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?
We’ve just put together a brand spanking new page of downloadable FixMyStreet goodies.
Ever tried to explain FixMyStreet to a friend? Well, now you can thrust a flyer into their hand instead – much easier, and you know they won’t forget the web address.
Our goodies page includes all sorts of materials, including:
- posters and flyers to print out at home
- worksheets with ideas for schools or community groups
- print-out doggy poop flags (…yes!)
- artwork and articles that can go in community newsletters
We hope you will enjoy them – and, of course, we really appreciate each and every time someone makes the effort to help us spread the word about FixMyStreet.
As a small charity, we don’t have the kind of marketing budget to allow us to buy billboards or TV advertising, so this kind of help is incredibly useful to us.
We’re also considering putting together a small online shop selling physical items in the future, too: batches of FixMyStreet postcards, mugs, hats, bags, etc.
Let us know if you’d be interested in things like this – or any other bright ideas for other FixMyStreet-branded goodies you’d like to see. This is a new area for us, and we’re open to suggestions!
All well and good, but mySociety’s developers don’t just roll out the big stuff. Smaller releases are happening all the time, and, as a bunch of them have all come at once, we’ve put together a round-up.
Oh – and it’s worth saying that your feedback helps us prioritise what we work on. If you’re using any of our software, either as an implementer or a front-end user, and there’s something you think could be better, we hope you’ll drop us a line.
Here’s what we’ve been doing lately:
We’ve just released version 1.2 of our postcodes-to-boundaries software.
The new version adds Django 1.7 and Python 3 support, as well as other minor improvements.
The latest version of our transcript-publishing software, 1.3, adds mainstream support for import from fellow component PopIt (or any Popolo data source). That’s key to making it a truly interoperable Poplus Component.
SayIt is now also available in Spanish. Additionally, there are improvements around Speakers and Sections, plus this release includes OpenGraph data.
Many thanks to James of Open North, who contributed improvements to our Akoma Ntoso import.
Our software for storing, publishing and sharing lists of politicians now has multi-language support in the web-based editing interface as well at the API level.
Release 0.20 of our Freedom of Information platform sees improvements both to the Admin interface and to the front-end user experience.
Administrators will be pleased to find easier ways to deal with spammy requests for new authorities, and manage the categories and headings that are used to distinguish different types of authority; users should enjoy a smoother path to making a new request.
Version 1.5 of the FixMyStreet platform fully supports the new Long Term Support (LTS) version of Ubuntu, Trusty Tahr 14.04.
Four new languages – Albanian, Bulgarian, Hebrew, and Ukranian – have been added. There are also some improvements across both admin and the front-end design, and a couple of bugs have been fixed.
Whatever mySociety or Poplus software you’re deploying, we hope these improvements make life easier. Please do stay in touch – your feedback is always useful, whether it’s via the Poplus mailing list (MapIt, PopIt, SayIt), the FixMyStreet community or the Alaveteli community.
In a recent blog post, we summarised the research we commissioned from the University of Manchester’s Rachel Gibson, Marta Cantijoch and Silvia Galandini, on whether or not our core UK websites have an impact.
The full research paper is now available, and you can download it here .
Professor Rachel Gibson says: “This research presents a unique and valuable insight into the users of online resources such as FixMyStreet and WhatDoTheyKnow.
“Through applying a highly original methodology that combines quantitative and in-depth qualitative data about people’s experience of mySociety sites over time, we provide a picture of how eDemocracy tools are contributing to activism at the local level.
“We thank all those that contributed to this important study and mySociety for their co-operation in developing this highly rewarding and academically rigorous project.”
Our thanks to Rachel, Marta and Silvia for conducting this research, which utilised methods not previously used in the civic tech field. We hope that it will prove a useful foundation to our own further research, and that of others.
Beautifully crafted prose: it’s not generally the first thing on your mind when you’re contacting the council about potholes, overflowing bins, or a faulty streetlight.
And yet, some FixMyStreet users clearly take a certain delight in the art. Today, we’d like to bring you ten FixMyStreet reports that go above and beyond the usual calibre of citizen-to-council communication, and ascend almost to the level of… dare we say, art?
