On May 28, our Innovation & Learning Webinar featured the lovely folks from mySociety, who were in town for this week’s Transparency Camp.
mySociety was founded in 2003 and is now recognized as a pioneer of the “digital civic power” sector, building novel digital tools to help citizens successfully complete common civic and democratic tasks. In Britain, they build tools to help citizens succeed at basic but important tasks such as getting broken street lights fixed, or learning how a politician voted. Their biggest UK based service today, WhatDoTheyKnow.com, helps people to get information out of branches of the government, using Britain’s Freedom of Information Act. It sees about half a million visits a month.
Today, mySociety’s focus is global. They spend the majority of their budget supporting partners outside the UK, especially in countries where democratic structures are not mature. Their websites have now been replicated in South Africa and Kenya, implemented by local organizations. mySociety is fundamentally concerned with making citizens capable of demanding better from governing institutions, especially where those institutions are weak. They use digital technologies to do this not because they are a magic bullet, but because they know they can sometimes lead to success at scale: mySociety’s UK services attracted about 10 million visitors in 2013.
I found the last part of Paul’s presentation on evidence, outcomes, and impact to be particularly interesting, as we have been thinking about these topics with regard to our work at Internews. While mySociety is good at measuring outputs (i.e. number of fixes, number of messages, and number of visitors), insight into outcome measures is still a bit fuzzy. What is the impact on citizen behavior? Has there been a change in distribution of power between citizens and government? Is it possible that projects are actually polarizing, increasing the disparity between those who have power and those who do not (i.e. only those with internet connectivity can use digital tools)? In order to answer these questions, their focus going forward will be on research on impact, with a strong focus on user centered design. We look forward to following this work!