1. Three great jobs for our Better Cities projects

    Earlier this year we tweaked our strategy to better align our commercial work with our charitable projects. We’re now looking to hire a couple of experienced and motivated individuals to help us really turn up the heat on this approach.

    Our work at mySociety covers three practice areas; Freedom of Information, Democracy and Better Cities. Each in their own way use different methods to give citizens more influence over those with power. Making it easy to access public information, or easier to understand what decisions mean and their implications for all of us.

    Most of our work to date has been funded through grants and donations, but we believe that we can often make greater impact on a longer term basis where we work on a commercial footing, especially if we can bring in appropriate revenue which would complement our charitable income and help provide a more sustainable future for our organisation.

    To boost the commercial skills we have within our team we are looking for an experienced Product Manager who can help set the strategy for how we position our products, develop the wider markets we operate in, bring in more public sector clients, help serve our current clients and create an environment in which our products can thrive.

    To aid them in this quest we’re looking for a Sales and Partnership Manager to help us identify and engage with community groups, citizen engagement services, local authorities, technology providers and end users who would benefit from working with us to help more citizens to demand better.

    To top it off we urgently need to hire at least one additional Web Developer to our commercial team with at least three years of programming experience in Ruby, Python, and/or Perl.

    For each of these roles we’re looking for experience of working with or within local authorities or the wider public sector and civil society. They’ll be comfortable speaking with a broad range of people within local and central government, and their service providers, and will understand the needs of their end users – generally local residents. Importantly they’ll be comfortable working within a geographically distributed development team.

    Help us learn and improve

    The aim our Better Cities practice is to help people exert a little more control within their local communities – especially people who have never previously tried to make any such difference,  or members of marginalised groups who might believe they have little chance of success in getting things changed. In particular we want to learn more about how best to deliver local community level services and to understand the complex needs of those currently under-represented by local government and public services.

    Whilst we have over 10 years experience of delivering local services via FixMyStreet.com, we want to understand if such services actually give agency to those who lack it most to affect and impact their local communities, and if so in what way? Does this lead to further civic engagement and participation, if so how? If not can we adapt our approach to make this more likely? And where we currently fall short of representing these needs within our current services, what measures can we take to adapt existing services, or what new services might we create in their place?

    As we continue to learn we’ll further build upon the FixMyStreet principles of issue reporting and resolution to cater for a variety of interesting and practical new use cases,targeting hot button policy areas around housing provision, health, education quality, work and benefits.

    Importantly we’ll succeed if we ensure that our services are well used by a wider diversity of people in a wider spread of regions.

    So if you think you can help us in these goals, have ample experience in creating and leading on the development of digital products and are motivated and energised by working with local communities, government and the public sector we’d very much like to hear from you.

    You can apply here;

    Product Manager – Closing date, 10am Friday 11th November

    Sales and Partnership Manager – Closing date, 10am Friday 11th November

    Web Developer – Closing date, 10am on Wednesday 26th October

    Image courtesy of barynz on Flickr

  2. When funds go missing: how FixMyStreet is helping fight corruption in Malaysia

    Anyone who lives in public housing will know how frustrating it is when maintenance issues just don’t get fixed.

    Imagine how you’d feel, though, if you knew that funds had been allocated, but the repairs still weren’t being made — and there was no sign of the money.

    That’s the situation for the residents of public housing blocks in Kota Damansara, a township in Selangor State, Malaysia, whose problems range from termite and rat infestations to poor water sanitation, broken balcony railings, and beyond.

    In Malaysia, there’s no obligation for authorities to publish data on how public funds are spent, so it’s easy for corruption to thrive. The Sinar Project, an organisation that might be called the Malaysian equivalent of mySociety, are trying to tackle this state of affairs with a two pronged approach. They recently wrote it up on the OKFN blog.

    As you might expect, we pricked up our ears when we reached the part mentioning their use of FixMyStreet. Sinar already run aduanku.my, a FixMyStreet for Malaysia, using our open source code. Hazwany (Nany) Jamaluddin told of how a part of the site has been used to help provide concrete proof that repairs are not being made, and to put pressure on the authorities to do something about it.

    We’re always going on about how flexible FixMyStreet is: in case you don’t already know, it’s been used in projects as diverse as reporting anti-social behaviour on public transport to a tie-in with a channel 4 TV programme. One use that’s often been suggested is for housing estate management: if the maps showed the floorplans of housing blocks rather than the default of streetmaps, the rest of the functionality would remain pretty much as it is, with reports going off to the relevant housing maintenance teams rather than council departments.

