1. Assessing success in Civic Tech: Measures of deprivation and WriteToThem

    This blog post is part of a series investigating different demographics and uses of mySociety services. You can read more about this series here

    WriteToThem is a service that assists people in writing to their representatives. Given a postcode, it lists the associated elected representatives at every layer of government and provides a form to write an email to them.

    This can also be seen as a bundle of services. The main use of this website is to write to MPs, but this is just under half of messages ever sent (48%), with most messages sent to representatives in devolved or local government. Different services have different profiles of use and so need to have their effect judged separately.

    In 2015, the British Election Study asked whether people had contacted a “politician, government or local government official” in the prior 12 months and found that 17% had. Based on this, over 11 million adults wrote to a representative or official that year — and WriteToThem’s 187,000 emails accounted for 1.6% of this. These results also showed that 20% of men had made contact compared to 15% of women, meaning that 57% of those doing the contacting were men. Extending this into a logistic regression shows that older respondents and those with higher levels of education were more likely to contact, with no significant difference for income and ethnicity once age and education were controlled for.

    Demographic profile of WriteToThem users

    Looking at the profile of people writing to MPs using WriteToThem, there is an uneven use by different demographics. Over all time,  60% of messages sent have been from men and  60% of people writing had written before. Using the index of multiple deprivation, more messages are sent by better off areas, with 55% of messages being sent by the less deprived half of the country, and 7% of messages coming from the most deprived decile (you would expect 10% if this were evenly divided).

    There is a clear linear pattern of greater employment and income in an area being associated with a greater amount of messages sent.  Most of these gradients are slight, but in aggregate the effect is that WriteToThem reflects existing divisions in participation (although there are no good sources for the demographics of people who write to MPs specifically) .

    But is this actually a problem? Should a service be judged for the proportion of existing represented groups making use of it, or what it does for the under-represented groups who do use it? WriteToThem has delivered 73,000 messages to MPs from people in the most deprived IMD decile alone, if this has led to dialogues that resolved issues that would not otherwise have happened, this is a positive regardless of whether the same is also true for more people in the least deprived areas. If WriteToThem lowers the cost of contact by making it easier, then it is unsurprising that many of the people making use of it would have made contact anyway — but also included in that are people who were previously unable to engage in the process.

    When we look at the result of the survey asking whether a user of WriteToThem was writing for the first time, we can see that people from the bottom three IMD deciles were statistically more likely to be writing for the first time (this is also true when just looking at people writing to MPs, and when just looking at 2018). While generally the number of people using the site for the first time has decreased over time, this decline is demographically uneven and mostly occurs in less deprived areas.

    For the complete time-span of the service, 47% percent of survey respondents in IMD 1 (most deprived) were writing for the first time compared to 38% of IMD 10 (least deprived). Looking at just 2018, this was 48% compared to 35%. While the service as a whole is used more by people in less deprived areas, of those using it in less deprived areas it is successfully facilitating a higher proportion of first time contacts.

    The local picture

    To return to the idea of bundles, WriteToThem is also quietly solving a much harder problem than contacting MPs. While people generally recognise their MP when prompted with a name, local councillors remain far more anonymous. From 2007 to 2018 WriteToThem has helped constituents send 450,000 emails to their local councillors (42,000 in 2018). This service has an effectively even gender ratio (with a female majority in 2018), with more reports coming from more deprived areas (54% by more deprived half).

    If we imagine one of these bundled services being a site named “WriteToYourCouncillor”, it is in many respects a model service, with a user base displaying an even gender ratio, and more likely to be used in deprived areas. That in reality it is one function of a more well-used service in terms of numbers somewhat obscures this.

    But while it is good to recognise where services are successfully reaching people we want to reach, it is also important to think about volume and overall impact.  One issue with a service used more by men or in better off areas might be if it shapes how resources are deployed or provides a false shape of the views of constituents (and emails received are certainly used by MPs to build a picture). Even a service that adequately represents under-represented groups may be ineffective if it exists in a wider ecosystem that does not.

    At the moment, the systematic effect of any bias in WriteToThem outputs is marginal as WriteToThem accounts for a small fraction of parliamentary mail.  While the amount of physical mail entering the Houses of Parliament each year has decreased steadily, in 2018 it was still 24 times larger than the number of emails sent to MPs via WriteToThem. The average MP received 94 emails via WriteToThem in 2018; most MPs would receive more than this through other means in a week.

