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.
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
Today sees the launch of FixMyBlock, an online toolkit for people living in tower blocks.
Tower blocks come with their own distinct problems, from unsafe construction to risks of fire. The shocking events at Grenfell Tower have brought such issues back to the public eye, but we don’t have to go far in history to see other disasters such as the Ronan Point collapse and the Lakanal House fire.
The simple fact is that not all tower blocks are safe, and not all landlords are doing enough to address this.
Today, thousands of tenants are living in conditions that affect their health and their safety. While working on this project, we heard of people living with extreme mould and damp, with recurrent cockroach infestations, and, shockingly, with cracks in the structure of their flats that are wide enough to pass a hand through (watch this video for a visual depiction you won’t forget).
Additionally, since Grenfell, many tenants have been living in fear that their blocks, constructed with the same unsafe cladding, might suffer a similar fate.
And, though they’ve tried to ask their landlords to address their concerns, they haven’t got anywhere.
So what can we do about it?
Our project began as an investigation into how our popular street reporting software – FixMyStreet – could be repurposed to help tower block tenants report and monitor safety and maintenance problems in their buildings.
But during the discovery phase (which you can read about in our report here) we found that reporting issues wasn’t the problem most tenants were facing. And our alpha testing (documented in this report here) confirmed it – a FixMyStreet for tower blocks wouldn’t actually help. Our research showed that most tenants already knew who to report their issue to. And, unlike on FixMyStreet where public reporting can help highlight problem areas, many residents were uncomfortable with reporting their safety concerns on a public forum.
A better reporting process could wait. Instead, together with Tower Blocks UK, we wanted to solve the real underlying problem: equipping tower block tenants with the necessary understanding of their rights, their paths to escalation, and the tools they need to get their voices heard.
FixMyBlock – empowering not reporting
So, despite the name, FixMyBlock isn’t a “FixMyStreet for tower blocks” – it’s a living, evolving toolkit of legal primers, template letters, case studies, and action guides, that will help tower block tenants make progress on what are often incredibly sticky, complicated safety and maintenance issues.
FixMyBlock begins by laying out the conventional steps to getting things fixed — but when these have failed, tenants can also access information on their legal rights and the power of collective action, with case studies demonstrating what has been achieved by residents’ groups, ongoing campaigns, press coverage and other channels of engagement.
mySociety has worked with Tower Blocks UK and a number of experts in the field to create the site, which Tower Blocks UK will continue to run after handover. The work has been funded by the Legal Education Foundation.
The site launches with information for social tenants in England and Wales, and in time Tower Blocks UK will expand the content to cover all types of tenancy across all of the UK. Meanwhile, much of the content is applicable for all, so don’t hold off from using it if you have a private landlord, or live in Scotland/NI — just be aware that some of the laws mentioned might differ in your own case.
Image: Jimmy Chang
We’ve recently introduced two new ways to locate yourself, and your reports, on FixMyStreet.
From up in the air
You might have noticed a discreet little ‘aerial’ button on the bottom of FixMyStreet’s map pages recently.
This toggles the view from the usual Ordnance Survey maps to a Bing aerial satellite view:
We hope this will make it easier for people to locate their reports accurately, in those cases where it’s a bit easier to identify landmarks from above.
This isn’t an entirely new departure for FixMyStreet: as far back as 2013 the site we made for the City of Zurich had a satellite view as default — and indeed, it still does.
At the moment, this feature is available on the nationwide fixmystreet.com, and on fifteen client authorities’ sites. Why not all authorities’ implementations? It’s basically to do with whether they have their own map servers: where we host the maps, it’s obviously more straightforward for us to deliver the alternative view.
Open Location Codes
Another option to help you find just the right spot for your report comes with the introduction of Open Location Codes, also known as OLCs or Plus Codes.
Coincidentally, these also have a connection with Zurich, as they were developed in Google’s offices there. They’re basically a more convenient and quicker way of entering latitude and longitude, and can be used to identify any spot on the planet (though of course, each FixMyStreet site has its own bounds).
As their name suggests, OLCs are open source and available for anyone to use. Want to try it out? Google Maps on mobile gives you an OLC when you drop a pin: see more details here.
