1. Scope 3 emissions and remote teams

    The Greenhouse Gas (GHG) Protocol groups emissions sources into “Scopes” as a way of helping organisations understand where in their operations they could reduce emissions:

    • Scope 1 covers ‘direct emissions from owned or controlled sources’.
    • Scope 2 refers to ‘indirect emissions from the generation of purchased electricity, steam, heating and cooling consumed by the reporting company’.
    • Scope 3 includes ‘all other indirect emissions that occur in a company’s value chain’.

    We’ve been calculating our emissions since 2019. It didn’t take us long to realise—as an entirely remote organisation with no cars, no factories, no offices, and no private jets— that all of our emissions fall under Scope 3.

    Beyond that, our calculations show that roughly half of our Scope 3 emissions are as a result of the activity of the services we use – for example, emissions created by the trains we use to travel to visit clients and take part in team meetings, or by the power stations that generate the electricity that feeds the (third-party) datacentres that our websites are served from.

    There is plenty of advice out there on how organisations can work to reduce these types of Scope 3 emissions. We’ve already made progress in this regard – asking suppliers for their sustainability policies as part of our procurement process, switching to greener suppliers where possible, even improving the performance of our websites to consume less power.

    But it’s the remaining half of our Scope 3 emissions that pose a challenge. These emissions are generated by mySociety’s staff – primarily lighting and heating for our homes and workspaces. Unlike a traditional organisation, we can’t just overhaul the office lighting, or turn down the thermostats – we don’t have an office to make those changes in! Instead, it’s up to each of our employees to do their part.

    That’s why we’ve introduced incentives like our Climate Perks programme, which rewards staff with extra time off when they travel to/from holidays via sustainable transport options. We produced a guide for mySociety employees looking to lower their carbon footprint while working from home. But we know these changes are only scratching the surface of what we should be doing.

    There isn’t a huge amount of information out there on how organisations can influence emissions generated by remote workers. Where should the balance of power lie in that relationship? How much can organisations require of employees, and how much they can only incentivise and support more sustainable options?

    It’s made all the more difficult because each employee’s situation is different – and we’re aware a one-size-fits-all solution won’t work.

    So we’re talking about this in the open, to see whether other organisations have faced this issue and come up with a way forward that works for them. As more organisations embrace remote working, this will only become a more common issue. If you’re already doing something in this space, get in touch!

    Image: Clay Banks

  2. Climate month notes: April 2022

    mySociety’s Climate team is used to grappling with the big questions, but this month the one at the forefront of our minds was something along the lines of ‘Where did March go!?’ – Still, there’s a lot to report on for the last few weeks, including our first two prototyping weeks, new research outputs, and further improvements to the Climate Action Plan Explorer.

    Working in the open

    Unsurprisingly, our first two prototyping weeks have been top of the agenda this last month.

    First, an exploration of council procurement as a lever for local climate action kicked off with a day of workshops on Monday 4th April, including a ‘Lightning Decision Jam’ exercise (aka rapidly writing thoughts on digital Post-It notes) on the challenges around climate and procurement, as seen in the picture at the top of this post).

    All the discussions, input and ideas culminated with us building a mock-up of a service that would help notify journalists and local climate action groups about council (re-)procurement activities so they could act on them before it’s too late. We’ve summarised the week’s findings in a short report here, where you can also see screenshots and even a link to the prototype where you can click around a bit to see how it would work.

    Thank you to all of the wonderful participants who joined us throughout the week, collaborating in our workshops and testing out our prototype.

    Our second prototyping week—looking at conditional commitment as a model for addressing challenges around home energy—is already underway, and has provided a fascinating insight into how local collective action could help with the challenge many people around the UK are currently facing with fuel pricing and energy efficiency.

    We’re in the final stages of building and testing a prototype service that helps neighbours act together to book thermal imaging of their houses, and then make small and large improvements to their homes, benefiting from group activity. We’ll have another write-up about this prototype ready in a week or so.

    If you’re interested in joining our upcoming prototyping weeks (the next one, starting 9th May, is on access to nature) then get in touch.

    Researching, measuring, understanding

    But we haven’t just been prototyping: there’s other exciting stuff going on, too. This month we were happy to finally publish a fascinating review of public understanding of local government and its role in combatting climate change, prepared for us by Tom Sasse.

    Amongst Tom’s findings were: a marked rise in public concern over climate change, and continued support for stronger action on climate issues; a general agreement across society that local councils have a high degree of responsibility for tackling climate change, and that central government should provide more funding to enable local action; and signs that the most effective way to promote climate action will be by framing it around local—rather than national or global—concerns. Read Alex’s blog post for more details.

