Seen a pothole or a broken paving stone? Great, the council will want to know about that… well, usually.
Buckinghamshire County Council’s version of FixMyStreet now shows where there are pending roadworks — alerting you to the fact that you may not need to make a report, because it’s already in hand.
When reports are a waste of time
In general, councils appreciate your FixMyStreet reports: their inspectors can’t be everywhere, and often they won’t be aware of a problem until it’s reported.
But there are some reports that won’t be quite so welcome.
If the council is already aware of an issue, and in fact has already scheduled a repair, then sad to say but your report will be nothing more than a time-waster for both you and the council.
Fortunately, there’s already a comprehensive service which collates and displays information on roadworks, road closures and diversions, traffic incidents and other disruptions affecting the UK road network, from a variety of sources — it’s called Roadworks.org.
Just like FixMyStreet, Roadworks.org generates map-based data, so it correlates well with FixMyStreet.
But we don’t want to clutter things up too much, so you’ll only be alerted to pending roadworks when you go to make a report near where maintenance is already scheduled.
At that point, you’ll see a message above the input form to tell you that your report may not be necessary:
Of course, you can still go ahead and make your report if the roadworks have no bearing on it.
We were able to integrate the Roadworks.org information like this because Buckinghamshire have opted for the fully-featured ‘Avenue’ version of FixMyStreet Pro. This allows the inclusion of asset layers (we’ve talked before about plotting assets such as trees, streetlights or bins on FixMyStreet) and the Roadworks.org data works in exactly the same way: we can just slot it in.
We’re pleased with this integration: it’s going to save time for both residents and council staff in Buckinghamshire. And if you’re from another council and you would like to do the same, then please do feel free to drop us a line to talk about adopting FixMyStreet Pro.
Header image: Jamie Street
What can you do if you suspect your local council of financial misconduct?
One solution is to take a good hard look at their books; and thanks to the Local Audit and Accountability Act we all have the right to do just that for a set 30-day period each year.
The People’s Audit is a volunteer-run network of people who are keen to raise awareness of these little-known rights, in the belief that local government spending should be open and accountable to local people.
At the same time, they’re using the Act to good effect themselves, as they probe into spending anomalies in their own borough of Lambeth. They’ve found that the Freedom of Information Act has proved a useful complement to their auditing activity.
Investigating financial misconduct
We spoke to Ben Rymer from The People’s Audit to find out more. What exactly have they uncovered to date?
“Perhaps the most worrying finding was around the Fenwick Estate regeneration project in Clapham. The chosen supplier was almost £6 million more expensive than some others who tendered. This is a massive red flag as the likelihood of this sum being accounted for by quality of work alone is slim.”
There’s plenty more: Ben says they’ve made concerning findings around public housing, procurement and contract management and how major works are overseen, from possible price fixing between contractors to payments for work that was never done.
For example, the group say that a sampling of some of the housing blocks on the Wyvil Estate in Vauxhall indicates that the council paid its contractors for more than twice the number of repairs that were actually carried out.
They also claim to have found evidence of land in Kenningham and Streatham being sold to a private developer at a discount of at least £1m, without any competitive tender.
And another major finding was that costs for Lambeth’s new town hall — originally flagged as a money-saver for residents — have overrun by more than £50 million.
Two Acts working together
So, some substantial discoveries. Where does Freedom of Information come into the picture?
Ben says that the two Acts can be used together, to good effect. “The Local Audit Act requires access to be given to documents relating to costs incurred by the council in the preceding financial year. Once these have been obtained, FOI requests can then be targeted more precisely using the insights gained from such documents.”
But there is a slight snag: with the Local Audit Act offering access only within a specific period of 30 days each year, the FOI Act’s prescription that a response must arrive within ‘up to 20 working days’ does not allow for much wiggle room, especially if the FOI response generates more questions that might be answered through scrutiny of the accounts.
Ben says that unfortunately, responses to both Acts are often delayed, refused on the grounds that they would take too long (despite similar requests to other councils being processed without an issue) or just ignored. “An extreme example is our attempt to obtain the original budget for Lambeth’s new town hall, which we have now been trying to get hold of for 18 months!”.
