1. FixMyTransport one year on: the operators who won’t play ball

    Image by Magnus Franklin

    Exactly one year ago today, we quietly put FixMyTransport.com live. We’d built it as a place where you could contact transport operators, and receive their responses, in public. But would it work?

    That depended, of course, on the transport companies, and how they would rise to the challenge. A year on, we’re in a position to see how things have panned out.

    As you will know if you have submitted a message to them, there are a handful of operators who refuse to engage via FixMyTransport, even though this requires less effort for them than holding the conversation in private. Worst offenders include Northern Rail, Scotrail, Arriva Trains Wales and South West Trains.

    These operators are starting to look as if they might have some customer service secrets to hide. You can see some of their excuses in our archive of correspondence, and frankly, they aren’t all that persuasive:

    Scotrail: “We encourage our customers to contact us directly to help give them the service they expect and deserve.”
    South West Trains: “In order to guarantee a full and consistent response to the concerns raised, would you please advise our customer to use one of our established methods of contact.”
    Arriva Trains Wales: “Receiving feedback from our customers is important to us, and I am grateful for you taking time to report these issues. However, we would ask any customer wishing to log an issue with us to make direct contact with us, rather than submit it to us via a third party.”

    Meanwhile, Northern Rail – perhaps not coincidentally one of our most-contacted operators – has a policy of sending a one-liner to say that comments have been ‘passed on to the relevant teams’. That does not comfort those who submit some of their more upsetting or important complaints.

    While we are disappointed by this lack of communication, we still think it’s worthwhile using FixMyTransport to make initial contact with such companies.

    Why? Because you gain the benefit of comments, advice and support from other users – and your complaint is in public for everyone to see. Even if the operator doesn’t respond, that has to make a difference. Plus, FixMyTransport users will often suggest next steps, such as contacting pressure groups or passenger watchdogs.

    You see, while we may have faced difficulties with some operators, there were no such issues with the general public. You came to the site, and you quickly understood what FixMyTransport was trying to achieve. And you chose to use it in preference to the transport companies’ own channels. Perhaps the operators might like to think about why that is.

    But let’s not dwell on the negatives. We have to give kudos to East Midlands Trains, First Capital Connect, First Great Western, London Midland, Southern and Virgin, all of whom stepped up to the mark and had no problems whatsoever replying to you via FixMyTransport. Equally, praise is due to Transport for London who act as the central contact for a variety of operators across the city, and Stagecoach Buses’ many subsidiaries.

    These companies, along with many other smaller outfits, have consistently responded to your complaints via the site. As a result they have created a large public archive of their good customer service.

    A helpful, friendly community has grown, too, aided by our team of volunteers. Over 3,500 people have sent messages through FixMyTransport, and with monthly visitors to the site now coming in at over 180,000, each of those messages has had an average of 50 readers.

    This is our first year of many. We’re certainly here for the long haul, and confident that eventually, even the most reluctant operators will come on board. If they don’t, increasingly, their customers are going to be asking why. The last year has shown that there is a demand for our service, and we see ourselves as part of a wider shift towards holding companies to account in public. Think how often you’ve seen a disgruntled customer tweeting or blogging their experience.

    Meanwhile, we hope you’ll keep using the site, and telling others about it. You might even consider telling your local transport operators how FixMyTransport can work for them.

    We hope, too, that you’ll carry on telling us what works or doesn’t work, via the feedback button at the top of every FixMyTransport page. We’re still in active development, and every suggestion is discussed and considered.

    Thanks for helping make FixMyTransport what it is. Now, have a piece of birthday cake.

     

    Image credit: Magnus Franklin

    This post is cross-posted from the FixMyTransport blog.

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

  2. Explore new areas with mySociety websites

    This post was written by mySociety volunteer Peter Dixon, who is part of the FixMyTransport team.

    Checking the Map by Shaun Dunmall

    There are many reasons nowadays for you to travel across the UK for business, with meetings and relocations being a key reason. Both have affected my personal circumstances within the past few months, so I felt it would be beneficial for me to show how I had used FixMyTransport and FixMyStreet to see more of the areas I am visiting or relocating to.

