1. Stop right there! That’s already been reported

    It’s obviously good citizen behaviour to report something that needs fixing to your council, whether it’s a pothole that could cause an accident, or a broken streetlight that has plunged the area into darkness.

    But there’s one type of report that isn’t very useful to councils, and in fact brings unnecessary costs and inconvenience: when you tell the council about an issue that’s already been flagged up by someone else.

    FixMyStreet has always been helpful in this regard. It was groundbreaking in displaying all reports in public, unlike most council systems when we were first developing it. A user who goes to make a report can see right away if there’s already a pin in that spot, and check whether the existing issue is the same one they were going to add.

    Now we’ve taken that concept a step further in some work which we’re trialling on Bath & NE Somerset’s implementation of FixMyStreet Pro.

    When a user starts to make a report, the system checks to see if there are any other open reports in the same category within a small radius. If it finds any, you’ll see a prompt, like this:

    Duplicate report alert on FixMyStreet

    All similar reports will appear here. If you think one might be identical, but aren’t sure, you can click ‘read more’ to see the full text along with any photos attached to the report:

    Duplicate report full text on FixMyStreet

    And if you recognise it as the issue you were about to report, you click the green button and will be given the option to subscribe to it, so you know when it’s being seen to, effectively being kept just as up to date as you would be if you’d made the original report:

    Duplicate report - subscribe on FixMyStreet

     

    If it’s not the same issue, no worries: just click ‘report a new problem’ and you can do just that:

    Bath & NE Somerset will run this feature as a trial over the next month; then once they’ve got feedback from their users, we’ll hopefully offer it to every other council on the Avenue tier of FixMyStreet Pro.

    If you come across this feature while making a report in Bath or environs, do let us know how it works for you.

    Image: Kevin Grieve

  2. History repeats itself, but this time in Belgium

    Over in Brussels, Freedom of Information website Transparencia.be has just overcome a hurdle very similar to one faced by WhatDoTheyKnow in its earlier days.

    Several municipalities had delayed on processing FOI requests sent through Transparencia.be — which runs on our Alaveteli software — concerned that a request sent via email does not contain a signature or proof of identity.

    Now Belgium’s overseeing body CADA (the Commission of Access to Administrative Documents) has ruled, just as the ICO did in the UK, that requests sent through the site should be treated the same as those received via more conventional means.

    You can read about the matter on the website of the public broadcasting organisation RTBF in French, or via Google Translate in English.

    The struggle echoes almost exactly the experiences we faced with WhatDoTheyKnow when it was first launched: as you can see in this FAQ, official MoJ guidance now explicitly states that an email address should be considered of equal status to a physical return address; and ICO advice is that a WhatDoTheyKnow.com email address is a valid contact address for the purposes of FOI.

    A sharing community

    Here at mySociety, we share our open source software so that other people can run services like ours — Freedom of Information sites, parliamentary monitoring projects or fault-reporting platforms — for their own countries.

    But it’s not only about the software. Something that has become clear over the years, and especially when we get together for an event such as AlaveteliCon, is that we all face similar challenges. No matter how different our countries’ legislations, cultures or politics, you can be sure that our setbacks and triumphs will be familiar to others.

    Because of that, we’re able to share something that’s just as useful as the software itself: the support of the community. In this case, that’s easily accessed via the Alaveteli mailing list, which we’d encourage you to join if you run, or are thinking of running, an FOI site.

    Image: Jay Lee


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  3. Northamptonshire’s road to FixMyStreet

    Northamptonshire is the latest council to adopt FixMyStreet Pro as their official street reporting system. If you come across something amiss on the streets of Corby, Kettering, Daventry or anywhere else in the county, you can file a report on the council website — or do it on the nationwide site FixMyStreet.com and it’ll be routed to the council too.