    Alex also did some experimentation into how we can categorise local government services. His dataset is already shaping our outreach with local authorities, and our policy work. It could also form the basis for improved comparisons on CAPE, the Climate Action Plan Explorer.

    Meanwhile, Pauline, our Policy and Advocacy Manager, combed through all 305 pages of the government’s Levelling Up whitepaper, to extract the policy implications for local authorities trying to reach net zero. The whitepaper’s proposal to establish a new independent body for gathering, enhancing, and making available public data is really encouraging, especially in a field like local climate response, where a lack of timely, high quality data is already hampering local authorities’ abilities to plan and measure climate initiatives. You can read more about this in Pauline’s blog post.

    Everything else

    Our developer, Struan, took advantage of the lack of an Easter Monday holiday in Scotland to deploy a number of improvements to CAPE, our database of council climate action plans and emissions data. You can now, for example, filter the list of councils by English regions (like the North West, or South East) and also quickly compare district or borough councils inside a given county. This filtering is also available on CAPE’s sister site, Council Climate Plan Scorecards.

    We also improved the way we decide whether a council “has a plan”, so that draft plans, or other types of documents no longer count. As a result, the figure on our homepage of “councils with a plan” dropped from 88% to 77%, but we think you’ll agree that this is a more accurate reflection of the real number of councils with a real climate action plan or climate strategy. Of course, new plans are released every week, and we’re doing work behind the scenes to make it easier for council officers to notify us of these changes, and get their CAPE pages updated quickly.

    We also had our first six-month check-in with one of our funders, the National Lottery Community Fund. We’re really excited to see how we can work with them over the next two years, to enable local climate action that both involves and respects communities that wouldn’t normally be active on climate. As part of this, Gemma and I, in particular, have been thinking about how we can use public events to convene a community of practice around climate and other complementary sectors of society. For more on that, watch this space!

     

  3. Climate month notes: February 2022

    February proved to be a month of relative calm for the mySociety Climate team, positioned as we were, between our previous whirlwind of activity delivering the Council Climate Plan Scorecards, and the imminent beginning of our ‘prototyping weeks’, introduced in last month’s notes by Lucas.

    That’s not to say we didn’t get a lot done! Here’s a run-down of everything we managed to pack in this February, and some hints of what’s on the horizon.

    Full steam ahead on our first two prototyping weeks

    As mentioned before, over the first half of this year, we’ll be exploring some of the topics from our ‘hopper’ of ideas that have come out of all our research and development so far.

    In a process inspired by Design Jams and the GV Design Sprint, we’ll be inviting external subject matter experts—council officers, tech and open data practitioners, local government suppliers, citizens, campaigners—to work with us for a week, on a topic they have experience of, so that we can quickly identify, prototype, and test services that will really move the needle on enabling a faster, more informed and more collaborative local response to climate change.

    This month, we planned out exactly what these prototyping weeks will look like—for us, and external participants—and began approaching potential partners and stakeholders that we feel could contribute the most on our first two topics:

    1. Climate and local government procurement
    2. Enabling local climate action through ‘conditional commitment’

    If either of these two topics interest you, fill in our signup form and Siôn will get in touch with more details.

    Research on public understanding of local authorities and climate

    One of mySociety’s key strengths has always been our ability to combine research and action, to make a difference on the problems that matter. Over the last few months, Alex has been working on beefing up our research capacity, so that we can understand more about the role local government plays in combating climate change.

    After interviews earlier this month, our research comissioning process is now complete, and we are excited to have engaged a really excellent external researcher, Tom Sasse, to take on this important piece of work. More from them in due course!

    Two new features for CAPE

    This month we dramatically improved the way that CAPE displays emissions data, to help people picture which sectors (industrial, commercial, domestic, transport, etc) the most emissions are coming from in each part of the country.

    a colourful graph showing CO2 emissions breakdown by sector

    We also introduced a new ‘Browse by feature’ page, allowing you to see councils whose plans scored particularly well in key areas we’ve identified as being of most interest to officers, campaigners, and community groups – from councils with the best approaches to adaptation and mitigation, or the best communicated plans, to the fairest plans for communities most directly harmed by climate change.

    Browse by Feature page on CAPE

    If you missed my blog post last week about bringing these two long-awaited features to CAPE, give it a read now.

    Header image: A technician makes adjustments to a wind turbine, Dennis Schroeder / NREL.

  4. Two new features for our Climate Action Plan Explorer

    Last month the project we’ve been supporting Climate Emergency UK on, their Council Climate Plan Scorecards, made a big splash with local and national news outlets.

    But that’s not all mySociety’s climate team has been working on – we’ve also been putting effort into making CAPE, our Climate Action Plan Explorer, more useful to council officers and campaigners, through improved emissions data, and ‘features’ – a whole new way of discovering councils with exemplary plans.