    One of the biggest frustrations when arriving at a hotel on business is that you can be stranded in a strange town or city with no idea about what is in the area. Once you have factored in dinner, the rest of the time is spare and very few people enjoy being stranded in a hotel with only a few TV channels to entertain.

    To discover an area, you need to have a look round and a purpose for making a journey can make it easier to undertake a gentle stroll.

    When faced with this on a recent trip to the West Midlands, I used FixMyStreet and FixMyTransport to locate issues that were in the area around the hotel and planned a quick walk that allowed me to look at issues that had not been marked as fixed.

    As a result of this walk, I was able to mark a couple of the reports as fixed and update some of the others. This doesn’t just limit you to walking, a cycle or a drive can be a great stress reliever for some and a reason to do them makes it so much easier.

    I have recently moved house too, and both of the websites provided a great opportunity to explore my new local area. To relieve the boredom of endless housing estates, I used the two websites to find something to look at when having an explore and added new issues as I looked for the existing issues. It’s great to see things getting fixed and know that you have already added to your new community.

    So when you are next in a new area and looking for something to do, log on to FixMyStreet or FixMyTransport and see what you can add to the local community.

     

    Image credit: Checking the map by Shaun Dunmall.

  3. Google Summer of Code

    A Day Spent Lying in the Grass, Watching the Clouds, by Elaine Millan

    Ah, summer: walks in the park, lazing in the long grass, and the sound of chirping crickets – all overlaid with the clatter of a thousand keyboards.

    That may not be your idea of summer, but it’s certainly the ways ours is shaping up. We’re participating in Google’s Summer of Code, which aims to put bright young programmers in touch with Open Source organisations, for mutual benefit.

    What do the students get from it? Apart from a small stipend, they have a mentored project to get their teeth into over the long summer hols, and hopefully learn a lot in the process. We, of course, see our code being used, improved and adapted – and a whole new perspective on our own work.

    Candidates come from all over the world – they’re mentored remotely – so for an organisation like mySociety, this offers a great chance to get insight into the background, politics and technical landscape of another culture. Ideas for projects that may seem startlingly obvious in, say, Latin America or India would simply never have occurred to our UK-based team.

    This year, mySociety were one of the 180 organisations participating. We had almost 100 enquiries, from countries including Lithuania, India, Peru, Georgia, and many other places. It’s a shame that we were only able to take on a couple of the many excellent applicants.

    We made suggestions for several possible projects to whet the applicants’ appetite. Mobile apps were popular, in particular an app for FixMyTransport. Reworking WriteToThem, and creating components to complement MapIt and PopIt also ranked highly.

    It was exciting to see so many ideas, and of course, hard to narrow them down.

    In the end we chose two people who wanted to help improve our nascent PopIt service. PopIt will allow people to very quickly create a public database of politicians or other figures. No technical knowledge will be needed – where in the past our code has been “Just add developers”, this one is “Just add data”. We’ll host the sites for others to build on.

    Our two successful applicants both had ideas for new websites that would use PopIt for their datastore, exactly the sort of advanced usage we hope to encourage. As well as making sure that PopIt actually works by using it they’ll both be creating transparency sites that will continue after their placements ends. They’ll also have the knowledge of how to set up such a site, and in our opinion that is a very good thing.

    We hope to bring you more details as their projects progress, throughout the long, hot (or indeed short and wet) summer.

    PS: There is a separate micro-blog where we’re currently noting some of the nitty gritty thoughts and decisions that go into building something like PopIt. If you want to see how the project goes please do subscribe! The Components mailing list is also a good way of staying in touch.

    Google Summer of Code

    Top image by Elaine Millan, used with thanks under the Creative Commons licence.

  4. Advent calendar

    mySociety Christmas countdown

    December 23rd

     

    Santa's Chocolate Coin Mint by Johnathan_W

    If you haven’t got a penny,

    A ha’penny will do,

    If you haven’t got a ha’penny,

    Then God bless you.

    We wish you all a merry and prosperous Christmas – and for those of you who are already feeling quite prosperous enough, may we point you in the direction of our charitable donations page?

    mySociety’s work is made possible by donations of all sizes and from all sorts of people. Those donations help fund all the online projects we create; projects that give easy access to your civic and democratic rights. If that’s important to you, show your appreciation, and we promise we’ll make the best use of every penny.