    FixMyStreet for NorthamptonshireIt’s been something of a full circle for Northants: in recent years, the authority had returned any reports sent through FixMyStreet, asking residents to submit via their own interface instead. The aim was to avoid ‘rekeying’ the details from emails into their inhouse system, a time-intensive task for staff — so we’re especially glad to be able to integrate FixMyStreet and drop reports directly into their backend.

    So, what brought about this change of direction? Timing, and our reputation, it would seem.

    Northants had been using their own frontend system named Street Doctor, coupled with the Exor asset management system behind the scenes — but when the contract with Exor was up for renewal, they decided it was time for a change, giving them a hard deadline by which a solution needed to be put in place.

    The council chose Yotta Alloy as their new asset management system, but that decision in turn meant that the council’s contractors, Kier, had to find a new frontend, since Yotta’s newer technology couldn’t align with Street Doctor’s older systems. Northants considered building their own interface, but we’re glad to say that Kier recommended purchasing FixMyStreet rather than reinventing the wheel. While the opportunity and budget were both there for the council to create something bespoke, it was recognised that by purchasing FixMyStreet off the shelf, they pass any risk on to us — and we’re happy to shoulder it.

    It’s great to have the confidence of a contractor like Kier, as it shows that FixMyStreet Pro is appreciated and trusted right across the sector. Kier themselves won’t need to integrate with FixMyStreet, however: Yotta Alloy will act as the middleman, from which Kier will pick up reports. The information provided by the user will ensure they go to the right team.

    As Kier inspectors and maintenance workers update the status of reports on their system, updates will flow into Yotta Alloy. That information will then automatically be pushed back to FixMyStreet and to the original report maker. And should a council inspector create a new report in Yotta, this too will be displayed on FixMyStreet, helping to prevent the duplicate reporting of issues that are already in hand.

    Meanwhile, the council’s own customer service staff will be inputting any reports they receive by phone, email or in person, directly to FixMyStreet Pro. Whatever the channel used, reports will flow seamlessly into the right places.

    So Northants have ended up with a neat solution, involving three different suppliers all working in harmony. The net result, we believe, will be a quicker, more integrated and more effective service for the citizens of Northants.

    Images: Malc McDonald (CC-by-sa/2.0)

  4. Civic Tech Compass: navigating new opportunities for collective action

    Our recent TICTeC event in Paris was hosted by the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development, OECD.

    Reflecting on Civic Tech and the role of the OECD, their Director of Public Affairs and Communications Anthony Gooch contributes this post.


    Acronyms tend to hold a certain degree of mystery, and yet we use them all the time in policy making. On 19 March, I welcomed a new acronym to the OECD: TICTeC, aka “The Impacts of Civic Technology Conference”. It was my first TICTeC, but the fifth annual edition, bringing together more than 200 participants from civil society, academia, business and government from around the world – all of them working hard to find solutions that marry technological capacity with civic engagement and participatory practices.

    Our intention in hosting TICTeC was two-fold: to demystify each other’s acronyms and to draw on both of our convening powers to explore new opportunities for collective action.

    As an international organisation, the OECD is a partner for civil society and the people behind movements and organisations. We know that policy is not made in a vacuum and its impacts are not limited to one part of society alone. To ensure that we deliver on our mission of “Better Policies for Better Lives”, we must help governments to respond to the needs of their citizens. This also involves evolving our thinking about the route to collective intelligence and where technology plays a role. Our vocation goes beyond the provision of cold, dry facts – we are in the business of improving people’s lives.

    In the past decade, Civic Tech has shifted from a fringe movement of hackers and coders to a more mainstream term – importantly, used by policy makers and shapers. Three years ago, the OECD didn’t really use the term “Civic Tech”. Organisations such as ours are not known for our speed and reactivity, but it is now part of our vocabulary.

    In 2016 I read an article by Catherine Vincent in Le Monde: Civic Tech: Is it going to save politics?. It said: “By connecting a wide number of citizens, Civic Tech allows them to access information, creates a space for dialogue and sharing opinions, essentially harnessing collective intelligence ensuring better citizen participation in democracy”. Could these elements help the OECD to maintain its relevance and credibility in a rapidly changing societal context?

