1. Protecting vulnerable financial consumers with the FCA Warning List

    Every year, thousands of people in the UK fall prey to financial scams. For the last six months, mySociety has been working with the Financial Conduct Authority to create an online tool, the FCA Warning List, to try and help potentially vulnerable financial consumers avoid scams.

    The tool launched on Wednesday last week as part of a wider communications campaign aimed at educating the public on the typical characteristics of scams.

    FCA-warning-list-homepage

    The homepage of the FCA Warning List

    The sophistication of financial scams

    When I’ve mentioned this project to people, they invariably think of emails from extravagantly-named lawyers in far-flung countries identifying you as the lucky beneficiary of a lost inheritance. These scams seem, to most people, obvious and the people who fall prey easy to ridicule: how can people possibly think this stuff is real?

    But many scams are actually incredibly sophisticated and work on people over a long period of time, with even the most experienced investors at risk of being taken in.

    An introductory approach is made by someone who knows your name on a realistic pretext. Might you be interested in this investment? No? Well, John, it was good to chat and I’ll call again in a few months. A few months later another call. Did you know that if you’d invested you’d have made 20% by now? I have another investment here that I think might interest you, let me introduce you to my colleague who knows the director at this firm personally.

    Scammers work their victim as a team, they lure us in and use our cognitive flaws and emotional weaknesses to ensnare us.

    Disconcertingly informative user research

    During this project, we interviewed 15 or so potential users, recruited as having the characteristics of people likely to be targeted by scammers. About half of these people had come in contact with a scam. As far as we know, none of them had fallen victim but only one of them reported their experience to the authorities.

    Almost all of them thought that a website to help them research investment opportunities—provided by an independent third party like the FCA—would be useful for them.

    The product

    We’ve built an online tool that we hope will help investors avoid scams. A person using it gives it some basic facts about an investment opportunity (what is it an investment in? how did you hear about it?) and it gives them back some guidance specific to them.

    For example, did you know that if you’re cold called about an investment opportunity, in all likelihood it’s a scam? Just that simple message alone has the potential to be very disruptive to scams.

    The tool also allows users to search a list of firms that the FCA knows to be operating without their permission: if someone’s talking to a firm on that list about an investment, that’s probably a pretty bad idea.

    Finally, it gives people other suggested actions at the end of the process. Been cold called? You should report it. Considering an investment in an unregulated commodity like bamboo? You should research further before investing.

    FCA-warning-list-widget

    We also made a widgetty version of the tool homepage that can be easily embedded into other websites.

    Scammers rob people of cash, but they can also take people’s self-respect and damage their personal relationships, often at a time of life when they are particularly vulnerable.

    We’re excited about the launch of the Warning List and are proud to be supporting the FCA in its mission to protect consumers by disrupting more of the scams that have such a destructive effect on people’s lives.

  2. Making planning applications more open with the Hampshire Hub Partnership

    Every day, thousands of planning applications are submitted to local councils around the country by people applying to demolish a garage, erect a fence or convert a loft. More often than not these applications disappear into proprietary systems that, despite being publicly available, make it hard for members of the public to find out what’s going on in their area.

    Last week, we kicked off the first sprint of an exciting new piece of work with the Hampshire Hub Partnership to build a prototype, open source web application to help members of the public find out more about planning applications in their area.

    We jumped at the chance to work on this for a number of reasons.

    Serving the needs of the public

    Firstly, it has the needs of the general public as its focus. The planning process can be baffling if you’re new to it and this tool aims to help make it easier to understand. We’ll be helping people answer some of the most common questions they have about planning applications: What applications are happening near me? What decisions have been made in the past on applications like mine? How likely is it that my application will be dealt with on time?

    2 Map results

    A wireframe illustrating the potential functionality of the search results page

    The site will help people browse planning application data by location — whether a postcode or a street address — and by type — whether it’s an extension, a loft conversion, or a major development like a retail park or commercial warehouse.