    Sectoral emissions breakdown

    Until recently, CAPE displayed a small amount of emissions data on each council’s page – coming from BEIS’s annual estimates of CO2 emissions within the scope of influence of local authorities:

    Total, per person, and per kilometre CO2 emissions

    A key improvement we wanted to make was to better highlight the sources of emissions in a council’s area. The balance of emissions from different sectors (domestic, industrial, commercial, transport, etc) will be different for each council, and will influence their approach to emissions reduction.

    Thanks to BEIS funding, we’ve been able to expand our emissions data to cover combined authorities and new 2021 authorities, and we’ve used this to display a new emissions graph on council pages that separates out the emissions of different sectors over time:

    a colourful graph showing CO2 emissions breakdown by sector

    Find your council on CAPE today, to see how emissions stack up in your area.

    We hope this improved breakdown will help visitors understand the actions their councils are taking, and the scope there is for improvement in the different areas. The graphs can be downloaded and re-used, with the data source and attribution already embedded. Hooray for transparency!

    Browse by feature

    And there’s more. If you’re interested in seeing, say, all the councils who are doing a good job engaging residents and other stakeholders on their climate plans, or maybe all the councils with a clear plan for upskilling the workforce in the face of climate change, then we’ve got a new feature for you.

    Thanks to data from the Council Climate Plan Scorecards, you can now use CAPE to browse councils by ‘features’ we’ve identified, through our research, as being particularly interesting to council officers and campaigners – such as the best approaches to adaptation and mitigation, the best communicated plans, and the fairest plans for communities most directly harmed by climate change.

    You can start by visiting the ‘Browse by feature’ page:

    Browse by Feature page on CAPE

    Or you can follow the links on any council’s page, to see other councils who also share the same features:

    Features displayed on a council’s page

    We’re looking to expand our selection of features over time, but we need to make sure these are based on an external dataset that we can import into CAPE. If you have an idea of something new we should include, let us know!

  5. Climate monthnotes: December 2021

    Another month, another chance to share progress from the Climate team. And this time, you get to hear it from a different person too – Hello! I’m Zarino, one of mySociety’s designers, and Product Lead for the Climate programme.

    Over the last month, we’ve moved the programme on in three main areas: Adding some much-anticipated features to our headline product, the Climate Action Plans Explorer; continuing full steam ahead on development of Climate Emergency UK’s ‘Council Climate Plan Scorecards’ site, and setting up a research commissioning process that will kick in early next year.

    New features on CAPE

    Just barely missing the cut for Siôn’s mid-November monthnotes, we flipped the switch on another incremental improvement to CAPE, our database of council climate action plans:

    CAPE showing climate declarations and promises for a council

    CAPE now shows you whether a council has declared a climate emergency, and whether they’ve set themselves any public targets on becoming carbon neutral by a certain date. We are incredibly grateful to our partners Climate Emergency UK for helping us gather this data. Read my earlier blog post to find out more about how we achieved it.

    As well as displaying more data about each council, a core aim of the CAPE site is enabling more valuable comparisons with—and explorations of—the plans of similar councils. Previously, we’d done this by allowing you to browse councils of a particular type (London Boroughs, say, or County Councils), and by showing a list of “nearby” councils on each council’s page.

    Old CAPE page showing nearby councils

    However, we’re now excited to announce the launch of a whole new dimension of council comparisons on the site, thanks to some amazing work by our Research Associate Alex. To try them out, visit your council’s page on CAPE, and scroll down:

    New CAPE page showing similar councils

    These five tabs at the bottom of a council’s page hide a whole load of complexity—much of which I can barely explain myself—but the upshot is that visitors to CAPE will now be able to see much more useful, and accurate, suggestions of similar councils whose plans they might want to check out. Similar councils, after all, may be facing similar challenges, and may be able to share similar best practices. Sharing these best practices is what CAPE is all about.

    We’ll blog more about how we prepared these comparisons, in the new year.

    Council Climate Plan Scorecards

    As previously noted, we’re working with Climate Emergency UK to display the results of their analysis of council climate action plans, in early 2022. These “scorecards”, produced by trained volunteers marking councils’ published climate action plans and documents, will help open up the rich content of council’s plans, as well as highlighting best practice in nine key areas of a good climate emergency response.

    As part of the marking process, every council has been given a ‘Right of Reply’, to help Climate Emergency UK make sure the scorecards are as accurate as possible. We’re happy to share that they’ve received over 150 of these replies, representing over 50% of councils with a published climate action plan.

    With those council replies received, this month Climate Emergency UK’s experts were able to complete a second round of marking, producing the final scores.

    Meanwhile, Lucas, Struan, and I have been working away on the website interface that will make this huge wealth of data easily accessible and understandable – we look forward to sharing more about this in January’s monthnotes.