    We’ve seen the values of Civic Tech – transparency, accountability, participation, citizen engagement – as a compass for helping us navigate and improve our engagement with people. It has also taught us lessons about how to achieve greater impact. Even more importantly, it exposed us to a community of people behind the technological solutions, who are challenging their own assumptions and working on concrete projects.

    What have we learned from them?

    • The real potential of these technologies has yet to be realised;
    • Offline engagement strategies – meeting people where they are – are equally, if not more important for the adoption and the quality of impact of Civic Tech;
    • Open source – decentralised, collaborative peer production of software – is vital for shared tools, but the digital divide isn’t simply erased by Civic Tech;
    • We need to be constantly evaluating our assumptions.

    We’ve continued to witness manifestations of Civic Tech in government practice over the years. Our colleagues at the OECD have examined the role of GovTech, participatory budgeting, open government data and local level efforts in our reports and we’re sharing this experience further and further. The TICTeC community provides a different and complementary vantage point and a host of potential avenues for collaboration.

    At TICTeC 2019, we shared a number OECD of initiatives that focused on:

    OECD was not just there to present, but to harness the collective intelligence of the Civic Tech community. What struck me during TICTeC was the focus on seeking to measure the real impact of Civic Tech and understanding its limitations. We tend to attach much hope to technologies that strive to help us navigate misinformation, political processes and systems, and public services. After more than decade, Civic Tech as a field is maturing and facing the challenges of greater public expectations and its own sustainability.

    The OECD is committed to serving people from all parts of the globe, and we strive to bring the wealth of experience, views and ideas to bear on policy making. This is something that crystalises at our annual OECD Forum, including more voices to help us address the world’s pressing challenges in an open, dynamic and creative space. Since 2017 and continuing with the 20th edition on 20-21 May “World in EMotion”, it is an opportunity to get Civic Tech organisations and actors into the OECD bloodstream – channeling and transmitting this interest and enthusiasm to our colleagues and stakeholders.

    For the third year, we will be hosting the Civic Innovation Hub, showcasing Civic Tech and social innovations that strive for better outcomes. Presenters will discuss how their projects are having an impact on what matters in people’s daily lives – from education to environment, community to jobs – and touching on opportunities and challenges for making positive change. We will also shed light on the tensions happening in on- and off-line spaces in terms of inclusiveness, accountability and efficiency.

    Whether we use technology because we want to revitalise the relationship citizens have with their cities, their communities or their representatives and governments, we understand it is the vehicle, but not the destination. We must continue to share our visions, our successes and our failures, and seek opportunities to collaborate. We are excited to continue working together to achieve greater impact.

    Anthony Gooch, OECD

  5. Heatmaps are cool

    Heatmaps show data in a format that’s quick and easy to understand — so when Bromley Council asked us if we could add them to their FixMyStreet Pro data dashboard, we agreed it was a great idea.

    mySociety developers got to work and put together a prototype which worked so well that we’re planning to roll it out to any other client councils who want it.

    Now, when Bromley staff log in, they can either see the normal map view of their borough, or they can switch tabs to see a heatmap overlay.

    Toggle between reports and heatmap on FixMyStreet Pro

    By default, the heatmap shows every report from the last month, so the initial view will look something like this:

    Bromley FixMyStreet issues plotted on a heatmap

    But the heatmap also responds to the dropdown filters at the top of the page, so you can adjust it to see any combination of dates, categories and status. For example, you might want to see reports about graffiti, made since the beginning of the year, which have been fixed. That would look like this:

    Heatmap showing fixed graffiti reports in bromley on FixMyStreet Pro

    As you’d expect, the hotter the colour, the higher the density of reports, with the cooler blue showing where they are least concentrated. Staff can even see interesting things like everywhere a request has been made for a new tree to be planted:

    tree planting request in Bromley on FixMyStreet Pro

    Heatmaps are just the latest in a series of features we’ve been working on: you can keep up with them all on the FixMyStreet Pro blog.