    Returning to the British Election Study finding that 57% of contacting in 2015 was done by men, the equivalent figure for WriteToThem as a whole in 2018 was 55%. Being generous and bearing in mind the previous finding that the method used to assign gender from name undercounts women, this could be seen as a marginal improvement on the real world. However, it would be a marginal improvement in a pool that only represents 1.6% of the total amount of number of messages.

    Defining success

    Based on the above, we can think about three different kinds of ‘success’  of a civic tech service in serving under-represented groups:

    Relative – The service improves under-representation relative to the current standard. e.g. a service where 60% of usage was by men is an improvement over an offline status quo of 70%.

    Absolute – The service adequately (or over-) services under-represented communities to what would be expected based on their numbers in the general population.

    Systematic – The service successfully services under-represented communities and is successful enough that this redresses issues of representation in competitor services/methods.

    Working with these, we could say WriteToThem is a success on a relative level, servicing people in more deprived areas more than they would have been otherwise (larger proportion of first time writers), but not to the proportion of the population these groups represent.

    The “WriteToYourCouncillor” part of the bundle is  a success on an absolute level, providing a relatively even amount of representation, with a slight weight towards groups who typically make contact less often.

    But neither really makes a dent systematically. They may be redressing inequalities of access for individual users (which is good), but cannot significantly adjust inequalities in volume of messages and the corresponding perceptions of problems.

    Making a dent in this problem is outside the scope of WriteToThem — and probably should be. While you can imagine a future where WriteToThem continues to lower the barrier to contacting representatives,  this is likely to create new users from currently-represented groups for each under-represented person successfully reached. Targeted interventions and partnerships with other organisations can avert this problem in terms of helping individuals make contact about their issues but turning the problem around, this is a platform that is unlikely to provide a balanced view of opinions and priorities of constituents.

    If it is a problem that representatives have systematically skewed visions of the problems and views of their constituents, is an email platform that requires citizens rather than representatives to do work the best way to address that? A civic tech solution to this problem might look more like Consul (or similar general participation platform) than WriteToThem – but even explicitly designed online platforms still risk being skewed towards the online and present members of the community. Exploring better forms of local participation is something currently being explored through our Public Square project.

  2. How do different forms of deprivation affect FixMyStreet reports?

    This blog post is part of a series investigating different demographics and uses of mySociety services. You can read more about this series here

    Indices of deprivation are useful for mapping social phenomena onto geographic data. For a series of domains (in England: income, employment, health, education, skills and training, crime, barriers to housing and services, and living environment) all Lower Super Output Areas (LSOAs) are ranked from most deprived to least deprived. From these the Index of Multiple Deprivation is created  — which helps to illustrate which areas of the country suffer from multiple different negative factors.

    The indices of deprivation are compiled separately for England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. While they cannot be combined, they do often illustrate similar measures and so are useful for cross comparison. As most FixMyStreet reports are made in England, more subtle patterns in how deprivation and reports are linked can be detected from this larger set of data.

    The Explorer minsite uses the Index of Multiple Deprivation (IMD) and respective domains to understand how reports for different categories of FixMyStreet report are distributed and explore how deprivation affects reporting. This page shows the categories that are more likely than the general dataset to be reported in the lowest IMD decile (most deprived) and this page shows the categories that are more likely to be reported in the highest IMD decile (least deprived).

    Missing reports

    As examined in previous research, the most important finding when examining deprivation is the suggestion that there are reports that should be being made that aren’t. The Explorer minisite shows that reports of dog fouling have a peak in the middle deciles, but this does not reflect the real world incidence of dog fouling, which found that the most dog fouling was found in the bottom two deciles.

    Even when actual incidence of problems is higher in more deprived areas, the reporting rate can be lower — any picture based on self-reporting is likely to have a large set of missing data. In the case of dog fouling, this means information about hotspots is not communicated to enforcement. In other cases it might mean road defects unfixed, or fly-tipping uncollected.

    Exploring domains

    While previous explorations of deprivation and FixMyStreet have used the index of multiple deprivation alone, the Explorer minisite lets you see how the distribution differs on each of the domains of deprivation. For instance, looking at reports of rubbish, we can see that while generally there are more in the bottom 50% of IMD deciles, there is a stronger relationship against the crime domain.

