1. WasteWorks: a new service for councils

    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.

    WasteWorks product on different devices

    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

  2. How to use FixMyStreet to make roads safer for blind people

    Since FixMyStreet first launched back in 2007, we’ve always loved hearing stories from citizens about how they use the service within their local community.

    Earlier this year, we heard from Lauren and John, who told us about how they’ve been using FixMyStreet to help make roads in their local area safer for blind people by reporting any pedestrian crossings with faulty or missing audio, tactile or visual indicators.

    These indicators are essential for anyone with sight or hearing loss to be able to safely navigate crossing the road, so when they’re broken, it is a serious hazard. A hazard that most people probably wouldn’t notice, let alone report.

    We were so inspired by their story that we asked if we could share it and encourage more people to make use of FixMyStreet in this way.

    Happily, not only did they agree, but they also made a video for us! So, meet best friends Lauren and John:

    John is deafblind and relies on using tactile indicators (those little plastic or metal cones beneath pedestrian crossing boxes, sometimes referred to as ‘twirlers’ or ‘spinners’) to know when it is safe to cross the road.

    The pair say they started reporting any broken pedestrian crossings during lockdown as a way to make the most of their daily exercise: “We wanted to use our time to do something positive that would make journeys safer for other cane and guide dog users in the local area.

    “Covid has hit visually impaired people quite hard and there have been lots of changes to street layouts, one way systems and social distancing is pretty difficult for those that cannot see.”

    There are several things that Lauren and John look out for and report on FixMyStreet: “We look at all aspects of the crossing, including buttons, lights and the spinner.

    “The wait light is surprisingly important because even John, who has very little remaining vision, can see if the light is on or off. If a tactile spinner isn’t working he can work out when it’s safe to cross using this light, as it will go off when the man turns green.”

    That’s not all, though. Broken glass is also high up on their reporting priority list. Lauren explains, “[Glass] is a real hazard for John’s guide dog Daisy who will walk through it if there is no easy way around or if it is very small pieces she can’t see.”

    Lauren says it was a local litter picking group that recommended using FixMyStreet to report all the issues she and John were finding at pedestrian crossings.

    “Before finding the website I actually wouldn’t have known where or who to report the issues to.”

    FixMyStreet uses the location data provided within a report to automatically send it to the correct authority. In Lauren and John’s case, it was Birmingham City Council that received their reports.

    John and Lauren say using FixMyStreet has made reporting problems “easy”, and that they’ve been impressed by how quickly Birmingham City Council has responded to their FixMyStreet reports: “We have had issues fixed in less than 48 hours, which is great.”

    This is something we’re very pleased to hear, and serves as a reminder of why we encourage all UK councils to give their residents the option to make reports via FixMyStreet (currently, around 2% of councils don’t accept reports from third party websites like ours).

    Although lockdown will hopefully be over in the near future, John and Lauren have no plans to stop their walking and reporting routine: “Finding so many problems has motivated us to keep checking and reporting issues.

    “It could be a missing button, broken light or the tactile spinner could be missing or broken. If nobody knows they are broken, then they can’t be fixed!”

    Thanks so much to Lauren and John for sharing their story with us, and for being such active members of their community through FixMyStreet – this is exactly why we created the service in the first place.

    Next time you’re waiting at a pedestrian crossing, why not check that everything’s working as it should, and make a quick report on FixMyStreet if it’s not?

    If you want to follow more of Lauren and John’s adventures, check out their Facebook page.

    How do you use FixMyStreet? Share your own story with us here.

    Image: Valou_c on Unsplash

  3. What is consequence scanning?

    At LocalGovCamp, our designer Martin ran an interactive exercise that took attendees through a ‘consequence scanning’ exercise, as a way to predict and mitigate all the outcomes, both positive and negative, of a proposed piece of development.

    In this case, the service under discussion was a fictional parking violation reporting app.

     Consequence Scanning

    Let’s just repeat that, in case of any angry reactions: fictional!

    So, what could possibly go wrong with a piece of tech designed to encourage residents to grass on fellow citizens for their poor parking? You can see how it played out in this video:

     

    Now you’ve seen a consequence scanning exercise in action. If you’d like to understand more about the process, read on: this is how Martin explained the whole idea to us here at mySociety, with more detail on the underlying principles:

    We’ve been working on a few sensitive projects recently – specifically our work expanding FixMyStreet Pro to cover issues of a more social nature, like noise reporting, antisocial behaviour, that sort of thing.

