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

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

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

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

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

    One thing at a time

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

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

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

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

    Keeping you in control

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

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

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

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

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

    Better for everyone

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

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

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


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  2. Reporting by numbers with FixMyStreet Pro

    If you’re reporting an issue on Buckinghamshire Council’s FixMyStreet installation, you might have seen yellow dots appearing on the map. These represent items such as streetlights, bins or drains, and we blogged about it when we first added the feature.

    Streetlights plotted on FixMyStreet

    When it comes to assets like streetlights, it can save the council considerable time and effort if your report tells them precisely which light needs fixing: it’s far quicker to find an identified light than it is to follow well-meaning but perhaps vague descriptions like ‘opposite the school’!

    But even when the assets are marked on a map, it’s not always easy for a user to identify exactly which one they want to report, especially if they’ve gone home to make the report and they’re no longer standing right in front of it.

    After the system had been in place for a few weeks, the team at Buckinghamshire told us that users often weren’t pinpointing quite the right streetlight. So we thought a bit more about what could be done to encourage more accurate reports.

    As you might have noticed, streetlights are usually branded with an ID number, like this:

    Buckinghamshire, as you’d expect, holds these ID numbers as data, which means that we were able to add it to FixMyStreet. Now when you click on one of the dots, you’ll see the number displayed, like this: An identified streetlight on FixMyStreet

    The same functionality works for signs, Belisha beacons, bollards and traffic signals, as well as streetlights. Each of them has their own unique identifier.

    So, if you’re in Bucks and you want to make a report about any of these things, note down the ID number and compare it when you click on the asset. This means the correct information is sent through the first time — which, in turn, makes for a quicker fix. Win/win!

    This type of functionality is available to any council using FixMyStreet Pro: find out more here.

    Header image: Luca Florio

  3. Making votes easier to understand

    Parliamentary votes (or ‘divisions’ as they’re known in the lingo) aren’t always the easiest things to understand; yet, as we know from our email inbox, they’re often what our users want to know about most.

    Supported by a grant from Open Society Foundations, we’re now displaying  MPs’, Lords’ and Scottish Parliament votes on TheyWorkForYou more graphically, making them easier to understand at a glance:

    (Click the image to see this vote in situ.)

    For a long time TheyWorkForYou would display divisions as a plain list, usually at or near the end of a debate. When a user wrote to ask us how they could see how a specific representative had voted on the issue of the day, we’d point them towards the relevant section of the right page — but of course, it’s much better if you can find the information for yourself.

    Things improved a little when we created the Recent Votes page, and separated out information for each vote onto their own pages. At that point, though, we were only displaying votes which counted towards the topics we cover on representatives’ Voting Record pages: in other words, those which helped us assess MPs’ and Lords’ stances on issues such as university tuition fees, fox-hunting, etc.

    Now, with this new tranche of work, we’ve been able to make the following improvements:

    • All votes are included on the Recent Votes page, not just ones feeding the voting records.
    • The voting breakdowns are shown graphically, so you can see straight away what the rough proportions were, and to what extent each party’s members made up each side. It should also be easy to see immediately when a representative votes differently to the majority of their party!
    • As we blogged recently, we’re including information on voting for anyone subscribed to MP alerts.

    If you’d really like to understand the full context of each vote, we hope you’ll click through from these pages and read the preceding debates.

    We hope you’ll now find it a lot easier to understand votes — and this certainly feels like a timely addition, given the interesting voting activity of recent days.


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    Image: Katie McNabb

  4. See maps of FixMyStreet reports across the UK

    With funding from the Consumer Data Research Centre (CDRC) we’ve been working with researchers from the University of Sheffield and University of Sterling to open up FixMyStreet data for researchers.

    For an example of the kind of thing that can be done with this data, this group have produced maps for every local authority in the UK, mapping FixMyStreet reports against indices of deprivation (a few examples: Sheffield, Harrogate and Cardiff). These can be explored on our mini-site, where for each authority you can also download a printable poster with additional statistics.

    If you’d like to know more about what these maps mean and what we learned from the process, there’s a report exploring what we learned here.

