1. Celebrating National Democracy Week

    Excuse us while we just finish hanging this bunting…

    Yes, wave the flags and toot those vuvuzelas: it’s National Democracy Week, a new initiative to celebrate the democratic process and encourage democratic participation.

    And thanks to some extra-curricular work by one of the mySociety team, we’re now able to celebrate it in a quite exceptional way. Longstanding  developer Matthew has used his own free time to import historic House of Commons debates from 1919-1935 into our parliamentary site TheyWorkForYou. With this work, he’s extended the site’s value as an easy-access archive of parliamentary activity even further.

    You can check it out now by visiting TheyWorkForYou, searching for any word or phrase, and then sorting the search results by ‘oldest’. Or, pick any MP active during 1919-1935 and search for them to see every speech they made in Parliament.

    Please let us know if you find anything of interest! For developers who use TheyWorkForYou data to power their own sites and apps, the extended content will also be available via TheyWorkForYou’s API.

    “No one sex can govern alone” – Nancy Astor

    This is the first National Democracy Week, and it has taken, as its theme, the anniversary of women’s suffrage: as you’re sure to have heard by now, 2018 is the centenary of (some) women getting the vote* in the UK.

    We wanted to celebrate by highlighting some of the big milestones of women’s participation in Parliament, but there was just one problem.  TheyWorkForYou only contained House of Commons debates as far back as the 1930s — while, for example, the maiden speech of Nancy Astor, the first woman to speak in Parliament, was in 1920.

    So it’s a big deal that Matthew’s imported this early data into TheyWorkForYou, and we’re all the more grateful because he did so on his own time. It’s something we’ve wanted to do, but not had the resource for. You can now browse, search or link to Commons debates right back to 1919, and find not just women’s contributions, but a whole wealth of historic parliamentary content. Result!

    What you can enjoy this week

    We’re going to take this opportunity to highlight, through a week-long series of posts:

    • Tomorrow, our researcher Alex will be highlighting some of the ways people have used our data and APIs to explore issues of gender and representation and describe some of our future plans in this area. This also gives us the opportunity to point out where you can access all our lovely, juicy data, should you want to do something similar yourself.
    • Finally, as a weekend bonus, we’ll be blogging on the various organisations which support women within our own sphere of Civic Tech.

    We’ll add the links in for each day’s content as it goes live.

    Since our sites TheyWorkForYou and WriteToThem in the UK, our activities with the Democratic Commons, and the support we give to partners in other countries are all, at heart, aiming to make democratic participation easier, we are, of course, all over this event. We hope you’ll enjoy the week!


    *We can have another celebration in 2028 for the remaining women.

  2. Let’s try this again! WhatDoTheyKnow’s tenth anniversary party

    Back in February, as you may remember, we announced an evening of celebration in London for WhatDoTheyKnow’s tenth anniversary.

    And then it snowed, public transport ground to a halt, and we made the tough decision to call the party off.

    But it was only ever a postponement. Now we’re in a more temperate season and we’re determined to get this milestone celebrated! We’ve rescheduled, and we’re looking forward to an evening of talks covering the project’s past, present and future, not to mention chat, drinks, nibbles and the best FOI-based playlist you’ve ever heard.

    If you’d like to come and join us for this event in London on the evening of July 3rd, please email Gemma with more about yourself and why you’d like to come. Spaces are limited so let us know asap if you’d like to attend.

    Image: Gaelle Marcel

  3. FOI: one part of the fight against the ‘lose-lose’ LOBO loans to local councils

    Controversial loans sold to councils by banks, known as LOBOs (Lender Option Borrower Option), are under investigation by the group Debt Resistance UK (DRUK).

    These loans have unfavourable terms, according to a landmark legal case may be untenable, and are resulting in absurd levels of debt repayment: DRUK have found, for example, that in the borough of Newham, the equivalent of 77% of council tax income goes directly into interest payments alone.

    DRUK’s campaign, #NoLOBOs, aims to both expose the truth and make the case that such loans are illegitimate — and we were interested to see that they’ve made use of our Freedom of Information site, WhatDoTheyKnow, to do so.

    We’re always interested to hear how people and organisations are using our services, so we caught up with DRUK’s Vica Rogers, who gave us the whole history.

    What are LOBOs? Can you explain a bit about them for the completely uninitiated?

