MySociety

MySociety.org is a project of a registered charity named UK Citizens Online Democracy. It was founded by Tom Steinberg in 2003. The organization designs and runs most of the best-known e-democracy websites in the UK. It is supported by donations and relies on a community of volunteers.

Contents

Mission and Purpose

MySociety “represents the crystallisation of a lot of widely shared thoughts and concerns about the problems facing democracy, government and technology in the UK at the moment” [1]. The roots of MySociety is in James Crabtree's article “Civic Hacking: A New Agenda for E-Democracy” [2] published in OpenDemocracy in 2003. Steinberg relied on the ideas of the article by setting up mySociety outside of government and attempting to directly empower the civil society. MySociety has two pronounced missions: “The first is to be a charitable project which builds websites that give people simple, tangible benefits in the civic and community aspects of their lives. The second is to teach the public and voluntary sectors, through demonstration, how to use the internet most efficiently to improve lives.” [3] The organization attempts to build minimalistic websites which embody cheap scalability and tangible outputs. It is politically neutral and non-partisan. Nearly all its code is open source.

History

MySociety was founded in September 2003, and spent the first year raising money and looking for ideas. Its first funding arrived in September 2004, and before the end of 2005 it had three running projects: WriteToThem (http://writetothem.com), PledgeBank (http://pledgebank.com) and HearFromYourMP (http://hearfromyourmp.com). In 2006 MySociety built and launched the No 10 Downing Street Petitions Website (http://petitions.number10.gov.uk), FixMyStreet (http://fixmystreet.com) and TheyWorkForYou (http://theyworkforyou.com). In 2008, it launched WhatDoTheyKnow (http://whatdotheyknow.com) and started the FreeOurBills campaign (http://www.theyworkforyou.com/freeourbills/).

Tom Steinberg is mySociety’s founder and director. He’s joined by three full-time developers, Angie Ahl, Francis Irving and Matthew Somerville, a system administrator (Keith) and a commercial director (Karl). The organization substantially relies on a volunteer help and encourages all kinds of contributions, including the possibility to run entire sites as part of MySociety (e.g., the PlanningAlerts website designed by Richard Pope). [4]

Major projects

TheyWorkForYou

TheyWorkForYou [5] was originally built almost entirely by by a dozen of volunteers. It is mySociety’s most visited site (attracting more than two million users in 2007 alone). TheyWorkForYou provides citizens with a range of information on their politicians, such as: who their local MP is; what MPs said in Parliament; summaries of how MPs have voted; text of debates in Parliament; videos of MPs talking in debates; written questions MPs have submitted to government departments, and the answers they have got back; email alerts whenever an MP speaks, or a topic is mentioned in Parliament; comments and annotations from our users on what has been said, and more.

In July 2009, mySociety reported that the coverages of TheyWorkForYou has been extended to include the House of Commons debates starting from the 1935 general election and general information on MPs is available from the beginning of the 19th century.


TheyWorkForYou

Along with the UK Parliament, the project also covers the Scottish Parliament, the Northern Ireland Assembly, and the Welsh Assembly. Similar projects currently operate in New Zealand (www.theyworkforyou.co.nz); United States (www.opencongress.org); Australia (www.openaustralia.com); and Ireland (www.kidarestreet.com).

In advance of the 2005 general election, the British Channel 4 used a branded version of TheyWorkForYou to supply their MP data. [6] The site won the Community and Innovation award in the 2005 New Statesman New Media Awards, with the judges saying that they "were unanimous in feeling that TheyWorkForYou was the nomination that has done most to contribute to civic society in the UK." [7] In the House of Lords, in a debate on the Power Inquiry, Lord Gould of Brookwood referred to TheyWorkForYou and the other mySociety sites as "probably the biggest single catalyst for political change in this country". [8] In 2008, The Daily Telegraph rated it 41st in a list of the 101 most useful websites. [9]

FixMyStreet

FixMyStreet [10] is an online service that allows people to easily report broken infrastructure in their area to the local authority; and to start, or take part in public discussions about maintaining and improving the infrastructure and environment in their neighborhoods. The reports are posted on the website using a web-based mapping tool and then transferred by mySociety to the appropriate local councils, who are supposed to take care of the repairs.


FixMyStreet

According to mySociety, the aim of FixMyStreet is “to transform the act of reporting faults – turning it from a private one-to-one process into a public experience where anyone can see what has been reported. We also aim to lower barriers to communication between local government and communities and to build a sense of engagement and inclusion in the process of maintaining and improving the public infrastructure and environment in neighbourhoods.” [11]

Aside from posting new reports, the website allows users to view old reports and local alerts for each geographic area, follow the state of reports, and monitor the work of local representatives. The website also allows officials to leave comments and updates with regards to the reported problem and encourages local residents to discuss the problem and update others.

FixMyStreet can also be a tool for a better community organization. For instance, a community in Great Yarmouth joined forces through FixMyStreet to clear their local unused railway track. [12] The website made possible a dialogue between community members and the council’s community development worker.

As of October 4, 2009, the FixMyStreet declared that it received 730 new reports in the past week, 1,044 reports were fixed in the last month, and 55,171 updates were posted on reports. The state of all reports can be viewed on the website. [13]

The website has been developed by mySociety and the Young Foundation, with funding from the Department of Constitutional Affairs Innovations Fund. In December 2008, mySociety introduced an iPhone app for FixMyStreet, available to download from the App Store [14].

