FixMyStreet is getting some great press, this time a Guardian article comparing it favourably to Facebook. We were lucky to have Tom Steinberg at the fourth Oxford Geek Night, and his plucky lieutenant Matthew Somerville (I may get in trouble for that) back at the third OGN. They’re both fascinating speakers (and I still turn red at the way my nerves made me hustle Tom off the stage); but, more than that, through the sites mentioned in the Guardian article above, they and many other unsung heroes have brought about real social change.
The comparison in the Guardian website is with Facebook (which is turning rapidly more socially evil by the minute anyway). I think it would be more illuminating to compare mySociety sites with such large, government-commissioned (and consultant-propelled) projects like the NHS Spine.
The Spine is a vast, overarching superproject; it’s a messy amalgam of large, penny-pinching businesses; separation of responsibilities—bizarrely—is in part geographical, so despite purporting to provide a single system there’s no guarantee (outside of the weird steampunk astrolabe brains of consultants) that Yorkshire and Humber will be able to chat freely with the West Midlands. It’s been put together without any real thought about whether the problems tackled are the ones that the problem-sufferers (NHS staff and patients) encounter most often. In a nutshell, i’s overblown, overpriced and over the top.
But if mySociety had been brought in? You would have around a dozen projects, all quite tiny, and all solving fairly simple, easily-scoped problems. Most importantly, they would all stem from consulting the staff: each would have a valid reason for existing before even the planning began. The basic version of each site would be ready within six weeks, and a more polished version in three months. There’d be ongoing updates and improvements as user requests made them appear worth while ((the Spine, on the other hand, would shudder at the thought that the hoi polloi of front-line employees might dictate project direction, rather than a consultancy firm). And from the point of view of an end result, almost everything would be ready by now, in comparison to a couple of fringe benefits: it would be improving staff and patient experience today, across the country, in those specifically targeted areas, by a hundred times the effect the Spine will have, and for a hundredth of the cost.
mySociety produces perfect examples of the open-source maxim: find an itch, and scratch it. But what distinguishes them from almost every other FOSS project (apart from perhaps Ubuntu) is that they’re happy to treat other people’s itches.