Not many people realise that we fund a proportion of our charitable work by carrying our commercial development and consultancy work for a wide range of clients.
Last year, we scoped, developed and delivered a real variety of digital tools and projects. Some of the projects were surprising. Some of them made us gnash our teeth, a bit, as we grappled with new problems. But all of them (and call us geeks if you like) got us very excited.
Here are just twelve of our personal high points from last year. If you have a project that you think we might be able to help you with in 2015, we’d love to hear from you!
1. We Changed the Way in Which Parliament Does Digital
This time last year, a small team from mySociety was poring over analytics, interview content and assorted evidence from Parliament projects dating back last 2-3 years, to help us put together a simple set of recommendations to conclude our review.
11 months later, Parliament have announced their first Head of Digital, fulfilling one of our key recommendations.
2. We helped the MAS and the FCA protect financial consumers
We built the Money Advice Service’s (MAS) first responsive web application, the Car Cost Calculator.
This tool takes one simple thing you know (the car you wish to buy) and tells you roughly how much it’ll cost to run that car against any others you might be interested in. It has been one of MAS’ most successful online tools in terms of traffic and conversion.
We also built the Financial Conduct Authority’s Scam Smart tool, aiming to prevent financial scams.
This tool helps users considering a financial investment to check a potential investment. Users enter information about the type of investment, how they heard about it and the details of the company offering it to them and get back tailored guidance and suggested next steps to help them ensure the investment is bona fide.
3. We Gave Power to the People of Panama (soon)
Working with the The National Authority for Transparency & Access to Information (ANTAI) and the Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO), we set up our first government-backed instance of our Freedom of Information platform, Alaveteli, in Panama.
This project will ensure that Panama’s FOI legislation is promoted and used, but it will also shine a light on ANTAI, who are responsible for ensuring ministries and organisations publish their information, and handling case appeals.
4. We Mapped All the Public Services in Wales
After we extended the Mapumental API to produce data output suitable for GIS (geographical information systems), the Welsh Government were able to map public services in Wales for their Index of Multiple Deprivation calculations.
Over the course of the year they have calculated travel times for over seventy thousand points of interest.
5. We Launched a New Organisation in Four Weeks
Simply Secure approached us in dire need of a brand, an identity and a website to accompany the launch of their new organisation to help the world build user-friendly security tools and technologies.
Cue four weeks of very intense work for mySociety’s designer, supported by members of the commercial team. And we did it.
6. We Printed Stuff BIG (and found people jobs)
Xerox will be using these with the DWP to help job seekers find work that is within reach by public transport. As a byproduct, Mapumental now handles high-fidelity print based outputs: get in touch if that is of interest.
7. We Opened Up Planning Applications
With Hampshire County Council we had the opportunity to build a new application to help assist members of the public and business better understand what was happening around them. For us, it was also the first application in which we worked closely with a provider of a linked data store, in this case Swirrl.
When Open Planning goes live, it will look to help improve social engagement and the economy of Hampshire through better understanding and transparency of planning data.
8. We Proved (Again) That FixMyStreet Isn’t All About Potholes
We launched Collideoscope on October the 7th with our first sponsor—Barts Charity, with the aim of generating data both on incidents involving cycles, and near misses.
9. We Helped Launch a Film
We built a tool for the British Museum, to go alongside the general release of Vikings Live. The Norse Names project brought a sense of context and personalisation to a dataset gathered by the University of Nottingham.
10. We Made Data More Exciting
This year, they asked us to build something similar for bus users. We’re entering the final week of development now, and the finished product should be launched in March.
The main aim of this site? To take data that could be considered pretty dry, and make it a lot more engaging.
11. We Fixed Yet More Potholes
That means that residents of those places can now make their reports direct from their council’s website, or via FixMyStreet, and either way they’ll have all the benefits of FixMyStreet’s smooth report-making interface.
12. We Showed Parliament the Way
And so, we end where we began. While Parliament were busy interviewing candidates for their new ‘Head of Digital’ position, we were commissioned to demonstrate what Hansard might look like were a platform like SayIt used instead of the largely print-based publishing mechanisms used today.
