1. Using mySociety data to explore the representation of women

    A key part of mySociety’s research agenda is understanding how Civic Technology is (or isn’t) helping under-represented groups in society access government services and their representation. In 2015 we released a report  Who Benefits from Civic Technology, that explored variations in usage of Civic Tech in various countries and demographics. You can read or download it here.

    In this blog post I’m going to talk a bit about how we’ve internally tried to apply our data to understanding the under-representation of women in politics and as users of our services, as well as some interesting things that external researchers have found using our data.

    EveryPolitician

    Our EveryPolitician dataset contains information on current (and in some cases historical) politicians for a large number of countries around the world. For a large number of representatives, this includes gender information.

    However, a key problem of international comparisons of the representation of women is, as Miki Caul points out, that it “overlooks the fact that individual parties vary greatly in the proportion of women MPs within each nation”. Similarly, Lena Wängnerud argues “cross-country studies tend to miss variations between parties within a single system. Variations in the proportion of women to men are even greater across parties than across nations”.

    Fortunately, this is exactly the kind of problem that an international dataset like EveryPolitician is well placed to examine – on Thursday we’ll be using a new mini-site to explore the gender and party information contained in EveryPolitician to give a sense of the international picture and the party-level differences within each country. Stay tuned! Or you can download the data yourself (there are APIs for Python, Ruby and R) and try and beat us to it.

    TheyWorkForYou

    TheyWorkForYou makes it easy to search through the history of what has been said in Parliament, and we make the data (based on the Hansard dataset but more consistently formatted) freely available to download. As essentially a download of a very large amount of text, getting insights from this dataset is a bit more complicated, but potentially very rewarding.

    Jack Blumenau has a paper based on TheyWorkForYou data using language to analyse whether appointing female ministers changes how other female MPs participate in debates. Looking at “half a million Commons’ speeches between 1997 and 2017, [he demonstrates] that appointing a female minster increases the participation of women MPs in relevant debates by approximately one third over the level of female participation under male ministers” – and that “female MPs also became more influential in debates under the purview of female ministers […] female ministers respond in a systematically different fashion to the speeches of female MPs.” In this case, influence is a measure of whether the language an individual used is then taken up by others, and this kind of analysis shows how the TheyWorkForYou dataset can be used to demonstrate not just counts of how many women were in Parliament, but the substantive effects of women holding office on the political process.

    As Myf talked about yesterday, TheyWorkForYou’s Commons content now extends back to 1918, and so includes every speech by a female MP ever made. We hope this is a useful resource for anyone interested in exploring the history of the representation of women in the UK and have plans for a small project in the upcoming months to show in a simple way how this data can be used (please sign up to our mailing list if you’re interested in hearing about this when it’s completed).

    TheyWorkForYou data can either be accessed through an API, or downloaded as formatted XML files.

    FixMyStreet and WriteToThem

    Understanding the under-representation of women is important across our services. Where men and women are experiencing different issues and concerns, imbalances in access (or use of access) potentially lead to differences in resource allocation.

    The majority of reports on FixMyStreet.com are reported by men – but to make things more complicated, it’s not just that women make fewer reports, but women report substantively different kinds of reports.

    Reka Solymosi, Kate Bowers and Taku Fujiyama investigated FixMyStreet reports and found (by determining gender from names of problem reporters) that different kinds of reports are more likely to be reported by men and women – they suggest that at “first glance it appears that men 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)”.

    If different kinds of reports are differently gendered, this complicates thinking about how to improve how women use the website – as potential users are having substantially different experiences of problems in the real world well before they interact with the site. We have to engage with the nuance of this kind of finding to understand how to redress issues of access to services.

    We’re currently in the process of extending this kind of analysis to our other service. For WriteToThem, we’ve learned that while the majority of people using the service to write to MPs are male (around 60%), this picture is different depending on the level of government – for instance the gender balance for people writing to councils is pretty close to 50/50.

