mySociety is a not-for-profit social enterprise that supports citizens to demand better from governments. Their technologies are used globally to help drive civic change.
The principle ‘Be Open’ runs through every part of mySociety’s work: whether it’s operations, service design or technology. A great example of this is the ‘WhatDoTheyKnow’ platform, which makes the process of making FOI requests more efficient and effective for both citizens and public bodies.
At an operational level, as with all of mySociety’s services, the platform is developed through open dialogue. The team regularly blog to ensure they are communicating their plans for the service. But equally they have open channels to receive direct feedback from users.
Beyond that, even the day-to-day running of ‘WhatDoTheyKnow’ is open. mySociety offer opportunities for any individual, regardless of their skills and experience, to be involved in the delivery of the service. For example, a small team of volunteer policy and legal specialists actually run the platform on a day-to-day basis, whilst mySociety’s software developers are involved in developing and improving the open source code. There are even opportunities from non-specialists to be involved in the service, for example by categorising FOI requests.
Beyond the daily operations, mySociety have worked hard to make the technology open. The code is open source and reusable through a MIT licence. This means anyone can reuse the code to build a similar service in their own country.
Finally, the principle of being open is at the heart of how the service is designed. All requests made through the platform are public, and all the responses from the public bodies are all openly shown and freely available.
This benefits everyone. For citizens it ensures that FOI requests are properly documented and that the public body is kept accountable. Equally, this openness benefits public bodies as it means they can avoid duplicating repeated FOI requests for the same information. An interesting extra benefit is that the openness of the approach has an impact on the behaviour of people making requests – for example it deters people from using aggressive or antisocial language.
mySociety’s approach to embedding openness into every aspect of WhatDoTheyKnow has been an important part of its success. To date, there have been nearly half a million FOI requests made through the platform to over 20,000 public bodies. By keeping the code open source, the team have ensured the benefits of the service aren’t restricted to the UK. There are currently 28 active versions of Alaveteli, the code underpinning WhatDoTheyKnow, running in different countries around the world, ensuring that mySociety’s mission of making government better for citizens is being realised across the globe.
About the Principle
How does this apply to the case study?
Being open makes things better. If you are developing a digital service, being open has two benefits: firstly, it helps avoid duplication and enables everyone to improve by not repeating mistakes. By sharing your learnings and, if appropriate your code, others can build on your work.