    Sinar’s project does not try anything quite that ambitious, but nonetheless they have found a system that enables them to use FixMyStreet as part of their wider accountability project. They began by creating a new boundary for the Kota Damansara area on the website, and taught community leaders how to make reports for the public housing blocks within it.

    Since the map does not display the interior of the buildings, reporters must take care to describe precisely which floor and which block the issue is on, within the body of the report, with pictures as supporting evidence. It’s a step away from FixMyStreet’s usual desire to provide everything the user needs in order to make an actionable report — and everything the recipient needs to act on it — but it is serviceable.

    Ideally, Sinar would have liked the residents themselves to make the reports: after all, they are the ones facing the problems day to day; they know them more intimately and would describe them with more accuracy — but as Sinar’s social audit found, these residents are all under the poverty line: most do not have smartphones or internet connectivity at home.

    Instead, the community leaders make the report and this is then also processed manually, because the housing management company requires submissions on paper.

    You may be thinking, why go to all this bother? How does FixMyStreet play its part in the project, especially if you then have to transcribe the reports onto paper? It’s because FixMyStreet, as well as processing reports, has another side.

    We often mention how FixMyStreet, by publishing reports online, can give an extra incentive to councils to get problems fixed. In Kota Damansara the effect will hopefully be greater: this small section of the wider Aduanku website stands as a visible record of where funds have not made it to where they are needed most —  to fix those rat infestations and broken balconies.

    Nonetheless, the management companies continue to deny that there is strong enough evidence that funds have been diverted. And so Sinar, undaunted, move on to their next weapon against corruption. The incoming and outgoing of funds have been, and will continue to be, examined via a series of Freedom of Information requests.

    We wish Sinar all the best with this project and look forward to hearing that it has brought about change.

    Image: Tinou Bao (CC by/2.0)

  3. What are YOU doing with mySociety sites?

    If you’ve used a mySociety website and made a difference, large or small, we’d love to interview you.

    A few weeks ago, we heard how Open Data Consultant Gavin Chait used WhatDoTheyKnow to help people setting up businesses .

    But you don’t need to be a professional to have achieved something with our sites. We want to know what you’re doing with WhatDoTheyKnow, FixMyStreet, TheyWorkForYou, WriteToThem — or any of our other web tools.

    Have you managed to solve a persistent problem in your community by reporting it via FixMyStreet? Used data from TheyWorkForYou to inform a campaign? Or maybe you’ve put WriteToThem on your website and rallied people to contact their MP about something important.

    Whatever it is, big or small, we want to hear about it. Please do let us — and the world — know what you’ve achieved with mySociety’s sites.

    Ready? Click here to send us a couple of sentences about what you’ve achieved, and if we think we can feature your story, we’ll follow up with an email interview.

    Image: Robert Couse-Baker (CC-by/2.0)

  4. A New Future for FixMyStreet for Councils

    Work for a council? Tell us what you need

    We’re making some pretty big improvements to the FixMyStreet for Councils service at the moment: improvements that will save councils both time and money, while giving them flexibility and insights into their fault report handling.

    This has been our core focus over the last six months, working with our customers to design a new category of case management system, for local government, and by local government.

    We’ve been working together with local authority insiders because they’re the people who know best what they require from a piece of software they will use every day.  If you also fall into that category, we’d love to hear from you.

    We’ll be sharing early iterations of the improved service as we make progress. Your feedback will be part of that process, helping shape a service that does everything you need it to do.

    As we add these new case management features, we’ve set three core principles:

    • To lower the operating cost of highways, parks and streets management by improving the user experience for all involved, from residents to council staff
    • To change the relationship between local government and providers like Skanska, Veolia et al from direct management and instruction, to one of monitoring and oversight
    • To treat the asset management system as a data repository for asset information, not a case, customer or works management solution

    If you are from a local council and you would like to find out more, or you would like to provide feedback on early prototypes, help with user testing and become a part of our development process, we would love to hear from you.

    Those who want to find out more about obtaining FixMyStreet for Councils can do so by checking out our page on the Digital Marketplace.

