1. How do different forms of deprivation affect FixMyStreet reports?

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

    Indices of deprivation are useful for mapping social phenomena onto geographic data. For a series of domains (in England: income, employment, health, education, skills and training, crime, barriers to housing and services, and living environment) all Lower Super Output Areas (LSOAs) are ranked from most deprived to least deprived. From these the Index of Multiple Deprivation is created  — which helps to illustrate which areas of the country suffer from multiple different negative factors.

    The indices of deprivation are compiled separately for England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. While they cannot be combined, they do often illustrate similar measures and so are useful for cross comparison. As most FixMyStreet reports are made in England, more subtle patterns in how deprivation and reports are linked can be detected from this larger set of data.

    The Explorer minsite uses the Index of Multiple Deprivation (IMD) and respective domains to understand how reports for different categories of FixMyStreet report are distributed and explore how deprivation affects reporting. This page shows the categories that are more likely than the general dataset to be reported in the lowest IMD decile (most deprived) and this page shows the categories that are more likely to be reported in the highest IMD decile (least deprived).

    Missing reports

    As examined in previous research, the most important finding when examining deprivation is the suggestion that there are reports that should be being made that aren’t. The Explorer minisite shows that reports of dog fouling have a peak in the middle deciles, but this does not reflect the real world incidence of dog fouling, which found that the most dog fouling was found in the bottom two deciles.

    Even when actual incidence of problems is higher in more deprived areas, the reporting rate can be lower — any picture based on self-reporting is likely to have a large set of missing data. In the case of dog fouling, this means information about hotspots is not communicated to enforcement. In other cases it might mean road defects unfixed, or fly-tipping uncollected.

    Exploring domains

    While previous explorations of deprivation and FixMyStreet have used the index of multiple deprivation alone, the Explorer minisite lets you see how the distribution differs on each of the domains of deprivation. For instance, looking at reports of rubbish, we can see that while generally there are more in the bottom 50% of IMD deciles, there is a stronger relationship against the crime domain.

    Rubbish vs Multiple Deprivation

    Rubbish vs Crime IMD Domain

    Examining the data for dog fouling shows that the peak in the mid-deciles is even clearer when mapped against income deprivation than for multiple deprivation. The income domain continues to show that compared to the general dataset there are fewer reports in the higher deciles than might be expected.

    Abandoned vehicle reports have a scattered relationship with a few different factors, but the association with crime is much less noticeable than the association with lower housing costs. Problems with drainage generally are more reported in less deprived areas, but when focusing on access to service deprivation, they are concentrated in the most deprived areas.

    Breaking down by the different domains that make up the index of multiple deprivation lets us better understand what factors are driving either problems or the reporting of problems. This in turn helps to frame questions to ask about what is driving these different uses of FixMyStreet.

    Photo by v2osk on Unsplash

     

  2. Understanding the votes on TheyWorkForYou

    With so very much going on in politics right now, and so many MPs in the spotlight at any given moment, there has been a lot of sharing of TheyWorkForYou’s voting records on social media.

    Of course, we’re all for it, if it helps people understand MPs’ voting history and the stances they’ve taken during their careers: we even include little share buttons beneath each voting record section to help you do this.

    But as from a couple of weeks ago, you’ll also see a new addition to these sections: we’ve added a link saying ‘please share these voting records responsibly’ — and if you click on it, you’ll see a page setting out lots more information about votes, including the data that feeds the voting information on the site, and what you can — and what you definitely shouldn’t — conclude from it.

    What TheyWorkForYou has always tried to do is take the complex, sometimes messy, often arcane and opaque business of Parliament and make it easy for the everyday person to understand, even if they don’t have a degree in Politics or lifelong membership of a political party.

    The trouble is, as our users and MPs themselves can be very quick to point out, when you try to simplify a complicated area, some nuance is always lost. There are things everyone should know before they charge onto Twitter or Facebook, hoping to win an argument or denigrate an MP by brandishing their record on foreign policy or social issues. And so we’ve set these points out on one page.

    A key question that arises when writing a page like this is: if we can’t present everything (either because the data doesn’t exist, or because including it would complicate the overall picture so much that we would risk losing our aim of making things easy to understand) should we present anything at all?

    We ask ourselves this question fairly often, and so far our answer has always been ‘yes’. Please read our page so that you fully understand the reasons behind the decisions we make.

    Image: MP speaking at Theresa May’s last Prime Minister’s Questions, 24 July 2019, CC-BY-NC, Copyright UK Parliament / Jessica Taylor.

  3. How men and women use FixMyStreet differently

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

    Greater use by men than women is common across mySociety services. Looking just at people who had gendered names (78% using UK data from OpenGenderTracking), 38% of FixMyStreet users were women. However, because women are less represented among super contributors (users who make many reports), only 29% of reports were submitted by women. There has been a consistent year-on-year increase in the proportion of reports made by women (34% in 2018), which at the current rate will reach parity in 2025.

