mySociety is a small but mighty not-for-profit social enterprise that’s been operating in the UK since 2003. Though the team is comprised of only about 25 people, they work in over 40 countries to build online technologies that put the power of change in the hands of the people. mySociety aims to uphold democracy, take advantage of freedom of information, and assist local authorities in empowering their citizens.
“I basically have the most amazing job in the world because I get to spend my life asking interesting questions and finding out about them.”
One way that mySociety stands out is their dedication to ensuring that their tools are actually working for the people who need them most. That’s where Rebecca Rumbul comes in. As the Head of Research, Rebecca’s job is to ask the difficult questions needed to learn whether or not mySociety has been successful. Is their tech actually accomplishing the intended goal?
Startlingly few charitable organizations do the follow-up work necessary to ensure that their “help actually looks like help”. As Rebecca herself points out, many times people will use tech in unexpected ways — the tool is put out into the world, where it then develops a life of its own. Sometimes that’s a good thing, but other times it can lead to negative effects, which is exactly what mySociety works to avoid.
The civic tech movement has only been around for about 10 years, but in that time we’ve already seen how beneficial technology can be when deployed in service of the public good. From tools that help citizens hold their governments accountable to apps that allow people to report roads that need to be fixed, civic tech tools are helping average people feel that they have more say in civic and social issues.
While the benefits are real, civic tech may also be inadvertently widening the digital divide – a perfect example of tech having unexpected results. Those in the US, UK, and similar “first-world” countries understand that the whole world isn’t online, but many are still surprised to learn that a large number of citizens do not have access to the internet in their own developed countries. When it comes to civic tech, limited access means that not everyone has a say when they should, which shifts the power even further into the hands of more affluent members of society.
mySociety works to help people on the “wrong side” of the digital divide by sometimes offering more low-tech, but also more accessible, solutions. The focus on impact also leads mySociety to make unusual decisions in the realm of not-for-profits and charities — sometimes saying no to funded projects. As Rebecca puts it in her interview, “We don’t want to be all things to all people. We are experts at what we do, and there are other people who are more expert in slightly different fields…Our goal is to help people, and if someone else is better placed to do that, then that’s fine by us.”
In the spirit of letting experts excel in their own areas while still partnering with and supporting each other, mySociety runs an annual civic technology conference called TICTeC (The Impacts of Civic Technology Conference). It’s a unique take on a traditional conference, as it brings people together not to showcase tools, but instead look at the impact of the tools that have already been created. Speakers and attendees are encouraged to study what works, what doesn’t, and how to measure future success.
At TICTeC, you’ll find single activists who came to do their own research sitting next to representatives from Google, scholars from MIT or Oxford, and civic technologists. This creates a special launching pad for new partnerships, ideas, and friendships between people who would’ve otherwise never met.
In her keynote talk at the Civic Hacker Summit, Rebecca further explained how mySociety works with partners internationally to create and implement tools that help citizens demand better. This talk was not one to miss, and it’s available now to members with access to the Civic Hacker Summit video archive!
Measuring the Impact of Civic Tech
What does it mean to help people demand better? At mySociety, it means creating civic tech tools for people from over 45 countries that put information and power into the hands of average citizens. Watch Rebecca Rumbul, Head of Research at mySociety, explain how important it is to close the digital divide while simultaneously using tech to support democracy, create transparency, and put power back into the hands of the people.