At mySociety we believe in an open, inclusive web and such we try to build web apps that are accessible in the broadest sense. So while we do care deeply about things like WAI and the Equality Act this post isn’t about that — this is about making a site that works if you have a weak connection or an ageing device. I’m talking about performance.
Now while it isn’t a great metric to track, the fact that the average size of a web page is now over three megabytes (and pages served for mobile devices reaching an average of 2.9mb!) demonstrates that this is an age of bloat that assumes good broadband or 4G connectivity and we don’t think that’s right.
As an example here are some numbers about the FixMyStreet site as it displays on mobile after some recent improvements.
On a desktop there’s a little bit more to add to the mix (more like 66KB of images, 19KB of CSS, plus a webfont taking 77KB) but it’s still lightning quick.
If you are interested in more details of how this was achieved, here’s a post Matthew prepared earlier on many of the same techniques, which he used on his own project traintimes.org.uk.
After several months of consultation with councils, feature development and testing, a new improved version of FixMyStreet for Councils was born. Now renamed FixMyStreet Pro, the service’s enhanced backend features — designed with and for council staff — and seamless integration with existing systems represent a genuine leap forward in street reporting software. Now we’re ready to share everything it can do for you.
From this Friday we will be hosting fortnightly webinars to demo our FixMyStreet Pro service. If you work in street or environment services within a Local Authority or City Government we’d love you to join us.
The sessions take around 45 minutes with plenty of time for questions and discussion – you can sign up for the next one on the FixMyStreet Pro site or use the Eventbrite form at bottom of this post.
What we’ll cover
We’ll show you how you can use FixMyStreet Pro as a single end-to-end case management service for citizens, council staff and contractors alike.
We will take you through all of the major features, and explain how FixMyStreet Pro can help you provide a better reporting service to your citizens for street and environment issues, whilst reducing the burden on your customer service teams – avoiding any rekeying and connecting directly into your current management services.
You’ll learn how to setup and customise FixMyStreet Pro to support your existing workflow, how to manage, moderate and respond quickly and easily to reports. We’ll also take you through the more advanced features for making use of asset layers and inspector tools.
If you can’t wait until Friday, you can try a demo version of the service for yourself at demo.fixmystreet.com – just click on ‘Sign in’ and you can try the service in a variety of roles such as a customer service rep, a highways inspector, or a site administrator.
If you can’t join us on a Friday please get in touch with me directly and we can arrange a one-on-one demo for you and your team.
Sign up for the next FixMyStreet Pro webinar
A couple of years ago we started discussing a collaboration with the Plunkett Foundation to create a searchable and maintainable public register of Assets of Community Value in England.
After a few delays I’m glad to say that this project, thanks to the generous support of Power To Change, is now taking place and we’re already well under way with initial prototyping and development work.
Now, what’s an Asset of Community Value I hear you ask? According to Locality, who are pretty good source of information on these sort of things, Assets of Community Value (ACVs) are places and spaces in your community that are important to local people and if they come up for sale, the community has the opportunity to bid for them.
ACVs can be anything from your local pub, to a sports pitch or community hall, churches or even the local cinema. Whatever is of most importance to you and your community; and especially what you might want to protect should it change hands or come up for sale.
The Localism Act 2011 requires district and unitary councils to publish a list of nominated, approved and rejected community assets, which can be viewed by the public.
The vast majority of councils publish this information online, but formats and levels of information vary widely, from very basic information to more comprehensive details and support. As a result knowledge and awareness of the community right to bid is very low and take up is equally patchy, so with this project we’d like to help change that.
Building off the back of our FixMyStreet Platform we’re creating a single register that will gather together all of the currently listed ACVs — including those that were rejected or are currently going through the process of nomination. Just as FixMyStreet publishes its reports, these assets will be displayed on the map for anyone to view, share and discuss.
With the help of the DCLG we’ll work with local councils and provide them with support to list and manage ACVs in their area, as well as embed their own listings on their website. The service will provide help and guidance for organisations that are eligible to nominate an asset for consideration and we’ll standardise this submission process.
As the service develops, local community members will also be able to highlight assets they believe should be put forward for consideration, as well as add additional detail such as pictures and notes to registered ACVs on the site.