    But what are the impacts of this? Where crowdsourced websites have a gender disparity and different genders participate differently, this leads to a difference in outcomes. For OpenStreetMap, Monica Stephens (2013) found that in discussions around proposed new categories of locations, strong distinctions are made between “swinger club, a nightclub and a brothel”, while a 2011 feature of “childcare” was debated and rejected on the grounds it was too similar to the existing “kindergarten”. If contributors are on the whole “very aware of the complexities of sexual entertainment categories, but oblivious to the age specific limits of childcare providers”, this makes the map less useful to the large potential group of users with differing priorities.

    This is not an unfixable problem (and in this specific case, quickly was –  childcare was added to OpenStreetMap as a category in 2013) but reflects that crowdsourced websites and datasets reflect the interests of the people who volunteer their time towards them. In an article for CityLab about efforts to increase the number of female cartographers working on OpenStreetMap, Sarah Holder writes that:

    Doctors have been tagged more than 80,000 times, while healthcare facilities that specialize in abortion have been tagged only 10; gynecology, near 1,500; midwife, 233, fertility clinics, none. Only one building has been tagged as a domestic violence facility, and 15 as a gender-based violence facility. That’s not because these facilities don’t exist—it’s because the men mapping them don’t know they do, or don’t care enough to notice.

    However, as an Open Street Map contributor noted below the original version of this article, shelters for those escaping domestic violence present a particular challenge: openly mapping their locations make them easy for everyone — including the perpetrators — to locate. As such, refuges themselves may not want to be listed. While some services predominately used by women are under-mapped, others are ill-suited to an open, map-based form of discovery. For a more detailed exploration around issues of providing information for victims of domestic violence, see the Tech vs Abuse research findings.

    Zoe Gardner, Peter Mooney, Liz Dowthwaite and Giles Foody (2017) found that as well as differences in the scale of activity, men and women also behaved differently in the kinds of ways they added to OpenStreetMap, with men more likely to modify existing features and women more likely to add new data in a few categories. Specific categories of label had different rates of contribution, with women more likely to add labels in the ‘building category’ (67% for women vs 35% for men), while men were more likely to make modifications to the highway category (39% for men vs 23% for women).

    FixMyStreet

    For FixMyStreet Reka Solymosi, Kate Bowers and Taku Fujiyama (2018) found a similar difference in behaviour in terms of the categories of reports submitted by men and women and found a rough “driving vs walking” divide:

    On first glance it appears that men are more likely to report in categories related to driving (potholes and road problems), whereas women report more in categories related to walking (parks, dead animals, dog fouling, litter).

    This was replicated with non-anonymous data internally.  The methodology used in this paper is applied through the Explorer minisite to a wider dataset, and the gender difference in categories can be seen here. This uses an analysis that derives likely gender from first name, which is not 100% accurate and cannot derive a gender for all users. However, for broad differences, the data is sufficient – a comparison to a group of reports where reporters disclosed gender found that the derived ‘male’ group contains around 4% misallocated women, while the derived ‘female’ group contains about 1.5% misallocated men. The unknown group splits roughly 50/50, but leans towards containing more women (53%).

    As women are still minority users of the site in general, categories are noteworthy if they have a greater proportion of women than the site as a whole — even if this is below parity.  For instance, women make up 40% of reports of overgrown trees, which means more are reported by men — but this is higher than use of the site as a whole by women. Women make fewer reports (and account for more first time reports than repeat reports), but these reports are focused on different categories to categories that are more reported by men (such as potholes, 74% of which are reported by men).

    Encountering problems

    When men and women are moving through the world differently, they are encountering different kinds of problems. In 2013, men in the UK were on average driving twice as many miles per year as women. Given this, it’s not unreasonable for men to be encountering and reporting many more potholes.

    Surveys in Scotland and England suggested higher rates of littering by men and lower acceptance of littering by women — which is reflected in a slightly higher than expected number of reports of litter from women. Women make more walking trips (269 to 240) over a cumulative longer distance (10 miles more per year). Given this it would not be unreasonable for women to be encountering slightly more littering, pavement defects, dog fouling and other walking problems.

    This difference is especially true for women aged 30-39 as “women in their thirties make four times as many escort education trips [school runs] than men of the same age, and walking is the most common mode used to make these trips”. Looking at reports of littering in England – reports by women are on average 154 meters (95% confidence between: 138, 171) closer to a school.  This isn’t saying that all reports of littering are made by women doing the school run, but possibly enough that it shows up as a difference in the data.

    Reporting problems

    In 2018 women made up 36% of reports related to rubbish — but this is masking different gender balanced on different kinds of waste. While there are very few reports of ‘discarded syringes’, three-quarters of these are made by women. Reports related to ‘leafing’ and ‘litter/litter bins’ are near parity (49%, 46%).

