Over the past six months, mySociety has been working on a project so sensitive that we even referred to it by codename when talking about it internally.
That might seem a little over the top, until you realise that we were partnering with asl19.org, an organisation working — for their own safety — out of Canada, with the mission of helping Iranian citizens to assert their rights to freedom of expression and access to information.
Ironically, this level of secrecy was necessary in the name of providing citizens with a platform for openness and transparency: we were working on a website, based on our WriteInPublic software, that encourages Iranian citizens to ask questions of their MPs. The project would enable Iranian citizens to pose their questions directly, online and in public, and anonymously.
Such a concept has never before seen in Iran, where there is a culture of heavy censorship, clampdowns on free speech, and online surveillance — so there was a real risk of personal endangerment for those involved.
Writing in Public
Here in the UK, mySociety runs WriteToThem, a service which allows citizens to contact their elected representatives quickly and simply.
Messages sent through WriteToThem are private, and we’re sure that’s most appropriate for our users. Often people are requesting help with personal problems, or informing representatives how they would like them to vote — either way, messages usually deal with matters that people tend to keep to themselves.
But there’s certainly an argument for putting some conversations between citizens and their representatives in public. Imagine, for example, asking a councillor what had happened to funds that had been allocated to a project that never came to light; or spotting what appeared to be a falsehood in an MP’s statement, and being able to ask them to justify it with facts.
If such conversations are carried out online, they create a permanent public record that everyone can access.
That’s why we created the WriteInPublic software, building atop the WriteIt software created by the Chilean Civic Tech group Ciudadano Intelligente (also known as FCI).
As a side note — if you have the contact details of your politicians, or can find them on our data project EveryPolitician, it’s extremely simple to set up your own WriteInPublic site, with no coding required.
Up and running
In fact, Asl19 say that the most challenging part of the project wasn’t something technical at all. To their surprise, it proved very difficult to locate email addresses for Iran’s members of Parliament. While most MPs have their own websites, they tend to use web forms rather than publish an email address.
That challenge was eventually overcome with help from other organisations. The site is now live and people have sent over 400 messages. As a taste of how it’s being used, one citizen is requesting help with legal obstacles to getting medical treatment, and others, encouraged by an activist group, are asking that their MPs vote for a forthcoming bill which will give protection to those with disabilities.
And, best of all, MPs are responding — well, there are 33 responses thus far. So will the project blossom, becoming an active forum for open debate between citizens and their government?
It’s early days yet, but we hope that this project will provide a groundbreaking space for open debate in Iran.