Not many people realise that we fund a proportion of our charitable work by carrying our commercial development and consultancy work for a wide range of clients.
Last year, we scoped, developed and delivered a real variety of digital tools and projects. Some of the projects were surprising. Some of them made us gnash our teeth, a bit, as we grappled with new problems. But all of them (and call us geeks if you like) got us very excited.
Here are just twelve of our personal high points from last year. If you have a project that you think we might be able to help you with in 2015, we’d love to hear from you!
1. We Changed the Way in Which Parliament Does Digital
This time last year, a small team from mySociety was poring over analytics, interview content and assorted evidence from Parliament projects dating back last 2-3 years, to help us put together a simple set of recommendations to conclude our review.
11 months later, Parliament have announced their first Head of Digital, fulfilling one of our key recommendations.
2. We helped the MAS and the FCA protect financial consumers
We built the Money Advice Service’s (MAS) first responsive web application, the Car Cost Calculator.
This tool takes one simple thing you know (the car you wish to buy) and tells you roughly how much it’ll cost to run that car against any others you might be interested in. It has been one of MAS’ most successful online tools in terms of traffic and conversion.
We also built the Financial Conduct Authority’s Scam Smart tool, aiming to prevent financial scams.
This tool helps users considering a financial investment to check a potential investment. Users enter information about the type of investment, how they heard about it and the details of the company offering it to them and get back tailored guidance and suggested next steps to help them ensure the investment is bona fide.
3. We Gave Power to the People of Panama (soon)
Working with the The National Authority for Transparency & Access to Information (ANTAI) and the Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO), we set up our first government-backed instance of our Freedom of Information platform, Alaveteli, in Panama.
This project will ensure that Panama’s FOI legislation is promoted and used, but it will also shine a light on ANTAI, who are responsible for ensuring ministries and organisations publish their information, and handling case appeals.
4. We Mapped All the Public Services in Wales
After we extended the Mapumental API to produce data output suitable for GIS (geographical information systems), the Welsh Government were able to map public services in Wales for their Index of Multiple Deprivation calculations.
Over the course of the year they have calculated travel times for over seventy thousand points of interest.
5. We Launched a New Organisation in Four Weeks
Simply Secure approached us in dire need of a brand, an identity and a website to accompany the launch of their new organisation to help the world build user-friendly security tools and technologies.
Cue four weeks of very intense work for mySociety’s designer, supported by members of the commercial team. And we did it.
6. We Printed Stuff BIG (and found people jobs)
Xerox will be using these with the DWP to help job seekers find work that is within reach by public transport. As a byproduct, Mapumental now handles high-fidelity print based outputs: get in touch if that is of interest.
7. We Opened Up Planning Applications
With Hampshire County Council we had the opportunity to build a new application to help assist members of the public and business better understand what was happening around them. For us, it was also the first application in which we worked closely with a provider of a linked data store, in this case Swirrl.
When Open Planning goes live, it will look to help improve social engagement and the economy of Hampshire through better understanding and transparency of planning data.
8. We Proved (Again) That FixMyStreet Isn’t All About Potholes
We launched Collideoscope on October the 7th with our first sponsor—Barts Charity, with the aim of generating data both on incidents involving cycles, and near misses.
9. We Helped Launch a Film
We built a tool for the British Museum, to go alongside the general release of Vikings Live. The Norse Names project brought a sense of context and personalisation to a dataset gathered by the University of Nottingham.
10. We Made Data More Exciting
This year, they asked us to build something similar for bus users. We’re entering the final week of development now, and the finished product should be launched in March.
The main aim of this site? To take data that could be considered pretty dry, and make it a lot more engaging.
11. We Fixed Yet More Potholes
That means that residents of those places can now make their reports direct from their council’s website, or via FixMyStreet, and either way they’ll have all the benefits of FixMyStreet’s smooth report-making interface.