    As part of this, we’re investigating whether having the same gender as their representative makes people more likely to make contact. This has some interesting preliminary findings, and we hope to have more to say about this towards the end of the year.

    Our research in this area is ongoing, and we’re keen to help people use our data to investigate under-representation – especially where you have expertise or knowledge that we don’t. If you’d like to discuss potential uses of the data please get in touch, or sign up to our mailing list to hear about future research releases.

    Image: Theresa May’s first PMQs: © UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor (CC by-nc/2.0)

  2. FixMyStreet Pro meets Salesforce: integrated street reporting for Rutland

    A big welcome to Rutland, the latest local authority to adopt FixMyStreet Pro as their street fault reporting platform. If you’re a resident of what has been described as the UK’s prettiest county, we hope that you’ll enjoy using FixMyStreet to keep it that way.

    You can make your reports on the council’s site here, or if you’re already used to the main FixMyStreet. com website or via our mobile app, you’ll find that all reports go into the same central database, and can be seen in all three places.

    As a resident, all you need to know is that it all works, but councils — especially those using the Salesforce CRM — will be interested to know that behind the scenes there have been some interesting tweaks.

    How it looks in Salesforce

    Salesforce is a very common CRM, in use across many councils as well as countless other businesses and organisations, so this integration stands as a useful proof of concept when it comes to FixMyStreet integration.

    For Rutland, FixMyStreet reports now drop directly into Salesforce, from where they can be allocated to the Highways team. Click on any of the images below to see them at a larger size.

    Here’s what the list of all reports looks like in Salesforce. In theory, if the council want, this could also include reports from other sources such as residents’ phone calls or direct emails.

     

    Staff may filter the reports by category: here we can see just those within the ‘roads and highways’ category.

    Each report is listed within Salesforce as a ‘case’, listed in a queue.

    And this is what it looks like when a report comes in that has a photo attached to it  — that’s also accessible within Salesforce.

    Staff now have the choice of updating reports within Salesforce, or, if they prefer (as many do), through the FixMyStreet admin interface.

    This is our first Salesforce integration, and it was made possible through the use of an API, developed by Rutland’s own tech team. At our end, all we had to do was write the code to integrate with it, and boom, two-way communication.

    Even better, any reports made through other means can be pulled from Salesforce and into the FixMyStreet system: so a council staff member inputting reports from, say, an email report or phone call can input it into the interface they’ve always used.

    We’re delighted to add Salesforce to the list of CRMs FixMyStreet Pro has integrated with. If you’re from a council and would like to find out more, pop over to the FixMyStreet Pro website where you’ll find case studies, pricing, an interactive demo and the chance to join one of our regular online chats.

  3. Why we posted a whole manual online

    Against conventional wisdom, we’ve just published the staff manual for FixMyStreet Pro online, where it’s easy for anyone to access.

    When we were putting this manual together, we thought we’d have a quick google round for other council SAAS documentation, to see if anyone was doing it particularly well.

    We didn’t get very far, though — it seems there’s a culture of corporate secrecy amongst other suppliers, and a fear of publishing such materials in case of imitation.

    It seems that our decision to publish our entire manual online, along with a handy print version, freely available with no password, is perhaps a little unusual.

    Why so open?

    We’ve gone our own way on this one for a few reasons.

    First, because it helps our clients. We know that it’s far easier for customers to look online for materials than it is to remember where they’ve put a physical handbook.

    We know we could have put it behind a password, but that just adds an impediment for our existing customers, as well as for anyone hoping to understand the service a little better before making a purchasing decision. Plus, who remembers passwords for something they might only be accessing a couple of times a year? It’s just extra faff.

    This way, staff only need bookmark the documentation page, and they’ll always be able to find the most up to date version of the manual.

    There’s another reason as well, though. Most mySociety codebases — including FixMyStreet — are Open Source, meaning that anyone who wants to can inspect or use the code for their own purposes. If anyone really wanted to know our ‘secrets’… well, they’re already out in the public domain.

