Today I am very proud to announce that mySociety have published my very detailed reports on two of the most successful eDemocracy projects worldwide: You can download these evaluations of TheyWorkForYou.com and WriteToThem.com from the official mySociety site.
These reports are for you if you want to know:
- how popular the sites are: You get detailed usage stats dating back to the inception of the sites.
- who is using the site: We carried out a survey of users, comparing their demographic profile to that of the British (Internet) population.
- what the sites cost to build and maintain: There is a summary table, comparing the costs of the respective site to other mySociety projects.
- how the site came to be what they are: You find information on the history of the sites as well as some interesting stories around them.
- and much much more
Overall, these documents offer a comprehensive picture of two political websites that have hundreds of thousands of users every year. The official release post gives a good summary of the results, as do the executive summaries at the beginning of each report. What I wanted to share here briefly, is some background on the creation of these reports and my understanding of this research:
Several years ago, Tom Steinberg of mySociety asked me carry out an evaluation of the major mySociety sites. The aim was to create a framework with some key indicators that could be measured and compared across different websites of mySociety. At that time, it was not entirely clear what aspects such an evaluation should cover. We envisaged some value-for-money analysis, but what exactly was the “value” that the sites brought? We finally decided to focus on the people who use the site: Are these the usual political animals, or can the site engage people who are traditionally rarely involved in politics, such as people with a low income and/or without a degree from higher education. We carried out extensive surveys of users of these websites and compared their demographics with data from the British population. This reference data that was provided by our very own Oxford Internet Institute’s Oxford Internet Survey – Thank you very much!
But the reports are much more than that: They collect a vast variety of information about the sites, such as statistics on visitor numbers for the last years, popular content sections or the number of messages sent to MPs and other representatives (via WriteToThem), a history of the site, some interesting anecdotes as well as some background about the ecosystem in which these sites evolve. It has turned out that compiling this information has been a major task, as it entails collecting bits and pieces from various parts of the organisation. In the process we chose to apply a new web traffic analyser (Piwik), all in order to get consistent and comparable data from all the sites.
The reports are first of all important for mySociety itself, in order to create a better understanding of how the sites work and what users are looking for. Beyond this, these reports are intended for a wide range of audiences:
- eDemocracy practitioners – to learn for their sites
- researchers in online political participation – to get information on the performance of large-scale projects
- journalists – as the reports show where the sites have made an impact in the political landscape
- potential funders – to see what can be achieved
What I hope the research results show is that engaging citizens with the help of the Internet is neither simple nor impossible, and that there are few simple answers in relation to whether the Internet is good for democracy [my PhD focuses on this question in much more detail, using some of the data from this research]. In addition, I hope it encourages other projects in this area to open up their efforts to the same level of scrutiny. From my experiences, I know that it is often somewhat difficult for NGOs to engage in evaluation, for lack of money or time, and sometimes also for a lack of understanding of why this is useful. However, I firmly believe that it is crucial to do evaluation both to get some critical assessment of one’s own achievements – to help improve the site – as well as to give other initiatives in this space the chance to learn from the successes and failures of others.
In this regard, I hope the reports reach a wide audience. We very much encourage feedback, both on the results of the report as well as on the methodology applied. We decided to start with WriteToThem and TheyWorkForYou, but the plan is to publish more reports on sites such as FixMyStreet.com, WhatDoTheyKnow.com, PledgeBank.com etc.
Disclaimer: mySociety gave me money to do this research, and they provided data, help and advice throughout the process. However, at no point did they interfere with the results or question my interpretation of the findings.
There are not many high profile research institutions in the world that focus explicitly on the social aspects of the Internet. Arguably the most prominent but in any case the oldest one is constituted by our friends at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University with a strong focus on the legal aspects of the Internet.
