1. What you’ll notice on FixMyStreet 3.0

    We recently released version 3.0 of the open source software which FixMyStreet runs on.

    This brings some substantial improvements to the code. The update is available to anyone running a site on the FixMyStreet platform, which includes our own fixmystreet.com; the installations we provide for councils and authorities; and the FixMyStreet instances run by others, in places from Australia to Uruguay.

    If you run a site on the FixMyStreet platform yourself, or are just interested in the technical details, you can read the release notes here.

    Meanwhile, here’s a rundown of the new front-end features you might notice if you’re a user of FixMyStreet.

    Run the site as an app

    FixMyStreet can now be added to phones (and desktops for that matter) as a ‘progressive app’. Here’s what to look for when you visit fixmystreet.com:

    On Chrome for Android:

    Installing FixMyStreet on Chrome on Android

    Access from the bar at the bottom of the screen.

    On iOS:

     

    Share button on iOs

    Click the share icon at the foot of the screen.

    Add to homescreen

    Then select  ‘add to home screen’.

    On Firefox for Android:

    Installing FixMyStreet on Firefox for Android

    Look for the pop up notification or tap the home icon with a plus sign in it in the URL bar.

    Any of these methods will install a version of FixMyStreet that will behave like an app, placing an icon on your desktop, browser start page or home screen.

    This way there is no need to download or update from the app store, and changes to the main website (which are invariably released sooner than on the app) will be immediately available to you.

    Cobrands (for example the councils that use FixMyStreet as part of their own websites, and people running FixMyStreet in their own countries) can provide their own logo and colourscheme as well.

    Mobile browser improvements

    Whether you install the progressive web app or just visit fixmystreet.com on your mobile browser, you may notice some nice new features.

    • If you use the geolocation function (‘use my location’), your position will be displayed on the map:Marker showing user's location on FixMyStreet when viewed on a mobile browser
    • When viewing an area, you can access the filters to narrow the reports displayed down by their status (fixed/open etc) and category:Filter options on FixMyStreet's mobile browser interface
    • If you’re about to report something that looks like a duplicate, you’ll not only be shown the report/s that have already been made, but you’ll also see a small inline map without having to scroll back to the main map to check where they are.
    • The site recognises that when you’re on a mobile, the message about uploading a photo shouldn’t invite you to ‘drag and drop’, but rather to either take a new one or select a photo from your phone.Prompt to add a photo on FMS app
    • If you’ve placed the pin incorrectly, the ‘try again’ process is clearer.

    Sharing reports 

    If a picture paints a thousand words, then your Twitter character count just went stratospheric. Now, when you share a report on places like Twitter or Facebook, if there’s a photo included in the report, that will also be pulled through.

    Previously, the ‘open graph image’ that was shown by default was the same for every report  — which could get a bit boring in aggregate, and certainly missed some of the impact that people might want to share when they’re posting about their own, or others’ reports.

    Tweet showing a picture pulled through from a FixMyStreet report

    Social media isn’t the only place that FixMyStreet reports can be piped to, though — the site also has several RSS capabilities that have been baked in since its early days.

    For those not totally up to speed with RSS and what it can do, we’re now no longer displaying them as raw XML but as a nice simple web page that explains its purpose.

    To see this in action, click ‘Local Alerts’ in the top menu of any page. Here’s a before and after:

    FixMyStreet RSS feeds before and after a design refresh

    What benefits one, benefits all

    Much of this work is thanks to NDI, the National Democratic Institute.

    NDI offer the FixMyStreet codebase as one of their DemTools, installing it in countries around the world as an innovation which empowers citizens to keep their neighbourhoods clean and safe.

    Thanks to this partnership, NDI funded the addition of new features which they had identified as desirable — and which, thanks to the open codebase, will benefit users of every FixMyStreet site worldwide.

    There are some other significant additions in this release, including integration, back end and security improvements, all of which will be of most interest to developers and site admins — so if you’d like to see them, head over to the full write up on the FixMyStreet platform blog.

    Image: Max Fuchs

  2. Freedom of Information during the pandemic

    The Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic is having an impact on response times to Freedom of Information requests. Please see this information from the Information Commissioner’s Office, and the Scottish Information Commissioner. You can contact the WhatDoTheyKnow team if you have any questions about your requests.

     

    At times of crisis, the need for factual information is clear — and Freedom of Information is the lawful mechanism by which we can demand it. And yet, it is becoming increasingly obvious that across the world, rights to information are being eroded, by design or by circumstance, as governments and authorities deal with the effects of COVID-19.

    Rather than restrict access to information, at this time bodies should be moving towards proactive release, and any necessary restrictions that are put in place must be temporary and time limited.

    Keeping our rights intact

    At WhatDoTheyKnow we are, of course, resolute that we must not allow the current situation to cause lost ground in the right to hold our authorities accountable.