    Vica: LOBO stands for “Lender Option Borrower Option” and the name indicates the terms of the loan: on predefined dates, the lender (the bank) has the option to raise the interest rate; if the bank decides to do so, the borrower (the council) can either accept the new interest rate or repay the loan in full; if the bank doesn’t decide to use the option, then the council is locked into the loan and can only exit it by paying an exorbitant exit fee — sometimes 90% of the loan’s principal. With this mechanism some councils are locked into paying up to 11%, which is very expensive in the current climate where interest rates are low.

    LOBO loans have been described as a “lose-lose bet for councils” because no matter what happens to interest rates, the one-sided terms of the loans ensure the banks always win. In this way banks are making huge profits and are extracting resources from local government that should instead be going to cover the cost of services for its residents.

    How are you using Freedom of Information requests in the campaign?

    Vica: FOI was crucial for the development of the #NoLOBOs campaign. We started from the “borrowing and investment tables” for local government published by the then Department for Communities and Local Government. We sent FOI requests to more than 240 councils who from the tables appeared to be borrowing from banks.

    We asked each council to provide, for each LOBO loan they had, the original contract and a spreadsheet containing the principal, maturity date, interest rate, etc.

    The spreadsheet was easier to obtain, while the contracts were often withheld.

    We link any data and documents back to WhatdoTheyKnow so that anyone can see the source and the process that we went through to obtain it. This is very useful when dealing with journalists.

    We therefore had to go all the way to the Information Commissioner’s Office for them to rule that the public interest in providing the loan contracts overwrote the commercial confidentiality exemption that councils were relying on.

    Once we managed to obtain the contracts from some of the councils it was much easier to argue for the others to release them. This is one of the values of using batch requests.

    In a second batch of requests we asked the council to identify the financial intermediaries — the brokers and the Treasury Management Advisors (TMAs) — involved in recommending and arranging the loans so that we could expose their conflict of interests. We also asked for the fees paid to the brokers and any invoices and contracts.

    We obtained most of the information related to the companies involved and the fees paid, but most of the original documents requested were missing. This was due to the age of the documents, as councils are not required to keep them for more than a decade.

    We have now published on our website most of the information we gathered. On our website we link any data and documents back to the WhatDoTheyKnow site so that anyone can see the source and the process that we went through to obtain it.

    This is very useful when dealing with journalists, but it also provides local citizens the opportunity to challenge their council on LOBO loans without having to relate specifically to our campaign.

    Our approach to the campaign has been from the start to encourage local residents to take action autonomously, both because we are supporters of decentralised forms of organising, but also because being such a small organisation we did not have the resources to develop a national campaign.

    What gave you the idea to use FOI requests, and why did you decide to use WhatDoTheyKnow to make them?

    By using WhatDoTheyKnow the information was provided with open access by default, could be linked and referenced in articles, and would have a longevity that does not always exist with small websites and organisations.

    Vica: Through previous work by one of our members on council reserves it became obvious that some of the most financialised councils were also some of the most secretive — and a protracted FOI campaign would be necessary to unearth relevant practices.

    We used WhatDoTheyKnow partially due to the experience of working in small, poorly funded NGOs, where once an organisation closed down, the information was lost unless it was published somewhere on a third party website.

    By using WhatDoTheyKnow the information was provided with open access by default, could be linked and referenced in articles, and would have a longevity that does not always exist with small websites and organisations.

    DRUK believes LOBOs to be illegal: what’s the basis of that?

    Vica: There was a ruling in the 80s called the Hammersmith and Fulham vs Goldman Sachs case. At that time, councils had entered into hundreds of swap contracts presenting significant risk to local government finances across the country. The judge then ruled that it was ultra-vires (‘beyond their powers’) for councils to be gambling with taxpayers’ money and all the contracts were cancelled.

    Debt Resistance UK is also making the case that such debt is illegitimate. In the current years where local authorities are facing huge cuts with a 40% reduction in grants from central government, interest payments to banks are ring-fenced while funds to essential services are being cut. Debt Resistance UK questions if it is legitimate that human rights of local residents are being put second to the interests of the banks.

    There are also other basis on which such loans could be considered illegal:

    • In many cases LOBO loans were taken out on advice from Treasury Management Advisors, who should be independent, but in the case of LOBO loans were receiving undeclared commissions from the brokers who were providing the deals. This is a clear conflict of interest that council’s can use to challenge the loans.
    • LOBO loans are instruments that were created to engineer around the Hammersmith & Fulham vs Goldman Sachs case by embedding the derivatives in the loan. The banks should be held to account for deliberately creating a loophole to extract public resources.
    • The value of LOBO loans is pegged to LIBOR. Since some of the banks and brokers who sold LOBO loans to councils were also involved in rigging LIBOR, there is a case for councils to challenge the banks on the base of this manipulation and the information asymmetry it created.

