This is the third part in a short series of month notes about our Neighbourhood Warmth project. It has also been cross-posted on the blog of our project partner, Dark Matter Labs.
A recap of what we’re working on
Home energy is a major source of carbon emissions in the UK. If we’re going to reach our Net Zero goals, our existing homes need to be more efficient in the energy they use, and need to use energy from renewable sources. This process is called ‘retrofit’.
The UK government has set a goal to become Net Zero by 2050, and many local authorities have goals that are even more ambitious. Yet most of the homes of 2050 already exist today. If we’re going to reach this Net Zero goal, the UK Green Building Council (UKGBC) estimates that we need to be retrofitting two homes every minute.
In previous stages of this project we heard how the current individualised approach to retrofit isn’t working. Technical expertise, access to finance, limited supply, and trust in solutions and suppliers were all listed as barriers to the adoption of retrofit. Neighbourhood Warmth is our prototype of a digital service to overcome those barriers, through a community-led approach to domestic retrofit.
What does a community-led approach look like?
As is usually the case with early stages of a digital tool, our understanding of the core purpose of Neighbourhood Warmth (NW) has evolved with the feedback we’ve received.
Our early versions of the prototype suggested a service that supports not only the formation of neighbourhood groups around a shared retrofit challenge, but then gives some amount of advice and support for those groups as they progress through retrofit projects together.
As the process has gone on, we’ve come to understand these as two more separate phases in the overall retrofit journey.
Structuring, coordinating, and delivering community retrofit projects is an incredibly complex challenge in its own right. But when demonstrating our prototype this summer, we were encouraged to discover a few organisations already attempting this – notably Novoville’s forthcoming Shared Works platform.
It therefore became more clear that a key role Neighbourhood Warmth could play is the bit that comes before that – something that enables neighbours to kickstart action. Something that surfaces and then builds demand, and allows neighbourhood groups to connect with suitable suppliers, coordinators, or support schemes.
Co-design & feedback workshops
In the previous monthnotes we named some of the co-design workshops we were organising with various groups to gather feedback on what works and what doesn’t with the current alpha version of Neighbourhood Warmth.
We hosted several online workshops with community-based groups in Birmingham and Frome, and one with local authority retrofit specialists in UKGBC’s officer forum.
What did we learn?
1. Local Authorities see potential for how they could talk to residents and structure funding
With Net Zero targets in place, but huge gaps in funding and resources, many local authorities are struggling to engage and understand where interest in retrofitting and energy efficiency might be. Having a map of where neighbours are connecting and what they’re interested in organising around could support local authorities to play a convening role to unlock action that is greater than the sum of its parts. Combining that data with information on deprivation, population density or other relevant factors might reveal opportunities for better deploy funding to drive change.
2. We should be more explicit about the problems Neighbourhood Warmth exists to solve
In our workshops we heard that Neighbourhood Warmth was both too specific, and not specific enough. Some residents asked for a version of Neighbourhood Warmth that extended beyond just home retrofit, and into shared infrastructure like solar panels, green spaces and transport. Others felt the different types of “challenge” presented in the tool were already too confusing for most users, and that a clearer focus on one specific “ask” would be the most effective way to spur local action.
One challenge here is that people have different motivations for exploring retrofit. Our alpha acknowledged that by flashing these up on the homepage: “We’re connecting neighbours to… stay warm… save energy… save money… improve health… save the planet…” Common Cause Foundation emphasises the importance of framing in communications. Framing activates different values and impacts on people’s propensity to exercise those in future. More consistent framing could create a more coherent experience for users of a digital service like this, and overcome confusion about its purpose.
Other feedback suggested that we should consider gauging users’ interests, experience, capacity and preferences upfront to inform a more tailored welcome journey before encouraging them to connect with neighbours?
3. Giving too much advice could be risky
The one thing to remember about building science is that it’s complicated, and can go wrong quickly. If we’re enabling people to self-organise and take home energy action, then what responsibility do we have to make sure that things go well. Because retrofitting is often highly dependent on each individual home and the residents living there, professional knowledge can’t be easily codified and made digital. But grouping people into similar house types in similar locations could reduce the cost of accessing knowledge, increase the chance of people doing so and provide safety in numbers for neighbours engaging with suppliers collectively.