  5. What we have learned from hunting for electoral boundary data

    You may remember that in August this year, mySociety and Open Knowledge International launched a survey, looking for the sources of digital files that hold electoral boundaries… for every country in the world. Well, we are still looking!

    There is a good reason for this hunt: the files are integral for people who want to make online tools to help citizens contact their local politicians, who need to be able to match users to the right representative. From mySociety’s site TheyWorkForYou to Surfers against Sewage’s Plastic Free Parliament campaign, to Call your Rep in the US, all these tools required boundary data before they could be built.

    We know that finding this data openly licensed is still a real challenge for many countries, which is of course why we launched the survey. We encourage people to continue to submit links to the survey, and we would love if people experienced in electoral boundary data, could help by reviewing submissions: if you are able to offer a few hours of help, please email democracy@mysociety.org

    The EveryBoundary survey FAQs tell you everything you need to know about what to look for when boundary hunting. But we also wanted to share some top tips that we have learnt through our own experiences.

    Do

    • Start the search by looking at authoritative sources first: electoral commissions, national mapping agencies, national statistics bodies, government data portals.
    • Look for data formats (.shp, .geojson, kml etc), and not just a PDF.
    • Ask around if you can’t find the data: if a map is published digitally, then the data behind it exists somewhere!

    Don’t

    • Confuse administrative boundaries with electoral boundaries — they can be the same, but they often aren’t (even when they share a name).
    • Assume boundaries stay the same — check for redistricting, and make sure your data is current.

    If you get stuck

    • Electoral boundaries are normally defined in legislation; sometimes this takes the form of lists of the administrative subdivisions which make up the electoral districts. If you can get the boundaries for the subdivisions you can build up the electoral districts with this information.
    • Make FOI requests to get hold of the data.
    • If needed, escalate the matter. We have heard of groups writing to their representatives, explaining the need for the data. And don’t forget: building tools that strengthen democracy is a worthwhile cause.  

    mySociety is asking people to share electoral boundary data as part of efforts to make information on every politician in the world freely available to all, and support the creation of a Democratic Commons.  Electoral boundary files are an essential part of the data infrastructure of a Democratic Commons. A directory of electoral boundary sources is a potential benefit to many people and organisations  — so let’s keep up the search!

    Photo: Chase Clark

  6. Improving the quality and consistency of political data in Wikidata

    What we’ve done — and what we want to do

    Wikidata now has up-to-date and consistent data on political position holders in current national legislatures for at least 39 countries (and work in progress for over 60 countries), thanks to work by volunteer community members on the Wikiproject every politician. mySociety worked as part of this project with a Wikimedia Foundation grant in 2017-18.

    There is now a real possibility for Wikidata to become the definitive source of data about democracies worldwide — but only if that data can be maintained sustainably. A significant risk is that elections and other major political changes quickly render data on political position holders and legislatures in Wikidata out-of-date.

    We’re proposing a Wikidata post-election updating toolkit project, which aims to ensure that data on elected representatives is substantially correct and complete within a month following an election, leading to improved quality and consistency of data in Wikidata over time. We’ll work as part of the Wikidata community to create and signpost tools and pathways that help contributors to quickly, easily and consistently update data following an election or other political change.

    How community members can get involved in the project

    If you’re already active around data relevant to political position holders, legislatures, or elections in Wikidata, we’d like your feedback and help to test the new tools and guidance and ensure that they are consistent with the emerging consensus around modelling these types of data.

    In particular, if you live in a country or major region that has an upcoming election, please talk to us about piloting the tools! We’d like for you to test the project tools and guidance to update data following your country’s election, and to give us feedback on the value and appropriateness of the approach in your context and political system.

    In general, we’re keen to encourage discussion and evaluation of Wikidata as a source of current position holder data.

    Please review our proposal

    If you’re interested in this, and are active on Wiki projects, please have a look and review our proposal here.

    Image: Mike Alonzo

  7. How your MP voted… in your email inbox

    If you subscribe to emails that tell you every time an MP speaks via TheyWorkForYou, then you may have noticed a change in today’s mailout.

    From today, we’re trialing alerts not just when your chosen MP has spoken, but also when and how they voted — and what could be more timely, what with the dramatic votes of last night! As always, you can click the link in the email to see further context.

    The alerts also cover votes in the House of Lords, and in the Scottish Parliament.

