As I mentioned on my last blog Dave and I spent this week in Geneva at OKCon.
This was my first time at OKCon and it was great to see a number of familiar faces from both OGP events and AbreLatAm. Though this was definitely a conference, unlike the Latin American unconference, there was still that feeling of being able to walk up to people and easily start chatting about the projects you’re working on. I’ve been inspired by New Zealand (and their idea of open government data as the new “business as usual”), awed by UNHCR (with their open data for humanitarian crises) and discussed the risks of people getting involved in tech for transparency movements in closed countries.
One session we attended was hosted by Code For Europe. It’s an organisation based on the Code for America example and we listened with interest to their approach, and defense when asked questions by skeptics. Their main challenge to the workshop attendees? Instead of trying to solve a huge national level problem and failing thanks to government bureaucracy, find one Civil Servant or MP that has a great idea and work with them. And in fact, some of mySociety’s best known platforms were started before we had any buy-in from the government, but knowing we had support from a few key people.
We made some great new friends, and caught up with DATAuy. Dave helped them set up FixMyStreet for Montevideo right there at the conference. This was a pretty amazing moment for us because it proved that the platforms, especially the Amazon EC2 hosted ones, really can be set up in less than a day! Don’t forget Dave is working on improving the documentation for this so if you are setting it up, please do fill in our survey.
For me, the most inspiring talk came from Jay Naidoo. He spoke about young people using technology and the internet to fight corruption as digital warriors bringing a “tsunami of hope”. The dream is that these young people can get information into the hands of the communities that can use it to hold their leaders to account. The ideal would be that we create a world free of corruption, where aid money and NGO initiatives get to those that need it most, and moreover that once it arrives, people understand how and why to use it – all because they have access to that information. You can read his blog about the talk here.
The next big event we’ll be at is OGP in London at the end of October, though we’re hoping to speak at some of the surrounding events as part of Transparency Week. Please do get in touch with us if you’re coming to OGP and want to meet up! We’d love to see you! Plus, you could join our Meet up on the 30th October and meet some mySociety staff!
OKCon main room photo by Arnaud Velten | Other photos by Jen
A lot of people come to mySociety to reuse our code having seen the UK websites, which is great! Then you can see what we’re trying to do in the UK and how you could replicate it abroad. But what I wonder, and what lead me to write this blog post, is are we reining in your imagination for what these platforms could be used for?
9 times out of 10, when someone contacts me about FixMyStreet, it’s for street reporting problems. Naturally, it’s in the name of the platform! But we do get the occasional request to use it differently, which is something we’re really keen to explore. Here are some things I think it could be used for, that aren’t street related:
1) Antiretroviral Drug shortages in clinics in Africa.
The background: 34% of the world’s HIV positive population currently live in Southern or Eastern Africa . These people need antiretroviral drugs to survive, some of which could be supplied by the Government’s medical stores, some of which could be supplied by charities, but it is often reported that there are shortages of drugs at some clinics 
The concept: A mobile responsive FixMyStreet site which health clinic staff can use to report the status of their stock to the relevant supplier. The site would instantly send an email to the clinic supplier when the staff member dropped a pin on their clinic on a map in the site. There could be different alert categories such as “stock running low”, “stock critically low” and “Out of stock”
Impact it would hope to achieve: The aim would be to enable clinics to report on the status of their stock far enough in advance that the supplier could order and deliver stock before they hit the Critically low or Out of Stock status. This would mean that people would always be supplied with ARVs if they need them. Another point would be that patients could check the map to see if the clinic in their area has stock of the ARVs they need, and potentially choose another clinic if there is a shortage.
The background: It’s no surprise to anyone to hear that some species of wildlife are under threat. Wildlife conservation charities, like the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), annually monitor population levels for endangered species  to ensure they have accurate data on population growth or decline and the lifestyles and habitats of the wildlife they are aiming to preserve.
The concept: A mobile responsive FixMyStreet site which allows people to report sightings of endangered animals to wildlife conservation charities. The site would be tailored for area (eg the endangered animals native to certain countries) or could simply be per species (eg mammals, avians etc). The public would then be able to take a picture of the animal, attach it to the report and leave a short message, like “2 adult bitterns accompanied by young seen at 10:41am). The report will give the charities the location the animal was spotted in and they will be able to add this to their research data.
Impact it would hope to achieve: Hopefully this idea would contribute valuable data to the research of Wildlife Conservation charities. Another hope is that it would make people more interested in the wildlife in their surrounding area, thus more involved in conserving it and its habitat.
3) Reporting polluted Waterways
The background: You may have seen the reports from China earlier this year about the dead pigs found in the Huangpu River . It’s not just a Chinese phenomenon: around the world rivers, canals and lakes are becoming more and more polluted.  In fact the statistics coming from the UN are quite shocking. This not only has a harmful effect on wildlife in the river, but could lead to longer term issues with clean drinking water, especially in countries where cleaning polluted water is an expensive option.
The concept: This is very similar to the classic FixMyStreet. A website would be set up where a person could submit a photo and report of a polluted waterway by dropping a pin on a map at the position of the river. This report would then get sent to the local council or persons responsible for caring for the waterway.
Impact it would hope to achieve: Similarly to FixMyStreet in the UK, this would help to get citizens more actively involved in their local area and government. The idea would also be that the council would hopefully start dedicating more resources to clear rivers and waterways. Or local residents could form a group to remove litter themselves. In the case of chemical or oil spills this would obviously not be advised. However if chemical waste or oil spillages were noticed to be originating from specific buildings then the council would have the opportunity to bring this up with the residents or companies in these buildings.