    If you’re from a council and you’d like to benefit from these many new developments, you can find out more here.

     

  6. Highlights from TICTeC

    Every year, our Impacts of Civic Technology conference TICTeC increases, in both size and ambition.

    The event in Paris last week — the fifth annual TICTeC — was a total sell-out despite having a larger capacity than in previous years. At times the schedule featured an unprecedented four simultaneous tracks, giving delegates more to choose from but also perhaps, making those decisions a little more difficult.

    And while we’ve naturally always striven to be as diverse and inclusive as possible, it was also the first TICTeC where female speakers outnumbered male ones. There were 76 speakers from 14 different countries. Of these, 39 were women. Delegates came from 29 nations around the world (frustratingly, as always, some of our speakers had their visas turned down, which is not only disappointing in terms of the event’s overall diversity, but also means we don’t get to hear the view from those particular corners of the world).

    Thanks are due

    Thanks to our hosts the OECD, we were able to enjoy state of the art conference rooms, and spaces within a château that came complete with their own chandeliers. Within these gilded walls we heard from a diverse range of speakers, engaged in debates and found commonalities across our work in Civic Tech.

    It’s always so gratifying to hear directly from the practitioners, academics and funders who can share their real-world experiences: thank you so much to everyone who spoke or ran a session.

    And of course, massive thanks to our sponsors, Google and Luminate, who made the whole event possible.

    Thank you also to the MacArthur Foundation for providing travel grants to some attendees.

    Relive the highlights

    Doubtless everyone will have come away with their own set of memorable moments, but for now you can watch the three sessions that we live- streamed, which are still available to view on YouTube:

    Keynote Alessandra Orofino opened the conference with a truly inspiring presentation about tackling ‘platform politicians’ of the far right, something she’s had plenty of practice with through Nossas, the organisation she founded in Latin America. Sounding a very welcome note of optimism, Alessandra assured us that “the next generation will save democracy if we let them”. You can watch the whole session on YouTube and we highly recommend that you do: we knew it had been a hit when even the cameraman was moved.

    In the French Context session, we were given a great overview of France’s very timely hopes for Civic Tech, including participatory budgeting and citizen decision-making. Deputy Mayor of Paris Pauline Véron, Paula Forteza MP and Tatiana de Feraudy from Decider ensemble spoke very convincingly about how the time is ripe for more collaborative, open democracy: as Paula noted, when she first invited us to bring TICTeC to Paris, none of us had any idea that it would be such a timely event — but with the rise of the gilets jaunes and the Grand Débat National put in place by Macron as a way for everyone to have their say in decisions around four major areas including Democracy and Citizenship, it could hardly have been more relevant. See the whole conversation here.

    Our day two keynote was James Anderson from Bloomberg Philanthropies, who ran through several examples of local governments grasping the reins and making innovative, imaginative decisions against a ‘crisis of legitimacy that is unprecedented within our generation’. He also reminded us of the ‘huge power in calling out a status quo that isn’t giving us the results we want’; there was lots lots more to interest anyone who’s wondering how we can solve the democratic issues of our time; catch it all by watching the livestream of the session here.

    The Civic team at Facebook have been guests at every TICTeC since the 2016 event in Barcelona: they’re always keen to report on the ways in which they are using the platform’s enormous reach in order to increase democratic engagement; and because it helps complete a rounded picture of the Civic Tech world, we welcome the opportunity to hear from a tech giant. This year, Director of Product Management Samidh Chakrabarti, Data Scientist Monica Lee and Product Manager Antonia Woodford detailed the tools, systems and increased staffing they put in place to counteract abuse and disinformation during the US midterm elections. At Facebook’s request, this session was not videoed, but it was much tweeted.

