Why we do what we do. No, not the name of a wonderfully named new mySociety product, instead it’s an excuse for me to take stock of where we are and where we go next.
Inevitably over the past decade we’ve tackled lots of issues and projects from lots of different angles. What we’re currently focused on is Freedom of Information, Parliaments and Elections, and Local Issue Reporting.
What links all of our work is the creation of civic technology that enables greater access for citizens to the work of government and the democratic process:
Lack of access to elected representatives amongst disadvantaged or underrepresented groups is a key driver of exclusion and inequality, yet governments tend only to become better at serving the needs of citizens when those citizens are capable of demanding better.
Simply put, this is our cause.
Our Theory Of Change
Citizens will only demand better from governments if they have access to a mix of often scarce resources: from education, to wealth, to knowledge about government failings. At mySociety we are highly aware that we can’t give people most of these things: we can’t boost business in failing economies or bring teachers into schools that have none. These are the tasks of development funders, political leaders and well-regulated markets.
Tremendous human suffering happens when governments fail to serve the needs of their citizens, and human welfare is dramatically increased when governments serve citizens’ needs well. Some governments are excellent at meeting some citizen needs, but weak at meeting others, harming a minority, often invisibly. Others make no attempt to meet any of their citizens’ needs, robbing, starving and failing them in every possible way.
Our theory of change is based on a reading of political history, and specifically of the history of reform campaigns, such as those that drove the democratisation of nations from the 17th to the 20th century. We believe that governments tend only to get better at serving the needs of citizens when citizens are capable of demanding better, creating a virtuous circle that leads steadily to better government.
Each of our services give citizens the skills, confidence and knowledge they need in order to be capable of demanding better.
Freedom of Information
FOI is a core plank of a healthy, transparent and accountable democracy. Every citizen should have the right to query and understand the workings of government and public bodies on their own terms.
Alaveteli is our platform for FOI request websites. We currently support partners in over 20 countries, from Australia to Hungary, Nicaragua to Ukraine, as well as a pan-European site AskTheEU. Our most successful site is WhatDoTheyKnow in the UK, with almost 300,000 individual FOI requests alone – drawn from over 16,000 UK public bodies.
Over the next year we will continue to refine and develop Alaveteli to better support the expansion and proper use of FOI around the world. At the same time, we’ll be actively campaigning to preserve FOI in the UK which is currently under threat from the Government’s FOI commission.
Parliaments and Elections
The activities of Government can often be opaque and difficult to interpret. We improve access to elected representatives, providing clarity, context and understanding to the decisions they make on our behalf.
We tackle the workings of government at a variety of points throughout the electoral cycle; YourNextMP/Rep for candidate information, TheyWorkForYou and WriteToThem allow people to query and explain the workings of government at all levels.
Increasingly central to these efforts is EveryPolitician, our crowdsourcing effort to sustainably store and share a structured open data set of every national politician around the world. It currently holds data on more than 60,000 politicians from over 230 territories.
In the next few weeks we’ll complete work to integrate all of our existing Parliament services with EveryPolitician and continue to encourage more journalists, developers, and NGOs to create the tools they need in their own countries.
Local Issue Reporting
FixMyStreet gets right to the root of any disconnect between citizens and those who provide their local services. Literally dealing with street-level issues, FixMyStreet can help turn our everyday feelings of frustration into action.
The original and much emulated FixMyStreet.com makes it easy to report street faults like broken street lights or potholes, raising over 650,000 reports in the last 8 years.
We’ve extended the principle of issue – reporting – resolution, to create a generalised platform catering to a variety of interesting and practical new use cases; with projects as varied as empty home identification, or logging road collisions and near misses for cyclists.
Citizens feel more in control. Local councils can target their efforts more effectively. Together this can contribute to better government.
For the moment we’ll continue to consolidate our offer in these three areas.
There’s ample scope for further development, refinement of concepts and of course directly increasing the impact of currently deployed sites.
What gets really interesting is when we start to scale up the delivery of each of these in more countries, delivered to more people, ensuring we see more citizens gain greater influence over those with power.
