Civic Tech Conversation with Mark Cridge, CEO of My Society

8th September 2015 Posted by: Cat Cochrane

This weekend, as part of Imagination Festival, which took place in Glasgow’s iconic Govanhill Baths, Tech for Good Co-Producer Cassie Robinson was in conversation with new CEO of My Society, Mark Cridge. During the talk and audience Q&A, Mark was posed questions in relation to My Society’s work in the civic tech arena as global pioneers in the development of digital tools for people to connect with for social change...and where he predicts opportunity for further change lies.
Q. Can you share a little background of what My Society does?

I literally just inherited My Society in the last six weeks, after Tom Steinberg stepped down after 12 years. I’ve found myself in a fascinating position in that I’ve taken over the leadership of an existing organisation that has been involved in so many interesting areas and has a really fantastic team, primarily of web developers, strategists and thinkers.

My Society is a vehicle to give citizens influence over those with power, and it uses digital technology to do that. Having evolved over the past 12 years, it grew out of the turn of the century dot.com boom from the frustration that we’d seen so much change and new business models being turned over in commercial spaces, yet that same thing hadn’t really been applied to governmental and civic organisations. From there it was formulised into a charity.

I’m at a really interesting point where I’m asking, ‘What the hell do I do with it?’ We’ve got a crack team of people. We have a really good pedigree of work. We are funded by institutions and foundations, and we have a fair amount of ‘cash in the bank’ so to speak to go and do things. It’s a really interesting point asking what can civic technology really open up? In the next few months, we are going to be leading this process.
Q. What are some of the ways My Society use civic tech to address issues?

My Society started by working in UK politics. They Work For You is a parliamentary monitoring site which looks at the voting patterns of politicians delivered in a really easily-digestible format that can be used by everyone. Our focus has become more international in the last five years, operating that same model in another 12 countries. Key to that is finding really good partners in those other countries - people who are willing to put in the time and the effort.

The other big area is freedom of information and we created WhatDoTheyKnow which allows you to submit and get a response from any UK public body. We also run the platform in 30 other countries. There’s been around 300k requests since its launch. FOI is a really important tool for ordinary people to find how decisions are made and to gain data that should be available but perhaps isn’t. It’s also a great pre-cursor to open data. Often what happens is that councils might find that people are asking for the same things and that’s a big push towards them giving the particular information out in an open data set that people can use rather than an FOI request.
You’ll find all kinds of issues all the way through government and public bodies and FOI unleashed the expenses scandal and inappropriately policed personal information. On the one hand it does create a lot of admin work for local councils. My Society thinks about both sides of that and potentially educating local authorities on how best to reply to these requests should improve the general feel of information that should be publically available.
Q. On your website you talk about popularising civic tech. In relation to that who is it that is accessing FOIs, citizens or institutions?
It’s a bit of both. There are a small number of FOI activists who submit 100 requests because to them it’s a political tool to prompt institutions to make something happen. One of our sites Fix My Street is much more me and my local community, the lamppost or potholes need fixing etc. There’s been around 500k problems reported and fixed over the last seven or eight years of the site’s existence.
 My Society was formed in the way it asks, how do you put together that sustainable change rather than the boom and bust of the campaign approach? Organisations like 38 Degrees gather together momentum by saying ‘let’s all sign this petition and draw attention to this horrible thing in the world and someone must do something about it.’ That kind of brute-force campaigning using digital technologies can be really powerful, but there’s a flipside to it as well, in as much as it doesn’t lead to sustainable change as it passes the buck and the problem onto someone else. That’s the antithesis of My Society’s approach. It’s much less ambitious in what it’s trying to change in its more prolonged impact. It’s trying to deal with the nuts and bolts of the problem to remove the barriers.
It’s not world-changing, but it’s about finding places for this technology to normalise that relationship between citizen and those who govern. It’s working out where can the right kind of technology fix that process.

Q. Where are there opportunities for civic tech that you believe haven’t been realised yet?

There’s no end to world problems to be addressed, of course, but there are issues around say the environment, education and health. I was at a talk about land reform here in Scotland yesterday and there’s a massive area around who owns what and being able to associate that open information with other data sets can be a really powerful tool for providing the evidence of the kind of reform you want.

If you take the example of They Work for You, which is the parliamentary monetary site, technology is often just a small part of the bigger picture. It succeeds due to dedicated communities of volunteers who work put in their time freely. Meanwhile, the challenges of managing those kinds of communities and matching them up with tasks is often much bigger, but the opportunities are there.
Q. Where does civic tech lie in relationship with people and communities trying to change government at grassroots level?
There are a lots of players in this field. There’s pure government, where comes in Government Digital Service, which literally goes through all the transactions the government makes with the populace, improving services and giving better access. There’s also a really interesting middle ground, where you’re an adversary to the government, where you’re don’t agree with them or are trying to force change. If you have the open channels you have the ability to get something done.
Q. If you’re a local community and you’re trying to make change from the ground up and it’s not about protesting and campaigning, are there examples of where people go for the expertise for that?
A piece of work that we’re doing at the moment called Every Politician is a simple tool to get a list of every politician in every part of the world. That information in itself is not particularly useful but the important thing is what we call the Populo Standard. The benefit is that if someone uses a tool that standardises the interpretation of the information, it is possible for a civic organisation to take that and use it in their own country, drawing on a similar mind set of different developers around the world.
There are problems that could be solved by your community, whether it’s community gardens or shops by a sharing of basic resources. It usually comes down to popularising what is happening in the community.
Q. How do people come to you with a problem or an issue?
We get a lot ad hoc people coming in and asking for help. Often they are very familiar with the work that we do. In many cases they will have downloaded the software that’s freely available, or tried to set it up. There a conversation from there, back and forth.
We also receive contact from people who have a project that they wish us to carry out. There was a project we got funded for to go to Liberia recently to set up a freedom of information act site. That in itself is relatively straight forward. The bigger problem is no one has any proper internet access other than a relatively small group of people. Most of My Society’s work has been focused on national type issues but Fix My Street is probably the closest to grassroots.

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Where is the civic tech that can be used in communities? Not for campaigning, protesting or for holding governments to account, but something else?

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