    In 2016 there was an experiment on the  homepage of FixMyStreet.com to see if changing the  prompted categories from a focus on road problems to a prompt on parks and open spaces and changing the imagery on the homepage (happy families rather than the default “B&Q” colours and spanners) led to an increase of reports by women. There was no difference found, suggesting that the problem was more complicated than women being put off by the design. This did however change the distribution of various categories (fewer pothole reports and more reports of issues with street lights) with no shift in the gender ratio.

    For reports made by co-branded websites (instances of FixMyStreet running as part of a council website), reports by women are better represented, making up 42% of reports.  This is a reminder that more than the technology is important, the perceived “officialness” and discovery routes are also important. Certain kinds of users may be more willing to use a third-party tool than the official website.

    What does this mean?

    If civic tech makes certain kinds of government contacting easier to do, but those forms of contact are more likely to be problems experienced by men, this may have the effect of shifting the provision of services. In the longer run, uneven reporting may entrench perceptions of public interest and respective budgeting for different areas of service.

    That men and women experience their environment in different ways and so experience different problems makes this problem both important and difficult to resolve. Understanding FixMyStreet as a bundle of services gives a framework to examine the problem. Viewed this way some services (Report Potholes) are performing about as you’d expect, while others such as Report Litter are lagging. This suggests a different set of experiments to investigate the problem than a generic ‘women use FixMyStreet less’ problem suggests.

    It also suggests that reaching greater gender balance in services may involve seeking out different kinds of problems. The issue is less getting more pothole reports from women but that there are neighbouring services that fulfil the same ‘ease contact with government’ role that women would be far more likely to use.

    Photo by Olesya Grichina on Unsplash

  4. TICTeC Local 2019: schedule now online

    We’re pleased to announce the schedule for TICTeC Local 2019, our one-day conference that focuses directly on the use and impacts of Civic Tech in communities and local government. If this sounds good to you, you’d better book now, because spaces are limited.

    Join us on 1st November at London’s City Hall to discuss how digital tools can help local government and communities to foster citizen engagement, drive efficiencies, and combat social and environmental problems. TICTeC events are unique in that they emphasise the research behind digital platforms and tools, not just showcasing the tools themselves.

    TICTeC Local is more than just a conference once a year: we want it to be a catalyst that helps more local councils and organisations think about and research the impacts of digital tools they are using, and to share this knowledge amongst their peers.

    For six years now we have fostered a global network of civic tech researchers and practitioners via our Impacts of Civic Technology Conferences (TICTeC) – TICTeC Local allows us to bring some of that international experience to the local level and emphasise the importance of local digital innovations and researching their impacts.

    Free public sector tickets

    We have a set number of free tickets available for public sector attendees. These are limited to a maximum of two tickets per public sector organisation. If you work in the public sector and can commit to attending please choose the ‘Public Sector’ ticket option on Eventbrite.

    Speakers include

    We are delighted to be joined by many excellent speakers — here are just a few you can expect to hear from:


    Vidhya Alakeson

    Chief Executive, Power to Change

    Vidhya is the founding Chief Executive of Power to Change, the independent trust established in 2015 to support the growth of community businesses across England to create more prosperous and cohesive communities.


    Miriam Levin

    Head of Community Action and Giving at Office for Civil Society, Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS)

    The focus of Miriam’s 18 year career in central government, public, private and third sectors has been to develop and implement long-lasting, impactful community development strategies, focusing on how people can be involved in shaping the places where they live and take action on the things that matter to them.

     


    Professor Graham Smith

    Professor of Politics and Director of the Centre for the Study of Democracy (CSD), Westminster University

    Graham’s research interests are in democratic theory and practice (particularly participatory democratic institutions), climate and environmental politics and the third sector/social economy.

    He is currently involved in a number of funded research projects, including Scholio (University of Connecticut), Participedia (SSHRC) and AssoDem (Spanish Ministry of Economy and Competitiveness). Recently completed projects include Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit (ESRC) and Cherry-picking.


    Giselle Cory

    Executive Director, DataKind UK

    Giselle oversees the running of DataKind UK, empowering the community of volunteers in their use of data for social good. After graduating in Maths and Physics, Giselle worked as a data scientist and public policy analyst in the UK Government, a national charity and think tanks, before returning to study a masters in Computational Journalism. Prior to joining the team at DataKind UK, Giselle was a longtime core volunteer. She believes that smart, responsible data collection and use can help the social sector tackle some of the UK’s biggest challenges – and change the world!


    Richard Smith

    Lead User Researcher at #HackIT, Hackney Council

    HackIT brings together the technology, digital and data teams of Hackney Council to support their residents and businesses, colleagues and partners.