    What’s next for the campaign?

    Vica: We designed the #NoLOBOs website so people could understand the overall campaign and then search for the details of their own council. The website also offers suggestions on how people can take action.

    We have been collaborating with  the cooperative Research for Action to develop two strands of the NoLOBOs campaign:

    Objections to LOBO loans across the UK

    We are using the 2014 Audit and Accountability Act which provides local citizens with the right to inspect, ask a question about and object to items in their council’s financial accounts.

    This right can be exercised once a year during the summer once the draft accounts have been published. Debt Resistance UK, in collaboration with the cooperative Research for Action, has supported more than 50 residents in the use of the Act to either gather more information on the loans, or to challenge their lawfulness through the objection process. All objections link back to WhatDoTheyKnow as evidence of LOBO loan borrowing. We are now starting to receive the responses to these actions.

    A citizen debt audit in Newham

    Newham, best known for hosting the 2012 Olympics, is one of the poorest local authorities in the country. It is also the largest borrower of LOBO loans and is paying the equivalent of 77% of council tax income only on interest payments. We have therefore decided to focus on the borough and develop an in-depth citizen debt audit. The aim of the audit is to evaluate the social and economic sustainability of the council’s debt, the legality of its LOBO loans portfolio and who should be held to account for it. Through the process we hope to improve the accountability of the council in managing funds in the public interest.

    How can people get involved?

    Vica: We welcome all contributions to the NoLOBOs project, and are open for people contributing in different ways without feeling they have to become a member of Debt Resistance UK.

    If you are a local resident the best way to take action is to submit an objection to the council’s accounts. For most councils, the period to object to the accounts this year runs from the start of June to mid July. If you would like to object to your council’s accounts, do get in touch with Debt Resistance UK and we can support you through the process. You can find a guide on how the process works here.

    The #NoLOBOs campaign has been made possible thanks to a network of people with various expertise who have kindly offered their time to unravelling different aspects of the LOBO story. If you would like to contribute based on your expertise, please get in touch. Some of the expertise that we would find useful are: financial analysts, accountants, lawyers, local government finance officers, journalists, developers, data analysts, data visualisers and graphic designers.

    To gain further insight, we are also very interested in talking to people who have been aware of LOBO loans while working within organisations involved in the mis-selling, be it a council, a bank, a brokerage company or a Treasury Management Advisory company. We’d also like to collaborate with officers and councillors who want to take action in their own council.

    NOTE: Debt Resistance UK is unaffiliated with mySociety, so if you would like to get involved in the NoLOBOS campaign, please contact them directly.

    Thanks very much to Vica for taking the time to explain the campaign, and its use of WhatDoTheyKnow. We’re glad to have been one part of this many-pronged approach.

    Image: Raw Pixel

  4. How local newspapers uncover council spending using FOI

    The Freedom of Information Act allows us to keep check on authorities — not least, how they are spending public money.

    These sorts of requests can be of particular interest to regional press, who perform a vital function in keeping citizens informed about where their taxes go. Journalists might be applauding good spending; equally they could be uncovering waste or corruption — both narratives are highly relevant in times of budget cuts and austerity.

    Here are examples of stories arising from council expenditure requests, covering the length and breadth of the UK.

    Spending on administration

    It’s often worth scrutinising council expenditure on day to day items like office supplies, furniture or computer hardware.

    While stories here may be quite mundane on the face of it, they become more interesting when the question arises of how much is reasonable to spend on these overheads.

    In North Warwickshire, the Birmingham Mail reported that over £5,000 went on tea, coffee & biscuits (to be fair, over a period of five years). The story goes as far as to detail each brand of teabag. It’s important, said the council, to offer visitors a decent spread.

    That’s as may be, but how about the same region’s County Council splashing out £13,700 on furniture for their leader’s new office — and not from Ikea, by the sounds of it. This story was run by the Rugby Advertiser, and just as with the tea and biscuits, the defence was that it’s important to make visitors comfortable.

    But how far does such comfort extend? Let’s consider social functions and parties. Dundee was highlighted in the Courier for its awards bashes, into which a round £266,000 was sunk. Perhaps easier to defend was the same authority’s £150,000 expenditure on tablets and computers.