    Research commissioning

    Finally, as Alex recently blogged, we’ve been setting up a research commissioning process for mySociety – primarily to handle all the research we’d like to do in the Climate programme next year. Our main topics for exploration aren’t yet finalised, but we’re currently very interested in the following three areas:

    1. Public understanding of local authorities and climate
    2. Public pressure and local authorities
    3. How local authorities make decisions around climate

    Watch this space for more details about these research opportunities, and how to get involved.

  6. New on CAPE: headline pledges from councils

    The Climate Action Plans Explorer (CAPE) is gathering together every Climate Action Plan from every UK council that’s published one. We’re actively adding more functionality on an ongoing basis; most recently, we’ve extracted the ‘headline pledges’ from each plan, like this:

    screenshot showing Glasgow’s climate pledge

    Pledges like this give an idea of the council’s overarching priorities, but often have not been presented in isolation before, even by the councils themselves.

    Why we did this

    A core aim of our Climate programme is to improve the information ecosystem around local responses to the climate emergency:

    “We’re improving the information ecosystem to allow local and national campaigns, policymakers and other stakeholders to undertake better scrutiny and analysis of local climate action, and develop evidence-based policies and solutions.”

    We’ve already written about how we’re working with Climate Emergency UK to collect and score Climate Action Plans for every local authority in the UK. Providing people with an easy way into their local authority’s action plan will give them an unprecedented opportunity to gauge their council’s level of ambition in facing the climate emergency, and how they’re planning to turn those ambitions into actions.

    But plans can be complex, and time-consuming to read. Another, faster way people can understand their council’s level of ambition is by finding any targets that it might have set itself for decarbonising either the entire area, or just the council’s own operations, by a particular date.

    We call these ‘pledges’, and they’re typically not all that easy to find – they can be buried in council meeting minutes, or slipped somewhere into an unassuming page on the council’s website or action plan.

    Knowing what date your council is working towards, and what they believe they can achieve by that date, fundamentally sets the scene when it comes to understanding and contributing to the council’s climate actions.

    That’s why we decided to collect these pledges and share them on CAPE. Here’s where you’ll find them on each council’s page, setting the scene before you dig into the full action plan:

    Screenshot of Glasgow’s page on the Climate Action Plan explorer

    How we did this

    Collecting these pledges from scratch would be a mammoth task. Luckily, we were able to build on two partial datasets that gave us a headstart.

    An important thing to note is that we wanted to collect not only the scope (that is to say, whether the plan covers council operations only, or the whole area) and target date, but also the exact wording of the pledge, and the source where it was found.

    We found that local authorities often use terms like ‘carbon neutral’ and ‘net zero’ interchangeably, and the scope of pledges can sometimes be ambiguous. The most objective approach, therefore, was to present the entire pledge, as it was originally worded, and leave it up to the viewer to interpret the council’s intent. Collecting and exposing the source of the pledge would allow them to dig deeper and view the pledge in context, if they wanted to.

    Our partners, Climate Emergency UK, had already been collecting climate target dates as part of their ongoing monitoring of council responses to the climate and biodiversity emergencies. But since the target dates were just one small part of a much wider database, they hadn’t collected the direct quotes that we wanted to present.

    Still, in the Climate Emergency UK dataset, we effectively had a wide but shallow starting point, covering most councils in the UK, from which we could then proceed to fill in the detail by revisiting the sites, scanning them for anything that looked like a pledge, and pasting them into our database.

    We were also incredibly grateful to receive a smaller, but much more detailed, dataset of climate commitments from the National Audit Office, which covered 70% of the principal local authorities in England, some of which had made no commitments. They themselves had manually gathered these commitments from public sources—council’s minutes, websites, and action plans—over April to June of 2021.

    Combined with the Climate Emergency UK dataset, this data from the National Audit Office got us 75% of the way towards a full dataset of climate pledges from every council in the UK.

    With the help of Climate Emergency UK volunteers, we filled in the gaps on this combined dataset, collecting direct quotes for both council-only and whole area climate pledges, for 341 of the 408 councils in the UK.

    For the remaining 67 councils, we were unable to find a public climate pledge, or at least one with a concrete target date – but we’re hopeful that we might yet find this information, and the CAPE website includes a link on these councils’ pages through which visitors (or maybe councillors or council officers!) can contribute the data, if they’ve found a source elsewhere.

    Screenshot of the council list page

    The data was collected via an online spreadsheet, making it fairly easy to import into CAPE, as part of the website’s existing data processing pipeline. This feeds the pledges through to both the individual council pages, and also the all councils page, where you can now filter the list to show only councils with a target in a given five-year period, or no target at all.