This function adds to the number of ways you can search for a location on FixMyStreet from the homepage search box, which include inputting a postcode, a street name, an area, a town or city, latitude and longitude, and allowing the site to auto-locate you.
So here’s hoping these developments will allow for ever more accuracy in report locations.
Image: William Hook
With the charity formally known as UK Citizens Online Democracy now officially known as mySociety it makes sense that we reconsider the name of our wholly owned commercial arm, which until recently was known as mySociety Ltd.
So without further ado, let me introduce you to the newly christened: SocietyWorks.
SocietyWorks reaffirms our belief in citizens and society, creates a related but distinct propostion from the charity mySociety, and introduces a practical and relevant descriptor for a provision of local authority services. We think it works.
We have decided that now is the time to simplify the way we talk about ourselves whilst providing greater clarity and a more meaningful brand for our commercial work, especially for our local government partners.
And with fear and uncertainty all around — the COVID-19 pandemic, the climate crisis, and the fabric of our communities at risk — we can’t think of a more important time to make the case that society works.
Over the coming months we’ll be rolling out the new name with the intent of it becoming an overall brand for our local government services. FixMyStreet Pro will remain the core product offered by SocietyWorks, with additional services including feature add-ons and standalone services sitting alongside. These will include new products which extend the capabilities of FixMyStreet relating to Waste, Environment, and other place based services.
We’re also incorporating our information and comms based services, initially by offering FOI Works as part of our local government suite.
You can find out more about these new services as they become available at SocietyWorks.org.
Image: Pierre Chatel Innocenti
We heard from Transport for London that FixMyStreet has played an unexpectedly valuable part during London’s lockdown.
We recently ran a couple of user groups for some of the authorities who use FixMyStreet Pro. These had been planned as in-person events, but of course, like everything else these days, had to transition to online.
Nonetheless, they were a good chance for us to present some of FixMyStreet Pro’s new features, and to hear from our client authorities about how they’ve been using the service. Sally Reader’s description of how FixMyStreet has come into its own for TfL while the capital is shut down was particularly thought-provoking — you can watch it here.
We’d all been thinking that lockdown means fewer people on the streets, and therefore less opportunity for damage. But Sally pointed out that faults still happen: trees might fall down, blocking roads; or there might be increased levels of vandalism now that boredom is an issue for many — and there’s still a great need to keep the network safe for the transport workers helping to run it, and of course those who are using it.
At the moment, these passengers are by and large key workers who may be at the end of a long working day on the frontline — as Sally puts it, the last thing they need is to be standing in a smashed up bus shelter as they await their transport home.
Additionally, TfL are using their Streetcare FixMyStreet reports to help alert them to potentially dangerous faults and to provide extra eyes and ears on the network while non-essential on-street works have been halted.
It was a surprise to both us and TfL, but we were pleased to hear that FixMyStreet has been such an asset during these times.
Image: Ben Garratt
This brings some substantial improvements to the code. The update is available to anyone running a site on the FixMyStreet platform, which includes our own fixmystreet.com; the installations we provide for councils and authorities; and the FixMyStreet instances run by others, in places from Australia to Uruguay.
If you run a site on the FixMyStreet platform yourself, or are just interested in the technical details, you can read the release notes here.
Meanwhile, here’s a rundown of the new front-end features you might notice if you’re a user of FixMyStreet.
Run the site as an app
FixMyStreet can now be added to phones (and desktops for that matter) as a ‘progressive app’. Here’s what to look for when you visit fixmystreet.com:
On Chrome for Android:
Access from the bar at the bottom of the screen.
Click the share icon at the foot of the screen.
Then select ‘add to home screen’.
On Firefox for Android:
Look for the pop up notification or tap the home icon with a plus sign in it in the URL bar.
Any of these methods will install a version of FixMyStreet that will behave like an app, placing an icon on your desktop, browser start page or home screen.
This way there is no need to download or update from the app store, and changes to the main website (which are invariably released sooner than on the app) will be immediately available to you.
Cobrands (for example the councils that use FixMyStreet as part of their own websites, and people running FixMyStreet in their own countries) can provide their own logo and colourscheme as well.
Mobile browser improvements
Whether you install the progressive web app or just visit fixmystreet.com on your mobile browser, you may notice some nice new features.