    Nonetheless, we do of course recognise the difficulties involved for authorities in keeping a service running at a time when the workforce may be depleted, staff may be working from home and not able to access physical files, and resources may be quite rightly being prioritised on the frontline of the fight to keep the population safe.

    We call for a common sense approach that balances this new working environment with the enhanced need for public information:

    • A recognition that not all authorities and not all departments will be equally affected by the current crisis. While it is clear that those which are working in the areas of health, policing, and other frontline activities are likely to be the least able to dedicate resources to FOI, other authorities/departments should do all they can to keep their channels of information open and active.
    • In the spirit of transparency and public interest, all authorities should commit to the proactive publication of information, without the need for it to be requested. This should especially apply to decisions being made around public health, responses to COVID-19, and changes to rights and freedoms of citizens; and the data informing these decisions. Proactive publication requires fewer resources than responding to individual requests as they arise.
    • Measures that are put in place to relax the right to information during this fast-moving environment must be recognised as temporary and reassessed at regular frequent intervals. When the health crisis has passed, they must be removed and the right to information must be restored to the same, or better, status as previously enjoyed by citizens.

    Information is vital

    More than ever, now is the time to ask questions: what plans do our governments have in place to tackle this unprecedented threat? What research is guiding their actions? How are they meeting targets for testing, for vital equipment, for hospital beds?

    Or, just as importantly, as Julia Keseru asks in this piece: how are the most vulnerable in society being impacted by the broad stroke decisions being implemented?

    In the UK, the government has stated a commitment to transparency: “In fast moving situations, transparency should be at the heart of what the government does”. But the gaps in existing data are noted by Jeni Tennison here, alongside a call for private companies to do what they can.

    And at the same time, we’ve seen a relaxation of authorities’ obligations under the FOI Act in recognition of stretched resources and depleted staff.

    These have taken the form of a notification from the ICO that they will be more lenient towards authorities providing late responses, and messages from authorities themselves that they will be providing a cut-down service.

    Guy’s Hospital, for example, is understandably responding with a plea for people to consider whether their request is really required; while Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole Council are auto-responding: “The Council is not currently in a position to respond to your request. This is as a result of ensuring that all available resources are diverted to support the community and we can continue to deliver essential and priority services during the unprecedented crisis presented by COVID19. Please resubmit your request at a later date and not before 8th June“.

    Scotland’s emergency bill, voted through yesterday, massively extended the deadline for responses despite intervention from campaigners and MSPs. As a result, WhatDoTheyKnow’s auto-prompts when an authority has not responded within the mandated timeframe are currently wrong, and we’ll be looking at correcting this as soon as we can. [Update: We now account for the new law in Scotland, but there may be a few existing requests or authorities that we’ve missed out, so please get in touch if you have questions about your request.]

    Information doesn’t just allow us to hold our governments to account over the actions they take during this crisis. As Newspeak House’s Corona Virus Tech Handbook has vividly demonstrated, shared knowledge allows collaboration, in some cases across borders, that may literally save lives.

    A global lapse

    Meanwhile, in countries around the world, the reaction has ranged from New Zealand’s ‘pro-transparency’ response, documented along with less hopeful dispatches from other countries in this post from Global Investigative Journalism Network, to Hungary’s worrying move to rule by decree.

    At WhatDoTheyKnow, we stand by our international community of friends and colleagues who value the citizens’ right to know.

    Access to Information and journalists’ networks are monitoring the erosion or upholding of our rights across the world, and will act to preserve them where we can.

    Image: Dimitri Karastelev

  3. TICTeC goes virtual: running a large scale international conference online

    Last week, we held our first ever online conference.

    TICTeC, mySociety’s annual Impacts of Civic Technology conference, was to have run in Reykjavik on 24 and 25 March, but those plans were, like so many others, scuppered by the COVID-19 outbreak. Instead, on those same dates, 180 people from 30 different countries joined us for a cut-down programme of online presentations from a selection of the speakers who’d planned to join us in Iceland.

    There’s no doubt that a conference is more fun when you all assemble in the same place, make connections and maybe enjoy some socialising too. Nonetheless, we now have proof that the essential part of TICTeC, the dissemination of research and knowledge — as well as at least part of the friendly socialising — can be managed virtually. As we all seek to decrease our carbon footprints, that is important knowledge.

    Other organisations are of course also looking to take their events online, and now that TICTeC is all done, several have asked if we could share some tips.

    So Gemma, mySociety’s Events Organiser, has shared all the logistics below and we hope that these will be useful. As she points out, this may not be the best way to run a conference online, but it certainly achieved everything we’d hoped for in the ten days we had available to put something together.