At the risk of being immodest, in my opinion our very own Oxford Internet Institute is currently the only other institution with any claim to really focus explicitly on the social aspects of the Internet and does so with a strong academic track record. In short, there is certainly still a lot of space for institutions with a comparable focus and now just last week Google’s Eric Schmidt has announced that Google is founding and more importantly funding the “Institute for Internet & Society” in Berlin. Its still early stages and details are scarce but Google promises to take a substantial amount of money in their hands to create an independent research institute that focuses on
- innovation and online economy
- Internet governance and policy
- legal aspects of Internet and society
Rumours are that they have a number of strong academic partners lined up (including Berlin universities and research centres) so if this turns out to be a real and long-term effort it could be really exciting. In particular it could provide Germany with a high-profile research base where people who are interested in these issues can come together, such as the OII provides for the UK and beyond. While in Germany there is a lot of research on the social and legal implications of the Internet going on (see my list here), such a central gathering place for information and exchange as well as research is still very much lacking.
PS: Some more information is available in an article by Eric Schmidt for German newspaper “Berliner Morgenpost” (in German)
UPDATE: I have been criticised for being overly dismissive about other research centres on the Internet and Society and rightly so. There are of course a significant number of others institutions with a similar focus. A first overview (though a bit dated) offers a list by OII director Bill Dutton here. However, to provide some perspective to my statement, I was referring to i) independent departments or institutes (not a research group within one) who ii) focus exclusively on the Internet and Society (and not more generally into Information or Technology or else), have iii) a strong academic track record and iv) achieved some status of being known. I would still maintain that not many other institutions have a claim to all that but this was of course not to imply that no brilliant and even better research is being done elsewhere
About a good month ago, Tory MP Dominic Raab hit the news as he was demanding removal of his parliamentary email address from a campaigning website (this even made it into the headlines in Germany).
The story so far
The story itself is quickly told: Basically, an MP says “please remove my parliamentary e-mail address from your website as I only receive countless mass campaign emails from your site that prevent me from getting other stuff done such as answering real constituents’ queries“, and the response of the campaigning site is to accuse the MP of being unresponsive and unwilling to listen to the people, to urge its supporters to confront the MP and generally, to try to get as much publicity out of this as possible. The simple conclusion is: It was not a very smart move by Dominic Raab (the MP) which provided the campaigning website with a golden opportunity to get some easy PR by bashing an apparently lazy MP, in particular as it was suggested that the amount of emails he was receiving averaged about two a day.
However, given this is an issue very much related to my PhD research, I do believe it illustrates a bigger paradox related to the role of the Internet for the constituent-representative relationship. That is, while I think that Dominic Raab had a right to complain, he was not right to actually do so. He had a right to complain as some features of the technology have put him in a difficult spot, and he was not right to actually do so as the technology would not allow him to control who is contacting him, even though it might help him in other ways. Let me explain
Did he have a right to complain? – YES
There can be little doubt that online communication has a great potential for making representatives more accessible to their constituents and for enabling them to receive more input on which to base their decisions. While access to the Internet remains an issue, emailing an MP is cheap and fast and there are now many websites that make it easy to find out the contact details of your MP or similar, even if you don’t know the name.
There is a flip-side of course and that is that sometimes sending these messages might be too easy. Now, mass-mailing campaigns are nothing new but with copy-and-paste it is considerably easier, cheaper and faster to send 5 emails than 5 postcards. This creates what American academic Bruce Bimber has called “the cheap-talk problem“. While the capacity to talk, ie. send messages, expands vastly, the capacity to listen ie. deal with the messages, cannot keep up, despite a number of parliamentary initiatives such as the Communications Allowance. This general overload risks that there won’t be an adequate response to all constituents with queries. Worse, it might mean that only those will find help or an open ear who have the power of the masses behind them, even though it seems that currently that state of affairs is rather different in that mass emails have less chance of being picked up than what is perceived to be individual concerns. So writes Bimber that “members of Congress learned to recognize and discount centrally orchestrated communication” (Bimber, 2003: 108). Is this wrong? Well, while I would argue they should have any such issue on the radar, the amount of messages they receive is less a sign of the urgency of the issue than one of the class or success of mobilisation of the campaign.
