1. Better-looking emails for FixMyStreet

    If you’ve used FixMyStreet recently — either to make a report, or as a member of a council who receives the reports — you might have noticed that the site’s automated emails are looking a lot more swish.

    Where previously those emails were plain text, we’ve now upgraded to HTML, with all the design possibilities that this implies.

    It’s all part of the improvements ushered in by FixMyStreet Version 2.0, which we listed, in full, in our recent blog post. If you’d like a little more technical detail about some of the thought and solutions that went into this switch to HTML, Matthew has obliged with in a blog post over on FixMyStreet.org.

  2. Workfare: what happens when the government doesn’t want to release information?

    You might have seen it in the Daily Mirror: the full extent of the Department of Work and Pensions’ legal costs, incurred while fighting the obligation to name the companies who participated in the Workfare scheme.

    Workfare is a government program which required the unemployed to work for one of the participating organisations, in exchange for no pay other than their existing benefits — working out lower than the minimum wage.

    It’s a story in which our site WhatDoTheyKnow is strongly involved. The original request for the list of companies participating in the Workfare scheme was made on the site back in January 2012 by user Frank Zola.

    That request was refused, noting that the information was “being withheld under Section 43 of the FOI Act which relates to the commercial interests of both the Department and those delivering services on our behalf”.

    As any WhatDoTheyKnow user is given the means to do, Zola referred the request to the Information Commissioner. They ruled in favour of the release.

    The government were unforthcoming, however, and the matter was taken to tribunal and through the court of appeal. Zola continued to pursue the case doggedly as the government repeatedly questioned the ruling that the information must be released into the public domain. Their defence was that the companies and charities listed as participating in the Workfare scheme might suffer negative effects to their reputation and commercial viability, given the strong swell of public opinion against the scheme.

    In July 2016, four and a half years after the request had first been made, the full list was finally disclosed, and can be seen on WhatDoTheyKnow here.

    But the story doesn’t end there. More than one person, including the Mirror’s own reporters, wondered just how much had been spent by defendants on both sides of the legal tussle. In August another user lodged this request with the DWP and discovered that their costs amounted to £92,250.

    Meanwhile, a similar request to the ICO reveals that their costs in defending the case used a further £7,931 from the public purse.

    We highlight this story partly because it shows the value of persistence. WhatDoTheyKnow is designed to help users to understand their rights. If your request is refused, it makes it clear that you have the right to request an internal review, making that route less intimidating to those who don’t know the ropes. If you go on to the appeals process, we hope that having all previous correspondence online helps with that. Other users can also offer help and support via the annotations system.

    In this case though, we think many would have been deterred once the matter had been referred to the higher courts, and we congratulate everyone concerned for sticking to their guns and getting this information out into the public domain.

    In a further twist, it’s perhaps worth relating that a few weeks ago, the supermarket Sainsbury’s contacted the WhatDoTheyKnow admin team and asked us to remove their name from the list of organisations who took part in Workfare, since “a small number of our stores did participate in the government’s Work Experience programme but this was not company policy”. We decided not to comply with this request.

    Image: Andrew Writer (CC-by/2.0)

  3. Something in the middle: how Bristol connects

    This year, Bristol Council did something unusual and admirable. As far as we’re aware, they’re the first UK council to have taken such a step.

    Working with mySociety on custom Open311 ‘middleware’ while adopting FixMyStreet as their fault-reporting system, they now enjoy full flexibility, no matter what the future holds.

    Thanks to this open approach, Bristol will extract more value from their existing systems and lower operating costs. With integrated, open solutions, and the raised quality of report formatting that Open311 brings, everyone will benefit.

    Improving flexibility

    Councils are increasingly understanding the value of flexibility when it comes to service providers.

    Contracts that lock them into a single provider for many years mean that, often, there’s no opportunity to benefit when technology advances, and disproportionate costs can be charged for implementing the slightest changes.

    This desire for flexibility was a strong factor in Bristol City Council’s decision to adopt FixMyStreet for Councils — and that opened the door for a conversation about Open311.

    We’ve always advocated integration via Open311, to the extent that we offer free hook-up with FixMyStreet to any councils who support it.

