1. Super contributors and power laws

    This blog post is part of a series investigating different demographics and uses of mySociety services. You can read more about this series here

    A common feature in websites and services where users generate data is that a small amount of users are responsible for a large percent of the activity. For instance, 77% of Wikipedia is written by 1% of editors (with most of that being done by an even smaller fraction) and for OpenStreetMap 0.01% of users contribute a majority of the information.

    This also applies to plenty of offline activities — for instance, half of the 25,000 noise complaints about Heathrow Airport were made by 10 people. People who dedicate significant time to an activity can quickly outpace a much larger group who only use the service once.

    For FixMyStreet (where people report issues like littering and potholes to local authorities), the top 0.1% of users made 16% of the reports and 10% of users account for 62% of reports. Starting from the most prolific users, increasing the number of users by a factor of 10 roughly doubles the number of reports:

    • 418 users (0.1%) account for 224,775 reports (16%)
    • 4,181 users (1%) account for 470,384 reports (33%)
    • 41,814 users (10%) account for 881,481 reports (62%)

    This reflects that at any scale in the data, around half the activity is happening in the top 10%. Overall, two-thirds of users made only one report — but the reports made by this large set of users only makes up 20% of the total number of reports.

    This means that different questions can lead you to very different conclusions about the service. If you’re interested in the people who are using FixMyStreet, that two-thirds is where most of the action is. If you’re interested in the outcomes of the service, this is mostly due to a much smaller group of people.

    Reka Solymosi (2018) investigated the behaviour of the top 1% of reporters and found that they tended to report a wide range of categories: only “16 of the 415 contributors reported only one type of issue. The other 399 reported issues in more than one category” with an average of six categories. These also tended to cover a wide area and “there were only six people who reported in only one neighborhood [LSOA], fewer than the number of people who reported in only one category. The other 409 contributors all reported in at least two neighborhoods”. Solymosi finds four clusters of these super-contributors:

    • Traditional guardians – these report in a small number of neighbourhoods covered but represent the largest number of users.
    • Large-neighbourhood guardians – Report in a larger number of connected neighbourhoods.
    • Super-neighbourhood guardians – People who report in a high number of connected neighbourhoods; this is the largest group.
    • Neighbourhood agnostic guardians – reports are made in disconnected areas.

    Collectively, this can have a wide impact — 18% of LSOAs in England have at least one report from a user who has made more than 100 reports (which is only around 900 people).

    Looking at the general picture through the Explorer minisite, it’s not just that serial reporters report widely; certain kinds of reports are more likely to be made by users who are reporting more issues:

    Incivilities, rubbish, road safety and bus stop damage are all categories more likely to be reported by users who have made 50+ reports. While users who make lots of reports tend to make reports across a few categories, they are often specialised in their output.

    59% reports of flyposting, 57% of graffiti, 52% of litter problems are made by users who have reported more than 50 times.

    It’s important to remember that these aren’t hard divides. Single report users are less likely to report potholes than serial reporters, but it is also true that one in five people who only report one issue report a pothole.

    For the bundle model of understanding FixMyStreet, thinking about this group of super contributors is important, because they represent a minority of users, yet generate most of the value and impact of the site.

    But this comes with a cost. People living in the same area as super contributors benefit from their efforts – but where these super contributors have different concerns or priorities from the area as a while this might shift the outcomes of the service.

    As Muki Haklay argues:

    The specific background and interests of high contributors will, by necessity, impact on the type of data that is recorded. This is especially important in VGI [volunteered geographic information] projects where the details of what to record are left to the participants.

    Where resources are allocated on the basis of data generated by a service, the behaviour of this small group can have an outsized effect. Future blog posts in this series will explore what this looks like in practice.

  2. Service bundles: exploring the many uses of mySociety services

    This blog post is part of a series investigating different demographics and uses of mySociety services. You can read more about this series here.

    A key question when looking at the role of the internet in civic life is whether it changes the demographics of who participates; or whether it simply changes the methods by which already engaged citizens participate. The two sides in this argument can be described as mobilisation and reinforcement.

    The mobilisation argument says that the internet reduces the cost of communication and action, which means that more people can be involved and access becomes more broad.

    The reinforcement argument says that the reduced costs of connectivity will mostly reinforce existing participation divides, making it cheaper for people already engaged to participate, but not necessarily reaching disengaged people.