So those are some of my ideas! What are yours?
We’re actively looking to support non-street uses of FixMyStreet so please do get in contact on email@example.com with your ideas and we’ll work together to see how we can achieve them!
Oh, and, don’t worry if you still want a classic FixMyStreet, we’ll help you with that too!
Last week, our international team was invited to take part in the first ever AbreLatAm (by the way: a clever word play on the Spanish word “abrelatas” which means can opener!). AbreLatAm is an unconference organised by our friends at DATA (Uruguay) and Ciudadano Inteligente (Chile).
The idea was to bring representatives from different sectors of Latin American civil society together to share experiences, strategies, challenges and hopes for Open Data. People came from all over, including Europe and the USA, to participate, creating an amazingly inclusive atmosphere.
Being an unconference, there was no set agenda. Instead, we started our time by writing provocative statements around open data, which people then had to defend or deny. Once the ice had been broken by passionate discussions about the merits of various ideas, we worked together to decide what we most wanted to learn from each other.
For me, the most important part was seeing the projects other people work on to strengthen transparency, citizen participation, and civil liberties in their own countries. It’s a humbling experience to realise that some things we take for granted are the subject of intense campaigning in other countries.
Each day we had a series of workshops around different topics. I facilitated one, trying to learn what people want from open source technology to make it more globally usable.
It’s funny, open source has such great aspirations, then you speak to people and realise that your creation has been tweaked so much for the local context that it’s almost easier for someone to write their own version. This is something we’ve really taken on board, and we’re working really hard to avoid this with all of our software.
I attended other workshops, learning about the challenges of building relationships with non-technical organisations – a key problem for most non-technical NGOs it seems. Most don’t have the money to pay for commercial web development.
Hopefully, AbreLatAm will have allowed some of these people to forge useful tech partnerships so they can develop their ideas together.
It was also extremely interesting to hear other people’s social, cultural and political experiences in relation to technology. One of the presentations that sticks most in my mind came from Laura Zommer of Chequeado.com. Her site verifies whether a politician’s statements are true, false, exaggerated or deceptive.
Her presentation was a very funny video using those statements as a song sung around Buenos Aires. I particularly liked the fact that the public stopped to listen, and sometimes gave money to the artist. I would like to think that this kind of satirical response to politicians will help people analyse and question what their elected leaders tell them.
Most of all though, the enthusiasm, energy and hope of all the participants left me with a feeling that we are slowly effecting change, in all of our countries, and if we work together we could do this throughout the whole world.
What’s on your Christmas wishlist? If ‘a meaningful job’ is high on the list, then we’ve got important news for you. We’re looking for talented, passionate and diversely skilled people to join our team.
In 2013, we’ll be pushing out internationally, improving our core UK sites and doing more commercial business. And we need some more lovely, dilligent people to help us.
All the details are on our jobs page. There’s plenty of time to get your application in, so why not give it some thought over the mince pies?
Not quite for you? Then please tell your nicest friends!
Photo by Minivan Ninja (CC)
Fancy a pint?
We’ll be in the Banker pub in London for our regular pubmeet on Tuesday 29th May – come and have a chat!
Everyone’s welcome and there’s no agenda, other than having a good time and meeting nice people.
The Banker, Cousin Lane, London, EC4R 3TE
6.30 pm onwards (note, this is earlier than usual). Here’s the Lanyrd page if you want to sign up and spread the word.
At least one of us will be wearing a mySociety hoodie (black, with logo as at the top of this page).
The hashtag is #mySocial. It’s taken its first tentative steps on Twitter, and has been known to make an appearance on Instagram. Where next?
Image credit: Atilla Kefeli
Over 115,000 Freedom of Information requests.
Almost 225,000 FixMyStreet reports.
Close to 3,000 public transport problems.
Every word spoken in Parliament since 1935.
So, what would you like to know?
There’s no doubt about it, mySociety sites store a lot of data. And once you have that much data, you can start finding the answers to interesting questions. Questions like:
- Which public bodies receive the most FOI requests?
- Which county gets the most pothole reports?
- Which train routes are people complaining most about?
- Which MP has spoken for the longest cumulative time in the history of Parliament?
There are less obvious questions, too – how about:
- Which regions of the country are most likely to include bad language when submitting a form online?
- How many times does the Speaker have to interject, “Order, order!” in an average week?
- Which words are most spoken in Parliament, and which have only become popular in the last five years?
- What topics do people submit the most Freedom of Information requests about?
- Just how often does a UK citizen get so fed up about dog poop that they take action?
We reckon there are almost limitless stories in our data, waiting to be teased out. Some of them will be surprising, fascinating, or just plain funny. Some may even be potential front page news. So, we’ve invited journalists who have a particular interest in data, or indeed in any of the areas we work in, to come and have at it at our first ever mySociety Data Hackday.
Not a journalist?
Journalists aren’t the only ones with bright ideas, so if you’re reading this and there’s a burning question that springs to mind, leave a comment below. Given all these reams of data, what would you be looking for? We’ll add the best ideas to our list, and we’ll be reporting back on everything we find out.
Actually, I am a journalist!
There are still a few places, so if you’d like to attend, please drop us a line. Note: we will expect you to get stuck in! We will run the data, but you may be sifting through the results, looking for significant stories, and sharing your findings. Bring a laptop, and plenty of ideas.
If you can’t attend, but really wish you could, let us know what data you’d like us to run, and we’ll add it to the list.
ETA: Lanyrd page here.
Image credit: Johan Nilsson
Ah, summer: walks in the park, lazing in the long grass, and the sound of chirping crickets – all overlaid with the clatter of a thousand keyboards.