What we need help with
At this stage we’re looking for more collaborators who are already active in this space to come forward and get involved. We’re already in touch with CAMRA, Sport England, the Woodland Trust, and the Land Registry, but if you would like to offer some help or support please do get in touch.
We’re particularly keen to connect with Local Councils who are already actively making use of ACVs, so if you’re an officer responsible for managing the ACV process for your council we’d love to hear from you.
We know from Locality that there were at least 5,000 registered ACVs this time last year, but that list was already a little out of date and there will be more to add. Keeping everything up to date from the usual mix of web pages, spreadsheets and PDFs is going to make things challenging as well.
This is a particularly interesting extension of the FixMyStreet Platform and it’s a useful way for us to explore how to best extend the citizen engagement features of FixMyStreet beyond issue reporting and into celebrating what makes each local community unique and valuable.
So as announced elsewhere on the mySociety blog I am going to have a bit of a different role from now on. It has happened pretty quickly – following a conversation with Mark our Chief Exec during a (not very) West Wing-esque walk and talk through St James Park where I suggested that I might have some capacity to do more and maybe I wasn’t really doing enough of the things that got me hired.
A couple of things have been brewing that meant this was a timely discussion. The ‘Democratic Commons’ work is something that immediately struck a chord with me – we talk about it as being;
“A concept of shared code, data and resources where anyone can contribute, and anyone can benefit — we can help build and strengthen core infrastructure, tools and data that allow other democracy organisations and campaigners to hold their own governments to account.”
More than that though it is basically the democratic data infrastructure that Governments should provide but so often don’t and making it as widely and openly available as possible. Practically that has meant us building a relationship with Wikidata to have a truly international, sustainable and trusted platform for the data and also nurture commercial relationships with internet giants like Facebook to provide both huge reach for the data but also a funding stream that underpins the work for the commons.
There is a careful balance to be struck for sure but the work is too important not to try.
Also there is some work emerging from our Better Cities practice and discussions with partner organisations that is looking at broadening the reach of our services, and of civic tech tools in general, that I am really passionate about making happen. It is all quite early but you can expect some blogposts about this as well in the near future – thinking in the open – it is what we do!
These are both exciting opportunities and exactly the sort of thing I joined mySociety to work on and so I was keen to find a way to really contribute to both.
This post from a couple of years ago by Matt Walton at Futurelearn has been a bit of a touchstone for me about how I approach my work since I stumbled upon it. Mainly as it is always reassuring to read something by someone else that articulates much of what you are already doing but also the clarity of that articulation also highlights where the gaps are in your own approach.
So (other) Matt identifies six priorities for a Head of Product;
– Storytelling and inspiring
– Providing purpose and direction
– Exploring and reporting
– Listening and explaining
– Supporting and empowering
– Coordinating and collaborating
To one extent or another these six pretty much reflect what Mark has asked me to do (which is helpful!).
Storytelling and inspiring
Inspiring sounds a bit too ‘Californian’ but there is no doubt that ‘storytelling’ is a big part of the reason I got this job. Because…let us be honest…I have a reputation as a publicity hound 🙂 I have a profile built by blogging, speaking, tweeting, arranging meet-ups and my commitment to working in the open that provides a platform to get our messages heard but I haven’t been doing enough of that. I need to do better and I think the ‘Democratic Commons’ and also the emerging ‘local’ work provide some really interesting opportunities to get out there and stir up some interest.
Providing purpose and direction
I don’t actually think these kind of roles ‘provide’ purpose or direction – but there is a responsibility to make sure that people understand both and are making decisions aligned with them. mySociety are a small, nimble organisation – not some huge public institution but ensuring that everyone is working towards a common goal, which they understand and support is important for any successful team. This isn’t about being heavy handed and again really comes down to communication – the more internally focused side of things.
Exploring and reporting
In our context this is a bit different to what (other) Matt initially had in mind I think but it works anyway. There is part of this role that is concerned with being on the lookout for opportunities – whether they be partnerships, grants, commercial leads or new challenges in our space and making sure the right people are made aware and the right actions are taken.
Listening and explaining
Part of this is just about being an empathic member of the team, making sure every voice is heard and that everyone understands why decisions have been taken and what the goals are. This is something that is easier in co-located teams – when you are sitting with everyone you can pick up on moods and frustrations much faster than via Slack or even Hangouts and you can preempt many situations. Working remotely provides a challenge for this sort of thing but it is an interesting one.