4. There are group projects in the UK that we can learn from
Levenshulme Area Based Retrofit by Carbon Co-op – “Homes will be offered a set package of retrofit works, similar to the other houses in the scheme, but with small adjustments to fit the home and household’s priorities. The scheme’s approach is based around learnings from Carbon Co-op’s Retrofit for All Toolkit to ensure householders are centred in the process.
POWER in Walthamstow -”a ‘show and do’ project building a solar POWER STATION across the rooftops (streets, schools, community buildings) of North East London via enacting a grassroots Green New Deal – working with art and infrastructure to tackle the interlinked climate/energy/cost of living crises.”
HUBBUB’s work -”In partnership with OVO Energy Solutions, we’ve begun a trial to explore ways that residents of a selected street in Glasgow can make collective changes to tackle increasing costs of energy to retrofit homes at the scale needed. We aim to work with approximately twenty households to make individual and collective home improvements from ‘try-it-now’ behaviour changes to insulation and renewable energy measures. The project will also test how economies of scale can cut the cost of retrofitting.”
Novoville – “Our ambition is clear: to be the countrywide platform for energy efficiency and decarbonisation of homes in Britain. Crucial to our ambition is building on our existing collaborative platform: retrofitting 26 million homes will not happen flat-by-flat, but block-by-block. Buying a heat pump will not be done home-by-home, but street-by-street.”
With this early alpha phase of work coming to a close, we’re a bit clearer on the research questions described in earlier monthnotes. But we haven’t got to the bottom of them yet. That said, there’s consensus around the idea of broadening our collaboration in order to do that.
In particular we’re keen to collaborate with an organisation that engages directly with householders to help them take home energy action. This should allow more rigorous testing of the next version of Neighbourhood Warmth, based on whether householders and other actors behave differently when a digital service exists to support their efforts.
And while we continue to grapple with the scope of the service and delve into the value it might provide to different stakeholders, some interesting avenues are emerging. Recent conversations with potential collaborators have led us to consider the potential for Neighbourhood Warmth to broaden participation in flexibility markets and heat networks. And with that, a whole new set of research questions suggest themselves. We’ll hope to share more on that in our next set of monthnotes, but we’d love to hear from you in the meantime.
Please get in touch to share thoughts or suggest a chat – especially if you provide home energy services and have thoughts on how this work could help!
Image: Elissar Haidar
If you’re a litter picker – someone who goes out with binbags, gloves and a general determination to clean up your local area – then clearly you have a well-developed sense of pride in your neighbourhood.
Little wonder, then, that many litter pickers use FixMyStreet as they go about their voluntary clean-ups. We love to see it — and we like it even more when they give a shoutout to the service on social media!
This cheery bunch are the Kings Heath and Brandwood Litter Pickers, who quite honestly manage to make hard toil look like a fun social event. Indeed, they do often follow up their work cleaning up the streets with a cuppa and a chat.
Kim Hudson, the pink-haired lady in that first picture, tweeted to say that not only had they filled seven binbags in a recent outing, but they’d used FixMyStreet to report five instances of fly tipping, broken paving and drain covers. Looks like they’re not averse to a few guerrilla tactics too…
We messaged Kim, and she told us, “The Kings Heath & Brandwood Litter Pickers operate in south Birmingham.
“We meet every Sunday at 10, and we also support other local groups if they have a grotspot. I am known as the Dawberry Fields Fairy and have been known to litter-pick in my tutu!” Kim also told us to get in touch with the group’s founder, Andrea Quigley, if we needed more details — so we did!
Andrea explained the how group began: “It started about four years ago. My daughter was working in Spain and, returning one Christmas, was appalled at the litter on the streets. Spain is much cleaner. So, with a friend, we started the group”.
Their grabbers, gloves, hoops, high viz vests and other equipment are funded by Kings Heath Business Improvement District, and Birmingham City Council provide the bags.
It’s all very well organised: “Our members adopt roads and when they join say how many hours they are prepared to do each month.
“Some members just adopt their own streets; others do more. Only about ten of us meet on Sundays, but the group as a whole has about 65 members who just get on with it in their locality.”
And how does FixMyStreet fit in?
“We regularly use FixMyStreet to log issues — usually fly tipping — and it’s extremely useful and easy to use.