    We reckon there’s more to gain by publishing our instruction manual than there is to lose. Sure, competitors might see what features we offer, and they might even copy them. We’re confident, though, that our customer service, company culture, and our insistence on making our products as user friendly as possible, all give us an advantage that imitators are unlikely to be able to match.

    So, if you’re from a council yourself (or if you’re just curious) please do go ahead and read the manual. We hope you’ll find it of interest, and that it might cast some light on what makes FixMyStreet Pro different from other offerings in the field.

     

    Image: Alexandre Godreau (Unsplash)

  4. Seeing spots with FixMyStreet Pro

    If you visit FixMyStreet and suddenly start seeing spots, don’t rush to your optician: it’s just another feature to help you, and the council, when you make a report.

    In our last two blog posts we announced Buckinghamshire and Bath & NE Somerset councils’ adoption of FixMyStreet Pro, and looked at how this integrated with existing council software. It’s the latter which has brought on this sudden rash.

    At the moment, you’ll only see such dots in areas where the council has adopted FixMyStreet Pro, and gone for the ‘asset locations’ option: take a look at the Bath & NE Somerset installation to see them in action.

    What is an asset?

    mySociety developer Struan explains all.

    Councils refer to ‘assets’; in layman’s language these are things like roads, streetlights, grit bins, dog poo bins and trees. These assets are normally stored in an asset management system that tracks problems, and once hooked up, FixMyStreet Pro can deposit users’ reports directly into that system.

    Most asset management systems will have an entry for each asset and probably some location data for them too. This means that we can plot them on a map, and we can also include details about the asset.

    When you make a report, for example a broken streetlight, you’ll be able to quickly and easily specify that precise light on the map, making things a faster for you. And there’s no need for the average citizen to ever know this, but we can then include the council’s internal ID for the streetlight in the report, which then also speeds things up for the council.

    Map layers

    So, how do we get these assets on to the map? Here’s the technical part:

    The council will either have a map server with a set of asset layers on it that we can use, or they’ll provide us with files containing details of the assets and we’ll host them on our own map server.

    The map server then lets you ask for all the streetlights in an area and sends back some XML with a location for each streetlight and any associated data, such as the lamppost number. Each collection of objects is called a layer, mostly because that’s how mapping software uses them. It has a layer for the map and then adds any other features on top of this in layers.

    Will these dots clutter up the map for users who are trying to make a report about something else?

    Not at all.

    With a bit of configuration in FixMyStreet, we associate report categories with asset layers so we only show the assets on the map when the relevant category is selected.

    We can also snap problem reports to any nearby asset which is handy for things like street lights as it doesn’t make sense to send a report about a broken street light with no associated light.

    Watch this space

    And what’s coming up?

    We’re working to add data from roadworks.org, so that when a user clicks on a road we’ll be able to tell them if roadworks are happening in the near future, which might have a bearing on whether they want to report the problem — for example there’s no point in reporting a pothole if the whole road is due to be resurfaced the next week.

    Then we’ll also be looking at roads overseen by TfL. The issue with these is that while they are always within a council area, the council doesn’t have the responsibility of maintaining them, so we want to change where the report is going rather than just adding in more data. There’s also the added complication of things like “what if the issue is being reported on a council-maintained bridge that goes over a TFL road”.

    There’s always something to keep the FixMyStreet developers busy… we’ll make sure we keep you updated as these new innovations are added.

    From a council and interested in knowing more? Visit the FixMyStreet Pro website

  5. Confirming the benefits: how FixMyStreet Pro integrates with the Confirm Asset Management System

    We often talk about how FixMyStreet Pro can integrate directly with council’s existing systems, and how doing so can help councils be more efficient — but what exactly does that mean in practice?

