1. Product of my environment

    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!).

     

    Image: Suyash Dwivedi (BY-SA)

  2. Camping out

    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.

    We’ll also be at Govcamp Cymru in Cardiff and OpenDataCamp in Belfast during October so if you are going to be at any of these events please say hi. We have high-quality stickers for your laptop 🙂

     

    Header image: Glen Wood (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

  3. Training an AI to generate FixMyStreet reports

    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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    Image: Scott Lynch (CC by/2.0)

  4. Find FixMyStreet Pro on GCloud 9

    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.

  5. Which ward will you be in on May 4?

    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.

    Once again the Democracy Club’s project Who Can I Vote For? will allow you to see whatever information is available for candidates in your ward.

    Image: Roger (CC by-sa/2.0)

  6. Better Cities beginnings

    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 matt@mysociety.org so please get in touch.

  7. A new year, a new Better Cities team

    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.


    Image: Helen Alfvegren (CC-by/2.0).

    Post updated 20th December with news that Rachel is joining as our Sales & Partnership Manager.

  8. FixMyStreet version 2.0

    bureau of street traffic

    The FixMyStreet codebase is used all over the world by people running versions of the site for their own country or jurisdiction. This week, we’re proud to announce the release of FixMyStreet version 2.0.

    This version contains a wide array of new features that benefit FixMyStreet sites’ users, administrators, and the officials who receive reports. They include elements that the UK FixMyStreet was the first to trial, such as nicer-looking HTML emails for users and authorities, the ability to filter reports by multiple states and categories, a new admin user system with graduated permissions, and various bugfixes and development improvements.

    Over the next few weeks, we’ll be publishing a series of blog posts over on fixmystreet.org/blog/, examining the changes in detail. If you run a FixMyStreet site, or you’re just interested in coding and technical issues, you may find them of interest. Meanwhile, here’s the broad overview.

    New front-end features

    • HTML email: There is now the option for all emails sent by FixMyStreet to be HTML formatted where previously they were plain text only. This includes confirmation and questionnaire emails to the user, and report emails to the public body. These emails include any image added to the report, plus a small static map of the problem’s location.

    • State/category filtering and sorting of list pages: When viewing a list of reports, you can now filter and sort them in pretty much any way you choose, including sorting by most- or least-recently updated, newest or oldest, or most commented. You can also select multiple categories or states (e.g. “fixed”).

    • Pretty area highlighting on body pages: The highlighting of areas on a body page has been inverted, so that the unimportant parts of the map are shaded and you can interact more easily with reports on the page.

    • Users can now update their own email address This was a frequent request from users and we’re glad to report that they can now do it themselves on their account page.

    • Performance improvements: When looking at reports from a list page, the other report pins stay visible so that it is easier to switch between them. The report itself is being pulled in behind the scenes, meaning the whole page does not need to reload. The map no longer extends underneath the sidebar and header, which makes things easier, and a scroll wheel can now zoom the map in and out.

    • Making privacy options clearer: The reporting form has been separated into public and private sections, to make it clearer which parts of what you provide will be made visible on the site.

      Showing the relevant recipient: If you live in an area where there’s more than one body, the category you pick normally dictates which body we send your report to. Now, when you select the category we update the name of the body given at the top of the report page, if we know that the report will be sent there.

    New admin user system

    Admin users can now use the same log-in right across the site – whether they’re making a report like a standard user, or logging in to make edits and moderate the site.

    In the past, the distinction between admin and other users was black and white. As an admin user, you had access to every part of the site, but users can now be given individual permissions for various layers of access. These include:

    • Proxy users This layer grants the ability to create a report or update on behalf of a body, or as another user. We envisage this being useful in a body’s contact centre, where they receive a report over a phone and enter it into FixMyStreet as that user;
    • Report editors Giving the power to edit a report’s category, state, or location. If the admin user changes the category, and that change means that a different body is now responsible for the report, it will be re-sent;
    • List makers, who can compile their own shortlist of reports they wish to go and inspect. This may be useful for a contractor or team who wishes to compile the day’s tasks;
    • Quick responders These users have access to response templates, allowing them to edit and publish templated updates;
    • Prioritisers These users may set different priorities on reports;
    • Trusted users A simple reputation system, which e.g. potentially lets reports from trusted users be actioned more quickly.