    Thank you for sticking with us through this month-long post. We hope you’ve found it interesting and we wish you the very merriest of Christmases.

    We hope you’ll continue to follow us on Twitter, Facebook, or Google+ – see our Contacts page to find individual projects’ social media links.

    December 22nd

    Santa Watching by LadyDragonflyCC

    What’s behind the door? A letter to Santa.

    Dear Santa,

    We think we’ve been pretty good this year. We’ve tried to keep our local neighbourhood clean, help with problems, and aid those in need, so we’re hoping there are a few presents coming our way.

    If you can fit them down the chimney, here’s what we’re dreaming of:

    More publicly available data Of course, we were delighted to hear in Mr Osborne’s autumn statement that all sorts of previously-inaccessible data will be opened up.

    We’re wondering whether this new era will also answer any of our FixMyStreet geodata wishes. Santa, if you could allocate an elf to this one, we’d be ever so pleased.

    Globalisation …in the nicest possible way, of course. This year has seen us work in places previously untouched by the hand of mySociety, including Kenya and the Philippines. And we continue to give help to those who wish to replicate our projects in their own countries, from FixMyStreet in Norway to WhatDoTheyKnow in Germany.

    Santa, please could you fix it for us to continue working with dedicated and motivated people all around the world?

    A mySociety Masters degree We’re lucky enough to have a team of talented and knowledgeable developers, and we hope we will be recruiting more in the coming year. It’s not always an easy task to find the kind of people we need – after all, mySociety is not your average workplace – so we’ve come to the conclusion that it’s probably easiest to make our own.

    Back in February, Tom started thinking about a Masters in Public Technology. It’s still something we’re very much hoping for. Santa, is it true you have friends in academic circles?

    FixMyTransport buy-in - from everyone! Regular users of FixMyTransport will have noticed that there are different kinds of response from the transport operators: lovely, fulsome, helpful ones, and formulaic ones. Or, worse still, complete refusal to engage.

    Santa, if you get the chance, please could you tell the operators a little secret? Just tell them what those savvier ones already know – that FixMyTransport represents a chance to show off some fantastic customer service. And with 25,000 visitors to the site every week, that message is soon spread far and wide.

    (more…)

  5. I used FixMyTransport – now what?

    Transit Distress by Eric Parker - used with thanks under the Creative Commons licence

    FixMyTransport was launched a month ago. It is now well on its way to listing 1,000 individual complaints, suggestions and requests to the public transport operators of Great Britain.

    As the sample size grows, we’re able to see just what provokes the country’s mild-mannered passengers into action. There are the diurnal irritations – the leaky station roof, constant announcements, smelly trains; there is the discomfort of overcrowding and overheated buses.

    All of which are important, of course. And in this, FixMyTransport is achieving its aim of allowing people to make their reports to the operators, while at the same time creating small bunches of people who read those reports and think, ‘Hey, me too!’.

    But FixMyTransport is not just for the little gripes. It’s uncovering some pretty big issues, too. Prime among these is the issue of accessibility: reports have come in of buses driving away rather than let a wheelchair user on; a disabled passenger who has surmised that it’s easier to invite friends to come to him rather than try to navigate London’s public transport system; a station from which those with restricted mobility can only travel in one direction.

    What next?

    The big question for us is, what happens now? Are these reports making anything better? In some cases, yes.

    There is the train that will now stop at intermediate stations, and the pedestrian crossings that are no longer blocked by buses. Little things that’ll make a big difference to the people who reported them. But the pay-off is not always so immediate. Bigger issues are obviously not going to be fixed overnight. And some problems won’t be fixed, for a multitude of reasons – they don’t fit in with the operators’ plans, or they’re not budgeted for, or they just aren’t seen as sufficiently important.

    How is FixMyTransport going to crack those? Well, it was set up so that you can show your operator that there is demand, that budgets need to be massaged, or that plans should change. If you’ve used the site, you may well have been on the receiving end of a comment from one of the team, nudging you to spread the word of your campaign, among friends, family, and fellow-passengers.