There can also be no doubt that an MP has to deal with constituent concerns. As a matter of fact, most MPs in the UK, at least if they are backbenchers, do little else than being at the service of their constituents. By and large, the role seems to be accepted and if, for example, we look at some of the responsiveness statistics published by the website WriteToThem.com, it seems that at least the majority of representatives does also actively pursue their constituency role and answer their constituents.
Still for the reason highlighted earlier, I believe Raab was right to complain. He was basically saying, I get a lot of stuff that I deal with but if I see this is just a rather simple copy-and-past campaign I delete it. So you might as well stop emailing me in the first place.
Was he right to complain? – NO
The paradox of the situation is that despite I believe in his right to complain, it was still wrong to actually do so. This is for two reasons. First of all, it allowed the campaigning website to bash him by using the familiar reflex of accusing the MP of not being up for what his constituents have to say. This is a simple message that works as it serves all the usual stereotypes about politicians (to which, admittedly, they themselves have contributed their fair share, the MP expense scandal being a case in point). The thing is that Raab (of whom I don’t know anything about apart from the few things I have read by now) seems to be a rather responsive MP as well as inclined to the Internet – he seems to rather regularly maintain a blog, can be contacted through his websites and has highlighted his responsiveness throughout the controversy. He was honest and regrettably, that was his problem: He should have continued to just delete the messages (as probably many others do) instead of openly complaining. That was mistake number one.
Mistake number two was that, in his quest for somehow controlling the communication that reaches him, he has started to demand withdrawal of his email address not just from the campaigning website – he even tries not to quote it anywhere, even suggesting people should phone his office to obtain the proper email address. This really seems like a fight against windmills as it really is impossible to hide your official email address if your are a Member of Parliament.
So Raab picked a fight he could not win: He was always bound to loose against public opinion (even if deliberately misled as I think was the case in this story) and for all his Internet affinity, he does not seem to have understood the technology completely. The smarter move would have been to make more effective use of email filtering or similar. In this way, the very technology that has created his problem could have helped him to cope with it.
- Bimber, Bruce A. 2003. Information and American democracy : technology in the evolution of political power. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
One very British radio show that I very much enjoy is Desert Island Discs, a programme on BBC Radio 4 that asks its guest which eight records they would choose to take with them to a desert island. Thanks to this concept, the presenter Kirsty Young and its selection of renowned guest one usually has a feeling of really getting to know the person interviewed. Last Sunday Kirsty Young’s guest was Dame Stephanie Shirley, a woman with a remarkable story in itself but who is also crucially linked to our institute as her Shirley Foundation has given £10m in order to set up the Oxford Internet Institute in 2001.
Dame Stephanie tells the story of her life, having escaped from Nazi Germany but also having to leave her parents on a Kindertransport to the UK, later going on to set up a successful IT company that aimed, among other things, to offer more flexible working opportunities to women in the IT sector and where, in an environment not favourable for working women, she used to call herself simply “Steve”. The autistic condition of her only son Giles let to her engagement in supporting better conditions for care of autistic children as well as research into the disorder. After her “retirement” from the company she used the money made by the successful floating of the company to fund philanthropic ventures mainly with a focus on autism. As such she gave away more than £50m that, among other things, helped found the institute.
You can hear more about this remarkable life on the BBC Radio 4 Desert Island Disc website and there is also a podcast available.
Honour where honour is due: Our colleague Max Loubser got his PhD from Oxford just last week and this is really just to say: Congratulations! Well done! So proud. And just that little bit envious
So there is this nice guy Jeff Gilfelt, a software developer from Reading, who has made some headlines with his iPhone/Android application called ASBOromoter which gives you simple access to government data on the number of Anti-Social Behaviour Orders that were handed out and other anti-social stuff in the area you happen to be with your mobile phone.
From the material available the app looks great and it is also a nice example of what stuff citizen can do when government data is publicly available as Jeff used datasets from the recently started data.gov.uk portal. The remarkable point I want to highlight is shown in the video below when Jeff was asked by Conrad Quilty-Harper if there is a political point to his app:
The answer is a passionate “No“. Can you believe it?