    Rubbish vs Multiple Deprivation

    Rubbish vs Crime IMD Domain

    Examining the data for dog fouling shows that the peak in the mid-deciles is even clearer when mapped against income deprivation than for multiple deprivation. The income domain continues to show that compared to the general dataset there are fewer reports in the higher deciles than might be expected.

    Abandoned vehicle reports have a scattered relationship with a few different factors, but the association with crime is much less noticeable than the association with lower housing costs. Problems with drainage generally are more reported in less deprived areas, but when focusing on access to service deprivation, they are concentrated in the most deprived areas.

    Breaking down by the different domains that make up the index of multiple deprivation lets us better understand what factors are driving either problems or the reporting of problems. This in turn helps to frame questions to ask about what is driving these different uses of FixMyStreet.

    Photo by v2osk on Unsplash

     

  3. How men and women use FixMyStreet differently

    This blog post is part of a series investigating different demographics and uses of mySociety services. You can read more about this series here

    Greater use by men than women is common across mySociety services. Looking just at people who had gendered names (78% using UK data from OpenGenderTracking), 38% of FixMyStreet users were women. However, because women are less represented among super contributors (users who make many reports), only 29% of reports were submitted by women. There has been a consistent year-on-year increase in the proportion of reports made by women (34% in 2018), which at the current rate will reach parity in 2025.

    But what are the impacts of this? Where crowdsourced websites have a gender disparity and different genders participate differently, this leads to a difference in outcomes. For OpenStreetMap, Monica Stephens (2013) found that in discussions around proposed new categories of locations, strong distinctions are made between “swinger club, a nightclub and a brothel”, while a 2011 feature of “childcare” was debated and rejected on the grounds it was too similar to the existing “kindergarten”. If contributors are on the whole “very aware of the complexities of sexual entertainment categories, but oblivious to the age specific limits of childcare providers”, this makes the map less useful to the large potential group of users with differing priorities.

    This is not an unfixable problem (and in this specific case, quickly was –  childcare was added to OpenStreetMap as a category in 2013) but reflects that crowdsourced websites and datasets reflect the interests of the people who volunteer their time towards them. In an article for CityLab about efforts to increase the number of female cartographers working on OpenStreetMap, Sarah Holder writes that:

    Doctors have been tagged more than 80,000 times, while healthcare facilities that specialize in abortion have been tagged only 10; gynecology, near 1,500; midwife, 233, fertility clinics, none. Only one building has been tagged as a domestic violence facility, and 15 as a gender-based violence facility. That’s not because these facilities don’t exist—it’s because the men mapping them don’t know they do, or don’t care enough to notice.

    However, as an Open Street Map contributor noted below the original version of this article, shelters for those escaping domestic violence present a particular challenge: openly mapping their locations make them easy for everyone — including the perpetrators — to locate. As such, refuges themselves may not want to be listed. While some services predominately used by women are under-mapped, others are ill-suited to an open, map-based form of discovery. For a more detailed exploration around issues of providing information for victims of domestic violence, see the Tech vs Abuse research findings.

    Zoe Gardner, Peter Mooney, Liz Dowthwaite and Giles Foody (2017) found that as well as differences in the scale of activity, men and women also behaved differently in the kinds of ways they added to OpenStreetMap, with men more likely to modify existing features and women more likely to add new data in a few categories. Specific categories of label had different rates of contribution, with women more likely to add labels in the ‘building category’ (67% for women vs 35% for men), while men were more likely to make modifications to the highway category (39% for men vs 23% for women).

    FixMyStreet

    For FixMyStreet Reka Solymosi, Kate Bowers and Taku Fujiyama (2018) found a similar difference in behaviour in terms of the categories of reports submitted by men and women and found a rough “driving vs walking” divide:

    On first glance it appears that men are more likely to report in categories related to driving (potholes and road problems), whereas women report more in categories related to walking (parks, dead animals, dog fouling, litter).

    This was replicated with non-anonymous data internally.  The methodology used in this paper is applied through the Explorer minisite to a wider dataset, and the gender difference in categories can be seen here. This uses an analysis that derives likely gender from first name, which is not 100% accurate and cannot derive a gender for all users. However, for broad differences, the data is sufficient – a comparison to a group of reports where reporters disclosed gender found that the derived ‘male’ group contains around 4% misallocated women, while the derived ‘female’ group contains about 1.5% misallocated men. The unknown group splits roughly 50/50, but leans towards containing more women (53%).