    Because Open311 is an open standard, it supports the entire landscape of providers like FixMyStreet. Right now, Bristol can accept street fault reports not just from us, but from a full range of services — in other words, any site or app that cares to connect with them can do so. No-one knows what the future will hold: if a game-changing system emerges in the future, it makes sense that you’d be able to accept its reports.

    All well and good: but when Bristol City Council implemented FixMyStreet as their fault-reporting system, the concept was taken a little bit further. With our collaboration, Bristol created their own Open311 ‘middleware’, sitting between the two systems and talking to both.

    Via this method, their existing CMS, Confirm, can hook up to reports coming through from FixMyStreet. That all works smoothly — but, just as importantly, if Bristol ever decide to replace their CRM provider, they’ll be able to do so with no knock-on effect to FixMyStreet reports. And if they ever decide to replace FixMyStreet with a different provider, or indeed to accept reports from a range of providers, they can do that too.

    Bristol found us via the GCloud procurement system, and are the first metropolitan unitary authority to install FixMyStreet.

    Future plans

    Bristol launched its FixMyStreet service to the public in the summer of 2016.

    This autumn, they added asset-based reporting, meaning that known council properties such as streetlights, grit bins and gullies are all marked on FixMyStreet’s maps. Residents can pinpoint and report the location of faults with these assets far more accurately as a result.

    There’ll be a phased rollout across departments, starting with Highways and moving across departments as Bristol extend their own middleware. We’ll be watching with great interest.

    Find out more about FixMyStreet for Councils.

    Image: Adam Heath (CC by-sa/2.0)

  4. Catching up with Collideoscope

    It’s been a while since we looked in on Collideoscope, our project for reporting and collating data on cycling collisions and near misses, developed in collaboration with ITP. But what better time than now, when days are short and accidents have unfortunately, as always at this time of year, taken a sharp upturn.

    So, let’s have a catch-up, and a reminder that you should use the service. Of course, we hope you won’t experience any problems, but remember that Collideoscope is there if you do.

    Previously on Collideoscope…

    As you may recall, Collideoscope is a site for reporting cycling incidents, collisions and near misses. Because it’s built on the FixMyStreet platform, it offers all the same functionality for the user: it’ll help you to pinpoint the precise location of the incident you’re reporting, and then send the details off to the relevant authorities.

    When cyclists make a report, they’re contributing to an open dataset that improves the quality of the evidence base on cycling incidents.

    While FixMyStreet sends reports off to councils, Collideoscope sends reports to local authorities’ highways departments, with the aim of highlighting potential accident blackspots.

    The data, after going through an anonymisation process, is also shared with campaign groups.

    Finally, the anonymised data is also available for anyone to download via Socrata, to be used for any purpose. One potential project we’d love to see, for example, would be route-planning applications to help cyclists avoid going through areas with a high density of incidents.

    Image by Rob. A road sign showing a cyclist being thrown off his bike because of an uneven road surfaceThe data is also available to researchers, town planners and the police: when cyclists make a report, they’re contributing to an open dataset that improves the quality of the evidence base on cycling incidents.

    So, that’s the model. Let’s have a look at how well it has stood up.

    Data quantity

    Collideoscope launched in October 2014 and users have thus far made a total of 1,195 reports.

    In order to provide a more complete dataset with the clearest possible indicators of accident hotspots, we also imported STATS19 data from the annually-updated open police database of accidents, meaning that Collideoscope now contains data points on over 20,000 incidents across the UK.

    Here’s what we’ve learned

    Steering a project from concept to reality is always a learning process. Here are some of the key lessons that emerged:

    • Collideoscope sends each report to authorities as it is submitted. It became clear that a bulk dataset would be easier for highways authorities to handle and to draw conclusions from, and this is now available.
    • Originally, we’d believed that it would be useful if Collideoscope could forward reports to local police forces, so that they could be actioned where suitable. However, this proved impractical, because the Road Traffic Act states that collisions must be reported to a police officer in person. Collideoscope’s data would not be sufficient for police to take action on those cases which merited it.
    • There was some concern that reports made via Collideoscope would replicate, rather than complement, the police force’s official STATS19 data. Happily, once enough reports had come into Collideoscope, a comparison was run and found that there is very little overlap between the two datasets.

