At mySociety, we’re working really hard to create software tools that are attractive and easy to set up in diverse countries, cities and regions. Now we want to make sure everyone knows what we offer, and how it can be useful. This is a beginners’ guide to what mySociety can offer in the way of software tools.
First up, the basics:
- All our code is open source.
- Some of our code is available in simple-to-use packages.
- There are two types of package. We call them Platforms and Components. This post is about explaining the difference.
You can think of Platforms as flat-pack websites – like furniture that arrives in a cardboard box, with all the screws, instructions and tools included. Our Platforms provide everything you need to replicate a site like FixMyStreet.com or WhatDoTheyKnow.com in your own country, city or region, but you need to do a little work to get it up and running.
Platforms are great for people who don’t want to spend a long time reinventing the wheel, and who want to get a basic, functional site up and running as fast as possible.
We provide the software, and you just need to add:
- Data to populate it
For example, if you’re setting up a website using the FixMyStreet platform, you need the names and email addresses of every bit of government that you want to send reports to. (This isn’t as daunting as it might sound – it might just be one authority and one email address! And if not, well, we’ve had lots of success with crowd-sourcing this sort of information).
- A server to host it on
We can help you here, if it’s a problem for you. See step 1 on this page.
- Enthusiastic people to run it
Don’t forget this vital consideration! Computers are great, but they can’t do everything themselves. You will need people – volunteers or paid staff – to promote, improve, and interact with the users of your website.
The following platforms are available to download and install:
For reporting common street problems such as potholes or broken streetlights. Creates transparency about local government, at the same time as providing a practical service to users.
Our Freedom-of-Information Platform. Whether or not your country has a Right to Know law, this Platform lets people ask questions to public authorities, – and it publishes all the conversations online.
If Platforms are like a flat-pack piece of furniture, Components are more like the parts of a kitchen. When you have a kitchen built, you get to choose from a number of parts that fit together: cupboards, drawers, shelves, etc. You can ignore things you don’t want, and add in things you do – and you end up with a kitchen that suits your needs.
Components will save you a lot of time because you won’t need to create database structures, APIs, search mechanisms, admin interfaces, and so on. Just slot in a Component – like you might slot in a dishwasher – and it’s all done for you. We’ve done our best to make them easy to deploy, easy to customise, and easy to connect together.
You will definitely need technical skills, although we are working on lowering that barrier. Components cannot run on their own – they need a website to fit into. And just as with our Platforms, you’ll need data. But you don’t need a server – we host the Components ourselves.
Right now we just have one component which is fully documented and ready to use, but we’re working on followups right now. This component is called MapIt.
MapIt is a web service which you can use to work out which boundaries a point or postcode exists within. An essential foundation for geographic lookups of all kinds. You can play with the UK instance here. We use it on:
- Our parliamentary monitoring website TheyWorkForYou.com. Users are shown their own MP’s data even if they don’t know who that MP is – all they have to do is input their postcode.
- Our ‘contact your representative’ site WritetoThem.com. Users input their postcode and are shown everyone who represents them, from local to European level.
- Our street problem-reporting site FixMyStreet.com. It sends problem reports to the relevant local council, based on the co-ordinates of where the problem was reported.
We are also working on a new component for building Parliamentary Monitoring Websites on top of, called PopIt. It isn’t quite ready for prime time yet, but if you join the Components email list, you can follow progress.
Where can I get these Platforms and Components ?
They’re all on Github, as is all our code (including a lot that we haven’t made easy to re-install yet). As it’s open source code, you can take them for free.
If you want to use MapIt, or learn about our future components, please sign up for the Components mailing list at the same time – it can be an invaluable place to get support when you have questions. You can also improve the code – sharing your improvements with us is a great way to say thank you. Plus, if you have ideas for other Components that will work well with ours, we’d love to hear about them.
We don’t just build this stuff, we also help people install and run it. Keep in touch and let us know how you’re using our code, and what is or is not working. If you hit any problems, there is always someone who can help.
We’ve put together a simple guide to Getting Started with Alaveteli. It consists of just seven steps.
At step one, your Freedom of Information website is nothing but a dream. By step seven, you’ll be the proud owner of your very own version, providing a valuable service for your country’s citizens!
What is Alaveteli?
Alaveteli is our platform that allows anyone to run their own Freedom of Information website – like WhatDoTheyKnow.com, but tailored to your own country’s Right To Information system.