That may not be your idea of summer, but it’s certainly the ways ours is shaping up. We’re participating in Google’s Summer of Code, which aims to put bright young programmers in touch with Open Source organisations, for mutual benefit.
What do the students get from it? Apart from a small stipend, they have a mentored project to get their teeth into over the long summer hols, and hopefully learn a lot in the process. We, of course, see our code being used, improved and adapted – and a whole new perspective on our own work.
Candidates come from all over the world – they’re mentored remotely – so for an organisation like mySociety, this offers a great chance to get insight into the background, politics and technical landscape of another culture. Ideas for projects that may seem startlingly obvious in, say, Latin America or India would simply never have occurred to our UK-based team.
This year, mySociety were one of the 180 organisations participating. We had almost 100 enquiries, from countries including Lithuania, India, Peru, Georgia, and many other places. It’s a shame that we were only able to take on a couple of the many excellent applicants.
We made suggestions for several possible projects to whet the applicants’ appetite. Mobile apps were popular, in particular an app for FixMyTransport. Reworking WriteToThem, and creating components to complement MapIt and PopIt also ranked highly.
It was exciting to see so many ideas, and of course, hard to narrow them down.
In the end we chose two people who wanted to help improve our nascent PopIt service. PopIt will allow people to very quickly create a public database of politicians or other figures. No technical knowledge will be needed – where in the past our code has been “Just add developers”, this one is “Just add data”. We’ll host the sites for others to build on.
Our two successful applicants both had ideas for new websites that would use PopIt for their datastore, exactly the sort of advanced usage we hope to encourage. As well as making sure that PopIt actually works by using it they’ll both be creating transparency sites that will continue after their placements ends. They’ll also have the knowledge of how to set up such a site, and in our opinion that is a very good thing.
We hope to bring you more details as their projects progress, throughout the long, hot (or indeed short and wet) summer.
PS: There is a separate micro-blog where we’re currently noting some of the nitty gritty thoughts and decisions that go into building something like PopIt. If you want to see how the project goes please do subscribe! The Components mailing list is also a good way of staying in touch.
Top image by Elaine Millan, used with thanks under the Creative Commons licence.
mySociety’s sites are all open-source, which means that anyone can take our code and build their own sites with it. That’s been a core mySociety principle from the very beginning, but as time has passed, we’ve realised that we could have made the process easier.
Until recently, you had to be pretty techie to use our code. But now, under the banner DIY mySociety, we’re actively working to lower the bar. Firstly, and most importantly, we’re in the process of rewriting much of our code so that it’s nearer ‘plug and play’ status than previously. Then, we’re backing it up with documentation in the form of easy-to-read handbooks, and supportive communities.
If you’ve ever thought of replicating a mySociety-style site in your own neck of the woods, take a peek over at diy.mysociety.org. We’ll be regularly updating with news and advice.
Image by Kenny Louie, used with thanks under the Creative Commons licence.
Our regular informal meet-up will be on Wednesday 18th April. Like last month, we’ll be at the Somers Town Coffeehouse near Euston for drinks and chat.
As always, everyone is welcome. There’s no agenda – just a chance to have a talk with mySociety staff, volunteers, and the other interesting people that turn up. It’s also a good opportunity to find out about volunteering, or ask questions about our work.
We’ll be there from 7.30pm and there’ll be at least one mySociety hooded top in evidence, so that you can find us easily (logo as at the top of this page).
As usual, our dedicated hashtag is #mySocial. Hope to see you there!
FixMyStreet, our site for reporting things like potholes and broken street lights, has had something of a major redesign, kindly supported in part by Kasabi. With the help of Supercool, we have overhauled the look of the site, bringing it up to date and making the most of some lovely maps. And as with any mySociety project, we’d really appreciate your feedback on how we can make it ever more usable.
The biggest change to the new FixMyStreet is the use of responsive design, where the web site adapts to fit within the environment in which it’s being viewed. The main difference on FixMyStreet, besides the obvious navigation changes, is that in a small screen environment, the reporting process changes to have a full screen map and confirmation step, which we thought would be preferable on small touchscreens and other mobiles. There are some technical details at the end of this post.
Along with the design, we’ve made a number of other improvements along the way. For example, something that’s been requested for a long time, we now auto-rotate photos on upload, if we can, and we’re storing whatever is provided rather than only a shrunken version. It’s interesting that most photos include correct orientation information, but some clearly do not (e.g. the Blackberry 9800).
We have many things we’d still like to do, as a couple of items from our github repository show. Firstly, it would be good if the FixMyStreet alert page could have something similar to what we’ve done on http://planningalerts.barnet.gov.uk/, providing a configurable circle for the potential alert area. We also are going to be adding faceted search to the area pages, allowing you to see only reports in a particular category, or within a certain time period.
Regarding native phone apps – whilst the new design does hopefully work well on mobile phones, we understand that native apps are still useful for a number of reasons (not least, the fact photo upload is still not possible from a mobile web app on an iPhone). We have not had the time to update our apps, but will be doing so in the near future to bring them more in line with the redesign and hopefully improve them generally as well.
The redesign is not the only news about FixMyStreet today
As part of our new DIY mySociety project, we are today publishing an easy-to-read guide for people interested in using the FixMyStreet software to run versions of FixMyStreet outside of Britain. We are calling the newly upgraded, more re-usable open source code the FixMyStreet Platform.
This is the first milestone in a major effort to upgrade the FixMyStreet Platform code to make it easier and more flexible to run in other countries. This effort started last year, and today we are formally encouraging people to join our new mailing list at the new FixMyStreet Platform homepage.