- If you use the geolocation function (‘use my location’), your position will be displayed on the map:
- When viewing an area, you can access the filters to narrow the reports displayed down by their status (fixed/open etc) and category:
- If you’re about to report something that looks like a duplicate, you’ll not only be shown the report/s that have already been made, but you’ll also see a small inline map without having to scroll back to the main map to check where they are.
- The site recognises that when you’re on a mobile, the message about uploading a photo shouldn’t invite you to ‘drag and drop’, but rather to either take a new one or select a photo from your phone.
- If you’ve placed the pin incorrectly, the ‘try again’ process is clearer.
If a picture paints a thousand words, then your Twitter character count just went stratospheric. Now, when you share a report on places like Twitter or Facebook, if there’s a photo included in the report, that will also be pulled through.
Previously, the ‘open graph image’ that was shown by default was the same for every report — which could get a bit boring in aggregate, and certainly missed some of the impact that people might want to share when they’re posting about their own, or others’ reports.
Social media isn’t the only place that FixMyStreet reports can be piped to, though — the site also has several RSS capabilities that have been baked in since its early days.
For those not totally up to speed with RSS and what it can do, we’re now no longer displaying them as raw XML but as a nice simple web page that explains its purpose.
To see this in action, click ‘Local Alerts’ in the top menu of any page. Here’s a before and after:
What benefits one, benefits all
Much of this work is thanks to NDI, the National Democratic Institute.
NDI offer the FixMyStreet codebase as one of their DemTools, installing it in countries around the world as an innovation which empowers citizens to keep their neighbourhoods clean and safe.
Thanks to this partnership, NDI funded the addition of new features which they had identified as desirable — and which, thanks to the open codebase, will benefit users of every FixMyStreet site worldwide.
There are some other significant additions in this release, including integration, back end and security improvements, all of which will be of most interest to developers and site admins — so if you’d like to see them, head over to the full write up on the FixMyStreet platform blog.
Image: Max Fuchs
What is your local authority doing about the climate emergency?
Of course, we all want to see action, and fast. Several authorities across the UK have declared a climate emergency, while others are bringing climate-friendly propositions to the table. But how do you know the actual concrete outcomes of these?
Fortunately, Friends of the Earth have put together a tool which helps you see just that — and we’re glad to say it makes use of our MapIt API.
We spoke to Joachim Farncombe, FoE’s Digital Delivery manager, to find out more about what they built, how it works, and how exactly MapIt fits in.
How climate-friendly is your area?
“The Climate Tool invites people to tap in their postcode, and then discover how their local authority is performing on a number of measures, including renewable energy, transport, housing, waste and tree cover.”
Joachim explains that in fact, they’ve produced two tools: “There’s one highly detailed version which we think our existing supporters will use, and another which provides a summary of the data for those newer to Friends of the Earth and the whole area of councils’ climate responsibility.
“Both tools reveal data from local authority areas, around key issues that are impacting our climate. The ultimate aim was to create an engagement opportunity that would drive new and existing supporters to take climate action locally.
“The whole project is designed to highlight that there are different ways of addressing the climate emergency. One of the key drivers of change is for communities to put pressure on their local authorities to make urgent changes to reduce emissions”.
So — once you’re all clued up on how your local area is doing, what then?
“Once you’ve absorbed the data, there’s the option to click on ‘What can I do to help?’.
“We’re asking people to add their name to support a climate action plan in their area. We’ll also be introducing those who sign up to our climate action groups, a network of community groups working to make our communities more climate friendly.”
Where does MapIt fit in?
The MapIt API allows developers to include a postcode input box anywhere on a web page. When a user enters their postcode, MapIt checks which administrative boundaries it sits within. The developer can choose what type of area they need — for example, if the site wants to encourage people to write to their MP, MapIt will return the constituency; or, in this case, as users will be contacting their local authorities, it returns the relevant council.
Joachim says that FoE already knew of MapIt as they’d used it in their campaign for more trees. “It was very straightforward. The JSON response was easy to parse and the API speed was impressive.”
Once the user has been matched to the right council, the climate tool dips into its store of data to show them the current climate performance in their area, across key topics.
