1. Sort My Sign: mapping road signs for Transport Focus

    Every road user relies on signs, so keeping them tip-top is in everyone’s interest. Now Transport Focus have launched their Sort My Sign campaign, asking road users to help them do just that.

    They’d like everyone to report any signs they spot that are dangerous, dirty, broken, or obscured.

    To support this programme digitally, Transport Focus came to mySociety, asking if we could help create a simple and intuitive mapping interface where these issues could be reported.

    Keep your eyes on the road

    Specifically, the scheme covers signs on roads managed by Highways England, which means motorways and some A roads.

    FixMyStreet was the obvious starting point — we already have a data layer for these roads, which means that your everyday FixMyStreet reports can be routed to Highways England rather than the council if they are the responsible body.

    Sort My Sign - screenshot

    Plus, as we’ve detailed many times before, the FixMyStreet platform can be repurposed for any project dealing with location-based reports, and has in the past been put to all sorts of uses, from reporting empty homes to helping fight corruption.

    Nonetheless, we perceived one potential challenge when it came to setting up sign reporting.

    Don’t report and drive!

    FixMyStreet is generally well-suited for people making reports on the go — in fact, thanks to the ‘use my location’ functionality, it is ideal for reporting issues like potholes or broken pavements on your mobile while out on a walk. But obviously, road signs are a slightly different matter. If you are driving, you certainly mustn’t be fiddling with your mobile phone, so ‘use current location’ is only helpful if you have an amenable passenger to make the report.

    That’s fine — you can always make the report later of course: but that means you’ll need to know roughly where you were when you saw the sign, something that’s a bit trickier on a long drive than it might be on a stroll around your neighbourhood. FixMyStreet allows you to find any UK location with the input of a postcode or street name, but these are details you’re unlikely to have to hand if you have simply driven through.

    After some thought we realised that, on a motorway, the location identifier most people will find easiest to recall will probably be the junction number.

    So that set us a challenge: how could we best enable ‘search by junction number’?

    Sign here…and here

    Ideally, we wanted a user to be able to visit the Sort My Sign site and enter the name of a junction, just as they’d enter a postcode or street on the FixMyStreet homepage — and then to be taken to a map centred on that point.

    But sourcing a mapping between motorway/junction number and co-ordinates proved surprisingly tricky. mySociety developer Matthew takes over the story.

    “I first looked at OpenStreetMap data — its geocoder, Nominatim, worked really well for some junction numbers, but didn’t work at all for others. If a junction has been assigned a name (like J23 on the M6, which is known as ‘Haydock’) it can only be looked up by that name, not by number. But we wanted users to be able to look up junctions by number.

    “I could also export all the junction data from OpenStreetMap, but the junction nodes alone aren’t linked to the motorway, so that looked like it would prove tricky to match up.”

    FOI to the rescue

    “But by a stroke of luck, I then discovered that someone had used another of mySociety’s services, our Freedom of Information site WhatDoTheyKnow, to make a request to Highways England asking for the positions of all the driver location signs (the repeaters every 100m or 500m along the motorways giving the name and distance from start).

    “In response, Highways England had provided that information, so I knew I could use that to at least provide a mapping between location sign and geographic co-ordinates.

    “Each sign also had information about what junction it was nearest or between, so by constructing an average of all the location sign co-ordinates associated with a particular junction, I came up with a pretty good estimate for the location of the junction itself.

    “I added all the sign and junction data into a small SQLite database (which means it’s portable and doesn’t need to be associated with the main database) and wrote a little bit of code to spot when someone entered a junction name in any of a variety of different formats, then look up the matching location in this database”.

    Signed, sealed, delivered

    To test this out, Matthew had all his colleagues name their favourite junction… perhaps not to be recommended as a party game, but it did at least prove that his code had cracked the problem.

    Something much appreciated by Head of Strategy at Transport Focus, Guy Dangerfield, who says, “mySociety has been excellent in understanding what we needed and finding ways to achieve our objectives.”

    You can give the new system a go here — and perhaps bookmark the site so that you know where to report a sign next time you see one that needs fixing.

    Once you’re safely off the road, that is.

