1. Where Next for Open Standards

    Earlier this week we hosted our Open Standards in Local Government workshop at Newspeak House in London, with the aim of unpicking where open standards might be of benefit and what might be stopping us from making more progress.

    We were joined by 20 smart people representing a bunch of local councils across the UK and it’s fair to say we made a good bit of progress. A number of consistent themes arose through our discussions.

    It was widely agreed that Open Standards are key to getting the basics right, and standardising the ability of different services to speak to one another is a prerequisite for a sustainable local authority service strategy. The insistence on compliance with open standards at the procurement stage should place an imperative on suppliers to build-in interoperability and reduce the fear of vendor lock in – councils shouldn’t inadvertently replace one set of closed systems for another.

    This link between adoption of open standards and the procurement process was fundamental.

    In our opinion demanding compliance from suppliers to agreed open standards up front, is probably the single most important thing that central government could do to help local government.

    Phil Rumens from LocalGovDigital introduced recent progress on the development of the Local Government Digital Standard. Notably, it goes further than the equivalent in central government, with an emphasis on reuse of existing data and services, and commitment to make more data open and reuseable.

    Both the LGA through LG Inform, and GDS via standards.data.gov.uk already look to gather standards for use in central and local government; however adoption by local government often lags substantially behind. Simply put this is a conversation that doesn’t really happen outside a small number of web or digital staff within councils, and the wider group of service staff don’t yet understand the opportunity that open standards represent.

    Indeed, Tom Symons from Nesta who introduced the Connected Council’s reporthighlighted that the councils furthest ahead are those that have both put in the hours to achieve proper internal Governance standards, and have benefitted from leadership by the Chief Exec and Senior management team.

    The biggest need we identified was to showcase great examples of how open standards can lead to better outcomes in practice.

    Showing what’s possible, both with case studies and live services that can be adopted was seen as essential, especially when this leads to actual financial savings and better outcomes for the citizen. This is something we’re keen to put some time into in the future.

    Sarah Prag and Ben Cheetham shared their experiences of collaborating on the DCLG led Waste Standards project. The most interesting thing for me was how a group of committed individuals just decided to get on with it and find some funding to make it happen – a proper coalition of the willing.

    Practical Next Steps

    The second half of the workshop looked at what we should focus on next.

    We were particularly keen to build on the progress that we’ve made in popularising the Open311 standard, which we can use to integrate FixMyStreet.com with each local authorities’ systems.

    We heard two contrasting experiences, firstly from Chris Fairs at Hertfordshire, who employ an extensive internal management system for issue reporting including individual definitions for fault types. They discovered that citizens are not so good at judging the severity of potholes – and through triage inspection, around 40% of reports are downgraded due to misreporting.

    This contrasted secondly with the experience of Nigel Tyrell and his team at Lewisham who have recently adopted an Open311 enabled service, now linked into both FixMyStreet.com and LoveCleanStreets.

    Lewisham Open311 App Results

    Perhaps the most surprising aspect of Lewisham’s experience is that well over half of reports actually come from their own internal staff using the system. This peer to peer approach has been transformative for them, with frontline staff motivated, more in control, more engaged with and connected to residents, and better able to integrate citizen reports into their own workflow – a very neat solution.

    From this discussion we identified three specific actions that we’re going to help take forward;

    1. Identify local authority service areas that would benefit from the development of open standards
    2. Review output from the DCLG Waste Standards project, to determine how a similar approach can be applied elsewhere
    3. Feed back with suggested improvements to Open311.org for non-emergency reporting and update the list of UK Open311 endpoints

    As with any such event the real value comes in the following weeks and months as we look for ways to collaborate together and opportunities to put into practice some of the things that we discussed.

    We’ll certainly be planning follow-up events in the future, so if you’d like to get involved sign up for our newsletter, post a comment below or get in touch at hello@mysociety.org.

  2. Open Standards Workshop on April 19th

    We share the belief, set out in the recent Connected Councils report from Nesta, that open standards are key to unlocking the potential of government as platform for local government.

    We want to help local authorities understand the benefits of open standards, too. So to that end we’re holding a half-day workshop at Newspeak House London on Tuesday 19th April (the day before the Digital Government conference in London).

    From our perspective this is important because when councils adopt new services they often miss the opportunity to create a genuinely open platform allowing councils, third sector and commercial organisations to work well together (I’ve written more on that in a post over on Medium).

    We’re inviting local authority staff who are responsible for setting strategy for open data and digital standards, and we’ll have a handful of interesting speakers, roundtable discussions and a spot of lunch as well.

    We’ve been fans of the Open311 standard for reporting non-emergency local issues online for some time. This open standard makes it easy for us to submit issues from FixMyStreet.com directly into a local authority’s case management system, and, just as importantly, report back when they have been resolved.