    As experienced as we are with the ‘make a report by sticking a pin in a map’ style of interaction design, we recognise the need for extra care when applying this to issues that are about people, rather than things. There’s an increased risk of building a tool that results in unintended negative consequences; especially where the service concerns an area already prone to controversy.

    mySociety Board member Jonathan Flowers put us in touch with Connected Places Catapult, who had been using ‘Consequence Scanning’ for this very thing, and we realised it was just what we needed.

    It’s a structured system for drawing out the consequences of a new idea, and giving people a say in what actions are used to mitigate or address them. It originated from the Doteveryone thinktank, and CPC have taken it forward and customised it for their needs.

    In Consequence Scanning, consequences are classified as either intended or unintended, with the important distinction that intended consequences aren’t always positive, and unintended consequences aren’t always negative.

    The process is delivered in a workshop format and works best with a good mixture of participants with diverse views and backgrounds, directly involved in the service on both sides. This means ideally both service users and service officers should take part and be prepared to be honest about consequences. For this reason it’s important to create a safe space where information can be shared honestly and openly.

    The process is split into three parts:

    Part one: What are the consequences?

    Part two: What are the positive consequences we want to focus on?

    Part three: What are the unintended consequences we should mitigate?

    Part one: What are the consequences?

    1. What are the intended consequences for:
    •  Organisation – How might this affect our organisation?
    •  Users – How might this affect the users of this service?
    •  Community – What are the consequences that could affect the wider community?
    1. What are the unintended consequences? For the kind of work we do, unintended consequences tend to emerge in these areas:
    •    Lack of digital understanding:
      • What can happen in a situation where there is a lack of digital skills or access to technology?
    • Unintended uses and users
      • What could be the unintended uses of this service?
      • What could be the unintended users of this service? Eg private companies using public services for profit
    • Weak security/reliability/poor support/monitoring
      • What could happen in situations of technical failure, poorly equipped staff, or lack of budget etc?
    • Changes in norms and behaviours
      • How could this cause changes in societal norms and behaviours?
    • Displacement (what will people do this instead of… )
      • If people use this service instead of others what could result?
    • Impact on environment
      • How might this service result in consequences for the planet or local environment?

    Part two: What are the positive consequences we want to focus on?

    1. Sort the list of intended consequences into groups by affinity (affinity sorting)
    2. Add further details or related information

    Part three: What are the unintended consequences we want to mitigate?

    1. Sort the list of intended consequences into groups by affinity (affinity sorting)
    2. Use causal mapping to work out the relationships between the consequences and help determine where mitigations could have the greatest impact: eg, solve A before B, solve D and prevent E,F,G
    3. Use grouping and categorisation of consequences to show relationships

    This system works best on a new, but defined idea. If it’s done too early in the design process, the consequences end up being very general, or people bring their own assumptions and often focus on the wrong things. It’s best to bring it in once scope has been defined.

    The primary function is to identify the consequences and not to “solutionise” the mitigations, but the group should be free to discuss possible mitigations where they feel it’s important.

    We’ve been using Consequence Scanning in our work on noise reporting and antisocial behaviour, and it’s also proving useful for our internal anti-racism action group, where we want to understand the potential unintended results of any future development in terms of who our services reach, and who they exclude.

    Image: Drew Graham

  4. How you’ve been using our services to help the climate

    mySociety services help people be active citizens, whether by speaking truth to power, communicating directly with politicians, or demanding change on your doorstep —  and that’s true for the area of climate activism as much as it is for any other burning issue.

    By listing some of the ways you’ve been using our services to help the climate, we hope to inspire others to do the same, and to consider new ways in which you might be able to use them to push the climate agenda even further.

    At the beginning of 2020, mySociety made a commitment to the planet, adding Climate to our existing workstreams of Transparency, Democracy and Community.

    There are many experienced and knowledgeable organisations already working to fight the climate crisis. Accordingly, much of our work in this area has involved teaming up with these existing institutions, to offer the skills we do have and which they are often lacking: data wrangling, service design, site development, research and so on.

    But there’s another way in which we can be useful, with no extra development or resource required from us: thanks to our established suite of services, we can help individual citizens to take action. mySociety’s UK websites are already set up to help people find out facts, ask politicians questions, check how MPs are voting, and demand better for their local communities — all useful tools when you want to tackle climate change.