    Spending on infrastructure and services

    Fixed penalty notices for littering, often farmed out to third party fine collectors, can be highly contentious. Citizens might be somewhat mollified when they see a boost to their councils’ coffers and some expenditure that directly relates to the misdemeanours in question. In Wirral, for example, the Globe tells how £176,000 from littering fines has been spent on CCTV surveillance, anti-rubbish and fly-tipping campaigns, research and clean-ups.

    In Borehamwood, money gleaned from developers within the town paid for £1.7M worth of school expansions, crossroad junctions and traffic calming measures, as reported in the Borehamwood Times.

    And then there are the oddities, anomalies or outliers of spending that always make a good story, too. The Scotsman found that fees for taxis to take children to schools that offer subjects they can’t study in their own schools added up to £1M across Scotland.

    Spending on staff… and disputes

    Of course, every council has staffing costs — it’s how they’re distributed that can make a gripping story for a regional publication like Wokingham Today.  When does expenditure on temporary employees, for example, start indicating that permanent staff might have been a better bet? We don’t know the full circumstances, but Wokingham’s £7.8M does seem like an awful lot.

    In Norfolk and Suffolk, £200,000’s worth of ‘golden hellos’ to welcome new staff to the area were under scrutiny by the Eastern Daily Press. But that kind of expenditure seems perfectly wholesome when contrasted with Wiltshire’s £275,000 on gagging orders and compromise agreements.

    The picture can sometimes be a little more complex than first viewing might suggest. In South Gloucestershire for example, the Bristol Post reports that £15M worth of redundancy payments is expected to save the council money in the long run.

    In Birmingham, the Mail had a fine old time trying to get their FOI request responded to, and were finally successful in revealing that overtime paid to binmen in the run-up to a strike amounted to over £1M.

    Spending on compensation

    We mentioned that expenditure stories can be timely in the current age of austerity — well, not only that, but there’s a particular irony to be found in expenditure that’s potentially caused by austerity measures.

    Two recent stories looked at the compensation councils were paying out for damage caused by potholes. Authorities everywhere are making cutbacks to their expenditure on roads, but if this results in payouts that are bigger than the savings involved, there’s obviously a false economy at play.

    In Lancashire, the Telegraph discovered that the council had paid over £1M in pothole compensation in one financial year, while in Cambridge the local paper went back as far as 1992 to break down the expenditure year by year.

    Have we sparked ideas?

    If you are a journalist and you’d like to use Freedom of Information to uncover this kind of story —  while keeping your research under wraps until it has been published — check out our WhatDoTheyKnow Pro service. It provides all the tools that you need to pursue your investigations, large or small.

    As a regional journalist, you might also find it useful to follow your local council on WhatDoTheyKnow, so you know what information our users are asking for. We’ll send you an email when requests are made  to your chosen authority — just click the grey ‘follow’ button on any council’s page.

  5. FixMyStreet Pro meets Salesforce: integrated street reporting for Rutland

    A big welcome to Rutland, the latest local authority to adopt FixMyStreet Pro as their street fault reporting platform. If you’re a resident of what has been described as the UK’s prettiest county, we hope that you’ll enjoy using FixMyStreet to keep it that way.

    You can make your reports on the council’s site here, or if you’re already used to the main FixMyStreet. com website or via our mobile app, you’ll find that all reports go into the same central database, and can be seen in all three places.

    As a resident, all you need to know is that it all works, but councils — especially those using the Salesforce CRM — will be interested to know that behind the scenes there have been some interesting tweaks.

    How it looks in Salesforce

    Salesforce is a very common CRM, in use across many councils as well as countless other businesses and organisations, so this integration stands as a useful proof of concept when it comes to FixMyStreet integration.

    For Rutland, FixMyStreet reports now drop directly into Salesforce, from where they can be allocated to the Highways team. Click on any of the images below to see them at a larger size.

    Here’s what the list of all reports looks like in Salesforce. In theory, if the council want, this could also include reports from other sources such as residents’ phone calls or direct emails.

     

    Staff may filter the reports by category: here we can see just those within the ‘roads and highways’ category.

    Each report is listed within Salesforce as a ‘case’, listed in a queue.

    And this is what it looks like when a report comes in that has a photo attached to it  — that’s also accessible within Salesforce.

    Staff now have the choice of updating reports within Salesforce, or, if they prefer (as many do), through the FixMyStreet admin interface.