Now I was not totally surprised because some years ago I wrote my MA thesis on “Political Motives of Developers for Collaboration on GNU/Linux“. While I found that a majority of the developers in my sample did actually attribute a political relevance (whatever it might be) to their coding of GNU/Linux, it was also clear from my research and that of others, that most programmers are motivated by the fun of coding. The Free Software community of GNU/Linux might be a bit of an exception given its founding principles but it is certainly not totally defamatory to expect the bunch of Web developers for gadgets like the iPhone to be less principled.
Is there something wrong with this? On the danger of over-generalising a bit too much I would argue yes. A tool like the ASBOrometer which makes transparent how screwed up your area is – this is more than just a funny app because it shows where the government has failed its citizens. Now it won’t come as much of a surprise to most inhabitants of these areas but the app gives you simple and quick access to actual numbers and compare your situation with that of others. This might well be what triggers some people to stop accepting their fate and get up to do something about being let down by society. As much as I hate to refer to the Sun to state a point coverage of the ASBOrometer in broadsheets like these certainly emphasise that is has struck a cord with people – also underscored by the fact that within two days it achieved over 80,000 downloads. Finally, lets not forget the economic dimension (and you don’t have to be a Marxist to know that little could be more political than this) as the newspapers rightly point out that this could have a huge impact on house prices in these areas.
Of course in my opinion all this makes this app all the better but I believe it is important that the people putting stuff like this together have some idea of its potential relevance. Ideally they might have an aim for this as well (I mean one relevant for the public good, not just fun for themselves) but hey, you can’t change the world every day. But the naivety with which software developer go about their work at my best of times amazes me but at other times just outright scares me.
As it says in the Spiderman comics:
In a world heavily shaped by information and its free flow in the form of bits and bytes, people with computing skills are a small elite, able to manipulate this flow and determine its outcomes. There are many examples in which our current technology vanguards are making use of their skills with the aim to create some benefits to citizens such as mySociety in the UK or Sunlight in the US to name just a few. But we need much more of this.
All of this comes back to the old debate about the ethics of science and to what degree scientists (as just one example of an expert elite) are responsible for what they do – a debate wonderfully illustrated in Dürrenmatt’s The Physicists. Of course the ASBOborometer is no atomic bomb and I’m not in any way suggesting programming should not be fun or Jeff has anything but good (or no) intentions. But I really think it is time that even software developers understand that no tool is neutral and start to take responsibility for their creation – or at least try to understand its relevance. Because code is law, code is political!
It is no secret that I’m a great admirer of mySociety’s work and I even try to contribute a little bit to it myself through some of the research I do for them but today I would just like to share briefly an example of how much difference it can make to research whether or not data is available online, in a well-structured manner and with an intelligent search built on top of it.
In my doctoral research I look at the communication between constituents and their Members of Parliament. I was looking for a simple way to judge the relevance of the mail that MPs receive from their constituents. As I found, MPs tend to refer to their “postbag” in order to emphasize the importance of an issue as e.g. the Simon Hughes did in a recent debate on climate change (see video below):
So in order to judge how often that happens, I needed to have a look at Hansard, the written record of proceedings in parliament. Now the main online Hansard record at the UK Parliament website is rather difficult and does not provide a search functionality so I turned to TheyWorkForYou.com, one of mySociety’s projects that does not only provide detailed information on MPs but also offers a nicely formatted, searchable version of Hansard, now dating back to 1935 (!).
In this way it was a matter of seconds to find out how often MPs and Lords have mentioned their postbags in parliamentary proceedings since 1935 (it was 1,621 times). A multitude of options allow to filter your search accordingly so that now I know that the majority of these mentions were made during House of Commons debates (989) and that in the current parliament Conservative MP Mark Field leads the table (with 9 references to his postbags). Finally I could quickly produce a figure showing the development of references to their constituent mail:
btw the search is intelligent enough to look for the word “postbag” as well as similar words such as “postbags” or “post bag”
I cannot start to imagine how long it would have taken to produce this figure with the limited capabilities of the official Hansard and it would not have been possible at all at the time when all this data was really only a written record in the literal sense. Not saying that this particular piece of information is a world-changing discovery but it is a good example of how the availability of data in a structured and searchable format (!) can contribute to scholarship nevertheless. In this respect the various Open Data initiatives by governments offer a huge potential for social scientists with the appropriate statistical and computational skills to offer fresh insights. See for example the Guardian World Government Data Initiative that offers the datasets opened up by various different governments in a uniform format.