    Built on Open Data

    Secondly, it’s being made possible by the release of open data from local councils, once Ordnance Survey has granted the necessary exemption for locations derived from their data. Many of our projects rely on organisations publishing open data, so it’s great to have the chance to help demonstrate the value of releasing this kind of data openly.

    The Hampshire Hub team has already spent a lot of time working with the LGA, DCLG and LeGSB to define a schema for how planning application data should be published. They’ve collaborated with local authorities, in particular Rushmoor Borough Council, to gather planning application data. And they’ve worked with Swirrl to set up an open data platform to collect all of this together, publish it openly and give us and others access to it.

    Reuse, don’t rebuild

    And finally, rather than build something from scratch, we’ll be using the fabulous PlanningAlerts.org.au open source codebase as a starting point. Planning Alerts is a piece of software built in Ruby on Rails by our friends down under at Open Australia. It gives us a lot of the functionality that we need for free. We plan in time to repay them for their kindness by submitting the features we develop back into their codebase (if they want them, of course).

    We’ll also be using a customised version of our administrative boundaries service http://mapit.mysociety.org to store and query the geographical boundaries of different planning authorities in Hampshire (including National Park boundaries from Natural England as well as local council boundaries.)

     

    We’ve just started our second sprint of work atop the Open Australia codebase, building the search functionality we need to help people find applications by location and category.  We’re looking forward to seeing the tool grow, get into the hands of users and fill up with data.

  3. Mapping the Vikings’ influence on UK place names

    This post describes work for a museum exhibit which has now come to an end.
    If you would like to commission similar technologies, please visit the mySociety Services website.

    In the middle of the 9th Century, the territories of mainland Britain were in constant flux, with power shifting between the established Anglo-Saxon kingdoms and Viking settlers.

    Towards the end of the century, the battles and power shifts reached a kind of equilibrium, with Alfred King of Wessex and Guthrum the Danish warlord agreeing a treaty defining the boundaries of their kingdoms.

    One of these boundaries was demarcated by Watling Street, an ancient trackway that stretched from Shrewsbury in the west of England to the Thames estuary in the east.

    The boundaries of Britain are different today, but the vestiges of this ancient divide remain in the names of the places that surround us.

    To illustrate this, mySociety has been working with the British Museum, with data sourced from the University of Nottingham’s Institute for Name-Studies. We’ve created a simple interactive map as part of their Vikings Live event to show the Norse influence on around 2,000 place names in different parts of the United Kingdom and Ireland.

    A map of old Norse place names

    For each place, we’re showing its etymology, a breakdown of the different elements that make up its name and a link to the nearest cinema that will be showing the British Museum’s Vikings Live—a private view of the BP exhibition Vikings: life and legend in the company of world experts, presented live in your local cinema.

    The etymology of an old Norse place name

    So, for a completely different perspective of the place names near your home, head over to the British Museum’s site to explore the influence the Vikings had on the names where you live. And, next time you’re in a Thorpe, a Howe, a Kirkby, or even in Grunty Fen (our favourite place name), think of the Vikings who’ve left an indelible mark on the toponymy of the United Kingdom and Ireland.


    Image: Hans Splinter (CC)

  4. FixMyStreet: “Why doesn’t every council use this?”

    We were recently invited to the LGA annual conference to exhibit FixMyStreet for Councils in Nesta’s Innovation Zone along with a lot of interesting social enterprises.

    At one memorable point, we each had the opportunity to pitch to the surrounding crowds. Having to drum up interest from people passing through made me feel somewhat like a travelling salesman, but I channelled my semi-theatrical background and that seemed to do the trick.

    As one councillor said to me incredulously: “Why doesn’t every council use this?” If you’d like to see what inspired such a comment, here’s my presentation (click through and scroll to the bottom of the page if you’d like to see the accompanying notes, too).