    Image: Mark Anderson  (CC BY-SA 2.0)

  2. Help Privacy International discover how the police are accessing your online activity

    You may remember our recent post on the surveillance techniques in use by police forces, as investigated by the campaign group Privacy International.

    Several of you tweeted or commented that you were concerned to read of these new technologies. Well, here’s a way that you can get involved in finding out more.

    Privacy International are asking people to submit an FOI request to their local police force, to enquire whether they are using cloud extraction technology.

    Sounds fluffy? The reality is a bit more chilling. Cloud extraction technology allows the police to gain access from a citizen’s mobile phone to cloud based services such as their email, browser activity, and social media. So, if you are stopped and your phone is examined then handed back, surveillance might not stop there. Even after the phone is returned, using this tech police can monitor your online activity on an ongoing basis, seeing what you search for, trawling through your social media posts, and even accessing your location data.

    Whether or not you’ve ever been detained by the police, you might like to know whether this sort of surveillance is in action in your own local neighbourhood. And that’s where FOI comes in.

    To make everything as easy as possible for you, Privacy International have used pre-filled FOI requests* and provided the wording you should include. You can also see which forces have already been contacted, so as not to waste time making duplicate requests. Here’s where to get started.

    Camilla Graham Wood, a Legal Officer at Privacy International, is clear about the benefits WhatDoTheyKnow has brought to their campaigning: “Using WhatDoTheyKnow we have created a way for members of the public to quickly and easily contact their local police force and ask them about intrusive surveillance tech. We were able to embed this on our own website and to pre-fill certain boxes as well as adding a tag so we can follow the progress of the campaign.

    “Engaging the public in this way shows the level of public interest in policing technologies and introduces those who might not have used Freedom of Information request before to this valuable transparency tool”.

    *If you’re running a campaign and you’d like to know how to set up something similar, take a look at this blog post where Gemma explained it all, back in 2016.

    Image: Gilles Lambert

  3. Follow along with the UK’s Climate Assembly

    The UK’s first national Climate Assembly kicks off this weekend, and mySociety have played a small part in its logistics, building the website which will enable everyone to follow along with the proceedings.

    The Assembly will bring together 110 randomly selected citizens representing the UK population in terms of age, gender, ethnicity, education, location and views on the climate, to take in balanced evidence from experts and then agree what needs to be put in place to achieve net zero carbon emissions for the country by 2050.

    From Saturday, you’ll be able to watch a livestream of the Assembly as it progresses in Birmingham. The site also provides information on how the Assembly has been set up and who is involved — and afterwards will act as a permanent home for videos and transcripts of the presentations and the conclusions the Assembly comes to.

    While we manage the website, the actual Assembly is being run by Involve, and will take place over four weekends. The Sortition Foundation are responsible for recruiting a representative set of people. The end product of the Assembly will be a report, containing the recommendations that have been agreed by the assembly members. This will go back to the six select committees who commissioned the Assembly, in the hope of informing parliamentary legislation — and you’ll also be able to see it on the website once it’s completed.

    Image: Antenna

  4. Looking at our own climate impact

    As Mark announced in his first blog post of 2020, we’re currently focusing our work on the climate crisis, with a particular emphasis on how those in power can be held to account over the world’s need to achieve net zero carbon emissions.

    But you can’t start challenging others, of course, without ensuring that your own house is in order — which is why we have been working out what we, as an organisation, can be doing to minimise our own impact. A small Climate Action team within mySociety have taken on this task.

    Taking stock

    The first thing we realised was that it’s not as simple as it seems! It’s a big area; there’s not always consensus on what is genuinely impactful; and it’s easy to get taken up with the small details while losing site of the big picture.

    Plus, one obvious hurdle was that we had no idea what our current carbon footprint looks like. That being so, how can we measure whether we are making improvements?

    With all those things in mind, we decided on this approach:

    1. To first concentrate on just a few areas where we believe we’ll be able to make the biggest changes for the better; and
    2. To spend some time calculating our current carbon emissions in two areas that we know to be significant: that’s travel, and our web servers.