    As women are still minority users of the site in general, categories are noteworthy if they have a greater proportion of women than the site as a whole — even if this is below parity.  For instance, women make up 40% of reports of overgrown trees, which means more are reported by men — but this is higher than use of the site as a whole by women. Women make fewer reports (and account for more first time reports than repeat reports), but these reports are focused on different categories to categories that are more reported by men (such as potholes, 74% of which are reported by men).

    Encountering problems

    When men and women are moving through the world differently, they are encountering different kinds of problems. In 2013, men in the UK were on average driving twice as many miles per year as women. Given this, it’s not unreasonable for men to be encountering and reporting many more potholes.

    Surveys in Scotland and England suggested higher rates of littering by men and lower acceptance of littering by women — which is reflected in a slightly higher than expected number of reports of litter from women. Women make more walking trips (269 to 240) over a cumulative longer distance (10 miles more per year). Given this it would not be unreasonable for women to be encountering slightly more littering, pavement defects, dog fouling and other walking problems.

    This difference is especially true for women aged 30-39 as “women in their thirties make four times as many escort education trips [school runs] than men of the same age, and walking is the most common mode used to make these trips”. Looking at reports of littering in England – reports by women are on average 154 meters (95% confidence between: 138, 171) closer to a school.  This isn’t saying that all reports of littering are made by women doing the school run, but possibly enough that it shows up as a difference in the data.

    Reporting problems

    In 2018 women made up 36% of reports related to rubbish — but this is masking different gender balanced on different kinds of waste. While there are very few reports of ‘discarded syringes’, three-quarters of these are made by women. Reports related to ‘leafing’ and ‘litter/litter bins’ are near parity (49%, 46%).

    In 2016 there was an experiment on the  homepage of FixMyStreet.com to see if changing the  prompted categories from a focus on road problems to a prompt on parks and open spaces and changing the imagery on the homepage (happy families rather than the default “B&Q” colours and spanners) led to an increase of reports by women. There was no difference found, suggesting that the problem was more complicated than women being put off by the design. This did however change the distribution of various categories (fewer pothole reports and more reports of issues with street lights) with no shift in the gender ratio.

    For reports made by co-branded websites (instances of FixMyStreet running as part of a council website), reports by women are better represented, making up 42% of reports.  This is a reminder that more than the technology is important, the perceived “officialness” and discovery routes are also important. Certain kinds of users may be more willing to use a third-party tool than the official website.

    What does this mean?

    If civic tech makes certain kinds of government contacting easier to do, but those forms of contact are more likely to be problems experienced by men, this may have the effect of shifting the provision of services. In the longer run, uneven reporting may entrench perceptions of public interest and respective budgeting for different areas of service.

    That men and women experience their environment in different ways and so experience different problems makes this problem both important and difficult to resolve. Understanding FixMyStreet as a bundle of services gives a framework to examine the problem. Viewed this way some services (Report Potholes) are performing about as you’d expect, while others such as Report Litter are lagging. This suggests a different set of experiments to investigate the problem than a generic ‘women use FixMyStreet less’ problem suggests.

    It also suggests that reaching greater gender balance in services may involve seeking out different kinds of problems. The issue is less getting more pothole reports from women but that there are neighbouring services that fulfil the same ‘ease contact with government’ role that women would be far more likely to use.

    Photo by Olesya Grichina on Unsplash

  4. Join us in Reykjavik for TICTeC 2020

    We’re excited to announce that TICTeC 2020, our sixth global conference on the Impacts of Civic Technology, will be in Reykjavik, Iceland on 24 and 25 March 2020.

    Put that in your diaries now, we’d love for you to join us.

    What is TICTeC and why do we host it?

    There are several existing annual conferences in which civic technology is showcased, and in which the potential for such tools to change and drive participation can be discussed, however, very few of these events include real and in-depth research into whether the potential outcomes of civic technology were realised.

    This is where TICTeC differs: the majority of speakers will be presenting evidence-based research to demonstrate the various impacts of civic technology from across the world.

    We created TICTeC to bridge the gap between civic tech and research – to bring two different communities together, to emphasise the importance of being able to demonstrate impact, and to share what those impacts are.

    Why Iceland?

