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Tom Steinberg talks about how MySociety.org has created Transparency in Government

Tom Steinberg – MySociety.org

Tom runs MySociety which is a small open-source virtual non-profit. A well known example of MySociety in the UK is FixMyStreet.

  • FixMyStreet gets your street fixed.
  • Enter your postcode, stick a pin in the map, type in your problem and zoom! off it goes to the council. It’s so simple that getting on for 25,000 problems have been reported through it so far.
  • FixMyStreet does a whole lot more than this though.
  • It lets you browse the problems currently reported in your area.
  • It lets you set up email or RSS alerts to be told when problems get reported within a radius of your house or workplace, or within your ward or council.
  • It provides posters and flyers (made by one of our volunteers, Ayesha) that you can use to tell people about the service, and encourage them to get their streets fixed.
  • It is built on open source code, for people who want to hack versions in other countries, and we can build bespoke, rebranded versions for councils and charities who want it here in the UK.
  • It was built mainly by Matthew Somerville who rocks, and partly by Chris Lightfoot, who did.
  • And most important of all, it works.

FixMyStreet according to Tom Steinberg…

FixMyStreet gets your street fixed.

You visit it if you find it or someone tells you about it. You stick a pin into a map, you say there’s some sort of problem here and the computer takes the tiresome task of who’s responsible in Britain’s 440 different local governments and it sends it to the right person. Then 4 weeks later, it sends you a mail, asking you did the thing you mailed get fixed. And about 50% of the time, people say yes.

FixMyStreet is really pretty simple.

It couldn’t be further away from 2000 pieces of beautifully produced campaign footage from the Obama campaign. But I think its worth showing and talking a bit about because there are different ways of doing democracy and politics online.

And incredible effective huge scale political campaigns, whether they are party political or single issue is one way of using the internet online and a lot of the discussions revolved essentially around that. And in particular they revolve around “Why don’t we have anything that big in Europe?”.  It is not the be all and end all.

For example fighting campaigns, you do it really like a lot of other people online, is not the only thing that people want to use the internet for when it comes to democracy and politics. And not only is it the only thing. Tom argued that its really very much on equal footing when it comes to the number of people who are interested and peak or even less. And so the message is relatively positive about the whole Europe/America debate.

Whilst the American scene does dominate ours in terms of its experience in online political campaigning, we have quite a lot of things to show, teach and tell collectively about non-partizan political and democratic use of the internet that in many ways are just as advanced or more advanced in parts of Europe.

What is it about FixMyStreet? What does it do?

Its useful, it actually does something.  It doesn’t engage you in a participatory process. It doesn’t tell you about your democratic structure. It fixes a hole in your street. It gets it done quite often.

But another thing about it is not just a service, its not just like a I went to my government and they gave me a passport and that was very nice. Because we’re not the government, we are an external group that puts pressure on the government as well as building services. This problem is public, the one you’re looking at here. Some people choose to attach attractive photos of the holes in their street. The nature of that publicity, which you can go and rummage around through the website is that the problems don’t hide.

When you talk to a government and say I have a problem, it treats you a bit like you are a patient and it is a doctor and you have going to the doctor obviously because you have a very embarrassing sexual disease and you don’t want anybody to tell you about it because it is in many ways the default way in which government deals with us. Whether or not we want our problems to be private they are treated as such.

What’s the upshot of this?

According to Tom, if you report of something really inconvenient to the government, it will often just not do anything and hide it. They will just pretend it doesn’t exist. It was hardly any weeks after FixMyStreet was launched a couple of years ago that somebody wrote to us and said

I phoned the council four times about this wall that’s fallen down and they never did anything. And then I put it on FixMyStreet, and it got fixed in a few days. And the only explanation was that the council didn’t like the idea that this problem was now a small piece of news. Rather than simply a record in a database that they had to process at some other point.