    Step 1: Making a decision

    Cancelling the real-world TICTeC was a real wrench: months of work had gone into arranging speakers, putting together the agenda, booking the venue and flights, and so on. Of course, as time went on, and the lockdown became more extensive, it became clear that there really wouldn’t have been the option to do otherwise.

    But we were left with a decision: should we postpone TICTeC, or perhaps simply forget all about it for this year? Or we could try to move it online.

    That decision had to be made fairly rapidly, since we’d cancelled only a couple of weeks before the event. It made sense to stick to the same dates if we were going online, because people had already earmarked them as time they’d be away from their workplace.

    So we decided we’d go for a virtual conference, and Gemma turned her formidable organisation skills away from Reykjavik and towards pulling this new kind of event together — all while wading through the long list of cancellations: the venue, staff flights, caterers, hotels, etc, etc.

    mySociety obviously has some advantages when it comes to this sort of thing: we’ve been working remotely since our inception; and a large proportion of our staff is technically adept. That said, we didn’t build anything. The technical aspect really only came into play to help us make decisions on what existing third party platform/s we would use, so if your own organisation is not so tecchy, you may find that you can benefit from our decisions and follow this plan anyway.

    Step 2: Rearranging the agenda

    Once we knew we were going ahead, Gemma contacted all the speakers to find out who would be willing to do their presentations virtually, what the practical challenges were for each, and how we could get around them. For example, was their wifi signal strong enough, or would they need to rely on data? If the latter, could we pay for them to top it up?

    These were significant considerations that if we hadn’t attended to them could actually have derailed the conference. In fact our intrepid keynote Nanjala Nyabola in Kenya found herself running to buy more data for her phone just minutes before her session began.

    People who would have been running workshops were asked if they’d like to create a ‘fringe event’ — ie, they would do the set-up for their own online session, and we would promote it on the TICTeC agenda.

    We decided not to try and run two full days, as that is a long time for anyone to sit in front of a screen. Instead, we scheduled the line up from 1pm to 5pm GMT each day, which also fitted in with a wide range of timezones.

    Timezones played a part in the practicalities of putting together a schedule, too, with speakers from countries from Taiwan to South America — obviously we didn’t want to be asking anyone to have to make a presentation at three in the morning their time! Here’s the final line-up.

    Step 3: Deciding on and setting up the tech

    zoom pandemic scooby doo memeYou’ve probably seen the jokey meme going round suggesting that Zoom, the online conferencing platform, was actually behind the pandemic — they certainly seem to be getting a lot of custom from it, and we have to admire how they’ve coped with the increased capacity.

    We, too, decided to use Zoom, as it had been recommended by a few people we trust. Zoom isn’t entirely frictionless — you have to set up an account and it prompts you to download a piece of software before using it the first time — but it’s robust and did pretty much everything we wanted it to.

    Additionally we used Slido, which allows people to submit questions and then everyone can vote for the ones they most want to hear the answers to. We’d seen this used to great effect by Audrey Tang who was our keynote-via-video link-up at TICTeC in Florence, in 2017.

    Then finally we set up a Google Drive folder containing a document for each session so everyone could contribute to collaborative note-taking, and where we also stored speakers’ slides.

    Gemma created a staff roles document ahead of the conference to brief the team. It was worth running through each simple task via a video call with staff about a week before the conference to make sure everyone understood their duties — this prevented any hiccups.

    If you’d like to see the nitty gritty of the various options we went for in Zoom and Slido, see this document.

    Step 4: belt and braces

    Gemma got in touch with the headline speakers for some trial runs, to test how well their connection would stand up on the day.

    If there was some danger that the connection wouldn’t be good enough and a speaker wouldn’t be able to make their presentation, Gemma asked them to prepare a video of their talk as a safety net.

    In the event, everything was fine and we didn’t need to switch to video, but it was good to know that we had that fallback.

    Gemma also advises to be prepared for your own connection going down, which happened to her mid-TICTeC! She found that tethering off her phone worked just as well if not better than her home broadband, so if you don’t know how to do this, it is worth looking it up. Instructions will vary depending on your phone set-up.

    Step 5: promotion

    Creating the event generated a Zoom URL, which we then shared with speakers.

    Next, we needed to make sure that as many people as possible knew that the event was happening. We put the word out via our newsletter (with an extra reminder being sent out on the morning of the first day), and every civic tech-related mailing list or Facebook group we could think of. We also sent out scores of tweets highlighting each speaker, and a few Facebook, LinkedIn and Instagram posts.

    All of these communications linked to a central blog post which explained what people needed to do to participate (ie make sure they had access to Zoom, etc) and linked to the agenda. On the agenda were:

    • the timings and schedule
    • the links to Zoom, Slido and the Google docs

    Keeping all the information in one place meant that if anything changed, we only had to edit that document. We asked everyone to share the information widely.

