When working with data that you didn’t set out to gather you have to be careful to think about what the data actually means, rather than what it seems to be saying. As an example, one of the “interesting” side effects of FixMyStreet is a database of places people have reported dog poop (or “dog fouling” as it tends to be called academically). We now have over 20,000 locations across the UK where nature’s call has both been heard, and reported.
My first thought when learning about this data was “that’s a lot of dog poop!” but it turns out 20,000 dog poops is not a lot of dog poop at all. There are an estimated 8.5 million dogs in the UK, assuming (on average) each one poops once a day, they’ll produce over 3.1 billion poops a year.
So actually, 20,000 poops over nine years is nothing compared to the amount of pooping going on. But just because our data is a drop in the bucket doesn’t mean we can’t learn interesting things from it. The first question to ask is if we have a representative sample of where all this dog fouling is going on. The answer, sadly, is no. But the reasons for that answer raise further questions – which is interesting!
When you map the location of dog poo complaints in England against the Index of Multiple Deprivation , you get this:
This tells us that reports about dog fouling are roughly parabolic – there are more in areas in the middle than those that are either very deprived or very not.
This is interesting because when Keep Britain Tidy actually went out into the world and checked (p. 14), they found this:
This graph tells a very different story, where dog fouling gets worse the more deprived the area. But why is this? And why doesn’t our data tell the same story?
One reason we would expect more dog poop in the most deprived areas is that the most deprived areas are more urban. Taking the same IMD deciles and using the ONS’s RUC categories to apply a eight point ‘ruralness’ scale (where 1 is ‘Urban major conurbation’ and 8 is ‘Rural village and dispersed in a sparse setting’) lets us see the average ‘ruralness’ of each decile. While this reflects that deprivation is spread across urban and rural areas – the most deprived areas tend to be more urban.
As urban areas have fewer natural places to dispose of dog waste, and the most deprived areas are more urban, we would expect the most deprived areas to have more dog fouling. We also know that measures that contribute to IMD scores (such as crime levels) are related to trust and social cohesion in an area. When social cohesion is lower, we would expect more dog fouling because owners feel less surveyed and are less concerned with the opinion of neighbours. The real world increase reported by the Keep Britain Tidy survey supports these relationships.
The drop off in our reported data compared to the real world can be explained by features of the general model for understanding FixMyStreet reports — some measures of deprivation are correlated with increased reports (because they relate to more problems) and others with decreased reports (because they hurt the ability or inclination of people to report). We would also expect areas with worse deprivation to have fewer reports because of disengagement with civic structures.
Quickly checking the English dog fouling data (so only 17,103 dog poops) against the same model confirms that significant relationships exist for the same deprivation indexes as the global dataset with the largest effect size of a measure of deprivation being for health – as health deprivation in an area goes up, reports of dog fouling increase.
What this tells us is that our dog data (and probably our data more generally) is clipped in areas of the highest deprivation. We’re not getting as many reports as the physical survey would suggest and so our data has very real limits in identifying the areas worse affected by a problem.
This is a lesson in being careful about interpreting datasets you pick up off the ground – if you used this data to conclude the most deprived areas had a similar dog poop problem to the least deprived areas you would be wrong. Because we have an independent source of the real world rate of problems, we can see there is a mismatch between distribution in reports and reality. Using this independent data of ‘actual problems’ for one of our categories makes us more aware that there is negative pressure on reports in highly deprived areas.
If you’d like to learn more about the history of dealing with dog poo on the street (and who wouldn’t want to learn more about that!) – I’ve very generously gone into more detail here.
: An index that combines thirty-seven indicators from seven domains (income, health, crime, etc) to provide a single figure for an area that is indicative of its level of deprivation relative to other areas.
:This is relative. Rural areas still have problems with bagged dog poo (“the ghastly dog poo bauble” hanging from branches – as MP Anne Main put it). There is also a risk to the health of cows from dog fouling in farmland – so there are unique rural dog poo problems.
: Ross et al. found “People who report living in neighborhoods with high levels of crime, vandalism, graffiti, danger, noise, and drugs are more mistrusting. The sense of powerlessness, which is common in such neighborhoods, amplifies the effect of neighborhood disorder on mistrust.”
Header image: https://www.flickr.com/photos/scottlowe/3931408440/
It’s a little-known fact that FixMyStreet was originally called Neighbourhood Fix-It. Launching the site was a good idea, but changing that name may be the next best thing we ever did.