    We will soon also be exposing these pledges via the CAPE API, so third parties can programmatically access and reuse the data in their own services. If this sounds like something you might find useful, do get in touch or subscribe to our Climate newsletter where we’ll be sure to share any news.

     

    Image: Romain Dancre

  7. How we got a 90-plus PageSpeed score on our 2020 annual report

    In this technical deep-dive, our designer Zarino Zappia explores how we used the latest web performance techniques to make our 2020 annual report quick and easy to download — no matter what kind of connection or device you’re using.


    Each year, mySociety produces an online annual report sharing a round-up of our achievements, a thank you to our supporters, funders, and volunteers, and our vision for the immediate future.

    For the last two years, that annual report has taken the form of a single, multi-section web page.

    This year, with more news than ever to cover across both mySociety and our commercial subsidiary SocietyWorks, we knew it was super important to get that single page running as smoothly and efficiently as possible in visitors’ web browsers.

    Our annual report is often shared as an introduction to the work mySociety does. It’s crucial that it sets a good first impression, and performance is a big part of that. It’s also an embodiment of what sets us apart from the crowd – we sweat the small stuff, to give users the best possible experience.

    What’s a PageSpeed score anyway?

    Google has done a lot of work championing fast loading websites, and their PageSpeed Insights tool is often used as a benchmark of web performance. Developers aim to achieve a mobile performance score of 90 or more – but often this is easier said than done!

    In this fairly technical blog post, I’m going to go through a few of ways we really optimised the performance of our 2020 annual report, to achieve a consistent 90-plus PageSpeed score. Through a combination of common sense, technological restraint, and a little extra effort, we manage to serve 6,500 words (a 33% increase over last year), 90 images, and two videos, over nine sections of a single page, in the blink of an eye.

    Here’s how.

    Keep it simple, stupid

    Like most mySociety products, the annual report starts with a very boring, very unfashionable, but very fast base – plain old HTML – in this case generated by Jekyll. Jekyll helps to keep our work maintainable by letting us refactor common elements out into their own includes, but since everything compiles to plain HTML, we get lightning fast page renders from our Nginx web server. We use static HTML sites a lot at mySociety – for example, for our documentation, our prototypes, and even some of our user-facing products. Sometimes simple is just better!

    Where we want to improve the user experience through interaction – things like hiding and showing the menu, and updating the URL as you scroll down the page – then we add small amounts of progressive enhancement via JavaScript. Again, like most mySociety products, the annual report treats JavaScript as a nice-to-have – everything would work without it, which means the browser can render the page quickly and our users spend less time looking at a blank white loading screen.

    On the styling side, we use Bootstrap to help us quickly pull together the frontend design work on the annual report in about a week at the beginning of December. We build our own slimmed down version of Bootstrap from the Sass source, with just the modules we need. Libraries like Bootstrap can sometimes be a bit of a sledgehammer to crack a nut, but by cherry-picking just the modules you need, you can dramatically reduce the size of your compiled CSS, without losing the flexibility and fast prototyping that a library like Bootstrap provides. The annual report makes heavy use of Bootstrap’s built-in components and utility functions, and then anything truly bespoke is handled by a few of our own custom styles laid on top.

    Use the tools at your disposal

    Performance tweaks that were cutting edge a few years ago have quickly gained widespread browser support, so if you’re not using them, you’re missing out. Most of them take pretty much no effort to set up, and will dramatically improve perceived loading time for your users.

    As a single, big, long page with almost 100 image tags, it’s imperative that we use lazy loading, to prevent the browser requesting all of those images at once on initial page load. Doing this is as easy as adding loading="lazy" to the image tags, but we also add a JavaScript fallback for browsers that don’t support the loading attribute, just to be safe. We even wrap it up in a nice Jekyll include, to make it super easy when managing the page content.

    We minify our CSS and JavaScript files, and the server is set to gzip them in transit. These things are really easy to forget, but can make a big difference to load time of a page full of static files.

    We also make an effort to efficiently encode our images – serving images at roughly the size they’re actually displayed, to reduce wasted bandwidth, and using WEBP compression with JPEG fallbacks, for the best balance of quality and filesize.

    Reduce run-time dependencies

    A big part of webpage performance is all the stuff that happens after the browser starts rendering the page. Loading external JavaScript libraries, tracking services, logging services – it all imposes a cost on your users. For some larger projects, you might decide the benefits for your team and the health of the product outweigh the network and performance cost for your users. But for the annual report we did the typically mySociety thing of reducing, reducing, reducing, to the simplest possible outcome. For example…

    We don’t load any social media JavaScript. Data is patchy on whether people actually use social sharing buttons anyway, but just in case, where we do display sharing buttons, we use old-fashioned sharing URLs that just open in a new tab. Rather than embedding tweets using Twitter’s JavaScript embed API, we build our own tweets out of HTML and CSS. Not only does this mean we’re avoiding having to load megabytes of third-party JavaScript on our page, but it also helps protect the privacy of our visitors.