“In the email I send to new members, I always suggest they use FixMyStreet to report issues with the council. I think our team has made a difference to the area and the community and as we use FixMyStreet, that has too.”
We’re really glad to be playing a part in this endeavour. We also enjoyed hearing about the logistics of the group – and the fun side – from Kim and Andrea.
If your neighbourhood could do with a clean-up, perhaps you’ll take inspiration from the Kings Heath and Brandwood posse, and get a group of litter pickers together. Sounds like the ideal social activity: a bit of physical exertion, a sociable chat, cleaner streets for everyone – oh, and the chance to wear a tutu if you’d like.
Who knew litter picking could be so much fun!
Broken street lights, fly-tipping, potholes and other local, place-based issues in Wales can now be reported to the correct authority by citizens in Welsh as well as in English via FixMyStreet, the long-running reporting service for street and environmental problems provided by civic technology charity mySociety, upon which SocietyWorks’ FixMyStreet Pro is built.
FixMyStreet is a progressive web app that enables citizens across the UK to report local problems to the authority responsible for fixing them, even if they do not know who that is. For the first time since its launch in 2007, users in Wales wanting to make reports in Welsh will be able to view a Welsh-language version of the website and app, including a Welsh-language map provided by Mapio Cymru.
Over half a million people in Wales speak Welsh and the Welsh Government aims to double this by 2050. Having digital services that work as well in Welsh as they do in English is key to achieving this growth in the language. Launched in 2019, Mapio Cymru is a project that aims to ensure mapping services are as good in Welsh as they are in English. Using open data sources Mapio Cymru provides a Welsh-only map of Wales. It also works with organisations across Wales to improve mapping services in the Welsh language.
Louise Crow, Chief Executive at mySociety, said: “FixMyStreet was built to make it easier for citizens to report problems in their communities. We are delighted to be able to make the service accessible to Welsh-speaking citizens, with a fully translated reporting process and a Welsh-language map, enabling users to select the street names and locations with which they are familiar. We look forward to seeing the Welsh-language version of the service put to good use by more citizens who care about improving where they live.”
Ben Proctor, Innovation Director at Data Orchard CIC which runs the Mapio Cymru project, said: “Digital mapping technology is really powerful and easy for organisations like mySociety to use in English. Sadly it’s not the same in Welsh. We aim to make it easier for organisations to deliver services on the highest quality Welsh-language mapping available.”
Are you a Welsh-speaker?
Welsh-speaking users can start using the Welsh-language version of FixMyStreet straight away by heading to cy.fixmystreet.com or downloading the FixMyStreet app from the relevant app store.
There are gaps in Mapio Cymru’s Welsh language map because the project relies on volunteers and public bodies to contribute definitive Welsh names. Volunteers can help to plug the gaps by adding the Welsh names for features on the map (buildings, roads, mountains, fields and so on). Public bodies can help to plug the gaps by publishing the Welsh names that they hold for features under an open licence. The Mapio Cymru team is available to advise on these issues. Just visit the Mapio Cymru website.
Image: Catrin Ellis
At FixMyStreet there’s nothing we like better than to see….well, streets being fixed!
And we especially like it when people share a couple of good ‘before and after’ photos. It proves the system is working, and also helps more people discover FixMyStreet and understand what it can do.
Here’s one that we spotted recently. First the Oxfordshire Cycling Network posted a delighted tweet to show that a path had been repaired –
– upon which, Oxford city councillor Anna Railton replied to say she’d reported it on FixMyStreet, with an image of how it had been previously:
We were interested to hear more about how a councillor uses FixMyStreet, so we asked Anna, who said: “I use it quite a lot. The location plus photo combination, and the fact you don’t have to work out where to send it, is invaluable.
“It’s very good in two (or more) tier authorities where I don’t always have direct access to the right officers.”
Anna’s right when she says that FixMyStreet routes reports to the right authority to deal with them: even if you live in an area that has, say, a city council and a county council, it knows which one deals with which types of issue — and sends your reports to National Highways where appropriate, too.
But councillors don’t have to do all the hard work themselves: everyone in the area can also, of course, report anything that needs putting right, giving the council the benefit of many eyes on the ground as people go about their daily business.