    While STATS19 data tends to cover serious incidents, it doesn’t hold much on the near miss or minor incidents that Collideoscope encourages users to also report  — and which make up 90% of the Collideoscope database. One of the underlying beliefs behind Collideoscope has always been that near miss data can tell us a lot about accident prevention.

    Changes afoot

    ITP have now stepped away from Collideoscope: we’re extremely grateful for their collaboration and support with the development and running of Collideoscope in its first couple of years. This move will mean that we can pursue funding from charitable grant foundations.

    As you may recall from prior updates, the site was also supported by the Barts Bespoke campaign, a multi-pronged initiative to reduce accidents for cyclists. This support, and a further research grant from the Department for Transport, came to an end last month. As a result, we’ll no longer be asking people about injuries sustained when they file a Collideoscope report.

    Collideoscope will keep on rolling: we’re open to potential partners and have plenty of ideas for further development, including the possibility of a public API, or incident-reporting forms that could be placed on any website.

    If you’re from a local government, third sector or private company, and you’re interested in using Collideoscope data to enable better decision making on cycle safety, this’d be a great time to get in touch.


    Images:
    This hill is dangerous by John Kennedy (CC by-nc/2.0)
    Falling off bike sign by Rob (CC by-nc-sa/2.0)

  5. Spam attack!

    What happens when your site is the target of a major spam attack? That wasn’t something we were particularly keen to find out —  but it’s a scenario we’re now fully acquainted with. That’s all thanks to a recent concerted assault on our Freedom of Information site WhatDoTheyKnow.

    All is calm again now, and hopefully, as a user of the site, you’ll have noticed very little. Yes, you’ll now have to complete a recaptcha when creating a new request*, and you might have discovered that the site was inaccessible for a couple of hours. Beyond that, everything is pretty much as it was.

    From our point of view, though, it was an emergency situation that meant that several of us had to put down what we were doing and join in with some quick decision-making.

    Alert, alert!

    It was around 12:30 on a Wednesday afternoon when Richard, one of the volunteers who helps to run WhatDoTheyKnow, noticed unusual activity on the site.

    WhatDoTheyKnow was created to help people send requests for information to public authorities — a service for the wider good. Unfortunately, at this point, it was also doing something quite the opposite of good: it was providing the means for unknown sources to send those same authorities hundreds of spam messages.

    We’d like to apologise to those who were on the receiving end: clearly, spam is a nuisance for everyone who receives it and we’re unhappy to have played any part in its perpetuation.

    We also had a secondary concern. It seemed likely that recipients would mark these incoming emails as spam. When enough people had done that, email providers would see us as an insecure source, and block all our messages, valid or otherwise, potentially preventing the WhatDoTheyKnow system from running efficiently.

    A little fire-fighting? That’s actually situation normal

    Spam is an obvious example of the site being abused, but it’s perhaps worth mentioning that we work hard on many levels to ensure that WhatDoTheyKnow is only used for its core purpose: the requesting of information under the FOI Act.

    And note that we’ve always been careful to protect against abuse. WhatDoTheyKnow does already have several measures in place as standard: we only allow one account per email address; we verify that email addresses are genuine; and we cap the number of requests that users can make each day (a restriction that we only override for users who are demonstrably making acceptable use of our service). We reckon that these measures very much helped to reduce the impact of the attacks.

    Action

    After a quick discussion between the volunteer team, trustees and mySociety staff, we took the site offline to give us time to work on a solution while stopping any more spam from being sent.

    Of course, we then removed all the spam requests and comments from the site and banned the accounts that had made them. We also contacted the affected bodies to let them know what had happened and to assure them that we were taking steps to deal with it.

    When we brought the site back up, a couple of hours later, we did so cautiously and with new restrictions and safeguards in place.

    Spam ‘requests’ had been sent over a period of about 13 hours. There were in the region of 800 made, though only about 500 actually got sent to authorities. Additionally, around 368 spam comments were left on existing requests. These relatively small numbers lead us to believe that they were being made manually.

    Time to breathe… or nearly

    Once we’d discovered the issue, dealing with it and getting the site back up and running took us 2.5 hours.