    Open standards are a fundamental aspect of digital transformation for every local council. We want to do what we can to help extend the scope and use of these standards, and learn how we can better deliver services that make use of them.

    We’d love to hear from you about your use of open standards in local government, to share experiences on how this can power service development and identify opportunities to extend the take up of standards. We’d also like to ensure that we are building services that you actually want to use to help your local residents.

    If you or a colleague would like to attend, or if you know people in other councils who are interested in Open311, FixMyStreet and other open standards, then please request an invite on our Eventbrite page.

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    Image credit Deborah Fitchett https://flic.kr/p/7EyMVT

  3. Lewisham council switches to Open311

    Lewisham is the latest council to make the switch over to Open311 — with our help.

    If Open311 doesn’t mean anything to you, don’t worry: all you need to know is that it’s a protocol which allows services like FixMyStreet to drop your reports directly into the council’s workflow systems. No-one has to do the tedious and time-consuming job of re-typing the details from an email into fields that the system will accept — it just slots everything in the right place.

    Open means innovation

    But the most important aspect of Open311 is the word ‘open’.

    Open standards, like open data or open source code, are free for anyone to use. And we believe they are the key to both enterprise and economy within the sector.

    Anyone can use them to create an app or a web tool. The result is a fertile environment where government can pick applications from a variety of sources. Great ideas can blossom anywhere, and this allows the freedom to find them in internal teams, external providers, or even independent developers who produce stuff for free because they want to.

    There are further benefits for councils, too. Standards are (of course) standardised — so any tool built for Open311 can connect with any system adapted to accept compliant inputs. This allows for a pick-and-mix approach where multiple systems can be put together, and for councils to swap suppliers in and out as required, without longterm tie-ins.

    Nigel Tyrell is the driver behind the big switchover at Lewisham. From April, their LoveLewisham app will take reports from any Open311-compliant application that sends it reports — including FixMyStreet.

    By adopting Open311 we can hook into the fantastic FixMyStreet site and apps while developing our in-house LoveLewisham Peer2Peer app to provide a much more effective response.

    Open standards bring savings

    Going down this route has also brought substantial cost savings for Lewisham, and will continue to do so: Nigel forecasts a benefit of around £118,000.

    We have saved £13k a year by ending our contract with the previous supplier. We’ve developed our LoveLewisham P2P app in-house and used the first year of savings to buy our operatives decent smartphones.

    It’s not just the contract, though — the new approach has allowed for a restructuring of the team.

    In part, savings will be made by staff who are already out and about on various duties being able to put their own reports directly into the system, thanks to those smartphones.

    The strength of LoveLewisham has always been the implementation of mobile technology by our front-line workers.

    This in turn means that customer services staff time will be freed up. Overall, Nigel reckons he’s looking at a saving of around £105,000 in staffing costs.

    We’ll help you do the same

    We helped Lewisham in this shift to Open311. And, if you’re a council whose systems support the Open311 GeoReport v2 spec, then we’ll happily hook you up to receive reports from FixMyStreet, and provide access to a test site to perform your own end-to-end testing.

    There are further options for deeper integration, too — like enabling two-way updates, so that when a citizen marks a problem as fixed, that’s also transmitted to council systems. If you’re from a council and you’d like to know more, just get in touch here.

    Image: Adam Tinworth (CC)

     

  4. Have our sites helped you? Then please help us

    Can you donate a few pounds toward the running of our UK sites?

    FixMyStreet, WhatDoTheyKnow, WriteToThem and TheyWorkForYou all provide an easy way for you, the public, to hold our elected representatives to account. They give you the power to get things changed.

    You are the lifeblood of these sites: you make the reports that go off to the council; pen the letters to your representatives, request the information that our public authorities hold.

    Today, we’re asking for a little more. When you visit one of our UK sites, you may notice a banner asking for a donation.

    That’s because, as well as relying on your usage, these sites rely on your contributions to keep them running. In fact, our overheads are substantial: your donations help fund servers, maintenance, development, user support and all the other costs that come with running popular services and large archives.

    If you’ve benefited from one of our sites, or you are glad that they are around for others, please consider setting up a regular contribution of a few pounds a month, or making a one-off donation. It will be very much appreciated.

    Donate now


    Image: Dominic Alves (CC)

  5. Photo upload and progressive enhancement for FixMyStreet

    FixMyStreet has been around for nearly nine years, letting people report things and optionally include a photo; the upshot of which is we currently have a 143GB collection of photographs of potholes, graffiti, dog poo, and much more. :)

    For almost all that time, attaching a photo has been through HTML’s standard file input form; it works, but that’s about all you can say for it – it’s quite ugly and unfriendly.

    We have always wanted to improve this situation – we have a ticket in our ticketing system, Display thumbnail of photo before submitting it, that says it dates from 2012, and it was probably in our previous system even before that – but it never quite made it above other priorities, or when it was looked at, browser support just made it too tricky to consider.

