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mySociety publishes analysis reports on its own sites

June 15th, 2011 | No Comments | Posted by in Editors' pick, Non-profit, Politics

MySociety, the organisation behind some of the biggest democracy projects in the UK, has today made public two reports which it commissioned to gain greater understanding of two of its sites – TheyWorkForYou and WriteToThem.

As the site itself says: “We think transparency is a good thing for many reasons, but one of its rarely mentioned virtues is how valuable transparency can be for the people within the organisations which are transparent.”

And there have been some interesting discoveries. According to MySociety one of the reasons that both the sites were set up was to make representatives accessible to newcomers to the democratic process. So it was “heartening” to find, for example, that 60 per cent of visitors to TheyWorkForYou had never previously looked up who represents them, and two in five users of WriteToThem have never before contacted one of their political representatives, was a positive sign.

But, as you would expect with any properly neutral evaluation, it’s not all good news. Our sites aim to reach a wide range of people, but compared to the average British internet user, WriteToThem users are twice as likely to have a higher degree and a higher income. It also seems that users are disproportionately male, white, and over 35.

Find the reports here…

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Democracy site MySociety to receive $575,000 from US investment firm

Democracy website MySociety has announced it will receive a $575,000 donation from US-based Omidyar Network, an investment firm who aim to support organisations of provide opportunities for people to improve their lives.

The money will be used to help develop MySociety and its online community.

Founder and director Tom Steinberg says the grants will benefit both the business and its users:

We’re really delighted because these grants help us do two things we really need to – share our knowledge and skills more widely, and improve our ability to run ourselves as a mature organization, better able than before to look after our legal and financial affairs on the one hand, and our community and users on the other.

Read the full post here…

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Guardian’s first local site launches

Guardian Media Group has just sold its regional arm to Trinity Mirror, but the group’s still exploring local territory, with its new Guardian Local project, first rolling out in Leeds, Cardiff and Edinburgh.

The Guardian’s first beat blog has launched today:

Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger called it a “tiny toe in local web water” over Twitter.

Its designated blogger is John Baron (@johncbaron). Introducing the site today, Baron provides a run-down of local Leeds activity and its first guest blogger – Leeds Student editor Virginia Newman, “who’s writing her take on the planned strikes by Leeds University staff”.

Features include a ‘find your councillor’ search and ‘report local problems’ feature powered by MySociety; Flickr content; Delicious links – and Leeds-only Soul Mates adverts.

Expect sites for Cardiff and Edinburgh soon.

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Hansard Society’s MPs Online report

mySociety reports that the Hansard Society has published a report – MPs Online: Connecting with Constituents. mySociety, a non-profit citizen organisation, claims that it has made a number of simple mistakes, and  also responds to the paper’s criticism of the organisation’s data collection.

Full post at this link…

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‘A non-profit is a business as well,’ says mySociety’s senior developer

Francis Irving, senior developer at mySociety – an organisation that runs some of the biggest democracy projects in the UK – has shared some of his thoughts about online transparency and citizen collaboration in a Q&A for Journalism.co.uk’s news:rewired site.

What advice would he give to people going down the non-profit publishing route, we asked. Irving answers:

A non-profit is a business as well – it still has to make a surplus, it is just that that surplus is used to do more of the charitable work, rather than as personal profit.

I would advise people to go one of two ways – either have some good ideas for business models from the start (take a look at Patient Opinion for an example) or work out how to run it entirely on philanthropic donations and volunteer work.

It’s going to be as hard to start a sustainably funded non-profit as it is to start a successful for-profit business.

Francis Irving will be talking at Journalism.co.uk’s digital journalism event news:rewired, 14 January 2010.

Tickets still available at this link…

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The growth of online watchdogs: are they ‘journalism’ and does it matter?

July 24th, 2009 | No Comments | Posted by in Comment, Events, Online Journalism

The influence of UK-based democracy organisation, mySociety, often gets forgotten, perhaps deliberately downplayed, in the British press. Let’s go back to the MP expenses row, for example. Well before the Telegraph played its central role in exposing the various scandals, mySociety saw a significant campaign victory when Gordon Brown U-turned on an attempt to keep certain MP expenses details private, back in January.

At the time, mySociety’s founder, Tom Steinberg said: “This is a huge victory not just for transparency, it’s a bellweather for a change in the way politics works. There’s no such thing as a good day to bury bad news any more, the internet has seen to that.” But did mySociety’s, in my view, undeniably influential part get reported in the UK press? Not really.

So it was good to see that in Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger’s speech at the Media Standards Trust event earlier this week, all of which will be available to watch here, he opened with examples of online projects (two mentions for mySociety) – that do exactly what newspapers do – or used to – do. Is it journalism, but does it matter, he wondered.

Rusbridger gave three examples that showed, he said, ‘changes in how information is organised, personalised, ordered, stored, searched for, published and shared.’ These sites, he said, have many things in common with conventional journalism, ‘dealing with facts, with statistics, with information about public life, politics and services.’