I’ll post again later this week about some of the practical changes that we are making to better encourage the take up of our services and how we’re improving the way we work with our partners.
Image: Morgan Schmorgan (CC)
Back in March, mySociety’s founder Tom Steinberg, announced that he would step down.
Today, I’m pleased to announce that later this month I will be taking over the reins as Tom’s successor. I’m Mark Cridge, and I guess I should start by introducing myself.
I’ve had a diverse 20-year career doing digital things. Most recently I was chief operating officer with the lovely folks at BERG, a London-based technology and design consultancy many of you might know. For the past year I was a senior advisor at Blue State Digital in London, the team responsible for the digital strategy used in President Obama’s electoral campaigns.
I began my career back in 1996 in a small web design agency in Birmingham, before setting up glue London, a digital advertising agency, going on to become global managing director of Isobar, following glue’s acquisition in 2005. I originally studied Architecture before realising that wasn’t quite my cup of tea, and that the internet held more immediate attractions.
I’m genuinely excited to take what I’ve learned over my time to date, and to apply it to help build on Tom’s achievements as mySociety’s founder — by creating even more digital tools that make a difference to the lives of citizens in Britain and around the world.
What I’ll be focusing on
mySociety’s mission is unchanged: we exist to invent and popularise new digital tools that enable citizens to exert power over institutions and decision makers.
As CEO I plan to focus on mySociety’s users, partners and volunteers both in the UK and in dozens of countries internationally, where we now conduct the great majority of our work.
My initial priorities will be to ensure that mySociety’s existing sites keep pushing the boundaries of what is possible in the world of civic technologies, whilst also thinking through where we can move into new and exciting areas.
I want to make a new push to ensure that charities, activists and journalists around the world are able to run successful, high profile sites of their own, powered by mySociety’s open source technologies.
We will also be building up our research team over the next few years, to ensure that we are providing tools and services that have genuine impact, which we ourselves are able to measure.
All of which will build towards a reaffirmation of mySociety’s place as a key player within the global civic technology movement.
Making this all possible
Of course, all of this is possible only thanks to the generous support of our many funders — and needless to say we are always looking for more, if you think you can help then please do let me know. In particular, I will be spending a good deal of time delivering the three-year vision we developed with our friends at the Omidyar Network, with whom we announced a major $3.6m funding partnership earlier this year.
That said, one of mySociety’s great assets is that we are not entirely reliant on donor funding, so I will also retain our strong focus on helping our commercial clients — from UK local councils and charities to global technology giants — to serve their own users better, by working with mySociety Commercial Services.
All in all, I am indebted to Tom for leaving mySociety with sound finances and a world-class team of developers, both of which will be invaluable in helping me to take the organisation to the next level over its second decade.
I am also grateful to Tom and mySociety’s trustees for putting their trust in me. I’ve been an admirer of mySociety, and a user of its sites, for many years. It is a great privilege to be appointed as CEO.
I will be spending the next few months with the team as we plot and plan the next phase of our development which you can read more about here on this blog in the coming months. So if any of this sounds interesting to you then please get in touch.
I’d love to hear your thoughts.
And Tom says…
A big welcome to Mark!
I am excited that someone with so much digital experience has come along to guide mySociety in our second decade. We’ve always been an unusual social enterprise in that while we have a social mission, we also operate a first class software development and design team in-house. With Mark on board we will retain and grow that digital credibility, whilst focusing ever more deeply on the needs of our international partners, our UK clients, and growing our research capacity so that we know what is (and isn’t) working.
I am looking forward to spending the next month brain-dumping to Mark, before I slip quietly out the door in early August.
It’s an exciting time for mySociety, and I hope everyone will join me in celebrating Mark’s arrival!
As you may already be aware, mySociety is putting considerable effort into making it super-easy to set up versions of our websites FixMyStreet and WhatDoTheyKnow in other countries.
These ‘websites in a box’ are a key part of our strategy to help people develop more successful civic and democratic websites around the world, but they are only the first half of our plan. Today I wanted to talk about the other half.