    [iframe src=”http://www.slideshare.net/slideshow/embed_code/23841090″ width=”427″ height=”356″ frameborder=”0″ marginwidth=”0″ marginheight=”0″ scrolling=”no” style=”border:1px solid #CCC;border-width:1px 1px 0;margin-bottom:5px” allowfullscreen webkitallowfullscreen mozallowfullscreen]

    We’ll be putting all our presentations, of every kind, on our Slideshare account from now on, so do subscribe if that’s of interest. Just click the orange ‘follow’ button on that page.

  5. How to identify local government services for digital transformation

    Over the last 6 months or so, mySociety has been doing increasing amounts of work with local councils, not only helping them with problem reporting and online petitions, but also advising them on the impact of digital by default and how changing customer expectations are affecting digital service provision. To paraphrase Tom, for an ever-increasing number of customers, “local councils don’t have websites, local councils are websites”.

    More specifically, we’ve been helping councils use user-centred techniques to kick-start the process of digital transformation: taking existing services that cause unnecessary frustration, figuring out how they should work for the customer in an ideal world, identifying the process changes needed, and helping make them happen.

    How do you know where to start?

    Most consultancies in this area will publicise their patented 5-step approach, or shower you in platitudes about talking to users and involving service managers, but I thought it would be more useful to walk through in detail what we actually do on a project like this. In this post, I’m going to describe only the first step (I’ll talk about others in future posts): given all the stuff that councils do, how do you know where to start?

    Clearly, not every council service is susceptible to digital transformation. If you work in children’s services or benefits advice, your service is more likely to rely on cups of tea and conversation than on your website. But there are high volume transactions that involve exchanges of information or of money that do not, or rather *should not*, require any human intervention. Unfortunately, because of mistakes in how websites are structured and processes organised (that often go right back to decisions about management structure and procurement priorities), unnecessary demand is placed on contact centres.

    What are your users trying to do?

    So if you want to know what mistakes you’re making with your online presence, the first place you should look is the volume of calls to your contact centres and what questions the callers are asking. Here’s a complete list of all the places you can look for useful data on what your customers are actually trying to do and what you might be doing wrong:

    • Contact centre logs: the records of what people who call you are actually asking about. This is the best place to look to identify the areas where your web presence is under-performing.
    • Internal site search terms: the things people type in most often in the search box on your website. Generally speaking, use of search on a website is an indicator that your navigation and page structure have failed. Therefore the search terms people use on your site are another very interesting indicator of things you’re not doing well enough.
    • Referring search terms: the most frequently used search terms that drive traffic to your website. What are people looking for and what words have they actually put in to Google (or indeed any other search engine) for to arrive at your website?
    • Popular pages: data on the most frequently visited pages and sections of your website doesn’t tell you what you should improve or how, but it does give you a feel for where the demand is.

    If you look at all of those things, you’ll have a lot of data to go through and make sense of. If you’re short on time, focus on the first one – it’s the juiciest source of insights.

    Talking to service managers

    Another approach we pursue in parallel to this one is to talk to a group of service managers and ask them for their opinions: if the decision on where we should focus our redesign efforts was up to them, what single thing should we start with that would make the biggest difference? How this actually happens in practice is that we get a group of people in a room together and ask them to write down (almost certainly on post-it notes) the top 3 – 5 services that they think are in need of a digital redesign. We then discuss and consolidate all of these before grouping them, trying to identify those that are the most susceptible to automation and where the complexity of the change needed internally is low enough to be approachable.

    Decision time

    The final part of figuring out where to start is to make a decision: which of these areas are you going to start redesigning first? You now have two sources of data on where to start: the results of your analysis of customer behaviour and the views of your employees who are closest to the action. Here we’ll make a recommendation, but leave the final decision to our council client: they know their organisation a lot better than we do.

    With a focal point for the transformation efforts decided on, so begins the daunting-yet-exciting task of researching and designing the changes to be made: the bit where you actually talk to users, make prototypes or mockups of what the service’s digital touchpoints should look like (no specification documents here please) and then figure out together what process changes need to be made for it all to work in practice. Which, of course, are the topics for future blog posts.