There is another part of this though – listening to our users. Doing more user research and really using our analytics to make product decisions. I’m keen to make this sort of thinking much more of an integral part of any new initiative from the start.
Supporting and empowering
This is very much related to the first point above. It is about making sure team members are empowered (and provided sufficient cover) to make decisions to get things done without the need to second guess themselves. This is pretty second nature here at mySociety – having a small team of so many talented people makes it an obvious way to work. Still everyone needs reassurance sometimes!
Coordinating and collaborating
For us this isn’t about trying to coordinate across multiple product teams – we aren’t Spotify – but there is clearly a job to be done to coordinate our collaborations with partners, funders and clients on all manner of projects. Providing them with a clarity as to what we are providing for them but also what we need from them.
So that’s the sort of things I’m thinking about…what this looks like in more detail will emerge in the days and weeks to come I’m sure. You can expect to get royally fed up with my blogposts and hopefully get bored of me talking about our work at meet-ups and conferences (organisers if anything sounds interesting for your event give me a shout!).
LocalGovCamp will soon be upon us, so we thought we’d share a few thoughts about why this event, and similar unconferences, are important — and why we at mySociety wanted to support this one.
This immediately throws up a couple of questions for the uninitiated.
What is an unconference?
There are quite a few definitions of ‘unconferences’ out there but all that really matters is that it’s an event where the participants design the agenda on the day, the sessions are informal (eg slidedecks are discouraged) and the law of two feet is encouraged.
This video – itself from an early LocalGovCamp – does a good job of getting the concept across:
What is LocalGovCamp?
Well, LocalGovCamp is the largest and longest running ‘unconference’ for people who work in or are interested in local government. It has been an annual event since 2009 with attendees giving up their Saturdays to travel to various locations across the UK to contribute to the day, listen and learn.
What is special about unconferences?
There is a certain magic that occurs at these events when you bring a group of like-minded souls together, in their own time, without the constraints of a prearranged agenda that really fosters a community spirit that has a lasting effect. Useful as the sessions are, it is often the opportunity to find your tribe, to share war stories and to just speak to people who understand what you are working on that is what you come away remembering. A certain amount of unconference as group therapy is certainly not unusual.
The thing is these connections, these networks that spawn from such events can have real power. They can be impressive catalysts for change and the days when the attendee lists were junior staff lamenting the lack of decision-makers in the room are gone – at a recent central government GovCamp two Permanent Secretaries attended and at this upcoming LocalGovCamp the newly announced first Chief Digital Officer for London will be there, amongst other senior leaders.
Local government is obviously something that mySociety is passionate about – our FixMyStreet service in particular is entirely embedded in that domain – and we were keen to help sponsor the event this year… and not just because getting a ticket to attend is like gold dust! We’re really looking forward to meeting and chatting to friends old and new, finding out what are the big challenges (and opportunities) facing teams in local government at the moment and hopefully contributing to a few sessions.
Artificial intelligence and machine learning seem to be everywhere at the moment – every day there’s a new story about the latest smart assistant, self-driving car or the impending take over of the world by robots. With FixMyStreet having recently reached one million reports, I started wondering what kind of fun things could be done with that dataset.
Inspired by a recent post that generated UK place names using a neural network, I thought I’d dip my toes in the deep learning sea and apply the same technique to FixMyStreet reports. Predictably enough the results are a bit weird.
I took the titles from all the public reports on fixmystreet.com as the training data, and left the training process to run overnight. The number crunching was pretty slow and the calculations had barely reached 5% in the morning. I suspect the training set was a bit too large, at over 1M entries, but end result still gives enough to work with.
The training process produces checkpoints along the way, which you can use to see how the learning is progressing. After 1000 iterations the model was starting to be aware that it should use words, but didn’t really know how to spell them:
Mertricolbes Ice does thrown campryings Sunky riking proper, badger verwappefing cars off uping is! Finst Knmp Lyghimes Jn fence Moadle bridge is one descemjop
After 15000 iterations it’s starting to get the hang of real words, though still struggling to form coherent sentences.