    Georges Clement

    Co-Founder, President, JustFix.nyc

    Georges is a product manager and experienced nonprofit leader who specializes in partnerships, business operations, fundraising, and gathering research insights to inform digital product features.

    JustFix.nyc builds technology for tenants and organisers fighting displacement, by following a community-driven approach to support New York’s housing justice movement.


    Dr. Tammy Esteves

    Assistant Professor of Public Administration, Troy University

    Dr. Esteves is very active in the American Society for Public Administration, where she is on the board of the Section of Democracy and Social Justice, and is a past president of the Evergreen Chapter in Seattle. She primarily teaches Research Methods, Leadership in Public Administration, Ethics in Public Administration, eGovernance, and Public Health Preparedness and Emergency Response. Her main research interest is the role of technology for building community, particularly in the areas of social media, crowdsourcing, and GIS.


    Jonathan Pichot

    Developer & Product Manager, NYC Planning Labs

    Jonathan is a New York-based software developer and product manager with an enduring fascination of cities. He has worked for software companies and city governments, working to use technology to improve the way cities function and the lives of the people that live in them.

    NYC Planning Labs  believe better outcomes can be achieved using modern design and development practices along with open technology. They are civic technologists that help support the Department of City Planning’s mission.


    Don’t miss TICTeC Local 2019

    Book your place here.

    There’s more information about TICTeC Local on the main TICTeC website.

  5. AlaveteliCon 2019: technology, investigations and collaboration

    We’ve just come back from a heady couple of days in Oslo, where our AlaveteliCon event brought together those with a shared interest in the technology around Freedom of Information — in all, around 50 journalists, researchers, technologists and activists from 18 different countries.

    As our Head of Development Louise announced in her opening words, AlaveteliCon has always been a slight misnomer, given that we’re keen to share knowledge not just with those who use Alaveteli, but with all the FOI platforms in our small but growing community — including MuckRock in the US and Frag Den Staat in Germany, both of whom were in attendance.

    It was a timely event for us, as we embark on work to introduce our Alaveteli Pro functionality to newsrooms, researchers and campaigners across Europe, with an emphasis on encouraging cross-border collaboration in campaigns, research and journalistic investigations.

    As well as picking up practical tips, we heard a variety of inspiring and instructive stories from FOI practitioners around the world; brainstormed ways forward in increasingly difficult political times; and shared knowledge on funding, publicity, site maintenance, and how to keep good relations with FOI officers.

    Some of the most inspiring sessions came when delegates shared how they had used FOI in campaigns and investigations, from Vouliwatch’s Stefanos Loukopoulos explaining how they had taken their own government to court, to Beryl Lipton of MuckRock explaining why the government use of algorithms can have effects that are unforeseen, and indeed petrifying.

    There was an affecting story from freelance journalist Mago Torres, who told us about a long campaign to map clandestine graves of those caught up in the war against drugs in Mexico; and from Camilla Graham Wood of Privacy International, on that organisation’s work to uncover some of the rather sinister but not widely known technologies being put into use by police services in the UK.

    So much knowledge came out of these two days. We don’t want to lose it, so we’ll be making sure to update the conference page with photos, videos and the speakers’ slides as soon as they’re available. Meanwhile, you can follow the links from the agenda on that page to find the collaborative documents where we took notes for each session.

    Thanks to the Adessium Foundation and the NUUG Foundation for making AlaveteliCon 2019 possible. We hope it won’t be another four years before we all get the chance to come together again.

  6. A clutch of new Trustees and Directors

    Before the summer we began the search for new Trustees and Non-Executive Directors to join our charitable and commercial boards. As we enter Autumn I’m very pleased to be able to share the fruits of our search with a clutch of lovely and talented new board members.


    For our mySociety Ltd board which oversees our commercial and product development work we are pleased to welcome three new Directors:

    Steve SkeltonSteve Skelton, Non Executive Director of mySociety Ltd

    Steve is Director of Strategy and Innovation at the Government of Jersey, turning emerging theory of open policy making, participatory design and digital government into practice. Previously at Stockport Council, and as Chair of the GM Connect programme for the Greater Manchester Combined Authority he is a leading thinker on all things Local Government.

    Ade AdewunmiAde Adewunmi, Non Executive Director of mySociety Ltd

    Ade is no stranger to mySociety and has been a supporter of our work since her time leading the Government Digital Service’s Data Infrastructure programme. Currently a data strategist at Cloudera Fast Forward Labs, she will help us consider the wider application and impact of ethical data use across our range of services.

    Cam RossCam Ross, Non Executive Director of mySociety Ltd

    Cam is a Director of Green Angel Syndicate, a network of angel investors funding early stage technology businesses which fight against the climate crisis, and for the sustainable use of resources. He’ll help advise on the further development of our SaaS products, with a particular interest in shaping our response to climate change.