    We’re really excited to be hosting TICTeC in Reykjavik, as the City Council are pioneers in using digital tools to elicit feedback and engagement from its citizens on council policies, expenditure and projects.  As one civil servant told us: “If a political party does not believe in or promise citizen engagement they just won’t be elected here”.

    TICTeC 2020 will therefore be a unique occasion for the global community to learn from Iceland’s extensive civic tech and civic engagement experience, and vice versa.

    We’re delighted that civic tech veterans Citizens Foundation will speak at TICTeC 2020 about their latest attempt to crowdsource the Icelandic constitution using digital tools, a project they are currently working on with Iceland’s National Parliament and the University of Iceland. Lessons from this will be extremely valuable to TICTeC’s global audience, so we are excited to have them join us.

    TICTeC 2020 will also include keynote speeches, simultaneous research tracks, hands-on workshops, and special networking sessions. We also expect there to be additional fringe events as other organisations arrange companion events before and after the main conference.

    Over the coming weeks, we’ll be publishing a series of blog posts to further explain our reasons behind choosing Iceland for TICTeC 2020; how we’ll be trying to reduce TICTeC 2020’s carbon footprint; and our experiences trying to increase diversity at our conferences.

    Apply to present or run a workshop

    This two day conference provides the opportunity for researchers to present theoretical or empirical work related to the conference theme. We also welcome proposals for individuals to lead workshops or give presentations relating to the conference theme. We encourage submissions to focus on the specific impacts of technologies, rather than showcase new tools that are as yet untested.

    If you’d like to give a presentation or run a workshop at TICTeC 2020, please submit your proposals now. You have until Friday 17th January 2020.

    Register

    For the last three years TICTeC has sold out – so make sure you get tickets early. Early bird tickets provide a significant discount, so it’s well worth registering before early bird ticket sales end on Friday 14th February 2020.

    Sponsor

    If you’d like to support TICTeC to bring together the world’s best Civic Technology researchers and practitioners, there are many different sponsorship opportunities available. Please visit our sponsorship page for more details, or contact gemma@mysociety.org for more information.

    Keep an eye on the TICTeC website for full details of proceedings as they are announced.

    We look forward to seeing you in March in beautiful Reykjavik!

    Meanwhile, if you’d like to see what TICTeC is all about, you can browse all the resources from this year’s TICTeC, check out the TICTeC guide, and/or watch this video overview:

    And here is an overview of this year’s conference, expect more of the same plus improvements in Reykjavik:

    Photo header: Image by Sharon Ang from Pixabay 

  5. What’s a neighbourhood?

    This blog post is part of a series investigating different demographics and uses of mySociety services. You can read more about this series here

    The FixMyStreet section of the Explorer mini-site helps explore the relationship between demographic features and FixMyStreet reports.

    In one use case, it maps the location a report was made to a ‘neighbourhood’ sized area, and then in turn to sets of statistics measured against those areas — most importantly, the indices of multiple deprivation.  These areas are Lower Super Output Areas (LSOAs) in England and Wales, Data Zones (DZ) in Scotland and Lower Output Areas (LOA) in Northern Ireland (although NI is not covered separately in the Explorer site due a relative lack of data). These can be seen as equivalent to census tracts in the US and each LSOA has a population of around 1,500 people, while Data Zones have around 500-1000 people.

    While this statistical unit feels neighbourhood-sized and so is used to examine data for effects that may result from being in the same neighbourhood, the approach has the significant problem that what people on the ground perceive as their “neighbourhood” is unlikely to exactly overlap onto the statistical unit. On the edge of a LSOA, even a 50m radius around a home will cross into another statistical area.

    Making the problem worse is that the idea of a neighbourhood is very variable. People can disagree with each other about the boundaries of their area. Claudia Coluton, Jill Korbin, Tsui Chan, Marilyn Su (2001) found that when citizens were asked to draw the boundaries of their neighbourhood these very rarely aligned with US census tracts. As the gif in this tweet shows a set of citizen-drawn boundaries for Stoke Newington in East London, and while there is a clear core, there is substantial disagreement between residents about the size of this area.

    Laura Macdonald, Ade Kearns and Anne Ellaway (2013)  found that residents in West Central Scotland had a different perception of how well placed they were for ‘local’ amenities compared to the geographic distance. This reflects that what was viewed as local from the outside might not be viewed the same way by locals: there is a context gap that just cannot be bridged at this scale of analysis.