    We’ve had a look at the ways in which you’ve been using our websites in service of the climate, and we’ve found a huge variety of examples. Take a look through, and you might be inspired. And, if you’ve taken another type of climate action through our websites, do let us know so that we can add it to our list!

    Changes in your neighbourhood

    On FixMyStreet, we’ve seen people pointing out eco-unfriendly practices to the council, and asking for new amenities that would help locals to pursue a greener lifestyle.

    Trees filter air pollution, absorb carbon and provide shade, so it’s possible to argue that every tree is a benefit to the community. As Friends of the Earth advise, that’s all the rationale you need to lodge a request for a Tree Preservation Order, which means that an existing tree cannot be removed without reason. 

    Or perhaps there simply aren’t enough trees where you live? Then you can write to your council and request that new ones are planted.

    We know that climate change is driving bees away, so those who ask their councils to leave roadside verges unmown and allow wildflowers to grow are also doing their bit to help offset the damage. 

    Campaigning

    Meanwhile, WriteToThem can be used by any campaign which wants its supporters to email their politicians, and there are many with an environmental or climate agenda who have done just that. 

    Hyperlocal groups are campaigning against the loss of green spaces; the Possible organisation regularly rallies its supporters for innovative climate issues such as ground source heat from parks and better spaces for walking or cycling

    Badverts wants to stop the advertising industry from pushing high-carbon products, and Power For People is pushing for non-profit clean energy companies.

    And it’s not just campaigns that use WriteToThem, of course — tens of thousands of you use the site every month to tell your politicians what is important to you, how you’d like them to vote, or to alert them to wrongs that need to be set right. 

    Emails sent through WritetoThem are private between you and your representative, though, so unless you tell us about it, we can’t know what you’re writing about. All the same, we can say with absolute certainty that many of you are expressing your concerns about the climate — it’s such an important topic that you must be. 

    Requesting information

    Many councils declared a climate emergency in 2019 — but what does that mean in real terms, and what comes next? If your council hasn’t published its Climate Action Plan, and you want to ascertain whether they actually have one (or are perhaps working on it) then a Freedom of Information request might yield answers, and plenty of people have used WhatDoTheyKnow for just this purpose.

    Or, if the plans are already written and available to the public, there’s still lots more that might need disclosing: are they being adhered to and working as intended? And are the budgets accurate and adequate? How is money actually being spent? 

    This request enquired whether the commitment to the climate went as far as divestment from fossil fuels, and this one dug into whether a council was using renewable energy sources.

    FOI can be used in a huge variety of ways: for example, to collect disparate data from multiple authorities to make up a coherent dataset showing a nationwide picture — like this one, on behalf of Amnesty International, finding out how local authorities were reacting to childrens’ climate strikes.

    Thanks to our Alaveteli software, organisations all over the world are running sites like WhatDoTheyKnow that allow their citizens to ask for information. In Hungary, the KiMitTud site uncovered a river pollution scandal; and on AskTheEU the VW emissions misconduct was hinted at long before the story hit the public consciousness.

    Holding politicians accountable

    FOI requests can take a while to be processed by authorities, so while you’re waiting you might like to do something a bit more immediate and look up your MP’s voting record on TheyWorkForYou

    Each MP’s voting record includes a section on the environment, containing all parliamentary votes since 2010 that we’ve identified as relevant. The data — on policies from selling state-owned forests to higher taxes on air fares — comes from the Public Whip website, where votes are analysed and categorised. 

    In the interests of stressing the importance of the climate emergency, we’re keen to give this Environment section more prominence and detail, but of course we can only include the votes that have been held, and even then only the votes that were recorded in Parliament — not those that were just ‘nodded through’ (see more about this here). However, we’ll be keeping a keen eye open for the key climate-related votes of the future.

    Data

    The open data accessible through our sites can often be useful for researchers: one example of this is the TheyWorkForYou API, which allows for the analysis of everything said in Parliament, among other uses. 

    As examples of what can be done, Carbon Brief analysed Hansard to see which politicians mention climate change the most; and the Guardian, using TheyWorkForYou, gave a more rounded score to each MP which also took into consideration their votes and interests.

    So – that’s quite a long list, and just goes to show the breadth and diversity of the possibilities afforded by our various online services.

    If you’ve been feeling helpless about the climate crisis, perhaps this will give you a little hope, and inspire you to take a few small online steps yourself, in service of the planet and our future. Please do let us know how you get on.