    We welcome two new Trustees to our charity board for UK Citizens Online Democracy, who are responsible for the strategic direction and sustainability of the whole organisation:

    Julia KeutgenJulia Keutgen, Trustee of UK Citizens Online Democracy

    Julia is a Senior Transparency Advisor at the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, advising parliaments and political parties on accountability, transparency and the rule of law. She works closely with the Open Government Partnership (OGP) on enhancing the role of civil society in public policy making and government oversight.

    Kate JonesKates Jones, Trustee of UK Citizens Online Democracy

    Kate is currently Private Secretary to the Chief Executive of the Civil Service & Cabinet Office Permanent Secretary, where she works on EU Exit and Civil Service HR. Previously working in the Cities and Local Growth Unit at BEIS and before that at the Design Council and CABE, she brings invaluable insights around Government and public policy.


    In addition to Owen Blacker who stepped down after an amazing 17 years of involvement with mySociety, we also say goodbye as a Trustee to Nanjira Sambuli. Both stepped down at our AGM in July. Immense thanks to both for their support and service.

    Our search for a new Chair of UKCOD will continue over the next couple of months as we speak to candidates, and we expect to make additional board appointments during 2020.

    Photo header image by Jakub Kapusnak

  7. Join us in Reykjavik for TICTeC 2020

    We’re excited to announce that TICTeC 2020, our sixth global conference on the Impacts of Civic Technology, will be in Reykjavik, Iceland on 24 and 25 March 2020.

    Put that in your diaries now, we’d love for you to join us.

    What is TICTeC and why do we host it?

    There are several existing annual conferences in which civic technology is showcased, and in which the potential for such tools to change and drive participation can be discussed, however, very few of these events include real and in-depth research into whether the potential outcomes of civic technology were realised.

    This is where TICTeC differs: the majority of speakers will be presenting evidence-based research to demonstrate the various impacts of civic technology from across the world.

    We created TICTeC to bridge the gap between civic tech and research – to bring two different communities together, to emphasise the importance of being able to demonstrate impact, and to share what those impacts are.

    Why Iceland?

    We’re really excited to be hosting TICTeC in Reykjavik, as the City Council are pioneers in using digital tools to elicit feedback and engagement from its citizens on council policies, expenditure and projects.  As one civil servant told us: “If a political party does not believe in or promise citizen engagement they just won’t be elected here”.

    TICTeC 2020 will therefore be a unique occasion for the global community to learn from Iceland’s extensive civic tech and civic engagement experience, and vice versa.

    We’re delighted that civic tech veterans Citizens Foundation will speak at TICTeC 2020 about their latest attempt to crowdsource the Icelandic constitution using digital tools, a project they are currently working on with Iceland’s National Parliament and the University of Iceland. Lessons from this will be extremely valuable to TICTeC’s global audience, so we are excited to have them join us.

    TICTeC 2020 will also include keynote speeches, simultaneous research tracks, hands-on workshops, and special networking sessions. We also expect there to be additional fringe events as other organisations arrange companion events before and after the main conference.

    Over the coming weeks, we’ll be publishing a series of blog posts to further explain our reasons behind choosing Iceland for TICTeC 2020; how we’ll be trying to reduce TICTeC 2020’s carbon footprint; and our experiences trying to increase diversity at our conferences.

    Apply to present or run a workshop

    This two day conference provides the opportunity for researchers to present theoretical or empirical work related to the conference theme. We also welcome proposals for individuals to lead workshops or give presentations relating to the conference theme. We encourage submissions to focus on the specific impacts of technologies, rather than showcase new tools that are as yet untested.

    If you’d like to give a presentation or run a workshop at TICTeC 2020, please submit your proposals now. You have until Friday 17th January 2020.

    Register

    For the last three years TICTeC has sold out – so make sure you get tickets early. Early bird tickets provide a significant discount, so it’s well worth registering before early bird ticket sales end on Friday 14th February 2020.

    Sponsor

    If you’d like to support TICTeC to bring together the world’s best Civic Technology researchers and practitioners, there are many different sponsorship opportunities available. Please visit our sponsorship page for more details, or contact gemma@mysociety.org for more information.

    Keep an eye on the TICTeC website for full details of proceedings as they are announced.

    We look forward to seeing you in March in beautiful Reykjavik!

    Meanwhile, if you’d like to see what TICTeC is all about, you can browse all the resources from this year’s TICTeC, check out the TICTeC guide, and/or watch this video overview:

    And here is an overview of this year’s conference, expect more of the same plus improvements in Reykjavik:

    Photo header: Image by Sharon Ang from Pixabay 

  8. Empowering residents of tower blocks

    An estimated 100,000 people in the UK live in tower blocks. If you’re one of them, mySociety’s current project will be of particular interest — and please read on to the end of the post, where you’ll find out how you might get involved.

    mySociety has been working with the campaign group Tower Blocks UK to explore how residents across the country could have more input into the management of their buildings.