  • FixMyStreet (mySociety). Just as the Cotswold Journal draws public attention to potholes, FixMyStreet allows users to identify problems in their local area, and get them noticed. “That to me is essentially what a local newspaper is or was,” Rusbridger said. It’s ‘much more responsive’ and allows a ‘direct transaction between the citizen and the council’ he said. And it’s ‘crucially cheaper than sending out a reporter and a photographer,’ he added. “I don’t know whether that’s journalism or not, I don’t know if that matters.”
  • TheyWorkForYou (mySociety). This, Rusbridger said, was ‘essentially what has replaced, or will replace’ parliamentary reporting, as he flashed up on the screen an example of the old-style reports from the Times in 1976. It’s ‘better than what went before’ he said. “I don’t know if that’s journalism or whether it matters.”
  • EveryBlock. It provides information on local areas, just as a local paper does or did. Adrian Holovaty’s US-based project allows one to ‘drill down into every neighbourhood’ in a personalised way, he said.  Crimes on your route to work can be plotted. “I don’t know if that’s journalism or whether that matters but I think it’s fantastically interesting.”

This is the relevant part of Rusbridger’s speech:

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Jon Bernstein on hyperlocal: Five steps to kick-start the local news revolution

July 1st, 2009 | 6 Comments | Posted by in Comment, Online Journalism

The strength of hyperlocal is also its weakness – disparate projects in far-flung places.

But here’s the thing. What works in KW1 – the business model, the editorial proposition – is likely to work just as well in TR19.*

So we have a choice. Wait for exemplars of the form to rise up, then copy and adapt, or give the whole process a hand by collating, sharing, talking and learning. Right now.

Let’s do the latter. Here’s a quick and dirty call to action:

1. Find out what’s out there
In the United States they are doing just that.

The City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism has invited ‘bloggers, independent journalists, website publishers and entrepreneurs’ to complete a survey so it can ‘gather information and innovative ideas from across the country’.

“We want to bring facts, figures, and business analysis to the debate over the future of journalism,” it states.

Where’s the equivalent effort over here?

I’m told that there are voices in Ofcom, the media regulator, who want to collate information about all of the little community newsletters and bigger sites which could now be called hyperlocal.

If that’s the case, it’s time to get moving. Oh, and we’ll have some of that US data when it’s ready, too.

2. Share ideas
Good practice, sound business models, strong feature strands and story hooks are not geographically-defined. So share, feed off each other, beg, borrow and steal.

Talk About Local is a good start. More, please.

3. Share resources
Can you apply the franchise model to the hyperlocal? For some the answer is a definite yes.

Again Talk About Local offers a possible lead with its plan to seed 150 sites in deprived areas nationwide.

Paul Bradshaw and Nick Booth’s Help me Investigate, is another service with franchise potential.

As is Mapumental.

This is a MySociety.org concoction and, like Help me Investigate, is a recipient of 4iP seed funding. Mapumental is postcode-based tool that brings together publicly available local house price and transport data and mashes it up with a ‘scenicness’ rating .

MySociety is also responsible for FixMyStreet. Both are centrally-built pieces of software with a hyperlocal application.

Integration is the key.

4. Share content
Like franchising, syndication is another old media model that has a home in the brave new world of hyperlocal.

And there is a commercial opportunity for those who create usable aggregation models.

Take Outside.in which has just launched a service in the United States it claims ‘will allow users to quickly create a mass amount of hyperlocal news pages’.

Outside.in is coming to the UK, but why isn’t a UK start-up doing this for the UK market? Perhaps one is. Time to make some noise.

5. Engage government
There’s a crisis in the public service provision of local news. If you want proof just look at the horse-trading between ITV and Ofcom. It’s a perfect opportunity for the government to think laterally.

Yet despite the warm words – and suitable use of new media lingua franca – in last month’s Digital Britain report, Lord Carter and co failed to put anything radical in train.

Carter’s defence is that this report was a sprawling undertaking and wasn’t designed to mandate government.

If so, someone needs to pick it up in Whitehall, but also in county halls up and down the country.

Rather than fund me-too freesheets that threaten to kill off local newspapers, local authorities would be better advised to help provide the infrastructure for hyperlocal.

It’s time to free your data for postcode-based applications, create a support system for local citizen journalists and use those soon-to-be-thriving platforms to promote the uptake of online public services.

Enough of the action plan. Go create.

(*That’s John O’Groats to Land’s End, postcode fans. Well, near enough.)

Jon Bernstein is former multimedia editor of Channel 4 News. This is part of a series of regular columns for Journalism.co.uk. You can read his personal blog at this link.

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MySociety ‘retreat’ places up for auction on eBay

MySociety, the democracy website, which turned five in October, has put two places for its annual retreat up for auction on eBay.

MySociety says on its blog:

“This is only the third such retreat in five years, and it is a super-rare occasion when all the various people who make mySociety tick get together. On these retreats we meet to set our agenda for the next year and try to reassess what we’ve done and what we’re about. It’s a fantastic opportunity to meet many of the most talented developers and thinkers in the field of the internet and democracy, people you’d otherwise rarely be able to catch. And it’s a great moment to catch them, pausing for a moment to discuss what we’re about and where we could go next.”

Tom Steinberg, the director and founder of mySociety, told Journalism.co.uk that the retreat will be held January 9-11 2009, and that the location is still to be decided (somewhere in the north-west).

“The purpose of the retreat is to get together and do all those things that it’s impossible for a fully virtual organisation to do just
online,” he said.

This includes:

  • Reassessing  priorities
  • Coming up with new ideas for services and tools
  • Discussing financial position and how to improve it
  • Coding side-by-side
  • People getting to know each other
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