  5. Do photos help resolution of FixMyStreet reports?

    Summary

    FixMyStreet allows people to upload images along with a report. This can quickly provide the authority with more details of the issue than might be passed along in the written description, and lead to quicker evaluation and prioritisation of the repair. For problems that are hard to locate geographically by description (or where the pin has been dropped inaccurately), images might also help council staff locate and deal with the problem correctly.

    In 2019, 35% of reports included photos. Accounting for several other possible factors,  reports with photos were around 15% more likely to be recorded as fixed than reports without a photo. In absolute terms, reports with photos were fixed at a rate two percentage points higher. This varies by category, with photos having a much stronger effect (highways enquiries and reports made in parks and open space) in some categories, and in other categories photos having a small negative effect in the resolution (reports of pavement issues and rights of way).

    In general, these results suggest that attaching photos is not only useful for authorities, but can make it more likely that reporters have their problem resolved. There is a significant reservation that photos are much more useful for some kinds of reports than others. In terms of impacts on the service, when photos can convey useful information that helps lead to a resolution, users should be encouraged to attach them. Where photos are less helpful (such as problems encountered mostly at night), other prompt suggestions or asset selection tools may help lead to more repairs.

    (more…)

  6. Publishing less: our current thinking about comparative statistics

    Over the last few years we have stopped publishing several statistics on some of our services, but haven’t really talked publicly about why. This blog post is about the problems we’ve been trying to address and why, for the moment, we think less is better.

    TheyWorkForYou numerology 

    TheyWorkForYou launched with explicit rankings of MPs but these were quickly replaced with more “fuzzy” rankings, acknowledging the limitations of the data sources available in providing a concrete evaluation of an MP. Explicit rankings on the ‘numerology’ section of an MPs profile were removed in 2006. In July 2020, we removed the section altogether.

    This section covered the number of speeches in Parliament this year, answers to written questions, attendance at votes, alongside more abstract metrics like the reading age of the MP’s speeches, and ‘three-word alliterative phrases’ which counted the number of times an MP said phrases like ‘she sells seashells’.

    This last metric intended to make a point about the limits of the data, along with a disclaimer that countable numbers reflect only part of an MP’s job.

    Our new approach is based on the idea that, while disclaimers may make us feel we have adequately reflected nuance, we don’t think they are really read by users. Instead, if we do not believe data can help make meaningful evaluations or requires large qualifications,  we should not highlight it.

    Covid-19 and limits on remote participation also mean that the significance of some participation metrics is less clear for some periods. We’re open to the idea that some data may return in the future, if a clear need arises that we think we can fill with good information. In the meantime the raw information on voting attendance is still available on Public Whip. 

    WriteToThem responsiveness statistics

    When someone sends a message to a representative through WriteToThem, we send a survey two weeks later to ask if this was their first time writing, and whether they got a response.

    This answer was used annually to generate a table ranking MPs by responsiveness. In 2017 we stopped publishing the WriteToThem stats page. The concerns that led to this were:

    • There are systemic factors that can make MPs more or less likely to respond to correspondence (eg holding ministerial office).
    • As the statistics only cover the last year, this can lead to MPs moving around the rankings significantly, calling into question the value of a placement in any particular year. Does it represent improvement/decline, or is the change random?
    • MPs receive different types of communication and may prioritise some over others (for example,  requests for intervention rather than policy lobbying). Different MPs may receive different types of messages, making comparisons difficult.
    • The bottom rankings may be reflecting factors outside MPs’control (eg a technical problem with the email address, or health problems), which can invalidate the wider value of the rankings.

    The original plan was to turn this off temporarily while we explored how the approach could be improved, but digging into the complexity has led to the issue dragging on and at this point it is best to say the rankings are unlikely to return in a similar form any time soon.

    The reasons for this come from our research on WriteToThem and the different ways we have tried to explore what these responsiveness scores mean.

    Structural factors

    There are structural factors that make direct comparisons between MPs more complicated. For instance, we found that when people write to Members of the Scottish Parliament there are different response rates for list and constituency members. What we don’t know is whether this reflects different behaviour in response to the same messages, or whether list and constituency MSPs were getting different kinds of messages, some of which are easier to respond to. Either way, this would suggest an approach where we judge these separately or need to apply a correction for this effect (and we would need to have different processes for different legislatures).