    This is our first Salesforce integration, and it was made possible through the use of an API, developed by Rutland’s own tech team. At our end, all we had to do was write the code to integrate with it, and boom, two-way communication.

    Even better, any reports made through other means can be pulled from Salesforce and into the FixMyStreet system: so a council staff member inputting reports from, say, an email report or phone call can input it into the interface they’ve always used.

    We’re delighted to add Salesforce to the list of CRMs FixMyStreet Pro has integrated with. If you’re from a council and would like to find out more, pop over to the FixMyStreet Pro website where you’ll find case studies, pricing, an interactive demo and the chance to join one of our regular online chats.

  6. Truth & justice for haemophiliacs: WhatDoTheyKnow and the contaminated blood scandal

    Nothing gives us greater pleasure than to learn that one of our websites has been of help in uncovering an injustice or righting a wrong. So when WhatDoTheyKnow user Jason Evans mentioned how he’d been using the site in campaigning for victims of the contaminated blood scandal of the 1970s and 1980s, we were eager to hear the whole story — which he told us in fascinating detail.

    Read on to find out how Jason learned the ropes of submitting an FOI request, and how one thing led to another… until he was looking at a group legal action against the government.


    I’m Jason Evans, founder of Factor 8 – The Independent Haemophilia Group.

    In short, I’ve spent the last few years trying to achieve truth and justice for haemophiliacs and their families affected by the contaminated blood scandal of the 1970s and 80s. My father, Jonathan Evans, was a victim of the scandal. It’s not my goal to go into the ins and outs of all that here, but instead to explain how WhatDoTheyKnow has been an essential tool for our campaign (if you wish to learn more about the scandal itself, you can visit our website).

    It was early 2016 when I decided to start hunting down evidence relating to the contaminated blood scandal for myself. At this time there was already some evidence in the National Archives. It was a good start, but I felt there must be more. Government ministers were maintaining the same line in Parliament… that all the evidence had been transferred to the National Archive or it had been destroyed. This was widely accepted as true.

    To this day I don’t exactly know why, but where many had accepted this situation (and understandably so), I simply refused to — or, at least, if it was true I was going to make sure of it.

    After a quick search I found WhatDoTheyKnow. I instantly saw that this was going to be a must-have tool for what I wanted to do. I made my first FOI request on the site in April 2016, which in terms of the site’s functionality was super easy, but I definitely had a lot to learn.

    In hindsight, my first FOI requests were badly framed, too broad and lacking in specifics: the vast majority were coming back as either “Information not held” or with any number of exemptions which was all very frustrating. It felt like I was getting nowhere.

    Over time however, I began to refine my requests and learn best practice by reviewing the successful requests made by others, even those that had no connection at all with what I was doing. I read the Freedom of Information Act and familiarised myself with the exemptions, costs and what my rights were.

    Things began to change: some of my requests were becoming partially or completely successful and all the while I was reviewing more evidence from the National Archives and other sources.

    Things really began to snowball in 2017 when one day I began to cross-reference the government’s own filing system in my own spreadsheet. Noticing certain markings they had used allowed me to identify specifically what files were missing and FOI them using the government’s own internal reference system.

    This strategy was almost flawless and has revealed tens of thousands of documents which have as yet never seen the light of day, and this work remains ongoing.

    In May 2017 I brought a legal action against the government based on the evidence I had seen; shortly after this became a Group Legal Action which presently involves up to 1,000 claimants.

    Just one week after the Group Litigation Order was lodged at the High Court in July 2017, the Prime Minister Theresa May announced that a full UK-wide public inquiry would be held into the contaminated blood scandal.

    When I reflect back on that time, I don’t think there was any single person or action that got us there: it was a culmination of momentum. We always say “the stars aligned” when talking about it within the community and I think that’s pretty much what happened.

    It would be nice to say that this was all some master plan but it wasn’t really; it was a venture taken out of a mixture of curiosity, determination and the simplest sense of wanting to find out the truth. WhatDoTheyKnow helped me to do just that, to get that bit closer to the truth.

    In November 2017 Sky News ran an exclusive story regarding a Cabinet Office memo I unearthed, in no short part thanks to WhatDoTheyKnow.

    The journey to that Cabinet Office memo began with this FOI request.