12. We Showed Parliament the Way
And so, we end where we began. While Parliament were busy interviewing candidates for their new ‘Head of Digital’ position, we were commissioned to demonstrate what Hansard might look like were a platform like SayIt used instead of the largely print-based publishing mechanisms used today.
The result was shared internally. While SayIt may not be the end solution for Parliament, it’s great to have had some input into what that solution might be.
And in 2015…?
Got a project that you’d like us to be involved in?
Every year, thousands of people in the UK fall prey to financial scams. For the last six months, mySociety has been working with the Financial Conduct Authority to create an online tool, the FCA Warning List, to try and help potentially vulnerable financial consumers avoid scams.
The tool launched on Wednesday last week as part of a wider communications campaign aimed at educating the public on the typical characteristics of scams.
The homepage of the FCA Warning List
The sophistication of financial scams
When I’ve mentioned this project to people, they invariably think of emails from extravagantly-named lawyers in far-flung countries identifying you as the lucky beneficiary of a lost inheritance. These scams seem, to most people, obvious and the people who fall prey easy to ridicule: how can people possibly think this stuff is real?
But many scams are actually incredibly sophisticated and work on people over a long period of time, with even the most experienced investors at risk of being taken in.
An introductory approach is made by someone who knows your name on a realistic pretext. Might you be interested in this investment? No? Well, John, it was good to chat and I’ll call again in a few months. A few months later another call. Did you know that if you’d invested you’d have made 20% by now? I have another investment here that I think might interest you, let me introduce you to my colleague who knows the director at this firm personally.
Scammers work their victim as a team, they lure us in and use our cognitive flaws and emotional weaknesses to ensnare us.
Disconcertingly informative user research
During this project, we interviewed 15 or so potential users, recruited as having the characteristics of people likely to be targeted by scammers. About half of these people had come in contact with a scam. As far as we know, none of them had fallen victim but only one of them reported their experience to the authorities.
Almost all of them thought that a website to help them research investment opportunities—provided by an independent third party like the FCA—would be useful for them.
We’ve built an online tool that we hope will help investors avoid scams. A person using it gives it some basic facts about an investment opportunity (what is it an investment in? how did you hear about it?) and it gives them back some guidance specific to them.
For example, did you know that if you’re cold called about an investment opportunity, in all likelihood it’s a scam? Just that simple message alone has the potential to be very disruptive to scams.
The tool also allows users to search a list of firms that the FCA knows to be operating without their permission: if someone’s talking to a firm on that list about an investment, that’s probably a pretty bad idea.
Finally, it gives people other suggested actions at the end of the process. Been cold called? You should report it. Considering an investment in an unregulated commodity like bamboo? You should research further before investing.
We also made a widgetty version of the tool homepage that can be easily embedded into other websites.
Scammers rob people of cash, but they can also take people’s self-respect and damage their personal relationships, often at a time of life when they are particularly vulnerable.
We’re excited about the launch of the Warning List and are proud to be supporting the FCA in its mission to protect consumers by disrupting more of the scams that have such a destructive effect on people’s lives.
It’s always good to know a tool we’ve built is useful, and that certainly seems to be the case with the Car Comparison Calculator we built for the Money Advice Service.
Forecasts on user numbers for a completely new offering are, let’s be honest, always going to be based on loose estimates at best. During development, we were both working to the basic figure of 160,000 users a year. Well, pop open the champagne and rip off those L-plates, because in just ten weeks since launch, more than 180,000 people have already checked the running costs of the car they’re thinking of buying.
Almost as pleasing is the news that almost all users see the process through to the end. That might sound like a given, but in all web transactions you can expect to see some ‘drop-off’ as users abandon their path.
So, all in all, a great start for the Car Comparison Calculator. Try it out for yourself here.
And if you’d like mySociety to build something digital for you, start here.
Collideoscope, our new tool for reporting and gathering data on cycle accidents, launched this week.
As we mentioned in our launch blog post, the first phase has been sponsored by Barts and the London Charity’s Bespoke Study. They’ll be using the data gathered through the site to provide them with ground-breaking insights into accident prevention in the East of London.