    Sometimes you can’t avoid third-party JavaScript, though. For example, YouTube embeds. What you can do is defer loading the third-party JavaScript until right before it’s needed. In the case of YouTube embeds on the annual report, we use a little bit of our own JavaScript to delay loading any YouTube code until you click on a video thumbnail. To the end user, the entire thing happens instantaneously. But we know we’ve saved a whole lot of time not loading those iframes until they were really needed.

    Unusually for a mySociety project, we don’t even load jQuery on the annual report. While jQuery still makes sense for our bigger products, on something as simple as our annual report, it’s just not worth the filesize overhead. Instead we write modern, efficient JavaScript, and include small polyfills for features that might not be present in older browsers. It makes development slightly slower, but it’s worth it for a faster, smoother experience for our visitors.

    Nothing’s perfect!

    Overall, some sensible tech decisions early on, and a lot of hard work from the design team (including our new hire, Clive) resulted in a 2020 annual report I think we can be really proud of. I hope it’s also a taste of things to come, as we start introducing the same techniques into our other, bigger products.

    That said, there’s still a few things we could improve.

    We could achieve almost instant rendering on first pageload by extracting the CSS required to display the first few hundred pixels of the page, and inlining it, so it renders before the rest of the styles have been downloaded. We already do this on fixmystreet.com, for example, using Penthouse.

    There’s also an external dependency we could drop – Google Fonts. We’re currently using it to serve our corporate typeface, Source Sans Pro. The advantage of loading the typeface off Google Fonts is that most of our other sites also load the same typeface, so chances are the user will already have the font files in their browser cache. Self-hosting the fonts is unlikely to be much faster than loading from Google, but it would be a win for user privacy, since it’s one less external resource being hit for each pageload. Something to consider for future!

     

     

    Photo by Indira Tjokorda on Unsplash

  8. Open sesame! Simpler log-in forms on FixMyStreet

    When something’s not right on your street, and you’ve gone out of your way to report it to the local council, the last thing you want is to get bogged down in a complex log-in procedure.

    That’s why FixMyStreet has always put the log-in step after the reporting step, and has always allowed you to report a problem without needing an account or password at all.

    But we know we can always do better, and in the 11 years that FixMyStreet has been around, new design patterns have emerged across the web, shifting user expectations around how we prove our identities and manage our data on websites and online services.

    Over the years, we’d made small changes, informed by user feedback and A/B testing. But earlier this year, we decided to take a more holistic look at the entire log-in/sign-up process on FixMyStreet, and see whether some more fundamental changes could not only reduce the friction our users were experiencing, but help FixMyStreet actively exceed the average 2018 web user’s expectations and experiences around logging in and signing up to websites.

    One thing at a time

    Previously, FixMyStreet tried to do clever things with multi-purpose forms that could either log you in or create an account or change your password. This was a smart way to reduce the number of pages a user had to load. But now, with the vast majority of our UK users accessing FixMyStreet over high speed internet connections, our unusual combined log-in/sign-up forms simply served to break established web conventions and make parts of FixMyStreet feel strange and unfamiliar.

    In 2014 we added dedicated links to a “My account” page, and the “Change your password” form, but it still didn’t prevent a steady trickle of support emails from users understandably confused over whether they needed an account, whether they were already logged in, and how they could sign up.

    So this year, we took some of the advice we usually give to our partners and clients: do one thing per screen, and do it well. In early November, we launched dramatically simplified login and signup pages across the entire FixMyStreet network – including all of the sites we run for councils and public authorities who use FixMyStreet Pro.

    Along the way, we took careful steps—as we always do—to ensure that assistive devices are treated as first class citizens. That means everything from maintaining a sensible tab order for keyboard users, and following best practices for accessible, semantic markup for visually impaired users, to also making sure our login forms work with all the top password managers.

    Keeping you in control

    The simplified log-in page was a great step forward, but we knew the majority of FixMyStreet users never used it. Instead, they would sign up or log in during the process of reporting their problem.

    So, we needed to take some of the simplicity of our new log-in pages, and apply it to the reporting form itself.

    For a few years now, the FixMyStreet reporting form has been split into two sections – “Public details” about the problem (which are published online for all to see) followed by “Private details” about you, the reporter (which aren’t published, but are sent to the authority along with your report, so they can respond to you). This year, we decided to make the split much clearer, by dividing the form across two screens.

    Now the private details section has space to shine. Reorganised, with the email and password inputs next to each other (another convention that’s become solidified over the last five or ten years), and the “privacy level” of the inputs increasing as you proceed further down the page, the form makes much more sense.