    Image: Highways Agency (CC by 2.0)

  5. Where Next for Open Standards

    Earlier this week we hosted our Open Standards in Local Government workshop at Newspeak House in London, with the aim of unpicking where open standards might be of benefit and what might be stopping us from making more progress.

    We were joined by 20 smart people representing a bunch of local councils across the UK and it’s fair to say we made a good bit of progress. A number of consistent themes arose through our discussions.

    It was widely agreed that Open Standards are key to getting the basics right, and standardising the ability of different services to speak to one another is a prerequisite for a sustainable local authority service strategy. The insistence on compliance with open standards at the procurement stage should place an imperative on suppliers to build-in interoperability and reduce the fear of vendor lock in – councils shouldn’t inadvertently replace one set of closed systems for another.

    This link between adoption of open standards and the procurement process was fundamental.

    In our opinion demanding compliance from suppliers to agreed open standards up front, is probably the single most important thing that central government could do to help local government.

    Phil Rumens from LocalGovDigital introduced recent progress on the development of the Local Government Digital Standard. Notably, it goes further than the equivalent in central government, with an emphasis on reuse of existing data and services, and commitment to make more data open and reuseable.

    Both the LGA through LG Inform, and GDS via standards.data.gov.uk already look to gather standards for use in central and local government; however adoption by local government often lags substantially behind. Simply put this is a conversation that doesn’t really happen outside a small number of web or digital staff within councils, and the wider group of service staff don’t yet understand the opportunity that open standards represent.

    Indeed, Tom Symons from Nesta who introduced the Connected Council’s reporthighlighted that the councils furthest ahead are those that have both put in the hours to achieve proper internal Governance standards, and have benefitted from leadership by the Chief Exec and Senior management team.

    The biggest need we identified was to showcase great examples of how open standards can lead to better outcomes in practice.

    Showing what’s possible, both with case studies and live services that can be adopted was seen as essential, especially when this leads to actual financial savings and better outcomes for the citizen. This is something we’re keen to put some time into in the future.

    Sarah Prag and Ben Cheetham shared their experiences of collaborating on the DCLG led Waste Standards project. The most interesting thing for me was how a group of committed individuals just decided to get on with it and find some funding to make it happen – a proper coalition of the willing.

    Practical Next Steps

    The second half of the workshop looked at what we should focus on next.

    We were particularly keen to build on the progress that we’ve made in popularising the Open311 standard, which we can use to integrate FixMyStreet.com with each local authorities’ systems.

    We heard two contrasting experiences, firstly from Chris Fairs at Hertfordshire, who employ an extensive internal management system for issue reporting including individual definitions for fault types. They discovered that citizens are not so good at judging the severity of potholes – and through triage inspection, around 40% of reports are downgraded due to misreporting.

    This contrasted secondly with the experience of Nigel Tyrell and his team at Lewisham who have recently adopted an Open311 enabled service, now linked into both FixMyStreet.com and LoveCleanStreets.

    Lewisham Open311 App Results

    Perhaps the most surprising aspect of Lewisham’s experience is that well over half of reports actually come from their own internal staff using the system. This peer to peer approach has been transformative for them, with frontline staff motivated, more in control, more engaged with and connected to residents, and better able to integrate citizen reports into their own workflow – a very neat solution.

    From this discussion we identified three specific actions that we’re going to help take forward;

    1. Identify local authority service areas that would benefit from the development of open standards
    2. Review output from the DCLG Waste Standards project, to determine how a similar approach can be applied elsewhere
    3. Feed back with suggested improvements to Open311.org for non-emergency reporting and update the list of UK Open311 endpoints

    As with any such event the real value comes in the following weeks and months as we look for ways to collaborate together and opportunities to put into practice some of the things that we discussed.

    We’ll certainly be planning follow-up events in the future, so if you’d like to get involved sign up for our newsletter, post a comment below or get in touch at hello@mysociety.org.

  6. Open Standards Workshop on April 19th

    We share the belief, set out in the recent Connected Councils report from Nesta, that open standards are key to unlocking the potential of government as platform for local government.

    We want to help local authorities understand the benefits of open standards, too. So to that end we’re holding a half-day workshop at Newspeak House London on Tuesday 19th April (the day before the Digital Government conference in London).

    From our perspective this is important because when councils adopt new services they often miss the opportunity to create a genuinely open platform allowing councils, third sector and commercial organisations to work well together (I’ve written more on that in a post over on Medium).