    Job done — so now we could sit back and relax, eh? But no: the next day we discovered that a couple of other sites running on the Alaveteli platform,  AskTheEu and New Zealand’s FYI, were being subjected to the same attacks.

    So we rolled out the changes we’d made on WhatDoTheyKnow to make them available to all Alaveteli users. And then, finally, we could get back to the everyday work we’d been doing before — making our sites better for you, and the other nice non-spamming people who use them.

    * We’ll be looking at removing it as soon as we can, though, as recaptcha doesn’t offer a very accessible experience for many disabled people. Meanwhile, we can manually remove the recaptcha for specific accounts, so if you’re struggling with it, contact the team to implement this exemption.


    Image: Mark Granitz (CC by-nc-nd/2.0)

  6. Making a difference in Norbury

    When we talk to the users of our sites, sometimes there’s no remarkable tale to tell — just a day-to-day story of how someone is making a small but persistent positive change in their community.

    Every month, around 7,500 people use FixMyStreet to help improve their neighbourhoods: getting potholes fixed, making dangerous pavements safer, or — as in the case of Van Tri Nguyen from Norbury, requesting the removal of unsightly rubbish and fly-tipping.

    As Mr Nguyen told us, he first heard about FixMyStreet at a local association meeting.

    “In front of my house there is a big park. It’s frequented by a lot of people, and particularly at night a lot of things happen there — and mountains of litter are left behind.

    “Rubbish accumulates, not inside the park but on the road in front of it — just opposite my house! People just dump stuff from their car windows. There are three lime trees which I often find decorated around their base with rubbish, on average once a fortnight, but sometimes as many as three or four times a week.

    “Once fly-tippers came and left an entire truckload of stuff. This road really is just a dumping ground, and while Croydon Council are aware of the problem, no-one has been brave enough to take a grip and get it sorted out.

    “I reported the eyesore, both on FixMyStreet and to Croydon Council. I believe that when reports are published online, the council may feel some kind of pressure and ashamed.

    “The results have been good. Right now, the road is reasonably clean.”

    We’re sure that Mr Nguyen will continue to be the good citizen who takes action and reports rubbish as it reoccurs. He’s telling others, too:

    “I’ve already spread the word to people who seem to care about the environment where they live.”

    Some before shots

    rubbish 515877.0.full 537977.0.full DSCF0400

    And after

    DSCF0473 DSCF0474

    All images: Van Tri Nguyen

  7. Ask Your Government Uganda

    Once a country has a Freedom of Information act in place, the battle for citizens’ Right To Know is pretty much over, right?

    Er… that would be nice, wouldn’t it? But in fact, as those who have read our previous blog posts will know, all sorts of factors can stand between citizens and information about their public authorities — here in the UK, and all around the world. Factors like complex legislation, reluctant officialdom, bureaucracy… and a host of other impediments.

    In Uganda, FOI has made a tangible difference to the level of corruption from officials, but a lack of resources and their politicians’ reluctance to perform the duties requested of them by the act mean that access to information is still a struggle.

    Find out more about the people running Uganda’s Alaveteli site, Ask Your Government, and how they’re tackling these issues, in our latest case study.

  8. Asking questions in public: the Alaveteli experiments

    Suppose we sent an automated tweet every time someone made a successful Freedom of Information request on WhatDotheyKnow — would it bring more visitors to the site?

    And, if you get a response to your first FOI request, does it mean you are more likely to make a second one?

    These, and many more, are the kind of questions that emerge as we refine the advice that we’re offering partner organisations.

    Our Freedom of Information platform Alaveteli underpins Freedom of Information sites all around the world. When we first launched it, our only priorities were to make the code work, and to make that code as easy as possible to implement. But, as a community emerged around Alaveteli, we realised that we’d all be better off if we shared advice, successes and ideas.

    And that’s where we began to encounter questions.

    Some of them, like how to get more users, or how to understand where users come from, are common to anyone running a website.

    Others are unique to our partner structure, in which effectively anyone in any part of the world may pick up the Alaveteli code and start their own site. In theory, we might know very little more than that a site is running, although we’ll always try to make contact and let the implementers know what help we can offer them.