The result was shared internally. While SayIt may not be the end solution for Parliament, it’s great to have had some input into what that solution might be.
And in 2015…?
Got a project that you’d like us to be involved in?
Every general election there are a load of projects that all need the same thing – a nicely formatted, accurate list of the candidates who are standing at the election.
Loads of people need this data – journalists, app builders, campaigners, Wikipedians, everyone.
But the government doesn’t actually publish the lists until right before the election, and when it does the data isn’t the least bit suitable for modern use (think unstructured PDFs and worse). It’s way too little and way too late.
YourNextMP.com is a totally free, open database of candidates, that is made partly from screen scraping and partly from volunteer contributions from people who think that having a single good quality list is a sane idea. It publishes the open data gathered both through a nice clean website, and through a nice modern API. Soon it’ll also provide csv export,too. And it means we can have nice shared identifiers for candidates, meaning greater potential connectivity between election-related journalism, tools, sites and projects run by different people and organisations.
The builders of YourNextMP have also taken steps to ensure accuracy and deter abuse, most strikingly by forcing all new data to be sourced, and keeping nice public logs of all the changes (and who made them).
To be clear, YourNextMP is not a mySociety project. We are just very happy to endorse the idea, and to supply one of our open source tools (PopIt) to help store and share the data in useful ways. Plus some of us have been chipping in in our spare time, for instance by adding data.
How can you help?
There are two main ways:
1) Add data! The main thing needed today, 146 days before the election, is the most basic data on who is known to be standing, today. We think that YourNextMP is probably already the most up to date candidate list out there, despite being very much unfinished.
Additional data, about candidates’ Facebook pages, birth dates and so on, isn’t such a high priority right now. You can help by looking up your constituency on the site, or choosing a random constituency, and just using your best Googling/telephoning skills to find out who’s definitely standing this time.
If you want to chat to other people who are doing the same thing, use the #yournextmp hashtag.
Don’t feel you have to stop when you’ve filled in your own constituency – there are plenty more to complete.
2) Spread the word that a single, high quality, free and shared database of candidates is just A Good Thing that people should support.
Who loves time-wasting? Nobody! What is YourNextMP if not an anti time-wasting project? Nothing! So, please, if you’re planning an election-related project, tell people that YourNextMP is a good idea, and consider letting them use your logo on their site, as a sign of good will.
And if you see someone in your office about to pay for a proprietary database of candidates, why not suggest they give the money to YourNextMP instead?
Every year, thousands of people in the UK fall prey to financial scams. For the last six months, mySociety has been working with the Financial Conduct Authority to create an online tool, the FCA Warning List, to try and help potentially vulnerable financial consumers avoid scams.
The tool launched on Wednesday last week as part of a wider communications campaign aimed at educating the public on the typical characteristics of scams.
The homepage of the FCA Warning List
The sophistication of financial scams
When I’ve mentioned this project to people, they invariably think of emails from extravagantly-named lawyers in far-flung countries identifying you as the lucky beneficiary of a lost inheritance. These scams seem, to most people, obvious and the people who fall prey easy to ridicule: how can people possibly think this stuff is real?
But many scams are actually incredibly sophisticated and work on people over a long period of time, with even the most experienced investors at risk of being taken in.
An introductory approach is made by someone who knows your name on a realistic pretext. Might you be interested in this investment? No? Well, John, it was good to chat and I’ll call again in a few months. A few months later another call. Did you know that if you’d invested you’d have made 20% by now? I have another investment here that I think might interest you, let me introduce you to my colleague who knows the director at this firm personally.
Scammers work their victim as a team, they lure us in and use our cognitive flaws and emotional weaknesses to ensnare us.
Disconcertingly informative user research
During this project, we interviewed 15 or so potential users, recruited as having the characteristics of people likely to be targeted by scammers. About half of these people had come in contact with a scam. As far as we know, none of them had fallen victim but only one of them reported their experience to the authorities.
Almost all of them thought that a website to help them research investment opportunities—provided by an independent third party like the FCA—would be useful for them.