    Back in June 2017, when the news of the Grenfell disaster broke, we expressed our desire to help. This partnership with Tower Blocks UK provides a tangible way for us to do just that, empowering tower block residents to understand their rights, and leverage those rights to increase the safety of their own homes.

    Since Grenfell, fire has, understandably, been at the top of the nation’s consciousness. It’s not the only risk in tower blocks, however: by their nature, they’re subject to a range of distinct safety and maintenance issues which, if not identified and dealt with properly and at an early stage, can be at best a nuisance and at worst, life-threatening.

    We were approached by Tower Blocks UK to provide a digital tool that would help address these issues. Beyond that, we didn’t want to make any assumptions about what was needed, so we began with a completely blank canvas.

    Well, perhaps that’s not entirely true. We had a few ideas about what sort of service we might build. A kind of ‘FixMyStreet for buildings’ was was talked about, but we know that it’s never a great idea to simply start creating the service you assume will be useful, without speaking to the people who would actually be using the finished thing.

    So, we agreed our aim in fairly loose terms: to research and develop a pilot service that demonstrates the potential for tower block residents in a few select areas to have a greater say over the safety and maintenance of their blocks. 

    If judged successful, the service could be scaled up and made available for residents in tower blocks all across the UK.

    Where we are now

    At the time of writing, we’ve completed the discovery phase. We’ve asked residents how they currently report and track safety issues in their buildings; and with the additional help of sector experts, we’ve examined how legal pathways and housing provider case management processes affect the outcomes.

    We wrote this stage up in a report which you can read here, identifying four key areas where we feel we have the opportunity to make a difference to how safe and happy residents feel in their homes.

    Once we’d gathered and processed this knowledge, we were able to start building some simple digital prototypes and test our theories with residents in user design workshops. Here we’re thankful to Phil Murphy and Stuart Hodkinson, the London Tenants Federation, and especially the Southwark Group of Tenants Organisation, for helping us reach a selection of tenants with different background and experiences.

    Resident feedback at these sessions has helped us uncover real needs in this space, including the desire to make maintenance reports that have real impact, the value of tried and tested “next steps” during the complaints process, and a need amongst tenant organisers to see the bigger picture across multiple blocks in their area.

    TBUK workshop with mySociety's Martin

    mySociety’s Designer, Martin, with some residents. Image: London Tenants’ Federation

    Our prototypes so far have included: a tool that helps tenants report problems in their flat by giving prompts and generating a letter of complaint based on best legal practice; a personal case log to aid with follow-up complaints and potential escalations to the housing ombudsman or the courts; and a reporting dashboard for tenant organisers to spot patterns and help their fellow residents make effective reports.

    Over the next few weeks, we’re hoping to test the prototypes further, including through a simple, online survey.

    If you’re a resident of a tower block in the UK and can spare us ten minutes to use a website and answer some questions about your experience, we’d be more than grateful. Get in touch with Jen or Zarino on fixmyblock@mysociety.org.

    Top image: Jimmy Chang

  9. FixMyStreet Pro for Westminster

    London’s best known and most-visited neighbourhood is now covered by FixMyStreet Pro. If you’re living, working or sightseeing in the borough of Westminster, your reports will drop directly into the council’s own systems.

    In this first phase, the following categories are covered, with potholes, street signs and lights to follow soon:

    • Bins
    • Drains
    • Fly tipping
    • Graffiti
    • Flyposting
    • Street cleaning
    • Vehicles

    So, visitors to Hyde Park can report overflowing dog poo bins. Commuters coming through Victoria Station can let the authorities know about graffiti.

    And may we suggest that Westminster’s best known residents are welcome to report, should the view from the palace ever be marred by an unswept Mall.

    Everyone — royalty, the political ruling class, the humble citizen and even tourists from far flung places — can make a report either via fixmystreet.com or on the Westminster website, and in either case they’ll go directly into the council systems to be dealt with. There’s also the option to log in through the council’s My Westminster portal.

    Especially for Westminster

    As with all FixMyStreet Pro installs, this one has its own distinct features, and the integration with the My Westminster log-in, a pre-existing service where users can keep track of their reports, planning applications and so on, was a vital requirement.

    mySociety’s knowledge and experience helped us deliver this project smoothly to further improve the efficiency and transparency of our City Management teams

    The two systems working together like this means that for those already signed up to My Westminster, only a single log-in is required: ideal for the local resident who may be completing several community-based tasks in short order.

    Councillor Paul Swaddle, Cabinet Member for Customer Services and Digital, Westminster City Council, says: “mySociety have been professional, from the point of contracting all the way through to deployment of our new ‘Report it’ application.

