EuroOSCON: Tom Steinberg – Hackers guide to democracy

After EuroFOO cam EuroOSCON, the open source convention organised by O’Reilly. I didn’t take notes at all the sessions I went to, but did for a few. Here’s Tom Steinbergs.

Tips for anyone trying to replicate MySociety‘s work in other

– Scrape and structure public data that’s already out there, e.g. Hansard. If you can make stuff more readable and searchable, you can make public information more valuable and encourage people to come to your site to experience that information.

– Out-Google them. If the public data is shite, and you tidy it up and republish it in a nicely structured way, you’ll get more people from Google, so people will find your stuff who aren’t looking for it.

For example, Fax Your MP used to be no 1 in Google for ‘MP’. Have never spent any money on marketing the MySociety brand because it’s more important that people who want to do something stumble upon their sites when they really need them.

When you have structured data, the temptation is to pretty it up and make it usable, and put it on the web and leave it there. But email alerts are more important than even syndication. People rely on email and it’s really valuable. Even though email is old-fashioned, if you want people to visit once, get hooked, and return in the future then email alerts are the way to do it alongside RSS.

– Aggregate. The sum of all the data is more valuable than the individual parts. If you have a large mass of data, try to dig into it and look at what’s important to separate out. Create feedback mechanisms when relevant, e.g. ask if users got a response from their MP and whether they had written to an MP ever before.

– Ratings. If you can give them ranks, e.g. where they rank in terms of turning up for votes. Politicians like ranks, and they will respond so they will rearrange how they do things like handle mail so that they get a better response rate on WriteToThem. The negative accusations are that politicians will then do things like table written questions even when they aren’t interested in the answer just so that they look good on TheyWorkForYou. So be careful what you do and think about what the repercussions are.

– Reject cool over useful. Focus on building technologies that are ‘training free’. Ask what can you create that doesn’t require any training to use it. Try and tap into the tech that people already have. FaxYourMP and WriteToThem have something in common – a message from someone. Didn’t matter that faxes are non-internet, low-tech, it still works because the process has been made easy by bolting on an interface. Fax evolved to email naturally in business, so MySociety moved from fax to email naturally then.

– Create new forms of pressure. Politicians are almost immune to pressure, because they deal with it all the time. So if you put ‘normal’ pressure on a politician then it might not work because they’re used to it. But putting new pressure on them works, e.g. putting a rank on them was a new pressure they didn’t have before. E.g. HearFromYourMP, which allows you to sign up to get an email from your MP and discuss it with other local people. So the service looks then for a threshold, e.g. 25 people in one constituents, then it mails the MP and says that these people want to hear from *you*. So it encourages the MP to then hit reply and engage. If they ignore it, then when the list is 50 people, it sends another email. Eventually they will give in because it becomes untenable to ignore it.

People are not used to being given platforms to discuss things with their constituents. But it’s also peer pressure because the system shows them who in their peer group is already doing this. One in five MPs asked has already used the system.

Been rebuilt in Germany, but the code is open source so can be reused.

But more general lesson is what pressure can you put on people that they are not used to.

– Be prepared for effects. Think when you put things up about what will happen if you’re wildly successful? Or what happens if people start gaming the system. Having a debate in parliament about how the tools can change so that they are more effective and don’t waste any public time/money.

If you design your site to look like a boxing ring, people will fight; if you design it to encourage constructive discussion, that’s what they’ll tend to do. But do use cunning filters etc. to try and pre-empt spam etc.

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