    This is a fundamental question for civic tech: how are these online tools used? Are they mobilising everyone or just providing more efficient processes for people who are already engaged?

    This is explored in mySociety’s 2015 report Who benefits from Civic Technology?, and is a recurring question in much of our research since, such as our work on FixMyStreet, and digital technologies in sub-Saharan Africa.

    Two themes we are currently investigating in this area are proxies and bundles.

    Proxies are where services are used by intermediaries, on behalf of — and bringing benefits to — others: for instance, where charities engage in more effective lobbying as a result of free access to TheyWorkForYou, or where case workers find it easier to identify and write to a client’s local councillor using WriteToThem.

    Bundles are about exploring how different groups of users use a service in different ways, to such an extent that one service can in fact be understood as a bundle of services serving different kinds of users.

    This is the first in a series of blog posts investigating  bundles.

    A common finding across mySociety services is that most people only use “transactional” services (like WhatDoTheyKnow, FixMyStreet or WriteToThem) once, to do one thing. Repeat users make up a minority of users (even if they account for the majority of actual usage).

    From a technology point of view or an organisational point of view, it makes sense to understand that there is a website called FixMyStreet.com run by mySociety. But from the point of view of the majority of users, it makes sense to think of a website like FixMyStreet as dozens of different services, most of which they will never use. For one user,  FixMyStreet is a tool for reporting potholes, for another it is for reporting littering. Similarly, WriteToThem is most often used as a tool to write to MPs — but the profile of people who use it to write to their local councillors is very different.

    Some services in a bundle are used by a different demographic to other uses of the same website. Understanding how to encourage FixMyStreet use in underrepresented groups requires an understanding of how there are already differences in usage across all the “services” in the FixMyStreet bundle.

    To get more information about these different uses of a website, we’ve built a mini-site that helps to explore basic demographic information about each use type. Starting with FixMyStreet, personal information (names) have been anonymised and converted to gender (approximately), while coordinates are grouped into Lower Super Output Areas (LSOA) — geographic areas commonly used for statistical purposes. This means that we can look at a general, anonymised set of data representing people making FixMyStreet reports, and match this grouped data against various measures of deprivation.

    Understanding more about these different patterns of users suggests possible ways a service can be used and helps sharpen new research questions.

    When examining uses of one element of a bundle, the key question is whether the pattern observed reflects just the individual, or the overall pattern of the bundle. To answer this, a chi-square test is used to tell if the distribution of a sub-use of the site is different to a statistically significant extent to all other uses of the site (this method was inspired by an analysis of gender of reporters in Reka Solymosi, Kate Bowers and Taku Fujiyama’s 2018 paper on FixMyStreet). The groupings of categories in FixMyStreet use Elvis Nyanzu’s meta categories.  The mini-site highlights in red and green areas where a distribution differs from how patterns on the site as a whole respond.

    We’ll be writing a number of blog posts over the next few months covering things we’ve learned from the mini-site. The first two are already up (and linked below):

    This page will be updated as new blog posts are released.

  3. Cyber Essentials Certified

    Cyber Essentials is a scheme backed by the UK government designed to help organisations demonstrate that they have taken steps to protect themselves against most common cyber attacks.

    There are two aspects to the scheme. Firstly, it provides information, guidance and best practice to organisations that may not have experts on-staff so that they can feel assured that they’ve got at least the basics of internet security covered.

    Secondly, it acts as an indication to an organisation’s stakeholders (its users and customers, employees, suppliers, etc) that they are committed to internet security and have taken steps to ensure that appropriate measures are in place to protect themselves and their stakeholders’ data. As such, Cyber Essentials Certification is often a requirement for government contracts that require handling personal data or providing technical services.

    mySociety is a technical organisation and we’ve always taken our security responsibilities seriously – we handle a lot of data across our services and ensuring this is secure and handled in a legal and ethical manner has always been central to our approach, so we are very pleased to say that earlier this year we became formally certified under the scheme – you can look up our certification details on the Cyber Essentials site.

    Image: James Sutton

  4. Find FixMyStreet Pro and FOI for Councils on GCloud 11

    GCloud 11 is live: it’s the latest iteration of GOV.UK’s Digital Marketplace, making it easier for those in the public sector to find and procure cloud-based software services — including ours.

    This time around there are two offerings from mySociety: FixMyStreet Pro, which has been on GCloud since 2017, and FOI for Councils, available via this channel for the first time.

