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[liberationtech] Important mySociety Update: Contributing to the Democratic Commons

Steven Clift clift at
Tue Sep 5 08:46:08 PDT 2017

Source post:

Read mySociety's note to the end ... as a small .org (E-Democracy) squeezed
out by the big .org players grant funding wise as the pool has shrunk I
have views on this ... if the big dogs can't secure funding for democratic
services online that government's themselves remain unwilling to fund,
invest in adequately, continue to design poorly, etc. ... then Western
democracy as a whole in the digital age is over, dead, gone. China and
Russia won. Google and Facebook won. Division based advocacy and
campaigning for power online won. Democracy, that serves all and brings
together across our political and social divides, loses. It's dead, gone,
failed by our generation.

The hard truth is that we have a fundamental democratic data deficit - you
can't open up systematic data about who represents you, how and where to
interact with your, what meetings are coming up, what's on the agenda, etc.
if it doesn't exist at all levels of governance.

Over the years I've been bullish at times about the investments by Google
and now more recently Facebook in civic tech. Let's me honest, they need to
100x their investments in the infrastructure for digital democracy. They
could do this voluntarily and collaboratively where it makes sense OR
governments need to - like they did with television and radio generations
ago - figure out how to raise the resources for independent public
journalism to fund the democratic middleware and data we need to bring
authentic representative democracy to the people *local up* and everywhere
to counter the propaganda tsunami being pushed online by the most partisan
and now state actors like Russia that "win" by fundamentally dividing
people nation by nation.

While it would be great for the few remaining non-profits in the the
digital democracy space to get a fresh infusion of support. There is not a
100% market solution out of this problem. Our leading foundations in the
democracy space will get to decide if they want to let the current
champions yo die on the vine, lose all their legacy knowledge, and then in
a decade or two start from scratch once they realize how much they
sacrificed by funding the new shiny object rather than the core foundation
of what we all need to support democracy in the digital era.

Steven Clift

Date: Tue, Sep 5, 2017 at 9:58 AM
Subject: mySociety: Contributing to the Democratic Commons
To: clift at

mySociety was built on its Democracy practice, a pioneer in providing
simple- to-use tools that demystify the democratic process, allow citizens
to understand how decisions are being made on their behalf and ensure that
their voices are heard by elected representatives.

We’ve been on a long journey, from the early days of FaxYourMP which
eventually became WriteToThem <>, to our pivotal
TheyWorkForYou <> service which has both stretched the
ambitions of Parliament in the UK and led us to develop similar services in
Kenya, South Africa and beyond.

Amidst all of this has been our ongoing push to better standardise and make
accessible more Open Data on politicians around the world; initially
through our Poplus and Pombola projects, but more recently – and with more
success – through our EveryPolitician <> service which
has blossomed into a remarkable dataset of almost 4 million datapoints on
over 72,000 politicians in 233 countries and territories.

Despite these successes I don’t think we’ve yet sufficiently cracked the
challenge at scale of enabling more organisations to monitor and report
upon the work of more politicians in more countries. We need to do
something about that.

One of the principles that has always underpinned mySociety is that we
carry our work out in the open, freely available for others to use. But, as
is common with many Open Source projects, we do most of the development
work ourselves internally. While community contributions are very welcome,
practicality has dictated that more often than not, these are more commonly
directed to raising tickets rather than making changes to the actual code.

Unchecked, this situation could lead to us being too internally focused; on
developing everything ourselves rather than recognising where we can
achieve our objectives by supporting other projects.

Fortunately our collaboration with Wikidata, announced earlier this year
<>, suggests what promises to be a clear way forward
to scaling up the impact of our work: we recognised that EveryPolitician
could only become sustainable at scale as part of a wider community effort
if we want our data to be used more widely.

By contributing to what we’ll call the Democratic Commons  — a concept of
shared code, data and resources where anyone can contribute, and anyone can
benefit — we can help build and strengthen core infrastructure, tools and
data that allow other democracy organisations and campaigners to hold their
own governments to account.

This was notably put into practice for the snap General Election in the UK
in June, where rather than build something new ourselves we directly
supported the work of Democracy Club <> in their
efforts to source candidate data and ensured that our existing services
like MapIt <>, TheyWorkForYou <>
and WhatDoTheyKnow <> were easily accessible for other
campaigning and democracy organisations to put into use.

More recently we’ve established a commercial partnership with Facebook
<> to provide them with accurate and independent lists
of candidates and elected representatives matched to their relevant
Facebook profile pages for the UK, French and Kenyan elections.

There’s a wider benefit to this kind of commercial work, beyond its being a
useful source of additional revenue for mySociety. More importantly, it
will allow us to feed the data that we source back into the Democratic
Commons. It can contribute to EveryPolitician and Wikidata, and even
improve boundary data internationally through OpenStreetMap, which in turn
powers our own Global MapIt service.
Why is this important now?

Well, it’s not just the rather obvious observation that working with other
people is a good idea. The reality is that we need to face the fact that
our Democratic practice is just not fully funded, and, as with <>, at best we’ll need to consider
how more of our services in the UK can be run and directly supported by
volunteers and the wider community.

At worst it’s quite possible that we’ll be forced to close some of our
popular UK services and restrict the  further development of our democracy
work internationally.

In April next year we come to the end of our six-year grant agreement with
the Omidyar Network who have given us tremendous support over that time.
This will leave a substantial hole in our core funding and it’s one reason
why we’ve been so diligently focused on developing appropriate new
commercial services like FixMyStreetPro <> and
WhatDoTheyKnowPro <>.

Without sufficient unrestricted core funding — that is, funding which can
be applied wherever in the organisation it is most needed —  we need to
rely much more on specific project funding wherever we can find it. In most
cases, however, this project funding comes with its own set of tasks to
deliver, and there’s a tendency to want new shiny things, rather than
supporting the maintenance of our existing projects. This is especially
true of our Democracy work which relies more heavily on grant funding than
commercial alternatives.

Sensibly directing our own work more towards contributions to external
projects is also a hedge, should we need to find new homes for our services
or shutter them for the time being.

In the meantime we’ll be speaking to more funders who we hope might
recognise the importance of supporting and building the essential
infrastructure of the Democratic Commons, but in the event that isn’t
forthcoming we’ll do what it takes to ensure our work to date continues to
have some value and impact.

As we start to map out a path to a sustainable future for mySociety and its
community, I’d appreciate all thoughts on where we go next with this
— after all, we can’t do this without your help.

Image: Ander Burdain <> (Unsplash

from mySociety
via IFTTT <>
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