We’ve built an online tool that we hope will help investors avoid scams. A person using it gives it some basic facts about an investment opportunity (what is it an investment in? how did you hear about it?) and it gives them back some guidance specific to them.
For example, did you know that if you’re cold called about an investment opportunity, in all likelihood it’s a scam? Just that simple message alone has the potential to be very disruptive to scams.
The tool also allows users to search a list of firms that the FCA knows to be operating without their permission: if someone’s talking to a firm on that list about an investment, that’s probably a pretty bad idea.
Finally, it gives people other suggested actions at the end of the process. Been cold called? You should report it. Considering an investment in an unregulated commodity like bamboo? You should research further before investing.
We also made a widgetty version of the tool homepage that can be easily embedded into other websites.
Scammers rob people of cash, but they can also take people’s self-respect and damage their personal relationships, often at a time of life when they are particularly vulnerable.
We’re excited about the launch of the Warning List and are proud to be supporting the FCA in its mission to protect consumers by disrupting more of the scams that have such a destructive effect on people’s lives.
Just how safe is your area for cyclists?
You can check the accident statistics for one answer to that question, but for every serious accident, there may be hundreds more near misses. And if the cyclists, drivers, and pedestrians involved don’t report them, that data is lost forever.
Launching today, Collideoscope aims to collect data on everything from full-on cycle accidents to near-misses.
We’re encouraging anyone involved in an incident to record it on the site, so that we can share it with Highways Departments, police forces, cycle campaigns and even healthcare providers.
In short, Collideoscope will amplify the impact of individuals’ reports, and improve understanding of factors affecting cycle safety in the UK.
Familiar but different
Collideoscope’s interface will be very familiar to those who have used FixMyStreet. That’s because it’s built using the same technology, where a user places a pin in a map to show where a problem occurred, and the system sends the report off to the right authority – in this case, the Highways department and/or the local police.
But there’s more to Collideoscope than just reporting accidents. Our first sponsors, Barts & The London Charity, will use it to collect data to go towards the Bespoke project. Barts and TLC is an innovative charity which – among many other activities – supports research and technology that will improve healthcare within their local NHS trust, and Bespoke is a multi-pronged initiative to reduce accidents for cyclists.
Collideoscope is also a bit different to the existing tools and campaigns out there. Just like FixMyStreet, Collideoscope publishes all reports openly, so anyone can browse them with no log-in required. And, while many of the mySociety team are keen cyclists of one sort or another, we are not campaigners – so Collideoscope does not aim to change anyone’s mind or make the case for better cycling provisions.
Instead, the idea is simply to share the data as widely as possible, increasing public knowledge about what’s effective in road safety, and what set-ups appear to make accidents more likely.
Data to the rescue
Over time, Collideoscope will show close misses and actual accidents across the country, building up a geographic picture of dangerous hotspots for cyclists. This data can be sliced in multiple ways – so for example, you could isolate all the accidents within a specific council’s boundaries, or look at them month by month.
Barts and TLC will be taking this data, and adding it to data on cycling injuries which they’ll be collecting in the emergency department at the Royal London Hospital. The final, joined up picture, will seek to find insight among such factors as whether the cyclist was wearing high-vis clothing, the surrounding road layouts, potholes in the area, and the type of vehicles involved.
Once all this data is in place, of course, the next step will be to make recommendations about how future accidents can be prevented. So for example, if a certain type of road layout is implicated in a large proportion of accidents, well, maybe that type of road layout should be phased out. Barts and TLC see the potential for extending the project in the future, looking into playground accidents, falls, and even street violence.
Collideoscope is a partnership between mySociety and Integrated Transport Planning Ltd. With the time mySociety and ITP have invested and the support from our first sponsor Barts and the London Charity we have developed and launched the site, but we have so much more we’d like to do. We are seeking further sponsors as the project goes forward; if you’re interested in supporting then please get in touch.
Meanwhile – be safe out there. And in the unfortunate eventuality that you are not, have a cup of sweet tea, and then remember to log your accident or near miss on Collideoscope.
Residents of East Sussex County Council and Hart District Council can now report potholes, broken street lights, and other local issues, simply and speedily. The two local authorities are the latest to integrate FixMyStreet onto their own websites.