There are some use-cases for software in which most people are entirely happy to take some software off the shelf, press ‘Go’, and start using it. WordPress is a good example, and so is Microsoft Office.
However, there are some kinds of social issues that vary so much between different countries and regions that we believe one-size-fits-all tools for attacking them are impracticable.
This problem is particularly acute in the arena of sites and apps that allow people to track the activities of politicians. In this area there are several dozen different sites globally, almost all of which are powered by software that was written bespoke for that particular usage.
What drives this pattern of people re-writing every site from scratch is that people in different places care about different aspects of politics. In some countries what really counts is how politicians vote, in others the crux is campaign finance contributions, in others it is information on who has criminal records, and in others still it is whether public money has been vanishing suspiciously.
To build an off-the-shelf software platform that could handle all this data equally well in every country would be an immense coding task. And more important than that, we believe that it would create a codebase so huge and complex that most potential reusers would run away screaming. Or at least ignore it and start from scratch.
In short – we don’t believe there can be a WordPress for sites that monitor politicians, nor for a variety of other purposes that relate to good governance and stronger democracies.
We believe that the wrong answer to this challenge is to just say “Well then, everyone should build their own sites from scratch.” Over the years we at mySociety have been witness to the truly sad sight of people and organisations around the world wearing themselves out and blowing their budgets just trying to get the first version of a transparency website out the door. All too often they fail to create popular, long lasting sites because the birthing process is just so exhausting and resource-consuming that there’s nothing left to drive the sites to success. Often they don’t even get to launch.
A painful aspect of this problem is that the people who work on such sites are genuine altruists who are trying to solve serious problems in their part of the world; too much of their passion and energy is used up on building tools, when there’s still so much work beyond that that’s needed to make such sites successful. However, as we pointed out above, giving them a complete package on a plate isn’t an option. So what can we do?
Our Proposed Answer – The Components
We start from the following observation: coders and non-coders like simple, minimal, attractive tools that help them achieve bigger goals. Simple tools don’t make anyone run away screaming – they encourage exploration and deliver little sparkles of satisfaction almost immediately. But simple tools have to be highly interoperable and reliable to form the foundation of complex systems.
Our plan is to collaborate with international friends to build a series of components that deliver quite narrow little pieces of the functionality that make up bigger websites. These include:
There will be more, possibly many more. Our goal is to radically collapse the time it takes to build new civic and democratic (and possibly governmental) websites and apps, without putting constraints on creativity.
- PopIt – A Component to store and share the names of politicians, and the jobs they have.
- MapIt – A Component to store and share information on the locations of administrative boundaries, like counties, regions or cities.
- SayIt – A Component to store and share information on the words that public figures say or put out in writing.
Characteristics of each Component
There are some crucial architecture decisions that have been baked into the Components, to truly make them ‘small pieces loosely joined’.
- Each Component is fundamentally a tool for storing and sharing one or two kinds of common data – they’re intentionally minimalist.
- As a developer, you just use the Components that make sense for your goals – you simply don’t have to look at or learn about the Components that contain functionality that doesn’t matter to you.
- You don’t have to install anything to get started – you can always begin by playing with a hosted Component.
- We won’t impose our taste in programming languages on you. You can code your website in whatever language you want. The Components are not ‘modules’ – they don’t plug into some overarching framework like Drupal or WordPress. They are stand-alone tools which just present you data over REST APIs, and which you can write data into using REST APIs.
- Each Component’s data structures will offer as much flexibility as makes sense given the goal of keeping each Component really good at one or two tasks. We’ll listen to feedback carefully to get this right.
- Each Component has a clean, simple web front end so you can explore the data held in a store without having to write lots of SQL queries. Often you will be able to edit the data this way, too.
- Get started in seconds – each Component offers at least some functionality which is available inside a minute after getting involved.
- Non coders are welcome – we are building the Components so that non-coders can start gathering, editing and sharing data straight away, possibly long before they are in a position to launch a ‘real site’.
- Data can be added to the Components both through write APIs and through manual editing interfaces, suitable for non-coders.