Another important thing about FixMyStreet is about scale and cost and value for money. It cost about £6,000 to build, which used to be about 10,000 EUR. Its a couple years old but its getting about 50,000 problems that been reported through it and the fix rate is about 50%.  And so its important that the things we build can stand and say “We are worth the money”.

Too few projects involving democracy and participation answer the question convincingly “Is this better than paying someone to knock on the door of the member of public and say do you want some help?” Because these days, knocking on someone’s door, giving them a leaflet or talking to them is still in many cases cheaper and more effective than any amount of online activity.  So that is a really important measure.  Is it actually really impactful and interesting. Does anybody want to copy it in other countries? But does economically make sense?

WhatDoTheyKnow has been built to help you get information out of government departments and agencies.

Just visit, pick a department, type a request, and we’ll handle the rest.

Even better, WhatDoTheyKnow is an archive of requests and responses made by other people, so you can search for information other people have found, or even set up email or RSS alerts to get notified when something comes in that you’re interested in.

What Do They Know?

WhatDoTheyKnow? is about exploring the Freedom of Information requests. People who need information from the government basically can go to this site and makes it really easy for them to get the information rather than rummage around on Google on how to do it and what to do etc. In that way, its just like FixMyStreet, instead of achieving a working street light, you’re achieving a piece of data that the government wouldn’t otherwise make public.

The thing that’s smart about it is when you make a request, to government, it doesn’t just make it privately, it doesn’t treat you like you’re going to a doctor. Instead with your permission, it puts it online.

Lessons learnt

Services like MySociety doesn’t fit into pre-internet boxes very easily. Instead they are platforms, they are not more at home 100 years ago more than eBay would be in some ways and Tom encourages us to think about what we can do to that is potentially political and democratic online that isn’t a version of something that used to happen. The big surprise about these type of services is these sort of things are pretty much the most used sites in terms of peak volume traffic in the European political Sphere.

This may seems pretty bizarre because we know political blogs using politics on Twitter is where its at but Joe Rospars said with his 13 million people on his Obama campaign on email from 1971, often its relatively unsexy things that people want to know how to use to get volume.

Things like FixMyStreet shows that things don’t have to contain political dynamite, to be useful to large sums of people. And in fact the more partizan something gets the more exciting, tabloid and backstabbing it gets, the more it could draw a crowd but also turn one off.

Would you go to an online shopping site for example that as well as doing your shopping is incredibly opinionated about everything you bought? Probably you’d go to it sometimes but eventually you probably get a bit bored and just want a service that works really well and that delivered your shopping.

This kind of site is absolutely critically dependent on developers. MySociety like any really great essentially technology start up is all about the talent of the programmers at the core. Too often there is a dangerous lie that happens in this field, that says

We the political classes, we need to look and understand technology and we need to apply it. And once we’ve worked out and once we have known what needs doing. We worked that out and we will go contract some people, a bit like when we contract somebody to do plumbing in our house, it will build the service that we and our great vision have seen and then we will have a wonderful service. I just think successful technology projects don’t work like that.

Look at the two people that started Google. Look at what they were doing before they started Google. They were doing PhDs. They were doing things specifically in the area they ended up working in, the had key technical insights and they were essentially uber geeks. And that is something that is incredibly common within the field of successful and important technology projects and it is much too rare.

Go and find your geek, go and be nice to them. Go and nurture them and they will repay it. But never treat them like people that you just hire and you can dispense off because they are more important to you project. They are more important to your users than you are.

To find out about more MySociety.org projects visit http://www.mysociety.org/projects/

Hope this was useful!

Liz

About Liz Azyan

Liz is a CREATIVE digital professional dedicated to helping individuals, governments and businesses realize their digital goals. She offers digital consultancy services on her website LizAzyan.com Liz is also a Google Fellowship Recipient (individuals selected based on their work and initiative in the arenas of technology, politics and social entrepreneurship), an invited expert panel on the Guardian’s Public Leader Network and has spoken at many public events and conferences on the subject of digital engagement.

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