mySociety: Open democracy, open source
A group of free and open source enthusiasts are challenging the UK government to use the internet to its full potential
About a quarter of one percent. That's the extent to which Tom Steinberg, director and co-founder of mySociety.org thinks the UK government has managed to embrace the potential of the Internet to re-shape democracy as we currently understand it.
While that might sounds a little harsh given the increasing number of MPs with blogs, and online services such as the DVLA's online car tax payment service, Steinberg believes the powers that be could be doing so much more. "We are at an incredibly early stage and most people in the public sector would not have the faintest idea of what you were talking about if you talked about most of the stuff we do – and that just makes for a bigger challenge," he says.
Most, if not all, of the work mySociety does is centred around building web sites which enable voters to find out more about what their elected representatives are up to and even help shape those actions. mySociety is the umbrella organisation for a group of sites including TheyWorkForYou.com, WriteToThem.com, and PledgeBank.com which are all based to some degree of making the government more transparent to the UK's citizens.
Fundamental to its open and democratic principals is a belief in open source technology, says Steinberg. Everything mySociety does is built with open source tools on open platforms, such as Linux, Apache and PostgreSQL, and virtually all the code created on behalf of the organisation is open source under the Affero GPL. While he won't go as far to claim that his organisation couldn't exist without open source, Steinberg admits it would have made the journey to date a lot tougher. "It would be enormously harder, slower and more expensive. I am not sure any of it is fundamentally impossible to do but it would be probably impractical and probably wouldn't have happened," he says.
The creation of mySociety
The story of how it did happen can be traced back to 1996 with the founding of UK Citizens Online Democracy (UKCOD). This was a cross-party experiment designed to find out if the then fledgling web could be used to get citizens more involved in the business of government, UKCOD was used to try and engage the populace around issues such as the European Monetary Union and later the Freedom of Information Act. However, as the charity's web site admits, UKCOD "fell dormant," in 1999, to be resurrected in 2003 by Steinberg and others including the creators of a site called FaxYourMP.
Eventually replacing the fax – although that facility still remains – with email and other web-based tech, FaxYourMP eventually morphed into WriteToThem.com to become the first of the many sites that would coalesce under the mySociety header. Steinberg, a then policy analyst, was driven to unite UKCOD with the grassroots talent at FaxYourMP, due to his then position at the prime minister's performance and innovation unit and its mission to examine the possibilities of e-government. "I was impressed with work of programmers who developed FaxYourMP but disappointed to see that no one was trying to replicate that approach and the value for money it generated. I wanted to set up an organisation that would basically build more sites like FaxYourMP," says Steinberg.
A slightly misleading Wikipedia entry also attributes some of Steinberg's realisation around the potential of FaxYourMP to an article posted on OpenDemocracy.net in early 2003 called Civic hacking: a new agenda for e-democracy. Rather than being a eureka moment with Steinberg stumbling across the article whilst dutifully scouring the internet for inspiration, the piece was actually authored by Steinberg's then flat-mate James Crabtree who also happens to be one of the trustees of UKCOD.
Whatever the provenance of Steinberg's interest in the Civic Hacking article, the piece clearly sets out the mission which mySociety has embarked upon. Rather than the Internet simply being a tool for government to more effectively disseminate information to the masses, Crabtree asserts that in the same way that Shawn Fanning disrupted and reinvented traditional thinking about music distribution with Napster, the web could have a similar impact on established ideas about the interaction between politicians and the people they ultimately work for.
"Andrew Schapiro, author of The Control Revolution, thinks that Napster remains the defining lesson in how the internet changes static systems: "when you are thinking about this always ask 'Napster is to music as X is to Y'." So: Napster is to music as what is to politics? Who is developing Citizster, or Polster?," Crabtree wrote. "The problem is, we do not know yet. But, somewhere, someone should be developing it. My contention is that the role for the state should be to fund people to do this. They should be giving money to civic-minded groups, or 19-year old kids, to develop applications that will help meet social goals."
Financing and free software
While some government funding has been forthcoming – the Office of the Deputy Prime-minister put £196,000 into MySociety in 2004 – the initial seed capital for mySociety came from an unnamed dot com benefactor who put £10,000 into the organisation in 2003. Since then the organisation claims to have received around £500,000 in donations and funding and spent around £400,000 on operational costs and other expenses.