    There were so many questions that we soon saw the need to keep them all in one place. At mySociety, we’re accustomed to using Github for anything resembling a to-do list (as well as for its primary purposes; Github was designed to store code, allow multiple people to work on that code, and to suggest or review issues with it), and so we created a slightly unusual repo, Alaveteli-experiments.

    Screenshot of the Alaveteli Experiments repo, showing a table of experiments and summaries of their results

    This approach also gives us the benefit of transparency. Anyone can visit that repo and see what questions we are asking, how we intend to find the answers, and the results as they come in. What’s more, anyone who has (or opens) a Github account will also be able to add their own comments.

    Have a browse and you’ll come across experiments like this one and this one, which attempt to answer the questions with which we opened this post.

    Some of the experiments, like this one to analyse whether people click the ‘similar requests’ links in the sidebar, we’re running on our own site, WhatDoTheyKnow. Others, such as this one about the successful requests listed on every Alaveteli site’s homepage, are being conducted on our partners’ sites.

    Our aims are to find out more about how to bring more users to all Alaveteli sites, how to encourage browsing visitors to become people who make requests, and how to turn one-off requesters into people who come back and make another — and then pass all that on to our partners.

    We hope you’ll find plenty of interest on there. We reckon it’s all relevant, especially to anyone running an FOI website, but in many cases to anyone wondering how best to improve a site’s effectiveness. And we’re very happy to hear your ideas, too: if we’ve missed some obvious experiment, or you’ve thought of something that would be really interesting to know through the application of this kind of research, you’re  welcome to let us know.

    You can open your own ticket on the repo, suggest it in the Alaveteli community mailing list, or email Alaveteli Partnerships Manager Gemma.

     


    Image: Sandia Labs (CC by-nc-nd/2.0)

  9. When funds go missing: how FixMyStreet is helping fight corruption in Malaysia

    Anyone who lives in public housing will know how frustrating it is when maintenance issues just don’t get fixed.

    Imagine how you’d feel, though, if you knew that funds had been allocated, but the repairs still weren’t being made — and there was no sign of the money.

    That’s the situation for the residents of public housing blocks in Kota Damansara, a township in Selangor State, Malaysia, whose problems range from termite and rat infestations to poor water sanitation, broken balcony railings, and beyond.

    In Malaysia, there’s no obligation for authorities to publish data on how public funds are spent, so it’s easy for corruption to thrive. The Sinar Project, an organisation that might be called the Malaysian equivalent of mySociety, are trying to tackle this state of affairs with a two pronged approach. They recently wrote it up on the OKFN blog.

    As you might expect, we pricked up our ears when we reached the part mentioning their use of FixMyStreet. Sinar already run aduanku.my, a FixMyStreet for Malaysia, using our open source code. Hazwany (Nany) Jamaluddin told of how a part of the site has been used to help provide concrete proof that repairs are not being made, and to put pressure on the authorities to do something about it.

    We’re always going on about how flexible FixMyStreet is: in case you don’t already know, it’s been used in projects as diverse as reporting anti-social behaviour on public transport to a tie-in with a channel 4 TV programme. One use that’s often been suggested is for housing estate management: if the maps showed the floorplans of housing blocks rather than the default of streetmaps, the rest of the functionality would remain pretty much as it is, with reports going off to the relevant housing maintenance teams rather than council departments.

    Sinar’s project does not try anything quite that ambitious, but nonetheless they have found a system that enables them to use FixMyStreet as part of their wider accountability project. They began by creating a new boundary for the Kota Damansara area on the website, and taught community leaders how to make reports for the public housing blocks within it.

    Since the map does not display the interior of the buildings, reporters must take care to describe precisely which floor and which block the issue is on, within the body of the report, with pictures as supporting evidence. It’s a step away from FixMyStreet’s usual desire to provide everything the user needs in order to make an actionable report — and everything the recipient needs to act on it — but it is serviceable.

    Ideally, Sinar would have liked the residents themselves to make the reports: after all, they are the ones facing the problems day to day; they know them more intimately and would describe them with more accuracy — but as Sinar’s social audit found, these residents are all under the poverty line: most do not have smartphones or internet connectivity at home.