    Regular followers will be well aware that FixMyStreet Pro is a street fault reporting service which can integrate with any existing council system, offering great opportunities to cut costs and increase efficiency.

    Meanwhile our FOI for Councils service streamlines authorities’ FOI workflows and reduces unnecessary requests, relieving the burden in what is often an overstretched resource.

    The great benefit of GCloud from the public sector point of view is that suppliers come ready-verified, saving the time and inconvenience of going through the regular procurement process. All the information you need about the service is readily accessible, and then when you’ve made your decision it’s very simple to get things moving.

    We’re pleased to offer these two services via GCloud — and will be equally happy to answer any questions you may have.

    Image: Chuttersnap

  5. The effect of gender on FixMyStreet reports

    A study published in 2017 by Reka Solymosi, Kate J Bowers, and Taku Fujiyama used publicly available data for FixMyStreet to investigate (among other things) whether men and women reported different things using the site, and found a gender divide relating how people were moving around when they found the problem:

    [M]en are more likely to report in categories related to driving (potholes and road problems), whereas women report more in categories related to walking (parks, dead animals, dog fouling, litter.(p. 954).

    This study is open access and available online, and you can also watch Reka’s 2018 TICTeC presentation on the subject. 

    A potential limitation of this study was that it could only use reports that weren’t publicly anonymous, as the reporter’s name was used to approximate gender. If there was a gender skew in terms of which users were more likely to report anonymously, this might mistakenly pick up differences in anonymisation as a gender divide (for instance, if a lot of women were reporting potholes, but were more likely to do so anonymously).

    To investigate this, we internally replicated the study on both anonymous and non-anonymous reports. This found that there was a gender skew related to anonymisation, with women being 10% more likely to report anonymously and that some types of report were more likely to be reported anonymously than others.

    However, despite this factor, the original study’s conclusion was validated by this analysis. The categories highlighted are differently gendered when including the non-anonymous data, with men reporting far more problems with road surfaces and women reporting more litter related issues.

    Future blog posts will further explore reasons and implications of this divide. The replication can be read online or downloaded as a PDF.

  6. See you at the LGA conference in Bournemouth

    From tomorrow through ’til Thursday, mySociety and Power To Change will be at the Local Government Association annual conference, keen to talk about FixMyStreet Pro and Keep It In The Community.

    If you’re a councillor who’d like to find out how our services can help you work more efficiently — and bring benefits to your residents — please do swing by for a chat at stand BL3.

    FixMyStreet Pro

    We’ve written a lot about our street reporting service for councils — how it can integrate with existing back-end systems; how it can encourage channel shift and thus bring savings; and the many new features we’ve introduced in response to what councils tell us they need. You can read all our past posts on the FixMyStreet Pro blog.

    But as a councillor, you may be interested in other aspects of the service. Here are a few highlights:

    • FixMyStreet lets you subscribe to the reports being made in your ward — you’ll get an email every time someone makes a new report. This allows you to monitor issues as they occur, and take action if it’s warranted.
    • You can also access a map showing every report ever made in your ward. If desired, you can filter reports by category or by status to get a picture of how each type of report, from graffiti to potholes, is impacting your residents.
    • If your council is one of the many who use FixMyStreet Pro as their main reporting system, you’ll also have access to more refined analysis via the dashboard, which allows you to compare reports and fulfillment over different periods of time.
    • You can make reports on the go, so if you spot something that needs fixing while you’re out and about, it’s quick and easy to get a report filed.

    Keep It In The Community

    Also come and discover Keep It In The Community, an England-wide online mapping of the spaces and places that are valuable to local communities, created in partnership with Power To Change.

    Under the Localism Act of 2011, every council is obliged to retain a list of Assets of Community Value (ACVs): Keep it In The Community turns this obligation into a benefit for all, allowing you to store and share your data while contributing to a national picture.

    Thanks to a recent update, Keep It In The Community also displays buildings and spaces currently under community ownership. As a councillor, we think you’ll like this service because:

    • It’s completely free.
    • It provides an attractive way for councils to display ACVs and community-run spaces, and invites residents to add richer detail such as memories and photographs.
    • It’s a great way to demonstrate the community activity that’s taking place within your ward.
    • It helps popularise the concept of community ownership, encouraging more residents to take action and preserve the spaces that matter to them.