    Eventually, the file I was requesting was made available in the National Archive as a result of that request. Upon checking the file in person there was a piece of paper inside with a note written in pencil saying that one of the memos had been removed, and it gave a reference number. I recorded this information, then FOI’d the Cabinet Office for it. They digitised the file and indeed it was there. Less than ten days after the FOI response we had the story on Sky News (and here’s a summary video).

    I had help from a lot of people, in particular Des Collins and Danielle Holliday at Collins Solicitors, my friend Andrew March for his encouragement, assistance and ideas, as well as others who may not wish to be named.

    I always remain aware that I’m doing the work others might have done, if it were not for the fact that they died far too young as a result of the scandal — or have been driven into secrecy for fear of the stigma associated with it.

    The public inquiry is due to begin shortly and the legal case remain ongoing. I would like to thank WhatDoTheyKnow again for providing such an excellent platform with endless possibilities.

    Thanks so much to Jason for sharing this remarkable story. We wish him the best of luck as the case progresses.

    Image: Raw Pixel (Unsplash)

  7. Taxis, wheelchairs and local authorities: an update

    Last year, we highlighted a bureaucratic loophole that allows taxi drivers to discriminate against passengers in wheelchairs.

    As WhatDoTheyKnow volunteer Doug Paulley discovered through multiple Freedom of Information requests at the time, the lack of a simple piece of administration meant that taxi drivers could refuse to take wheelchair users, or charge them extra, with complete impunity.

    New legislation set a fine of up to £1,000 for such behaviour, but it can only be applied if the local council has a list of designated list of wheelchair-accessible taxis. Back in April 2017, Doug’s research indicated that 59% of authorities had no such list, nor a plan to create one.

    A year later, Doug has revisited the research, and while that figure has gone down slightly, there is still cause for concern. Doug explains:

    As it is now more than one year since sections 165-167 of the Equality Act 2010 were commenced (the provisions designed to combat taxi drivers’ discrimination against wheelchair users) I have updated my research into its implementation and efficacy.

    No driver has faced any enforcement action under S165 of the Act, anywhere in the country. I find it difficult to believe that there haven’t been any offences committed under S165 of the Act. I have experienced several myself. I think that the fact that there have been no such enforcement actions suggests a fundamental problem with the (frankly) clunky implementation of the provisions of the Act.

    As of October / November when I submitted my follow-up Freedom of Information requests, only 35% of local authorities had implemented the new provisions in their area, and only a further 16% (total 51%) of authorities intended to do so by now. Given that the Department for Transport’s statutory guidance on such recommended that all authorities implement the provisions by October 2017, this is concerning.

    Many of the authorities that have attempted to implement the legislation have failed to comply with the fine print, likely making the provisions unenforceable in their area. As for the government’s good practice recommendations that councils e.g. publish the size of wheelchair each taxi can take — no councils are doing that.

    I am sure that when Baroness Deech told the Secretary of State that he was defying Parliament’s will by failing to commence these provisions, she expected to have a much greater impact on discrimination. I’m really disappointed that this has sadly not been borne out in reality.

    You can find lots more information about this issue, along with all the facts and figures, on Doug’s website. There’s also an invitation to contact your local councillors if you’d like to draw their attention to this issue.

    Image: Tam Le (CC by-nc-nd/2.0)

  8. Seeing spots with FixMyStreet Pro

    If you visit FixMyStreet and suddenly start seeing spots, don’t rush to your optician: it’s just another feature to help you, and the council, when you make a report.

    In our last two blog posts we announced Buckinghamshire and Bath & NE Somerset councils’ adoption of FixMyStreet Pro, and looked at how this integrated with existing council software. It’s the latter which has brought on this sudden rash.

    At the moment, you’ll only see such dots in areas where the council has adopted FixMyStreet Pro, and gone for the ‘asset locations’ option: take a look at the Bath & NE Somerset installation to see them in action.

    What is an asset?

    mySociety developer Struan explains all.

    Councils refer to ‘assets’; in layman’s language these are things like roads, streetlights, grit bins, dog poo bins and trees. These assets are normally stored in an asset management system that tracks problems, and once hooked up, FixMyStreet Pro can deposit users’ reports directly into that system.

    Most asset management systems will have an entry for each asset and probably some location data for them too. This means that we can plot them on a map, and we can also include details about the asset.

    When you make a report, for example a broken streetlight, you’ll be able to quickly and easily specify that precise light on the map, making things a faster for you. And there’s no need for the average citizen to ever know this, but we can then include the council’s internal ID for the streetlight in the report, which then also speeds things up for the council.