    Understanding of neighbourhood effects is often positioned in terms of guardianship of a home area, and this means that certain kinds of reports might be more apparent in areas where these boundaries are less clear — leading to conflict. Joscha Legewie and Merlin Shaeffer (2016) used New York 311 calls to demonstrate that complaints about blocked driveways, noise from neighbours and drinking in public were more frequent on the boundaries of areas with differing demographics. This can also be seen in the idea that complaints about dog fouling are used for score-settling between neighbours in Chicago. Complaints can be about conflicts as well as actual problems reported.

    In a related problem, Alasdair Rae and Elvis Nyanzu show in some areas the most deprived 10% of areas and the least deprived 10% are not far from each other. This means that relationships between reports and the features of deprivation might be harder to detect. The less homogenous the area, the greater the chance that features affecting how likely a person is to report will result in reports in a LSOA that is substantially different from their ‘home’ area.

    This blog post is exploring a potential problem with the explorer minisite methodology. A big part of what the explorer site is doing is trying to show how much different kinds of reports are “explained” by different local features — but because of various forms of fuzziness the differences it detects may be less sharp than actually exists. In general, however, not detecting things that are there is a better problem to have than the opposite.

  6. Super contributors and power laws

    This blog post is part of a series investigating different demographics and uses of mySociety services. You can read more about this series here

    A common feature in websites and services where users generate data is that a small amount of users are responsible for a large percent of the activity. For instance, 77% of Wikipedia is written by 1% of editors (with most of that being done by an even smaller fraction) and for OpenStreetMap 0.01% of users contribute a majority of the information.

    This also applies to plenty of offline activities — for instance, half of the 25,000 noise complaints about Heathrow Airport were made by 10 people. People who dedicate significant time to an activity can quickly outpace a much larger group who only use the service once.

    For FixMyStreet (where people report issues like littering and potholes to local authorities), the top 0.1% of users made 16% of the reports and 10% of users account for 62% of reports. Starting from the most prolific users, increasing the number of users by a factor of 10 roughly doubles the number of reports:

    • 418 users (0.1%) account for 224,775 reports (16%)
    • 4,181 users (1%) account for 470,384 reports (33%)
    • 41,814 users (10%) account for 881,481 reports (62%)

    This reflects that at any scale in the data, around half the activity is happening in the top 10%. Overall, two-thirds of users made only one report — but the reports made by this large set of users only makes up 20% of the total number of reports.

    This means that different questions can lead you to very different conclusions about the service. If you’re interested in the people who are using FixMyStreet, that two-thirds is where most of the action is. If you’re interested in the outcomes of the service, this is mostly due to a much smaller group of people.

    Reka Solymosi (2018) investigated the behaviour of the top 1% of reporters and found that they tended to report a wide range of categories: only “16 of the 415 contributors reported only one type of issue. The other 399 reported issues in more than one category” with an average of six categories. These also tended to cover a wide area and “there were only six people who reported in only one neighborhood [LSOA], fewer than the number of people who reported in only one category. The other 409 contributors all reported in at least two neighborhoods”. Solymosi finds four clusters of these super-contributors:

    • Traditional guardians – these report in a small number of neighbourhoods covered but represent the largest number of users.
    • Large-neighbourhood guardians – Report in a larger number of connected neighbourhoods.
    • Super-neighbourhood guardians – People who report in a high number of connected neighbourhoods; this is the largest group.
    • Neighbourhood agnostic guardians – reports are made in disconnected areas.

    Collectively, this can have a wide impact — 18% of LSOAs in England have at least one report from a user who has made more than 100 reports (which is only around 900 people).

    Looking at the general picture through the Explorer minisite, it’s not just that serial reporters report widely; certain kinds of reports are more likely to be made by users who are reporting more issues:

    Incivilities, rubbish, road safety and bus stop damage are all categories more likely to be reported by users who have made 50+ reports. While users who make lots of reports tend to make reports across a few categories, they are often specialised in their output.

    59% reports of flyposting, 57% of graffiti, 52% of litter problems are made by users who have reported more than 50 times.

    It’s important to remember that these aren’t hard divides. Single report users are less likely to report potholes than serial reporters, but it is also true that one in five people who only report one issue report a pothole.

    For the bundle model of understanding FixMyStreet, thinking about this group of super contributors is important, because they represent a minority of users, yet generate most of the value and impact of the site.