Untaxed cacistance. Broken Surface in ARRUIGARDUR. Widdy movering Cracked already nail some house height avenue. Light not worky I large pot hole Dumped shood road nod at street. Grim Dog man Ongorently obstructing sofas. This birgs. Serious Dirches
After 68000 iterations there seems to be enough confusion in the training data that things start to go south again with the default parameters:
Urgely councille at jnc swept arobley men. They whention to public bend to street? For traffic light not working
Tweaking the ‘temperature’ of the sampling process produces increasingly sensible results:
Large crumbling on pavement Potholes all overgrown for deep pothole Very van causing the road Very deep potholes on pavement Weeds on the pavement Several potholes in the road Rubbish Dumped on the road markings Potholes on three away surface blocking my peride garden of the pavement Potholes and rubbish bags on pavement Poor road sign damaged Poor street lights not working Dog mess in can on road bollard on pavement A large potholes and street light post in middle of road
As well as plenty of variations on the most popular titles:
Pot hole Pot hole on pavement Pot holes and pavement around Pot holes needings to path Pothole Pothole dark Pothole in road Pothole/Damaged to to weeks Potholes Potholes all overgrown for deep pothole Potholes in Cavation Close Potholes in lamp post Out Potholes in right stop lines sign Potholes on Knothendabout Street Light Street Lighting Street light Street light fence the entranch to Parver close Street light not working Street light not working develter Street light out opposite 82/00 Tood Street lights Street lights not working in manham wall post Street lights on path Street lights out
It also seems to do quite well at making up road names that don’t exist in any of the original reports (or in reality):
Street Light Out - 605 Ridington Road Signs left on qualing Road, Leave SE2234 4 Phiphest Park Road Hasnyleys Rd Apton flytipping on Willour Lane The road U6!
Here are a few of my favourites for their sheer absurdity:
Huge pothole signs Lack of rubbish Wheelie car Keep Potholes Mattress left on cars Ant flat in the middle of road Flytipping goon! Pothole on the trees Abandoned rubbish in lane approaching badger toward Way ockgatton trees Overgrown bush Is broken - life of the road. Poo car Road missing Missing dog fouling - under traffic lights
Aside from perhaps generating realistic-looking reports for demo/development sites I don’t know if this has any practical application for FixMyStreet, but it was fun to see what kind of thing is possible with not much work.
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We are happy to confirm that FixMyStreet Professional (the service formerly known as FixMyStreet for Councils) has been accepted onto the GCloud9 procurement framework.
Why is this important?
Using GCloud9, which is overseen by the Crown Commercial Service, removes much of the admin burden from public sector teams who are seeking to procure cloud based software and makes it easier to get down to the question of who has the best product for their needs.
What is FixMyStreet Pro?
FixMyStreet Pro represents the outcome of our co-design project with Oxfordshire County Council to take our popular FixMyStreet platform and build in a new set of features that genuinely made it as useful as possible for their staff (and Council staff all over the UK).
With a focus on retaining the user focused design and approach FixMyStreet was known for we have added or improved functionality for Council customer service staff and introduced a whole new set of tools to support Council inspectors including the ability to manage their tasks from within the app and to work offline when out and about.
This project has also made some improvements to the wider user experience for citizens with new front-end features being added all the time based on user research and feedback.
Want to learn more?
You can find out more about the service over on the GCloud Digital Marketplace or check out our own product pages where you can also get in touch with us if you would like to see a demonstration of the service or learn more about how we might be able to help.
It’s that time of year again. Local elections are on the 4th of May and we have updated our boundary change checker. It also helpfully lets you know if your ward is not having elections (not that your author was unaware of course.)
On May 4th elections will be taking place across English, Welsh and Scottish councils as well as the the elections for the new ‘combined authority’ Mayors.
Ward boundaries are changing
You might think you already know where to vote, and who’s standing for election in your area.
But both are dictated by which ward you live in — and that may not be the one you’re used to, thanks to ongoing changes in ward boundaries.
There’s no need to worry, though. As before, we’ve got the data that will tell you whether your ward has changed. Just enter your postcode here.
As Mark mentioned last month I have recently joined mySociety as Product Manager in the Better Cities team. This is something of a departure for me as I have spent most of my career working for large, publicly funded institutions — places like the Office for National Statistics, Medical Research Council and Department for Environment, Farming and Rural Affairs to name but three.