    The fact that people can sign up to your page helps make FixMyTransport different from just contacting the operator directly. We also reckon it’ll make a difference when it comes to getting changes. Consider, for example, the campaign to get increased cycle parking at Cambridge station – with 176 supporters (and still growing every day), our biggest yet. It’s been picked up by local press, talked about on Twitter – and eventually, National Express won’t be able to ignore the public demonstration of a palpable need.

    Well, that’s the plan. We know it’s early days, and that FixMyTransport represents a massive sea change for some operators who are not used to interacting openly and online.

    If you’ve written an impassioned, well-reasoned request, gathered supporters and spread the word far and wide, and still hit a brick wall, we have other suggestions. FixMyTransport allows us to get you writing to your local councillor, to the local paper, or to relevant groups like Passenger Focus, Transport for All, and the Campaign for Better Transport. These groups have been bashing away at the big problems like accessibility for far longer than we have, and it makes sense to tap into their expertise.

    We know that for some issues, it’ll be a long game – just as it’ll be a long game trying to get every operator fully signed-up to the notion of transparent online interaction. But we’ll keep trying, and we hope you will too.

  6. FixMyTransport: the praise button

    Bus Stop by Yi-tao 'Timo' Lee used with thanks under the Creative Commons licence

    Just like the famous Yellow Pages ad, FixMyTransport is not only there for the nasty things in life.

    Quite late in FixMyTransport’s development, we realised that praise is a form of feedback and that this channel ought to be open to our users, too – that’s why on every page for a stop or a route, you’ll see a stonking great button inviting you to ‘say something nice’ – here’s an example: a station manager giving the type of good service that gladdens the heart.

    There’s also a little love for Pulborough station, nice words for Brighton’s well-informed station staff, an example of a very accommodating bus driver, and a comment that makes me want to take the 37 bus to Clapham Junction right now.

    We haven’t really stressed this side of FixMyTransport, so we’re really glad to see people finding it for themselves and putting it to good use. If you encounter particularly excellent service on your next journey, and you want to spread the love too, just remember the big blue button. We’re sure the operators will be very glad to hear from you.

  7. FixMyTransport launches – mySociety’s biggest project since 2008

    Everyone at mySociety is quite bubbling with excitement at the news that we’re today officially launching FixMyTransport.com , mySociety’s first new core charitable website since WhatDoTheyKnow launched in 2008. We’ve never before launched a site that took so much work to build, or that contained so much data.

    What is it for?

    FixMyTransport has two goals – one in your face, and the other more subtle.

    The first goal, as the site’s name suggests, is to help people get common public transport problems resolved. We’re talking broken ticket machines, gates that should be open and stations without stair-free access. We’ll help by dramatically lowering the barrier to working out who’s responsible, and getting a problem report sent to them – a task that would have been impossible without the help of volunteers who gathered a huge number of operator email addresses for us. Consequently the service works everywhere in Great Britain, our database has over 300,000 stops and routes for train, tube, tram, bus, coach and ferry.

    The second goal – the subtle one – is to see if it is possible to use the internet to coax non-activist, non-political people into their first taste of micro-activism. Whilst the site intentionally doesn’t contain any language about campaigning or democracy, we encourage and provide tools to facilitate the gathering of supporters, the emailing of local media, the posting of photos of problems, and the general application of pressure where it is needed. We also make problem reports and correspondence between operators and users public, which we have frequently seen create positive pressure when used on sister sites FixMyStreet and WhatDoTheyKnow.

    Who made it?

    FixMyTransport was largely built by one remarkable coder – Louise Crow, who started as a volunteer and who is now one of our longest serving core developers. She spent 18 months coding the site almost entirely by herself, wrestling with truly tortuous data problems and collaborating with Birmingham’s fantastic SuperCool design to make it look lovely (you should hire them, they’re great).  She also tolerated my ‘aspirational scattergun’ school of project management with remarkable good humour. She really is the king of transport coding.

    Credit must also go to mySociety core dev Dave Whiteland, who made the Facebook integration work, despite not having an account himself!

    Why is it dedicated to Angie Martin?