Today we launch a new online toolkit that allows rating the difficulty of paper, online and phone-based forms (you can find infos on the launch event here). It is intended for government departments but most of the categories apply to non-government forms as well.
The toolkit is based on a guide that a team led by Professor Patrick Dunleavy from the LSE and Professor Helen Margetts from the Oxford Interet Institute developed for the National Audit Office and that underwent a consultation process within government. However, what I want to draw your attention to are some of the technical details of the online toolkit as in this major effort it was my responsibility to set up an interactive version of this checklist. So if you are only interested in checking how easy or difficult your form is to answer go straight to the checklist. If you are more technically inclined read on.
The checklist itself is a kind of interactive questionnaire that you go through page by page. It automatically calculates the difficulty score for a form as well as its individual sections and allows comparison with the difficulty scores of other forms rated by other users.
Some of the features I would like to mention are:
- The whole content as well as the structure (ie. the different sections of the checklist) are imported from an Excel file. In this way it is easily customisable and it is just one script for the three different types of forms: paper, online and phone.
- A load & save functionality – before saving the form an Ajax call checks if the filename is still available. Restoring a previously saved checklist was also tricky for a number of reasons, e.g. because the script won’t know from the save name what type of form it is but will redirect you accordingly.
- At the end of the checklist we provide feedback about the difficulty scores of forms rated by other users, in this way allowing you to compare the difficulty of your form with other forms. It is more of a gimmick really as of course these comparison have its problems but it gives you an idea.
- The whole site is using short, clean, memorable & “talking” URLs such as /paper-form/ or /saved/.
- No cookies. All necessary parameters are submitted via a html form.
The whole site is still in somewhat advanced beta stage so any bugs and problems you encounter – please let me know!
Last week someone said this:
“If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.”
Now of course it will be immediately obvious to most people that this is simply wrong and I refrain myself from giving more counterarguments than political activists in autocratic regimes and the type of privacy most sane people prefer for going to the toilet.
What makes this statement more than a mere nuisance but outright dangerous is that it was made by Eric Schmidt who is the CEO of Google, in an interview with CNBC on 3 December 2009. There has been an outcry already and I refer everyone to the brief and eloquent response by the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
The statement of Mr. Google does nothing to alleviate the fears about privacy intrusion by Google through its ever more pervasive technology and vast data retention*. I still don’t believe in any conspiracy plot by Google to take over the world – rather it is something much more dangerous: It is utter naivity and ignorance about the complexities of human society and a purely technocratic approach to life.
I believe there is only one way to help Eric Schmidt to realise the value of privacy – that is to take it away from him. Let us help Eric to come clear about what he has done and add Sunlight (as the best disinfectant)** to his life by making it public. For example, I want to know where Eric Schmidt lives. Exactly. What car he uses to get to work. When. On which route. What stuff he loves. What nightmares he has. Everything. Let’s make a crowd-sourcing effort and publish all of this on the web. Again and again. Until Mr. Schmidt starts to realize the value of privacy.
There is only one trouble with this: Eric Schmidt already knows the value of privacy. For himself at least. For when in 2005 CNet published this story with some details on the private Eric Schmidt (with data that was obtained by public Google searches only) he acted very quickly and banned Google interviews with CNet reporters for the duration of one year.
So let us call this what it is: Hypocrisy. And this is evil, Mr. Schmidt.
Maybe it is time for a CEO to step down from his position when he is severely violating his company’s code of conduct:
“Don’t be evil.” [...] But it’s also about doing the right thing more generally — following the law, acting honorably and treating each other with respect. [...] It’s built around the recognition that everything we do in connection with our work at Google will be, and should be, measured against the highest possible standards of ethical business conduct.
