For the last few years I’ve been travelling all around Central and Eastern Europe, the South Caucasus, Latin America, and Africa, presenting the various websites mySociety run — so far, I’ve given over 50 presentations in almost as many countries.
From the numerous questions that I’ve been asked at these events, the conversations I’ve had with both hacker/activist types and also existing NGO/CSO staff, and also the large numbers of proposals that I’ve evaluated for the mySociety CEE project, for other OSF funding, and for events run by groups like Social Innovation Camp and Garage48, I’ve come to realise that there are many key flaws in people’s thinking and approaches to building these sorts of civic and democracy enhancing websites. As such my presentation has gradually evolved away from describing what we do and how we do it, and more towards explaining why we do things in certain ways.
I’ve also come to learn that many of these core ideas are interlinked. There’s an entire philosophy and mindset behind them. You can’t just change one thing about your approach and have everything come together smoothly. But it’s impossible to get across all of these ideas coherently, and in any depth, in a 20-to-40 minute presentation.
So, I’m producing an abecedary of posts which will, eventually, add up to a brain dump of what I’ve learned about the common mistakes that many people tend to make in this area. It’s not going to be systematic, or definitive, or even comprehensive — just a series of intertwined observations on where people often go awry. It’s also not a collection of rules that I think Everyone Must Follow or their project will be a failure — these are simply areas where I’ve noticed that one approach tends to be more successful than another, offered to help people approach their problems from a different angle, or to think more clearly through what they want to achieve and how they’re going to get there. And they’re certainly not official mySociety or OSF policies — just my own personal map of the territory. Hopefully they’re useful.