    But to make sure you don’t feel like your report has been thrown away when it disappears off-screen, we use subtle animation, and a small “summary” of the report title and description near the top of the log-in form, to reassure you of your progress through the reporting process. The summary also acts as a logical place to return to your report’s public details, in case you want to add or amend them before you send.

    Better for everyone

    As I’ve mentioned, because FixMyStreet is an open source project, these improvements will soon be available for other FixMyStreet sites all over the UK and indeed the world. We’ve already updated FixMyStreet.com and our council partners’ sites to benefit from them, and we’ll soon be officially releasing the changes as part of FixMyStreet version 2.5, before the end of the year.

    I want to take a moment to thank everyone at mySociety who’s contributed to these improvements – including Martin, Louise C, Louise H, Matthew, Dave, and Struan – as well as the helpful feedback we’ve had from our council partners, and our users.

    We’re not finished yet though! We’re always working on improving FixMyStreet, and we’ll be keeping a keen eye on user feedback after these changes, so we can inform future improvements to FixMyStreet.com and the FixMyStreet Platform.


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  9. An update on our Collideoscope research

    So the last time we blogged about Collideoscope—our cycling collision and near miss reporting service, based on the FixMyStreet Platform—we’d just begun an exciting new phase of exploratory work, looking into how well the site currently meets user needs around collision prevention, and whether it could do more, for instance, in helping cyclists campaign for better safety measures, or helping police collect collision reports more efficiently.

    Since then, we’ve conducted a series of interviews, both with cyclists and campaign groups in the Merseyside area, as well as road safety data specialists from further afield, and also West Midlands Police, whose approach to cycle safety has garnered much praise over the last few years.

    One-on-one interviews are a part of the user centred design toolkit that we use a lot at mySociety, when we’re early on in a project, and just want to map out the process or problems people face, without jumping to conclusions over how they could be solved right now.

    In this case, we used the interviews to improve our understanding of five main areas:

    • The physical process of reporting a collision, or a near miss, to the police.
    • What incentives / disincentives cyclists have faced when reporting.
    • How police forces currently deal with collision reports, and near miss reports.
    • What role video recordings can play in reports / prosecutions, and what legal considerations need to be made, to prevent video damaging the case.
    • What data cycle safety campaigners currently use, and what new data they feel could improve their case when arguing for better cycling provision.

    The experiences, anecdotes, and connections we collect from interviews like these help us shape our thinking about how to build or improve our products, as well as highlighting particular avenues that need more research, or that we can start prototyping right away.

    Take video camera footage, for instance. A number of Collideoscope users have asked that we allow them to upload clips from their helmet- or handlebar-mounted cameras, along with their reports.

    But, on the other hand, we’d also heard a lot about how police forces were wary of collecting video footage, and especially worried about online videos damaging the chances of successful prosecutions in court.

    Our recent interviews showed us the line isn’t quite so clear – savvy police forces realise video evidence is hard to argue with in court, and they want people to submit videos as often as possible. In reality, if a claim reaches court, it’s not the presence of videos online that poses a problem, but the finger-pointing or speculation that often accompanies online footage in the comments section below the video, or in social media posts. This was fascinating to hear, and immediately gave us ideas as to the changes we might need to make, to protect the integrity of video evidence, if we allowed cyclists to upload clips to Collideoscope.

    It was also interesting speaking to campaigners about how the data collected by Collideoscope could help them raise the profile of cycle safety in their local areas, or on a national scale – especially data about near misses, something not covered by the UK’s official STATS19 dataset. We’re going to investigate how we could bring some of our boundary-related reporting expertise from MapIt and FixMyStreet onto Collideoscope, to help policy makers compare safety efforts in different areas, and help campaigners and councillors raise concerns over dangerous hotspots.

    Later this month, we’ll begin prototyping how some of the things we‘ve learned could work their way into Collideoscope. We’re also particularly keen to investigate the technical feasibility of integrating directly into police incident reporting products, such as the Egress-powered Operation Snap used by police forces in Wales and soon, hopefully, other forces in the UK.

    As before though, our research is by no means complete, so if you have expertise in this field, and would like to be consulted or participate in the project, we’d love to hear from you.

  10. Making better information requests in Hackney – Part II

    This is part II in a series of blog posts about our work with Hackney Council to conduct a discovery and prototyping project to improve the public-facing parts of information request processes. Read the first part here.

    With our experience of running WhatDoTheyKnow and Alaveteli, we’re big believers in the importance of information transparency laws in our democratic system. But at the same time, we understand the operational challenges of meeting the statutory requirements of these laws for public bodies.

    The challenges of dealing with information requests

    While many local authorities have dedicated information governance staff whose job it is to manage requests, finding and compiling the information is often done by hard-pressed staff within services, fitting in information-related work around their core responsibilities.