Whether reports – and subsequent updates – are made on the councils’ websites, or within their boundaries on FixMyStreet.com, they will be published on both the council site and FixMyStreet.
FixMyStreet is a proven aid to channel shift, moving report-making online, to save time and money for both residents and councils. Hart and East Sussex’s adoption of the software is just one strand of their ‘digital by default’ approach to transactional services.
If you’re from a council, and would like to find out more about FixMyStreet for Councils, everything you need to know is here.Image: Dominic Alves (CC)
Simply Secure is a new organisation, dedicated to finding ways to improve online security – in ways so accessible and useful that there will be no barrier to their use.
It will bring together developers, UX experts, researchers, designers and, crucially, end users. The plan is to ensure the availability of security and privacy tools that aren’t just robust – they’ll be actively pleasing to use.
Now, you may be thinking that online privacy and security aren’t the most fascinating subject – but this month, the chances are that you’ve actually been discussing it down the pub or with your Facebook friends.
Remember the iCloud story, where celebrities’ personal photographs were taken from supposedly secure cloud storage and put online? Yes, that. If you uttered an opinion about how those celebrities could have kept their images more safely, you’ve been nattering about online security.
Simply Secure is founded on the belief that we’d all like privacy and security online, but that up until now, solutions have been too cumbersome and not user-centred enough. When implementing them becomes a hassle, even technically-literate people will choose usability over security.
How we helped
Simply Secure knew what their proposition was: now we needed to package this up into a brand for them. Crucially, it needed to transmit a playful yet serious message to launch the organisation to the world – within just four weeks.
Our designer Martin developed all the necessary branding and illustration. He created a look and feel that would be carried across not just Simply Secure’s website, but into the real world, on stickers and decoration for the launch event.
Meanwhile, mySociety Senior Consultant Mike helped with content, page layout and structure, all optimised to speak directly to key audience groups.
Down at the coding end of things, our developer Liz ensured that we handed over a project that could be maintained with little to no cost or effort, and extended as the organisation’s purpose evolves.
“mySociety are brilliant to work with. They did in a month what I’ve seen others do in six, and they did it better” – Sara “Scout” Sinclair Brody, Simply Secure
What did the client think? In their own words: “We approached [mySociety] with a rush job to build a site for a complex and new effort.
“They were able to distill meaning from our shaky and stippled examples, and create something that demonstrated skill not only as designers and web architects, but as people able to grasp nuanced and complicated concepts and turn those into workable, representative interfaces”.
Always good to hear!
People who know mySociety’s work might have noticed that we don’t typically work on purely content-driven sites. Generally we opt to focus on making interactions simple, and data engaging, so why did we go ahead with the Simply Secure project?
Well, there were a couple of factors. Firstly, we genuinely think that this will become an invaluable service for every user of the internet, and as an organisation which puts usability above all else, we wanted to be involved.
Second, we believe in the people behind the project. Some of them are friends of mySociety’s, going back some time, and we feel pretty confident that any project they’re involved in will do good things, resulting in a more secure internet for everyone.
Take a look
Simply Secure launches today. We’ll be checking back in a couple of months to report on how it’s going.
June 23rd saw the soft launch of an innovative new tool that uses a Poplus Component as an integral part. It’s called Nouabook.ma and allows constituents in Morocco to contact their elected representatives, either through the website or while logged in to Facebook.
Nouabook is built on top of the WriteIt Poplus Component developed by Ciudadano Inteligente and connects into Facebook, one of the most used websites in Morocco. The group behind the site are SimSim-Participation Citoyenne and developer Tarik Nesh-Nash.
This is an exciting time for the whole Poplus network. The community has been going from strength to strength since the conference in April, and this tool, the first built by an external group using a Poplus Component, is a real sign that it is beginning to spread its wings.
And of course, because all Poplus Components are open-source, Nouabook is available for any other group to use! An exciting prospect as social media is such an important tool for communication in today’s society.
How did this project come about?