    Mainly due to the lack of time we didn’t set up any kind of registration, such as an Eventbrite page. This had the positive effect that there were fewer barriers to joining in (and that anyone learning about the event while it was in progress, say, via Twitter, could just hop on), but it also meant that people wouldn’t receive an automatic reminder of the event starting, and that we had absolutely no idea how many people to expect.

    Anyone with the Zoom meeting URL could join. Zoom prefers people to download their launcher, but we heard from a couple of sources that this isn’t necessary or particularly desirable, so we also linked to this page on how to use your browser instead.

    Step 6: running the event

    We always take several mySociety staff members to help run TICTeC. If you’re thinking that a virtual conference would require less manpower, that’s not what we found. We called on all of the colleagues who would have been with us in Reykjavik to help make sure TICTeC online went smoothly. There were numerous tasks: none of them was particularly grueling, but put together, they’d definitely have been too much for just one or two people to handle.

    See this document for full details of everything that was going on behind the scenes while TICTeC was running.

    In short, while Bec and Mark (Head of Research and CEO) were introducing speakers and running the Q&A sessions  — a job requiring a surprising amount of energy — Gemma was manning a second Zoom conference, the ‘green room’, where speakers could test their connections, mics, cameras and slides before coming into the main one.

    Sam, our sysadmin, was on hand in case anything failed. Myf, Communications Manager was clearing Slido between sessions and tweeting to let people know what was going on. Other staff members were ensuring that notes were being taken on the collaborative documents, and keeping an eye on Zoom chat to see if anyone needed help.

    Knowing that people would be joining the event at different times throughout the two days, we kept repeating messages in Zoom’s chat about the location of Google docs, the conference hashtag, and that people should use Slido rather than Zoom to pose questions.

    Slido made it easy for our two conference compères to ask speakers the most popular questions during conference Q&As. During the conference, we frequently reminded attendees in the Zoom chat to ask and vote for questions on Slido.

    Step 7: sharing the event

    Thanks to Zoom’s add-on allowing us to record the event, we now have videos of the whole thing, as well as a copy of everything that was said in chat.

    The plan is to edit this into a video for each session, which we’ll then publish on our YouTube channel.

    Where we have them, the slides for the presentations are in the Google Drive, as are the notes.

    Step 8: look back and evaluate

    So, how was it for you?

    We can’t pretend we offered anything like all the joys of swinging by the Blue Lagoon or Seljalandsfoss, checking in with associates to enjoy a pricey Icelandic beer, and mingling with the friendly civic tech community face to face. Those things, sadly, are on hold for the foreseeable.

    But we do think we managed to produce something special.

    There really was a sense of camaraderie and togetherness in our virtual Zoom conference room, perhaps borne of all those previous TICTeCs where people have had time to build up relationships in real life.

    The presentations went well. Speakers came through loud and clear; their personalities were not reduced and their points were not diluted by the online environment. It was just as easy to take in the information and to pose questions as it would have been in a conference hall. Small jokes resonated and the resulting chuckles rippled across the world.

    To our relief, and perhaps to some small degree of surprise, everything went smoothly. Gemma mostly puts this down to the planning and practice we did in the week or so beforehand, but also to colleagues and to the speakers and attendees all approaching this novel set-up with a degree of trust and a willingness to try.

    We’re hugely grateful to the speakers and attendees who made all of this possible. Thanks, too, to our sponsors Luminate, Google, Facebook, the Citizens’ Foundation and Balsamiq, all of whom stuck with us as we pivoted to an online event.

    Finally, kudos to Gemma who really is the linchpin of all our events and whose refusal to be daunted by a vast list of admin practicalities repeatedly serves as an inspiration to us all.

    We are all very much hoping that soon enough, our community can all be in the same room again. And goodness, won’t we all appreciate it.

  4. FOI reveals that Higher Education Institutes spend more than £330 million on access to research journals

    Stuart Lawson is a librarian, one of the editors at the Journal of Radical Librarianship, and a part of the open access movement which advocates that research outputs should be distributed for free and online, with an open license — for the good of all.

    So it should come as no surprise to learn that some of Stuart’s recent research, informed by Freedom of Information requests to the UK’s Higher Education Institutes, has focused on research journals — and specifically, how much institutes are paying for subscriptions. You can see the requests here, the data released in this spreadsheet, and the resulting report here.

    The study collected details of payments made by HEIs for access to academic journals from 2017-2019,  focusing on ten publishers. The research team discovered that the total expenditure was more than £330 million.

    We spoke to Stuart and asked for some background to this FOI-based investigation, beginning with an explanation of the original motivation behind it:

    “Open access publishing means that research is available to everyone, but there are debates around how that model can be paid for. And since there is currently a mixed system where some publications are open access and some require subscriptions to access, libraries are continuing to pay a lot of money for subscriptions while also trying to find ways to fund open access.

