So we’re pleased to announce the (quiet) beta launch of our latest little site, Keep It In The Community, which we hope will become an England-wide register of Assets of Community Value (ACVs).
The Localism Act 2011 was introduced with a great hope. Its provision for giving groups the right to bid on buildings or land that contribute to community life would allow the protection these assets, potentially taking them into direct community control should they come up for sale.
Sadly, as currently implemented, the law hasn’t yet delivered on that promise.
In Scotland, the legislation comes with an actual right to buy, but in England, that’s not the case, and with developers finding ways around the legislation more often than not, often the best the Act can bring about is the delay of an inevitable change of control. For the moment we’re not expecting the legislation to be given any more teeth.
With Keep It In The Community we intend to at least help support a greater takeup of registration by local communities.
In yet another project built on the flexible FixMyStreet Platform, Keep It In The Community has three main roles:
1. We’re gathering together existing asset listings from the 300+ English councils who hold them, to provide a single synchronised and complete record of all listed and nominated ACVs.
2. We’re providing a straightforward route for established community groups to nominate new ACVs in their community.
3. We’ll allow community members to provide more details, photographs, and useful anecdotes about each registered asset, beyond that required by the legal listing process.
Plans for the summer
So far we have data from around 20 local authorities on the live service, with another 50 or so due to be added over the next few weeks. The remaining councils will be added over the summer. All the data is drawn directly from each local authority and as new assets are nominated or their status changes we’ll update their status on Keep It In The Community.
Whilst we complete final testing we’re restricting the ability of community groups to nominate assets, but hope to fully switch that on shortly, once more of the existing assets are displayed on the site.
The initial process for connecting each council listing is fairly low tech, relying on the scraping of a commonly formatted spreadsheet hosted on each council website.
So for the moment. there will still be a fair amount of manual tweaking to keep things in sync. This is one of those important elements that will be fine to manage when the service is starting out, but may start to creak further down the line if it becomes well used – a classic ‘known known’ issue we’ll need to keep on top of.
Over the summer we’ll be working with a representative set of community groups to extend the features of Keep It In The Community to improve how to submit assets for nomination, and how best to celebrate the listed assets by adding all sorts of local detail and background.
Have a look and let us know what you think so far.
In addition to the initial grant from Power To Change, this project has been implemented with the support of the Plunkett Foundation and the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government.
Against conventional wisdom, we’ve just published the staff manual for FixMyStreet Pro online, where it’s easy for anyone to access.
When we were putting this manual together, we thought we’d have a quick google round for other council SAAS documentation, to see if anyone was doing it particularly well.
We didn’t get very far, though — it seems there’s a culture of corporate secrecy amongst other suppliers, and a fear of publishing such materials in case of imitation.
Why so open?
We’ve gone our own way on this one for a few reasons.
First, because it helps our clients. We know that it’s far easier for customers to look online for materials than it is to remember where they’ve put a physical handbook.
We know we could have put it behind a password, but that just adds an impediment for our existing customers, as well as for anyone hoping to understand the service a little better before making a purchasing decision. Plus, who remembers passwords for something they might only be accessing a couple of times a year? It’s just extra faff.
This way, staff only need bookmark the documentation page, and they’ll always be able to find the most up to date version of the manual.
There’s another reason as well, though. Most mySociety codebases — including FixMyStreet — are Open Source, meaning that anyone who wants to can inspect or use the code for their own purposes. If anyone really wanted to know our ‘secrets’… well, they’re already out in the public domain.
We reckon there’s more to gain by publishing our instruction manual than there is to lose. Sure, competitors might see what features we offer, and they might even copy them. We’re confident, though, that our customer service, company culture, and our insistence on making our products as user friendly as possible, all give us an advantage that imitators are unlikely to be able to match.
So, if you’re from a council yourself (or if you’re just curious) please do go ahead and read the manual. We hope you’ll find it of interest, and that it might cast some light on what makes FixMyStreet Pro different from other offerings in the field.
In 2014, along with Integrated Transport Planning (ITP), we created Collideoscope — a service based on our FixMyStreet Platform to map collisions and near misses between motor vehicles and cyclists.
Since the launch of Collideoscope, cycling has seen even more of an increase in popularity, and we suspect that there have been numerous new initiatives and campaigns developed to highlight and tackle the dangers faced by cyclists through insufficient provision of safe cycling infrastructure and dangerous driving.
So a recent approach from the Merseyside Road Safety Partnership (MRSP) was of great interest: they wanted to explore how we might revisit this task and determine if Collideoscope still has a role to play — or whether some other approach might be more beneficial.
Over the next three months, with the help of funding from MRSP, we plan to carry out a fresh discovery exercise to identify up to date user needs around collision prevention, and also determine how well served these issues are already by other similar initiatives around the country.
In addition to speaking to cyclists, campaign groups and safety experts, we’ll also be working with MRSP and in particular the Cycling Safety team within Merseyside Police to better understand how submission of reports can actually contribute to the development of actionable policy.