Coming soon: a major upgrade to FixMyStreet for Councils
As part of our redesign work, we’ve spoken to a load of different councils about what they might want or need, too. We’re now taking that knowledge, combining it with this redesign, and preparing to relaunch a substantially upgraded FixMyStreet for Councils product. If you’re interested in that, drop us a line.
Kasabi: Our Data is now in the Datastore
Finally, we are also now pushing details of reports entered on FixMyStreet to Kasabi’s data store as open linked data; you can find details of this dataset on their site at http://kasabi.com/dataset/fixmystreet. Let us know if it’s useful to you, or if we can do anything differently to help you.
On a mobile, you can see that the site navigation is at the end of the document, with a skip to navigation link at the top. On a desktop browser, you’ll note that visually the navigation is now at the top. In both cases, the HTML is the same, with the navigation placed after the main content, so that it hopefully loads and appears first. We are using display: table-caption and caption-side: top in the desktop stylesheet in order to rearrange the content visually (as explained by Jeremy Keith), a simple yet powerful technique.
If you have any technical questions about the design, please do ask in the comments and I’ll do my best to answer.
This month’s informal gathering will be on Tuesday 20th March at the Somers Town Coffeehouse near Euston (yes, despite its name, it’s a pub).
As always, everyone is welcome. There’s no agenda – just a chance to have a chat with mySociety staff, volunteers, and the other interesting people that turn up. It’s also a good opportunity to find out about volunteering, or ask questions about our work.
We’ll be there from 7.30pm and there’ll be at least one mySociety hooded top in evidence, so that you can find us easily (logo as at the top of this page).
As usual, our dedicated hashtag is #mySocial. Hope to see you there!
At mySociety we take some pride in knowing that FixMyStreet has helped rid the world of thousands of potholes over the years, but of course our contribution to unbroken roads is merely the start of the process. Certainly, reporting a hole on FixMyStreet is easy (we’ve gone out of our way to make sure that is the case), but we do appreciate that a hole remains a hole until somebody takes the trouble to actually fill it in. So really it is all the inspectors, despatchers, logistic and supply teams, fleet mechanics, and repair crews who make the world a smoother, less perforated place.
We’re currently working on a pilot project in the city of Cebu (the “second city” of the Philippines) with the World Bank and transport experts ITP that will implement a FixMyStreet-based reporting service as part of the ongoing battle to keep its roads and streetlights in good repair. Later in the year we will have more to report, but for now—before anything is up and running—we can start by saluting the work of some of the remarkable people who fix the roads (and replace the bulbs) there.
As the winter closed in here in the UK, we ran a “Fix Before the Freeze” campaign encouraging people to report potholes before the frost made things worse. Frost damage isn’t an issue in Cebu, but monsoon weather is, and during the wettest time of the the year it’s simply impractical for holes to be filled with the hot mix method (which is the best way to effect a long-term repair). Every day, the highway departments are faced with the unrelenting logistical problems that arise from marshalling a limited number of crews with a finite amount of asphalt to combat a cityful of holes. Add to this the churn of a thriving city: repairing the surfaces of busy urban roads is a hazardous occupation at the best of times, but especially so in a place like the Philippines where exuberant driving styles can make British traffic seem almost restful.
O don’t tell the mice, don’t tell the moles,
My father’s the chief inspector of HOLES
Cebu’s large network of roads needs constant inspection in this war of material attrition. An inspector can perhaps hope to cover up to 30km of single-lane road in a day, but with a road network like Cebu’s this is never enough. We met Nicomedes, senior manager at DPWH, who long ago adopted the weekend practice of packing a lunch and spending each Saturday inspecting the “mountain barangay” routes that might otherwise never make it onto the schedule. He’s made it a matter of personal pride to be familiar with roads on the outskirts of Cebu city that many of its inhabitants may never even see.
The problems for road maintenance specific to an environment like Cebu include encroachment—where access to the road for repairs can be difficult because everyday life overspills its edges—and the often dense layout of narrow, unnamed alleys. Cebu is divided into barangays (somewhat similar to parishes or wards in the UK), each of which has a community centre and a team responsible for managing local issues. The FixMyStreet pilot project will be working with these enthusiastic barangay teams to run a system of local hole triage that would make local councils in the UK envious.
So next time you click on FixMyStreet to report a pothole—whether it’s a gaping chasm or a worrying case of alligator cracking*—remember that you are taking part in the international battle against unwanted holes.
* alligator cracking: technical term describing fragmented road surface; does not involve actual alligators
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.
What is a mySociety pubmeet? Just an informal evening when we guarantee that a few of us will be in a pub, happy to chat about anything at all.
If you have questions about any of our projects, ideas for new ones, or want to find out more about volunteering, then you’ll be very welcome.
When? Wednesday, 22nd February. Feel free to drop by, any time from 7.30 pm to 10.30 pm. Maybe let us know that you’re coming, by email or tweet, so that if numbers start looking large, we can book a space.
We’re easy to spot – at least one of us will be wearing a mySociety hooded top, complete with luminous green logo, as seen at the top of this page.
Tell your friends The more the merrier! If you like your social media, you can use the #mySocial hashtag.
But I don’t live in London… We are planning on having pubmeets in other UK cities soon. Watch this space!
When TheyWorkForYou was built by a group of volunteer activists, many years ago, it was a first-of-a-kind website. It was novel because it imported large amounts of parliamentary data into a database-driven website, and presented it clearly and simply, and didn’t supply newspaper-style partisan editorial.