Ten years on, the site has processed over 900,000 reports, sending them to every local authority in the UK. In doing so, it helps citizens take an active part in keeping their own local communities clean, safe and functional. Meanwhile it ensures that you, the user, never have to give a second thought to which council needs to receive which type of report.
It’s been adopted as several councils’ primary fault-reporting interface on their own websites, from Bristol to Oxfordshire and even Zürich, and we’ve worked in partnership with these authorities to develop new features that make it as useful and simple to use as possible. Watch this space, as we’ll be talking a lot more about these soon.
FixMyStreet continues to surprise even us. Thanks to its remarkable flexibility, the codebase has also been used to underpin a number of other projects, including Collideoscope, where you can report cycling collisions and near misses, and the Channel 4 tie-in, the Empty Homes Spotter. We know there will be many more to come.
So, here’s to FixMyStreet. At heart, it’s a little site that matches a pin on a map with the body that’s responsible for that location. But when you consider what it’s achieved — getting communities fixed up, making council reporting interfaces more user-friendly, empowering people to take their first steps into local participation, even challenging corruption — well, we hope you’ll see why we’re proud of how far FixMyStreet has come.
You might already be enjoying one of the usability improvements that FixMyStreet version 2.0 has brought, though it’s possible that you haven’t given it much thought.
But for FixMyStreet, we hadn’t given much thought to letting you filter reports by more than one dimension, until Oxfordshire County Council suggested that it would be a useful feature.
For quite some time, you’d been able to filter by category and status (“Show me all pothole reports” or “Show me all ‘unfixed’ reports”), but this new functionality is more flexible.
You can now select multiple categories and multiple statuses simultaneously (“show me all pothole and graffiti reports that are unfixed or in progress”) — and all through the power of tickboxes.
If you’re a non-technical person, that’s all you need to know: just enjoy the additional flexibility next time you visit FixMyStreet. But if you are a coder, you might like to read more about how we achieved this feature: for you, Matthew has written about it over on the FixMyStreet Platform blog.
If you’ve used FixMyStreet recently — either to make a report, or as a member of a council who receives the reports — you might have noticed that the site’s automated emails are looking a lot more swish.
Where previously those emails were plain text, we’ve now upgraded to HTML, with all the design possibilities that this implies.
It’s all part of the improvements ushered in by FixMyStreet Version 2.0, which we listed, in full, in our recent blog post. If you’d like a little more technical detail about some of the thought and solutions that went into this switch to HTML, Matthew has obliged with in a blog post over on FixMyStreet.org.
I’m just a few weeks into my position of Research Associate at mySociety and one of the things I’m really enjoying is the really, really interesting datasets I get to play with.
Take FixMyStreet, the site that allows you to report street issues anywhere in the UK. Councils themselves will only hold data for the issues reported within their own boundaries, but FixMyStreet covers all local authorities, so we’ve ended up with probably the most comprehensive database in the country. We have 20,000 reports about dog poop alone.
Now if you’re me, what to do with all that data? Obviously, you’d want to do something with the dog poop data. But you’d try something a bit more worthy first: that way people won’t ask too many questions about your fascination there. Misdirection.
How does it compare?
So, starting with worthy uses for that massive pile of data, I’ve tried to see how the number of reports in an area compares against other statistics we know about the UK. Grouping reports into ONS-defined areas of around 1,500 people, we can match the number of reports within an area each year against other datasets.
To start with I’m just looking at English data (Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have slightly different sets of official statistics that can’t be combined) for the years 2011-2015. I used population density information, how many companies registered in the area, if there’s a railway station, OFCOM stats on broadband and mobile-internet speeds, and components from the indices of multiple deprivation (various measures of how ‘deprived’ an area is, such as poor health, poor education prospects, poor air quality, etc) to try and build a model that predicts how many reports an area will get.
The good news: statistically we can definitely say that some of those things have an effect! Some measures of deprivation make reports go up, others make it go down. Broadband and mobile access makes them go up! Population density and health deprivation makes them go down.
The bad news: my model only explains 10% of the actual reports we received, and most of this isn’t explained by the social factors above but aspects of the platform itself. Just telling the model that the platform has got more successful over time, which councils use FixMyStreet for Councils for their official reporting platform (and so gather more reports) and where our most active users are (who submit a disproportionate amount of the total reports) accounts for 7-8% of what the model explains.
What that means is that most reasons people are and aren’t making reports is unexplained by those factors. So for the moment this model is useful for building a theory, but is far from a comprehensive account of why people report problems.
