1. 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)

  2. 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.

  3. 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
  4. 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)

     

     

  5. 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)

  6. 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)

  7. 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)

     

  8. 98% of councils accept FixMyStreet reports. Here’s how we cope with the rest.

    If you live almost anywhere in the UK, you can use FixMyStreet to report problems to councils.

    The vast majority of councils have no problem with this, and they do a good job of responding to and dealing with reported problems. A bunch of councils even like the service enough that they’ve actually become clients, paying for customised versions that sit on their own websites.

    But there have always been a small number of councils that have said ‘no dice’ to FixMyStreet: they either refuse to accept reports at all, or they tell FixMyStreet users to re-submit problems through another channel. Today the total number in the ‘no thanks’ column stands at ten councils – that’s out of about 430 in total.

    Idealism versus Pragmatism

    Recently we had a bit of a debate about what to do. On the one hand we want users to succeed in getting their problems fixed. But on the other we don’t want councils to simply opt out of the transparency and convenience that FixMyStreet offers.

    We could digress into a long post with many other related issues, but today we’re simply talking about how we have decided to change the user interface for users trying to report problems to the minority of councils that claim not to be able to cope.

    What to expect if you report a problem in the unlucky 2% of the UK

    FireShot Screen Capture #049 - 'Unresponsive councils_ What you can do __ FixMyStreet' - www_fixmystreet_com_unresponsive_body=2578When you first try to report a problem, you’ll be alerted that the council doesn’t accept our reports.

    In order not to leave you high and dry, we’ll provide a link to the council’s own reporting system—because, irrespective of the platform, your report still needs to be made.

    But we don’t think that this situation should be quietly accepted, by us or by our users, especially since it means some councils get to simply opt out of transparency about problem handling.

    So at the same time we’re telling a user how to report the problem, we’ll also invite them to tweet about it, and/or contact their local councillors.

    Why the situation arose

    You may be wondering why some authorities won’t accept our reports. We do not, after all, ask councils to adapt or modify their internal systems in any special way, unless they actively want to adopt the Open311 standard.

    The messages our users generate are just plain text emails, and they go into the same email inboxes as any other message to a council would.

    These reports are carefully appended with lots of useful details, too, including the category of the problem, its exact longitude and latitude, and the postcode or street address where available. Users can also attach photos.

    Generally the reason cited for not accepting such email reports (or the same reports made by the industry standard Open311 API) is that the computer system inside the council can only handle problems reported via the council’s own official web interface. Why this is only a problem in 2% of councils is a mystery that remains to be solved.

    Does your council accept FixMyStreet reports? Input your postcode on the site, and see if you get the alert. If not – there’s no problem.

    Image: Nick Veitch (CC)

     

     

  9. FixMyStreet for Councils cuts call handling times, makes savings

    FixMyStreet for Councils delivers cost savings—and that’s a fact.

    Oxfordshire County Council installed FixMyStreet as their fault-reporting system in March 2013. Like every council, they were keen to see reductions in their expenditure, and were hopeful that FixMyStreet would help them in their aim to shift problem-reporting online.

    We’re delighted to hear that, two years on, those benefits are tangible. Not only can they demonstrate a cut in call handling times, but they can also put a figure on just how much they have saved.

    Tim White, Oxfordshire’s Service Improvement Lead in the Customer Service centre, says:

    FixMyStreet has reduced the average handling time of our calls from nearly four minutes to around two minutes.

    Robert Hill, Oxfordshire’s Web Services Manager, puts a figure on the savings, reckoning that the reduced time logging faults equates to £16,047.60 a year in staff costs.

    But that’s just a small proportion of the reductions they could be looking at. Oxfordshire chose not to opt for full back-end integration at the time of install, but it is something they are now considering:

    “By moving to an end to end system provided by FixMyStreet we would be able to remove additional cost by eliminating the need to inspect reports that meet certain criteria and passing them straight through for repair.”

    mySociety’s agile approach has worked well for Oxfordshire. Tim White continued:

    “Working with My Society has been a refreshing experience.

    “They are very open to making changes to the way that the product works in order to improve both the customer experience and the experience for council employees.

    “Using an agile approach to development means that we are able to get changes made quickly and incrementally, making the council more responsive to the demands of our residents.”

    If you’d like to see a drop in your own call-handling times, and the associated cost benefits, take a look at FixMyStreet for Councils.

    Image: David Howard (CC)

  10. FixMyStreet for Councils: ticking all the boxes

    FixMyStreet for Councils is great for citizens, but there are plenty of reasons why it’s also great for councils.

    Here are six ways in which FixMyStreet for Councils can help you save money and meet internal targets.

    1. Proven cost savings

    FixMyStreet for Councils’ highly usable interface has been proven to deliver channel shift, with shorter call times and resulting cost savings on staff FTE.

    Read our recent figures from Oxfordshire County Council, or take a look at our case studies from Barnet Borough Councilpdf and the city of Zurichpdf to see just what benefits these authorities saw with their FixMyStreet for Councils installations.

    2. We take the risks

    In these times of budgetary cuts, it helps to know there won’t be any unforeseen costs in maintenance or hosting. We manage all of that, and as it’s all included as standard, that counts as real added value.

    Worried about the loss of data? No need: because FixMyStreet is all ‘in the cloud’, there’s no risk of it ever going missing.

    3. Sustainable contracts

    We know you’re looking for partners you can rely on. With twelve years in the business, we’re a solid, reliable organisation that can offer long-term contracts with no worries about sustainability.

    4. Meet your Social Values Act quota

    As a not-for-profit charity, mySociety ticks all the right boxes when it comes to your Social Values Act quota. Every penny we make goes towards our charitable projects, empowering people and giving better access to democracy.

    mySociety also employs volunteers and runs various forms of outreach in the civic technology area, aided by profits from our commercial services—your money does good.

    5. Accessible—for all your residents

    FixMyStreet has a WCAG 2.0 accessibility level AA, opening it up to the blind, partially-sighted and any other users who rely on screen readers.

    6. Open and transparent

    If your council has an overall remit towards transparency and accountability, FixMyStreet offers a great step forward. Publishing all reports online, it provides a platform for you to show exactly what’s being fixed and what the persistent issues might be in each area.

    FixMyStreet also provides a continually-updating source of data which can be invaluable in analysing common problems, report hotspots, response times and seasonal cycles.

     

    Get in touch

    if you’d like to know more about any of these points, or have further questions then please do drop us a line. We’ll be happy to talk.