Would your organisation benefit from such data – or just from association with the Collideoscope project? We’re actively seeking new sponsors to make Collideoscope as good as it can be, and we’re offering a few options:
Are you an organisation that wants to make a visible impact on cycle safety? Then you might consider Marquee sponsorship.
We’re asking for contributions of £6,500 for 12 months’ support of the site. In return, we’ll display your logo as one of up to four prominent sponsors on Collideoscope’s sponsor page, with a brief message about your motivations or involvement in the project.
We can also email you anonymised notifications of reports in any combination of cities, districts, London boroughs and counties to aid your own research.
Partner Level Sponsorship
Or would your organisation simply like to help us improve Collideoscope? We’d love to hear from you.
£3,500 covers 12 months’ support at this level. Your logo will also appear on the Sponsors page, but less prominently than the Marquee option, and without supporting text. You’ll also be able to opt for notifications of reports in your chosen areas.
Are you a local council, town-planner, cycling charity, campaign group or club?
If so then you may be interested in receiving anonymised reports as they are made, within a defined area of your choice – within a single ward, across a whole council area, or even the whole country.
This option is available for a one-off contribution of £250, and does not expire.
Where do I sign?
If you’re interested in become a sponsor, fill out our sponsorship form and we’ll be in touch as soon as we can.
Are you interested in publishing incident reports on your own site? Do you know someone who might benefit from our work? Or would you like to write about Collideoscope in your publication? Then get in touch.
Thanks for reading – and please do pass this post on to contacts who might be interested.
Just how safe is your area for cyclists?
You can check the accident statistics for one answer to that question, but for every serious accident, there may be hundreds more near misses. And if the cyclists, drivers, and pedestrians involved don’t report them, that data is lost forever.
Launching today, Collideoscope aims to collect data on everything from full-on cycle accidents to near-misses.
We’re encouraging anyone involved in an incident to record it on the site, so that we can share it with Highways Departments, police forces, cycle campaigns and even healthcare providers.
In short, Collideoscope will amplify the impact of individuals’ reports, and improve understanding of factors affecting cycle safety in the UK.
Familiar but different
Collideoscope’s interface will be very familiar to those who have used FixMyStreet. That’s because it’s built using the same technology, where a user places a pin in a map to show where a problem occurred, and the system sends the report off to the right authority – in this case, the Highways department and/or the local police.
But there’s more to Collideoscope than just reporting accidents. Our first sponsors, Barts & The London Charity, will use it to collect data to go towards the Bespoke project. Barts and TLC is an innovative charity which – among many other activities – supports research and technology that will improve healthcare within their local NHS trust, and Bespoke is a multi-pronged initiative to reduce accidents for cyclists.
Collideoscope is also a bit different to the existing tools and campaigns out there. Just like FixMyStreet, Collideoscope publishes all reports openly, so anyone can browse them with no log-in required. And, while many of the mySociety team are keen cyclists of one sort or another, we are not campaigners – so Collideoscope does not aim to change anyone’s mind or make the case for better cycling provisions.
Instead, the idea is simply to share the data as widely as possible, increasing public knowledge about what’s effective in road safety, and what set-ups appear to make accidents more likely.
Data to the rescue
Over time, Collideoscope will show close misses and actual accidents across the country, building up a geographic picture of dangerous hotspots for cyclists. This data can be sliced in multiple ways – so for example, you could isolate all the accidents within a specific council’s boundaries, or look at them month by month.
Barts and TLC will be taking this data, and adding it to data on cycling injuries which they’ll be collecting in the emergency department at the Royal London Hospital. The final, joined up picture, will seek to find insight among such factors as whether the cyclist was wearing high-vis clothing, the surrounding road layouts, potholes in the area, and the type of vehicles involved.
Once all this data is in place, of course, the next step will be to make recommendations about how future accidents can be prevented. So for example, if a certain type of road layout is implicated in a large proportion of accidents, well, maybe that type of road layout should be phased out. Barts and TLC see the potential for extending the project in the future, looking into playground accidents, falls, and even street violence.