    Also unforgettable was the reception we were given at the French National Assembly: thanks very much to Paula Forteza and her team for hosting us there and giving us this special opportunity to see inside France’s ‘lower house’, where Mounir Mahjoubi, Secretary of State for Digital Affairs, gave TICTeC attendees a fulsome welcome and outlined their vision for Civic Tech in the tricky political climate that France is currently facing. He echoed Paula’s words from her earlier presentation at TICTeC, saying that while previously they were delighted if a few thousand citizens took part in their consultations, they are now overwhelmed by the take-up of millions who want to have their voices heard. Digital democracy is certainly having its moment.

    Stay tuned

    We’ll be adding videos of several more sessions as soon as they’ve been edited, as well as photos and slides from as many presentations as possible. There are several ways to make sure you’re informed when they’re ready to view: watch our Twitter stream, sign up to our newsletter, or just check the TICTeC website for the latest updates. If it’s just the videos that you’re interested in, you can also subscribe to our YouTube channel.

  7. A demain: see you in Paris

    TICTeC logoAs we speak, several excitable members of the mySociety team are on their way to TICTeC 2019 via the channel tunnel. We’re so looking forward to catching up with the Civic Tech community and hearing all about the research you’ve conducted since last year.

    Whether it’s your first time at TICTeC or you’re returning, we know there will be much to enjoy. We’re especially eager to hear the view from France’s Civic Tech movement. Speakers will include our hosts at OECD; MP Paula Forteza; Secretary of State for the Digital Sector Mounir Majoubi; and Pauline Véron, Deputy Mayor of Paris.

    We’ve shouted a lot about our two keynotes, Alessandra Orofino of Nossas and James Anderson of Bloomberg Philanthropies: if you need a refresher on their inspirational backgrounds, follow those links to read the relevant posts. But there is plenty more to engage you, too.

    This year we’ve noted strong themes coming through in the selected sessions, including the potential for Civic Tech to tackle political polarisation, fake news and civil unrest; women in Civic Tech; and the impacts/practicalities of participatory budgeting, among many, many other strands. You can see the full rundown via our Twitter feed, which we’ve been using to trail every session over the last couple of weeks.

    If you’re now kicking yourself because you can’t make it, do watch out for our live streaming of key presentations. You’ll be able to see these on YouTube. If you’re a YouTube user, you can visit the links listed below now, and click the ‘set reminder’ grey button so that you’ll receive a nudge to watch:

    Or if you’re more habitually on Facebook, we’ve also listed ‘events’: follow these to make sure you receive a reminder before we go live (they’ll remind you to go to the YouTube link, where the actual streaming will be taking place):

    No need to fret if you can’t make the livestreams, either. As always, we’ll also be posting permanent videos of all the main presentations, along with slides and photos as soon as we can after the event.

    And for now, on y va!

     

    Image: Benh Lieu Song (CC by-sa/4.0)

  8. FixMyStreet Pro and Bromley: driving efficiency through technology

    Seven years ago, Bromley Borough Council was one of the first authorities to implement FixMyStreet Pro and we’ve enjoyed a mutually beneficial relationship ever since. It’s been a true partnership as Bromley work closely with us, letting us know their needs and how best we can innovate to meet them. The resulting development then passes on to all our client councils.

    The value FixMyStreet Pro brings to Bromley was recognised last night when the implementation was shortlisted for an award at the 2019 LGC Awards, in the category “Driving efficiency through technology”.

    In the end, we just lost out to the worthy winner Orkney Islands Council — but If you’d like to know more about the features and development that got the project shortlisted, take a look at our case study here.

    FixMyStreet and bromley council at the LGC awards
  9. WhatDoTheyKnow Pro helps TBIJ get the whole picture on council sales

    In a major new inquiry, The Bureau of Investigative Journalism made Freedom of Information requests across all 353 UK councils.

    Their aim? To build up a full picture of the public places and spaces sold by councils across the country, as they struggle to make up funding shortfalls.