Here’s my rough model for understanding what drives areas to submit a significantly higher number of reports to FixMyStreet:
- An area must have a problem
Measures of deprivation like the ‘wider barriers to housing deprivation’ metric (this includes indicators on overcrowding and homelessness) as well as crime are associated with an increase in the number of reports. The more problems there are, the more likely a report is — so deprivation indicators we’d imagine would go alongside other problems are a good proxy for this.
- A citizen must be willing or able to report the problem
Areas with worse levels of health deprivation and adult skills deprivation are correlated with lower levels of reports. These indicators might suggest citizens less able to engage with official structures, hence fewer reports in these areas.
People also need to be aware of a problem. The number of companies in an area, or the presence of a railway station both increase the number of reports. I use these as a proxy for foot-traffic – where more people might encounter a problem and report it.
Population density is correlated with decreased reports which might suggest a “someone else’s problem” effect – a slightly decreased willingness to report in built-up areas where you think someone else might well make a report.
- A citizen must be able to use the website
As an online platform, FixMyStreet requires people to have access to the website before they can make a report. The less friction in this experience makes it more likely a report will be made.
This is consistent with the fact that an increased number of slow and fast home broadband connections (and fast more than slow ones) increases reports. This is also consistent with the fact that increased 3G signal in premises is correlated with increased requests.
Reporting problems on mobile will sometimes be easier than turning on the computer, and we’d expect areas where people more habitually use mobiles for internet access to have a higher number of reports than broadband access alone would suggest. If it’s slightly easier, we’d expect slightly more – which is what this weak correlation suggests.
Not all variables my model includes are significant or fit neatly into this model. These are likely working as proxy indicators for currently unaccounted for, but related factors.
I struggle, for instance, to come up with a good theory why measures of education deprivation for young people are associated with an increase in reports. I looked to see if there was a connection between an area having a school and having more reports on the basis of foot-traffic and parents feeling protective over an area – but I didn’t find an effect for schools like I did for registered companies.
So at the moment, these results are a mix of “a-hah, that makes sense” and “hmm, that doesn’t”. But given that we started with a dataset of people reporting dog poop, that’s not a terrible ratio at this point. Expanding the analysis into Scotland and Wales, analysing larger areas, or focusing on specific categories of reports might produce models that explain a bit more about what’s going on when people report what’s going wrong.
I’ll let you know how that goes.
This year, Bristol Council did something unusual and admirable. As far as we’re aware, they’re the first UK council to have taken such a step.
Working with mySociety on custom Open311 ‘middleware’ while adopting FixMyStreet as their fault-reporting system, they now enjoy full flexibility, no matter what the future holds.
Thanks to this open approach, Bristol will extract more value from their existing systems and lower operating costs. With integrated, open solutions, and the raised quality of report formatting that Open311 brings, everyone will benefit.
Councils are increasingly understanding the value of flexibility when it comes to service providers.
Contracts that lock them into a single provider for many years mean that, often, there’s no opportunity to benefit when technology advances, and disproportionate costs can be charged for implementing the slightest changes.
This desire for flexibility was a strong factor in Bristol City Council’s decision to adopt FixMyStreet for Councils — and that opened the door for a conversation about Open311.
We’ve always advocated integration via Open311, to the extent that we offer free hook-up with FixMyStreet to any councils who support it.
Because Open311 is an open standard, it supports the entire landscape of providers like FixMyStreet. Right now, Bristol can accept street fault reports not just from us, but from a full range of services — in other words, any site or app that cares to connect with them can do so. No-one knows what the future will hold: if a game-changing system emerges in the future, it makes sense that you’d be able to accept its reports.
All well and good: but when Bristol City Council implemented FixMyStreet as their fault-reporting system, the concept was taken a little bit further. With our collaboration, Bristol created their own Open311 ‘middleware’, sitting between the two systems and talking to both.
Via this method, their existing CMS, Confirm, can hook up to reports coming through from FixMyStreet. That all works smoothly — but, just as importantly, if Bristol ever decide to replace their CRM provider, they’ll be able to do so with no knock-on effect to FixMyStreet reports. And if they ever decide to replace FixMyStreet with a different provider, or indeed to accept reports from a range of providers, they can do that too.
Bristol found us via the GCloud procurement system, and are the first metropolitan unitary authority to install FixMyStreet.
Bristol launched its FixMyStreet service to the public in the summer of 2016.
This autumn, they added asset-based reporting, meaning that known council properties such as streetlights, grit bins and gullies are all marked on FixMyStreet’s maps. Residents can pinpoint and report the location of faults with these assets far more accurately as a result.