    Let’s take a look at our two most recent FixMyStreet Pro installations. Both B&NES and Buckinghamshire councils use the same asset management system, Confirm, and it gives us a great example of how FixMyStreet Pro’s ability to ‘communicate’ with such systems will make everything a whole lot easier for residents and for council staff, even with two very different types of local authority.

    Saving time and effort

    FixMyStreet has always provided the resident with an easy interface through which to file a street report. For many councils, however, such reports arrive in an email inbox and then have to be forwarded to the right location or typed into the council’s CRM, all adding to the sum total of time and effort dedicated to each report.

    Now, using the Confirm API, Bucks and B&NES councils can access and work on FixMyStreet reports through Confirm’s standard ‘inspector module’, removing any need for this extra step.

    Two-way information

    Optionally, the information flow can go both ways, and indeed this is the case for both B&NES and Buckinghamshire councils. What this means is that for example, when an issue has been inspected and council staff change its status (perhaps from ‘report received’ to ‘repair underway’), this status change will be passed back to FixMyStreet, automatically syncing with the site, and notifying the report-maker with the update — again removing another mundane task from customer services staff.

    If a highways inspector should come across a new issue while they are out and about on their rounds, they can raise an issue in Confirm just as they always would have. But now, that will also create a report on FixMyStreet which residents can view, keeping everyone up to date and ensuring that reports aren’t made about issues that the council already know about.

    Canned responses

    FixMyStreet Pro also allows for council administrators to create template responses — an invaluable timesaver when responding to one of the more common situations such as “issue identified and prioritised” or “issue now fixed and closed”. While Confirm also has its own template responses, FixMyStreet Pro offers more flexibility, as the same template can be reused across multiple report categories and status types. Buckinghamshire really saw the benefit of this: they were able to reduce the number of templates in use from around 450 to 46.

    Mapping assets

    Assets such as streetlights, grit bins and gullies can be pulled through from Confirm and overlaid on the map. This makes it significantly easier for both residents and staff to locate and report issue, speeding up the issue resolution time — we’ll be delving more deeply into this in our next blog post, with a few more technical details for those who are interested.

    Image: Highways England (CC by/2.0)

  6. Two new FixMyStreet Pro councils

    We’re delighted to welcome two new councils who are now using FixMyStreet Pro for their fault-reporting: Buckinghamshire and Bath & NE Somerset.

    Residents in these areas can make reports on the councils’ own websites, where they’ll find FixMyStreet as the street fault interface — or through the main FixMyStreet website and app. Whichever you choose, your reports will be published in all three places.

    So far, so convenient for residents — but behind the scenes, there’s lots more going on that improves the efficiency of the whole fault-fixing cycle.

    Both councils are users of the Confirm CRM system, with which FixMyStreet Pro can now be fully integrated. What that means in practice is that when you make a report, it drops directly into the council’s existing workflows, with no need for someone in the middle to retype or redirect your report.

    Council staff can use the best of both systems’ useful tools for shortlisting, inspecting and updating the status of your issues — and when a report has been progressed to the next stage of the fixing cycle, you’ll be automatically kept up to date both by email, and with messages posted directly to your report page.

    In another advance, both councils are now displaying assets such as bins, trees and adopted highways in context-sensitive areas of the report-making journey, so it’s easy to identify exactly which one you’re talking about when you make your report. That saves time for you, and for the council when they go out to fix it .

    If you’re interested in the technical details, we’ll have more about both Confirm integration and asset layers in future blog posts.

    Image: Kosala Bandara (CC by/2.0)

  7. New insights for councils, on FixMyStreet

    FixMyStreet sends users’ street reports to councils across the UK.

    But if you’re one of the staff that receives these reports, you might sometimes wish for more insights: which issues are most commonly reported in your area? What’s a bigger problem, dog fouling or potholes? How quickly do reports get fixed, and how does this compare with other councils’ performance?

    To make it easy to discover the answers to all these questions, we’ve just rolled out a new stats dashboard on FixMyStreet — and it’s free to access if you work for a council.

