fun it was to be friends with Chris. I hope to memorialise what he represents to me, if I can. But for now, I’ll sign off with a quote from a blog commentor:
“Chris was kind enough to take the time to reply to me, an internet nobody whom he didn’t know from a bar of soap, on a fairly complex statistical question once. He took a lot of time and effort in his response, and he made sure I understood it properly. It’s not often you find knowledgeable people willing to take their own time to educate an unknown person. We need more people like him, not less.”
* For US readers, this is like having a GPA of 4.0, but achieved across twice as many subjects as you actually need to take.
We are very happy to announce that Duncan Parkes has joined mySociety, bringing our team of full time core developers up to four.
Duncan is the incredibly prolific author of screen scrapers for the lovely PlanningAlerts.com which he runs with Richard Pope.
He also has a PhD in Mathematics, which I expect you’ll want to read all of here, and is an editor of Open Source programming books with APress. During the vetting process he listed one of the passions of his life as being ‘Unit Testing‘, which, combined with his love of postbox crowdsourcing, made picking him more or less a no brainer.
In the short run we’ve let him loose, under the tutelage of Francis Irving, on the scaling challenges presented by Mapumental – I can’t wait to see what comes out of it.
Lots has happened since I last posted, which was months ago, before Chris died.
Luckily for us, in the last few months Chris had only been working one day a week for us, so it hasn’t been as difficult in practical terms as it could have been. There were various mySociety things running in his flat, such as the WriteToThem fax server, which had to be set up quickly elsewhere.
We miss Chris’s expertise most days (only yesterday I was swearing at gnuplot). Matthew is twice as much for me to handle; he works so quickly, he has hard questions to ask at a ferocious rate that I can’t keep up with. I think before Chris used to handle most of them, so it was much easier for me.
I highly recommend Chris Lightfoot’s obituary by Martin Keegan. Also, Chris’s obituary on Last Word, which was on Radio 4 on 23rd March, is well worth listening to.
We have a few new members of staff.
Keith Garrett is working for us now, mainly tending our servers, but he’s also been working on the E Petitions site. He’s trying to bully us into documenting all our internal processes so it’s easier for new people.
Heather Cronk has started working for us in the US, evangelising PledgeBank. This is funded by the Omidyar Foundation. As well as getting the word out about PledgeBank in the states, this is extra good for us, as she’s forcing us to give PledgeBank the TLC that it deserves.
Deborah Kerr is now doing customer support for us part time. She’s been busy with Neighbourhood Fix-it which has had lots of traffic and attention the last few weeks.
OK, back to the present.
Last week Ben Campbell and I gave a seminar at Technology for a Small Nation in Llandudno. We split into two groups, I got people to add Google maps to an HTML page on their website, and Ben got people to call the TheyWorkForYou API from PHP. It went down well, very satisfying to do practical exercises, and answer all the niggling questions (how to install a testing webserver on Windows, how to use FTP) which are the real things that stop people doing what they want to do.
And Thursday? Just a reminder, unless you’re not apathetic, that there’s an election today.