    “Their team worked in partnership with council staff to integrate FixMyStreet into our systems including CRM against challenging timescales. They also supported us in delivering several successful resident engagement sessions, and quickly reflecting user feedback in the WCC branded version of the site.

    “mySociety’s knowledge and experience helped us deliver this project smoothly to further improve the efficiency and transparency of our City Management teams.

    Testing with the people that matter

    Westminster have been a shining example of best practice when it comes to implementing a new service. They did something that ideally all authorities would do when introducing a new online system, inviting potential users in to have a go, and feed back their thoughts.

    Residents testing FixMyStreet prototypes

    Once they had had a chance to enjoy that amazing view from the council offices, local residents tried out the report making interface. mySociety designer Martin was there to take notes, and users’ feedback was added directly into our development roadmap.

    We hope that they, and all residents of Westminster, will be happy with their new service.


    Top image: Dean Molyneaux (CC by-sa 2.0)

  10. FOI and the Irish border issue

    At the time of writing, a No Deal Brexit seems ever more likely. What exactly will that mean for the UK?

    Attempts to answer this question have filled many column inches, hours of broadcast and endless tweets. There is certainly no lack of opinions.

    But opinions are best based on facts, and it was in this spirit that WhatDoTheyKnow user Jon Rush set out to request vital information about the key Brexit sticking point, and the main reason that a deal is so hard to agree — the Irish border.

    Brexit and the border

    As Jon explains, “Brexit creates serious problems for the current arrangements between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland under the Good Friday Agreement  because they depend heavily on both the UK and RoI being in the EU”.

    He wanted to gain access to the results of a mapping exercise, referred to in a joint report from the EU and UK negotiators but not available to the public at that time, which assessed the level to which co-operation between the North and the South depends on the EU frameworks currently in place.

    Crucial information, you might think, for the general public who will be so affected at every level by whatever type of Brexit we enter into. Jon certainly thought so — but getting hold of it would set him on a long journey.

    A hard-won result

    Jon’s initial request, to the department for Exiting the EU (DEXEU) was in December 2017. You can follow its long and complicated journey on that page, thanks to Jon’s detailed annotations.

    FOI is one of the few tools that individuals can use to hold government to account and it’s important to use it — otherwise government will never take transparency seriously.

    Simultaneously he was requesting the same information via our partner AccessInfo’s site, AskTheEU.com, which covers EU authorities — and meanwhile, MPs in the UK’s Exiting the EU Select Committee requested the same information on numerous occasions throughout 2018, but were repeatedly rebuffed by government.

    Pursuing his right to information would take Jon via the ICO, the European Ombudsman and to the brink of a tribunal, but in the end, the report was indeed released into the public domain.

    What was revealed

    What did it tell us?

    “It contains a description of each area relevant to North-South cooperation under the Good Friday Agreement together with an assessment of how far it is underpinned by EU legal and policy frameworks.

    “The focus in the media has tended to be on trade/customs arrangements, but if you go through the mapping exercise, you find that many other areas of cooperation are underpinned by the EU membership, including transport links, water, waste management, energy, Irish language broadcasting, mobile roaming, invasive species, disease control and cross-border police cooperation.

    “Overall, 96 out of 142 different areas covered by the mapping exercise were found to be supported by EU legal or policy frameworks (with well over a third being “directly underpinned or linked”, ie EU membership is particularly significant).

    “This shows that any workable solution is likely to involve the UK committing to quite a close relationship with the EU, at least in the areas identified as crucial to North-South cooperation”.

    Approaching the UK border on Newtown Road for J0719 The houses beyond the sheugh which here marks the Border are in Co Armagh. The gate in the foreground are those of disused ROI Border facilities. The road sign is a reminder of the Republic's 80kmph speed limit on back roads.

    Disused ROI border facilities in Co Armagh. Image by Eric Jones (CC by-sa/2.0)

    A lack of transparency

    The release of this information was a positive result — but Jon believes that the government has been far from open during the whole Brexit process.

    “To be properly informed about Brexit, we need access to information which is often available only from government. It would be very difficult for an organisation outside government to produce something like the mapping exercise because it requires input from numerous experts across different areas and in some cases, access to information that only government is likely to have.

    “Government is therefore uniquely well placed to provide this information – but if government refuses to share it, it’s impossible to get the full picture.

    “In my view, the government’s approach to its own documents concerning Brexit has been to release as little as humanly possible, arguing that disclosure would undermine its negotiating position with the EU.

    “I accept that occasionally, information may need to be withheld for this reason. But it is equally if not more important that people can understand what Brexit will mean for them —  and I don’t think the government has paid anywhere near enough attention to that issue”.

    Evading scrutiny

    This was not Jon’s first experience using FOI: in fact, he had recently exercised his rights to information on another Brexit matter.