To decide the right approach, SimSim and Tarik conducted surveys of citizens throughout Morocco to find out how many had ever contacted their representatives. The results showed that of 80 respondents, 81% had never written to their representative. Yet 73% said that if it was easier to get in touch, they would be more likely to contact their representative, on issues ranging from public transport to security at Moroccan universities.
Couple this thirst for communication with the fact that Facebook is one of the most popular websites in Morocco , and the idea for Nouabook.ma was born.
Nouabook.ma (meaning “Your Deputies” in Moroccan Arabic, but also a reference to the well known Facebook) allows users to find their representative, read a profile on them including their roles and responsibilities, and see their activity in Parliament. Most crucially, it also allows users to publicly put questions directly to their representatives, who can respond equally publicly on the site. A user can submit a question either by filling in a short form, or uploading a short video. Other users can vote on their questions, meaning the representative can quickly see which questions are most important for their constituents and prioritise their answers. For those who have authorised it, the question is posted automatically to their Facebook page. By enabling users to easily share questions and responses on their own timeline, this helps to spread information beyond the boundaries of the original Nouabook.ma site.
The site is currently in Beta and a small group of very engaged hand-picked representatives have signed up for the site. Of these, there are 4 or 5 who are already getting very involved answering questions, which is a huge success for the site. Once the pilot phase is over, the hope is to extend the platform to cover the whole Moroccan Parliament, so keep your eyes peeled for news come the next Parliamentary session in October.
So far the site is only in French, but if you read French and want to give some feedback there’s a short form here which will help the team with their next stage of development. The site will soon be in Arabic as well.
Tablet Picture by ebayink courtesy of Flickr and the creative commons license.
They’ve been available for a little while, but we didn’t make a big fuss when they went live.
We often like to release our new products quietly. This gives us a chance to pick up on any problems and fix them before they go to a wider audience.
But now the apps are ready for more general use. So go for it!
A bit of background
We first released an iPhone FixMyStreet app back in 2008, which now seems reasonably fast off the blocks – the iPhone was only available in the UK from late 2007.
That app was followed by an Android one and, thanks to our volunteers, a Nokia app too.
Last year, we launched a new design for the main FixMyStreet website. Based as it is on ‘responsive design’ (where the site resizes itself according to the device it’s being viewed on), the site works elegantly within your mobile browser, so we were not too troubled by the fact that our apps had begun to date. People could simply go to www.FixMyStreet.com on their mobiles.
We removed those early apps from the Apple and Android marketplaces until we could allocate our resources to creating something better.
As you’ll know if you’ve accessed FixMyStreet from your phone’s browser, the website works just fine for most circumstances. But there are some times when only an app will do – our Developer Struan will explain more about that in a later post. He’ll also be looking at some of the design decisions we made.
So, what new features can you expect when you download the FixMyStreet app?
- Make reports even when you have no phone coverage Sometimes you’ll want to make a report even when you’re out of phone range. Your report will be saved in-app until you can send it off.
- Retains unfinished reports Close the app, lose power on your phone, get distracted and start something else.. none of it matters – your report will still be saved.
- Allows photographs Take a snap with your phone and attach it – or use an image you already have in your photo roll (you can add photos on the main website too, of course).
- Smooth, new design The look and feel is now in line with the main FixMyStreet website.
A note about Android
At the moment, the FixMyStreet app is only available for Android 4.1 onwards. Here’s why.
Developing for Apple devices is simpler than for Android, because there are only a handful of devices an app will be viewed on – the various iPhone versions, the iPads, and iPod Touch. Android, on the other hand, is used over a massively diverse range of phones, all with different capabilities.
For a small organisation like mySociety, it is hard to test the app across every single Android device, so we’ve taken the approach of releasing the app for the latest version.
We’ve had particular issues with photographs in earlier versions of Android – again, Struan will write more about this in a subsequent post – but we are still working on it. And don’t forget, as mentioned above, you can always access www.fixmystreet.com on your mobile browser for a totally optimised experience on any smart phone.
Shout-out to the testers
We want to give a massive “thank you” to all the people who helped us test the new app – your feedback has been so helpful at every stage of the build, and has informed the design decisions we’ve made.