Collideoscope is a partnership between mySociety and Integrated Transport Planning Ltd. With the time mySociety and ITP have invested and the support from our first sponsor Barts and the London Charity we have developed and launched the site, but we have so much more we’d like to do. We are seeking further sponsors as the project goes forward; if you’re interested in supporting then please get in touch.
Meanwhile – be safe out there. And in the unfortunate eventuality that you are not, have a cup of sweet tea, and then remember to log your accident or near miss on Collideoscope.
Every day, thousands of planning applications are submitted to local councils around the country by people applying to demolish a garage, erect a fence or convert a loft. More often than not these applications disappear into proprietary systems that, despite being publicly available, make it hard for members of the public to find out what’s going on in their area.
Last week, we kicked off the first sprint of an exciting new piece of work with the Hampshire Hub Partnership to build a prototype, open source web application to help members of the public find out more about planning applications in their area.
We jumped at the chance to work on this for a number of reasons.
Serving the needs of the public
Firstly, it has the needs of the general public as its focus. The planning process can be baffling if you’re new to it and this tool aims to help make it easier to understand. We’ll be helping people answer some of the most common questions they have about planning applications: What applications are happening near me? What decisions have been made in the past on applications like mine? How likely is it that my application will be dealt with on time?
A wireframe illustrating the potential functionality of the search results page
The site will help people browse planning application data by location — whether a postcode or a street address — and by type — whether it’s an extension, a loft conversion, or a major development like a retail park or commercial warehouse.
Built on Open Data
Secondly, it’s being made possible by the release of open data from local councils, once Ordnance Survey has granted the necessary exemption for locations derived from their data. Many of our projects rely on organisations publishing open data, so it’s great to have the chance to help demonstrate the value of releasing this kind of data openly.
The Hampshire Hub team has already spent a lot of time working with the LGA, DCLG and LeGSB to define a schema for how planning application data should be published. They’ve collaborated with local authorities, in particular Rushmoor Borough Council, to gather planning application data. And they’ve worked with Swirrl to set up an open data platform to collect all of this together, publish it openly and give us and others access to it.
Reuse, don’t rebuild
And finally, rather than build something from scratch, we’ll be using the fabulous PlanningAlerts.org.au open source codebase as a starting point. Planning Alerts is a piece of software built in Ruby on Rails by our friends down under at Open Australia. It gives us a lot of the functionality that we need for free. We plan in time to repay them for their kindness by submitting the features we develop back into their codebase (if they want them, of course).
We’ll also be using a customised version of our administrative boundaries service http://mapit.mysociety.org to store and query the geographical boundaries of different planning authorities in Hampshire (including National Park boundaries from Natural England as well as local council boundaries.)
We’ve just started our second sprint of work atop the Open Australia codebase, building the search functionality we need to help people find applications by location and category. We’re looking forward to seeing the tool grow, get into the hands of users and fill up with data.
Simply Secure is a new organisation, dedicated to finding ways to improve online security – in ways so accessible and useful that there will be no barrier to their use.
It will bring together developers, UX experts, researchers, designers and, crucially, end users. The plan is to ensure the availability of security and privacy tools that aren’t just robust – they’ll be actively pleasing to use.
Now, you may be thinking that online privacy and security aren’t the most fascinating subject – but this month, the chances are that you’ve actually been discussing it down the pub or with your Facebook friends.
Remember the iCloud story, where celebrities’ personal photographs were taken from supposedly secure cloud storage and put online? Yes, that. If you uttered an opinion about how those celebrities could have kept their images more safely, you’ve been nattering about online security.
Simply Secure is founded on the belief that we’d all like privacy and security online, but that up until now, solutions have been too cumbersome and not user-centred enough. When implementing them becomes a hassle, even technically-literate people will choose usability over security.
