1. Bath Digital Festival: links and slides

     

    Ignite Night Bath by Gemma HumphrysThanks to everyone who came to see us, chat with us, or participate in the Bath Digital Festival – we had a great time.

    Here’s a handy list of the speakers and projects we played host to. Whether you were there or not, follow the links to find a wealth of inspiration and ideas.

    Ignite night

    This fast-moving event saw 12 speakers, each speaking for five minutes, with a deck of 20 slides. The slides advanced automatically every 15 seconds, but if you’d like to linger a bit longer on any of the presentations, you can access them at your leisure, below.

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  2. Beat a path to Bath

    Bath Digital FestivalThe Bath Digital Festival has kicked off, and mySociety will be hosting, talking, and even judging at several of the events. Once we heard that the theme was to be ‘Digital for Good’, we were in: that phrase neatly encapsulates all that we aim to do, commercially and as a charity.

    We’re always happy to say hello, so come and grab us for a natter. Here’s a quick run-down of where you’ll find us.

    Ignite For:Good

    Tonight we’re hosting the fast-paced Ignite event, which will see 12 speakers racing against the clock to get their message across. Hope you’ve booked your tickets, though, as it’s now sold out.

    We suspect it’s going to be a raucous night with plenty to laugh about… but some real food for thought, too. Kick-off is at 6:15 – don’t be late!

    Bath Hacked

    The weekend of the 1st and 2nd of November will see a hackathon, based around open data and the city. There are some substantial prizes up for grabs, and mySociety’s Ben will be one of the judges.

    So, if you have the skills and some great ideas for how to improve Bath through the careful application of open data, see you there.

    Can digital tools help people become more powerful?

    Come and see Tom Steinberg discuss the impact that civic digital tools can have on ordinary people. This is part of the Inspirations night, when you’ll also be able to hear several others talking on topics as diverse as spyware, Kickstarter, and downloading a home.

    It’s on 4 November and tickets are still available.

     

     

  3. In Local Government? Some dates for your diary

    Mermaid Quay at Night by John Greenaway

    Come and say hello

    We’re out and about at quite a few local government conferences over the next few months. Come and find us! We’d love to hear what questions you have about mySociety’s digital services.
    Mike Thompson from mySociety
    At all the events below, Mike will be speaking, and both Mike and Myf will be available at our table if you’d like to chat.

    The events

    Channel Shift in the Public Sector London, September 26th

    Digital Public Services Wales Cardiff, October 18th

    Channel Shift in Scottish Public Services Edinburgh, October 31st

    Channel Shift in the Public Sector Manchester, December 5th

    Want to meet for drinks?

    We’ll also be around for informal localgov digital chat and drinks, the night before the Cardiff, Edinburgh and Manchester events. Drop us a line if you’d be interested in joining us.

    Photo of Cardiff by John Greenaway (CC)

  4. FixMyStreet: “Why doesn’t every council use this?”

    We were recently invited to the LGA annual conference to exhibit FixMyStreet for Councils in Nesta’s Innovation Zone along with a lot of interesting social enterprises.

    At one memorable point, we each had the opportunity to pitch to the surrounding crowds. Having to drum up interest from people passing through made me feel somewhat like a travelling salesman, but I channelled my semi-theatrical background and that seemed to do the trick.

    As one councillor said to me incredulously: “Why doesn’t every council use this?” If you’d like to see what inspired such a comment, here’s my presentation (click through and scroll to the bottom of the page if you’d like to see the accompanying notes, too).

    [iframe src=”http://www.slideshare.net/slideshow/embed_code/23841090″ width=”427″ height=”356″ frameborder=”0″ marginwidth=”0″ marginheight=”0″ scrolling=”no” style=”border:1px solid #CCC;border-width:1px 1px 0;margin-bottom:5px” allowfullscreen webkitallowfullscreen mozallowfullscreen]

    We’ll be putting all our presentations, of every kind, on our Slideshare account from now on, so do subscribe if that’s of interest. Just click the orange ‘follow’ button on that page.

  5. In local government? Some dates for your diary

    Christmas #27 by Kevin Dooley

    Here’s a heads-up for those in local government who have a special interest in digital services. Tom, Director of mySociety, will be speaking at two forthcoming events.

    LGA logo

    LGA annual conference

    Wednesday 27th June 2012, Birmingham

    What do Digital by Default, the Government Digital Service and the open data agenda mean for local government?

    The two key changes to the direction of government IT policy in the last two years have been the rise of open data, and the adoption of digital by default as a core goal. Both agendas were born centrally, and confusion about their meaning, motives and consequences has been rife in local government. mySociety’s director Tom Steinberg, who had a ringside seat in the development of these policies, will discuss the history and trajectory of these significant policy agendas.

    Wednesday 27th June 2012
    8:00 – 9:00 Breakfast briefing
    Room 1, Meetingspace at 11 Brindleyplace, Birmingham

    [dead link removed]

     

    Building Perfect Council Websites conference

    Building Perfect Council Websites conference

    Thursday 12th July 2012, Birmingham

    How to become an internet-native council

    Twenty years after the invention of the web, many councils and other public bodies are still only just starting to become ‘internet native’. In his talk Tom will talk about the management, attitude and structural changes that this transition entails, and will offer tips for overcoming the barriers.