    The admin report edit form has also been greatly improved, including a map to update a report’s location (and re-sending the report if the body changes), and much tidier layout.

    Bugfixes and development changes

    Bugfixes include updating the top-level domain (TLD) list for email validation, hiding authorities which don’t exist any more on the all reports page, and fixing the previously-broken photo preview display after form submission. We have dropped support for Internet Explorer 6.

    If you’re a re-user of the codebase, there are a number of changes that will hopefully help you out. See the extended version of this blog post on fixmystreet.org for more details.

    If you have any questions, or problems installing the code, please do get in touch, or post on our mailing list.

  9. Three great jobs for our Better Cities projects

    Earlier this year we tweaked our strategy to better align our commercial work with our charitable projects. We’re now looking to hire a couple of experienced and motivated individuals to help us really turn up the heat on this approach.

    Our work at mySociety covers three practice areas; Freedom of Information, Democracy and Better Cities. Each in their own way use different methods to give citizens more influence over those with power. Making it easy to access public information, or easier to understand what decisions mean and their implications for all of us.

    Most of our work to date has been funded through grants and donations, but we believe that we can often make greater impact on a longer term basis where we work on a commercial footing, especially if we can bring in appropriate revenue which would complement our charitable income and help provide a more sustainable future for our organisation.

    To boost the commercial skills we have within our team we are looking for an experienced Product Manager who can help set the strategy for how we position our products, develop the wider markets we operate in, bring in more public sector clients, help serve our current clients and create an environment in which our products can thrive.

    To aid them in this quest we’re looking for a Sales and Partnership Manager to help us identify and engage with community groups, citizen engagement services, local authorities, technology providers and end users who would benefit from working with us to help more citizens to demand better.

    To top it off we urgently need to hire at least one additional Web Developer to our commercial team with at least three years of programming experience in Ruby, Python, and/or Perl.

    For each of these roles we’re looking for experience of working with or within local authorities or the wider public sector and civil society. They’ll be comfortable speaking with a broad range of people within local and central government, and their service providers, and will understand the needs of their end users – generally local residents. Importantly they’ll be comfortable working within a geographically distributed development team.

    Help us learn and improve

    The aim our Better Cities practice is to help people exert a little more control within their local communities – especially people who have never previously tried to make any such difference,  or members of marginalised groups who might believe they have little chance of success in getting things changed. In particular we want to learn more about how best to deliver local community level services and to understand the complex needs of those currently under-represented by local government and public services.

    Whilst we have over 10 years experience of delivering local services via FixMyStreet.com, we want to understand if such services actually give agency to those who lack it most to affect and impact their local communities, and if so in what way? Does this lead to further civic engagement and participation, if so how? If not can we adapt our approach to make this more likely? And where we currently fall short of representing these needs within our current services, what measures can we take to adapt existing services, or what new services might we create in their place?

    As we continue to learn we’ll further build upon the FixMyStreet principles of issue reporting and resolution to cater for a variety of interesting and practical new use cases,targeting hot button policy areas around housing provision, health, education quality, work and benefits.

    Importantly we’ll succeed if we ensure that our services are well used by a wider diversity of people in a wider spread of regions.

    So if you think you can help us in these goals, have ample experience in creating and leading on the development of digital products and are motivated and energised by working with local communities, government and the public sector we’d very much like to hear from you.

    You can apply here;

    Product Manager – Closing date, 10am Friday 11th November

    Sales and Partnership Manager – Closing date, 10am Friday 11th November

    Web Developer – Closing date, 10am on Wednesday 26th October

    Image courtesy of barynz on Flickr