    We’re inviting local authority staff who are responsible for setting strategy for open data and digital standards, and we’ll have a handful of interesting speakers, roundtable discussions and a spot of lunch as well.

    We’ve been fans of the Open311 standard for reporting non-emergency local issues online for some time. This open standard makes it easy for us to submit issues from FixMyStreet.com directly into a local authority’s case management system, and, just as importantly, report back when they have been resolved.

    Open standards are a fundamental aspect of digital transformation for every local council. We want to do what we can to help extend the scope and use of these standards, and learn how we can better deliver services that make use of them.

    We’d love to hear from you about your use of open standards in local government, to share experiences on how this can power service development and identify opportunities to extend the take up of standards. We’d also like to ensure that we are building services that you actually want to use to help your local residents.

    If you or a colleague would like to attend, or if you know people in other councils who are interested in Open311, FixMyStreet and other open standards, then please request an invite on our Eventbrite page.


    Image credit Deborah Fitchett https://flic.kr/p/7EyMVT

  7. Lewisham council switches to Open311

    Lewisham is the latest council to make the switch over to Open311 — with our help.

    If Open311 doesn’t mean anything to you, don’t worry: all you need to know is that it’s a protocol which allows services like FixMyStreet to drop your reports directly into the council’s workflow systems. No-one has to do the tedious and time-consuming job of re-typing the details from an email into fields that the system will accept — it just slots everything in the right place.

    Open means innovation

    But the most important aspect of Open311 is the word ‘open’.

    Open standards, like open data or open source code, are free for anyone to use. And we believe they are the key to both enterprise and economy within the sector.

    Anyone can use them to create an app or a web tool. The result is a fertile environment where government can pick applications from a variety of sources. Great ideas can blossom anywhere, and this allows the freedom to find them in internal teams, external providers, or even independent developers who produce stuff for free because they want to.

    There are further benefits for councils, too. Standards are (of course) standardised — so any tool built for Open311 can connect with any system adapted to accept compliant inputs. This allows for a pick-and-mix approach where multiple systems can be put together, and for councils to swap suppliers in and out as required, without longterm tie-ins.

    Nigel Tyrell is the driver behind the big switchover at Lewisham. From April, their LoveLewisham app will take reports from any Open311-compliant application that sends it reports — including FixMyStreet.

    By adopting Open311 we can hook into the fantastic FixMyStreet site and apps while developing our in-house LoveLewisham Peer2Peer app to provide a much more effective response.

    Open standards bring savings

    Going down this route has also brought substantial cost savings for Lewisham, and will continue to do so: Nigel forecasts a benefit of around £118,000.

    We have saved £13k a year by ending our contract with the previous supplier. We’ve developed our LoveLewisham P2P app in-house and used the first year of savings to buy our operatives decent smartphones.

    It’s not just the contract, though — the new approach has allowed for a restructuring of the team.

    In part, savings will be made by staff who are already out and about on various duties being able to put their own reports directly into the system, thanks to those smartphones.

    The strength of LoveLewisham has always been the implementation of mobile technology by our front-line workers.

    This in turn means that customer services staff time will be freed up. Overall, Nigel reckons he’s looking at a saving of around £105,000 in staffing costs.

    We’ll help you do the same

    We helped Lewisham in this shift to Open311. And, if you’re a council whose systems support the Open311 GeoReport v2 spec, then we’ll happily hook you up to receive reports from FixMyStreet, and provide access to a test site to perform your own end-to-end testing.

    There are further options for deeper integration, too — like enabling two-way updates, so that when a citizen marks a problem as fixed, that’s also transmitted to council systems. If you’re from a council and you’d like to know more, just get in touch here.

    Image: Adam Tinworth (CC)


  8. Have our sites helped you? Then please help us

    Can you donate a few pounds toward the running of our UK sites?

    FixMyStreet, WhatDoTheyKnow, WriteToThem and TheyWorkForYou all provide an easy way for you, the public, to hold our elected representatives to account. They give you the power to get things changed.

    You are the lifeblood of these sites: you make the reports that go off to the council; pen the letters to your representatives, request the information that our public authorities hold.

    Today, we’re asking for a little more. When you visit one of our UK sites, you may notice a banner asking for a donation.

    That’s because, as well as relying on your usage, these sites rely on your contributions to keep them running. In fact, our overheads are substantial: your donations help fund servers, maintenance, development, user support and all the other costs that come with running popular services and large archives.