    There are also collective factors that individual representatives do contribute to. For instance, if MPs from one party are more responsive to communication, controlling for this factor to make them easier to compare to other MPs individually is unfair as it minimises the collective effort. Individuals are part of parties, but also parliamentary parties are a collection of individuals. Clear divides are difficult in terms of allocating agency.

    Gender

    One of the other findings of our paper on the Scottish Parliament was that there was an effect in the Holyrood and Westminster Parliaments where female MPs had a systematically lower responsiveness score than male MPs (roughly 7% lower in both cases, and this remains when looking at parties in isolation). Is this a genuine difference in behaviour, or does it reflect a deeper problem with the data? While responsiveness scores are not quite evaluations it seems reasonable to be cautious in user-generated data that is systematically leading to lower rankings for women, especially when the relevant literature suggests that women MPs had spent more time on constituency service when the question was studied in the 1990s.

    One concern was if abusive messages sent through the platform were leading to more emails not worth responding to. This was of special concern given online abuse against women MPs through other platforms. While WriteToThem only accounts for 1-2% of emails to MPs, it is a concern if we cannot rule out if a gendered difference in abusive messages is a contributor to a difference in a metric we would then use to make judgements about MPs.

    Our research in this area has found some interaction between the gender of the writer and recipient of a message.  We found a (small) preference for users to write to representatives who shared their gender, but without more knowledge of the content of messages we cannot really understand if the responsiveness difference results from factors that are fair or unfair to judge individual representatives on. Our policy that we should maintain the privacy of communications between people and their MP as much as possible means direct examination is not possible for research projects, and returning to publishing rankings without more work to rule this out would be problematic. We are exploring other approaches to understand more about the content of messages.

    Content and needs

    We could in principle adjust for differences that can be identified, but we also suspect there are other differences that we cannot detect and remove. For instance, constituents in different places have different types of problems, and so have different needs from their MP. If these different kinds of problems have different levels of responsiveness, what we are actually judging an MP on is their constituents, rather than their own behaviour.

    A finding from our analysis of how the index of multiple deprivation (which ranks the country on a variety of different possible measures of deprivation) relates to data in WriteToThem is that messages to MPs from more deprived areas are less likely to get a response than those from less deprived areas. The least deprived decile has a response rate about 7% higher than the average and the most deprived decile is 6% lower. However, when looking at rates per decile per individual MP there is no pattern. This suggests this is a feature of different MPs covering different areas (with different distributions of deprivation), rather than individual MPs responding differently to their own constituents.

    At the end of last year, we experimented with an approach that standardised the scores via a hypothetical average constituency. This was used by change.org as one metric among many in a People-Power index. While this approach addresses a few issues with the raw rankings, we’re not happy with it. In particular, there was an issue with an MP who was downgraded because more of their responses were in a more deprived decile, and this was averaged down by lower responses in higher deciles.

    If we were to continue with that approach, a system that punishes better responsiveness to more deprived areas is a choice that needed a strong justification. This approach is also becoming more abstract as a measure, and less easy to explain what the ranking represents. Are we aiming to provide useful comparisons by which to judge an MP, or a guide to WriteToThem users as to whether they should expect a reply? These are two different problems.

    We are continuing to collect the data, because it is an interesting dataset and we’re still thinking about what it can best be used for, but do not expect to publish rankings in their previous form again.

    FixMyStreet and WhatDoTheyKnow

    Other services are concerned with public authorities rather than individual representatives. In these cases, there is a clearer (and sometimes statutory) sense of what good performance looks like.

    Early versions of FixMyStreet displayed a “league table”, showing the number of reports sent to each UK council, along with the number that had been fixed recently. A few years ago we changed this page so that it only lists the top five most responsive councils.

    There were several reasons for this: FixMyStreet covers many different kinds of issues that take different amounts of time to address, and different councils have more of some of these issues than others. Additionally, even once a council resolves an issue, not all users come back to mark their reports as fixed.

    As a result the information we have on how quickly problems are fixed may vary for reasons out of a council’s control. And so while we show a selection of the top five “most responsive” councils on our dashboard page, as a small way of recognising the most active councils on the site, we don’t share responsiveness stats for all councils in the UK. More detail on the difference in the reported fix rate between different kinds of reports can be seen on our data explorer minisite.