    But this comes with a cost. People living in the same area as super contributors benefit from their efforts – but where these super contributors have different concerns or priorities from the area as a while this might shift the outcomes of the service.

    As Muki Haklay argues:

    The specific background and interests of high contributors will, by necessity, impact on the type of data that is recorded. This is especially important in VGI [volunteered geographic information] projects where the details of what to record are left to the participants.

    Where resources are allocated on the basis of data generated by a service, the behaviour of this small group can have an outsized effect. Future blog posts in this series will explore what this looks like in practice.

  7. Service bundles: exploring the many uses of mySociety services

    This blog post is part of a series investigating different demographics and uses of mySociety services. You can read more about this series here.

    A key question when looking at the role of the internet in civic life is whether it changes the demographics of who participates; or whether it simply changes the methods by which already engaged citizens participate. The two sides in this argument can be described as mobilisation and reinforcement.

    The mobilisation argument says that the internet reduces the cost of communication and action, which means that more people can be involved and access becomes more broad.

    The reinforcement argument says that the reduced costs of connectivity will mostly reinforce existing participation divides, making it cheaper for people already engaged to participate, but not necessarily reaching disengaged people.

    This is a fundamental question for civic tech: how are these online tools used? Are they mobilising everyone or just providing more efficient processes for people who are already engaged?

    This is explored in mySociety’s 2015 report Who benefits from Civic Technology?, and is a recurring question in much of our research since, such as our work on FixMyStreet, and digital technologies in sub-Saharan Africa.

    Two themes we are currently investigating in this area are proxies and bundles.

    Proxies are where services are used by intermediaries, on behalf of — and bringing benefits to — others: for instance, where charities engage in more effective lobbying as a result of free access to TheyWorkForYou, or where case workers find it easier to identify and write to a client’s local councillor using WriteToThem.

    Bundles are about exploring how different groups of users use a service in different ways, to such an extent that one service can in fact be understood as a bundle of services serving different kinds of users.

    This is the first in a series of blog posts investigating  bundles.

    A common finding across mySociety services is that most people only use “transactional” services (like WhatDoTheyKnow, FixMyStreet or WriteToThem) once, to do one thing. Repeat users make up a minority of users (even if they account for the majority of actual usage).

    From a technology point of view or an organisational point of view, it makes sense to understand that there is a website called FixMyStreet.com run by mySociety. But from the point of view of the majority of users, it makes sense to think of a website like FixMyStreet as dozens of different services, most of which they will never use. For one user,  FixMyStreet is a tool for reporting potholes, for another it is for reporting littering. Similarly, WriteToThem is most often used as a tool to write to MPs — but the profile of people who use it to write to their local councillors is very different.

    Some services in a bundle are used by a different demographic to other uses of the same website. Understanding how to encourage FixMyStreet use in underrepresented groups requires an understanding of how there are already differences in usage across all the “services” in the FixMyStreet bundle.

    To get more information about these different uses of a website, we’ve built a mini-site that helps to explore basic demographic information about each use type. Starting with FixMyStreet, personal information (names) have been anonymised and converted to gender (approximately), while coordinates are grouped into Lower Super Output Areas (LSOA) — geographic areas commonly used for statistical purposes. This means that we can look at a general, anonymised set of data representing people making FixMyStreet reports, and match this grouped data against various measures of deprivation.

    Understanding more about these different patterns of users suggests possible ways a service can be used and helps sharpen new research questions.

    When examining uses of one element of a bundle, the key question is whether the pattern observed reflects just the individual, or the overall pattern of the bundle. To answer this, a chi-square test is used to tell if the distribution of a sub-use of the site is different to a statistically significant extent to all other uses of the site (this method was inspired by an analysis of gender of reporters in Reka Solymosi, Kate Bowers and Taku Fujiyama’s 2018 paper on FixMyStreet). The groupings of categories in FixMyStreet use Elvis Nyanzu’s meta categories.  The mini-site highlights in red and green areas where a distribution differs from how patterns on the site as a whole respond.

    We’ll be writing a number of blog posts over the next few months covering things we’ve learned from the mini-site. The first two are already up (and linked below):

    Blog posts:

  8. Legal Information Institutes online – making the law free to access

    mySociety’s latest research looks into the impacts of Legal Information Institutes in sub-Saharan Africa. You can read the full paper here.