“We developed an internal API called FactStore which indexes whatever sets of data you need. In this case, this was data collated from approximately fifty different external datasets. This data was all pulled from open data sources, mostly released by the authorities themselves.”
The tool was well received, and was shared across social media by supporters and new users alike. “Actually”, says Joachim, “it was a bit more popular than we’d anticipated, and we hit our initial quota on MapIt very early after launch, but there was a quick fix (we just upgraded our quota!)”.
In short? “MapIt has been invaluable. Without it, we’d be unable to connect the users location with the datasets we’d collated”.
We’re looking forward to working with Friends of the Earth more in the coming months — watch this space.
This blog post is part of a series investigating different demographics and uses of mySociety services. You can read more about this series here.
I saw a comment on Twitter the other month along the lines of: “is civic tech too boring? It’s dominated by reporting potholes to councils”.
As someone working in civic tech I find this terribly unfair because civic tech is about so much more than that! For instance, we also report dog poo to councils.
But it’s certainly true that there are a lot of potholes involved. It’s the largest use of FixMyStreet, representing a quarter of all reports. People have submitted over 361,000 reports and over 54,000 photos of potholes. As a result, while the FixMyStreet database represents a fraction of all potholes, it represents one of the largest datasets of pothole reports covering the whole country.
And while it’s easy to think of potholes as the obsession of people pointing at roads in local papers, they are a serious problem. There are a lot of them, they appear everywhere, cause problems on roads when people try to avoid them, and damage when they don’t. For cyclists, potholes can be fatal.
Given that, what does FixMyStreet data tell us about potholes?
How many potholes are reported through FixMyStreet?
Up to the end of 2019 there have been 423,736 potholes or road surface defects reported through FixMyStreet (either .com or a cobrand), with 90,000 reported in 2019. Working from a rough figure of 675,000 actual pothole reports a year, this is around 13% of all potholes reported in the UK.
A feature of reports to FixMyStreet is that, while the majority of reports are made by men, there are different ratios in different kinds of reports and categories are often gendered in terms of reporters. Deriving the gender of the reporter from their name, potholes and road surface defects are mostly reported by men, and disproportionately more than the site in general.
As explored in a previous post, this isn’t an essential gender difference but is likely to result from men having far more cause to encounter potholes. In 2013, men in the UK were on average driving twice as many miles per year as women.
People who report potholes are more likely to have reported multiple problems than other reports. Most pothole reports are made by people who have reported multiple reports and represent a smaller proportion of single report users than other report types.
When are potholes reported?
Potholes tend to be reported during the day, but disproportionately compared to other requests around the evening commute. The chart below shows the distribution of reports by time of day, where green indicates the number of reports is higher than the general distribution of FixMyStreet data.
While potholes are associated most with the start of the year, they occur in smaller numbers all year long. The number of potholes reported through FixMyStreet peaks on the 28th February.
Where are potholes reported?
While reports in FixMyStreet are less likely to be made in less deprived areas in general, this effect is larger for potholes:
This effect is driven more by reporting being lower than usual in more deprived areas than especially high in less deprived areas:
This pattern was generally similar for the Income and Employment domains of deprivation. This does not necessarily mean there are more actual potholes in these areas, but possibly that people in areas with higher income and levels of employment are more likely to report them.
Examining reports using the deprivation subdomain that measures difficulty accessing services (GPs, supermarkets, etc) shows a different pattern, where a disproportionate amount of pothole reports are made in areas with the least access to services.
The area with the worst access to services (typically a measure of distance to services) has a disproportionate amount of total pothole reports on FixMyStreet. This doesn’t necessarily indicate this is where most of the potholes actually are, but more remote, less traffic-ed potholes will rank lower in risk-based calculation than those on busier roads, and hence may go longer without fix, and make a report on FixMyStreet more likely.
Fixing potholes is a never-ending task, as they are an inevitable result of erosion of roads over time. That said, poor repairs will make the return of a pothole more inevitable than it might be. The issue isn’t just that the same pothole returns: if a pothole initially formed because the road surface was poor, others are likely to form in the same area too.
Looking at reports on FixMyStreet up to the end of 2016, for 3% of potholes a new pothole was later reported within 10m between six months and two years after it was first reported (with an average time lag of 15 months). Expanding that ratio to a 20m radius, 7% of potholes had a new pothole reported in the same time range.