In the middle of the 9th Century, the territories of mainland Britain were in constant flux, with power shifting between the established Anglo-Saxon kingdoms and Viking settlers.
Towards the end of the century, the battles and power shifts reached a kind of equilibrium, with Alfred King of Wessex and Guthrum the Danish warlord agreeing a treaty defining the boundaries of their kingdoms.
One of these boundaries was demarcated by Watling Street, an ancient trackway that stretched from Shrewsbury in the west of England to the Thames estuary in the east.
The boundaries of Britain are different today, but the vestiges of this ancient divide remain in the names of the places that surround us.
To illustrate this, mySociety has been working with the British Museum, with data sourced from the University of Nottingham’s Institute for Name-Studies. We’ve created a simple interactive map as part of their Vikings Live event to show the Norse influence on around 2,000 place names in different parts of the United Kingdom and Ireland.
For each place, we’re showing its etymology, a breakdown of the different elements that make up its name and a link to the nearest cinema that will be showing the British Museum’s Vikings Live—a private view of the BP exhibition Vikings: life and legend in the company of world experts, presented live in your local cinema.
So, for a completely different perspective of the place names near your home, head over to the British Museum’s site to explore the influence the Vikings had on the names where you live. And, next time you’re in a Thorpe, a Howe, a Kirkby, or even in Grunty Fen (our favourite place name), think of the Vikings who’ve left an indelible mark on the toponymy of the United Kingdom and Ireland.
There was some excitement here at mySociety this week, as the People’s Assembly website launched in South Africa. It’s the result of a year’s partnership with PMG and a good test of some of our newest collaborative software.
The site contains a vast amount of information, all available in the same place for the first time, and offering a simple way for South African citizens to keep an eye on what their representatives are doing. There are pages for each representative, Hansard and parliamentary Questions and Answers, records of members’ interests, and more.
Locating, processing and displaying this data was quite a challenge: it has been taken from a wide range of sources, and came in an even greater range of formats, including PDF documents, Word documents, Excel files, CSV files and sometimes just e-mailed lists of information.
But perhaps most significant is the site’s Representative Locator function. For the first time, South African citizens can now find out, with ease, who represents them – not as simple as it might seem at first.
The Proportional Representative system means that members of the National Assembly and National Council of Provinces are not directly elected from constituencies. Political parties are, however, funded to run constituency offices and to allocate representatives to those offices. We believe that this is the first time this data has been consolidated and presented as a simple search tool.
The software that runs the site
As you’ll know if you read our recent blog post about SayIt, our recent focus has been reaching out to provide software for civic or democratic-focused websites anywhere in the world.
The idea is that such groups no longer need worry about writing code from scratch, since we’ve already done it – and their energies can be better expended on gathering data or adjusting the software to work within the local governmental systems.
People’s Assembly is a great example of this. It utilises two underpinning pieces of technology:
Firstly, the Pombola platform, our software for running parliamentary monitoring websites.
If you’re reading this in the UK, you may be familiar with our own parliamentary monitoring site, TheyWorkForYou. Pombola provides several tools that make it easy to do much of what TheyWorkForYou does: it provides a structured database of the names and positions of those in power; it allows people to look up their elected representatives by inputting their location, and to isolate and see what a specific MP has contributed to discussions in Parliament’s committees and plenaries; albeit, in the case of Hansard, after a six-month delay necessitated by South Africa’s own protocols.
We first developed Pombola for Kenya’s Mzalendo.com, and it’s been re-used for ShineYourEye.org in Nigeria and Odekro.org in Ghana. It’s superb to see this re-use, as it’s exactly what we set out to acheive.
Secondly, People’s Assembly is the very first site to use SayIt, which is embedded as a Django app to power the Hansard, Questions and Committees content. SayIt is one of our Components, built under the Poplus project, and we’re truly delighted to see it in place, proving its worth and being used as we first envisaged.
Thanks are due
The main work on the People’s Assembly has been funded by the Indigo Trust, and the SayIt component work was funded by Google.org as part of the Poplus Project. We also wish to thank Geoff Kilpin, who helped greatly with the scrapers and templating.