    This is one part of the work we’re able to do towards enhancing access to democracy, supported by a grant from the Open Society Foundations. It’s a feature we’ve wanted to add for a long time — not to mention something that you’ve been asking for — and as we hope you’ll agree, it certainly adds to our overarching goal of trying to make the goings-on in Parliament more accessible to everyone.

    Find out more about votes

    Generally speaking, you can check the Recent Votes page on TheyWorkForYou to see whether your MP was present for a division; or if you know what date it was held on, you can go to the calendar, click through to the relevant debate, and find the divisions usually near or at the end of the page.

    How to sign up for alerts

    Not signed up to follow your MP’s activity in Parliament yet? It’s very simple: just go to this page and input your postcode.

    Enjoy tracking your MP’s votes, and watch this space for more voting-related improvements coming soon.

    Image: Luca Micheli

  8. EveryPolitician data plays a key role in campaigning! But we need more stories like this…

    As we’ve highlighted in recent posts, EveryPolitician is an open dataset.

    We’ve always been strong advocates of open data, but there’s no doubt that it come with its own challenges. For example, when data is freely and openly available, without even the need for registration, we have very little idea of who is accessing it. That, in turn, makes it hard to prove that the project is having impact…and subsequently to find funders to support the maintenance of the project.

    So we were fortunate that user research interviews for the Democratic Commons led us to Andrew from New/Mode. New/Mode deliver advocacy and engagement tools that are used by hundreds of the top campaign, nonprofits and advocacy organisations around the world.  

    These tools are connecting people to their representatives, so information is key: specifically, information on who politicians are and how to contact them. And that’s just what EveryPolitician is, in part*, providing for New/Mode’s tools which are used by groups in Australia, Canada, the US and the UK.

    We asked Andrew what impacts have been created through New/Mode’s tools, and he told us that:

    • In the UK, ONE’s supporters sent 6,500 emails to MPs over the space of a week, helping to successfully pressure MPs to vote for a Sanctions and Anti Money Laundering Bill that increases transparency and cracks down on global corruption.
    • In the US, Win Without War used New/Mode tools with EveryPolitician data to block a defence bill that would have given Trump more nuclear access. The Sunrise Movement is currently using New/Mode tools to push for swift action on climate change.
    • In Canada, Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East prompted 16,000 emails to Canadian MPs in support of Trudeau’s comments condemning violence against unarmed Palestinian protesters.

    We need more of these stories to help us build a picture of who uses EveryPolitician and why it is important, to make a case for why we should keep working on it. As mySociety’s Mark Cridge outlined in a previous post, we’ve recognised that EveryPolitician can only become sustainable at scale as part of a wider community effort, which is why we are collaborating with Wikidata — but we still need the resources to do that.

    Any ideas, or suggestions, please let us know by emailing democracy@mysociety.org

    *PS, In case you were wondering which APIs New/Mode uses, here is a breakdown:

    • Currently, Open North’s Represent is providing the bulk of the data for Canadian politicians. But senators’ data and Twitter handles for the MPs and senators are pulled from EveryPolitician.
    • For the US, Google Civic does a good job of providing the bulk of information, but again EveryPolitician is used for congressional fax numbers and to fill in any blanks with Google Civic data.
    • In the UK, New/Mode are using another mySociety tool, Maplt alongside EveryPolitician. EveryPolitician data is only available for the national level of politicians as yet.
    • For Australia where they focus on national politicians, the data is drawn from a mixture of Open Australia and again EveryPolitician.

    Photo by roya ann miller on Unsplash

     

  9. FixMyStreet Pro says ‘Hi’ to Oxfordshire’s HIAMS

    Our client councils continue to test our integration mettle with the many and varied internal systems they use.

    One nice thing about FixMyStreet Pro, from the council point of view, is that it can play nicely with any internal council system, passing reports wherever they are needed and feeding updates back to the report-maker and onto the live site. What keeps life interesting is that there’s a huge variety of differing set-ups across every council, so there’s always something new to learn.

    Oxfordshire County Council are a case in point. They’ve been a client of ours since 2013, and back in May they asked if we could work with them to integrate their new highways asset maintenance system HIAMS, supplied by WDM, and make sure the whole kaboodle could work with FixMyStreet Pro as well.

