mySociety: Tech to benefit global civic communities

mySociety is a charity which launched a decade ago in the UK to provide Open Source tools for civic engagement. In the intervening time period it has gradually extended its reach globally and now helps communities all around the world to connect with governments and other official bodies. We catch up with Jen Bramley on the international team to learn more.

You have a number of open source software initiatives - used in various ways in various locations - which have proved the most popular globally?

By far the widest spread software we've created is Alaveteli which is running in around 18 countries worldwide. Alaveteli is an online Freedom of Information (FOI) requesting platform that allows people to make FOI requests via email to any of the bodies the people running the site have supplied.

We get a number of requests from people who want to set up a version of FixMyStreet for their own country, and it is a relatively easy platform to set up and customise, however fewer sites make it to launch or become as well-used as sites built on the Alaveteli platform. 

Do you think this is likely to change?

It's hard to say whether this will change, access to information is an important topic and I think it will continue to be important for a number of years to come, but as more people come into this space the problems people are facing may start to be solved in different ways.

When mySociety started 10 years ago - it was amazing that you could use our website to send a fax - to your MP. Now we expect to be able to email them and would be amazed if you couldn't. With advances in technology and the way people are interacting both with governments and with each other, I think we will see changes in the importance of different technologies, though I think some of the themes will stay the same.

What differences do you notice in the way your software is utilised in different countries?

In some countries it's interesting to note that the tools are used for more campaign or activist style work than the way we use our own software here in the UK. We're a non-partisan organisation and we try and create tools that don't have an inbuilt bias, but just help people do things in their civic lives that should be simple!

However in Spain, for example, Fundación Civio created [Spanish] for which the fundamental point was showing the public how little information the government was willing to release and how desperately a law was needed. They succeeded in getting an FOI law for Spain in late 2014, though I know they're still working on lobbying for a law that's easier to use.

Have you been especially impressed or surprised by the way any particular organisations or countries have been using your tools?

In terms of traffic volumes and requests, one of the sites that launched last year that blew us out of the water was the Ukrainian FOI site built on the Alaveteli code. The site is run by CentreUA and has had over 3,000 requests since March 2014. It launched in the middle of the revolution and was an amazing example of fantastic promotion, really hard work by the NGO CentreUA, and a willingness of the people in charge (despite the troubles) to just get the information out there.

The work they're doing is fantastic and hopefully some of the data that's been shared by the government in response to these information requests is helping Ukraine and its citizens in some way.

What new initiatives are you working on?

One of the things we're most excited about at the moment is the Poplus Federation. This is a global network of organisations and individuals who see the value in sharing civic software rather than developing it in isolation.

Over the next few years we're hoping that the Poplus Components - small, shareable pieces of open source software, each of which does one thing that civic and democratic websites need - will overtake the rest of our software in popularity because of their flexibility and the way they're exposing data.

We're hoping that as the movement gains ground and gets more prominent in the civic tech scene, we'll see an upswing in the contribution to and use of PopIt, SayIt and MapIt  - these are the Components that mySociety has contributed to Poplus - within civic engagement sites. [Overall] we’re hoping it will make it easier for everyone to create useful, impactful websites.

The Poplus project was launched in Chile in April 2014.

What do you think are the biggest challenges in the way technology and society have become entwined in recent years? How do you think this is likely to change?

There are some major challenges for society with the huge strides forward that we've made in technology, and especially in civic technology over the last few years.

Some, like privacy, are covered by great organisations like Tactical Tech. But for us, one of the biggest challenges is keeping in mind that technology isn't always the answer. A lot of the places we work, our specific technology won't reach those most in need of help because they don't have access to the devices or the internet connections needed to take advantage of what we are offering.

As the spread of connections grows and the price of both data and devices falls, access will become less of a challenge. However I think the importance of human based initiatives cannot be overlooked, regardless of the spread or ease of technology. Technology can make things easier, but to make things fit a different social context I think you can't overstate the value of a non-technical approach.

Your global expansion has been pretty rapid in the last few years, how has the remit of your staff changed?

It's almost exactly six years ago that we started officially working internationally, and since then we've restructured and taken on a lot more staff to make sure that we can support both the UK and the new international work.

We have a dedicated international team now as part of that expansion and reorganisation, and we make sure that when we're planning sprints, we take into account any requests from partners for features or sites that would make their lives easier - that's a big shift - we're not just creating software for ourselves now.

We've also just taken on a head of Research and our focus is shifting to impact measurement of our tools and of civic engagement tools across the whole sector.

You have come an incredibly long way in the decade since you started, what impact do you hope to make on global society over the next decade?

Over the next decade we're hoping to continue with our mission of creating and spreading tools that enable citizens to exert power over institutions and decision makers.

We're hoping that the five year research project we're starting will inform us what kind of impact our tools, and other civic engagement technologies, are having. We're also taking into account the learnings from our study on the impact of technologies on FOI.

Is there anything else you’d like to share with IDG Connect’s global audience of IT professionals?

On March 25th we're having a conference in London to launch our research project.


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