We’d also like to better understand the process of evidence submission, especially video evidence, in cases of near misses and collisions, and improve how that might lead to appropriate enforcement action.
For the moment we’re approaching all of this with a very open mind. We’re not going to assume that Collideoscope as it currently exists is necessarily the correct approach, and even if it does have a role to play we suspect it may need to be substantially altered to cater to any newly identified user needs.
Whilst this exploratory part of the project is going to be centred on Merseyside, we’re keen to hear from groups across the country and if you’d like to be consulted or participate in the research we would be keen to hear from you.
In the meantime, ride safe and we’ll update with progress reports over the next few weeks.
If you visit FixMyStreet and suddenly start seeing spots, don’t rush to your optician: it’s just another feature to help you, and the council, when you make a report.
In our last two blog posts we announced Buckinghamshire and Bath & NE Somerset councils’ adoption of FixMyStreet Pro, and looked at how this integrated with existing council software. It’s the latter which has brought on this sudden rash.
At the moment, you’ll only see such dots in areas where the council has adopted FixMyStreet Pro, and gone for the ‘asset locations’ option: take a look at the Bath & NE Somerset installation to see them in action.
What is an asset?
mySociety developer Struan explains all.
Councils refer to ‘assets’; in layman’s language these are things like roads, streetlights, grit bins, dog poo bins and trees. These assets are normally stored in an asset management system that tracks problems, and once hooked up, FixMyStreet Pro can deposit users’ reports directly into that system.
Most asset management systems will have an entry for each asset and probably some location data for them too. This means that we can plot them on a map, and we can also include details about the asset.
When you make a report, for example a broken streetlight, you’ll be able to quickly and easily specify that precise light on the map, making things a faster for you. And there’s no need for the average citizen to ever know this, but we can then include the council’s internal ID for the streetlight in the report, which then also speeds things up for the council.
So, how do we get these assets on to the map? Here’s the technical part:
The council will either have a map server with a set of asset layers on it that we can use, or they’ll provide us with files containing details of the assets and we’ll host them on our own map server.
The map server then lets you ask for all the streetlights in an area and sends back some XML with a location for each streetlight and any associated data, such as the lamppost number. Each collection of objects is called a layer, mostly because that’s how mapping software uses them. It has a layer for the map and then adds any other features on top of this in layers.
Will these dots clutter up the map for users who are trying to make a report about something else?
Not at all.
With a bit of configuration in FixMyStreet, we associate report categories with asset layers so we only show the assets on the map when the relevant category is selected.
We can also snap problem reports to any nearby asset which is handy for things like street lights as it doesn’t make sense to send a report about a broken street light with no associated light.
Watch this space
And what’s coming up?
We’re working to add data from roadworks.org, so that when a user clicks on a road we’ll be able to tell them if roadworks are happening in the near future, which might have a bearing on whether they want to report the problem — for example there’s no point in reporting a pothole if the whole road is due to be resurfaced the next week.
Then we’ll also be looking at roads overseen by TfL. The issue with these is that while they are always within a council area, the council doesn’t have the responsibility of maintaining them, so we want to change where the report is going rather than just adding in more data. There’s also the added complication of things like “what if the issue is being reported on a council-maintained bridge that goes over a TFL road”.
There’s always something to keep the FixMyStreet developers busy… we’ll make sure we keep you updated as these new innovations are added.
From a council and interested in knowing more? Visit the FixMyStreet Pro website
All mySociety websites have strong security: when you think about some of the data we’re entrusted with (people’s private correspondence with their MPs, through WriteToThem, is perhaps the most extreme example, but many of our websites also rely on us storing your email address and other personal information) then you’ll easily understand why robust privacy and security measures are built into all our systems from the very beginning.
We’ve recently upped these even more for FixMyStreet. Like everyone else, we’ve been checking our systems and policies ahead of the implementation of the new General Data Protection Regulation in May, and this helped us see a few areas where we could tighten things up.
A common request from our users is that we remove their name from a report they made on FixMyStreet: either they didn’t realise that it would be published on the site, or they’ve changed their mind about it. Note that when you submit your report, there’s a box which you can uncheck if you would like your report to be anonymous:
FixMyStreet remembers your preference and applies it the next time you make a report.
In any case, now users can anonymise their own reports, either singly or all at once. When you’re logged in, just go to any of your reports and click ‘hide my name’. You’ll see both options:
Security for users was already very good, but with the following improvements it can be considered excellent!
- All passwords are now checked against a list of the 577,000 most common choices, and any that appear in this list are not allowed.
- Passwords must now also be of a minimum length.
- If you change your password, you have to input the previous one in order to authorise the change. Those who haven’t previously used a password (since it is possible to make a report without creating an account), will receive a confirmation email to ensure the request has come from the email address given.
- FixMyStreet passwords are hashed with an algorithm called bcrypt, which has a built in ‘work factor’ that can be increased as computers get faster. We’ve bumped this up.
- Admins can now log a user out of all their sessions. This could be useful for example in the case of a user who has logged in via a public computer and is concerned that others may be able to access their account; or for staff admin who share devices.
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.