    Council staff can now view and download information that answers questions such as:

    • How many FixMyStreet reports have been made in your area across various time periods?
    • How many reports have been made in each category?
    • What are the average times between reports being made and being marked as fixed, and how does this compare to other councils?
    • Which categories of report are most common within your area?
    • Which categories of report does FixMyStreet send to your council, and which email addresses does it use?

    From this exclusive area, you can gain a more in-depth understanding of how FixMyStreet is being used in your area, while also getting a taste of the fuller functionality available with FixMyStreet Pro.

    So, if you work for a council, head over to the dashboard page now, and start exploring.

  8. Now you’re even more secure on FixMyStreet

    All mySociety websites have strong security: when you think about some of the data we’re entrusted with (people’s private correspondence with their MPs, through WriteToThem, is perhaps the most extreme example, but many of our websites also rely on us storing your email address and other personal information) then you’ll easily understand why robust privacy and security measures are built into all our systems from the very beginning.

    We’ve recently upped these even more for FixMyStreet. Like everyone else, we’ve been checking our systems and policies ahead of the implementation of the new General Data Protection Regulation in May, and this helped us see a few areas where we could tighten things up.

    Privacy

    A common request from our users is that we remove their name from a report they made on FixMyStreet: either they didn’t realise that it would be published on the site, or they’ve changed their mind about it. Note that when you submit your report, there’s a box which you can uncheck if you would like your report to be anonymous:

    FixMyStreet remembers your preference and applies it the next time you make a report.

    In any case, now users can anonymise their own reports, either singly or all at once. When you’re logged in, just go to any of your reports and click ‘hide my name’. You’ll see both options:

    report of puddles on the undercliff walk on FixMyStreet

    Security

    Security for users was already very good, but with the following improvements it can be considered excellent!

    • All passwords are now checked against a list of the 577,000 most common choices, and any that appear in this list are not allowed.
    • Passwords must now also be of a minimum length.
    • If you change your password, you have to input the previous one in order to authorise the change. Those who haven’t previously used a password (since it is possible to make a report without creating an account), will receive a confirmation email to ensure the request has come from the email address given.
    • FixMyStreet passwords are hashed with an algorithm called bcrypt, which has a built in ‘work factor’ that can be increased as computers get faster. We’ve bumped this up.
    • Admins can now log a user out of all their sessions. This could be useful for example in the case of a user who has logged in via a public computer and is concerned that others may be able to access their account; or for staff admin who share devices.


    Image: Timothy Muza (Unsplash)

     

     

     

     

  9. Where there’s muck there’s brass

    We created FixMyStreet Pro to help councils and city governments better manage inbound street reports and issues from their residents.

    In the past few months we’ve rolled out the FixMyStreet Pro service to new customers including Bath & North East Somerset, Buckinghamshire and Rutland councils; each of whom are taking the opportunity to get rid of legacy software, simplify their operations and make use of a much simpler and intuitive way for their residents and staff to make and manage reports.

    We’re now looking for input from councils to help us guide the next phase of our service development on FixMyStreet Pro.

    Having spoken to dozens of councils we think we can help them save more money by extending FixMyStreet Pro to other areas like waste and environment services and we would like to explore how much development work that might entail.

    Not just for streets

    As FixMyStreet’s name would suggest our focus so far has been on handling issues related to highways like potholes, lighting and gullies (drains to me and you), but FixMyStreet Pro already handles reports for a whole range of issues beyond streets.

    Typically council users of FixMyStreet Pro have around 13 to 15 different self-selected categories that they accept reports on – each of which can be directed to different teams or departments. Tree reports can be sent directly to the parks department, graffiti or abandoned cars can be passed along to the just the right team in street cleansing.

    These ‘front end reports’ all have one thing in common: all we need to make the report is a location and description, plus a contact for the reporter, which could be as simple as an email address or phone number.