    If you’ve benefited from one of our sites, or you are glad that they are around for others, please consider setting up a regular contribution of a few pounds a month, or making a one-off donation. It will be very much appreciated.

    Donate now

    Image: Dominic Alves (CC)

  9. Photo upload and progressive enhancement for FixMyStreet

    FixMyStreet has been around for nearly nine years, letting people report things and optionally include a photo; the upshot of which is we currently have a 143GB collection of photographs of potholes, graffiti, dog poo, and much more. 🙂

    For almost all that time, attaching a photo has been through HTML’s standard file input form; it works, but that’s about all you can say for it – it’s quite ugly and unfriendly.

    We have always wanted to improve this situation – we have a ticket in our ticketing system, Display thumbnail of photo before submitting it, that says it dates from 2012, and it was probably in our previous system even before that – but it never quite made it above other priorities, or when it was looked at, browser support just made it too tricky to consider.

    Here’s a short animation of FixMyStreet’s new photo upload, which also allows you to upload multiple photos:

    For the user, the only difference from the current interface is that the photo field has been moved higher up the form, so that photos can be uploading while you are filling out the rest of the form.

    Personally, I think this benefit is the largest one, above the ability to add multiple photos at once, or the preview function. Some of our users are on slow connections – looking at the logs I see some uploads taking nearly a minute – so being able to put that process into the background hopefully speeds up the submission and makes the whole thing much nicer to use.

    Progressive enhancement

    When creating a new report, it can sometimes happen that you fill in the form, include a photo, and submit, only for the server to reject your report for some reason not caught client-side. When that happens, the form needs to be shown again, with everything the user has already entered prefilled.

    There are various reasons why this might happen; perhaps your browser doesn’t support the HTML5 required attribute (thanks Safari, though actually we do work around that); perhaps you’ve provided an incorrect password.

    However, browsers don’t remember file inputs, and as we’ve seen, photo upload can take some time. From FixMyStreet’s beginnings, we recognised that re-uploading is a pain, so we’ve always had a mechanism whereby an uploaded photo would be stored server side, even if the form had errors, and only an ID for the photo was passed back to the browser so that the user could hopefully resubmit much more quickly.

    This also helped with reports coming in from external sources like mobile phone apps or Flickr, which might come with a photo already attached but still need other information, such as location.

    Back in 2011, I wrote about how FixMyStreet maps are progressively enhanced, starting with a base of HTML image maps and layering on the normal slippy map experience on top. This has always been the way I have worked, and adding a snazzy JavaScript photo upload was no different.

    mySociety designer Zarino used dropzonejs to supply the “pop”™, and this works in a nicely easy-to-progressively-enhance way, hiding existing file input(s) and providing fallbacks. And with the behaviour the site has had since 2007, adding the server side element of this new photo upload was actually very straightforward – receive a photo and return its ID for a snippet of JavaScript to insert into the hidden form field of photo ID that has always been there in case of form error. No need to worry about how to match up the out-of-band photos with the main form submission, it’s all already taken care of. If the JavaScript doesn’t or can’t work for whatever reason, the old behaviour is still there, using the same mechanisms.

    Of course there were edge cases and things to tidy up along the way, but if the form hadn’t taken into account the user experience of error edge cases from the start, or worse, had assumed all client checks were enough, then nine years down the line my job would have been a lot harder.

    Anyway, long story short, adding photos to your FixMyStreet reports is now a smoother process, and you should try it out.

  10. Big Bang Data exhibition

    How is the data explosion transforming our world?

    That’s the question that inspires the Big Bang Data exhibition, running from today until February 28 at Somerset House in London.

    Alongside all kinds of data displays, data-inspired artwork and data-based innovations, the exhibition features our very own FixMyStreet and TheyWorkForYou as examples of websites that are using data for the common good.

    The exhibits range from fun to thought-provoking to visually rather beautiful: we enjoyed Nicholas Felton‘s annual reports about himself, the Dear Data project, and innovative devices such as the fitness tracker for dogs. Most of all, of course, we enjoyed seeing our very own websites put into context and available for everyone to have a go with. 🙂

    We’re delighted to have been included in this event, and we recommend a visit if you’re in the area.  There’s plenty to keep you interested and informed for a good hour or two.

    Data for the common good - a sign at the Big Bang Data exhibition at Somerset House