If you’re considering setting up your own site, it’s inevitable that you’ll have all sorts of questions. We want to be with you every step of the way, to answer all your questions and offer help where you need it.
We’ve made Alaveteli as simple as possible, because we want anyone to be able to use it, without needing much technical knowledge.
So our guide is for everyone, including people who have never before launched their own website (if you have bags of experience, you should read it too – it’s still useful!)
It answers pressing questions like:
- How long does it take to create an Alaveteli site?
- How many people do I need to help me, and how do I find them?
- What technical skills are needed?
- How do I get the site translated into my own language?
- Should I launch with a big bang?
- How many hours a week will I be dedicating to the site, once it’s live?
If you want to know the answers to those questions, go and read it! And if you still have questions, please let us know. We’ll add more detail as it’s asked for.
If you’re technically confident, you should also head to our Alaveteli developers’ guide. Plus you will want to sign up to our Alaveteli mailing list, where you can discuss all things Alaveteli, and get advice, support and the answers to all your questions.
AlaveteliCon will be the world’s first gathering of FOI hackers from around the world.
On 2nd and 3rd April, over 50 people from 30 different countries will come together in Oxford, UK – from as far and wide as Australia, Indonesia, Brazil and Albania. This diverse bunch of people will have one thing in common – they’re all building Freedom of Information websites, based on our Alavateli platform.
What is Alaveteli?
It’s the easily-accessible, open-source codebase that allows anyone to run an FOI website like WhatDoTheyKnow.com in their own country.
When we launched WhatDoTheyKnow in 2008, our main focus was getting the site up and working for the UK. Its aim was simple: anyone can use the site to make an FOI request to a public body, and the whole correspondence is published online.
And it works – over 100,000 requests have been made to more than 5,000 authorities in the intervening four years.
It soon became apparent that people in other countries wanted to replicate WhatDoTheyKnow – and as an open-source organisation that favours governmental transparency everywhere, we’re very glad to help.
The trouble is, the original codebase from WhatDoTheyKnow.com wasn’t very replicable. It was built for the UK political system, and it couldn’t be easily picked up and tailored to another country – not without a lot of hard work*.
And so Alaveteli was born, in a project led by mySociety developer Seb Bacon. You might think of it as the second generation WhatDoTheyKnow – built with international implementation in mind. Alaveteli can be shaped to any country’s FOI laws, translated into any language, and installed with minimal technical knowledge.
Why a conference?
In the five months since Alaveteli was launched, it has been installed in six different jurisdictions, with three more in active development, and several others on the way. As each international website has taken shape, two things became clear to us:
- Every jurisdiction has its own idiosyncratic FOI laws, leading to a unique set of issues,
and at the same time:
- Every install of the codebase brings up certain universal issues, that will apply to anyone in any jurisdiction.
In the spirit of these two opposing truths, we are bringing people together at AlaveteliCon. We want to share knowledge and stories, answer questions and ask them, too.
There will be practical hands-on sessions; there will be discussions about the future direction of the platform; and there will, above all, be an opportunity to forge an Alaveteli community, members of whom know one another by sight rather than through a mailing group.
It sounds great – can I come?
At this moment, the conference is fully-booked. However, you can put your name on our waiting list in case of cancellations.
Meanwhile, don’t despair – we’ll be posting photos and summaries of all the sessions on the Alaveteli blog.
Now I’m all excited about Alaveteli – can I install it for my own country?
*It is worth noting that several coders in other countries did so anyway, with a lot of hard work.
FixMyStreet.com is mySociety’s popular British site for reporting problems like broken street lights and holes in the road. It works because as well as recording reports online, it sends copies to the relevent local governments. It has inspired many ‘grandchildren’ around the world.
Today marks the start of a new era for FixMyStreet as we push out the start of a major design upgrade in Britain, aimed particularly at making the mobile web experience as good as the desktop web experience.
Simultaneously, we’re also launching a guide to using the FixMyStreet Platform as the basis for your website in other countries.
- We’ve set up a new homepage for the FixMyStreet Platform.
- We’ve set up a new mailing list which you can join if you want to talk with us and with other users.
- We’ve published a brand new guide, suitable for technical and non-technical readers, about how and why you should consider using the FixMyStreet Platform to build your FixMyStreet-style website
We’re also here, waiting and ready to give you a hand. So if you’ve ever thought about setting up FixMyStreet outside Britain, there’s no better time to start than today.