    The Bureau used WhatDoTheyKnow Pro‘s batch functionality to help them in this mass investigation, which has resulted in an important report for Huffington Post as well as an interactive public database where you can search to see what your own local council has sold.

    In total, councils’ responses have confirmed the sale of over 12,000 assets since 2014. The report goes on to prove that in many cases, the proceeds have been used to fund staff redundancies as authorities are forced to cut back.

    Investigations like this serve to highlight one of the key benefits of WhatDoTheyKnow Pro’s batch feature. While some of the data may have previously been available piecemeal – published in regional papers, perhaps, or requested at a local level — this is the first time that the full picture across the country has been made visible.

    One of the journalists responsible for the report, Gareth Davies, says:

    I’ve been working on these FOIs since July last year and I’ve no doubt the dataset I built would be nowhere near as comprehensive without the @WhatDoTheyKnow Pro dashboard. Also means I know exactly which councils have still yet to respond, 180+ days later.

    We are glad that the service was of help.

    If you’d like to check out WhatDoTheyKnow Pro, sign up here.

    Image: © Mat Fascione via geograph.org.uk/p/4278237 (cc-by-sa/2.0)

  10. Progress on Keep It In The Community

    Now KIITC is a one-stop database of community assets

    We’ve kept you informed every step of the way as we develop Keep It In The Community (KIITC) into a database of the places and spaces across England that are of value to local people and communities — see our previous blog posts here.

    Thanks to additional development and some welcome data input, we’ve reached a new phase in its evolution. Back in September we explained how the site contains a snapshot of registered Assets of Community Value (ACVs).

    KIITC now also includes the records of places valued by locals, collected by Sheffield Hallam University.

    Furthermore, and perhaps most excitingly, it invites local groups to add their own entries, of assets which are of benefit to the local community but are at risk of going into private hands.

    So now, Keep It In The Community’s data comes from from a number of sources:

    • The snapshot of data obtained from every council in England in September 2018, comprising around 5,000 registered ACVs.
      Each of these listings contains as much data as we were able to retrieve from the relevant council at that time, including details such as nomination and expiry dates. Note that any information after September 2018 (eg if an application has progressed) won’t be recorded unless it has subsequently been added by a council or user.
    • Sheffield Hallam University, who invited community groups to register their  community-owned or managed assets, shared that data with us — adding a further 150 or so entries to the site. These can be identified by the ‘valued by locals’ label. Again, there is scope for users to add more detail to each.
    • Councils can maintain existing records and add new ones if they wish to.
    • If you are part of a community group or have a connection to a building that is, or should be, an ACV or community owned, you can add it — or add further details to existing records.

    While we’re not in a position to maintain the data on registered ACVs as time progresses, Keep It In The Community does give a picture of the thousands of spaces and places perceived to be of value to their communities up and down the country — and invites councils and community groups to help keep it up to date.

    Keeping these listings accurate — and making them special

    Anyone can add a new asset or edit the information about an existing one if they have a connection with or knowledge about it. The first step is to either find the asset you wish to edit and click “Edit”, or click on the map and fill in the form to create a new asset.

    For any listing, users can upload photos, provide the name of the community group that is backing its status, add more detail about the building’s history, etc.

    Users’ collected memories and descriptions will stand as a public statement on why the asset has value, and could also be used as supporting documentation if they are planning to go through the process of getting a place registered as an ACV.

    All changes are recorded publicly on the site so it’s possible to keep track of who made which changes and when – always useful if any mistakes creep in.

    Stylish pages

    Along with these additions to the data, we’ve given the site a really nice new look.

    Keep It In the Community is built on the FixMyStreet software, and this project is a great demonstration of just how flexible the underlying codebase is: as you’ll see, it doesn’t just have a new colour scheme (as many of the FixMyStreet variants do), but the entire layout of each page is different too, lending them a style more reminiscent of sites like AirBnB — very suitable for a project that’s all about properties!

    Work will continue on KIITC, and we’ll be sure to keep you informed as it progresses.

    Image: Adrien Olichon