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UK's MySociety Releases How-To Guides, Source Code for Open Government Activists

BY Miranda Neubauer | Monday, March 26 2012

MySociety.org, the group behind several civic and democratic websites in the United Kingdom, this year is stepping up its effort to help people in other countries build websites based on its model with a project called DIY mySociety.

MySociety.org has lauched websites such as WhatDoTheyKnow.com, a site helping people in the UK to send Freedom of Information requests, TheyWorkForYou, a parliamentary monitoring site, and FixMyStreet, which helps people report problems like potholes in their local area.

While in the past, the group has spread the word, particularly in Central and Eastern Europe, through the CEE.mysociety.org project, and Tony Bowden, international agitator for mySociety, speaking at conferences and meetings, it is now aiming to reach a larger audience online by sharing the code of its sites, publishing how-to guides and engaging with the community through social networks and mailing lists. There are already projects based on mySociety's WhatDoTheyKnow model in Kosovo, Germany, Brazil and the European Union.

The group has created two complete web applications based on FixMyStreet and WhatDoTheyKnow that are available for download. In addition, the group is working on components that would be useable on a variety of different websites, such as a system called MapIt, which can help code geographical lookups for political areas, councils and regions.

With its how-to guides, the group is aiming to go beyond technical advice to developers, and provide an overview of the steps the creators of a civic websites should take into consideration before they start the process. As a start, mySociety has put up user guides for Alaveteli, the platform behind WhatDoTheyKnow and other similar sites, and FixMyStreet.

Some of the guidelines for the Alaveteli platform include:

One of the most important things you need to do before launching is to gather together a list of all the bodies to whom you want to address FOI requests.....In general, the best way to engage authorities is with a mixture of encouragement and exposure. In private, you can explain that in addition to helping them meet their legal requirements and civic obligations, you may be reducing their workload by preventing repeat requests. In public, you can work with journalists to praise authorities that are doing a good job, and highlight ones that refuse to take part. It is, therefore, very important to make links with journalists with an interest in freedom of information.

In addition, DIY mySociety will be sharing information and seeking feedback on its blog, Twitter account, and specific mailing lists such as for Alaveteli, FixMyStreet and components such as MapIt.