“I do plug it a lot with residents!” says Anna.
Councillors can also find the FixMyStreet local alerts very handy in their work. This free service sends you an email every time a new report is made within a defined area.
Not only can they see what new issues are being reported, but over time they can also get a good overview of what problems are most common, or recurring. One option is to sign up for all reports within a specific ward, which is ideal for councillors — or anyone who’s interested in their own neighbourhood.
Thanks very much to Anna for letting us know how she uses FixMyStreet: we hope we can help bring many more smooth rides for the cyclists of Oxfordshire.
Matt Davis is one of those people who not only appreciates the beauty of his surroundings, but does what he can to help preserve that beauty. A keen rambler, Matt often punctuates his walks in the countryside to make reports on FixMyStreet.
“I’ve reported batteries dumped in forests, discarded TVs at the roadside, fly tipping in hard-to-reach dead end roads, builders’ rubble, all sorts.
“When ask for an update on the progress I then get to go out for another nice long walk again!”
And what he likes about FixMyStreet is that it actually gets results. “My walking companion is always impressed by me stopping for five minutes, interacting with my phone, for something that actually gets things cleared up.”
We thought that this photo [below], which Matt attached to one of his reports, was an excellent example of how fly tipping can mar a beautiful natural landscape. And you can see from the sign, which says “Fly tipping is a crime”, that this is a hotspot for it.
Image: Matt Davis. Click to see it at a larger size.
But as he points out, FixMyStreet is great for tackling the problem before it takes root.
“Overall the brilliance about this app is that it helps clear up areas, so that people don’t then add more to the ugliness of the countryside”, says Matt. “If there’s rubbish that has been dumped, offenders will dump more rubbish on top. By keeping it clear it prevents somebody from thinking that a particular site is an easy target.”
When we spoke to Matt, he had just received the welcome news that he’d be joining his local town council. But that’s just the latest in a long list of public-spirited activities for his local area. Hearing of everything he’s involved in is inspiring, and not a little exhausting!
“I’m a litter womble; I’m the towns tree warden; I also sit on the committee for the town’s allotments. I’ve recently become the chair of the Leicestershire Industrial History Society; I’m a volunteer in other areas as well – I regularly attend a private community allotment and I work at a council-owned 18th century manor house in their gardens.”
Hearing all of this, it makes perfect sense that FixMyStreet fits so well into Matt’s daily activities. Our users are so often the people who are already going the extra mile for their community, and who don’t just notice when something’s amiss, but actually do something about it!
“I’m very positive about FixMyStreet. It’s an excellent app that cuts out all of the fluff, and directs your problem to the appropriate department.”
And we are delighted to hear how our service is being used. Thanks to Matt for speaking to us about it, and three cheers for people like him!
Narrow pavements, potholes and obstructed paths can make access difficult for pedestrians at the best of times — but if you’re in an electric wheelchair, such issues can make journeys dangerous or even impossible.
That’s why Alistair Slade reports them on FixMyStreet. He knows he’s not the only one who might be forced into oncoming traffic because of overgrown hedges; or where obstructions designed to keep out traffic will also prevent him from getting any further. The same problems beset anyone on a mobility scooter or in a wheelchair.
Tree roots making the pavement surface uneven, or verges encroaching onto the walkway can bring a very real risk of his chair tipping over. And if a dropped kerb is missing or just too high, Alistair may well be unable to cross the road.
Some of the photos Alistair has included with his reports: click on each one to see it at a larger size. These may look like ordinary pathways… until you try to see them through the eyes of someone in an electric wheelchair.
Everyone should have equal access to pedestrian routes — in fact, this right is inscribed in the Equality Act of 2010, as we discovered when we spoke to the Heavy Metal Handcyclist in 2010.
And this FixMyStreet user’s local council must now be much better informed about such barriers to access. Alistair, who was once Deputy Mayor, makes regular reports, generally attaching a photograph to clearly convey what the the world looks like from the seat of a wheelchair.
His most notable success was the removal of anti-cycling bars that were too close for electric wheelchairs to get through — but he continues to report all the issues he discovers, making his little patch of the world safer for every type of traveller.