    “I am a librarian who wants all research to be published open access rather than behind a paywall, so I felt that it was important to know the financial costs of the current system.

    “Previously, the amounts were unknown. It’s impossible to have conversations about the appropriate cost of scholarly publishing if we don’t know what those costs are in the first place!”

    The need for FOI

    Freedom of Information is, of course, a practical way to obtain data from public authorities, and to build up a nationwide picture. But in this case, it was vital.

    “Using the legal tool of FOI was the only way to get this data, as institutions were not voluntarily releasing it.

    “One publisher, Elsevier, even had a clause in the contracts signed by libraries that forbade them from telling anyone how much they were spending, unless they were required to via an FOI request.

    “These ‘non-disclosure’ clauses are common worldwide in publisher contracts, but thankfully not widely used in the UK (except by Elsevier) because Jisc — the higher education body that negotiates most deals — have worked to remove them”.

    Despite the reluctance that one might assume that this signified, Stuart says getting the required information was pretty straightforward once they’d submitted the FOI requests. In fact, the hardest part was the admin:

    “A majority of HEIs provided the data promptly, although some refused in the first instance which meant I need to push back and sometimes requested an internal review of the handling of the request.

    “Eventually most institutions provided the data, but the hold-outs caused a lot more work for me”.

    Making requests in public

    Why was WhatDoTheyKnow particularly suitable for this project?

    “It was the best way that I knew of to make bulk requests to organisations. But more importantly for me, I wanted to make sure there was a complete public record of all responses so that when I compiled the data, others could verify it”.

    That’s one of the reasons that WhatDoTheyKnow is set up to publish FOI requests and responses online, so we were glad to hear this.

    And what is Stuart’s desired outcome from this study?

    “For people to realise the high cost of subscription charges, and for libraries to question how much they are spending. And perhaps even cancel some of the deals and spend their money on enabling open access instead.”

    It’s possible that this piece of research will be enough of an eye-opener to start making a change in this area. But Stuart’s realistic:

    “I hope I don’t need to send these requests again in future years, but the situation is still moving quite slowly, so it might be necessary to use WhatDoTheyKnow once again!”

    Image: Bruno Mira

  5. TICTeC’s going online

    Thanks to the travel restrictions imposed due to Covid-19, TICTeC will not be going ahead in Reykjavik. Instead, we will be taking the TICTeC experience online. We very much hope you’ll join us from the comfort of your own homes.

    Here’s everything you need to know to be a part of the first ever completely virtual version of our annual Impacts of Civic Technology conference.

    When

    On the afternoons of Tuesday 24 and Wednesday 25 March.

    Tuesday: 13:00 to 17:00 GMT

    Wednesday: 13:00 to 17:10 GMT

    There’ll also be fringe events happening around these times.

    How much?

    Free of charge, of course.

    What’s the agenda?

    You can see the timings for each session on the agenda here. Join us for the whole lot, or dip in and out to the parts that interest you.

    We’re delighted to say that we’ll still have barnstorming keynote sessions from Nanjala Nyabola and Hollie Russon Gilman, each giving profound insights into the extraordinary political times we are living in, from a global perspective.

    There’ll also be sessions from representatives of Iceland‘s local and national government and civil society; research presented from Uganda, Taiwan, North and South America and beyond; and speakers from a range of organisations including Civic Hall, Citizens Foundation of Iceland, g0v.tw, Transparency International UK, The African Legal Information Institute, Frag Den Staat… and more.

    So TICTeC will still be allowing you to gain insights from all around the world, sticking to our mission of bringing together practitioners, commentators, academics and funders to debate, network, and share research and knowledge in the civic tech field.

    What else is going on?

    There will be fringe events as well (details TBA) and the opportunity to chat online with other attendees.

    What do I need to take part?

    Zoom

    Presentations will be taking place via Zoom. Before TICTeC starts, please make sure you have downloaded the Zoom launcher, or read this page to learn more about Zoom, including how to use it in your browser. The link to TICTeC is https://zoom.us/j/528401903.

    This link is also on the agenda page.

    Slido

    Slido allows the audience to submit and vote for audience questions, so the ones that the speaker answers are the ones most people want to hear. Once the event is live, just enter the code at the top of the agenda on slido.com in your browser. If you prefer to use the app, download it here.

    Access to Google docs

    There’ll be a collaborative document for each session where we can all work together to take notes for each session. Find them all here.

    You won’t need a Google account to view or add to these documents.

    You might want to do all this in good time before Tuesday, just to make sure everything works!

    What if I can’t make those dates?

    We’ll be putting the videos online afterwards, and you can check the notes as well. So the only thing you’ll miss out on is the real-time chatting and networking.