    Oh, and one more thing…

    We decided to talk about it.

    Doing it in public

    As you can tell from the above, we’re in no position yet to confidently announce what measures we’re putting in place to minimise our climate impact.

    But we believe that by talking in public about our efforts to get to that point, we’ll be able to share what we find, learn from others, and — crucially — help normalise carbon reduction as a topic of conversation within our sector. We’re thinking about this; have you been too?

    So over the course of a few blog posts we’ll share where we’ve got to so far, and where we still have questions, starting with a look at our travel.

    We’d love it if you could let us know what you’ve been doing, as well, especially if you are a similar organisation to mySociety: small in size, mostly remote, working online with digital services, maybe running events and with some need for travel, both domestic and international.

    Image: Markus Spiske

  5. Has your FOI request been used in a news story? Now you can let everyone know.

    We’ve recently made a small change to WhatDoTheyKnow. Now, if your request has resulted in a news story, you can add the link as a ‘citation’.

    If you’re a journalist or a campaigner, we hope this is a useful way to give your stories some more readership (not to mention a nice inbound link from a high-ranked site for your search engine ratings).

    And if you’re simply a citizen whose request was picked up by the press, there’s now a way to share how the information you’ve obtained fits into the news agenda.

    There’s a benefit for the wider transparency community, too. We think that, in aggregate, these links will serve to show others just what a simple FOI request can do.

    Requests often start off as nothing more than an inkling or a nagging question, but there’s always the chance that one of them will reveal important or interesting information, hitting the news, reaching a wider readership and — who knows?  — maybe even changing hearts and minds. For big stories, it will be good to be able to create a permanent record of where it all began.

    More broadly, when you use this feature you’ll be helping us to understand what sort of impact the site is having, too. We’re always keen to spot news stories based on WhatDoTheyKnow requests, but papers don’t always cite a source or link back to the site, meaning that our monitoring is often dependent on a manual search where stories look like they might have originated with one of our users.

    How to add a citation

    You’ll find the feature in the right hand column of your request page. Just click on ‘Let us know’:

    A citation on WhatDoTheyKnow

    …and paste the URL in:

    Adding the URL of a news story on WhatDoTheyKnow

    Here’s how it will show up on the request page, as seen on the first request to gain a citation, which informed a story about electoral letters sent in error:

    a link to the news story on WhatDoTheyKnow

    If there’s more than one story, you can click ‘New Citation’ to add another one.

    The way we’ve set this feature up, WhatDoTheyKnow users can add a citation to any of their own requests — but if you spot a news story that’s linked to a request that isn’t yours, please do contact the WhatDotheyKnow team.

    They’ll assess it and input it if they find it to be valid. Our aim here is, of course, to prevent spammers from adding irrelevant links to the site.

    Users of WhatDoTheyKnow Pro, on the other hand, have the ability to add citations to any request.

    This work is one of the ongoing improvements that we’re working on thanks to a grant from Adessium.

    Image: Kaboom Pics

  6. Save the trees with FixMyStreet

    Friends of the Earth are on a mission to double the number of trees in the UK: we’re sadly lacking on this front compared to our European neighbours, and of course, we’re all well aware of the part that trees play in helping safeguard the climate and encourage wildlife diversity.

    As they point out, it’s not all about planting new trees: it’s just as important, and perhaps more economical, to preserve the ones we have. And we were delighted to see that FoE highlight FixMyStreet as a way to do so.

    They suggest that you make a report to request a new TPO — Tree Preservation Order. If granted, this will make it a criminal offence to damage or cut down the tree without written consent from the local authority.

    Generally, TPOs are used for trees that are providing a particular benefit to the local community (although it is, of course, possible to argue that pretty much every tree is doing this!). FoE guide you through the report-making process in the section of their page titled ‘How to request a TPO’.

    As they make clear, not all councils are the same. Categories on FixMyStreet are set by each council to reflect their internal departments and their own responsibilities. So for some, you will find ‘trees’ as a category  (and some even mark every tree on the map, making it very easy to pinpoint the one you are referring to). For others, you may have to choose a wider category such as ‘highways’. If all else fails, there’s always the ‘other’ category.