1. The clanking manhole
Last night I conjured a horde of Spartan warriors smashing their shields with copies of the Highway Code. I believe that’s what they call an involuntary metaphor.
Michael bought a flat near the main road. He didn’t mind, until one day, a manhole started clanking… and clanking… Read the whole report here.
2. The missing road sign
The posts designed to proudly hold aloft the road name, guiding lost wanderers towards their destination, stand forlornly, relics from a forgotten age, their purpose lost to the mists of time.
The initial report is nothing out of the ordinary – it’s in the updates that this Hythe resident starts really going to town. Read the whole report here.
3. Roland Rat
Ten days on, he stinks and if he gets any flatter from vehicles running over him, I’ll stick a stamp on him and post him.
A concerned citizen of Appledore left a dead rat in situ, just to see what would happen. Read the full report here.
Maybe laid by a new breed of super dog. It is still steaming and has been there for weeks.
Need we explain the context for this one? In fact, there’s little more to it than you see quoted above, but with imagery like that, who needs reams of prose? See the whole report here.
5. Battling gulls of Cardiff
Splattered birds on the road, presumably […] too exhausted after battling with piercing the hardy black plastic, to get to the riches within, to attempt fly away to safety.
This anonymous user was fed up with seeing residents put food out in their rubbish, attracting gulls. Read the whole report here.
6. With a little imagination, any street fault can be a boon
I have had my windows open fantasising that I am living on an Italian Piazza with an enormous fountain at its centre.
One Fulham resident reports a leak; a commenter urges them not to fix it. See the full report here.
7. Are clowns made of balloons?
It looks like a clown has exploded
In an otherwise standard report, a Nottingham resident pulls out this extraordinary turn of phrase to describe the detritus left after a water balloon fight. Read the full report here.
8. Happy Easter
PLEASE stop moving the bin. PLEASE keep it in ONE place *next* to the path. Not a meter away from the path, not two meters away from the path and not in the daffodils against the wall, but actually next to the path where people can reach it.
Actually, it’s not the main body of this Coldstream report itself; it’s more the polite sign-off coming straight after a rant. Very British. Read the full report here.
9. A poor, innocent mini roundabout sign
If I didn’t know better, I’d worry [it] had been done by the Incredible Hulk after someone had made him very angry.
This Brighton mini roundabout sign has a few worries. Read the full report here.
10. Stinky bin
A bin here smells like the devil’s halitosis
Another wonderful turn of phrase from a Plymouth FixMyStreet user in this short, but amply descriptive, post. See the full report here.
You don’t have to be a great author to make a report on FixMyStreet
Your prose may not be as purple as in the examples above, but that doesn’t matter.
In fact, if you keep reports clear, polite, and accurate, you’ll still run a good chance of getting things fixed.
Giving council workers – and FixMyStreet readers – a good laugh? That’s optional.
If you run a Facebook page or group for a local community, you might like to add a FixMyStreet feed. This will publish recent reports, made within the geographic area that you define, as posts on your Facebook page, like this:
Adding a FixMyStreet feed to your Facebook page is not difficult, but you do need to be an administrator for the page you want it on.
Also, it is a multi-step procedure. In other words, you might like to fetch yourself a cup of tea before following along with the instructions below.
Here’s what to do:
1. Visit FixMyStreet.com and locate the area you want a feed for
Does your Facebook page deal with a particular city or town, or an area within that town?
You’ll probably want to publish the FixMyStreet reports that are made within that area. The wider the area you choose, the more reports you will be publishing, so think carefully about what your followers will actually want to see on your Facebook stream.
Once you’ve decided, locate that area on FixMyStreet by putting a postcode or place name into the box on the homepage. It doesn’t need to be precise; you just need to locate any spot within the area that you want to cover.
You’ll be taken to a page showing all recent reports for the surrounding area.
Don’t worry if this isn’t the exact area that you want your feed to cover, so long as you’re at a point within that area – we’re going to refine that in the next step.
You can click and drag the map or zoom in and out if you’re not quite within the area that you want to be.
2. Create your feed
At the very foot of the FixMyStreet page, below the list of reports on the left, you’ll see a little icon marked “get updates”. Click on this.