- Learn from our mistakes – it is really easy to get the wrong data structure for civic, democratic or governmental data. Good practice data structures are baked into the Components, to save you pain later.
- Use our hosted versions, or install open source code locally. It will normally be quicker to get started in using the Components in a hosted environment, but if you want to run them locally, you’re entirely welcome. The code will be open source, and we’ll work hard to make sure it’s attractive and easy to install.
- The Components will talk to each other, and to the rest of the web using simple open schemas which will evolve as they are built. Where possible we’ll pick up popular data standards and re-use those, rather than building anything ourselves.
What the Components Aren’t
Sometimes in life it can be easier to describe things by what they aren’t:
- The Components are definitively not modules in a framework or platform. Each one is totally independent, and they will frequently be written in different languages – partly to force us to ensure that the APIs are truly excellent.
- The Components aren’t either Hosted or Local, they’re both. We’ll always offer a hosted version and a downloadable version, and you’ll always be able to move any data you have stored on the hosted versions down to your local copies.
- The Components aren’t all about mySociety. We’re planning to build the first ones in conjunction with some friends, and we’ll be announcing more about this soon. We want the family of Components to be jointly owned by a group of loving parents.
When can I see some of the Components in Action?
We’ll be blogging more about that tomorrow…
Footnote – To see the provenance of the extremely useful ‘small pieces loosely joined’ concept, see this.
Over the last weekend of November 2009 a group of 21 mySociety staff, volunteers and trustees went to a house outside of Bristol to wrestle with the question of what mySociety should build over the next 12 months. This was the fourth time we’ve done it, and these meetings have become a crucial part of our planning. This year, we were talking not just about what new features to add to our current sites, but also about the possibility of building an entirely new website for the first time in a couple of years. The discussions were lively and passionate because we know we have a lot to live up to: not only is our last major new site (WhatDoTheyKnow) likely to cross the 1 million unique visitors threshold this year, but we understood that there were people and organisations who weren’t there who would be counting on us to set the bar high.
A chunk of the weekend involved vetting the 227 project ideas that were proposed via our Call for Proposals. I’m going to write a separate post on our thoughts about that process, but if you look at the list below you may spot things that were submitted in that call.
One nice innovation that helped us whittle down our ideas from unmanageable to manageable numbers was a pairwise comparison game to help us prioritise ideas, build custom for the occasion by the wonderful and statistically talented Mark Longair. In other words, we used the technique that powers KittenWar.com to help decide our key strategic priorities for the next year: after all , if we don’t, who will?
By the end of the weekend we had not battened everything down – there are too many uncertainties around how much time we will have, and some key ideas that need more speccing. However, we were able to put various things into different buckets, marked according to size and degree of certainty. So here goes:
1. Things which were decided at the last retreat, which we are definitely building, and which (mostly) need doing before next year’s stuff starts getting built
- A top level page for each bill on TheyWorkForYou
- Future business (ie the calendar) for events in the House of Commons, including a full set of alerting options.
- Video clips on MP pages on TheyWorkForYou
- Epicly ambitious election data gathering and quiz building with the lovely volunteers at DemocracyClub
2. Small new things that we are very probably doing because there was lots of consensus
- Publish a standard that councils can use to post problems like potholes in their databases to FixMyStreet and other similiar sites.
- Template requests in WhatDoTheyKnow so that users are strongly encouraged to put in requests that are well structured.
- After the next general election, email new MPs with various bits of info of interest to them including their new login to HearFromYourMP, their page on TheyWorkForYou, explanation of how WriteToThem protects them from spam and abuse, a double check that their contact details are correct, and a introduction to the fact that we record their correspondance responsiveness and voting records.
- Add to WhatDoTheyKnow descriptions about what kind of public authority a specific entity is (ie ‘school’, ‘council’) and the information they are likely to hold if FOIed.
- Show divisions (parliamentary votes) properly on debate pages on TheyWorkForYou, ie show the results of a vote on the same page as the debate where the issue was discussed, with full party breakdowns on each division.
- Add “How to benefit from this site” page on TheyWorkForYou, inspired by OpenCongress.org
- Help Google index TheyWorkForYou faster by creating a sitemap.xml file that is dynamically updated.