    But once you get deeper into the glamorous world of bins and waste services for individual residents the situation gets a little more complicated.

    Missed bin collections, requests for recycling bags, bulky waste collection – these all require the resident to be identified, the particular property to be checked with the UPRN (Unique Property Reference Number), and in some cases payments levied and collected.

    FixMyStreet Pro doesn’t currently offer these additional waste services, although it doesn’t require a huge leap of imagination to see how we could add these adjacent features to the service, not least because we already do a lot of the pieces across our other commercial services.

    Fortunately there has already been a lot of work done to define common standards, such as the Local Waste Service Standards Project from 2016 and more recent work by individual councils to apply some of this work – we also have a lot of our own research and experience to draw upon with numerous specific feature requests from our current local authority clients.

    Let’s talk

    To make this happen we’d like to recruit at least two or three friendly councils available for interviews and possibly a workshop or two, to help us determine specific requirements and test out some of our early prototypes and hypotheses. From here we’d aim to develop these features into fully working aspects of FixMyStreet Pro over the summer.

    If this is of interest to you, if you’re already grappling with this in your own council, or you’d just like to find out more, please get in touch with enquiries@fixmystreet.com and we can have a chat.

    In the meantime you can always find out more about what FixMyStreet Pro can do on one of our regular Friday Webinars.

    Image: Smabs Sputzer CC BY 2.0

  10. Peak performance

    At mySociety we believe in an open, inclusive web and such we try to build web apps that are accessible in the broadest sense. So while we do care deeply about things like WAI and the Equality Act this post isn’t about that — this is about making a site that works if you have a weak connection or an ageing device. I’m talking about performance.

    Graph showing total transfer data for mobile webpages in last year.Now while it isn’t a great metric to track, the fact that the average size of a web page is now over three megabytes (and pages served for mobile devices reaching an average of 2.9mb!) demonstrates that this is an age of bloat that assumes good broadband or 4G connectivity and we don’t think that’s right.

    As an example here are some numbers about the FixMyStreet site as it displays on mobile after some recent improvements.

    To load a working and styled front page on your phone takes around 9KB of HTML/inlined CSS/inlined images (that isn’t a typo – nine kilobytes). How do we pull that off? Well, the site logo and menu are both inlined so we don’t have to wait for them to load, as is the CSS needed to show the top part of the front page. 5KB of JavaScript is loaded (which amongst other things enables the geolocation) and in the background an additional massive 14 kilobytes of CSS (the main mobile stylesheet) and the remaining 20 kilobytes of images (the example report photos and footer links) are being pulled in. The page also uses prefetch to start fetching the remaining JavaScript while the user is entering a postcode or address to actually get started on FMS.

    On a desktop there’s a little bit more to add to the mix (more like 66KB of images, 19KB of CSS, plus a webfont taking 77KB) but it’s still lightning quick.

    The team haven’t reinvented the wheel to achieve this – they’ve just been ruthless and absolutely focused on only using the minimum amount of code to meet the user need. When the FixMyStreet site is deployed, the JavaScript and CSS is automatically minimised, and at that point we run penthouse to work out the critical CSS to be inlined on the front page. And whilst our main JavaScript does use jQuery, we dropped it from the front page to save yet more up-front time (jQuery is far larger alone than our current front page).

    If you are interested in more details of how this was achieved, here’s a post Matthew prepared earlier on many of the same techniques, which he used on his own project traintimes.org.uk.

    There are of course still improvements to be made – I imagine many front page viewers of FixMyStreet never need or want to scroll down as far as the images in the footer, so ideally we wouldn’t load them unless they do. Due to Windows Lumia users, which we support for a specific client use case, we’re using Appcache for offline support, but adding some form of more modern service worker would also be nice. And most of this work is for the front page (though it helped other pages too); our main JavaScript could be split up more than it is. It’s a continual process, but here is a good place to pause.

    Photo by Braden Collum on Unsplash