    Thursday 12th July 2012
    09:45 – 10:30 Opening plenary
    National Motorcycle Museum, Birmingham

    [dead link removed]

    Tom Steinberg

    We’d love to see you at either of these events – and we’ll be happy to answer any questions you might have about mySociety, too.

    If you’d like to keep up to date with the interesting ideas and technologies from mySociety, you can sign up to our local government mailing list here. We’ll send updates a few times a year and will never spam you.

     

    Top image credit: Kevin Dooley.

  6. Come and meet mySociety

    Marquess of Anglesey

    Questions to ask us? Fantastic ideas for what we should be doing next? Thinking about joining our team of volunteers? Or perhaps you just like a drink in the company of exceptionally nice people.

    We’re reviving the monthly mySociety London pub meet (hoorah!) and if you can make it, we’d very much like to see you there.

    When? Thursday the 16th of June from 7.30 onwards

    Where? Marquess of Anglesey, 39 Bow Street, Covent Garden, London WC2E 7AU Google map

    And if you’re in or around Oxford the night before, Wednesday the 15th, you might be interested to know that our developer Louise Crow will be speaking about FixMyTransport at the Oxford Geek Night. As the project nears completion, this should be an interesting look at where the idea came from, what we hope it will do, and the challenges of building it.

  7. What does it take to get FixMyStreet to post reports directly into a council CRM? One good public servant.

    Recently I gave a talk at a conference where I told a group of local government officials that FixMyStreet was built not just to provide cleaner streets for their citizens, but also to force the hands of councils to procure and contract internal IT systems fit for the 21st century. In particular I pointed out that companies like Google seek to have people use their service from any site, any browser and device – they don’t just demand that everyone goes to www.google.com. And, I said, it’s only through building nice interfaces (APIs) that you can become an organisation that realises the benefits for yourself and other organisations from taking this ‘we’re happy to interoperate with anyone’ approach.

    Less than three weeks later Michael Houlsby from East Hants council has single-handedly built an external facing API for their faults and problems database. So now FixMyStreet posts problems in that council direct into their database, without them first being translated into emails.

    This is fantastic, especially as Michael clearly knocked it together in his spare time, and helps confirm what we’ve said before – if government builds nice interoperable APIs people like mySociety will use them to improve citizens’ experiences, whist simultaniously keeping everyone’s unnecessary workloads and expenses to a minimum. Plus it shows that if your IT supplier tells you you need to sign a new five or six figure contract to add an API to a CRM system you’ve already bought – you’re being jerked around.

    Hats off to Michael – you’re a great example of a pro-active public servant using your skills to make government both better and more efficient.

  8. 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).

  9. acts_as_xapian

    One of the special pieces of magic in TheyWorkForYou is its email alerts, sending you mail whenever an MP says a word you care about in Parliament. Lots of sites these days have RSS, and lots have search, but surprisingly few offer search based email alerts. My Mum trades shares on the Internet, setting it to automatically buy and sell at threshold values. But she doesn’t have an RSS reader. So, it’s important to have email alerts.

    So naturally, when we made WhatDoTheyKnow, search and search based email alerts were pretty high up the list, to help people find new, interesting Freedom of Information requests. To implement this, I started out using acts_as_solr, which is a Ruby on Rails plugin for Solr, which is a REST based layer on top of the search engine Lucene.

    I found acts_as_solr all just that bit too complicated. Particularly, when a feature (such as spelling correction) was missing, there were too many layers and too much XML for me to work out how to fix it. And I had lots of nasty code to make indexing offline – something I needed, as I want to safely store emails when they arrive, but then do the risky indexing of PDFs and Word documents later.

    The last straw was when I found that acts_as_solr didn’t have collapsing (analogous to GROUP BY in SQL). So I decided to bite the bullet and implement my own acts_as_xapian. Luckily there were already Xapian Ruby bindings, and also the fabulous Xapian email list to help me out, and it only took a day or two to write it and deploy it on the live site.

    If you’re using Rails and need full text search, I recommend you have a look at acts_as_xapian. It’s easy to use, and has a diverse set of features. You can watch a video of me talking about WhatDoTheyKnow and acts_as_xapian at the London Ruby User Group, last Monday.

  10. Read all about them

    I’ve just come back from a hectic week away – visiting friends and working while there. It’s good teleworking, I worked in a welsh valley on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday staying at my friend Ben’s house.

    Ben has been working for the Media Standards Trust, on their fab new site Journalisted. It’s a kind of a TheyWorkForYou-style site, but which gathers info and stats about journalists (as opposed to MPs). I’ve added links to it from TheyWorkForYou, so if you browse to an MP page who is also a journalist you can easily look up what they wrote.

    Hopefully this will put some much needed scrutiny on journalists – rewarding the good ones, who are both allowed the time to properly research stories, and are energetic enough to do so. Now, what will be the next Great British Institution to have some sunlight on it…

    Ben and I whizzed to London on the train to catch Steve Coast’s talk last night. He was as usual, excellent. We also had some great questions – it was interesting to hear a detailed account of the financial side of Open Street Map. Afterwards we had Italian food and beer. mySociety’s next disruptive tech talk is at the end of November. It’s by Jason Kitcat of the Open Rights Group talking about electronic voting.

    I’m glad to be back home after a week away.