    Map layers

    So, how do we get these assets on to the map? Here’s the technical part:

    The council will either have a map server with a set of asset layers on it that we can use, or they’ll provide us with files containing details of the assets and we’ll host them on our own map server.

    The map server then lets you ask for all the streetlights in an area and sends back some XML with a location for each streetlight and any associated data, such as the lamppost number. Each collection of objects is called a layer, mostly because that’s how mapping software uses them. It has a layer for the map and then adds any other features on top of this in layers.

    Will these dots clutter up the map for users who are trying to make a report about something else?

    Not at all.

    With a bit of configuration in FixMyStreet, we associate report categories with asset layers so we only show the assets on the map when the relevant category is selected.

    We can also snap problem reports to any nearby asset which is handy for things like street lights as it doesn’t make sense to send a report about a broken street light with no associated light.

    Watch this space

    And what’s coming up?

    We’re working to add data from roadworks.org, so that when a user clicks on a road we’ll be able to tell them if roadworks are happening in the near future, which might have a bearing on whether they want to report the problem — for example there’s no point in reporting a pothole if the whole road is due to be resurfaced the next week.

    Then we’ll also be looking at roads overseen by TfL. The issue with these is that while they are always within a council area, the council doesn’t have the responsibility of maintaining them, so we want to change where the report is going rather than just adding in more data. There’s also the added complication of things like “what if the issue is being reported on a council-maintained bridge that goes over a TFL road”.

    There’s always something to keep the FixMyStreet developers busy… we’ll make sure we keep you updated as these new innovations are added.

    From a council and interested in knowing more? Visit the FixMyStreet Pro website

  9. New insights for councils, on FixMyStreet

    FixMyStreet sends users’ street reports to councils across the UK.

    But if you’re one of the staff that receives these reports, you might sometimes wish for more insights: which issues are most commonly reported in your area? What’s a bigger problem, dog fouling or potholes? How quickly do reports get fixed, and how does this compare with other councils’ performance?

    To make it easy to discover the answers to all these questions, we’ve just rolled out a new stats dashboard on FixMyStreet — and it’s free to access if you work for a council.

    Council staff can now view and download information that answers questions such as:

    • How many FixMyStreet reports have been made in your area across various time periods?
    • How many reports have been made in each category?
    • What are the average times between reports being made and being marked as fixed, and how does this compare to other councils?
    • Which categories of report are most common within your area?
    • Which categories of report does FixMyStreet send to your council, and which email addresses does it use?

    From this exclusive area, you can gain a more in-depth understanding of how FixMyStreet is being used in your area, while also getting a taste of the fuller functionality available with FixMyStreet Pro.

    So, if you work for a council, head over to the dashboard page now, and start exploring.

  10. Looking forward to Lisbon

    This year’s Impacts of Civic Technology conference, TICTeC, is shaping up to be one of the best yet. Tickets have almost sold out, so if you’re hoping to attend, don’t delay.

    Running on April 18-19 in Lisbon, TICTEC will, as usual, provide an unparalleled opportunity to meet the people building and using Civic Technologies that improve lives, solve problems and address social ills. The schedule is now on the TICTeC website, where you can also get acquainted with this year’s speakers.

    Keynotes Martha Lane Fox and Prof Jonathan Fox will set the tone for a full programme, with speakers and delegates including representatives from Google, Facebook, and scores of cutting edge practitioners from many countries.

    This will be your chance to hear from recently-elected French MP Paula Forteza; and Civic Tech thinkers from MIT, NYU and UCL. More international angles are added by representatives from Buenos Aires City Government, Rome’s ‘Roma Capitale’ initiative, and several speakers from Nigeria whose attendance has been made possible thanks to a grant from the MacArthur foundation.

    During two days of diverse presentations and workshops, attendees will examine what works — and what doesn’t — in the fields of digital democracy, accountability, anti-corruption and transparency tech. There’s just one rule for those making a presentation at TICTeC: it’s not enough to present a new digital initiative; you must also bring the research that enquires into its efficacy.

    A few tickets are still available, but hurry — we’re nearly sold out.

    Don’t worry too much if you can’t attend in person. Every session will be filmed, with videos shared online after the event. Keep an eye on the mySociety blog or YouTube channel to be the first to know when they’re available  — or sign up for the newsletter. To track the conference in real time, follow the hashtag #TICTeC.


    Image: Alejandro (CC by/2.0)