    Once you’ve requested your TPO, it might help to get some support from your representatives. We’re glad to see FoE also suggesting the use of WriteToThem to contact local councillors and bring them onside. Maybe even your MP as well?

    It might seem like a small thing, but we think if more people requested TPOs up and down the UK, it could make a real difference. So, if there’s a tree you really appreciate in your local area, you know what to do. Fire up FixMyStreet and get requesting!

    Image: Bert Sz

     

     

  7. FixMyStreet and fire fighting

    Two regional news stories have recently highlighted the use of FixMyStreet by fire services. That’s not something we’d anticipated when we made the site, but we’re really glad that to hear that we’re helping to fight fires!

    Firstly, the West Midlands Fire Service have asked the public to report derelict buildings on the site. FixMyStreet reports go to the council, who can take appropriate measures to secure such buildings and reduce the risk of arson.

    Meanwhile, Cleveland fire fighters are themselves using FixMyStreet to report incidences of fly tipping, and they say that getting piles of refuse or garden waste cleared up before people are tempted to set fire to them has helped them bring down the number of conflagrations in the county.

    As both these brigades have found FixMyStreet useful, we hope that other fire services might follow suit (or maybe citizens could take matters into their own hands and report such things without waiting to be told!).

    We’re already aware that lots of police officers also use the site to make reports as they are on the beat: it is, of course, very well suited to any occupation that regularly makes patrols around the local community.

    Image: Egor Vikhrev

  8. TICTeC 2020 keynote: Hollie Russon Gilman

    Hollie Russon GilmanLast week we announced one must-see TICTeC keynote — now we’re happy to confirm the second, the equally unmissable Hollie Russon Gilman.

    Hollie is a political scientist, civic strategist and fellow at New America’s Political Reform Program, Georgetown’s Beeck Center, and teaches at Columbia University. She has a zest for revitalising the American democracy and exploring how digital technologies can best be deployed toward this aim.

    Her first book Democracy Reinvented: Participatory Budgeting and Civic Innovation and America is one of the most prominent studies of participatory budgeting in the US, and in 2019 she co-authored, with Sabeel Rahman, the excellent Civic Power: Rebuilding American Democracy in an Era of Crisis.

    And just like her companion TICTeC keynote Nanjala Nyabola, Hollie will place the beguiling promises of civic tech within a wider, more sober context: she is equally keen to outline that technology can only reach its potential when combined with the strategic understanding of geopolitics and institutional structures.

    Hollie brings highly relevant hands-on experience to her academic work, having served in the Obama White House as the Open Government and Innovation Advisor helping to implement the international Open Government Partnership and as a field organiser in New Hampshire.

    She has published in numerous academic and popular audience publications; and been a researcher and adviser for many organisations and foundations including the Case Foundation; Center for Global Development, Gates Foundation, Knight Foundation, Google.org, and the World Bank.

    Hollie’s work will be of huge interest to the TICTeC community — and you can be there to hear it in person, by booking to join us at TICTeC in Reykjavik this March.

    Be a part of TICTeC 2020

    TICTeC tickets are available at early bird prices until 14 February, and at regular prices until 20 March.

    Want to be on the same speaker line-up as Hollie? You still have time to apply to present or host a workshop related to the conference theme, as applications close on 17 January: more information here.

    We’ll be announcing more TICTeC 2020 speakers in the coming weeks, so stay tuned.

    Top image: Harpa conference centre in Reykjavik, by Clark Van Der Beken

  9. TICTeC 2020 keynote: Nanjala Nyabola

    We’re delighted to announce our first confirmed keynote speaker for TICTeC 2020: esteemed writer, activist and political analyst Nanjala Nyabola.

    Nanjala has published a substantial body of work spanning academic research, books and articles. A key theme is the effect that technology is having upon politics  — in her home country of Kenya, but also across Africa and indeed globally, with a look at the recent electoral and political upheaval in the UK and US.

    Many millions of words have been written on Trump and Brexit, but what perhaps makes Nanjala’s analysis different is that it comes from a Kenyan perspective. She’s uniquely well-placed to achieve her stated aim, to “upend the flawed logic that technology trends only impact the West”.