But all of this notwithstanding, WhatDoTheyKnow has been a useful tool for the FOI side of the People’s Audit’s investigations: “It is an easy way to organise FOI requests, and the fact that it’s all in public means that other people can use the information in the responses — though we do also submit requests directly to the council.”
“One notable success was when one of the team received some emails via WhatDoTheyKnow following the audit inspection period in 2015 which showed that the council had agreed to install gyms in libraries months before any public consultation on the idea.”
So, the group have uncovered plenty of concerning information — but have they actually made a difference?
Ben says that they’ve achieved a good amount of local and national press attention. More importantly, they’ve seen an increased focus on financial issues among the people of Lambeth, especially in the run-up to the local elections in the spring. “Given that we are all volunteers with day jobs and families we think this is a pretty good result!”
And they believe that there’s been some effect within their local authority too, although not as wholehearted as they would have liked. “They have published their responses to citizen audit requests and are making more positive noises about the importance of transparency.
“However, they are also imposing arbitrary limits on the amount of information which citizens can request and have put in place ‘guidance’ around requests which we think may be intended to discourage further requests.”
If the Local Audit and Accountability Act is new to you, you may be wondering whether you should be using it yourself. The People’s Audit think you should consider it:
“Local Government financial scrutiny is really important and these powers need to be used to their fullest to prevent wasteful spending or corruption. Many people don’t realise that councils are often £1bn+ organisations, or that UK councils spend a total of over £92bn a year. Yet since the Audit Commission was abolished there is very little scrutiny of this spend.
“Many local newspapers have closed in recent years so citizen audits and hyperlocal publications have become more important.
“The powers are hugely underused currently. However what we’ve hopefully shown is that a group of committed individuals can use them to good effect.”
If you’d like to do the same, find out more on the People’s Audit website.
When you submit a Freedom of Information request, of course, you’re asking for a defined piece of information; a successful request is one where that information is provided.
Sometimes, though, a response will provide more than has been asked for.
We always appreciate it when a public servant goes above and beyond the call of duty, so when one of our volunteers happened across this response, it was passed around the team for everyone to enjoy. It’s helpful, factual, and fulsome, with far more background detail than was asked for.
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about this response, though, is that it’s from a body that is not actually obliged to respond to FOI requests at all.
Neighbourhood planning forums
Neighbourhood Planning Forums are defined on the Gov.uk website as bodies which “[give] communities direct power to develop a shared vision for their neighbourhood and shape the development and growth of their local area”.
They came into being in 2012 as a result of the Localism Act, and you can check whether there are any near you on this map.
Neighbourhood planning forums can help set the policies against which applications for planning permission are assessed, so they have a significant potential impact on local areas. It’s even possible for planning permission for a development to be granted proactively if this is proposed by a forum and approved in a referendum.
We’re not aware of any law which would make Neighbourhood Planning Forums subject to the Freedom of Information Act. But so far we’ve included eight of them on WhatDoTheyKnow.
Listing bodies not subject to FOI
Wait — so if they’re not obliged to respond to FOI requests, why are they included on WhatDoTheyKnow?
Well, we often add bodies with a substantial public role when we believe that people ought to be able to make transparent and visible requests for information to them.
For example, we listed Network Rail and the Association of Chief Police Officers on our site before they became subject to the Freedom of Information Act (though we’re disappointed that ACPO’s successor body the National Police Chiefs’ Council is not yet formally subject to FOI).
You can see more than 450 bodies which fall into this category (ie, they are not subject to FOI but we believe that they should be) on the site.
In the case of Neighbourhood Planning Forums, in addition to their clear, significant and public role, there are a couple more relevant factors:
First, the Environmental Information Regulations, which allow you to ask for information around environmental issues, cover a wider set of public bodies than FOI and we think it’s likely Neighbourhood Planning Forums are subject to those.
Additionally, many of them are parish or town councils which have been designated as the local planning forum. Parishes and town councils are certainly subject to FOI.
