If you’ve got a problem with your planning applications, we’ve got a little something for you…
Back in September, we wrote about our project with Hampshire Hub to build a prototype, open source web application that would help members of the public find out more about planning applications in their area:
The planning process can be baffling if you’re new to it and this tool aims to help make it easier to understand. We’ll be helping people answer some of the most common questions they have about planning applications: What applications are happening near me? What decisions have been made in the past on applications like mine? How likely is it that my application will be dealt with on time?
The site helps people browse planning application data by location — whether a postcode or a street address — and by type — whether it’s an extension, a loft conversion, or a major development like a retail park or commercial warehouse.
That project can now be seen at http://openplanning.hampshirehub.net/: go and have a poke around!
How it works
OpenPlanning displays planning applications clearly on a map. Users can browse their local area and learn more about how to complete their own request by looking at the success or failure of what has gone before.
This benefits everyone, from residents who are less likely to have their applications turned down, to the council who will find themselves dealing with higher-quality submissions.
By aggregating planning application details from multiple councils, the site allows users to browse irrespective of administrative boundaries or the authority in charge. After all, neither of those considerations are very high on the list of the resident’s priorities.
There’s nothing new about putting planning applications online, of course: they can already be browsed and submitted in many places across the web. This project isn’t hoping to replace those tools, but to complement them, providing links to existing data sources where possible, all accessible via a much more user-friendly interface.
We know many councils and residents struggle with planning applications on a daily basis, and we hope that OpenPlanning will provide the first step towards making the whole process easier for all parties.
The future for OpenPlanning
OpenPlanning is the first iteration of a new product. At this early stage, we haven’t included a facility to submit a planning application – that’s something we could slot in cost-effectively at a later phase though, and of course we’d be happy to hear from any councils who would be interested in adopting that approach.
The code is based on Open Australia Foundation’s PlanningAlerts platform, which means it’s already been tried and tested by a wide community down under. It’s still under active development and, thanks to the joys of Open Source code, we’ll be able to contribute improvements back to the original codebase too.
We’ve really enjoyed working with Hampshire Hub: a forward-thinking partnership of councils and other public organisations, led by Hampshire County Council, which aims to provide useful open data for the county. Hampshire understands the benefits, both direct and indirect, of open source tools and open data.
Now we’re seeking local councils who are struggling with the quality of planning applications, perhaps processing large volumes of applications that are not granted. If that sounds like you then please get in touch to speak to mySociety Services about what OpenPlanning can do for you.
Remember the UK General Election? Yes, we know it’s a distant memory now, and you’ve probably forgotten YourNextMP, too. But the project is far from dormant!
YourNextMP successfully crowd-sourced information on every election candidate, and made it available as open data for anyone who wanted to use it to build useful websites and online tools.
And while here in the UK we won’t have further use for it until 2020, the great news is that the underlying code can be repurposed to work for other elections around the world. Thanks to Yo Quiero Saber, the first of these is now live and collecting data for Argentina at http://investigacion.yoquierosaber.org/, and there are also plans for DataMade Chicago to use it in the USA.
In Argentina, the crowdsourcing component sits as part of a wider voter informing project. Martín Szyszlican from Yo Quiero Saber explains more:
We just launched Yo Quiero Saber and it’s had a great reception. You’re welcome to visit our main site, where we feature the game and full profiles for candidates for presidency and governors of four provinces.
You can also see our YourNextRepresentative instance (we renamed it, since MP is not a relevant term for us) where, in just two weeks, we’ve already had more than 100 registered users, and have also managed to add all the official candidates from DINE (the national elections office).
We’re still missing city-level and provincial-level candidates from the site, but that’s going to be improved before the October general elections.
So far, we’ve had 350,000 unique users and a million page views since launch. That means we are close to reaching 1% of the total number of voters in the country. Neatly, the number of people who have used the site is roughly equivalent to the number of voters a party needs to pass from this election to the next ones.
Media reception has been great with online portals big, small and regional mentioning our site and some of them embedding our game in their articles. We’ve also been kept busy with radio interviews and some tv programmes featuring the game. In Argentina, the media is deeply split down party lines, and we very much like the fact that we’ve surfed that divide, being featured in media from both sides of the political spectrum.
This is just the beginning: we’re working as an alliance of local NGOs, and our bid for a prototype grant from the Knight Foundation has been successful, meaning that we can forge ahead with our plans. We’ve also had support from HacksLabs, a data journalism accelerator. The full list of partners can be found on the footer of both sites.
We’re really glad to hear of this success—it’s great to see the code get another lease of life, which is, of course, what the Poplus project is all about.
Naturally, the YourNextRepresentative codebase also available to other countries who want to help inform their electorates, and what’s more, Martín says they’ll be glad to offer help to anyone who wants it. That goes for us here at mySociety too.
From Afghanistan to Zimbabwe, there are over 180 parliaments in the world — but what percentage of their members are female?
The crazy thing is, there’s no definitive figure*.
So we created Gender Balance, an easy game that crowd-sources gender data across every parliament in the world. Try it! We hope you’ll find it fun.
Gender Balance isn’t just an enjoyable way to fill half an hour, though: users will be helping to build up a dataset that will be useful for researchers, campaigners, politicians, and sociologists. As the results emerge, we’ll be making them available in an open format for anyone to use, to answer questions like:
- Which country has the highest proportion of women in parliament?
- Do women vote differently on issues like defence, the environment, or maternity benefits?
- Exactly when did women come into power in different countries, and did their presence change the way the country was run?
Gender Balance’s underlying data comes from another mySociety project—EveryPolitician, a database which aims to collect information on every politician in the world.
And while it’s nailing down those stats on gender balance across every country, Gender Balance also aims to be a showcase of what can be done with the open data from EveryPolitician. That data is free for anyone who wants to build tools like this, and it’s easy to use, too. Find out more about that here.
*While the Inter-Parliamentary Union does collect figures, they are self-reported, often out of date, and only cover its own members.
La Constitución De Todos allows citizens to discuss, vote on and propose changes to each article of the constitution online, using code that originates from Morocco’s Legislation Lab from GovRight.
The launch comes in the context of the new Chilean president announcing that there will be a widespread public consultation on a constitution for the nation.
The two organisations might never have met, if it hadn’t been for the Poplus kick-off conference back in 2014, where the idea was first mooted, and GovRight stepped in to offer help.
The Poplus federation was founded on the idea that sharing civic code and knowledge can benefit organisations worldwide: this project is another superb example of exactly that.
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.