We hope that others will do the same: after all, wheelchair users shouldn’t have to do all the hard work needed to ensure they can get around. If you see an issue that makes access difficult, hop onto FixMyStreet and get it reported. Your local wheelchair users will be glad!
Banner image: Markus Spiske; all other photos by Alistair Slade.
Another FixMyStreet site has launched in another international location, adding to the number of citizens across the world who can enjoy keeping their neighbourhoods safe and clean with the codebase’s simple functionality.
Popravi.to (‘Fix It’) will enable the citizens of Croatia to report issues to the authority that will get them resolved, and to make sure that everyone understands how it works there’s a jaunty video:
The FixMyStreet codebase is open source, meaning that anyone with the required technical knowhow can pick it up, tweak it for their local context, and create an issue-reporting website for their own country, all for free.
And that’s just what Gong — an NGO not entirely unlike mySociety, but Croatian — have done, with help from a cohort of Code for Croatia members. These volunteer coders gave up their time over a period of ten months to get the website up and running, led by Gong’s Miroslav Schlossberg as a project manager, who says that the project also had the wider aim of promoting open civic technology.
Gong came into being in 1997, choosing an acronym for their name to stand for “Građani Organizirano Nadgledaju Glasanje — or ‘Citizens Monitor Voting in an Organised Manner’. In time, as their activities expanded beyond elections, they realised that the name Gong itself was perfectly apt for an organisation that could be said to be sounding an alarm wherever they find corruption or a threat to democracy.
With all of this background in mind, it may come as little surprise that the same Gong/Code for Croatia coalition are also behind the country’s Freedom of Information site Imamo Pravo Znati, which runs on our Alaveteli platform.
Not least among their initial tasks will be securing the cooperation and understanding of the authorities to whom reports will be sent. “We are counting on the local government to recognise Popravi.to as a service that makes it easier for them to detect and locate problems and damage”, says Miroslav, “and to appreciate the contribution of citizens who report them.”
We recognise this sentiment very well, having spent several years doing just that here in the UK for FixMyStreet.com — and we wish Gong the best of luck as they begin on the same journey.
At this time of year, when plants run rampant, we see two common types of report on FixMyStreet: those asking their councils to mow the local verges, and those asking them why they have cut the wildflowers and grasses back.
With increasing amounts of coverage in the press about wildflowers and the benefits they can provide, we spoke to British wild plant conservation charity Plantlife to understand more about why citizens might be using FixMyStreet to request some flower-based improvements to their local road verges.
Not just a pretty place
According to Plantlife, more than 700 of species of wildflower can be found alongside UK road verges. If they’ve been left unmown in your neighbourhood, you’ll know that in these summer months they really are beautiful, with poppies, convolvulus, meadowsweet, celandine, thrift, clover and harebells (to name but a few) scattering a variety of colour through the grasses.
But there’s more than the visual appeal: these verges also improve air quality, buffer noise, and give a home to precious insect life.
With the correct verge management, Plantlife estimates that the 313,000+ miles of rural road verges in this country could become a sanctuary for 400 billion more wild flowers, as well as providing a habitat to all the bees, birds, butterflies and many other creatures that count on such flowers to survive.
A change of direction
So given all these benefits, why aren’t councils already leaving their verges to grow?
In some cases it’s the perceived expense of specialist equipment; in others it’s the fear that longer grass creates road safety issues (such as a lack of visibility at junctions) or attracts litter. Sometimes, it simply comes down to residents preferring closely mown grass.
As Plantlife points out in their Managing Grassland Road Verges guide though, it doesn’t have to be one thing or the other. There are lots of ways that councils can easily, safely and cost-effectively manage road verges to encourage wildflower growth, without compromising on the ‘neat’ look of an area and still ensuring safety.
Wild verges aren’t left entirely to their own devices: they just require a different regime of care, and still get cut back — just in a way that encourages biodiversity.
The picture is changing. Freedom of Information data collected by The Press Association earlier this year revealed that 7 in 10 councils are already taking steps to encourage wildflowers on road verges.
That being the case, giving your support by requesting a wildflower road verge in your local area could help to move those steps along and sow the seeds of better wildflower road verge management in places where opinions are still divided.
How to request a wildflower road verge via FixMyStreet
- Go to fixmystreet.com or open the FixMyStreet app.