    If this has whetted your interest, don’t forget to come and meet the friendly mySociety and Power to Change folk on stand BL3.

     

  7. Measuring the savings brought by FixMyStreet Pro

    Buckinghamshire County Council have revealed the cost savings brought to them by FixMyStreet Pro.

    The authority switched over to FixMyStreet Pro as their official fault reporting system in April 2018. They’re now able to assess a year’s worth of data and compare it to the year previous. The findings are gratifying, to say the least — and set out a real case for councils who are considering opting for the service themselves.

    Saving staff time and resources

    The council reports that they’ve seen a 13% decrease in calls and a 40% reduction in emails about street faults since FixMyStreet Pro was introduced.

    In case you’re wondering how that translates into monetary savings, well, on average they reckon that a single call costs £5.88 in staff time, while a report made by email, with its potential for back and forth communication to pin down the precise details, chalks up £7.81.

    In comparison, because FixMyStreet Pro places reports directly into the system, and little staff time is required to administer them, the perceived cost is just 9p per report.

    Additionally, Buckinghamshire has seen a 29% drop in calls where residents are chasing progress: report makers no longer need to get on the phone to check whether their issue is being seen to, because updates are pushed directly back to them as the report progresses through the system.

    And there’s been a  59% decrease in unnecessary clarification, that is, when the council need to go back to the report-maker to check the exact location or nature of an issue. FixMyStreet can be set up to the council’s exact specifications to ensure that the user is prompted to provide all the information they’ll need, which accounts for this impressive drop.

    Avoiding unnecessary reports

    It can be a frustrating waste of time and resources when a council receives reports about issues which are not their responsibility: with the UK’s two tier system, it’s almost inevitable that citizens get confused about which authority deals with which category of street fault — and on top of that, there are the reports that are dealt with by other bodies such as TfL or Highways England.

    FixMyStreet has always done a good job of routing reports to the right council, though, and the improvements we’ve made to the service over the last few years mean we can also make sure the relevant reports go through to TfL and Highways England too. Bucks say that since introducing FixMyStreet Pro, they’ve seen a 19% decrease in misrouted reports that have to be forwarded elsewhere.

    Finally, they can see a 30% decrease in street light reports. Since Bucks are one of the councils who display all their streetlights on FixMyStreet it’s now very easy for a resident to check online whether an issue has already been reported for any specific lamp post. If it has, they can also see its progress towards resolution — so there’s no need for them to open a new report.

    These figures illustrate very clearly what is meant by channel shift: real, tangible results that save money for councils, and thus ultimately, for residents too. It’s great to have this confirmation that FixMyStreet Pro brings results — and we’re still in a continual process of development in consultation with councils, to keep making more improvements wherever we can.

    Come and talk to us at the LGA conference next week

    LGA confernece 2019We’d be delighted to answer your questions and give you a demo if you’re planning on being in Bournemouth for next week’s LGA conference. You’ll find us on stand BL3 in the Purbeck Hall.

    Image: Peter O’Connor (CC by-sa/2.0)

  8. Stop right there! That’s already been reported

    It’s obviously good citizen behaviour to report something that needs fixing to your council, whether it’s a pothole that could cause an accident, or a broken streetlight that has plunged the area into darkness.

    But there’s one type of report that isn’t very useful to councils, and in fact brings unnecessary costs and inconvenience: when you tell the council about an issue that’s already been flagged up by someone else.

    FixMyStreet has always been helpful in this regard. It was groundbreaking in displaying all reports in public, unlike most council systems when we were first developing it. A user who goes to make a report can see right away if there’s already a pin in that spot, and check whether the existing issue is the same one they were going to add.

    Now we’ve taken that concept a step further in some work which we’re trialling on Bath & NE Somerset’s implementation of FixMyStreet Pro.

    When a user starts to make a report, the system checks to see if there are any other open reports in the same category within a small radius. If it finds any, you’ll see a prompt, like this:

    Duplicate report alert on FixMyStreet

    All similar reports will appear here. If you think one might be identical, but aren’t sure, you can click ‘read more’ to see the full text along with any photos attached to the report:

    Duplicate report full text on FixMyStreet

    And if you recognise it as the issue you were about to report, you click the green button and will be given the option to subscribe to it, so you know when it’s being seen to, effectively being kept just as up to date as you would be if you’d made the original report:

    Duplicate report - subscribe on FixMyStreet

     

    If it’s not the same issue, no worries: just click ‘report a new problem’ and you can do just that:

    Bath & NE Somerset will run this feature as a trial over the next month; then once they’ve got feedback from their users, we’ll hopefully offer it to every other council on the Avenue tier of FixMyStreet Pro.