You now have the choice of several options. You can get a feed for:
– All problems reported within 2km, 5km, 10km or 20km, or within a population of roughly 200,000 people
– All problems reported to your local council
– All problems reported within the ward of your council
Choose which option most closely matches the area that your Facebook page deals with, and click the green button marked ‘Give me an RSS feed’.
3. Grab the URL
Your feed page will look something like this:
It’s basically just the data from FixMyStreet, with none of the site’s styling or functionality around it. This is what we need Facebook to grab and publish on your page.
You will need the URL (web address) of this page in a short while – just keep it open while you go through the next steps.
4. Log into Facebook
You don’t need to be logged in as the page that you want the feed on; it’s fine just to be logged in as yourself, the administrator of that page.
5. Connect an RSS app to your Facebook page In order to publish FixMyStreet reports, you’ll be using what’s called an RSS feed – a stream of data that can be picked up and published anywhere else. In this case, the data stream is found on what you saw in step 3: the ‘bare bones’ FixMyStreet page; and the target for publication is your Facebook page.
Facebook itself does not provide a way to publish RSS feeds, so we’re going to use a third-party app. The one we’ve identified is called RSS Graffiti and you can find it here.
RSS Graffiti have created a video to demonstrate the following steps (and I’ve also explained them in writing below, with specific instructions for using FixMyStreet as a source):
Install this app by clicking ‘OK’ on each of the three permissions pop-ups.
6. Set up your feed
Click on ‘Create publishing plan’. Give your plan a name – ‘FixMyStreet’ is the obvious one in this case.
Every publishing plan needs a source (where the data is coming from) and a target (where it will be published).
Your source is that web address we found on FixMyStreet earlier. Click on ‘new source’ and enter it into the URL box. You’ll need to take out the http://www portion of the web address, so that it just starts with ‘fixmystreet.com‘ – so for example, mine might be fixmystreet.com/rss/reports/Brighton+and+Hove.
Click ‘add source’ and wait. I found that this stage sometimes times out, but succeeds eventually if you try again.
Now you can set up your feed however you like it – or just leave the defaults in place. Don’t worry too much, though, because you can come back and tweak all the settings at any time.
This interface allows you to pick a title for your feed, and add a message to every item it publishes: probably a good idea, because it helps give context to these posts that are going to appear in your Facebook stream.
FixMyStreet reports are often written in the first person, so if they appear without a title or explanation, they may look as if they are posts from you yourself – take a look at the example at the top of this post and you’ll see what I mean.
While you are in this interface, you may wish to set a maximum number for how many posts can be made at once.
In the area I chose, we only get about one report a fortnight, so the quantity isn’t really a concern – but if you are covering a large geographical area, consider placing a cap on the number.
Note that your feed will not start publishing out until the next report is made on FixMyStreet, unless you select a start date that is in the past – you can do this on the ‘advanced’ tab.
Save your settings. Now it’s time to set the target – the page that your feed will be published on.
Click ‘new target’ and choose ‘Facebook’.
You’ll then be given a list of all your Facebook pages. These will include your own personal page, and any page that you have admin rights for.
There are some formatting options – I just went for the default – and then click ‘save changes’.
Just one final step: you need to click the ‘OFF’ button to change it to ‘ON’, and set your feed running. You can return to this page at anytime to set it back to ‘OFF’ if you so desire.
RSS Graffiti say that it can take up to 30 minutes for your feed to start publishing onto your page – in my experiments, I found that it was actually quite a bit longer than this, but when I returned the next day, it had started working.
Do let us know in the comments below if you go ahead and install this functionality – plus any tips you might have.
By the way, you can use this method to publish any RSS feed to your Facebook page, so you could also publish anything from blog posts to YouTube videos, so long as you can find the RSS source, which is usually signaled by that little orange icon:
What impact do mySociety sites actually have? We could lose a lot of sleep over this important question – or we could do something concrete, like conducting academic research to nail the answers down for once and for all.
As slumber enthusiasts, we went for the research option – and, to help us with this commitment we’ve recently taken on a new Head of Research, Rebecca Rumbul. Watch this space as she probes more deeply into whether our tools are making a difference, both in the UK and abroad.