    I asked DEXEU for details of the scope and timetable of their consultation on leaving the EU. This was after David Davis (who was then Secretary of State for Exiting the EU) had told Parliament in September 2016 that the government would be consulting widely on the options for leaving the EU.

    WhatDoTheyKnow.com has made the process quite easy to initiate and it also means that others who might be interested in the same information can find your request.

    “By late October, nothing had been published, so I made an FOI request through WhatDoTheyKnow.

    “Initially, DEXEU told me it had this information but refused my request, saying that it planned to publish the information at a later date. I didn’t see why the information couldn’t be published sooner and complained to the ICO.

    “Their investigation showed that DEXEU did not have a formal plan or any formal process for the consultation — which explained their somewhat evasive response.

    “DEXEU should probably have told me that it didn’t hold the information I had requested – but to do so would have involved effectively admitting that it didn’t have a plan or any formal process for consultation. You can make up your own mind by reading what the ICO had to say here”.

    Pursuing a refused response

    But back to the Irish border request. When Jon didn’t receive a response from DEXEU, and after requesting a similarly fruitless internal review, he took the next step and referred the matter to the ICO. They ruled against disclosure in a decision that Jon believes was ill-founded:

    “The ICO decision was based on section 35 of the FOI Act, which relates to information produced for the purposes of policy formulation.

    To be properly informed about Brexit, we need access to information which is often available only from government.

    “It is certainly true that the mapping exercise was produced to inform the government’s thinking about Brexit and Northern Ireland. However, it was a summary of the current arrangements, not a discussion of what the future policy options should be; as such, it was essentially background information, which is usually regarded as less sensitive. Section 35(4) makes it clear that there is a particular public interest in the disclosure of background of information – and case law makes it clear that such disclosure can take place before the final policy has been formulated, as I was requesting here.

    “The ICO also argued that disclosure of the mapping exercise would have a “negative effect on discussions” with the EU and “create a distraction to discussions” — but its decision did not explain how this would occur, especially given that the mapping exercise had been shared with the EU.

    “When I put these points to the ICO as part of my appeal to the tribunal, it accepted that the mapping exercise was background information but argued that it should be treated in the same way as discussion of policy options. It was unable or unwilling to provide any further explanation of the supposed negative effects of disclosure and suggested that this was a matter for DEXEU to explain. I was (and remain) very concerned by this because the ICO is supposed to be an independent regulator; it should not simply be taking what government says at face value but should be questioning it and satisfying itself that what government says is actually correct”.

    And so Jon referred the matter to tribunal.

    But in June of this year, two of the key documents he was requesting were finally  released by the government, and he decided to drop his appeal to tribunal, for reasons which you can read in his annotation of the time.

    Motivation

    While many WhatDoTheyKnow users are determined and driven, it’s also true that others would be easily defeated by an initial refusal, not to mention the further rulings. So what gave Jon the will and tenacity to carry on?

    I would encourage people to use FOI … if you are prepared to persevere and be patient, you can get what you want.

    “I knew that appealing to the tribunal would involve quite a lot of time and effort on my part, but I wasn’t prepared to just let this go for two reasons. Firstly, FOI depends on having an effective regulator which is prepared to question government robustly — and if people like me just shrug our shoulders when that doesn’t seem to have happened, then nothing will ever improve.

    “Secondly, Brexit is going to take many years to sort out and there will be many more occasions where people want to use FOI to get information out of government; unless challenged, government will just continue to refuse to disclose information whenever it suits it to do so.

    “Appealing to the tribunal was a new experience for me. I am a lawyer by profession, which probably helped, but I am not an expert in FOI, nor am I a litigator — and I did feel at times that my lack of familiarity with those areas was a handicap. So I have a lot of respect for people who are not lawyers and take cases to the tribunal on their own.

    “I would encourage people to use FOI and I think that what happened with this request shows that, if you are prepared to persevere and be patient, you can get what you want — even in a situation like this where MPs had asked repeatedly for exactly the same information and hadn’t received it.

    “FOI is one of the few tools that individuals can use to hold government to account and it’s important to use it — otherwise government will never take transparency seriously. WhatDoTheyKnow.com has made the process quite easy to initiate and it also means that others who might be interested in the same information can find your request.”

    Jon is also planning to submit a complaint to the ICO about its handling of this case, including the time taken to deal with it:

    “Although it was expedited, it still took over six months, whereas my complaint to the European Ombudsman (which concerned essentially the same material) was dealt with in about half that time.”

    He intends to post a link to the complaint in a further annotation on the FOI request page on WhatDoTheyKnow – so watch this space!

    Many thanks to Jon for taking the time to talk to us about his long and involved pursuit of information, which despite the delays will still help to inform the UK public at this critical time in our country’s history.


    Top image: the Irish border by Andrein (CC by-sa/3.0)