Adding more Neighbourhood Planning Forums
If you looked at the map we linked to earlier, you’ll have noticed that there are many more Neighbourhood Planning Forums than the eight we’ve listed on WhatDoTheyKnow — hundreds, in fact.
Unfortunately, an FOI request that one of our volunteers, Richard, made in 2016 to request details and email addresses of every Neighbourhood Planning Forum was turned down; otherwise we’d have used this information to add them all to the site.
If you’re keen to see these bodies made accessible for requests through WhatDoTheyKnow, there are a couple of ways you can help:
- We’re happy to add any more that are proposed to us — just fill in this form and give us any contact details as you can find. If you want to help us add more than a handful then get in touch and we’ll arrange a more effective way of working.
- If you can’t find any public contact details, you could try making an FOI request to your local planning authority — this is your local council responsible for planning, who are also the ones to designate neighbourhood planning forums in your area — to ask them for any forums’ contact details. If you obtain the contact details we will of course add them to WhatDoTheyKnow.
So proxy voting has been in the news again. For whatever reason, MP Brandon Lewis failed to honour an agreed pairing for Jo Swinson while she was on maternity leave. Those arguing in favour of a more formal system might say that this story — and the ensuing confusion — underlines the point perfectly.
You may remember that we submitted evidence to the Commons Procedure Committee inquiry on just this matter. Back in May, they published their report and recommendations for Parliament (you can see the summary here if you’re in a hurry).
While we broadly support measures that will formalise the currently informal system, our main interest is in digital data being available so that our own site TheyWorkForYou, as well as parliamentary sites run by other people, can disseminate the information clearly, aiding transparency and accessibility.
We were glad to see that this point has been acknowledged. Paragraph 59 of the report states:
Where a proxy vote is cast, it must to be recorded in a transparent way. When listing the result of divisions, both online and in its printed edition, the Official Report (Hansard) must note votes which were cast by proxy, by marking a symbol adjacent to the name of the absent Member and identifying the Member who cast the proxy vote. It should be the aim that this record should be treated as an integral part of the digital record of Commons divisions and should be shared as open data in a format compatible with Parliament’s Open Data output, both as part of the dataset for each division and as a standalone output.
So what next?
The recommendations were to have been debated in the House of Commons at the beginning of this month, but a lack of time prevented that from happening.
As it’s now the summer recess, the report will come back to the table in September. Presumably the recent display of how informal pairing can fail will stand as a rather good argument for these more official arrangements.
As for the mechanics of the matter, the implementation of proxy voting will require a number of changes to be made to Standing Orders (the rules by which each House’s proceedings are run), which the committee has suggested should be put to the House for decision at the same time as the report is debated.
If these are agreed to, they’ve recommended that the scheme should brought into force with immediate effect; there would then be a reassessment after they’ve run for twelve months to see if any further changes are required.
Image: Andrew Seaman
When you consider that FixMyStreet has been running for over a decade, it’s not really surprising that the maps in some areas are a little over-crowded with pins.
That can be a problem for anyone trying to make a new report — even when you zoom right in, we were beginning to find that in some very congested areas, it was difficult to place a new pin without clicking on an existing one.
We’ve tried to remedy this in various ways in the past. For a while we only displayed newer reports by default, a decision which we discarded when we brought in pagination, allowing users to click through batches of reports rather than seeing them all in one long list on a single page.
For some time now we’ve also provided the option to hide the pins completely, via this button both on the desktop and app versions:
And there’s also a ‘hide pins’ option at the foot of the map:
But even so, arriving at a map absolutely covered in pins and having to look around for that button doesn’t exactly seem like a nice, smooth user journey, so we’ve revisited the matter.
Why not just delete the old reports?
We’ve always had a policy of keeping every report live on FixMyStreet (unless it’s reported to us as abusive, or its maker contacts us to ask us to remove it — and even in this latter case we’d prefer to retain the content of the report while anonymising it).
This is because the reports made to councils build up to create an invaluable archive of the issues that various regions of the country face, through time.
