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Zarino: Strengthening civil society with mySociety

Zarino: Strengthening civil society with mySociety

Published on
2 Dec 2015

Zarino Zappia was a member of our 2011 MSc group, arriving from a BA Media & Communications course at Goldsmiths, University of London. A web designer and developer with an interest in participation and power in open data use, he now works for mySociety, the UK-based charity dedicated to giving citizens a voice around the world. Interview with Karen Mead.

Karen: What first attracted you about the OII?

Zarino: I’d come straight from a BA Media & Communications course at Goldsmiths, University of London. Frankly I think my “arty” background sort of scared some of the OII staff when I attended the open day. But my BA course touched on all sorts of aspects of communication theory, media law and regulation, anthropology, cultural studies, socio-economics, so it really wasn’t as far a jump as it might at first seem. It was the theoretical half of my BA course that I enjoyed the most, and I just saw the OII as a venue to continue that exploration – especially into online media.

At the time (mid 2010), the iPhone and iPad had everybody talking about “apps”, and the very future of the web was—almost on a weekly basis—being written off by tech magazines and industry bods. Which, as a web designer and developer myself, I really wanted to investigate. Meanwhile, the momentum building at the time around Open Data also interested me, especially since there’d been very little research into what sort of use this data was being put to, and who was working with it. As it happened, that topic – participation and power in open data use – formed the basis of my thesis at the end of the MSc.

Karen: And what have you been up to since leaving?

Zarino: Through my thesis research, I encountered a company called ScraperWiki, which, at the time, was building a platform—and a community—of programmers and data journalists on the web. Straight after my MSc, I joined them as a designer, and later VP of Product, and we launched a series of products aimed at helping people extract data from the web and analyse it for business or journalistic insights.

In 2014, I moved on to mySociety, the charity behind popular UK sites like TheyWorkForYou (which lets you monitor what your MP says in parliament), WhatDoTheyKnow (for sending and tracking FOI requests — particularly topical right now), and FixMyStreet (for reporting street issues to your local council). We also do a lot of work abroad, helping partner organisations in countries as far flung as Myanmar, Chile, and Burkina Faso, to set up websites and online communities that challenge the people with power in their respective corners of the planet.

Karen: How did your time at the OII prepare you for this?

Zarino: The work we did on two-sided markets in Greg’s economics module was useful when, early on at ScraperWiki, we were attempting to build our own two-sided market of data requesters (journalists, academics, business analysts) and data liberators (geeks, activists, programmers).

The more round-about answer is that, in a way, everything I’m doing right now is because of my time at the OII. If I hadn’t gone to the OII, I wouldn’t have done my research into Open Data, which means I wouldn’t have interviewed Francis Irving at ScraperWiki, wouldn’t have ended up joining them as VP of product, and probably wouldn’t have heard about mySociety (and therefore my current job) either. I wouldn’t be in Liverpool either, which is frankly unthinkable! 😉

So, if you look at it like that, the OII literally changed my life. It didn’t “prepare” me for my career right now, but on the other hand everything about me right now is a product of the connections I made on that course.

Karen: So what job-seeking advice do you have for our current students?

Zarino: Join a startup. It is the best first job you could ever have.

And even better than that, join a startup in the North.

Liverpool, Sheffield, Manchester, Edinburgh, Glasgow – they all have bustling communities of cutting-edge tech businesses, combined with beautiful scenery and architecture, affordable housing and living costs, and, of course, friendly locals. I moved to Liverpool to work with ScraperWiki, and have stayed ever since. Wild horses couldn’t drag me back down South.

Karen: What do you miss most about Oxford?

Zarino: Najar’s Place, the falafel shop outside 1 St Giles. Literally. Whenever I go to mySociety HQ (also in Oxford) I have to conduct a pilgrimage to Najar’s. He and “On The Hoof” in North Parade Avenue got me through many a tough time during my MSc, and both served lunchtime wraps the likes of which I’ve yet to find anywhere else on my travels.

Karen: And finally: where do you see yourself in five years?

Zarino: The work we’re doing at mySociety — giving citizens a voice around the world — will almost by definition never be finished, so I could very easily imagine myself still doing that in five years’ time.

I’ve also looked, with a little envy, at the work done by teams like GDS and Matt Jukes at the ONS, using modern, agile, user-focussed design processes to revolutionise British public sector websites and services. I truly do believe that sensible design and a little start-up mentality could really revolutionise the way British citizens interact with government, or even think about what government means to them, and I’d love to be part of any organisation working towards that goal.

Or, I might just give in to my urges, and pack it all in for a life building Lego. Some kids wanted to be astronauts. Some wanted to be firemen. I wanted to build Lego. I guess there’s still time for that, right? 😉