- Using the data we expect to have from DemocracyClub’s volunteers, send a press release about every new MP and to all relevent local newspapers
- Incorporate a council GeoRSS problem feed into FMS
3. Slighty more time consuming things we are very probably doing because there was lots of consensus
- 1 day per month developer time that customer support guru Debbie Kerr gets to allocate as she see fit.
- Premium account feature on WhatDoTheyKnow to hide requests so that journalists and bloggers can still get scoops and then share their correspondance later.
- Add Select Committees to TheyWorkForYou, including email alerts on calls for evidence.
- Take professional advice on how to handle PR around the election
4. Much more time consuming things and things around which there is less consensus. NB – We do not currently have the resources to do everything on this list next year – it is an ambitious target list.
- Primary New site: TBA in a new post
- Add a new queue feature to WhatDoTheyKnow so that users can write requests, then table them for comments from other users and expert volunteers before they are sent to the public authority
- Relaunch our Volunteer tasks page on our sites, keep it populated with new tasks, specifically allocate resources to handhold potential volunteers. Allocate time to see if any of the ideas that we didn’t build could be parcelled into volunteer tasks.
- Secondary New site (if we have a lot more time than we expect): Exploit extraordinary richness of Audit Comission local government target data in a TheyWorkForYou-like fashion.
- FixMyStreet to become international with a) maps for most of the world b) easy to follow instructions explaining how to supply mySociety with the required data to us to enable us to turn on FixMyStreet in non UK countries or areas. This data would includ ie gettext powered text translation files, shapefiles of administrative boundaries, and lists of contact data.
- Add votes and proceedings to TheyWorkForYou (where they reveal statutory instrument titles that are not debated but where the law gets changed anyway)
- Carry out usability testing on TheyWorkForYou with then help of volunteer Joe Lanman – then implement changes recommended during a development process taking up to 10 days.
- Add to TheyWorkForYou questions that have been tabled in the house of commons but which haven’t been answered yet.
- Add a new interface for just councils so that they can say if a problem on FixMyStreet has changed status.
Phew. And that’s not even counting the projects we hope to help with in Central and Eastern Europe, our substantial commercial work, or the primary new site idea, which will be blogged in Part 2.
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).
A couple of weekends ago when it was still sunny, a group of 20 or so mySociety developers, trustees, and volunteers went away together to a farmhouse in Warwickshire (thanks to everyone especially Tim Morley and Tom Loosemore for their help). This was not only an opportunity for people like me to finally meet all those I’ve been emailing for months if not years, but also to discuss various things about mySociety.
It was an excellent weekend – we learnt lots of new things, like how UKCOD and mySociety have developed over the last 10 years(!), Rob’s excellent NZ TheyWorkForYou, and Richard’s PlanningAlerts.com. We also discussed what mySociety’s core aims and principles should be – here are some thoughts:
1) Build sites that build civic value, using the internet natively as a medium and that scale elegantly
2) Build sites that are easy to use for those without experience
3) Build sites that are focused on meeting one simple need
4) mySociety should become self-sustaining, financially and staff-wise
Principles for developing mySociety services and products
1) Build things that meet people’s needs, and that they can’t express yet
2) Do one thing really, really, really well (brand on one thing)
3) Treat the entire world as a creative canvas (plug-ins, widgets, etc.)
4) Do not attempt to do everything yourself; use other people’s content
5) Back success, get rid of failure
6) The web is a conversation; join in
7) Any website is only as good as its worst page
8) Make sure your content can be linked to forever
9) Your granny will never use Second Life
10) Maximize roots to content; optimize your site to run high on Google
11) One size does not fit all – users should know they’re on your site
12) Accessibility is not an optional extra
13) Let people paste their content on their own sites
14) Link to discussions on the web, not necessarily host them
15) Personalization should be unobtrusive and coherent
And some more thoughts:
1) Only use html and CSS
2) Ensure accessibility
3) Ensure usability
4) Make it work across the spectrum – screen readers to mobile phones
5) Build things that don’t require key “stick in the muds?? to do anything
6) Don’t ever build anything that might become an empty cupboard, or if you do, make it very easy for people to fill that cupboard.