The historic collection of reports allows planners to understand recurring or seasonal problems; and researchers use this data as well, to get insights into all sorts of issues. For examples, see Réka Solymosi’s presentation at TICTeC on using FixMyStreet data to understand what counts as ‘disorder’ in the environment, or mySociety’s own research on why some areas of the country report on FixMyStreet more than others.
And so here’s what we’ve done
- When you visit a map page on the main FixMyStreet site, by default, you’ll again only see reports that are less than six months old, and that are still open.
A report remains ‘open’ until the council marks it as ‘closed’, or a user or the council marks it as ‘fixed’. ‘Closed’ means that the council doesn’t intend to do further work on the issue, which can be for reasons such as the issue not falling within their responsibilities or because it is part of their regular maintenance schedule and will be seen to in time.
- You can still opt to see closed and fixed reports by selecting from the dropdown at the top of the list:
- And you can also still see reports older than six months by clicking the checkbox:
- The two filters work together, giving you the options of displaying:
- Open reports less than six months old (the default)
- Open reports of any age
- All reports less than six months old
- All reports of any age
- Any combination of open/closed/fixed reports less than six months old
- Any combination of open/closed/fixed reports of any age
To keep things simpler for app users, the display there is set to only show newer, open reports, so if you want the full range of options, you’ll need to switch to viewing the site on a desktop.
Additionally, reports that have been closed for six months without any update being made will now no longer allow updates. If you need to update an issue that falls into this category, we recommend starting a new report (possibly linking to the old one for reference if it provides useful information for the council).
But you might not see this everywhere
Some councils use FixMyStreet Pro as their own fault-reporting software. These councils can opt whether or not to adopt these defaults, so your experience may be slightly different when visiting FixMyStreet via your local council’s own site.
We think that we’ve arrived at a more intuitive solution than those we tried before — and we hope that these options will suit everyone, whether you’re a user in a hurry coming to make a quick report, or someone who’d like to see a more in-depth history of the area. Give it a go, and then let us know your thoughts.
Back in March, we flagged up the ‘batch request’ feature we’d been working on for the WhatDoTheyKnow Pro service. Batch requests are now switched on for every WhatDoTheyKnow Pro subscriber, by default.
Batch enables users to send the same Freedom of Information request to several bodies at once, and we spent a substantial amount of time building and testing it because we wanted to be confident that the feature wouldn’t be abused — or if it was, that we could catch irregular behaviour.
Part of that testing has involved making the feature available to a limited number of WhatDoTheyKnow Pro subscribers, and loosely monitoring how it was used. We’re glad to say that during this four-month period, the activity was all acceptable.
However, we also realised that we should tighten up our terms and conditions to reflect our expectations around usage of Batch, and add some advice to our Help pages about making responsible and effective requests, both of which we’ve now done. We’ve also added some automatic notifications that will alert the team when multiple batch requests are made, so that we can check that everything is in order.
If you think Batch might be useful in your own work or campaigning, and you’d like to find out more about WhatDoTheyKnow Pro, you can do that here.
Image: Ankush Minda
Back in February, we postponed celebrations for the tenth anniversary of our Freedom of Information site WhatDoTheyKnow, because of extreme weather conditions. Gales and snow had shut down public transport; guests from further afield were unsure they’d make it to our London venue.
Little did we know that our rescheduled event would face its own exceptional circumstances. Not only did we find ourselves at the other end of the thermometer, with the hottest temperatures of the year thus far, but we were also competing with England playing a World Cup match.
All this being so, we were glad to see so many people turn out to help us celebrate — though it was pointed out that the Venn diagram between FOI enthusiasts and football fans might have a fairly small overlap. We’ll get our Research department on to that, at some point.
We’d decked the room with some rather unique — but meaningful — decorations: a selection of information uncovered by WhatDoTheyKnow’s users over the past decade (see photo, above), and screenshots of the many FOI sites running on our Alaveteli software around the world.
Talking of Alaveteli sites, we were delighted to welcome among our guests Andreas Pavlou who previously worked with AccessInfo, the organisation who run Europe FOI site AskTheEU, and Claude Archer from Anticor, who run Belgium’s Transparencia.be.
