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.
We know from our inboxes that there are people all over the world who would love to start sites like TheyWorkForYou.com, FixMyStreet.com, or WhatDoTheyKnow.com in their own countries. Building and running these sites is hard, though, and takes time, money, and love. Until now we haven’t been able to do much for these keen correspondents beyond sharing our ideas, sharing our code, and wishing people the very best of luck. We’re happy to say that for at least some of these people, things are about to change for the better.
If you live in Central or Eastern Europe, we’re now in a position to help you get effective democracy and transparency websites built. mySociety have teamed up with the Open Society Institute (OSI) and together we are now looking for determined people with great ideas for new digital transparency and accountability services in their countries.
Over the next few months we are running a Call for Proposals, similar to the one we recently ran in the UK. The big difference is that this time we’re not looking for projects that we will build. We’re looking for projects you want to build, but that for lack of funds or lack of the right skills, you can’t get started yourself.
Each month the Open Society Institute and mySociety will work closely together to select a series of projects to fund and mentor. Crucially, the call isn’t solely for existing NGOs: the process is absolutely open to submissions from individuals or groups with no prior direct experience of working in the transparency and accountability sector, but who have a good idea that addresses a problem they see in their country. We will, however, look more favourably on applicants with access to the advanced programming skills required to build sites like this.
The criteria are simple, though demanding:
- The projects have to generate some kind of meaningful transparency, accountability, or democratic empowerment of another kind.
- The projects must seize the unique benefits that the Internet brings with it, such as scalability, two way communication, easy data analysis and so on.
More details are available over at our new CEE site, but even if you don’t live in one of the eligible countries please help us spread the word about this exciting new opportunity!
Describe your idea:
Introduce volunteer citizen participation directly into the daily operation of elected politicians, on both national and local levels. Start with local councilors and: A) TASK TRACKER = simplified version of Request Tracker, or Basecamp, to track tasks that citizens ask councilors to work on and tasks that councilors work on otherwise; B) OPEN COMMITTEES – tool to have citizen discussing tasks/decisions and related documents that councilors work on in committees, with citizen ability to collectively comment on and edit documents. Couple of my local concilors are willing to start using it and i’ll work with them anyway. more here.
What problem does it solve?:
Problem of political representation, which is a broken way to conduct politics democratically. Since it doesn’t enable citizens to participate in it directly. This proposal would open the doors for the Internet Model, by introducing the concept of Open Process. With the tools for communication and cooperation we have available, our current political models are a problem in itself. They have been designed centuries ago and are quite inappropriate today. We can do far better. Example proposal of Open Process in academic publishing.
Type of idea: A brand new project
Describe your idea:
enhance fixmystreet usefulness by integrating key mapping data including Definitive Maps (for PROW), Lists of Streets, rights of way, alleys, courts, etc., not on Definitive Maps (e.g. Inner London), registered commons, common access land and greens.
What problem does it solve?:
identifying and claiming lost footpaths and other ROW in rural and urban areas; establishing/recording existing public rights of way; to provide the on-line campaigning tool to defend and prevent attempts to extinguish ROW and highway, and meeting the Jan 1st 2026 deadline of The Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000.
refs: e-mail to Tom and Matthew Aug 11th Re: Comment on the Usability of Fixmystreet
: [mySociety:public] Suggestion for project: Common Land data
Date: Thu, 09 Jul 2009 08:26:32 +0100
Type of idea: A brand new project
Go straight to the 2009 Call for Proposals
Do you have a ‘mySocietyish’ idea that you’d like to see become reality? Is there something radical about the sites we already run that should change? Do you have any smart ideas about helping more people to benefit from the services we already offer? Or would you just like to read and comment on ideas submitted by other people?
If the answer to any of these questions is yes, then we’d like you to submit your idea to our 2009 Call for Proposals (built for us by Richard Pope). We’ve run these twice before in 2003 and 2006, resulting in the launch and success of sites such as WriteToThem and WhatDoTheyKnow.
Just as on previous occasions we’ll pick a winner and some runners up, but also just as before we can only promise to do our best – we don’t have the resources to solemnly promise to build the winner, whatever it might be.
What We’re Looking For (or, an insight into the mySociety mindset)
The characteristics of the winning and runner up ideas are highly likely to include one or more of the following factors. Don’t try and include all of them, that’d be silly 🙂
- They have to involve the Internet. We don’t do clay modelling.
- They will capitalise on one or more things that the Internet does really well, better than offline or other forms. WhatDoTheyKnow, for example, seizes on the fact that email can be simultaneously published and rerouted – a simple but critical insight.
- They will either be a whole new website idea, or a smart and impactful modification of something we already do.
- They will be ideas that have clear social, civic or democratic benefits that are really easy to explain to the least political person you know, even if the technology behind them is fiendishly complicated.
- They will have some characteristic that will widely spread the word that the service exists, or that other mySociety services exist.
- They will offer brilliant value for money, even if they’re expensive to build in the first instance.
- They will be genuinely new ideas
- They won’t contain the phrase ‘social media’
We might well change these guidelines a bit as the first responses come in. The call will stay open until September 15th, and we’ll hope to announce the winners in early October.
So what are you waiting for – check out the 2009 Call for Proposals
Some super news just in. mySociety has been awarded funding by the JRSST Charitable Trust to build our Freedom of Information Filer and Archive(FOIFA), the winner of our 2006 call for proposals. This means that we will be able to start work relatively early in the New Year.
At £24,500 this is our largest ever donation from a philanthropic source of any kind. We’re very grateful to the good people at the various Rowntree trusts involved in supporting us in this way. Not only will it enable us to start relatively swiftly on the FOIFA project, but it also represents a mark of confidence in mySociety by a major player in the UK foundation world. Thank you to the JRSST, and thank you again to the developers and volunteers who have made mySociety a project worth trusting :).
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
The mySociety call for proposals closed a few weeks ago. We’d love to know what you thought were the top three best proposals, or, if you don’t like any of them that much, the best ideas buried within the proposals.
So, please leave your thoughts in comments on this post, preferably arranged as a top 3. And even better, why not use this brand new experimental PledgeBank feature to meet with other people near you, so you can discuss the best ideas before posting here?
The mySociety Call for Proposals 2006 will close officially at midnight on 16th June. There are already 70 proposals for new websites, and mySociety will build the best idea. We’ve postponed the close of the call for proposals so that it can feature in the next edition of the legendary email newsletter NTK.
Author: Mitja Sadar
What NEED does this meet?
Whenever I am trying to find personal webpages of any person, it feels just like picking up a phone and randomly calling numbers, hoping that you will find somebody you want to talk to. And phonebook was a great solution in solving the phone problem. The same principle could be applied to personal webpages on the internet. You could either enter name (or other detail (like interest, education ..) of the person you are looking for, and get a result (like a phone listing, except that you get webpage link instead of phone number). The project can at first be started in uk (for that purpose I already have a domain name and can later be easily expanded to cover the EU (at the .eu address which I have secured as well.
What is the APPROACH?
It will organise personal space (every user (uk at beginning, eu later on) will be able to list their page in the “webbook”, just as they can do in a phonebook.
What are the BENEFITS to people?
It will help organise personal pages and enable people looking to meet friends to avoid commercial sites
What is the COMPETITION?
So far I haven’t found any important.
What BUDGETS & LOGISTICS are required?
We will need to have a submit form, search form and results page, plus a page explaining the principle, all of those linked to a central database. also a member page where they can change the details or add pages wouldn’t hurt.