    If you come across this feature while making a report in Bath or environs, do let us know how it works for you.

    Image: Kevin Grieve

  9. Northamptonshire’s road to FixMyStreet

    Northamptonshire is the latest council to adopt FixMyStreet Pro as their official street reporting system. If you come across something amiss on the streets of Corby, Kettering, Daventry or anywhere else in the county, you can file a report on the council website — or do it on the nationwide site FixMyStreet.com and it’ll be routed to the council too.

    FixMyStreet for NorthamptonshireIt’s been something of a full circle for Northants: in recent years, the authority had returned any reports sent through FixMyStreet, asking residents to submit via their own interface instead. The aim was to avoid ‘rekeying’ the details from emails into their inhouse system, a time-intensive task for staff — so we’re especially glad to be able to integrate FixMyStreet and drop reports directly into their backend.

    So, what brought about this change of direction? Timing, and our reputation, it would seem.

    Northants had been using their own frontend system named Street Doctor, coupled with the Exor asset management system behind the scenes — but when the contract with Exor was up for renewal, they decided it was time for a change, giving them a hard deadline by which a solution needed to be put in place.

    The council chose Yotta Alloy as their new asset management system, but that decision in turn meant that the council’s contractors, Kier, had to find a new frontend, since Yotta’s newer technology couldn’t align with Street Doctor’s older systems. Northants considered building their own interface, but we’re glad to say that Kier recommended purchasing FixMyStreet rather than reinventing the wheel. While the opportunity and budget were both there for the council to create something bespoke, it was recognised that by purchasing FixMyStreet off the shelf, they pass any risk on to us — and we’re happy to shoulder it.

    It’s great to have the confidence of a contractor like Kier, as it shows that FixMyStreet Pro is appreciated and trusted right across the sector. Kier themselves won’t need to integrate with FixMyStreet, however: Yotta Alloy will act as the middleman, from which Kier will pick up reports. The information provided by the user will ensure they go to the right team.

    As Kier inspectors and maintenance workers update the status of reports on their system, updates will flow into Yotta Alloy. That information will then automatically be pushed back to FixMyStreet and to the original report maker. And should a council inspector create a new report in Yotta, this too will be displayed on FixMyStreet, helping to prevent the duplicate reporting of issues that are already in hand.

    Meanwhile, the council’s own customer service staff will be inputting any reports they receive by phone, email or in person, directly to FixMyStreet Pro. Whatever the channel used, reports will flow seamlessly into the right places.

    So Northants have ended up with a neat solution, involving three different suppliers all working in harmony. The net result, we believe, will be a quicker, more integrated and more effective service for the citizens of Northants.

    Images: Malc McDonald (CC-by-sa/2.0)

  10. Heatmaps are cool

    Heatmaps show data in a format that’s quick and easy to understand — so when Bromley Council asked us if we could add them to their FixMyStreet Pro data dashboard, we agreed it was a great idea.

    mySociety developers got to work and put together a prototype which worked so well that we’re planning to roll it out to any other client councils who want it.

    Now, when Bromley staff log in, they can either see the normal map view of their borough, or they can switch tabs to see a heatmap overlay.

    Toggle between reports and heatmap on FixMyStreet Pro

    By default, the heatmap shows every report from the last month, so the initial view will look something like this:

    Bromley FixMyStreet issues plotted on a heatmap

    But the heatmap also responds to the dropdown filters at the top of the page, so you can adjust it to see any combination of dates, categories and status. For example, you might want to see reports about graffiti, made since the beginning of the year, which have been fixed. That would look like this:

    Heatmap showing fixed graffiti reports in bromley on FixMyStreet Pro

    As you’d expect, the hotter the colour, the higher the density of reports, with the cooler blue showing where they are least concentrated. Staff can even see interesting things like everywhere a request has been made for a new tree to be planted:

    tree planting request in Bromley on FixMyStreet Pro

    Heatmaps are just the latest in a series of features we’ve been working on: you can keep up with them all on the FixMyStreet Pro blog.

    If you’re from a council and you’d like to benefit from these many new developments, you can find out more here.