Who Must Follow Our Code?
We expect all of our employees and Board members to know and follow the Code. Failure to do so can result in disciplinary action, including termination of employment.
Shareholders of Google, you know what to do to prevent further damage for your company. But then I see this Reuters article from February this year:
And some say Google is inherently unreceptive to investor input. Its dual-class share structure gave three individuals — co-founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page, and Chief Executive Eric Schmidt — 67 percent of voting rights as of 2008.
Time to change this too!
* Need a proof? If you have an account with Google (e.g. because you have a Google Mail address), have a look at this – your complete search history (and probably also what you’ve clicked onto) since creation of the account. In my case that were 2.5 years worth of searches – at least they allow you to delete it which is definitely a plus.
** On the issue of the sometimes questionable value of transparency see this very recommendable piece by Lawrence Lessig.
In the latest issue of UK magazine Prospect, Georgetown University fellow Evgeny Morozov offers his critical take on what the Internet will do to democracy. Under the title “How dictators watch us on the web” he gives various examples in which digital technologies have not only failed to democratise states (by whatever measure) but rather to strengthen authoritarian regimes and indeed helped to actively harm those striving for more civil liberties.
The list includes islamist bloggers in Lebanon, increased control through social networking in Belarus, hate crime YouTube videos in Mexico and racial agitation in Russia. Now few of this is novel – technologies are (neutral?) tools that can be used to do both good and bad. But having worked on Western-funded Internet Projects in the former Soviet Union, Morozov is an insider and in the light of various (often government supported) drives to promote “democracy” through blogging, Twitter etc, his article acts as an important reminder of all the downsides of a technology that is indeed powerful but not inherently as democratic as many people want us to believe:
Yet while the internet may take the power away from an authoritarian (or any other) state or institution, that power is not necessarily transferred to pro-democracy groups. Instead it often flows to groups who, if anything, are nastier than the regime. Social media’s greatest assets—anonymity, “virality,” interconnectedness—are also its main weaknesses.
I particularly liked his argument about the existence of a new social contract that is being formed between authoritarian regimes and their citizens. Under this new deal citizens get access to as much entertainment as they want, be it pornographic or pirated or both, just as long as they accept their narrow political freedoms. A new form of golden cage so to speak:
Authoritarian governments know that the internet could be a new opium for the masses. They are tolerant of rampant internet piracy, as in China. In many cases, they push the cyber-hedonistic pursuits of their youth. Government-controlled internet providers in Belarus, for example, run dedicated servers full of pirated digital goodies for their clients to download for free. Under this new social contract, internet users are allowed plenty of autonomy online—just so long as they don’t venture into politics.
Overall, Morozov is not quite as pessimistic as it might sound. While he heavily criticises the current approach of many Western governments to promote democracy through technology he ends his article with a number of suggestions, one of which is to fund more bottom-up, entrepreneurial initiatives instead of overly bureaucratic NGO-style project funding – an idea that is for example currently piloted by mySociety and the Open Society Institute for Central and Eastern Europe.
There seems to be a chance to hear a first-hand account of this by Morozov himself on an event next week. More information here.
Since October 2006 I am both a DPhil student as well as a research assistant at the Oxford Internet Institute and here I share with the accidental reader my musings on different aspects of the Internet and society. Feel free to comment or simply ignore :-)
Oxford Internet Institute
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- Out Now: Evaluation of TheyWorkForYou.com and WriteToThem.com
- Harvard, Oxford and now Berlin? A new research centre on the Internet & Society (by Google)
- Did Dominic Raab MP have a right to complain and Was he right to complain?
- Get to know the Institute’s main donor: Dame Stephanie Shirley aka Steve
- Congratulations Max!
- Are software developers political? Or should they be?
- The joy of a searchable Hansard or Why open data matters for research!
- An online tool for rating the difficulty of government forms
- Sunlight for Eric Schmidt
- A new social contract for authoritarian regimes