Yesterday saw the launch of FixMyTransport, a site that allows users who have had a shoddy time on transport to complain, and do something about it. It's had a good response, and a crack unit of JRF testers have also been impressed.
I've got two quick observations.
First up - why is it so good?
Well, I think that it's nailed a key challenge - it's found an intelligent way to harness individuals' interests online. That sounds pretty basic, but is surprisingly difficult to achieve. That's because it's tricky to open up involvement in a project or campaign to a large number of people, while also collating and galvanising their input. In other words, it's easy to confuse simple mass online participation with coherent action and changing stuff in the real world.
The new UK Government e-petitions website, for example, faces this criticism. It's good at highlighting which issues command public feeling, but does it really do much more than that? Unlike the Scottish Parliament’s e-petition system – which has its problems, but outlines a much tighter set of petition criteria, a transparent process for rejecting irrelevant petitions, and a better method for taking petitions into Parliamentary discussion – I'd argue that it doesn't quite translate public interest into meaningful political debate.
I think FixMyTransport does a lot to resolve this issue. Rather than simply allowing people to vent about transport woes, it gives shape to their complaints, and matches them up with fellow travellers and the transport owners who might do something about it. Founder Tom Steinberg explained some of this thinking in the WSJ saying:
..the Internet turns out to be not very good at getting small groups of people to work together on small community projects. It is very good at getting thousands of people in Tahir Square together, but not so good at getting five or ten people together to tackle the little things that hold communities together."
Meeting this need is a key reason this site is good. It's not just assuming the internet makes participation easier. It's creating the infrastructure to actually improve things.
On to the second thought: it's so interesting, that everyone should be able to access it.
And there's the rub – many people still don't have access to the internet or social media, as Government statistics reported yesterday show. Over 5 million households don't have internet access, and one in five people not online said the cost was prohibitive.
This matters. It's not just that people can't access Twitter to update the world on their latest meal/music taste/sleeping habits* - it's much more serious. Ofcom published research this week suggesting technology is 'failing to empower older people', for example – recognising that technology can improve quality of life. Or look at some politicians in rural areas who are becoming vocal about the economic impacts of poor broadband connection. And when the Government is moving towards a 'digital-first' approach, forget being denied relatively snazzy sites like FixMyTransport – poor online access could simply mean poorer access to services and information.
Tools like FixMyTransport have real potential. And online access is increasingly important to using services. So wouldn't it be a shame if some people couldn't join in?
* Though this is a problem, clearly, and I think we need a catchy name for these unfortunate souls – untwouchables? Twittexcluded? Detweets? #namesforpeoplewithouttwitter