Projects based on the model of FixMyStreet currently operate in the Netherlands (http://www.verbeterdebuurt.nl), New Zealand (http://www.fixmystreet.org.nz) and Canada (http://www.fixmystreet.ca/).

No. 10 Petitions Website

The No 10 Petitions website [15] was launched following a request by the Prime Minister's office in 2006. It is currently the largest British non-partisan democracy site by volume of users, with over 8 million signatures from over 5 million unique email addresses, representing around 10% of the UK population. At its peak nearly 200,000 people signed up to the service in a single day. [16]


No10 Petitions

To sign a petition, a user has to provide her name, address and a verifiable email. The creator of a petition can decide for how long she wants to keep it open (the longest period being 12 months). One can add his signature to an existing petition by providing the same details (name, address and email). Once a petition is closed, usually provided there are 500 signatures or more, it is passed to officials who work for the Prime Minister in Downing Street, or sent to the relevant Government department for a response. Every person who signs such a petition receives an email detailing the Government's response to the issues raised. [17] Government responses to popular petitions are the rule rather than the exception to it, and petitions with as few as 101 signatures have received official responses.

As of October 2009, there are over 4,600 open petitions, and almost 35,000 petitions created since the creation of the website. According to mySociety, “for legal and anti-spam reasons this site cannot host every petition submitted, but the rule is to accept everything that meets the terms and conditions of use. No petition will be rejected unless it violates these terms. And even when petitions cannot be hosted No10 will still publish as much of rejected petitions as is consistent with legal and anti-spam requirements, including the reason why it could not be hosted.” [18] It is currently not possible to “sign against” an open petition.

The largest petition to date garnered over 1.8 million signatures and asked for the intervention of a planned vehicle tracking and road pricing scheme. It met a 1200 word response from Prime Minister Tony Blair which both acknowledged the petition's argument and defended the government's position. [19]

WhatDoTheyKnow

WhatDoTheyKnow [20] was launched in 2008. It allows users to send out requests for information to different government departments and agencies. A user may pick a department, type a request, and mySociety forwards it to the appropriate governmental officials. All the requests are proceeded according to the British Freedom of Information Act, 2000 (FOI).


WhatDoTheyKnow

The website also contains an archive of requests and responses made by other people, and it possible to set up email or RSS alerts to get notified about interesting developments.

According to governmental statistics released in October 2009, 13.1% of all FOI requests to “Departments of State” in the second quarter of 2009 were made via WhatDoTheyKnow.com (up from 8.5% in the first quarter of 2009). In absolute terms this was 753 out of 5769 requests. 32.3% of FOI requests to the Home Office (which includes the UKBA and the IPS) were made via WhatDoTheyKnow in the second quarter of 2009. In absolute terms this was 206 out of 638 requests. The latest figures also show that in twelve of the UK’s twenty-one Departments of State more than 10% of FOI requests were made via WhatDoTheyKnow. [21]

WriteToThem

WriteToThem [22] was launched in 2005. It allows users to send messages to any politician in the UK and publishes league tables of MP responsiveness every year.


WriteToThem

In 2008, WriteToThem sent a total of 183,493 messages to elected representatives. The average response rate (within 2 or 3 weeks) was 59%, with 52% of the users writing for the first time to a politician of any kind. [23] Since its creation, the website helped users send more than 450,000 messages.

Links

References

  1. http://www.mysociety.org/about/
  2. http://www.opendemocracy.net/media-edemocracy/article_1025.jsp
  3. http://www.mysociety.org/about/
  4. http://www.mysociety.org/about/
  5. http://theyworkforyou.com. See also, http://www.mysociety.org/projects/theyworkforyou/
  6. http://www.channel4.com/news/microsites/E/election2005/yourmp.html
  7. http://www.newstatesman.com/nma/nma2005/nma2005winners.php
  8. http://www.theyworkforyou.com/lords/?id=2006-06-15c.330.10&s=theyworkforyou#g335.0
  9. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/technology/3356874/The-101-most-useful-websites.html
  10. http://fixmystreet.com. See also, http://www.mysociety.org/projects/fixmystreet/
  11. http://www.youngfoundation.org/our-work/local-innovation/strands/neighbourhoods/fixmystreet/fixmystreet/
  12. http://www.fixmystreet.com/?id=3104
  13. http://www.fixmystreet.com/reports
  14. http://www.mysociety.org/projects/fixmystreet/
  15. http://petitions.number10.gov.uk. See also, http://www.mysociety.org/projects/no10-petitions-website/
  16. http://www.mysociety.org/projects/no10-petitions-website/
  17. http://petitions.number10.gov.uk/faq
  18. http://petitions.number10.gov.uk/about
  19. http://petitions.number10.gov.uk/traveltax/
  20. http://whatdotheyknow.com. See also, http://www.mysociety.org/projects/whatdotheyknow/
  21. http://www.mysociety.org/2009/10/01/whatdotheyknow-foi-fraction-up/
  22. http://writetothem.com. See also, http://www.mysociety.org/projects/writetothem/
  23. http://www.writetothem.com/stats/2008/zeitgeist