    Angie Martin was a mySociety coder for an all-too-brief period before she succumbed to cancer at a devastatingly early age. We’re dedicating this site to her in remembrance of a great, self taught perl monger who should still be here.

    We’ll be posting further blog posts about the development process, the data challenges, and the overall project philosophy. In the mean time, please keep arms and legs inside the carriage – FixMyTransport is just about to depart.

  8. FixMyTransport is close to launch – and we need your help to make it fantastic

    Photo of display board showing delayed trains, by Glenn Scott

    It’s been a while since we updated you on the progress of our next major project, FixMyTransport, but we’re still working hard behind the scenes. As you may recall, FixMyTransport will deal with public transport problems – delayed trains, vandalised stations, overcrowded buses, you name it. It’ll put problems in the public arena, while also reporting them directly to the relevant transport operator. Read more about the project here.

    We will shortly be arriving at our final destination

    Things are going to get exciting very soon. As launch date approaches, we’ll be starting a closed beta (mid July), rapidly followed by a full open public beta launch (end of July). During the closed beta we want to get as much feedback as possible from future users of the site, as well as pressure groups, transport operators, and anyone else who has anything valuable to contribute.

    If you would like to be invited to beta test, and weren’t one of our alpha testers, please email us on team@fixmytransport.com. Alpha testers will, of course, be invited to test again.

    Mind the (data) gaps

    We got extremely useful feedback from our alpha testers, and a wealth of crowdsourced data from our community. Thanks to their efforts we now have contact details for the operators of about 50% of the routes in the UK. However, this leaves a lot of operators where we don’t know how to get in touch.

    We really need your help to get them! If you can spare a few minutes, visit our spreadsheet and see if you can fill in any of the missing details.

    The more contact details we can get hold of, the better experience FixMyTransport will offer to our users. As well as publishing passengers’ reports on the site, FixMyTransport sends them directly to the operators too, helping to get the issue fixed.

    So, we especially need the email addresses for operators’ customer services departments. Finding these may be as simple as visiting the operators’ websites, or it may require a bit of sleuth-work on your part.  If advanced Googling gets you nowhere, we’ve found that simply phoning head office can get results.

    Incidentally, the main operators are near the top of the sheet – those are the ones that will benefit the most users, although obviously the nearer completion we get, the better.

    You’ll notice that the spreadsheet now includes a non-obligatory column for your name: this is to offer a small incentive. If you want to, tag your entries and at the end we’ll be offering goodies to the top contributors. Depending on your preference, this might be one of our highly sought-after mySociety hooded tops (they’re snuggly!), or a chance to become more involved in the project.

    Those who helped in the first iteration, please note that although this sheet looks different, your details have been retained and indeed have been extremely useful as we build the site. Also -  if  you have already been a major contributor during our previous rounds of testing and data collecting, please holler so that we can give you proper credit.

    Hold tight, please

    Not long now… we hope you’re as excited as we are.

  9. Geovation funding for FixMyTransport

    FixMyTransport...anywhere

    On Wednesday this week, mySociety’s Tom and Paul were in Southampton, competing in the Geovation finals.

    Geovation is an initiative coordinated by Ordnance Survey which gives out funding to projects that help “communities address their unmet needs through the application of geographic data, skills and expertise”. When we discovered that the theme this time was “How can we improve transport in Britain?” we knew we had to enter.

    As many of you will know, mySociety has been working for some time on FixMyTransport, a project for reporting problems with public transport. Taking much of what we’ve learned from FixMyStreet, we are, in the trademark mySociety way, building a website that will make the process easy, whilst hiding all the complexities out of sight.

    FixMyTransport is well under way, and we’re hoping to launch shortly. But with Geovation funding, we hoped to be able to roll out an accompanying mobile application.

    This is incredibly important because, after all, the best time to make a transport report is immediately you experience the problem.

    mySociety has, of course, always been into maps and geodata – we use them in what we hope are fun and innovative ways across many of our sites, including (obviously) Mapumental, and (less obviously) TheyWorkForYou and WriteToThem. We’re also rather fond of public transport.

    We also really enjoyed meeting the other contestants, particularly Cyclestreets whose project looks like it will be one to watch.