    WhatDoTheyKnow similarly has some statistics summary pages for the FOI performance of public authorities. We are reviewing how we want to generate and use these stats to better reflect our goals of understanding and improving compliance with FOI legislation in the UK, and as a model for our partner FOI platforms throughout the world.

    In general, we want to be confident that any metric is measuring what we want to measure, and we are providing information to citizens that is meaningful. For the moment that means publishing slightly less. In the long run, we hope this will lead us to new and valuable ways of exploring this data.

  7. New kinds of geography in MapIt

    MapIt is a mySociety service that can take UK postcodes and return which administrative boundaries those postcodes are inside. This can be used to find out what council or constituency an area is in —  you can test it at https://mapit.mysociety.org/.

    Over the last few months we’ve been updating some existing boundaries in MapIt, and adding new kinds of geographies.

    LSOA boundary on openstreetmap

    What has changed

    Local authorities and Clinical Commissioning Groups have been updated to their new April 2020 boundaries. Small census areas have been updated to their latest version across all UK nations.

    There is also a new kind of statistical geography: Travel To Work areas. These are areas that include the home and work location of 75% of people inside them. They are a way of visualising the commuting boundaries of an area, which may be significantly different from the administrative ones (See maps of all Travel To Work areas in England).

    Small census areas are small statistical areas that cover a neighbourhood sized areas (although what locals consider the neighbourhood to be may vary). Many sets of official statistics are mapped against these small areas, making them an important intermediary between postcode or coordinate data and measures such as the indices of multiple deprivation.

    As many statistics are produced separately for different UK nations, there are different kinds of small areas in different nations.

    Smaller:

    • Lower Super Output Areas  (LSOA) – England and Wales
    • Datazones (DZ) – Scotland
    • Super Output Areas (SOA) – Northern Ireland

    Larger:

    • Middle Layer Super Output Area (MSOA) – England and Wales
    • Intermediate Zones (IZ) – Scotland

    In MapIt, all of these boundaries are present, available under the English geography names (LSOA/ MSOA) to avoid needing more complicated lookups when working with postcode data from across different nations.

    What can I use this for?

    Mapping from user postcode data to LSOA helps build a picture of the environment of users. As we’ve done with FixMyStreet, this can be used to understand patterns of use. It can also help researchers with existing postcode datasets to find the equivalent statistical areas to expand the dataset.

    You can see some of these areas in practice powering the postcode lookup on this minisite looking at the new 2019 maps of multiple deprivation in England.

    You can access MapIt from an application through an API, or use the bulk upload tool to convert an existing dataset.

  8. Need something in your neighbourhood? Sometimes all you have to do is ask

    What happened when you contacted your councillor or MP through WriteToThem? If that was the first step towards a change for the better — large or small —  we’d love to hear about it.

    When we asked this question on Twitter, the first person to reply was Tim Morton, who told us how he’d used our services to get a useful addition to his local neighbourhood. The story began on FixMyStreet, but really came to fruition thanks to WriteToThem.

    Tim says that he’s been using FixMyStreet since 2008: “If you look at my reports, the vast majority relate to the street I live in, and my local park” — and indeed, that’s the scene for the success he tweeted to tell us about: the story of the Grit Bin.

    It began with a report, back in 2010:

    Grit bin request on FixMyStreet

    “I pressed send,” says Tim, “and waited for something to happen”.

    But unfortunately, nothing did — had Tim’s message been lost in the internal workings of his council?

    It was radio silence until four weeks later when FixMyStreet’s automated mail arrived, asking whether the report had been seen to. If you click ‘no’, you’re taken to a screen suggesting a few ideas for escalating your issue, one of which is to contact your local councillors through WriteToThem.

    Tim decided that this was a good idea, and posted an update on his FixMyStreet report to say so:

    FixMyStreet update from 2010

    “Again, though, there was a period of silence… and I’d almost forgotten about it,” says Tim.

    But sometimes these things take a bit of time. Because, seven weeks later, and just in time for Christmas:

    Tim’s simple request had brought about a useful and tangible change for his community.

    OK, so, ideally it would have happened quickly and with full communication from the council, after that first FixMyStreet report. But on the other hand, this is a great example of how sometimes you have to persevere, and try another route, before you get success.

    “The grit bin is still there: occasionally I ask for a refill, and when the snow falls I trudge along the road and shovel grit across the junction.”

    So the benefit has lasted — and is allowing Tim to do his bit for his community even now, a decade later.