How we helped
Simply Secure knew what their proposition was: now we needed to package this up into a brand for them. Crucially, it needed to transmit a playful yet serious message to launch the organisation to the world – within just four weeks.
Our designer Martin developed all the necessary branding and illustration. He created a look and feel that would be carried across not just Simply Secure’s website, but into the real world, on stickers and decoration for the launch event.
Meanwhile, mySociety Senior Consultant Mike helped with content, page layout and structure, all optimised to speak directly to key audience groups.
Down at the coding end of things, our developer Liz ensured that we handed over a project that could be maintained with little to no cost or effort, and extended as the organisation’s purpose evolves.
“mySociety are brilliant to work with. They did in a month what I’ve seen others do in six, and they did it better” – Sara “Scout” Sinclair Brody, Simply Secure
What did the client think? In their own words: “We approached [mySociety] with a rush job to build a site for a complex and new effort.
“They were able to distill meaning from our shaky and stippled examples, and create something that demonstrated skill not only as designers and web architects, but as people able to grasp nuanced and complicated concepts and turn those into workable, representative interfaces”.
Always good to hear!
People who know mySociety’s work might have noticed that we don’t typically work on purely content-driven sites. Generally we opt to focus on making interactions simple, and data engaging, so why did we go ahead with the Simply Secure project?
Well, there were a couple of factors. Firstly, we genuinely think that this will become an invaluable service for every user of the internet, and as an organisation which puts usability above all else, we wanted to be involved.
Second, we believe in the people behind the project. Some of them are friends of mySociety’s, going back some time, and we feel pretty confident that any project they’re involved in will do good things, resulting in a more secure internet for everyone.
Take a look
Simply Secure launches today. We’ll be checking back in a couple of months to report on how it’s going.
That was the question that sparked our latest project, an online interactive tool for the Money Advice Service. The Car Costs Calculator, built by mySociety, allows you to see outgoings at a glance, and compare one second-hand model against another.
The Money Advice Service helps people manage their money. It does this directly through its free and impartial advice service, and by working in partnership with other organisations to help people make the most of their money.
It is an independent service, set up by government, which proactively offers advice and services to help people with the big financial commitments in their lives.
The proposed tool was to be part of a wider, content-driven campaign about the process of buying a car, the possible pitfalls of doing so, the financial implications, and the best ways to save money.
The costs of car ownership aren’t always apparent until you’re up and running – and that’s not helpful when you’re browsing the second-hand car ads.
The Car Costs Calculator gives potential buyers a clearer understanding of exactly what outgoings are associated with each make and model of car.
Several factors make up the costs of running a car: fuel, servicing and maintenance, vehicle tax, annual insurance, and the likely annual depreciation. Before making the decision to commit to what is, for many people, one of the largest outgoings in their monthly budget, it pays to have a full understanding of all of these costs.
We needed to build a tool that could present this complex data, simply and clearly. It made sense to model it on the sort of comparison service that we’re all familiar with from online electronics retailers – that way, most users would have an intuitive understanding of how to access the data.
Before we started work, the Money Advice Service gamely answered all our many questions, allowing us to create a collaborative scoping and feasibility document.
This, together with clear guidance on the branding and house style, was indicative of what was to come – open communication, with frequent meetings and calls throughout the entire build.
We worked to our preferred Agile method. This approach allows for the overall build to be divided into small chunks, each of which is presented to, and tested by, the client on a regular basis: feedback can then be incorporated into the next sprint.
The tool was given plenty of use and testing by the Money Advice Service stakeholders at every stage, and their comments were a valuable resource for our developers.
We also benefited from the client’s in-depth understanding of their audience. With their help, we drew up user stories, including characteristics and motivations, so that we knew we were all on the same page and could really focus on the tool’s users.
While the build went smoothly, we did encounter one issue. It just happened that the Money Advice Service had only recently introduced new styles across its website, and mySociety was the first third-party supplier to use them.
As it turned out, they weren’t entirely pinned down, meaning that some finished pieces of design needed to be re-done as the project neared completion.