    Please spread the word

    We have room for literally thousands of participants, so this is the chance for anyone who has an interest in Civic Tech to come and enjoy some great presentations for free.

    Let’s take this opportunity to widen our audience and put the word out through social media, newsletters, blog posts, wherever people will see it. Thanks!

    We want to extend our thanks to the sponsors and supporters of TICTeC 2020:

     

  6. Wishing Mzalendo well

    Back in February 2012, we announced the launch of a new site for Mzalendo, a parliamentary monitoring website for Kenya.

    This year, we handed the hosting, development and maintenance of the site over to the Mzalendo team on the ground. We’re delighted that they are in the position to no longer require our help.

    Supported by the Indigo Foundation, this was one of mySociety’s first formal partnerships in which we developed a website for an existing organisation — in this case, building on the work of two activists Ory Okolloh and Conrad Akunga, who had been filling a gap in Kenya’s public provision of parliamentary information by blogging and publishing MPs’ data since 2005.

    If it wasn’t for their work, Kenya would be a whole lot less informed about its own parliament: the official government website, for example, only had information about 50% of the nation’s MPs at the time, and the country’s Hansard could only be accessed by request to the Government’s Printer’s Office.

    We were able to draw upon our experience with our UK parliamentary site TheyWorkForYou to avoid the common pitfalls in building such projects, and provide useful features such as an online searchable Hansard, responsive design, MP ‘scorecards’ and an easily-updated database for representatives’ details.

    During the years of our partnership, Mzalendo kept the site maintained with data and news, while we worked on the development of new features they requested, fixing any bugs that arose, for example when the Kenyan parliament changed their data outputs, and hosting.

    But there are plenty of willing and able developers in Kenya, and it became increasingly obvious that funding could be more effectively — and efficiently — routed directly to them rather than to us in the UK.

    Like most mySociety code, the Pombola codebase on which Mzalendo was built is open source, so anyone is free to inspect, reuse or just take inspiration from it. The handover should, therefore, be reasonably painless for the new developers.

    We wish Mzalendo all the best in their ongoing efforts to keep Kenya informed and politically engaged.

    Image by Valentina Storti: a tawny eagle flying over Laikipia District, central Kenya (CC by/2.0)

  7. Can you help us collect councils’ climate action plans?

    If you’re looking for a quick and simple thing you can do from home to support meaningful action on climate change, help us make a list of councils’ Climate Action plans

    In the past 18 months, there’s been a spate of climate emergency declarations from local councils, in which they recognise the seriousness of the climate situation and commit to taking action. 65% of District, County, Unitary & Metropolitan Councils and eight Combined Authorities/City Regions have now declared a climate emergency. Many of these declarations commit to a date for getting to net zero, ranging from 2025 to 2050. 

    These declarations, and the commitment from central government to reach net zero by 2050, represent much needed progress.  Commitments are good. But what we really need to address the climate emergency, both at a national and local level, are concrete plans.

    As councils develop their plans for addressing the crisis, many individuals and groups need to be able to easily access, discuss and contribute to them to make sure they’re ambitious and high quality. 

    Councils can also learn and draw encouragement from each other’s efforts. At the moment, we think that’s harder than it should be. 

    Lots of people who want to take action on the climate locally are having to do the same work of finding their council’s plan, or finding out where they are in developing it, or finding other plans to compare it to. There’s no central place to find all the Climate Action plans that have been developed, or to track the process of developing them (or not!)

    The climateemergency.uk site has been collecting those climate action plans they can find, but we think we can help them get a fuller picture, and create a resource that will help us all — and we’d like your help! 

    In the spirit of ‘start where you are’, we’ve made an open spreadsheet for collecting council climate action plans, and kicked it off with the ones from climateemergency.uk, to see if we can help improve what’s available. At the very least we’ll maintain this as a simple open resource, and share it wherever we think it might be useful. If you have thoughts about people who ought to know it exists, to use it or contribute to it, please do share them in the comments or drop us an email

    The key piece of information we want to collect at this point for each council is the URL where their Climate Action Plan can be found. But we’ve added some extra columns for anyone who wants to start looking at the details.

    So, if you have five minutes, please have a look for a council’s Climate Action Plan and add it to the sheet

    If this works out well and seems useful, we’ve got some ideas about how to extend it and start to turn it into a more detailed and useful dataset or service. For example, tracking how the plans develop over time, how councils make progress against them, or breaking them down into a more detailed and comparative dataset  — there seem to be key questions that would be useful to answer, for example around things like whether the plans only address emissions under councils’ direct control, or whether they’re focused on the area as a whole. So if you’d like to partner with us or support us to turn these ideas into reality, we’d love to hear from you! Email us at climate-councils@mysociety.org.