Mzalendo (which means ‘Patriot’ in Swahili) has been around for a few years too, as a blog and MP data website founded by volunteer activists Conrad and Ory. However, over the last few months mySociety’s team members Paul, Jessica and Edmund, plus the team at Supercool Design have been helping the original volunteers to rebuild the site from the ground up. We think that what’s launched today can stake a claim to being a true ‘second generation’ parliamentary monitoring site, for a few reasons:
- It is entirely responsively designed, so that it works on the simplest of mobile web browsers from day one.
- All the lessons we learned from storing political data wrongly have been baked into this site (i.e we can easily cope with people changing names, parties and jobs)
- Every organisation, position and place in the system is now a proper object in the database. So if you want to see all the politicians who went to Nairobi University, you can.
- There is lots of clear information on how parliament functions, what MPs and committees do, and so on.
- It synthesizes some very complex National Taxpayer’s Association data on missing or wasted money into a really clear ‘scorecard‘, turning large sums of money into numbers of teachers.
The codebase that Mzalendo is based on is free and open source, as always. It is a complete re-write, in a different language and framework from TheyWorkForYou, and we think it represents a great starting point for other projects. Over the next year we will be talking to people interested in using the code to run such sites in their own country. If this sounds like something of interest to you, get in touch.
Meanwhile, we wish Ory and Conrad the best of luck as the site grows, and we look forward to seeing what the first users demand.
Just a week after WhatDoTheyKnow’s big, round number, FixMyStreet also passed a significant milestone.
200,000 reports have been sent through FixMyStreet since its launch in February 2007. It currently sends an average of 250+ messages about potholes, broken streetlights, and other problems to local authorities each day. So far this month, we’ve processed just over 5,000 reports.
Those reports are the work of over 87,000 people, 52% of whom had never before reported an issue to the council. That statistic is important to us: we aim to make it easy to access civic rights, especially for people doing so for the first time.
FixMyStreet.com is a site with a simple premise, and it hasn’t changed greatly since 2007 – though it is currently undergoing a facelift, bringing it more in line with today’s design expectations. Last year we introduced user accounts and zoomable maps, along with a few tweaks here and there.
Like other mySociety projects, FixMyStreet is, of course, built on open code, so that it can be replicated by anyone with a little technical knowledge. The FixMyStreet interface is already up and running in Norway, and soon, the Philippines will see trials of their own version – proving that the model can work in very different infrastructures. Meanwhile, the basic FixMyStreet concept has been replicated in Brazil, New Zealand, and South Korea. Here in the UK, some councils have bought FixMyStreet to embed into their own websites.
FixMyStreet sends reports to the council, and also publishes them online – so each report is read by many people. This simple system helps them find out more about their local community, and what the council are doing to get things fixed.
Uneven paving stones and malfunctioning pelican crossings may not be the stuff of high drama, but against expectations, FixMyStreet does make for fascinating reading sometimes. Take a look at this page if you’d like to see some of the more unusual reports. And if you’d like some insight into some of the issues our developers deal with, you might like to read Matthew Somerville’s solution to the dog poo problem. It’s all glamour at the cutting edge of FixMyStreet.
Update: applications have now closed. Thanks for your interest!
As 2012 kicks off, we’re looking for talented, passionate and diversely skilled people to join our team.
This year we’ll be pushing out internationally, improving our core UK sites and doing more commercial business. To do this, we need some more lovely, dilligent people to help us.
We’ve set up this new jobs page, where you can see what we’re looking for.
Please tell your nicest friends!
Some time in the middle of last night, our Freedom of Information site WhatDoTheyKnow.com was used to send its 100,000th FOI request. It was a simple one, made to the Queen Victoria Hospital NHS Foundation Trust.
WhatDoTheyKnow was launched in February 2008, with these aims: to make it easy to file a FOI request, and to keep a public archive of the requests and (more importantly) the responses received from public bodies. The Freedom of Information Act had been in force since 2005, but we wanted to make it fully accessible to people who were not journalists, lobbyists or professional operatives – it is a law that gives us all a right, not just those experts.
At base, mySociety is about giving people power to people who don’t believe that they have any way of affecting the world around them. Giving practical access to the right enshrined in this Act was and is a meaningful way of advancing that goal.
Then, thanks to a flash of inspiration from our late colleague Chris, we saw a great opportunity to increase the value created by the existence of the Act: we built a system that published the entire exchange of messages between users and public bodies online.
We believe that because of this decision to publish all exchanges with public bodies, WhatDoTheyKnow represents a very unusual phenomenon: a third-party web site that takes an existing piece of legislation and makes it better value for money for the taxpayer. Public money was already being spent answering FOI, but by running WhatDoTheyKnow we could magnify the value generated by each request by making it public, without requiring anyone who worked in a public sector to retrain, buy a new computer system or spend any new money.
And this theory turned out to be right. For every request made on the site, around twenty people come to read materials contained on WhatDoTheyKnow. The multiplier is remarkable, and one of the things that we think is most worth celebrating about this site.
WhatDoTheyKnow’s success is only possible because of a team of fantastically dedicated volunteers. These loyal enthusiasts have helped countless users, and do a simply amazing amount of maintenance work to keep the site friendly, helpful and effective. They are astonishingly talented, principled and knowledgeable, and mySociety owes them a debt of gratitude it will never really be able to pay back.
However, to give them a bit of the credit they deserve, and to highlight some of the countless uses of WhatDoTheyknow, we asked them to pick out some notable requests from the last four years.
Helen “The use of the site by campaign groups like the Campaign for Better Transport to find out about bus subsidy cuts as part of their save our buses campaign.”