    At the same time, they needed an update to their co-branded version of FixMyStreet to match a new design across the council website. FixMyStreet can take on any template so that it fits seamlessly into the rest of the site.

    Oxfordshire County Council's installation of FixMyStreet

    As FixMyStreet was well embedded and citizens were already using it, it was vital to ensure that the disruption was kept to a minimum, both for report-makers and members of staff dealing with enquiries.

    We worked closely with WDM and Oxfordshire County Council to create a connector that would pass information the user entered on Oxfordshire’s FixMyStreet installation or the national FixMyStreet website into the new WDM system, with the correct categories and details already completed.

    Once we saw data going into the system successfully, the next task was to get updates back out. One single report could take a long journey, being passed from WDM onto another system and then back through to WDM before an update came to the user. We didn’t want to leave the report-maker wondering what was happening, so it was crucial to ensure that updates came back to them as smoothly and quickly as possible.

    The integration between FixMyStreet and WDM is now live and working. Users will receive an update whenever their report’s status is changed within the WDM system, meaning there’s no need for them to follow up with a phone call or email — a win for both citizens and councils.

    It all went smoothly from our point of view, but let’s hear from Anna Fitzgerald, Oxfordshire’s Infrastructure Information Management Principal Officer:

    “We’ve been using FixMyStreet Pro since 2013 as it’s a system which is easy to integrate and our customers love it.

    “From an IT support side; integrating the new system to FixMyStreet Pro was seamless. The team at mySociety have been a pleasure to work with, are extremely helpful, knowledgeable and organised. They make you feel like you are their top priority at all times, nothing was ever an issue.

    “Now that we have full integration with the new system, the process of updating our customers happens instantaneously. FixMyStreet Pro has also given us flexibility to change how we communicate with our customers, how often we communicate; and all in real time.

    “What’s more, our Members and management team love it as it has greatly reduced the amount of calls to our customer services desk, which saves a lot of money for the council.”

    As always, we’re delighted to hear such positive feedback. If you’re from a council and would like to explore the benefits FixMyStreet Pro could bring you, please do get in touch.

    Image: Suad Kamardeen

  10. Finding the right way to keep it in the community

    One thing that’s not always talked about in tech is that sometimes projects take a few twists and turns before they find their final path. That’s certainly true of our Keep It In The Community project (KIITC) which aims to map Assets of Community Value across England, in collaboration with Power To Change and MHCLG.

    We’ve been blogging about the project as we progress, and if you read Mark’s blog in September you’ll have seen that we began with plans for a full central register, which would retrieve and keep in sync with information from council websites to present a countrywide overview of ACVs, and also allow community groups to register new ones.

    As we’d feared, we found that data from councils is in many varied formats, and is often moved around, meaning that getting the site to update automatically as we had first hoped would just be too difficult with the quite fragile approach of scraping and swapping spreadsheets that we had originally explored.

    And so we launched KIITC with a snapshot of the data as it existed in September 2018, all manually added by hand, and added functionality that would allow councils to maintain their own records if desired.

    Now, there’s another twist in the tale — we’re bringing some of our original vision back to the table. We’re planning some more development which will increase KIITC’s value for everyone: communities, citizens and councils alike.

    Features for community groups

    If councils don’t have the resources to maintain anything beyond the legally required bare bones register of assets, the community groups who care so passionately about the places and spaces they’re trying to secure will soon be able to get involved and help.

    This penny dropped when, in discussions with Locality, the national network supporting community groups, (and who are also funded by Power To Change) we determined that by working together more closely we could realise the ambition we have for KIITC to be a live up to date register of community assets of all types in England.

    With their collaboration, we’ll be able to talk to community groups to find out their needs, and then develop features for KIITC that will allow these groups to update existing ACVs and register new ones with details, photographs and stories.

    As part of that work in the next couple of months we’ll be adding the ability for anyone to update asset details on the site if they have more up to date information, and we’ll be improving how we display each asset to be more informative and attractive on the page.

    So watch this space as we work together on the latest twist in KIITC’s tail as we keep working on this over the next few months.


    Image: Donnie Rose (Unsplash)