We sometimes see stories in national and regional press that use data from FixMyStreet, our long-running reporting service for local problems, to report on the best or worst places for potholes, fly-tipping and other topical issues.
When we are asked by journalists and other organisations to provide such data, we always say no, because data from FixMyStreet cannot be used to definitively compare different areas in a fair manner.
However, because FixMyStreet is an open source platform which displays all reports publicly to facilitate an open and community-centric approach to reporting, we don’t always get a say in the matter or have a chance to provide essential caveats about the limitations of the data before it ends up misinterpreted and misused in a story that gets picked up by the press.
Why FixMyStreet data cannot be used to fairly compare areas
While FixMyStreet is a national reporting service, the data from it paints only a small part of the picture.
- FixMyStreet is one of many ways in which citizens across the UK can report a problem to their local council. In most cases, FixMyStreet works alongside authorities’ own online reporting services. Reports are also made to authorities via social media, via telephone, via email and even via word of mouth to local councillors. In those areas, FixMyStreet reports do not tell the full story.
- Meanwhile, a growing number of councils use the platform as their own integrated service via FixMyStreet Pro, which is run by our wholly owned subsidiary SocietyWorks. As a result, these areas may seem to have more reports about an issue than others, but this doesn’t suggest the problem is more prevalent there; instead, it suggests that more reports are being made via FixMyStreet instead of another service or channel.
- Another thing to note is that a small number of councils refuse to accept reports from residents via third parties like FixMyStreet full stop, so in those areas the data would make it look as though there are no problems there at all.
- It is also worth noting that reports on FixMyStreet display a status to say whether the issue is fixed or not. This helps people in a community to understand what is being done, but it relies on users coming back to mark an issue as fixed when it has been. This limits the reliability of data looking at, for example, all open reports within a certain category, because some of those issues may actually have been resolved. Follow-ups sent to report-makers help to mitigate against this, while reports whose statuses haven’t changed for a long time eventually become marked as ‘unknown’.
- Furthermore, categories on FixMyStreet and FixMyStreet Pro are set by each individual council to reflect the issues they can deal with and the terminology used by their internal systems. For that reason there is no such thing as a simple way to compare all potholes, for example, reported in an area, because those reports might also be listed under ‘road defect’ or ‘dip in road’.
- Perhaps the most crucial reason comparison is unfair using FixMyStreet data alone is the disparity in where it is used, how it is used and who it is used by across the UK. A joint research article published in the Spring 2023 edition of the Irish Local Authority Times by mySociety and the University of Stirling found that people in areas of middle deprivation report the most problems via FixMyStreet, but that does not mean those areas have the most problems.
Another example of this can be found in mySociety research into incidents of deprivation from 2019 which found that reports of dog fouling have a peak in areas of middle deprivation, but this does not reflect the real world incidence of dog fouling, which was found to be most prevalent in the highest areas of deprivation.
More generally, joint research in 2018 by the University of Stirling, the University of Sheffield and mySociety into the geography of FixMyStreet reports found that there are clear differences between areas in relation to the kinds of things that are reported most frequently, making comparison on a national scale wholly unreliable.
We built FixMyStreet in 2007 to make it easier for people to report problems in their neighbourhood, with a simple reporting process and no need for any prior knowledge of council boundaries or responsibilities. Our intention was, and continues to be, to help citizens engage in their community, to get the right information to the right people – and never to pit authorities or areas against each other, or denounce the worst place for an issue.
FixMyStreet helps to construct a snapshot of communities. It enables people to see what has been reported and to which authority, while at the same time attempting to reduce the occurrence of report duplication for the responsible authority.
For all the reasons we’ve given, mySociety and SocietyWorks will not endorse the simplistic use of FixMyStreet data to compare, denounce or rank areas.
Of course, that is not to say that data from FixMyStreet is not useful to analyse in other contexts, and we are always supportive of research that is carried out with more constructive premises. If you are interested, you can find a wealth of research using FixMyStreet data on the mySociety Research website.
Councils and other authorities can find out more about FixMyStreet and how it works here: https://www.fixmystreet.com/about/information-for-councils