Collideoscope, like many mySociety projects, is a website of two halves. On the one hand, it invites those involved in a cycling collision or near miss to contribute information to a database; on the other, it provides an output of all that aggregated data for planners, researchers, campaigners and anyone else who will find it useful.
We’ll shortly be making some changes to the site so that its purpose and functionality are crystal clear; but in the meanwhile the next important step was to import the most recent batch of STATS19 data.
STATS19 is the form the police fill in when road accidents are reported, lending its name to the dataset released annually by the Department of Transport. We include this data on Collideoscope alongside our users’ reports: we just take the reports which refer to cycling incidents, and with this latest update we’re now displaying everything from 2013 up to 2016, the most recent data available.
That means, when you browse the site, you can see at a glance how many incidents have occurred in a specific area, not just from our users but from the primary national accident database too. Just click the checkbox (‘show reports from the Department of Transport’) at the top of the page to include them on the map.
So that’s our most recent bit of housekeeping; now watch this space for some bigger changes to Collideoscope.
Image: Charisse Kenion
Our most recent improvement to FixMyStreet means that users in Bromley will experience some clever routing on their reports.
It’s something quite a few FixMyStreet users have requested, telling us that they’d reported a street issue in London, only to have a response from their authority to say that it was located on a ‘red route‘ — roads which are the responsibility of TfL rather than the council.
Of course, most councils have systems set up so that they can easily forward these misdirected reports to the right place, but all the same, it wasn’t ideal, and added another step into a reporting process we’ve always tried to keep as simple and quick as possible.
Thanks to some development for Bromley council, we’re now glad to say that within that borough, reports on red routes will automatically be forwarded to TfL, while other reports will be sent, as usual, to the relevant council department.
As a user, you don’t have to do a thing (although you can see this automated wizardry in action by watching changes in the text telling you where the report will be sent, as you click on the map in different places and select a different category – give it a go!).
Note that this functionality has not yet been extended to the FixMyStreet app; however in the meantime it will work if you visit fixmystreet.com via your mobile browser.
A new layer
As you’ll know if you’re a frequent FixMyStreet user, the site has always directed reports to the right UK council, based on the boundaries within which the pin is placed.
And equally, even within the same area it can discern that different categories of report (say, streetlights as opposed to parking) should be sent to whichever authority is responsible for them: that’s an essential in a country like the UK with its system of two-tier councils.
So this new innovation just meant adding in a map layer which gives the boundaries of the relevant roads that are designated red routes, then putting in extra code that saw anything within the roads’ boundaries as a new area, and TfL as the authority associated with road maintenance categories within that area.
FixMyStreet has always been flexible in this regard: you can swap map layers in or out as needed, leading to all sorts of possibilities. Yesterday, we showed how this approach has also averted one common time-waster for councils, and the same set-up is behind the display of council assets such as trees and streetlights that you’ll see for some areas on FixMyStreet.
The integration of red routes is available for any London Borough, so if you’re from a council that would like to add it in, get in touch. And to see all the new innovations we’re working on to make FixMyStreet Pro the most useful street reporting system it can be, check out the website.
Image: Marc-Olivier Jodoin
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.
We, and Open Knowledge International, are looking for the digital files that hold electoral boundaries, for every country in the world — and you can help.
Yeah, we know — never let it be said we don’t know how to party.
But seriously, there’s a very good reason for this request. When people make online tools to help citizens contact their local politicians, they need to be able to match users to the right representatives.
So head on over to the Every Boundary survey and see how you can help — or read on for a bit more detail.
Data for tools that empower citizens
If you’ve used mySociety’s sites TheyWorkForYou — or any of the other parliamentary monitoring sites we’ve helped others to run around the world — you’ll have seen this matching in action. Electoral boundary data is also integral in campaigning and political accountability, from Surfers against Sewage’s ‘Plastic Free Parliament’ campaign, to Call your Rep in the US.
These sites all work on the precept that while people may not know the names of all their representatives at every level — well, do you? — people do tend to know their own postcode or equivalent. Since postcodes fall within boundaries, once both those pieces of information are known, it’s simple to present the user with their correct constituency or representative.
So the boundaries of electoral districts are an essential piece of the data needed for such online tools. As part of mySociety’s commitment to the Democratic Commons project, we’d like to be able to provide a single place where anyone planning to run a politician-contacting site can find these boundary files easily.
And here’s why we need you
Electoral boundaries are the lines that demarcate where constituencies begin and end. In the old days, they’d have been painstakingly plotted on a paper map, possibly accessible to the common citizen only by appointment.
These days, they tend to be available as digital files, available via the web. Big step forward, right?
But, as with every other type of political data, the story is not quite so simple.
There’s a great variety of organisations responsible for maintaining electoral boundary files across different countries, and as a result, there’s little standardisation in where and how they are published.
How you can help
We need the boundary files for 231 countries (or as we more accurately — but less intuitively — refer to them, ‘places’), and for each place we need the boundaries for constituencies at national, regional and city levels. So there’s plenty to collect.
As we so often realise when running this sort of project, it’s far easier for many people to find a few files each than it would be for our small team to try to track them all down. And that, of course, is where you come in.
Whether you’ve got knowledge of your own country’s boundary files and where to find them online, or you’re willing to spend a bit of time searching around, we’d be so grateful for your help.
Fortunately, there’s a tool we can use to help collect these files — and we didn’t even have to make it ourselves! The Open Data Survey, first created by Open Knowledge International to assess and display just how much governmental information around the world is freely available as open data, has gone on to aid many projects as they collect data for their own campaigns and research.
Now we’ve used this same tool to provide a place where you can let us know where to find that electoral boundary data we need.
Where to begin
Thanks for your help — it will go on to improve citizen empowerment and politician accountability throughout the world. And that is not something everyone can say they’ve done.
Image credit: Sam Poullain
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
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.
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