Alex “This request about the Warmfront boiler installation scheme has a significant number of annotations. What makes it different is that the user patiently persisted with her original FOI requests, and then has carried on by continuing to help loads more people with details of how to complain and lobby for help and general warm encouragement.”
WhatDoTheyKnow is one of mySociety’s most visited sites, with one and a half million unique visitors in 2011. Like our other projects, it was built as an open source project. Thanks to the Open Society Foundation, we are in the process of making it much easier to re-deploy around the world, under the brand name ‘Alaveteli’. As we speak, there are sites based on our code in places as far apart as New Zealand, Kosovo, Brazil, and the EU, and we’re looking forward to helping people from around the world create more grandchild sites in the years ahead.
Our 100,000 request milestone comes at an interesting time for the Freedom of Information Act. It’s currently under scrutiny by the Justice Select Committee, who are investigating whether it works effectively and in the way that it was intended.
As you might expect, at mySociety, we’re passionate about the right to information. We’ll be submitting evidence to the Justice Select Committee to show just how vital FOI is to good government and a good society. If FOI has touched your life, you might want to do the same.
If you haven’t got a penny,
A ha’penny will do,
If you haven’t got a ha’penny,
Then God bless you.
We wish you all a merry and prosperous Christmas – and for those of you who are already feeling quite prosperous enough, may we point you in the direction of our charitable donations page?
mySociety’s work is made possible by donations of all sizes and from all sorts of people. Those donations help fund all the online projects we create; projects that give easy access to your civic and democratic rights. If that’s important to you, show your appreciation, and we promise we’ll make the best use of every penny.
Thank you for sticking with us through this month-long post. We hope you’ve found it interesting and we wish you the very merriest of Christmases.
What’s behind the door? A letter to Santa.
If you can fit them down the chimney, here’s what we’re dreaming of:
More publicly available data Of course, we were delighted to hear in Mr Osborne’s autumn statement that all sorts of previously-inaccessible data will be opened up.
We’re wondering whether this new era will also answer any of our FixMyStreet geodata wishes. Santa, if you could allocate an elf to this one, we’d be ever so pleased.
Globalisation …in the nicest possible way, of course. This year has seen us work in places previously untouched by the hand of mySociety, including Kenya and the Philippines. And we continue to give help to those who wish to replicate our projects in their own countries, from FixMyStreet in Norway to WhatDoTheyKnow in Germany.
Santa, please could you fix it for us to continue working with dedicated and motivated people all around the world?
A mySociety Masters degree We’re lucky enough to have a team of talented and knowledgeable developers, and we hope we will be recruiting more in the coming year. It’s not always an easy task to find the kind of people we need – after all, mySociety is not your average workplace – so we’ve come to the conclusion that it’s probably easiest to make our own.
Back in February, Tom started thinking about a Masters in Public Technology. It’s still something we’re very much hoping for. Santa, is it true you have friends in academic circles?
FixMyTransport buy-in - from everyone! Regular users of FixMyTransport will have noticed that there are different kinds of response from the transport operators: lovely, fulsome, helpful ones, and formulaic ones. Or, worse still, complete refusal to engage.
Santa, if you get the chance, please could you tell the operators a little secret? Just tell them what those savvier ones already know – that FixMyTransport represents a chance to show off some fantastic customer service. And with 25,000 visitors to the site every week, that message is soon spread far and wide.
What’s behind the window? 10 red-faced novice joggers.
It’s not long now until you’ll be making your new year’s resolutions. But will motivation drop off by February? Time to acquaint yourself with one of mySociety’s clever little projects: Hassleme.
Hassleme sends you reminders to do whatever it is you want to do, whether that’s to go for a run, tell someone you love them, or write another chapter of your blockbuster novel. Think of it as benign nagging.
Yes, you could set up your Google calendar to do just the same, but here’s the clever bit – Hassleme sends reminders at “semi-unpredictable intervals” . You can set a rough time period, such as every three days or every year – but you’ll never know precisely when that reminder will drop into your inbox.
You can even make a joint resolution, as a family, perhaps, or even in the office. Input multiple email addresses and we’ll randomise who gets each reminder – ideal for allocating tasks fairly.
Or use it to send a message to yourself ten years hence. Here are some examples from people who have done just that.
What’s behind the door? Santa’s little helpers.
mySociety runs some pretty ambitious projects. There’s TheyWorkForYou, which publishes all parliamentary activity since 1935, as well as representatives’ voting records. Then there’s WhatDoTheyKnow, which has sent, and archived, over 30,000 freedom of information requests.
None of these projects runs itself. mySociety’s core team only consists of a few people, so we rely on dedicated volunteers to help us manage the day-to-day maintenance of these sites. Our volunteers have been key to forging a community around each site, and to helping us understand exactly what we want the sites to be.
For example, our FixMyTransport volunteers (aka Anoraks) spend a lot of time leaving helpful comments on users’ problems, often before the operators can get around to answering themselves. Leading by example, they’re making FixMyTransport into a friendly and useful community, encouraging other users to make very constructive contributions, too.
The TheyWorkForYou volunteer team spent quite a bit of time analysing voting records earlier this year, allowing us to add more policy lines to each MP’s page, and providing a snapshot of their affiliations.
And, although WhatDoTheyKnow has been around for three years, the team still find themselves actively debating site policy.
We’re always delighted to welcome new volunteers. If you’re interested, drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org, or come along to one of our pub-meets. There’s one tomorrow! See the Dec 16th advent calendar entry, below, or watch this blog for details of the next one.
What’s behind the door? A little donkey.
