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How is Open Data used by social enterprises?

Watch Tom Wainwright explore how Open Data can be used by social enterprises and charities to improve democracy and empower citizens.
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What exactly is it that you guys do? So mySociety is a civic tech organisation. It runs as a charity in the UK, or, broadly, like an NGO. We’ve been around for about 12 years now, which is 2004. And we started with a mission to basically help people hold authority to account. And in effect, that means building useful web sites. So it started, for example, with FaxYourRep– fax your representative. Quite a lot of the people watching us probably don’t know what a fax is, but that has now grown into WriteToThem.com, which is a web site which lets people write to their Member of Parliament.
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That seems like a simple thing to do, but it includes some interesting ideas about, does somebody know who their representative is? And do they know what they might want to write to them? And do they know how to write to them? So even something simple like that is how we can make things easier for citizens. We also run a website called FixMyStreet.com, which helps people report problems in their communities. Things like potholes and broken street lights. And we run a Freedom of Information site to make it easy for people to make FOI requests. And perhaps one of the most interesting ones, that I think we’re going to talk about today, is TheyWorkForYou.com, which is our UK parliamentary monitoring website.
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And some of the issues around that have been so successful that people around the world like to run similiar projects, so we help them with that, with our code, and more recently, our data. So, generally speaking, Open Data has loads of different uses. But what would you say are the key economic and social benefits of using Open Data? Well, for us, of course, I’m going to have a specific take on this because I’m working in civic tech. But mainly, it’s about people being able to figure out things which are hidden behind bureaucracy and systems. And so, an example I really hope I’ll be able to tell you more about would be, postcodes and boundary data, which sounds really dull.
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Postcodes aren’t a thing that most people spend their lives worrying about. And boundary data, is the idea that it matters where the edge of your council is. Seems irrelevant. these are things which are really useful for providing services. So quite often, data is the scratchy, behind-the-scenes detail that you need to make a simple service work. And quite often, the value of the service is increased if the stuff of the data is quite, actually, hard to break down. So, a really simple example would be, when somebody wants to report a pothole. One of the reasons they might not do that is because they don’t know which council to report it to. Is it the district council? Is it the town council?
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Or whatever. And the idea that that problem can actually be solved by data is a bit surprising, and useful. Can you tell us a little bit more about the benefits of Open Data for the economy, but also for society? Well, certainly coming at it from a civic tech point of view, which is where I’m working, many of the services we provide wouldn’t be possible without Open Data. So that’s simple things like, we need to know the boundary of the administrative area that somebody is in when they’re reporting a problem to the council so we know which council to report to. Things like that.
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And the significance of that is, these are things that the public– normal people– don’t need to know about, cannot figure out because the data is obscure. But actually, through a good service using Open Data, we can make that kind of thing easy. So, Dave, when did mySociety start using Open Data? Was this something it started using from the very beginning, or did Open Data become increasingly more important over time? Right. So, mySociety’s first service was in 2004. It was FaxYourRepresentative, which was an online service that let people write to their MP. And the issue underlying this is that we know from Hansard Society research that about 75% of adults in the UK cannot name their MP.
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So the problem that FaxYourRepresentative was really solving was letting people write to their representative by telling us their postcode, for example. From that we get the geolocation. From geolocation, if we have the boundary data for constituents, constituencies, we can determine who the MP is. And if we have the fax number to send the message to that MP to, then that is the chain that works. The Open Data in that is– there are two things. One is the geolocation mapping a postcode to a point, which at the time, in 2004, was not Open Data. And also the constituency boundaries, which was.
Open Data can be highly useful in creating social value and public good. It can be particularly useful in supporting social enterprises and charities in the work that they do. Let’s see how MySociety, a civic tech/social enterprise uses Open Data to benefit citizens. Dave Whiteland shares his views…
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