7) Don’t rely on network effect, but do seek out network effect
8) Engineer serendipity
9) Help users connect with other users
10) Set the bar high for privacy
However, we still have some challenges ahead: we need to think about how to make the most of our existing sites, and had a very good session on how to improve PledgeBank’s outreach; we also need to engage better with both our current and potential volunteers; and, of course, move towards becoming financially self-sustaining to keep up our good work without always relying on grants.
And finally, because we like tangible actions, we launched the UKCOD site on Saturday night too.
So what happens next? Well some of the things have already happened, like Matthew and others transforming FixMyStreet and Francis developing some widgets. We’ll also see what the new PM wants to do with e-petitions (keep it, apparently, which is good), and how the e-democracy landscape is changing. And, soon we hope, we’ll give this site a bit of a facelift.
But we still have much to do, and the weekend wasn’t long enough to get through everything we wanted. So here are a few more things to chew over.
• Have you wanted to volunteer for mySociety but found it difficult, e.g. the tasks were too technical, or didn’t really know where to start?
• Is there something you want to know about mySociety, or our sites, but not been able to find?
• How can we improve our existing sites?
• Do you know any nice millionaires with some spare cash burning a hole in their pockets, and they just don’t know what to do with it?
Let us know why and we’ll try to do something about it.
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?
mySociety is pleased to announce the winner of our 2006 call for proposals, plus our thoughts on the best runners up, and various other lessons.
Our winner, and the next major site we are planning to build is the Freedom of Information Filer and Archive; a searchable, readable, googlable user-created archive of FOI requests and their responses. Think of a combined TheyWorkForYou and WriteToThem.com for FOI requests and their responses, and you’ll have our vision.
This idea was actually submitted twice, once by Phil Rodgers and once by Francis Irving (a mySociety coder).
We believe the idea is especially powerful in a form extended somewhat beyond that submitted. We think that the best way to build a top quality archive is to simultaniously build the best possible “File an FOI request” tool, and then publish both the requests and the responses made through it in the archive. From the private desire to easily file FOI requests we hope that we can generate the public benefit of an easy to use archive.
We asked our community of users and friends to list their top three projects, and the FOIFA was named more often than any other single project as the winner: 9 out of a total of 22 people who left a comment expressing their preferences. The core team, core volunteers and trustees agreed with the users, and so we have a winner.
mySociety will start building the system in early 2007. We will try to fund it in two ways. First, we will approach donors, most probably foundations, to see if they are interested in supporting it. Secondly, we will see if we can set aside some surplus from contract work, such as branded versions of the other sites. And lastly, we’ll work with any volunteers who are willing to dig in.
Our initial estimate is that the site will take 120 full time developer days to design, build and launch to beta, for a total cost of about £25,000 including servers, management time, gathering of contact details, buying of sweets, motivational calendars and so on. The cost of running it thereafter are hard to gauge at this point, and will depend on usage patterns and the final spec we settle on.
In the run up to building and launching it we’ll gladly talk to anyone who wants to be involved, including public sector agencies who we hope might use this system to publish responses to requests made via other channels.
In no particular order, these are some of the other ideas that had some legs. We’re putting them here to suggest to the world that there might be something well worth exploring here.
1. A to B travel, by Murray, is a sort of collaborative journey planner, where people share information on journeys that they’ve made. Unfortunately, too much of this site is already done by the big and expensively run government site Transportdirect.info , but it has nice ideas that are worth someone doing. In particular the idea of local knowledge and general comments on different journeys is an excellent, and Seat61.com shows that there is some considerable appetite for journeys explained in a human form. Often I don’t want the fastest journey from A to B, I might want the best view, or the most pleasant form of transport, or the one that can be broken somewhere notable.
We’ve also come up with a feature that this site could add. It is the idea of registering to express an interest not in a specific journey, but in a general journey: “I go from Manchester to London a few times a year, and I might want to share a car in future”.