There’ll be a phased rollout across departments, starting with Highways and moving across departments as Bristol extend their own middleware. We’ll be watching with great interest.
It’s been a while since we looked in on Collideoscope, our project for reporting and collating data on cycling collisions and near misses, developed in collaboration with ITP. But what better time than now, when days are short and accidents have unfortunately, as always at this time of year, taken a sharp upturn.
So, let’s have a catch-up, and a reminder that you should use the service. Of course, we hope you won’t experience any problems, but remember that Collideoscope is there if you do.
Previously on Collideoscope…
As you may recall, Collideoscope is a site for reporting cycling incidents, collisions and near misses. Because it’s built on the FixMyStreet platform, it offers all the same functionality for the user: it’ll help you to pinpoint the precise location of the incident you’re reporting, and then send the details off to the relevant authorities.
When cyclists make a report, they’re contributing to an open dataset that improves the quality of the evidence base on cycling incidents.
While FixMyStreet sends reports off to councils, Collideoscope sends reports to local authorities’ highways departments, with the aim of highlighting potential accident blackspots.
The data, after going through an anonymisation process, is also shared with campaign groups.
Finally, the anonymised data is also available for anyone to download via Socrata, to be used for any purpose. One potential project we’d love to see, for example, would be route-planning applications to help cyclists avoid going through areas with a high density of incidents.
The data is also available to researchers, town planners and the police: when cyclists make a report, they’re contributing to an open dataset that improves the quality of the evidence base on cycling incidents.
So, that’s the model. Let’s have a look at how well it has stood up.
Collideoscope launched in October 2014 and users have thus far made a total of 1,195 reports.
In order to provide a more complete dataset with the clearest possible indicators of accident hotspots, we also imported STATS19 data from the annually-updated open police database of accidents, meaning that Collideoscope now contains data points on over 20,000 incidents across the UK.
Here’s what we’ve learned
Steering a project from concept to reality is always a learning process. Here are some of the key lessons that emerged:
- Collideoscope sends each report to authorities as it is submitted. It became clear that a bulk dataset would be easier for highways authorities to handle and to draw conclusions from, and this is now available.
- Originally, we’d believed that it would be useful if Collideoscope could forward reports to local police forces, so that they could be actioned where suitable. However, this proved impractical, because the Road Traffic Act states that collisions must be reported to a police officer in person. Collideoscope’s data would not be sufficient for police to take action on those cases which merited it.
- There was some concern that reports made via Collideoscope would replicate, rather than complement, the police force’s official STATS19 data. Happily, once enough reports had come into Collideoscope, a comparison was run and found that there is very little overlap between the two datasets.
While STATS19 data tends to cover serious incidents, it doesn’t hold much on the near miss or minor incidents that Collideoscope encourages users to also report — and which make up 90% of the Collideoscope database. One of the underlying beliefs behind Collideoscope has always been that near miss data can tell us a lot about accident prevention.
ITP have now stepped away from Collideoscope: we’re extremely grateful for their collaboration and support with the development and running of Collideoscope in its first couple of years. This move will mean that we can pursue funding from charitable grant foundations.
As you may recall from prior updates, the site was also supported by the Barts Bespoke campaign, a multi-pronged initiative to reduce accidents for cyclists. This support, and a further research grant from the Department for Transport, came to an end last month. As a result, we’ll no longer be asking people about injuries sustained when they file a Collideoscope report.
Collideoscope will keep on rolling: we’re open to potential partners and have plenty of ideas for further development, including the possibility of a public API, or incident-reporting forms that could be placed on any website.
If you’re from a local government, third sector or private company, and you’re interested in using Collideoscope data to enable better decision making on cycle safety, this’d be a great time to get in touch.
The FixMyStreet codebase is used all over the world by people running versions of the site for their own country or jurisdiction. This week, we’re proud to announce the release of FixMyStreet version 2.0.
This version contains a wide array of new features that benefit FixMyStreet sites’ users, administrators, and the officials who receive reports. They include elements that the UK FixMyStreet was the first to trial, such as nicer-looking HTML emails for users and authorities, the ability to filter reports by multiple states and categories, a new admin user system with graduated permissions, and various bugfixes and development improvements.
Over the next few weeks, we’ll be publishing a series of blog posts over on fixmystreet.org/blog/, examining the changes in detail. If you run a FixMyStreet site, or you’re just interested in coding and technical issues, you may find them of interest. Meanwhile, here’s the broad overview.
