Speaker Q&A: Francis Irving, senior developer, mySociety

mySociety is behind some of the most innovative citizen and community projects in the UK: TheyWorkForYou, WhatDoTheyKnow, FixMyStreet, Mapumental, No. 10 Petitions site, PledgeBank, WriteToThem, and others. Its senior developer, Francis Irving, has worked for the charity since 2004 and will be talking about collaborative data projects at news:rewired, along with data expert Tony Hirst, from the Open University. The full line-up of speakers is at this link.

francis2So what exactly do you do for MySociety?
[FI] We’re still really a start-up charity – small enough that it’s a mixture of everything. So I write code, handle customer support, give talks, appear on the radio, meet parts of Government about related policy areas, administer our servers, plan development, work with volunteers and other paid developers.

Recently I’ve been working a lot on WhatDoTheyKnow, on various commercial projects, and I’m just starting some work for the Election.

Can you give a bit of information about your career to date? How did you end up where you are?

I started out doing a series of computer jobs – training software for the Royal Navy, machine tool control software, artificial life computer games. I was never really happy, as I wanted to do something to tangibly improve the world in a more significant way.

I went travelling for a while, and came back unemployed. My friend Julian has the idea that we could track how MPs voted. I’d always had an interest in politics, and been involved in campaigning (as a volunteer for Oxfam). So I built Public Whip with Julian.

That was like launching a flare into the darkness, and we found a bunch of other people doing similar things, and together started mySociety. So I made my dream job, by starting to do it.

What have you learned about online transparency and the power of online political action?

I’ve learned that it is really important that things are usable – they use language which can be understood straight away, and are improved by watching and taking feedback from the people who use it.

What do you feel are the most exciting technological and/or social developments made by MySociety?
The most exciting innovations from mySociety are neither technological nor social – they are twists on better ways to offer services. For example, FixMyStreet makes reports about potholes and broken street lights public reports.

It requires good technology to then implement those innovations well, and they have a social effect – empowering people, and directly providing benefits to people.

What are the biggest challenges day-to-day?
We’ve got a lot of important websites to run, and it is a challenge keeping the balance right between maintaining and improving them and doing entirely new things. Both are vital.

What advice would you give to developers or journalists thinking about launching non-profit endeavours?
A non-profit is a business as well – it still has to make a surplus, it is just that that surplus is used to do more of the charitable work, rather than as personal profit.

I would advise people to go one of two ways – either have some good ideas for business models from the start (take a look at Patient Opinion for an example), or work out how to run it entirely on philanthropic donations and volunteer work.

It’s going to be as hard to start a sustainably funded non-profit as it is to start a successful for-profit business.

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