    At the end of the day, we were delighted to learn that we had been awarded £27,000 to develop a simple, intuitive, cross-platform mobile application for FixMyTransport. We can’t wait to get started. We really believe it’s going to be of real benefit to public transport users across the UK (and possibly further, given the open-source nature of all our work).

    If you’d like to stay up to date with FixMyTransport as we build and launch it, you might want to be one of the very first to “like” our Facebook page or follow us on Twitter.

  10. Seeking to Contract an Interactive Designer for FixMyTransport

    Do you care for usability as much as you care for elegance? Do you enjoy knocking the rough edges off user journeys, as well as making them playful and attractive? Are you looking for a contract that will make a real difference to the lives of your fellow citizens? If so, we’d like to talk to you about becoming the design lead on mySociety’s next site, FixMyTransport.

    Why we need better design, and why we need it now

    FixMyTransport will be the next major charitable project built by mySociety. It is a project of a registered charity, currently running award-winning civic and democratic websites like TheyWorkForYou.com and FixMyStreet.com. Our sites have strong reputations for being effective and highly usable, but are not known for their shininess or fun-loving nature.

    With FixMyTransport we want to change this reputation, and start to become known for tools that are as lovely as they are effective. This decision reflects mySociety’s view that we have a leadership responsibility within the global community of civic-minded software developers: a responsibility to push the boundaries of what has been achieved previously, and to critically assess our own achievements.

    Why we think collaborating on the design for FixMyTransport would be pretty cool

    FixMyTransport is a particularly interesting challenge because it represents a deliberate attempt to pioneer a new approach to motivating civic action through the web. Our specific goal is to build a platform that can coax people who do not think of themselves as ‘activists’ or ‘campaigners’ over the edge into being micro-activists, by focusing on capturing and magnifying the passion that is created when people have problems with public transport.

    The design challenges that fall our way are therefore complex and fascinating. The service needs to be friendly and reassuring enough to encourage people to make what may be a hugely significant ‘first’ in their lives. But it must also be professional-looking enough to make the targets of campaigns feel that it means business. Furthermore, as a platform, different campaigns will head in different directions, and the design and work-flow will have to cope with many unanticipated uses.

    Organisational Context

    mySociety has ten full time staff, and a wider community of energetic and creative volunteers. We pride ourselves on being pretty good at smooth user journeys and worthwhile incentives for using the services. But we know that we have weaknesses when it comes to making things beautiful and playful, which is why we’re looking for a designer who is willing to do more than just prettify whatever we give them. We’re looking for someone with knowledge of user-experience deep enough to challenge us about the layout of pages and the user journeys through them, whilst being respectful of our own knowledge. We’re looking for a genuine collaborator who will teach us and learn from us as we work together, and someone who will understand when conversion tracking is worth using, and when it isn’t.

    We need someone who has a good understanding of the nature of interactive design, and who knows what web developers need from designers. And perhaps most importantly, we’re looking for someone who will bring a vision for how the whole user experience should fit together into something warm, reassuring and compelling to use.

    This contract and beyond

    We envisage that the contract will last 15-25 working days and we will pay standard commercial rates. We do not have a fixed office space, although for the duration of the contract we may hire co-working space in London for you and the FixMyTransport engineers, if required.

    Once we have established a strong working relationship with a good designer, we wish to continue that to implement redesigns across all our major sites.

    Person Specification

    Must have:

    • A portfolio of at least three web sites where you were the sole or lead designer
    • At least 2 years experience in a role that involved regular use of Photoshop or similar graphics packages for the design or mockup of web pages
    • At least 12 months experience working with software developers to implement designs (or must be a developer yourself)
    • Working knowledge of UX design, as distinct from graphic design
    • Must be resident in the UK

    Desirable qualities:

    • Prior knowledge of our services
    • Experience of iterative design based on conversion tracking

    How to Apply

    Send us an email to hello@mysociety.org briefly explaining why you’re the person for this job, and put the tag msjob8 into the subject line. Please share some of your portfolio, and write us 100 words on what sort of approach you think FixMyTransport needs from a designer. Deadline for applications is 9AM on Wednesday 2nd March.