2. Get Out! by Mary Reid. This proposal was about building a site that would contain a user build database of places to go in the UK that would contain something nice and easy to do if you had an hour or two to spare and wanted to get out of the house.
We’ve felt for a while that there is a great problem with knowledge of local activities being hopelessly fractured across the UK Internet, spread across a million different sites and so worth much less than the sum of its parts. A site that could become a reference place to store interesting things to see, and a reference place to find them could be excellent indeed. Maybe a rebuild and extension of our little back o’ the envelope site YourHistoryHere.com?
3. Write To Your Newspaper by Francis Irving (again)
This proposal was about a site that makes it much easier to write to local newspapers. It is undoubtedly a good thing, but it simply didn’t beat the FOI archive because we felt the demand and public benefit just wasn’t as great as for FOIFA. One of mySociety’s volunteers has actually already written some code in this area, and we certainly think it should go further.
4. TheyWantToWorkForYou by Seb Bacon – a site where people could find out prospective politicians rather than current ones was voted for by a few people. We think it would be a good idea for such a system to exist, but the scale problem is enormous. With 20,000 current councillors, just imagine how many candidates there are at each election, and the massive problem of trying to get them to give structured views. What is missing here really is a strong motivation for candidates to go to a certain site and enter info themselves – it just doesn’t exist, and probably couldn’t without the major backing of someone like a big newspaper,or the BBC. NB, we also feel strongly that such a site would have to be permanent, and not just run at elections.
Lessons Learned from Running the Call
Just some thoughts about the process, really here for anyone else who might be planning to run a call like this and who stumbles across us via Google.
1. First time round, in 2003, the call for proposals got 250+ proposals, whereas this time it had more like 100, even though mySociety has moved from completely unknown to somewhat better known. Clearly despite BBC and Guardian coverage, we did something not as well this time. This might simply have not been hammering every list and person we could with personally crafted emails, or it could have just been blind chance.
2. We should have determined and published the judging process before the call for proposals was put out. Nobody seems to have been especially upset by our drawn out and ill-planned selection process, but it would have meant we would have made our decision much more quickly.
3. We should have set a timetable for all parts of the process.
4. We should have made some sort of web based voting gadget to engage people slightly more with the deciding process (despite knowing that online voting is mostly bunk, of course).
5. We could have made a shortlist and then asked the authors to do more work in polishing up their ideas.
If you’ve any further questions about the call for proposals, or the Freedom of Information Filer and Archive get in touch with us at firstname.lastname@example.org
Despite being strictly non-partisan, mySociety is still indisputibly a political entity that seeks to encourage new and better sorts of things to happen in our democracy. But ‘new’ and ‘better’ are vague words without a clear understanding of what democracy is, or what it could become.
Consequently, mySociety needs a theory of British democracy of the same robustness and quality as the code written by our developers. I am not as good a theorist as my team are programmers, but I will do my best to spell out where we see the weaknesses and opportunities for improvement in the current system.
What I am publishing here is explicity my view, not mySociety’s, and it is most definitely a first draft. I would be very grateful if you would be kind enough to leave comments containing your thoughts and suggestions, so that eventually (perhaps) it can be published as a proper essay or pamphlet and, with luck, enjoy the endorsement of the mySociety developers, trustees and volunteers.
Part 1. Democracy is about far more than voting
Once every four years a majority of all those elegible to vote in the UK make their way to schools and community centres to cast their ballots at the general election. These voters, picking from a range of options usually somewhat smaller than their supermarket choice of canned tuna, put their cross next to their preferred candidate and then make their way home.
The crosses that the voters leave on their ballot papers are painstakingly aggregated to determine the next occupents of 646 prized jobs; few of the jubilant winners understanding at the time what a seismic career mistake they have just made. But the individual constituency results are only the side-show to the main attraction. The real purpose of spending all that time and money on holding an election is to send two bits of information back to Parliament, the public and the Queen: who gets to govern, and how easily. When written down, the main output of the huge logistical exercise of a general election is astonishingly small: Lab 343, Con 196, Lib 63. Just 24 characters to dictate who gets to run the country, and how.