If you’re using public transport this Christmas, make sure you pack all the essentials: good food, presents – and the web address for FixMyTransport.com.
We hope you have a smooth journey, but if not FixMyTransport will allow you to report overcrowding, delays, or freezing cold carriages – and all on-the-go, if you have a smartphone.
Christmas is for giving, so share that URL with family, friends, and even your fellow passengers, should you find yourself in a coach or train that’s going nowhere. The power to contact the nation’s transport operators directly may just be the greatest gift you’ll ever give.
What’s behind the door? A cup of good cheer.
Our last pub-meet of the year will be the usual chance to come and have a chat with the mySociety team and volunteers. Reindeer antlers and Santa hats are optional, but welcome. Mulled wine may be in evidence. Mince pies could well be found on the premises.
When? This Wednesday, the 21st of December, from about 6pm and into the evening.
One of our New Year’s resolutions is to have meet-ups in places other than London, so if you live outside the capital, watch this space.
Spread the word Because we’re one of those new-fangled digital-type organisations, we encourage use of a hashtag: #mySocial. And you can let us know you’re coming by dropping us a tweet on @mySociety.
What’s behind the door? A half-dead Christmas tree.
Christmas comes but once a year… and in its wake, the inevitable slew of dumped Christmas trees and uncollected bins.
Perhaps worse (certainly when it comes to timing), Midnight Mass was made considerably less pleasant for this church-goer in Appledore when he stepped in some dog poop.
We know councils are doing their best to clear things up in the new year, up and down the country – but if those browning Christmas trees, overflowing bins and bottle-littered streets are getting you down, don’t forget FixMyStreet.com.
What’s behind the door? A steaming Christmas pudding.
TheyWorkForYou.com keeps a complete record of parliamentary business as far back as 1935. So not only does it help you stay up to date with the latest business in Parliament, it also acts as a fascinating, searchable archive.
Consider, for example:
- Why was an American actress refused permission to act in the pantomime Mother Goose? (More details in this 1936 newspaper)
- Just two months after WW2 broke out, which German goods were found on British shelves?
- How many Christmas cards did Tony Blair send in 2004?
- If church bells could only be rung as a signal of invasion, would ringing them on Xmas day cause confusion?
- Was Aberdeen worse hit than the rest of the country when it came to making Christmas puddings?
- Who played Father Christmas at the Westminster party this year?
You can search for any word or phrase on TheyWorkForYou.com. Click on ‘more options’, and you can also restrict the dates you search within.
What’s behind the door? An icy pothole.
Does it count as bleak mid-winter yet? After the mild start to the season, in some parts of the country it still feels as if the really cold weather is yet to come.
And yet, the freeze won’t be long in coming. Uneven pavements and potholes turn from a mild inconvenience to a real hazard in the ice – and you will certainly have already noticed if your streetlights aren’t coming on, now that the dark evenings are here.
So here’s for one last big push on our Fix Before the Freeze campaign. Make sure you report all those pesky potholes, uneven pavements, and broken street lights before the snow and ice get here in earnest, and help make your local community a safer place this winter.
What’s behind the door? An angelic host, complete with shiny halos.
Our website Pledgebank has been used for some good causes around Christmas time. It’s based on the simple idea of promising that you will do something if other people promise to, too. It’s an effective way of taking an action and multiplying its impact.
If you’ve got plans this Christmas – say, donating to charity, giving gifts to the poor, or even organising a party, Pledgebank could be the tool that tips the balance and helps you get the people-power you need.
Pledgebank isn’t just for individuals: Barnet council have been innovative in their usage of the Pledgebank software for the good of their community. Check out how they are using it to arrange a collection of gifts for the needy, and gritting.
What’s behind the door? Frosty the headless snowman.
FixMyStreet is our website for reporting problems such as potholes or broken streetlights, but last January, one user in Brighton and Hove wanted to express his outrage about something else.
Unfortunately, the council have rather less control over the kicking down of snowmen. Much as we sympathise with the frustrated anonymous reporter, we can’t really blame the council for not responding to this particular complaint.
Meanwhile, in Midlothian, we see nature doing the fixing but the council apparently taking the credit, much to our user’s displeasure.
If your neighbourhood suffers from uncleared snow, by all means use FixMyStreet.com to report it this year. If you feel the gritting could have been better, report it. If your snowman suffers an injury, however, maybe keep it to yourself.
What’s behind the door? A boring old bauble again.
What is a “Christmas Tree bill”?
A search through Hansard reveals that this is a commonly-used term in Parliament, and it refers to a bill which, as it passes through its various stages, has all sorts of “baubles” hung on it – that is to say, small, unrelated issues which are added to the main legislation.
The term apparently originated in the States, but has become commonplace in UK parliamentary discourse – and indeed provides an opportunity for some florid extemporising, as David Burrowes, Private Secretary, demonstrated recently in a debate about knife crime:
“As we look forward to Christmas and see today the Third Reading of a criminal justice Bill, I am reminded of previous Government Bills that ended up as Christmas tree Bills with baubles being hung on them at any given opportunity as they went through Parliament. I am sure that as this Bill goes to the other place, Ministers will want to ensure that further baubles are not hung on it in the form of extra pieces of law that take the fancy of noble Lords, as well as any little elves.”
Did you know that you can subscribe to any word or phrase on TheyWorkForYou? It’s very handy for making sure you know whenever your pet topic is debated. Set up your alert here.
What’s behind the door? A kindly Santa Claus
Our website WriteToThem.com allows you to contact your elected representatives – even if you don’t know who they are.