New front-end features
HTML email: There is now the option for all emails sent by FixMyStreet to be HTML formatted where previously they were plain text only. This includes confirmation and questionnaire emails to the user, and report emails to the public body. These emails include any image added to the report, plus a small static map of the problem’s location.
State/category filtering and sorting of list pages: When viewing a list of reports, you can now filter and sort them in pretty much any way you choose, including sorting by most- or least-recently updated, newest or oldest, or most commented. You can also select multiple categories or states (e.g. “fixed”).
Pretty area highlighting on body pages: The highlighting of areas on a body page has been inverted, so that the unimportant parts of the map are shaded and you can interact more easily with reports on the page.
- Users can now update their own email address This was a frequent request from users and we’re glad to report that they can now do it themselves on their account page.
Performance improvements: When looking at reports from a list page, the other report pins stay visible so that it is easier to switch between them. The report itself is being pulled in behind the scenes, meaning the whole page does not need to reload. The map no longer extends underneath the sidebar and header, which makes things easier, and a scroll wheel can now zoom the map in and out.
Making privacy options clearer: The reporting form has been separated into public and private sections, to make it clearer which parts of what you provide will be made visible on the site.
Showing the relevant recipient: If you live in an area where there’s more than one body, the category you pick normally dictates which body we send your report to. Now, when you select the category we update the name of the body given at the top of the report page, if we know that the report will be sent there.
New admin user system
Admin users can now use the same log-in right across the site – whether they’re making a report like a standard user, or logging in to make edits and moderate the site.
In the past, the distinction between admin and other users was black and white. As an admin user, you had access to every part of the site, but users can now be given individual permissions for various layers of access. These include:
- Proxy users This layer grants the ability to create a report or update on behalf of a body, or as another user. We envisage this being useful in a body’s contact centre, where they receive a report over a phone and enter it into FixMyStreet as that user;
- Report editors Giving the power to edit a report’s category, state, or location. If the admin user changes the category, and that change means that a different body is now responsible for the report, it will be re-sent;
- List makers, who can compile their own shortlist of reports they wish to go and inspect. This may be useful for a contractor or team who wishes to compile the day’s tasks;
- Quick responders These users have access to response templates, allowing them to edit and publish templated updates;
- Prioritisers These users may set different priorities on reports;
- Trusted users A simple reputation system, which e.g. potentially lets reports from trusted users be actioned more quickly.
The admin report edit form has also been greatly improved, including a map to update a report’s location (and re-sending the report if the body changes), and much tidier layout.
Bugfixes and development changes
Bugfixes include updating the top-level domain (TLD) list for email validation, hiding authorities which don’t exist any more on the all reports page, and fixing the previously-broken photo preview display after form submission. We have dropped support for Internet Explorer 6.
If you’re a re-user of the codebase, there are a number of changes that will hopefully help you out. See the extended version of this blog post on fixmystreet.org for more details.
- HTML email: There is now the option for all emails sent by FixMyStreet to be HTML formatted where previously they were plain text only. This includes confirmation and questionnaire emails to the user, and report emails to the public body. These emails include any image added to the report, plus a small static map of the problem’s location.
When we talk to the users of our sites, sometimes there’s no remarkable tale to tell — just a day-to-day story of how someone is making a small but persistent positive change in their community.
Every month, around 7,500 people use FixMyStreet to help improve their neighbourhoods: getting potholes fixed, making dangerous pavements safer, or — as in the case of Van Tri Nguyen from Norbury, requesting the removal of unsightly rubbish and fly-tipping.
As Mr Nguyen told us, he first heard about FixMyStreet at a local association meeting.
“In front of my house there is a big park. It’s frequented by a lot of people, and particularly at night a lot of things happen there — and mountains of litter are left behind.
“Rubbish accumulates, not inside the park but on the road in front of it — just opposite my house! People just dump stuff from their car windows. There are three lime trees which I often find decorated around their base with rubbish, on average once a fortnight, but sometimes as many as three or four times a week.
“Once fly-tippers came and left an entire truckload of stuff. This road really is just a dumping ground, and while Croydon Council are aware of the problem, no-one has been brave enough to take a grip and get it sorted out.
“I reported the eyesore, both on FixMyStreet and to Croydon Council. I believe that when reports are published online, the council may feel some kind of pressure and ashamed.
“The results have been good. Right now, the road is reasonably clean.”
We’re sure that Mr Nguyen will continue to be the good citizen who takes action and reports rubbish as it reoccurs. He’s telling others, too:
“I’ve already spread the word to people who seem to care about the environment where they live.”
Some before shots
All images: Van Tri Nguyen
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