    A grit bin - image by Tim Morton

    Tim rates FixMyStreet so much that he’s demonstrated it to community groups and on training courses. He explains, “I think the great thing about FixMyStreet is its ease of use, and the very visible audit trail.

    “One thing I always point out is the timestamps on my initial reports. I often make reports in the evening, or at weekends: they’re done in the moment and not by trying to get through to the council on Monday morning or when the office is open. I find if I had to wait, I’d forget about the issue.

    “Leicester Council has been good at responding to my requests, and I always post their replies in the comments on my reports.” (Leicester is not currently a FixMyStreet Pro client, so their responses are not automatically published on the website, but sent to the report-maker by email.)

    Being an expert user, of course Tim knows all about FixMyStreet’s more advanced features.

    “I’ve recommended that community groups use the local alerts function. This means they can see what other people are reporting in their area, which they may be unaware of.

    “If they’re a group that focuses on neighbourhood improvement, it will identify potential issues for them to work on, and in fact, may introduce them to potential new activists in their area. I’ve pointed Ward Councillors to this, as well, as it can be really helpful in their work”.

    Thanks so much to Tim for telling us all about the grit bin and his efforts to help spread the word about FixMyStreet. A grit bin may seem like a small win, but when you consider how many thousands of reports are made up and down the country every week on FixMyStreet, and how many messages are sent to councillors on WriteToThem to ask for a neighbourhood improvement, you can see that the net effect could be massive.

    And on that note, if you have brought change by writing to your MP or councillor, by making a FixMyStreet report or perhaps by using one of our other services, please let us know — we’re all ears.

    We’re using these stories as part of a training module that helps young people understand how democracy functions in the UK, and how to work within it to make positive change. Your stories will help us to show this in action, rather than just theoretically, so you’ll be helping us to help those who need it. Thanks!

  9. Join us at LocalGovCamp

    We’re longstanding supporters of LocalGovCamp, the conference where innovators in Local Government come together to share knowledge on how to improve services.

    This year we’re both sponsoring it and running a couple of hands-on, interactive sessions. All online, of course, given the way things are these days.

    On Tuesday 6 October, join a mySociety-led discussion with Mark and Zarino, on how consistent data standards across councils could open the doors to much better innovation.

    We’ll be looking at our own Keep It In The Community project, nodding to our Council Climate Action Plans database, and inviting attendees to join a wider discussion on how we can encourage better joined-up data across councils.

    And on Weds 7 October, our designer Martin will be running a mock ‘consequence scanning’ exercise. He’ll take participants through a new and useful way of assessing and mitigating risks in new government services, as conceived by Dot Everyone, recently taken up by Future Cities Catapult, and now used successfully in service design workshops by SocietyWorks.

    We hope you’ll come along and enjoy some good discussion and deep dives into local government service improvement: find out more and book your place here.

     

  10. Problems with your tower block? Please tell us all about it.

    Do you live in a tower block as a social tenant?

    Have you ever had — or are you still having — problems with any of the following?

    • Damp or mould
    • Leaking pipes
    • Cracks in the walls or ceilings
    • Broken windows, doors, lifts, etc
    • Poor repairs, or repairs that never get done
    • Fire risks, such as dangerous cladding or cluttered fire escape routes
    • Pests such as fleas, cockroaches, vermin or moth
    • Unsafe gas or electricity
    • Poor heating
    • Landlords that don’t respond, or don’t fulfil their legal duties

    If so, Tower Blocks UK would love to hear from you — and if the problem is ongoing, help to point you in the right direction so that you can take steps to get things resolved.

    As you may recall, we recently co-launched the FixMyBlock website in partnership with Tower Blocks UK. It is designed to help tenants get problems resolved, whether that takes a letter quoting the relevant laws to your landlord, or escalating the issue to another level. It suggests a range of possible routes, from contacting your local councillor, for example, to getting together with other tenants to form a united action group.

    Now, it would be great to hear tenants’ real-life experiences so they can be included on the site. It doesn’t matter whether you’re at the end of the story — you got your problem fixed — or are still trying different methods to solve the issue. Either way, we’d really like to know more.

    Sharing experiences can help others who are having a similar problem. It tells them they are not alone, and may give new ideas on how to rectify the issue.

    So, if you have a tower block-related problem and you’re happy to tell us all about it, please let us know on this form.

    Image: Professor Paul Wenham-Clarke