    Instead, the community leaders make the report and this is then also processed manually, because the housing management company requires submissions on paper.

    You may be thinking, why go to all this bother? How does FixMyStreet play its part in the project, especially if you then have to transcribe the reports onto paper? It’s because FixMyStreet, as well as processing reports, has another side.

    We often mention how FixMyStreet, by publishing reports online, can give an extra incentive to councils to get problems fixed. In Kota Damansara the effect will hopefully be greater: this small section of the wider Aduanku website stands as a visible record of where funds have not made it to where they are needed most —  to fix those rat infestations and broken balconies.

    Nonetheless, the management companies continue to deny that there is strong enough evidence that funds have been diverted. And so Sinar, undaunted, move on to their next weapon against corruption. The incoming and outgoing of funds have been, and will continue to be, examined via a series of Freedom of Information requests.

    We wish Sinar all the best with this project and look forward to hearing that it has brought about change.

    Image: Tinou Bao (CC by/2.0)

  10. I created a template for writing to an MP, and then I deleted it

    Twitter comment

    We were glad to see this tweet back in July, when @adebradley identified WriteToThem as the place to go for information on how to write to your MP. We do try to make that process as easy as possible, so it was a fair assumption that we’d have such a template1.

    But in fact, it was also a mistaken assumption, although we do have some more general advice in our FAQs. Basically, we offer lots of help on how to use our service, but we assume that the user can manage perfectly well once they’ve got to the ‘compose’ screen.

    So I did what I always do when a user points out a ‘nice to have’ feature for one of our sites: I ticketed it on Github, our issue-tracking system. And then, when I got round to it, I sat down and did some thinking, and read some other websites which offer advice on writing to your MP.

    And then I created a template to show people how to compose a letter that would be clear, readable, and likely to get a result.

    But…

    As I was doing so, something felt wrong.

    Firstly: who was going to visit this template? Even if we linked to it from the FAQs, would anyone ever find it? We know (without having to check our analytics, merely from the kind of messages we often get in our support mail) that the FAQs are not universally read. They’re more widely read since we moved the ‘Help’ link to the top right of every page, but all the same, it seems many users would rather drop us a line than find the answer on an FAQs page.

    Then secondly: my template began to feel very patronising. Here was I, someone whose job is copywriting, handing out tips to… well, who? Presumably, our more educated, literate, eloquent users were not staring at a blank screen wondering how to begin a message to their MPs.

    No: the people who need help writing to their MPs are going to be people who find it hard to express themselves in writing, and probably have never contacted their representatives before. And they are also the people least likely to wade through my sanctimonious examples and admonishments about what kind of language to use.

    So, what now?

    I took the issue to my colleagues, who were very helpful in sorting through this thinking. One of them led me to this link, which underscored the uneasiness over whether anyone ever reads FAQs, with wisdom like:

    FAQs are convenient for writers […] But they’re more work for readers.

    And between us, we reached the conclusion that the problem of people not knowing what, or how, to write to an MP wasn’t going to be solved by copywriting after all: if it was going to be solved at all, it was going to be with design and development.

    If we were really going to help our users, it’d have to be right there on the page, at the moment when they get stuck.

    Just as FixMyStreet gives discreet tips about what kind of content is appropriate in a report, WriteToThem might also guide a user to start with a clear statement about what the writer wants or needs, and to follow up with concise details. Or it might detect bad language and alert the user that their message is likely to disappear into an MPs’ anti-abuse filter. Maybe we could have an optional template within the ‘compose’ box which could be toggled on or off.

    We haven’t got any further than that yet, and we promise not to build the 21st century equivalent of Clippy — but what started with a tweet may end up as some in-browser guidelines.

    Meanwhile, if you’re looking for some help writing to your MP, here are our under-visited FAQs, and here’s an excellent guide to writing to your MP from Open Rights Group.

    Footnote

    1 It’s probably worth clarifying that, when we talk about templates for letters to MPs, we are not talking about the sending of identikit messages – rather, we mean guides as to what sort of content to include. We have always, and will always, encourage users to write in their own words, and block mass messages from those who don’t. Here’s why.


    Image: Grant Hutchinson (cc by-nc-nd/2.0)