    Nanjala argues that digital technologies can’t solve embedded issues such as the social divide, and that in fact technology may be amplifying societal ills such as hate speech and echo chambers. Her book Digital Democracy, Analogue Politics: How the Internet Era is Transforming Politics in Kenya was hailed as “one of the few studies of social media that goes beyond the digital sphere to provide in-depth social, political, and historic context”.

    Meanwhile, her articles have informed international debate across the Financial Times, the Guardian, the New Internationalist, the BBC World Service, Al Jazeera and many more.

    Now Nanjala will also be informing the delegates at TICTeC 2020 in Reykjavik in a keynote that is set to be inspiring and provocative. If you’d like to have your horizons expanded, and understand more about the effects technology is wreaking upon politics, come and hear it directly from one who has devoted her work to just that.

    Be a part of TICTeC 2020

    TICTeC tickets are available at early bird prices until 14 February, and at regular prices until 20 March.

    Want to be on the same speaker line-up as Nanjala? You still have time to apply to present or host a workshop related to the conference theme, as applications close on 17 January: more information here.

    We’ll be announcing more TICTeC 2020 speakers in the coming weeks, so stay tuned.

    Image credits: Nanjala Nyabola: Jan Michalko (CC BY-SA 2.0)

    Harpa conference centre: Michael Held

  10. WhatDoTheyKnow as fact-checker, part 2

    A lie, as the saying goes, can travel halfway around the world before the truth can get its boots on.

    That’s all the more so in the age of social media. Whether it starts as a misunderstanding, or a deliberate attempt to mislead, before you know it an untruth can be swept up to make a political point, used in arguments and believed by many — and never mind that there’s no factual basis to it.

    In 2016, we pointed out a meme spreading false allegations about immigrants, and that the response to an FOI request on WhatDoTheyKnow was providing a way for people to challenge the post with facts.

    Back then, the false rumour being spread was that immigrants were entitled to benefits payments far in excess of the reality. It came to our attention when we realised that the FOI request proving it wrong had become one of the most-visited pages on WhatDoTheyKnow that month.

    And now, almost exactly the same thing has happened again.

    One of the pages with the highest number of visitors in November was this request asking if people (specifically muslims) using their homes as places of worship are exempt from paying council tax.

    On further investigation as to what might have prompted the surge in traffic, we came across Full Fact’s refutation of the claim, which, as proof, links to the official government guidance.

    The FOI response says “Such an exemption does not exist”.

    A quick search reveals that this isn’t the first FOI request on this subject made on WhatDoTheyKnow. In fact, there are several, dating back to 2009, made by different users to a range of different councils.

    In 2010 Leeds City Council responded to a request that said, “I heard an alarming rumour that newly built houses in Dewsbury in the million pound price bracket were claiming a large reduction in their council tax because one room was deemed a place of worship”.

    The council said: “There is no provision within council tax legislation for discounts or exemptions from Council Tax for residential properties which have a place of worship”.

    And in 2009, Cornwall Council responded to a similar request, “There is not an exemption from Council Tax for houses classed as a place of worship”.

    We don’t know whether the people making these FOI requests were doing so as a way to challenge the meme’s false claims, or because they saw it and sensibly decided to reserve judgement until they knew the facts. Either way, it’s a great use of WhatDoTheyKnow and these responses will stand as a permanent reference point for anyone who wants to check the facts around this matter in the future.

    UPDATE: After tweeting this story, we had a response from Andrew White who gave some further background from his experience on the Parliament petitions service:

    In a terrifying example of how misinformation can be spread in the most unexpected of ways, as you can see in the Facebook video linked to in the tweet, a petition that led with the words Muslims who use their living area’s within their homes as a place of Worship, are exempt from paying Council Tax [sic] was identified by the Amazon virtual assistant Alexa as the most suitable information source for the question “Do Muslims have to pay council tax if they pray in their own homes?”.

    Presumably the fact that the petition was located on an official government website gave it, in Alexa’s view, the credibility needed to cite it as a source.

    Image: Climate Reality