    Requesters sometimes have the expectation that information is all carefully organised in a few databases, ready to be aggregated and extracted at the click of a button. In reality, the degree to which information is well-organised varies a lot between services in a council and between different councils, often because of procurement decisions and departmental priorities stretching back many years.

    Working with Hackney Council

    We’re part way through our project with Hackney Council that Mark wrote about a few weeks ago, helping them redesign the public-facing parts of their FOI and Subject Access Request (SAR) services, so we’ve seen these challenges up close. We’ve also seen how they can be made even trickier by legacy IT systems that are no longer fit for purpose.

    At our ‘show and tell’ last week with Hackney, we shared findings from some of the research we’ve done, along with early prototypes of potential new FOI and SAR submission forms, both created collaboratively with Hackney Council staff.

    Prototyping with the GDS toolkit

    We decided to go straight from sketches to HTML-based prototypes for this project. We thought that moving in-browser with real interactive elements would make it easier to test out some of the more complicated interactions and conditional workflow of the SAR process in particular.

    Prototyping is about quickly testing hypotheses, and not getting bogged down in implementation details. So it was a pleasure to use the GDS frontend toolkit to build our prototypes. Not only did the GOV.UK toolkit help us build something relatively rich in just a few days, but it also meant we benefited from GDS’s previous work on design patterns developed for exactly this kind of context.

    Using public information to reduce FOI requests

    When submitting a request via WhatDoTheyKnow, users are automatically shown previously submitted requests that might answer their question, and we know that almost 10% of requesters have a look at these suggestions in more detail.

    As you can see here, we took this pattern from WhatDoTheyKnow, and enhanced it further in our FOI prototype.

    Now, as well as prompting with previous FOI responses from a disclosure log that we’re hoping to build, we also want to include relevant links to other topical or frequently requested information, drawn from other data sources within the council.

    If we can get this to work well, we think it could have a number of benefits:

    • Helping the person submitting the FOI get their answer more quickly
    • Reducing the number of requests that would otherwise have been sent to the council
    • Encouraging more proactive, structured publishing of data by the council.

    It’s this last point which we’re really interested in, longer term. We think using a common sense technology approach to highlight possible answers to FOI requests before they are made will get people answers more quickly, reduce the burden on responders, and reinforce efforts to proactively release commonly requested data leading to real transparency benefits.

    We’ve been doing usability testing of these prototypes over the last few days, and will be looking very closely at whether our assumptions here stand up to scrutiny.

    Reducing back and forth around SARs

    Given our background, we’re inevitably very interested in the FOI component of this project, but the Subject Access Request component is no less important. And while there’s none of the same opportunity for pre-emptively answering people’s requests, there’s plenty of scope for making the submission process a lot smoother.

    A valid FOI is just a written request and some contact details, but the information needed for a SAR to be valid is much greater and more complicated. For example, along with the specifics of the request, a solicitor asking for personal information on behalf of a parent and their 16-year old child would have to provide proof of ID and address for both family members, a letter of consent from the child, and a letter of authority from the parent, confirming that the solicitor is acting for them. Even the most straightforward SAR calls for the handling of personal data and confirmation of the requestor’s identity and address.

    Given all this complexity, it’s easy for there to be a lot of back and forth at the start of a SAR: clarifying a request, asking for documents, arranging receipt of documents, and so on.

    We’re hoping to build something that makes it much clearer to the person making the request what they’ll need to do, thereby taking some of that responsibility off the shoulders of the team managing the requests.

    process sketch showing first thoughts about SARs

    The sketch above was our first crack at something that could handle (most of) this complexity, and we’ve made a number of changes since then as our understanding of it all has increased.

    Recruiting representative users to test SAR submission has proved challenging and wasn’t helped by the Beast from the East rearing its snow-covered head. But we changed tack and successfully ran some guerilla testing in Hackney’s service centre last week, and we’re hoping to do further testing later in the project that has more chance of benefiting from contacts cultivated by individual services.

    Changing the conversation

    The conversation around information requests often focuses on the burden of responding. And although the number of information requests local authorities receive is unlikely to decrease any time soon, we’re hoping that through our collaboration with Hackney, we can make handling them a whole lot easier.

    If we do it well, we think we could eliminate a lot of the process issues created by poorly-designed legacy systems, while baking in a fundamentally more open and transparent way of operating that has the potential to benefit both citizen and state alike.

    Get involved

    If you’re responsible for managing FOI requests or data protection in your own public sector body and you’d like to follow this project in more detail—or if you’d like to participate in some of the discovery work—then please get in touch at hello@mysociety.org.

     

    Image: Sarah Palmer-Edwards