Even before Rebecca came on board, though, we had set a couple of research projects in motion. One of those was in partnership with the University of Manchester, funded by the ESRC, which sought to understand what impact our core UK sites (FixMyStreet, WriteToThem, TheyWorkForYou and WhatDoTheyKnow) have on their users, and specifically on their level of political engagement.
Gateways to participation
It’s perhaps worth mentioning that, while our sites appear, on the face of it, to be nothing more than a handy set of tools for the general citizen, they were built with another purpose in mind. Simply put, each site aims to show people how easy it is to participate in democracy, to contact the people who make decisions on our behalf, and to make changes at the local and national levels.
Like any other online endeavour, we measure user numbers and transaction completions and time spent on site – all of that stuff. But one of the metrics we pay most attention to is whether users say they are contacting their council, their MP or a public body for the first time. Keeping track of this number ensures that we’re doing something to open democratic avenues up to people that haven’t used them before.
But there are plenty more questions we can ask about the impact we’re having. The University of Manchester study looked into one of them, by attempting to track whether there was a measurable change in people’s political activity and engagement after they’ve used one of our sites. On Monday, researchers Rachel Gibson, Marta Cantijoch and Silvia Galandini presented their findings to an attentive audience at King’s College London.
The project has taken a multi-pronged approach, asking our users to complete questionnaires, participate in online discussions, or keep a 12-week diary about political and community engagement (thanks very much to you, if you were one of the participants in this!). The result was a bunch of both qualitative and quantitative data which we’ll be able to come back to and slice multiple ways in the future – Gibson says that they haven’t as yet managed to analyse all of the free text diaries yet, for example.
In itself this study was interesting, because not much research has previously been conducted into the impact of digital civic tools – and yet, as we know from our own international activities, people (not least ourselves) are launching sites all over the world based on the premise that they work.
Some top-level conclusions
The research will be published in full at a future date, and it’s too complex to cover all of it within the confines of a short blog post, but here are just a few of the takeaway findings:
- A small but quantifiable uplift in ‘civic participation’ was noticed in the period after people had used our sites. This could include anything from working with others in the local community to make improvements, to volunteering for a charity.
- No change was found in the level of political influence or understanding that people judged themselves to have. This was a surprise to the researchers, who had thought that users would feel more empowered and knowledgeable after contacting those in power, or checking up on their parliamentary activity.
- As with our research back in 2011, the ‘average’ user of mySociety sites was found to be white, above middle-aged, and educated to at least degree level. Clearly this is a userbase which we desperately need to expand, and we’ll be looking carefully – with more research and some concentrated outreach efforts – at how we can do that.
- Users tended to identify themselves as people who already had an interest in politics. Again, here is an area in which we can improve. Of course, we’re happy to serve such users, but we also want to be accessible to those who have less of a baseline interest.
- Many users spoke of community action as bringing great satisfaction. In some cases, that was getting together in real life to make improvements, but others saw something as simple as reporting graffiti on FixMyStreet as an action that improved the local area for everyone.
Thanks to the University of Manchester researchers for these insights and for presenting them so engagingly. We’ll update when the full research is available.
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)
We’re pleased to announce new moderation features for clients of FixMyStreet for Councils.
This new functionality enables nominated members of staff to edit user reports from within the FixMyStreet front end.
It’s quick and easy, and allows you to react immediately to unwanted content on your site. Read on to find out more.
What’s wrong with this report?
So what is wrong with the report in the screenshot above?
If you run a site on the FixMyStreet platform, you’ll be familiar with this kind of report, and the chances are that you’ll already be twitching to edit it.
User-generated content is wonderful in many ways – but it can also present problems on a public-facing site. Let’s look at a few of the potential issues in the report above:
- The user has included his phone number in the report description, and now it’s available for anyone to see.
- The user’s name is also public. While this is the default option on FixMyStreet, users often get in touch to say that they meant to make their report anonymously (an option on FixMyStreet, but one which the user can only access at the point of submission).