This seemingly esoteric observation highlights of the most remarkable things about democracies: despite the tiny amount of formal instruction given by the public to the political classes, democracies tend to be very different places compared to non-democracies. Clearly these 24 characters (bytes) are very important. With few exceptions democratic states come with a host of other institutions which are rare or unheard of in countries without them: fair courts, freedom of speech, freedom of association and so on.
These institutions haven’t just been created from scratch by democratically formed laws: they’re also the foundations upon which democracies have grown – they’re both the chicken and the egg. But why mention them here?
The answer is that these institutions attempt to provide guidance as to what government should actually do between elections. There are many millions of political decisions that need to be made in between our widely spaced elections, and the 24 bytes of instruction data generated at a general election just doesn’t contain enough detail. The non-electoral institutions of a democratic society are history’s solution to getting as many of those millions of decisions as possible right.
And what a bewildering array there are: from Quangos, to newspapers, to community groups, to industry lobbyists, to PTAs and NGOs to blogs. All ceasely pour out decisions that are vary from pure punditry to powerful statutory judgement.
Collectively these institutions and the decisions they make create a democratic culture which actually shapes our lives more frequently than bellweather issues at elections. Whether a school accepts our child, whether we get to add a skylight to our roof, and whether or not we feel afraid on our streets are determined by organisations that have almost never been subject to elections. And yet these institutions and the decisions they make are normally thought of as ‘democractic’, even though most of them are not formally elected. A community group of a dozen pensioners somehow seems far more democratic than Pravda, despite the latter being read by millions, and neither being elected.
The culture of democratic states isn’t some wishy washy backdrop against which real power politics happens, either. The institutions that shape our democratic culture often act as some of the hardest checks and balances against which politicians bang their heads. Just speak to a politician who has ever been foiled by a concerted media campaign to understand the power of democratic culture.
Where does mySociety fit into this? Well, we build tools that enable people to get better decisions made between elections. Whether that means writing direct to your politicians, or forming a campaign, or keeping politicians on their toes through publishing data on what they say and do, most of the things we build are about enabling our users to get the decisions made that they want to be made.
However, we’re far from alone in the arena of decision-influencing. The next section looks at how it has happened in the past, and how it may change in the future.
mySociety started in very late 2003 by running a call for project ideas ideas. We were delighted and overwhelmed by the response – over 250 projects were submitted and vetted by our users. With those users help we picked five, and plotted to raise funds from charitable trusts and funds: we didn’t have any money of our own.
Before we could so much as put an application in the post, we were strongly encouraged to bid for some money as part of the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister’s e-innovations scheme. We were told that we’d been granted it in March 2004, and we actually got it and started building stuff in October 2004.
Over the course of 2005 we built a variety of sites, some big like WriteToThem and PledgeBank, other small and experimental like Placeopedia. It’s been a great time beavering away with our core team and our volunteers together, but by last autumn we’d come to a simple realisation – our original plan: get ideas, raise money, build sites was over. We needed to work out what to do next.
Fortunately at the same time the e-innovations project was coming to an end. The Office of the Deputy Prime Minister seemed to like our work a lot (they even gave us a prize) and offered us one final chunk of money, something over £100,000, before the strings were cut permamently. The purpose of this money is simple – we are going to use it to generate some revenue streams by selling spin-offs to local government, the voluntary sector, plus anyone who can use their own versions of sites like PledgeBank.
mySociety remains a not-for-profit project, run out of out parent charity UKCOD. We will keep making sure that everything is free to use for citizens, and we hope that by doing a bit of business we can ensure that our democratic tools and services grow and flourish in the years ahead.
There is one final question that needs answering: what happened to GiveItAway, our final launch project? Well, the short answer is that in the intervening two years Freecycle became huge, and we didn’t want to compete against a successful social venture. Instead we decided that we’d offer GiveItAway to local authorities, offering to install it on their recycling and rubbish collection web pages, giving people the option of giving stuff away to local charities and community groups before it goes in the skip. If you think this is something your local authority should be doing, get in touch with us, and them!