    Here’s a short animation of FixMyStreet’s new photo upload, which also allows you to upload multiple photos:

    For the user, the only difference from the current interface is that the photo field has been moved higher up the form, so that photos can be uploading while you are filling out the rest of the form.

    Personally, I think this benefit is the largest one, above the ability to add multiple photos at once, or the preview function. Some of our users are on slow connections – looking at the logs I see some uploads taking nearly a minute – so being able to put that process into the background hopefully speeds up the submission and makes the whole thing much nicer to use.

    Progressive enhancement

    When creating a new report, it can sometimes happen that you fill in the form, include a photo, and submit, only for the server to reject your report for some reason not caught client-side. When that happens, the form needs to be shown again, with everything the user has already entered prefilled.

    There are various reasons why this might happen; perhaps your browser doesn’t support the HTML5 required attribute (thanks Safari, though actually we do work around that); perhaps you’ve provided an incorrect password.

    However, browsers don’t remember file inputs, and as we’ve seen, photo upload can take some time. From FixMyStreet’s beginnings, we recognised that re-uploading is a pain, so we’ve always had a mechanism whereby an uploaded photo would be stored server side, even if the form had errors, and only an ID for the photo was passed back to the browser so that the user could hopefully resubmit much more quickly.

    This also helped with reports coming in from external sources like mobile phone apps or Flickr, which might come with a photo already attached but still need other information, such as location.

    Back in 2011, I wrote about how FixMyStreet maps are progressively enhanced, starting with a base of HTML image maps and layering on the normal slippy map experience on top. This has always been the way I have worked, and adding a snazzy JavaScript photo upload was no different.

    mySociety designer Zarino used dropzonejs to supply the “pop”™, and this works in a nicely easy-to-progressively-enhance way, hiding existing file input(s) and providing fallbacks. And with the behaviour the site has had since 2007, adding the server side element of this new photo upload was actually very straightforward – receive a photo and return its ID for a snippet of JavaScript to insert into the hidden form field of photo ID that has always been there in case of form error. No need to worry about how to match up the out-of-band photos with the main form submission, it’s all already taken care of. If the JavaScript doesn’t or can’t work for whatever reason, the old behaviour is still there, using the same mechanisms.

    Of course there were edge cases and things to tidy up along the way, but if the form hadn’t taken into account the user experience of error edge cases from the start, or worse, had assumed all client checks were enough, then nine years down the line my job would have been a lot harder.

    Anyway, long story short, adding photos to your FixMyStreet reports is now a smoother process, and you should try it out.

  6. Big Bang Data exhibition

    How is the data explosion transforming our world?

    That’s the question that inspires the Big Bang Data exhibition, running from today until February 28 at Somerset House in London.

    Alongside all kinds of data displays, data-inspired artwork and data-based innovations, the exhibition features our very own FixMyStreet and TheyWorkForYou as examples of websites that are using data for the common good.

    The exhibits range from fun to thought-provoking to visually rather beautiful: we enjoyed Nicholas Felton‘s annual reports about himself, the Dear Data project, and innovative devices such as the fitness tracker for dogs. Most of all, of course, we enjoyed seeing our very own websites put into context and available for everyone to have a go with. :)

    We’re delighted to have been included in this event, and we recommend a visit if you’re in the area.  There’s plenty to keep you interested and informed for a good hour or two.

    Data for the common good - a sign at the Big Bang Data exhibition at Somerset House
  7. Report those winter problems with FixMyStreet

    Who needs a calendar? If we want to see the seasons passing, we just check what’s being reported on FixMyStreet.

    In these dark winter days, issues like broken streetlights become a lot more of a concern. There’s an increase in potholes, as frost damage plays its part. And our users are quick to let councils know if road-gritting has been inadequate on icy days.

    It’s enough to make us nostalgic for spring and summer’s reports of overgrown footpaths, smelly bins, and barbecues left smouldering in parks.

    Over the last year, across the seasons, you’ve sent more than 160,000 FixMyStreet reports to councils across the UK. October was responsible for more than 12,000 of them — a 20% rise on the same month last year.

    We hope those numbers will keep rising — after all, each of them is potentially a problem solved. So, if you’ve spotted the beginnings of a pothole, or a streetlight that needs mending, don’t forget to let your council know, on FixMyStreet.

    Image: Phil Holker (CC)

     

     

  8. Council-led changes to FixMyStreet

    We’ve recently made a few small changes to FixMyStreet. Nothing new there; we’re often tweaking things to make FixMyStreet more usable. Except, these changes weren’t our own idea: they were based on feedback from a council.

