A Poplus Creation Story

This is merely a creation story — my particular version of it — not the creation story.

Way way back in 2009, mySociety launched a program with OSI to help groups across Central and Eastern Europe build “mySociety-esque” projects in their own countries.

We soon discovered that many groups didn’t just want sites that shared these approaches and ideals — but actually wanted local versions of mySociety’s own sites. In particular, we had about four different groups who wanted their own Public Freedom of Information Requests site, like WhatDoTheyKnow.com. Of course, having them all simply work in splendid isolation on separate clones/forks would have been silly1, so Alaveteli was born, and was a great success.

Around this time there was also an explosion of groups building Parliamentary Monitoring Sites (along the lines of TheyWorkForYou.com), but in general each of those were starting from scratch each time, rather than working together. People kept asking whether it was possible to build a platform like Alavateli for this, but it appeared that legislative systems around the world were just too different to make this feasible. So instead we spent a while writing up lots of the lessons we had learnt, and lots of the mistakes we’d made (and seen lots of other people make again and again), and published them in a monster tome called “How to Make a Web Site Like TheyWorkForYou

But then @Steiny had one of of his strokes of genius, and persuaded everyone that although pretty much every Parliament has different processes, they’re still dealing with the same raw ingredients — people, parties, speeches, bills, votes, etc. — and if we could create standardised ways of modelling each of those things, it would be a lot less work for people to combine these in the way that makes most sense for their own situation. This means we can neatly solve all the little problems that turn out to be quite tricky in practice (e.g.an MP moving to a different political party, or even changing their name) in ways that everyone can benefit from, without trying to shoehorn every system into a common platform.

And once these individual ingredients are in place, we can also come up with some standardised ways of combining them. If everyone stores all their MP information in a consistent manner, then it’s much easier to come up with a “Write to your MP in public” tool that can be deployed in multiple countries quite simply, without everyone having to reinvent it (badly) every time. If everyone stores Voting records and Income Declarations in the same way, then it’s easier for groups to collaborate on tools that look for dodgy-looking conflicts of interest.

And, of course, this isn’t just restricted to building Parliamentary Monitoring sites — pretty much every tool in the civic and democratic space can be broken down into some parts that are universal, with usually only a little bit of local glue2 holding them together.

Thus: Poplus.

 

  1. though some time I should really tell the story of just how difficult it was to persuade everyone of that []
  2. to somewhat spoil the cooking metaphor []

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