    If you wanted to find out what a specific law covered, how would you do it? Google what you thought the law was and hope that it came up in an internet search? Go to the local public library and look for law books? Ask a friend? In many cases around the world, especially in developing countries, it is almost impossible to get access to the law through these channels. Many sub-Saharan African countries do not routinely publish their legislation online, and fewer still publish the case-law judgments made by the courts.

    So where is this information? Does it exist?

    The answer is, that it does mostly exist, but much of it is either held in hard copy format within expensive and rare legal textbooks (the kind that can only be found in shiny law offices or prestigious university libraries), or, it is held behind an electronic paywall by a private, profit-making organisation, which requires often eye-watering subscription fees to access.

    How, then, can individuals working in the legal field without significant financial backing, access and use the law? Online Legal Information Institutes are the primary answer.

    In more than 60 countries around the world, Legal Information Institutes make significant volumes of legal information — legislation, case law, judgements etc — freely available on the internet. They can provide valuable resources to legal students, practitioners and stakeholders.

    Despite the fact that a substantial movement exists promoting the principles of free access to law, these services have received relatively little charitable or philanthropic funding  — particularly when compared to services that provide information relating to political or fiscal transparency.  Is it the case that LIIs are primarily used by comparatively well-paid professionals, and hence deliver little true, positive, impact? Or do LIIs in developing countries, where domestic case law and legislation is already difficult to access, and where social mobility within the professions remains low, perform a greater societal service?

    As a financial supporter of a number of African LIIs since 2013, the Indigo Trust, a UK-based philanthropic foundation, commissioned a report to examine the impacts of the LIIs, and whether those impacts could reasonably be amplified with greater investment.

    The research identified clear, positive impacts resulting from the existence and use of the LIIs, most notably in South Africa, where the LII proved to be a key tool in increasing access to the legal profession for economically disadvantaged groups. Across the countries studied, the LIIs were also benefiting the development of high quality domestic case law, which had been underdeveloped prior to digitisation; and were considered to be useful tools for citizens in developing a more meaningful understanding of the law.

    The publication of this research serves to demonstrate this positive work, and the further development work that can strengthen the LIIs.

    Image: Gemma Moulder

  9. What’s needed for a Citizens’ Assembly website?

    As part of our work investigating the digital side of Citizens’ Assemblies (see our previous report), mySociety have started writing a guide on what the website for a Citizens’ Assembly should look like.

    A dedicated website can be important before, during and after the event. It can help you to recruit, inform and communicate during the whole process, from planning to sharing of results. But beyond that, it helps ensure you meet two of the most crucial standards suggested in Marcin Gerwin’s well-regarded list for Citizens’ Assemblies: Visibility and Transparency

    It can also help with the further standards of Impact: making clear from the outset what will result from the outcome of the Assembly; and Openness: providing a forum where everyone can contribute to the process.

    In this guide we discuss broad design and editorial principles, as well as information that should be included. While we include examples of what we consider good practice from previous Assembly websites, this is very much a first attempt at consolidating good practice rather than a definitive document.

    The guide is available as a PDF, and also as a commentable Google Docs file, so we can continue to gather feedback and improve the guidance.


    Image: Markus Spiske

  10. Putting the important questions

    mySociety’s Head of Research Dr Rebecca Rumbul will be speaking at the first ever Welsh Citizens’ Assembly next week. She’ll be exploring how citizens might more easily feed into the questions posed to ministers and the First Minister in the National Assembly for Wales.

    Questions are a fundamental part of all of the UK’s parliaments, most famously in the form of PMQs, the half hour every Wednesday when MPs can raise any issue they deem important with the Prime Minister.

    In the devolved parliaments there are also various formats for Q&As, both written and oral. But, Rebecca will argue, there are fundamental problems inherent in all of them, from a lack of representation of the views of the general public, to the political motivations that lead to many questions lacking meaningful substance.

    Of course, a Citizens’ Assembly is most concerned with hearing from the general populace, and Rebecca will go on to present our recent research into the digital tools that can help with that process, while examining the pros and cons of each.

    Rebecca is one of several speakers who will also include Dr Diana Stirbu and Professor Graham Smith. The event is being co-facilitated by Involve and you can keep up to date with the Citizens’ Assembly’s activities on their dedicated website.

    Image: eNil (CC-by/2.0)