Over the last couple of years we ran the CEE.mysociety.org project, to see if we could help groups across Central and Eastern Europe create more mySociety-esque sites — both by encouraging people to start such projects, and also by assisting groups working on them. We did this in two ways: I spoke at a lot of conferences, user groups, and other events, meeting with lots of NGOs, activists, hackers, geeks etc., and we also ran a Call for Proposals in association with OSI to find some groups to fund and mentor. You can read more about that process and those groups on the CEE blog (though we didn’t really write anywhere near enough!)
This year we’re taking a slightly different tack. We’ve learned a lot in the last two years about the sorts of approaches people take to these sorts of projects, and have seen a lot of the traps that people fall into along the way. We’ve watched large numbers of people not only try to build similar transparency or civic sites, but also directly copy some of our core sites or features into other countries, and discovered that a lot of what we do within mySociety not only isn’t obvious, but is often counter-intuitive. We put a lot of effort into making our sites as simple as possible for people to use. But this ease of use, which at times seems almost naively simplistic, is far from trivial to achieve, and people often significantly underestimate what will be required to do likewise on their own projects.
So our goal this year is to share a lot of our accumulated knowledge and experience much more broadly. I’ll continue to speak at events and meet with groups one-on-one — and across an even wider geographic area this year, including Latin America and Sub-Saharan Africa as well as Central and Eastern Europe [contact me if you'd like me to come to your country!] — but we’ll also be trying to write up a lot of what we know, so we can share our hard-won wisdom without needing to buy so many airline tickets.
A major component of that will producing several in-depth guides on how we built our key sites: TheyWorkForYou.com, FixMyStreet.com, WriteToThem.com, and WhatDoTheyKnow.com. These won’t be technical guides (though we’re also working on building more technical documentation for those wanting to use our code in other countries), but a deep look at all the conceptual issues you need to think about when building these sorts of sites, no matter what technical platform you use.
And we’ll also be using this blog to discuss lots of other wider topics related to this whole area: how usability should be your primary focus; how to decide which features are important, and how to prioritise them; how to work out who your audience should be, and how to reach them; what types of people you need on your team; why you need to see launch day as the start of your development, not the end; why simply putting an existing booklet or cd-rom online is not only sub-optimal, but often actively harmful; tips for working with journalists; why you probably don’t need a discussion form (and if you do, then why you should stop worrying about how to police it); why the quality of your execution matters much more than the quality of your idea; why (and how) you should work with similar projects in other countries, rather than working alone; why you need to stop trying to educate people; why you don’t want your own Obameter; tricks to get your users to do your marketing for you; what to do when the data you need isn’t available; how to build projects that can outlive your organisation; why you want to distort reality rather than reflect it; the difference between websites that report sports scores and those that encourage people to play; how to stay out of the uncanny valley; why hoping to win the lottery is not a sensible business strategy; how working directly with government can be like toxoplasmosis; how to build a time-machine; how to improve your fertility; how to ensure all your yaks are pre-shaved; etc, etc.
But we need your help in this too. We don’t know all the answers. We’ve seen a lot of things succeed and a lot of things fail, but that doesn’t mean that what makes one thing work or not work will be true for everyone. We’re sharing our experience in the hope that others can avoid making lots of the mistakes we’ve made. There are lots of other things we’ve never seen, or never realised even though they’re right in front of us — and we need other people to share what they’ve learned too. So we want to encourage everyone to go start their own blog about all this too, even if (especially if!) they disagree with us. But we also want people to contribute directly here too: not only by commenting on the articles, but by contributing their own too (otherwise you’re going to have to listen to me every day! So contact me if you want to write something). The “How To Build a Site like X” guides will all have their own underlying wiki where everyone can join in and help make them living documents that capture a much greater wealth of experience, knowledge, and insight than any of us has on our own. There’s an ever increasing number of people creating wonderful projects in this area — let’s have a corresponding increase in the number of people writing about it too!