Claude actually drove, without incident, all the way from Brussels — only to scrape against the kerb right outside Newspeak House and get a flat tyre. But mySociety is not just a collection of weedy developers, you know. Well, ok, fair enough, until recently we were just that — but since Georgie joined our ranks a few weeks ago, it turns out that we now have a highly practical colleague who can change a wheel. And that’s just what she did.
That drama aside, the party went smoothly.
There were cakes, of course.
Then some mingling. It was great to meet many WhatDoTheyKnow users, and especially those who employ the site for their campaigns.
And on to the presentations. WhatDoTheyKnow’s Richard Taylor spoke about what it is like to be a volunteer on the site, and the kind of tasks they deal with in keeping the service available for everyone, not to mention free from litigation. You can read his talk here.
We interviewed Francis Irving, who was one of two people to suggest that mySociety build an FOI site when we had an open call for ideas — and who then went on to help build it. Much as we enjoy mySociety’s current status as an established organisation, Francis’ descriptions of our early days and ‘punk’ attitude were rather beguiling.
Finally, investigative journalist Jenna Corderoy shared her experiences of being one of the first people to try WhatDoTheyKnow Pro, our toolkit for FOI professionals and activists. In a stroke of incredible timing, she mentioned a story which she’d been working on, saying that she knew it would break soon, but it might be weeks or even a year before it did.
We woke up the next morning to hear that this very story was the BBC’s main headline for the day. Watch this space, because we’ll be asking Jenna to fill us in with some more background, and we’ll be sure to share it all here on the blog.
Oh, and in case you’re wondering… we did eventually switch the big screen over to the football, and all those Civic Tech geeks did actually get caught up in watching the penalty shoot-out decider.
I guess the Venn diagram stretched a little bit that night.
Thank you so much to everyone who came along: we hope you had as much fun as we did.
Throughout National Democracy Week, we’ve been focusing on women in politics: how they’re represented; how they’re affected; and how data can help us understand more about these two topics.
To wrap things up, we want to highlight some of the organisations helping women in tech, and especially in our own field of Civic Tech.
Coding, researching, designing and promoting web tools that help people to understand and engage with democracy is mySociety’s own way of participating in politics. We’d like to encourage more women to join us in this very rewarding field.
Working in Civic Tech
Civic Tech is a fairly new field, and a broad one. And while the coding side is often — rightly — highlighted as an area where there’s a minority of women, it’s also worth mentioning that there are all kinds of other career routes available (to everyone!).
We can see some of these in mySociety: in fact, browsing our Team page is one good way of seeing the diverse roles within which we’re all chipping away at the organisation’s goals.
These include research, design, events, communications, sysadmin, data analysis, sales and delivery — and of course in the wider field there are people working in hands-on activism and philanthropy.
Organisations supporting women in Civic Tech
mySociety’s gender balance fluctuates, as you’d expect, when people leave or join; but women currently make up about a third of the workforce. We’d always love to employ more women, and when we recruit it’s something we actively think about; in fact we wrote a whole longform blog post about it a while back.
But in order for that to happen, women need to know about the routes open to them, and the benefits of working in Civic Tech. For starters, here’s a selection of the organisations actively working to get more women into this field and to support them once they’re here.
- Open Heroines brings together the voices of women working in open government, open data and Civic Tech.
- Code First: Girls (UK) works with companies and with men and women directly, to help increase the number of women in tech.
- 23 Code Street (London) offers coding courses to women; for every paying student, they also teach digital skills to a woman in the slums of India.
- Women Hack For Non-Profits (London) a community of women building open source projects for non-profit organisations and charities. Learn to code and work on real life projects.
- Codebar.io (UK and worldwide) teaches coding in a supportive, collaborative environment for women, LGBTQ, and underrepresented ethnic groups.
- blackgirl.tech (UK) ‘code and chill’ workshops for black women and non binary people.
- Rails Girls (worldwide) Ruby on Rails workshops for women.
- Lesbians Who Tech (US and worldwide) a community of queer women in or around tech (and the people who love them).