While FixMyStreet’s data on potholes is far from universal, the geographical range gives us better scope than any single local authority’s data to see how reporting of potholes relates to social factors. You can examine this data yourself, on our geographic export, which gives counts of different categories of report by LSOA.
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Every road user relies on signs, so keeping them tip-top is in everyone’s interest. Now Transport Focus have launched their Sort My Sign campaign, asking road users to help them do just that.
They’d like everyone to report any signs they spot that are dangerous, dirty, broken, or obscured.
To support this programme digitally, Transport Focus came to mySociety, asking if we could help create a simple and intuitive mapping interface where these issues could be reported.
Keep your eyes on the road
Specifically, the scheme covers signs on roads managed by Highways England, which means motorways and some A roads.
FixMyStreet was the obvious starting point — we already have a data layer for these roads, which means that your everyday FixMyStreet reports can be routed to Highways England rather than the council if they are the responsible body.
Plus, as we’ve detailed many times before, the FixMyStreet platform can be repurposed for any project dealing with location-based reports, and has in the past been put to all sorts of uses, from reporting empty homes to helping fight corruption.
Nonetheless, we perceived one potential challenge when it came to setting up sign reporting.
Don’t report and drive!
FixMyStreet is generally well-suited for people making reports on the go — in fact, thanks to the ‘use my location’ functionality, it is ideal for reporting issues like potholes or broken pavements on your mobile while out on a walk. But obviously, road signs are a slightly different matter. If you are driving, you certainly mustn’t be fiddling with your mobile phone, so ‘use current location’ is only helpful if you have an amenable passenger to make the report.
That’s fine — you can always make the report later of course: but that means you’ll need to know roughly where you were when you saw the sign, something that’s a bit trickier on a long drive than it might be on a stroll around your neighbourhood. FixMyStreet allows you to find any UK location with the input of a postcode or street name, but these are details you’re unlikely to have to hand if you have simply driven through.
After some thought we realised that, on a motorway, the location identifier most people will find easiest to recall will probably be the junction number.
So that set us a challenge: how could we best enable ‘search by junction number’?
Sign here…and here
Ideally, we wanted a user to be able to visit the Sort My Sign site and enter the name of a junction, just as they’d enter a postcode or street on the FixMyStreet homepage — and then to be taken to a map centred on that point.
But sourcing a mapping between motorway/junction number and co-ordinates proved surprisingly tricky. mySociety developer Matthew takes over the story.
“I first looked at OpenStreetMap data — its geocoder, Nominatim, worked really well for some junction numbers, but didn’t work at all for others. If a junction has been assigned a name (like J23 on the M6, which is known as ‘Haydock’) it can only be looked up by that name, not by number. But we wanted users to be able to look up junctions by number.
“I could also export all the junction data from OpenStreetMap, but the junction nodes alone aren’t linked to the motorway, so that looked like it would prove tricky to match up.”
FOI to the rescue
“But by a stroke of luck, I then discovered that someone had used another of mySociety’s services, our Freedom of Information site WhatDoTheyKnow, to make a request to Highways England asking for the positions of all the driver location signs (the repeaters every 100m or 500m along the motorways giving the name and distance from start).
“In response, Highways England had provided that information, so I knew I could use that to at least provide a mapping between location sign and geographic co-ordinates.
“Each sign also had information about what junction it was nearest or between, so by constructing an average of all the location sign co-ordinates associated with a particular junction, I came up with a pretty good estimate for the location of the junction itself.
“I added all the sign and junction data into a small SQLite database (which means it’s portable and doesn’t need to be associated with the main database) and wrote a little bit of code to spot when someone entered a junction name in any of a variety of different formats, then look up the matching location in this database”.
Signed, sealed, delivered
To test this out, Matthew had all his colleagues name their favourite junction… perhaps not to be recommended as a party game, but it did at least prove that his code had cracked the problem.
Something much appreciated by Head of Strategy at Transport Focus, Guy Dangerfield, who says, “mySociety has been excellent in understanding what we needed and finding ways to achieve our objectives.”
You can give the new system a go here — and perhaps bookmark the site so that you know where to report a sign next time you see one that needs fixing.
Once you’re safely off the road, that is.