When you input your postcode, you’re given a list of your local councillors, MPs, MEPs and anyone else who represents you in any of our governmental bodies. The site then allows you to contact them directly.
That’s all very well, but what about the highest administration of them all – the one who decides if you’ve been naughty or nice? Sadly, WriteToThem.com does not cover Lapland, but we do have a helpful page providing Santa’s postal address in full.
Meanwhile, it’s just a thought – but you might find that putting your wishlist in front of your local representatives actually has more effect than a letter sent up the chimney, especially if it concerns your civic or community rights. Start here.
What’s behind the door? A fizzling, blinking neon light
Our parents always told us that if decorations weren’t removed by Twelfth Night, terrible things would happen – but it seems that some councils are not so superstitious. Users of our website FixMyStreet reveal the occasionally erratic handling of this tradition.
It gets worse. In Birmingham, one lonely decoration was spotted on the 31st of January. In Consett, not only were the decorations taken down after Epiphany had passed, but they had been on 24 hours a day for the entire Xmas period. In the village of Cark, the Christmas tree was blocking access to a car park in early February. But we think Bournemouth takes the prize, with a Christmas decoration reported as still being in place on the 15th of March.
People are always complaining that Christmas starts too early – and now it seems it’s also dragging on too late. If you’d like to report council decorations that have outstayed their welcome, don’t forget FixMyStreet.com this January.
The 5th of January, in fact, if you’d like to adhere to Twelfth Night superstition. We’ll be looking out for the spike in users on that day.
What’s behind the door? An inn, with no vacancies over the Christmas period
It’s more than 2,000 years since a heavily pregnant Mary was told there was no room at the inn. With zoning restrictions a thing of the far-distant future, an empty stable was repurposed for her use, and… well, you know the rest.
Today, if there’s an empty stable (or, more likely, a house) near you, Channel 4 want to know about it. They are broadcasting the first in their Great British Property Scandal series tonight, examining the causes behind homelessness.
Key to the campaign is the fact that there are over a million empty properties in the UK, while two million families need a home. On their site you’ll find an empty property spotter tool, which allows you to report any vacant buildings to your council. There’s also an app.
Those tools have been built by a crack team of mySociety developers, drawing on our extensive experience of mashing up postcode and constituency data, and sending reports off to the right council contacts. If you’re wondering where we honed such skills, look no further than FixMyStreet, WriteToThem, and TheyWorkForYou, among other mySociety projects.
Not everyone knows that mySociety are available for contracting. All revenue from our commercial activities goes towards funding our not-for-profit projects. It’d really make our Christmas special if you were to spread the word, next time you hear of someone in need of innovative and really rather well-priced development work.
What’s behind the door? Ten Lords a-tweeting
Why is a Christmas card better than a tweet? It turns out not to be the start of a bad joke…
As Roger Gale MP revealed in a debate on the use of electronic devices (including mobile phones) in the Chamber of the House of Commons, “multi-tasking and a dual use of time” means that in the six weeks before Christmas “committee tables will suddenly be piled with Christmas cards being signed while Members are also participating in Committee business”.
Gale’s point is that such behaviour is excusable, but that having MPs updating their Twitter and Facebook statuses in the Chamber would be a bridge too far. What do you reckon? Personally we’d rather have a stream of useful comment, accessible from our phones or desktop computers, than a hastily-signed Christmas card.
Whether you’re a social media junkie, or agree that such things are unwelcome in the workplace, the entire debate is worth a read – along with hundreds of thousands of other speeches and statements from Lords and MPs, available on mySociety’s TheyWorkForYou.com.
Children everywhere open the first door of their Advent calendars today – and we’re digging deep into the mySociety vat of Christmas spirit and presenting our very own countdown to the 25th. Didn’t think a civic and democratic charity had much in common with Christmas? Well, we’re here to prove otherwise.
Between now and the 25th, we’ll be updating this post each weekday with a Christmassy nugget from our archives. Enjoy them, and here’s hoping that Santa brings you whatever your heart desires, whether it’s the reply to that FOI request you put in on WhatDoTheyKnow.com, or the improved bus service you asked for on FixMyTransport.com.
What’s behind the door? A string of flashing lights
As Christmas lights go on in towns and cities across the country, your inner Scrooge might be prompted to ask just how much they’re costing the public purse.
Never fear, Bah Humbuggers, for this is a topic that has been thoroughly explored by the users of our Freedom of Information request website WhatDoTheyKnow.com. See, for example, how Manchester cannily bartered for free celebrity appearances last year, while Lewisham puts importance on low-energy lightbulbs.
You can also check Westminster, Lewes, and Cardiff’s costs – and plenty more besides. We think that Leeds has the highest expenditure mentioned, at £477,600 for this year, but leave us a comment if you find a higher one.
Don’t forget that if you want to know how much your own council spent on Christmas decorations – or indeed anything else – you have the right to submit an FOI request. Just remember to check that the information isn’t already available online before you do.
In the nine days our Fix Before the Freeze campaign has been running, there’s been a 47% increase in reports on FixMyStreet.com. Thank you to everyone who has spread the word or remembered to use the site to get something fixed.
As you may remember, the campaign encourages you to report problems such as broken streetlights or potholes before winter comes. It’s great to see this start to happen, and we hope you’ll experience the benefits once the cold weather takes grip. Hey, you might even find that the warm glow of community spirit cuts a few quid from your fuel bills…
Meanwhile, we’re sure there are still plenty of pavements, roads and amenities that could do with a patch-up before winter. So if there’s a gap on a notice board near you, don’t forget our print-outs and resources here. How about printing out a few and leaving them in your local library, cafe, or community centre?