- There’s an inappropriate photo. This one is a statue of Carl Jung, which obviously has nothing to do with the report. But even relevant photos can be problematic: imagine if it was a graphic depiction of a dead animal, or some rude graffiti.
- Profanity: in the example above, we’ll imagine that “pesky” is a mild profanity, but experience tells us that users don’t always hold back on their language.
There are other common problems too, not represented in this report. Users sometimes post potentially libellous information: naming someone they suspect of flytipping, for example, or giving an address where they believe planning permission has been flouted.
In the run-up to local election, councils have to be particularly sensitive to any content that might be construed as political – commonly they wish to remove any mention of any candidate.
Moderation in all things
So we’ll shortly be introducing the ability for client moderation of sites. Councils or other bodies who run FixMyStreet will be able to nominate trusted users and give them the ability to edit problematic reports from within the report page.
When logged in, these users will see a “moderate” button on every report – this feature will not be available to any user unless explicitly authorised.
As you can see, this panel provides the ability to:
- Hide the report completely
- Hide the name of the poster
- Hide or show a photo (if one was originally provided)
- Edit the title and body of the report.
For some reports, it might be necessary to make a number of edits, and finally submit the changes:
The moderator can also add a reason for the changes, so it’s recorded if a colleague needs to know the history of the report in the future.
This functionality gives a lot of power to admins to remove inappropriate information – but the user took the time to submit their report, and it’s only fair to let them know it’s been changed. So the system sends them an automatic email, as below:
Finally, the system automatically updates the report to show that it has been moderated. As well as a timestamp, it signals where any information has been removed in the title or body of the report.
Updates can be just as problematic as reports, so the same functionality will apply to them.
We’d welcome feedback on this mechanism, so please let us know if you think we’ve missed any features.
Note: These screenshots are from our work in progress and do not yet display the slick design that we habitually apply right at the end of the build process. Please regard them as preview shots only!
So we wanted to build an app for FixMyStreet. Easy: we just had to make a cut-down version of the website, right?
Hmm, not quite.
Now he explains a little more about what informed the decisions he made during the apps’ development.
Moving the map, not the pin
When you use the desktop version of FixMyStreet, the first thing it asks for is your location, and there’s a good reason for that. It’s such a good reason that it needed to apply to the app as well.
On the desktop site we ask you to input your postcode or street name. With a mobile app, it’s much more likely that you’ll be reporting a problem that’s right in front of you, so we can usually skip that step and show you a map of your current location.
However, while the accuracy of geolocation technology is pretty good, it’s not perfect, so we wanted to let users fine-tune the location.
On the website you click on the map to drop a pin where the problem is, but we’ve found this isn’t the best solution on a small screen. Fingers are big and the end of a pin is small so it can take several clicks to correctly position the pin.
We quickly realised that having a central static crosshair, and moving the map to the location was a much easier and more accurate way to set a location.
Sending reports made offline
As we explained in the previous post, one of the benefits of the apps over the mobile site is that you can make reports even if you have no phone coverage. The app stores all the details until you get back within range and you’re ready to send it off.
One decision we made, which might seem initially puzzling, is that these offline reports don’t automatically get sent off to the council once you’re back within range of a phone or wifi signal.
There are two linked reasons for this, and they’re both related to the fact that FixMyStreet lets you report a problem even if you don’t know who to send it to.
Simply, before we can work out who to send the report to, we need to know exactly where you are – and that you are within FixMyStreet’s area of coverage (ie, within the UK).
Your location also dictates the categories that we show you. Each council has its own categories, and in areas covered by two tiers of government, each council will deal with different types of report. So for example, your county council might deal with potholes, while your district council handles dog fouling.
Once you’re back online we can check that the location is one we can accept a report about, and then fetch the list of categories for you to pick from.
In effect, this delay is also a second chance for you to check your report before you send it off, although that was never the reason for the decision!
The constant map
We initially designed it with the map only appearing when you needed it, but having the map underlying the reporting process provides a nice bit of continuity with the website, and seemed to make the app cohere better too. So, while there’s no particular reason for it to be there, we made the decision to keep things uniform.
If anything else about the app has got you wondering, do feel free to leave a comment below!