  8. We’re turning off newsletter tracking

    Last month, we sent some of our newsletter subscribers an email to say that we’d noticed they weren’t opening our newsletters and, unless we heard otherwise, we’d be removing them from our mailing list.

    A number of people replied to that email to say, ‘Actually, I do open your emails — I just have image loading turned off so you don’t track my activity’. This was a welcome reminder to examine our own practices.

    Such responses triggered a conversation within mySociety, resulting in a session at our team meeting last week, with the upshot being a decision to turn off personally identifiable tracking on all our newsletters.

    We’ll be able to see how many people visit our blog posts from the newsletter, but that’s all — we won’t be able to associate visits with particular accounts, nor will we know how many of the views are from repeat visits rather than different users.

    This decision reflects mySociety’s position as an organisation concerned about matters of privacy and also feels like it’s part of a wider movement within our sector: we’re not the only ones having this conversation.

    But why did you track opens at all?

    The obvious question, given this statement, is why mySociety were tracking activity in the first place.

    Partly tracking was in place to help manage the financial cost of our newsletters. We use Mailchimp, whose costing structure is based on how many subscribers you have at any one time: you pay more for each subscriber even if they are not active.

    Sending an email to people who hadn’t opened — or who appeared not to have opened — our emails for over a year was a way of cutting the costs of holding a large database on Mailchimp, and you can only do that if you know who they are.

    For purposes of understanding the impact of our communications, too, it is helpful to be able to see how many people have opened a mailout, what stories have been clicked on, and which have not.

    However, this can be done in a way that doesn’t intrude on the users’ privacy – and, as mySociety team members posited during our team meeting, a cost saving on our side doesn’t justify infringing on privacy.

    Mailchimp’s defaults assume that you want as much information in as granular a form as possible, but they do give you the option to turn tracking off.

    As far as we can see, one has to remember to do this each time a mailout is sent, but we’ll also be contacting Mailchimp to ask them if the relevant boxes could be unchecked by default, or managed at a global level.

    So from now on 

    After our team discussion, we’ve made the immediate decision to turn all tracking off on our newsletters. Thank you if you were one of the people whose feedback spurred us to have this conversation and arrive at this decision.

    And if you’d like to subscribe to our newsletters, you can do so here.

    Image: Jehyun Sung

  9. Friends of the Earth’s Climate tool and MapIt

    What is your local authority doing about the climate emergency?

    Of course, we all want to see action, and fast. Several authorities across the UK have declared a climate emergency, while others are bringing climate-friendly propositions to the table. But how do you know the actual concrete outcomes of these?

    Fortunately, Friends of the Earth have put together a tool which helps you see just that — and we’re glad to say it makes use of our MapIt API.

    We spoke to Joachim Farncombe, FoE’s Digital Delivery manager, to find out more about what they built, how it works, and how exactly MapIt fits in.

    How climate-friendly is your area?

    “The Climate Tool invites people to tap in their postcode, and then discover how their local authority is performing on a number of measures, including renewable energy, transport, housing, waste and tree cover.”

    Joachim explains that in fact, they’ve produced two tools: “There’s one highly detailed version which we think our existing supporters will use, and another which provides a summary of the data for those newer to Friends of the Earth and the whole area of councils’ climate responsibility. 

    “Both tools reveal data from local authority areas, around key issues that are impacting our climate. The ultimate aim was to create an engagement opportunity that would drive new and existing supporters to take climate action locally.

    “The whole project is designed to highlight that there are different ways of addressing the climate emergency. One of the key drivers of change is for communities to put pressure on their local authorities to make urgent changes to reduce emissions”.

    Taking action

    So — once you’re all clued up on how your local area is doing, what then?

    “Once you’ve absorbed the data, there’s the option to click on ‘What can I do to help?’.

    “We’re asking people to add their name to support a climate action plan in their area. We’ll also be introducing those who sign up to our climate action groups, a network of community groups working to make our communities more climate friendly.”

    Where does MapIt fit in?

    The MapIt API allows developers to include a postcode input box anywhere on a web page. When a user enters their postcode, MapIt checks which administrative boundaries it sits within. The developer can choose what type of area they need — for example, if the site wants to encourage people to write to their MP, MapIt will return the constituency; or, in this case, as users will be contacting their local authorities, it returns the relevant council.

    Joachim says that FoE already knew of MapIt as they’d used it in their campaign for more trees. “It was very straightforward. The JSON response was easy to parse and the API speed was impressive.”

    Once the user has been matched to the right council, the climate tool dips into its store of data to show them the current climate performance in their area, across key topics.

    “We developed an internal API called FactStore which indexes whatever sets of data you need. In this case, this was data collated from approximately fifty different external datasets. This data was all pulled from open data sources, mostly released by the authorities themselves.”