- Enter the area or postcode of the road verge, or if you’re making the report on-the-go and you’re (safely!) standing right by the verge, you can select ‘use my current location’.
- Drag the pin across the map to the exact location of the road verge and hit ‘continue’.
- Select a category. It’s worth noting that categories on FixMyStreet are set by each council to reflect their internal departments and their own responsibilities. For this reason, you might be able to select a specific verge-related category, such as ‘verges’ ‘wildlife verges’ or ‘grass verges’, but if your council hasn’t supplied us with a designated category for verges, you might need to select one such as ‘roads’ or ‘other’.
- Add a photo of the verge if you want to. If not, click ‘continue’ again.
- In the ‘Summarise your problem’ box, type a title such as ‘Wildflower road verge request’.
- In the ‘Explain what’s wrong’ box, tell your council the reasons why you would like to encourage it to manage the road verge in a way that maximises flowering plant diversity. See Plantlife’s Road Verge Campaign for advice – you could even link to it to help the council get the guidance they need.
- Once you’re ready, click ‘continue’, fill in your details (if you’re not already logged in) and then hit ‘Submit’ to complete your request.
- Plantlife’s Road Verge Campaign also has posters you can print out and display in your window, if you’d like to get your neighbours on board.
- Experiencing pushback or (almost worse) no response from your council? Try getting your MP or local councillors to join your call, using WriteToThem.com.
KeepItInTheCommunity, the site that maps Assets of Community Value and other community-owned spaces and places, is moving to a new home with the Plunkett Foundation.
It was, in fact, Plunkett that first helped us conceive and scope KIITC (pronounced by mySociety staff, affectionately, as ‘Kitsy’); it was funded by Power to Change and launched in 2018.
The vision was, and still is, to provide a UK-wide map of assets across England, bringing together fragmented information from the country’s many local councils, and underpinned by a consistent data standard. This allows for countrywide analysis, comparisons and research.
On an individual level, it also allows citizens of England to search for local spaces and places in their area, check the status — do they have active ACV status or not? — and add photos, more detailed information, or missing assets to the map.
A perfect match
Now KIITC is moving across to Plunkett, who work closely with community organisations, in particular pubs and community shops, to help them with skills, training and general organisational support. As you can see, they’re a perfect match for the project.
In this new home, KIITC’s data can be kept better updated and even expanded to be more useful to the organisations running and managing community spaces.
Places and spaces
KIITC wasn’t coded from scratch: the underlying codebase is the open source FixMyStreet platform, showing once again how this can be purposed for any project that allows users to place assets on a map, adding details and photographs.
We’re glad to say that the site will continue to fulfil all the same purposes for which it was conceived. As we transfer the site to its new home, please direct any enquiries to the Plunkett Foundation.
Image: Vidar Nordli-Mathisen
Our trading arm SocietyWorks has added a new service to its range of citizen-friendly public sector services, all off the peg for local authorities.
Now, whether a resident needs to request a new bin or set up a direct debit for a green garden waste subscription, it can all be done in one place. That’s thanks to the launch of WasteWorks, a reliable, citizen-centred system for councils to manage all elements of domestic, bulky and green garden waste online, from missed bin reports to online payments for collections.
Thanks to collaboration with Bromley Council, we know WasteWorks answers the needs of authorities, and after rounds of user testing we can say with confidence that citizens will find it useful and simple, too.
With an intuitive, user-friendly interface that encourages the move from phone to online, the service helps councils reduce operating costs by lowering demand on customer service centres, while also dramatically improving the citizen user experience thanks to increased transparency and a self-service system that is easy to use on any device and which meets government accessibility standards.
“WasteWorks provides councils with the opportunity to bring about real improvements to the way citizens access waste services online.” – David Eaton, SocietyWorks
The end-to-end process of managing waste online is now easier and more efficient for everyone. Automated updates and templated responses make it easier for councils to manage expectations and deliver a more transparent service, while internal dashboards and visual heat maps enable staff to track service levels and identify trends.
Find out more on the SocietyWorks website and if you’re from an authority, you can click here to request a demo. Meanwhile, if you’re a resident who’s fed up with your council’s less than intuitive online waste systems, why not drop them a line to let them know about WasteWorks?
Image: Shane Rounce on Unsplash