However one thing the organisation has not had to spend significant cash on is software. Such is the commitment to open source in the organisation that the majority of the code generated by mySociety is distributed under the Affero GPL – a version of the GNU General Public License that actually goes further than the standard GPL in ensuring that network hosted software is freely available to anyone who interacts with it. MySociety is keen to point out that it wants to be as democratic and open as possible with the distribution of its software.
"Why not use the GPL? The GPL guarantees that anyone who gets a binary version of the software also gets the source code so they can modify it. Since users of web sites never get the binary, just HTML pages, it is no better a license than a BSD style license would be for them. For this reason, we use the GNU Affero GPL," the organisation claims on its Browse Our Code technical pages.
Other open source tools the organisation is impressed by include Piwick, a French weblogs/statistics programme similar Google Analytics but open source. The application is still in development but Steinberg thinks that it should allow his team to stop using Google Analytics which means MySociety won't have to ship any more personal information to the US.
"They are an awesome company and we have nothing against them and a great deal in favour of them and the issue here is, and it's very important to stress this, that the issue with using something like Piwick is that when possible when you have personal users data – it makes better security and risk sense if you are looking after it yourself, than giving to anyone else," says Steinberg. "I would much rather give it to Google than any other company that I can think of but that doesn't mean that if you can look after it yourself that is not more desirable."
The need for community support
However despite the obvious importance of open source technology and thinking to mySociety – Mozilla is sponsoring its fifth birthday celebrations on 14th October – Steinberg says the scale and way things are done in the organisation make it hard to recruit more open source developers into the fold. "We do not have any coders who sit down and programme for us year in year out. Sometimes people will build a whole web site and hand it over but they won't look after it," he says.
The fact that mySociety is a collection of web sites rather an open source application such as Apache, means it doesn't, at the moment, require the same kind of manpower from the community. Three core developers do almost all the programming while a team of volunteers tend to do the design, the administration, and write things like screenscrapers, explains Steinberg.
"A web site like TheyWorkForYou is not like an application like Apache. Apache is designed to be re-installed multiple times while TheyWorkForYou exists at TheyWorkForYou.com and it might be opens source but fundamentally it is all about running one site and that means that it is a pretty complex system that only a handful of people understand. Yes, we would definitely like more but it's not for the faint hearted", he says.
As well as being limited technically by the number of developers it can call on at any one time, mySociety is quite clear on the sort of developers it wants to attract. Above all else, the sites it maintains are usable by a non-technical audience. It's the ability to create sites that are accessible to as many of the web population as possible which enables the organisation to answer critics who claim that it cannot be truly about democracy if it's only empowering that part of the UK population which is technically savvy.
"If you build web sites for a living, you can't do anything about the people who have absolutely no access to a computer – that is essentially someone else's dilemma", says Steinberg. "However for people who are just about able to get online, you can make sure that your services are maximally appealing, usable and findable with people with minimal skills and that tends to mean keeping things relatively simple, and resisting the temptation to add features, and focusing on usability above all things."
However it seems that for now mySociety won't be making much use of web developers, as Steinberg admits there is a "moratorium" on new sites while the organisation sorts out its funding. Aside from donations, some income is generated from a commercial services spin-off mySociety Ltd., which has done work for No. 10, the BBC and Google. To maintain its charitable status, the profits from mySociety Ltd. are ploughed back into UKCOD, but even with this income Steinberg admits that funding is hard to find, and always has been.
"When you run an organisation such as mySociety, funding is always tight because you have built yourself a new market. You are doing things that are fundamentally unlike anything people have done before so there are no real pre-existing funding channels so we just sort of muddle by really," he says.
Although mySociety might not be planning any new launches for a while, the organisation has made tremendous progress to date, dragging some parts of the democratic process kicking and screaming into the web era. Despite his pessimistic projections that government still has 99.75 per cent of the work left to do, Steinberg is clear that the option to jump ship to a better paying gig at Google or another commercial internet company is not on the cards quite yet. Just as with much of the open source community, the motivation comes from contributing to something beyond the purely commercial. "You have to be motivated not by money, don't you," he says.