Government 2010: Tom Steinberg, mySociety

Tom Steinberg of mySociety follows Adam Afriyie with the last keynote of the morning session. He starts with an announcement – that, with the Open Society Institute, mySociety are seeding similar organisations in Central and Eastern Europe – and a disclaimer: that his new advisory position with the Conservatives will not influence mySociety. After that, he tells us that he’s going to talk about two of mySociety’s projects: Fix My Street and What Do They Know?

Fix My Street makes it easy to report potholes, smashed phone boxes, broken streetlights and the like. It creates transparency – for example, because it asks people if the problems they report got solved, we know that the fix-rate for reported problems are about 50%. (And if the problem’s not fixed, it tells you which councillors you need to go and speak to!)

It was originally funded by the Ministry of Justice, but that money’s long run out: it’s now paid for out of mySociety’s own pocket. It also, though you might not expect this, has a pretty good relationship with councils, which is a lesson in itself: these kinds of things won’t necessarily be rejected out of hand.

What Do They Know? (funded by the Joseph Rowntree Trust) makes it really easy for members of the public to make Freedom of Information requests. That’s important because it empowers people, particularly if they don’t have the might of a full-on newsgathering organisation behind them.

One question he poses is where to take these services in the future. Tom suggests that they need to do a better job of explaining the compromises of government: for instance, in the case of Fix My Street, actually telling people when “we haven’t fixed this yet because we’re doing all of these other important things first”.

Finally, he proposes three conclusions:

  • Firstly, that it can be cheaper and more effective to create transparency by putting a nice user interface on top of an existing process rather than re-engineering the entire process. What Do They Know? works on top of the existing FoI infrastructure, so FoI officers don’t have to learn a new system – they can work the same way they always have.
  • Public data isn’t a good in its own right: it must have a social impact to have an effect. Almost all the websites mySociety operate need data which is under (trading fund) licenses, so even though the software’s open, you can’t run your own copy of mySociety software without buying copies the data.
  • Good sites are made by good people. Matthew Somerville and Francis Irving get name-checks here: Tom argues that until Government can attract really good developers, it won’t have great systems.

And, with that, lunch!

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