That said a large part of all those roles was trying to convince colleagues of the benefits of using the kind of products and services organisations like mySociety provide so maybe it isn’t that big a leap after all.
It has been a long held ambition of mine to work for mySociety — looking back it was almost 10 years ago when I first mentioned them/us on my blog and the organisation has been a consistent influence on me ever since with a number of former staff, trustees and volunteers becoming friends and colleagues over the intervening years.
It was my gateway to the wider world of the ‘civic tech’ community to which I have been a proud contributor for many years now — most recently mainly through running a weekly jobs list for public service minded organisations seeking digital staff.
At the moment I am primarily focused on learning as much as I can about our FixMyStreet platform (including the ‘..for Councils’ product) and investigating the MapIt service as well. As I get up to speed with things I am also taking the opportunity to get about and about — attending events and trying to meet people who make use of our projects.
In the weeks to come I’ll be attending MeasureCamp in Cardiff (4th February), giving a talk at World IA Day in Manchester (18th February), speaking at BathHacked on the 22nd February (Bath), helping out at day one of Open Data Camp in Cardiff (25th February), going to ProductCampon the 4th March (London) and giving a lightning talk at the launch of the new Tech4Good group in Bristol on the 23rd March. All this as well as hosting my regular ‘minimal viable meet-up’ on the 8th February in Bristol.
If you are attending any of these events please and want to chat ‘Better Cities’, civic tech or just want to get hold of one of our lovely stickers please come and say hi — there are rarely any other attendees who sound as Bristolian as I do so I am usually easy to find. Also if there are any events you’d like to suggest I attend — either to give a talk about the mySociety ‘Better Cities’ work or just generally an opportunity for me to learn more about how people are using digital tools to engage with and influence local democracy please do let me know.
I am @jukesie on Twitter (be warned — I am something of a prolific tweeter!) and my email is email@example.com so please get in touch.
A couple of months ago we started a search to find three new team members for our Better Cities practice: a Product Manager, Web Developer and Sales & Partnership Manager.
We’ve now signed up our new colleagues and I’m excited to say that Matt Jukes will be joining as Product Manager. He’ll be leading the development and expansion of our Better Cities services and building upon our recent work to launch FixMyStreet 2.0.
Matt is a familiar name to many people in the UK Civic and Gov Tech sphere — most notably for the transformation work he led over the past couple of years at the ONS (Office of National Statistics). Matt brings with him an excellent pedigree of building and leading teams. What was of particular interest to us was the way that he talks openly and publicly about the projects he’s working on, which sits very well with our approach.
Stuart Harrison will be joining us in January from the ODI (Open Data Institute) as a new Web Developer on our commercial and Better Cities work. Stuart brings a wealth of public sector experience and is already an avid user of mySociety’s services. We’re very lucky to have snagged him, not least as he brings masses of insight and experience into how Open Data meets the commercial world.
Finally our new Sales & Partnership Manager Rachel Baker will start in early January
(we’ll let you know who they are once we’ve got that all wrapped up shortly). She comes with valuable entrepreneurial and marketing experience from previous startups and will also be working from our growing base around Bristol and Bath.
Rachel will work with our Local Authority partners in the UK and around the world, on FixMyStreet for Councils which has undergone a substantial revamp over the last few months. And will help us better connect with like-minded partners who might benefit from making use of our services — if this is of interest please get in touch.
And one departure
Finally and sadly we also say goodbye to our dear friend and colleague Ben Nickolls.
Ben has been with us as Head of Services for the past four years, working with me and the commercial team. He has been instrumental in turning around the fortunes of our services team over the past 18 months, giving us a firm basis for the public sector product and service business we are seeking to grow over the next couple of years.
Now with the groundwork done, Ben is off to pursue his startup ambitions with the wonderful Libraries.io project, which aims to document and provide access to all of the Open Source libraries in the world. This is a hugely ambitious project. We’re very excited for Ben and wish him all the luck — we’ll be watching his progress closely.
So all change for the new year in our Better Cities practice. There will be lots more to share on our progress in the coming months.
Post updated 20th December with news that Rachel is joining as our Sales & Partnership Manager.