    Oxfordshire County Council, who use FixMyStreet for Councils as their main fault reporting system, requested these features, which are now available to all client councils (and which, in two cases, are now also benefiting users on our own FixMyStreet.com):

    Category drop-downs

    If you’re looking at an area of the country on FixMyStreet and are only interested in a specific type of problem—for example, potholes or fly tipping—you can now filter reports. filter

    You can also use these same drop-downs to only see reports that are fixed, unfixed, or closed:
    fixed

    Much easier, especially in some of the very report-dense areas of the country.

    Different coloured pins

    On FixMyStreet.com, every problem is marked by a yellow pin, no matter what its status:
    oxffms

    But Oxfordshire spotted an opportunity to make things a little clearer. Where a council has opted for full integration, FixMyStreet can automatically update the status of reports as they go through the fix cycle.

    So why not reflect these statuses on the colours of map pins? Red, green and grey pins now indicate problems that are fixed, unfixed or closed. See for yourself how this looks on the Oxfordshire website:

    oxffmsgreenZoom-responsive pins

    When you go to report your problem on FixMyStreet, you can zoom in and out of the map and pan it around until you find exactly the right spot in which to place your pin. There was just one thing, though: while the streets and other map features got bigger and smaller as you zoomed in or out, the pins remained the same size.zoomed out

    Not any more! Now, in one of those ‘you probably don’t notice it but it does make things easier’ moves, pins shrink and expand at the same rate as the map:

    zoomed in

    Expanded userbase = more insights

    Several councils around the country use FixMyStreet as the main problem-reporting system on their own websites—so if you report a problem on the Stevenage, Oxfordshire, Bromley or Warwickshire council websites (among others) you may find the interface very familiar.

    There are obvious benefits for us in supplying FixMyStreet as software for councils—not least that the revenue goes to support our charitable work! But cases like this highlight a more subtle benefit: with the increased userbase, and with the additional council administrators who are actually thinking about the FixMyStreet experience at any one time, we gain valuable insights into its usability.

    Where we can, we’ll make the changes for our clients, and, if desirable, we can push the same code onto the main FixMyStreet.com site.

    That benefit goes two ways: equally, improvements we make to FixMyStreet are generally available on FixMyStreet for Councils. So, those frequent tweaks we talked about at the beginning? They get rolled out for our clients, too.

    The winner in all of this is the user, which is just as it should be.

    If you’re from a council and would like to know more, please visit our FixMyStreet for Councils page.

    Image: Carl Mueller (CC)

  9. Apply for support and development help

    There are websites built on mySociety code in many countries across the world.

    If your country doesn’t already have one, perhaps you’re thinking of setting up a FixMyStreet site for your area, or maybe a Freedom of Information site run on Alaveteli?

    Possibly you’re looking at WriteInPublic or YourNextRepresentative.

    Whatever the site you’re planning, you’ll find it a lot easier with our support and development help.

    Our quarterly call for applications closes on October 30, so make sure you have yours in soon. Want to know exactly what’s involved? Start here.

     

    Image: Damian Gadal (cc)

  10. Greenwich opens up to Open311

    If you use FixMyStreet to make a report in the Royal Borough of Greenwich, you won’t notice anything different from the norm. But once you click submit, your report is doing something a little bit different—it’s using a standard called ‘Open311’ to place your request directly into the council’s systems.

    You might be thinking, “Yawn-o! What do I care, so long as my pothole gets filled?” and—well, that’s a fair point. But there’s a wider issue here, which we think  is one that’s worth getting excited about.

    Greenwich have taken a forward-thinking and sensible step—because Open311 doesn’t just let FixMyStreet reports come into their systems smoothly. It also opens up their data in a way that allows other developers to create exciting applications that can work with it, talk to their systems or provide new interfaces for us to do so.

    What might those be? Well, one of the great things about technology is that it’s very hard to predict how users will behave in even the near future. Just a few years ago, who would have guessed that we’d be chatting to companies, organisations and our MPs in snappy, public 140-character soundbites, for example?

    With Open311 in place, Greenwich do in fact have the option of receiving reports via Twitter, Facebook, and, crucially, whatever the next big platforms happen to be. Meanwhile they benefit from FixMyStreet reports dropping directly into their workflow.

    Reports sent by email (which FixMyStreet does by default) can be a bit of an inconvenience for councils using CRM systems, because staff have to copy and paste the details in. But Open311 sends your report, along with every detail the council needs to know, into their chosen systems.

    You can read more about the nitty-gritty of that here, but in the meantime, all you need to know is that Greenwich have proactively taken the step to allow FixMyStreet to send reports in this way, installing our Open 311 endpoint, and taking advantage of our offer to connect for free.

    This is quite separate from the option of installing FixMyStreet for Councils as their main reporting system, which incidentally Greenwich also does.

    So it’s a big high five for Greenwich, who with this simple step have allowed a wealth of potential applications, services and developers to interact with them over the web. Now—any other councils want to follow their example?

    Image: Elliott Brown (cc)