Remember all that communication we talked about above? This is where it came in really useful, and we got there in the end.
The Car Cost Calculator launched in July, fitting into the Money Advice Service’s wider campaign on financial advice about buying, selling and running a car.
Both sides are pleased with this innovative tool that gives buyers such a simple route to the financial information they need to make an informed decision.
For the Money Advice Service, the project represents what every client would like to see: “low input, high output”. That is to say, for a relatively low overhead, they have provided the UK with an online tool that will make a real difference.
Try it out
Whether or not you’re in the market for a second-hand car, it’s still fun to try out – have a go with the tool here.
Need something similar? We can build it for you.Image credit: Allen Watkin (cc)
A few months ago we won a contract from Parliament to review its digital service provision (brief advertorial – we can do this kind of work for your organisation too).
Today Parliament has published that review. Here are a few comments:
- It’s great news that the Management Boards in Parliament have agreed to implement the two recommendations contained in the report. Reviews are one thing, actions another.
- It’s great that Parliament chose to publish the review at all. They didn’t have to, but they chose to without any prodding. Big thumbs up.
- We interviewed a lot of parliamentary staff (dozens and dozens of people). They’re a fantastically dedicated, interesting bunch working under often absurd pressures, and we think Parliament overall would probably have a better reputation if they had as much visibility as the elected members. Time for a docusoap, maybe?
- The review contains only two recommendations, even though there were hundreds of good ideas floating around. The reason for such extreme minimalism was to ensure that there was no ambiguity whatsoever about what we believe to be the essential reforms*. Once those reforms are enacted, the ground will be much more fertile for specific digital projects.
- My colleagues Ben Nickolls, Dave Whiteland and Mike Thompson did the majority of the real work on this review, conducting interviews and analysing data. My thanks to them for a job well done.
Parliament is encouraging public feedback on the review. Let them know what you think via NewDigitalService@parliament.uk
* If you want a digital review filled to the brim with lots of recommendations, try this 25 point action plan from the US federal government instead. Just remember that it was published roughly three years before this.
Photo by Greg Dunlap (CC)
Are you part of a campaigning organisation? If you ever ask your supporters to write to politicians, you should know that WriteToThem can be integrated into your website simply, and for free.
Like all mySociety’s offerings, WriteToThem is really easy to use. All your supporters need do is input their postcode and compose their message, then we send it off to the correct representative.
From your side, there are no worries about data management or CRM integration – we take care of all that at our end.
Behind the scenes, we’ve included several safeguards that prevent abuse: for example, your supporters will only be able to contact their own MP, not bombard other representatives with messages they’re unable to act on.
We also check that messages have been safely accepted by the representatives’ servers, and we even follow up to ensure that your supporter received a response.
WriteToThem is free for you, and free for your supporters. It’s available to every sort of organisation, from any part of the political spectrum.
WriteToThem on your website
Full integration with your own website
You can include WriteToThem’s functionality onto your own site, and even template it to match your own styles so that it’s a seamless experience for your users. You will need just a little technical expertise: the instructions are here.
Here’s a case study that shows how one charity used WriteToThem in this way.
A simple link
If you don’t have any technical resource available to you, though, it’s still easy enough to harness the power of WriteToThem. The quickest and most straightforward way is, of course, to include a link to the WriteToThem homepage, from your own website or in your campaign emails.
A slightly more polished link
For a more sophisticated interface, take a look at this page, which has code that you can drop onto your site or newsletter. You can modify the code so that you only cover certain types of representative – for example, MPs, or MSPs.
If you want to get fancy, you can even pre-fill the name and address fields for your supporters.
Integrating with WordPress
There’s a very simple way to include WriteToThem on a WordPress site: through this plug-in. Installing it is just a matter of drag and drop.
Start by reading our guidelines of use.
We hope you’ll find WriteToThem to be a simple solution that really helps you rally your supporters to contact their representatives on the issues that matter. Please do drop us a line if you hit any problems, or would like to share your experience of using WriteToThem.