- Geek Girl Meetup UK (London and worldwide) a network, for and by, women and girls interested in all things tech, design, and startup.
- Mums in Tech (UK) coding school for mums, with baby friendly courses, events and classes.
- DevelopHer (UK) non-profit community dedicated to elevating women in tech.
- Pyladies (worldwide) mentorship group for women in the python community.
- TLA Women in Tech (London) movement for gender equality in the global tech industry.
- Ada’s List (email-based community) a group for women who are committed to changing the tech industry.
- AuthorAID (worldwide) Supporting women researchers with practical advice and also provides grants to support researchers in attending a conference on the topic of gender or hosting a gender workshop in their country.
- Uscreates (UK) supporting gender equality in design leadership.
- Women who design (Twitter-based) a directory of women in the design industry.
- Double or nothing (UK) campaign for gender equality in design.
- Hidden women of design (Facebook page) a series of curated talks by Female Graphic Designers sharing insight into their creative practice.
- Women in data (UK) Annual conference for data professionals.
Words from mySociety’s staff
Louise, Head of Development: I enjoy working for an organisation that has a positive effect on the state of the world and helps a wide range of people participate in civic life. As far as tech goes, I think programming is an amazing career choice for women for a lot of reasons — but three really obvious ones are money (tech jobs tend to pay above the average), power (you can build things that change the world) and flexibility (tech jobs tend to be inherently flexible and, as mySociety demonstrates, you can work from home).
Bec, Head of Research: What I enjoy about working in Civic Tech is discovering how relatively small tools can change behaviours and change institutions. Hopefully for the better!
Abi, HR: My Top Tips for Job Applicants now include reading this great piece, Confidence and the Gender Gap: 14 tips for Women in Tech. Think you’re slightly under-qualified? APPLY ANYWAY. We have seen worse, believe me.
Myf, Communications Manager: I’ve found Civic Tech to be a really welcoming field that judges you on the quality of your work, not your gender or any other factor that’s irrelevant to the task in hand.
When was the phrase ‘women’s lib’ first uttered in parliament? Has Spare Rib ever been referred to? And will ‘broflake’, the Bechdel test, or meninists ever get a mention?
All this week, we’ve been looking at women’s participation in Parliament as part of National Democracy Week. Today, we’re going see how the historic content on TheyWorkForYou can be used to take a snapshot of when certain words and phrases became common currency.
TheyWorkForYou allows you to search for any word or phrase, and then sort the results so that the oldest results are at the top, providing a very simple way of seeing when a word was first mentioned in the House of Commons (back as far as 1918, anyway).
Now, a word might have been in widespread usage for many years before being mentioned in Parliament, especially if we are looking at slang: even in today’s less formal times, it’s fair to say that MPs tend to adopt a more ‘correct’ manner of speaking in debates than we might be used to in everyday conversation.
And conversely, when MPs are debating very technical subjects, they may use vocabulary that is above the reach of the common person. But those two caveats aside, we think that a mention in Parliament is a good sign that a word or phrase has entered the public consciousness.
And so, from ‘sex discrimination’ to ‘mansplaining’, here’s a look at words and phrases to do with women and feminism. Like them or not, this is when they crept into Parliament.
If you would like to receive an email every time a word or phrase is mentioned in Parliament in future debates, take a look at this blog post on how to set up alerts.
Image: John Saunders (public domain)
We might take our freedoms and rights for granted these days, but we should try to remember that many of them were hard-won.
In this, the centenary of women first gaining the vote, we’ve had ample reminders of the struggles the suffragettes went through in order to make that possible. But, through recent history, there are several other changes in the law which have impacted on the way women live, their chances of prosperity, their ability to make life choices, and to progress in their chosen careers.
From the Married Women’s Property Act to last year’s legislation requiring businesses to publish data on their gender pay gaps, we’ve put together a short timeline to show those milestones, linking back to our Parliamentary site TheyWorkForYou for those who’d like to explore in more detail. It’s all part of our activity for National Democracy Week.
So, take a quick look at the votes that changed women’s lives, and then take your pick: marvel at how far we’ve come…. or wonder how far we still have to go.