    The tool was well received, and was shared across social media by supporters and new users alike. “Actually”, says Joachim, “it was a bit more popular than we’d anticipated, and we hit our initial quota on MapIt very early after launch, but there was a quick fix (we just upgraded our quota!)”.

    In short? “MapIt has been invaluable. Without it, we’d be unable to connect the users location with the datasets we’d collated”.

    We’re looking forward to working with Friends of the Earth more in the coming months — watch this space.

    Image: Alicja-ab

  10. Can you believe we’ve reached Peak Pothole Day already?

    This blog post is part of a series investigating different demographics and uses of mySociety services. You can read more about this series here

    I saw a comment on Twitter the other month along the lines of: “is civic tech too boring? It’s dominated by reporting potholes to councils”.

    As someone working in civic tech I find this terribly unfair because civic tech is about so much more than that! For instance, we also report dog poo to councils. 

    But it’s certainly true that there are a lot of potholes involved. It’s the largest use of FixMyStreet, representing a quarter of all reports. People have submitted over 361,000 reports and over 54,000 photos of potholes. As a result, while the FixMyStreet database represents a fraction of all potholes, it represents one of the largest datasets of pothole reports covering the whole country. 

    And while it’s easy to think of potholes as the obsession of people pointing at roads in local papers, they are a serious problem. There are a lot of them, they appear everywhere, cause problems on roads when people try to avoid them, and damage when they don’t.  For cyclists, potholes can be fatal

    Given that, what does FixMyStreet data tell us about potholes?

    How many potholes are reported through FixMyStreet?

    Up to the end of 2019 there have been 423,736 potholes or road surface defects reported through FixMyStreet (either .com or a cobrand), with 90,000 reported in 2019. Working from a rough figure of 675,000 actual pothole reports a year, this is around 13% of all potholes reported in the UK. 

    A feature of reports to FixMyStreet  is that, while the majority of reports are made by men, there are different ratios in different kinds of reports and categories are often gendered in terms of reporters. Deriving the gender of the reporter from their name, potholes and road surface defects are mostly reported by men, and disproportionately more than the site in general. 

    As explored in a previous post, this isn’t an essential gender difference but is likely to result from men having far more cause to encounter potholes. In 2013, men in the UK were on average driving twice as many miles per year as women

    People who report potholes are more likely to have reported multiple problems than other reports. Most pothole reports are made by people who have reported multiple reports and represent a smaller proportion of single report users than other report types.  

    When are potholes reported?

    Potholes tend to be reported during the day, but disproportionately compared to other requests around the evening commute. The chart below shows the distribution of reports by time of day, where green indicates the number of reports is higher than the general distribution of FixMyStreet data. 

    While potholes are associated most with the start of the year, they occur in smaller numbers all year long. The number of potholes reported through FixMyStreet peaks on the 28th February. 

    Where are potholes reported?

    While reports in FixMyStreet are less likely to be made in less deprived areas in general, this effect is larger for potholes:

    This effect is driven more by reporting being lower than usual in more deprived areas than especially high in less deprived areas:

    This pattern was generally similar for the Income and Employment domains of deprivation. This does not necessarily mean there are more actual potholes in these areas, but possibly that people in areas with higher income and levels of employment are more likely to report them. 

    Examining reports using the deprivation subdomain that measures difficulty accessing services (GPs, supermarkets, etc) shows a different pattern, where a disproportionate amount of pothole reports are made in areas with the least access to services

    The access to services measures in Scotland and Wales also reflect that the least accessible places have  a large number of pothole reports compared to the general dataset:

     

    The area with the worst access to services (typically a measure of distance to services) has a disproportionate amount of total pothole reports on FixMyStreet. This doesn’t necessarily indicate this is where most of the potholes actually are, but more remote, less traffic-ed potholes will rank lower in risk-based calculation than those on busier roads, and hence may go longer without fix, and make a report on FixMyStreet more likely.

    Repeat potholes

    Fixing potholes is a never-ending task, as they are an inevitable result of erosion of roads over time. That said, poor repairs will make the return of a pothole more inevitable than it might be. The issue isn’t just that  the same pothole returns: if a pothole initially formed because the road surface was poor, others are likely to form in the same area too. 

    Looking at reports on FixMyStreet up to the end of 2016, for 3% of potholes a new pothole was later reported within 10m between six months and two years after it was first reported (with an average time lag of 15 months). Expanding that ratio to a 20m radius, 7% of potholes had a new pothole reported in the same time range. 

    While FixMyStreet’s data on potholes is far from universal, the geographical range gives us better scope than any single local authority’s data to see how reporting of potholes relates to social factors. You can examine this data yourself, on our geographic export, which gives counts of different categories of report by LSOA. 

    Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash