1. OpenPlanning is making planning applications more accessible

    Open Planning

    If you’ve got a problem with your planning applications, we’ve got a little something for you…

    Back in September, we wrote about our project with Hampshire Hub to build a prototype, open source web application that would help members of the public find out more about planning applications in their area:

    The planning process can be baffling if you’re new to it and this tool aims to help make it easier to understand. We’ll be helping people answer some of the most common questions they have about planning applications: What applications are happening near me? What decisions have been made in the past on applications like mine? How likely is it that my application will be dealt with on time?

    The site helps people browse planning application data by location — whether a postcode or a street address — and by type — whether it’s an extension, a loft conversion, or a major development like a retail park or commercial warehouse.

    That project can now be seen at http://openplanning.hampshirehub.net/: go and have a poke around!

    How it works

    OpenPlanning displays planning applications clearly on a map. Users can browse their local area and learn more about how to complete their own request by looking at the success or failure of what has gone before.

    This benefits everyone, from residents who are less likely to have their applications turned down, to the council who will find themselves dealing with higher-quality submissions.

    By aggregating planning application details from multiple councils, the site allows users to browse irrespective of administrative boundaries or the authority in charge. After all, neither of those considerations are very high on the list of the resident’s priorities.

    There’s nothing new about putting planning applications online, of course: they can already be browsed and submitted in many places across the web. This project isn’t hoping to replace those tools, but to complement them, providing links to existing data sources where possible, all accessible via a much more user-friendly interface.

    We know many councils and residents struggle with planning applications on a daily basis, and we hope that OpenPlanning will provide the first step towards making the whole process easier for all parties.

    The future for OpenPlanning

    OpenPlanning is the first iteration of a new product. At this early stage, we haven’t included a facility to submit a planning application – that’s something we could slot in cost-effectively at a later phase though, and of course we’d be happy to hear from any councils who would be interested in adopting that approach.

    The code is based on Open Australia Foundation’s PlanningAlerts platform, which means it’s already been tried and tested by a wide community down under. It’s still under active development and, thanks to the joys of Open Source code, we’ll be able to contribute improvements back to the original codebase too.

    We’ve really enjoyed working with Hampshire Hub: a forward-thinking  partnership of councils and other public organisations, led by Hampshire County Council, which aims to provide useful open data for the county. Hampshire understands the benefits, both direct and indirect, of open source tools and open data.

    Now we’re seeking local councils who are struggling with the quality of planning applications, perhaps processing large volumes of applications that are not granted. If that sounds like you then please get in touch to speak to mySociety Services about what OpenPlanning can do for you.

     

  2. 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.

  3. Foie gras, Turkish baths and machine guns: the strange world of local government procurement

    Local government has a need for all kinds of services, from taxis to stationery. And to ensure that they get the best deals, they acquire them through a procurement process—one that, as suppliers of software to councils, we’ve become very familiar with ourselves.

    It’s quite simple: every category of goods or services has its own ID number. You identify the ones that are closest to what you provide—so in our case, it might be software development, software consultancy, and the provision of software packages.

    Then you sign up to receive notifications every time a council puts out a request for tenders that fall within one of those categories.

    Our newest team member, Camilla, has been spending a lot of time signing up for these notifications across all the various platforms in the UK (buy her a drink if you see her: procurement websites might just be amongst the most infuriating and clunky known to man), and as a result, she’s noticed that as well as all the categories you’d expect, there are also plenty more that you wouldn’t.

    For example, who knew that councils had such a regular need for

    15112310 Foie gras

    or indeed

    18318000 Nightwear
    98331000 Turkish bath services
    18511100 Diamonds
    14523400 Platinum
    16710000 Pedestrian-controlled agricultural tractors

    Then there’s

    35321100 Hand guns

    and as if that’s not enough…

    35321300 Machine guns

    There are plenty more categories that might make you go ‘hmm’ – take a look for yourself.

    Oh, and here’s a thought – if you’d like to ask your own local council what their expenditure is on nightwear, foie gras or machine guns, you can do so very easily at our own WhatDoTheyKnow.com.

    Image: Dynamosquito (CC)

  4. Channel Shift Conference: We’ll be there, will you?

    The mySociety Services team will be attending this year’s Channel Shift Conference on 17th June in London. We’d love to see you there, and we’d be happy to talk about your needs.

    Local authorities using FixMyStreet for Councils have reported a shift of up to 300% from phone to online reporting. Why? Because when online reporting systems are this easy, phone contact plummets.

    So we know how important channel shift is for councils, and we can help you achieve it. With central government calling on local councils to lead the way in cost-cutting via digital technologies, we know there’s great pressure to deliver services on an ever-lower budget.

    The solution doesn’t have to be a lengthy and costly tie-in with a big provider, however. FixMyStreet For Councils shows how small independents can provide everything your clients need, with no long-running, over-priced framework agreements.

    Come and have a chat and we’ll show you how other councils have implemented our services. We can answer all your questions about back-end integration, mobile apps and how we can tailor FixMyStreet to your needs.

    We look forward to joining attendees from Central and Local Government, Housing, Police and the Private Sector, to discuss channel shift best practices. The conference will focus on overcoming key barriers, such as: culture change, integrating front-end to back-end systems, effective business process mapping, and demonstrating and promoting channel shift success.

    Many of our services are tried and tested catalysts for shifting citizen contact online. We’ll be demonstrating the channel shift success we’ve had with our council clients, and showing how you can replicate that success with your own implementation.

    Here is some more information about the conference:

    Speakers include:

    • Chair: James Rolfe, Director of Finance, Resources and Customer Services, Enfield Council
    • Keynote: Danny McLaughlin, Digital Service Manager, Department for Work and Pensions
    • Steve Halliday, Chief Information Officer, Solihull Metropolitan Borough Council and Past President, Socitm
    • Julie Robinson, Director of Resources, Watford Community Housing Trust
    • Boris Worrall, Executive Director Futures, Orbit Group – Futures
    • Ian Simons, Group Head of Social Media, RSA Insurance
    • Natalie Proffitt, Head of Digital Media Services, Leicestershire Police
    • Barry May, Head of Customer Services, London Borough of Camden

    Website: http://www.capitaconferences.co.uk/public-sector-conferences/detail/article/channel-shift-conference-1.html?code=MYSOC

    Brochure: http://www.capitaconferences.co.uk/pdfgen.html?filename=ChannelShiftJun15.pdf&code=MYSOC

    Email: naomi.wood@capita.co.uk / 020 7202 0571

  5. Can you believe everything you hear? Fact-checking claims ahead of the election

    Full Fact

    A whole lot of facts are going to be bandied about by politicians, between now and the General Election. How do you know which to believe?

    Fortunately, there’s an organisation that’s dedicated to checking every statement, so that you can see the bare facts with no added hyperbole.

    Our friends at Full Fact are working day and night, scanning mainstream media outlets (radio, television, newspapers) and what is said in Parliament, logging any sightings of claims made by politicians.

    Their researchers then provide a professional assessment of each claim, along with a verdict on whether it can be said to be supported by the relevant data, not supported, or whether there’s not enough information to prove it either way.

    With a large team consisting of volunteers and experts, such a large number of facts to be checked, plus the likelihood of the same facts being used by different parties in different ways to suit their agenda, it’s essential that Full Fact have systems in place to help them keep track. That’s where mySociety Services stepped in.

    We’ve created tools for their volunteers to log sightings of claims and for researchers to link theses claims to the data and provide an expert assessment. That means that when the same issues keep reappearing, Full Fact will know exactly where to look to find the relevant facts.

    At the same time we’ve had an opportunity to standardise and improve the organisation’s coding practices, ensuring that as Full Fact grow their own development team they’re able to work without stepping on each other’s toes.

    Check out Full Fact’s valuable work here – and if your organisation’s workflow could also benefit from some streamlining, take a look at what we offer on the mySociety Services site.

  6. Helping Passenger Focus display bus satisfaction data

    Passenger Focus bus satisfaction survey

    Users of Lothian Buses are more satisfied with the value for money of their bus journeys than anyone else in the country.

    Passengers on the Oxford Park and Ride service find the seats the most comfortable.  And the drivers of Trent Barton in Nottinghamshire give a friendly enough greeting, according to 95% of passengers.

    These are the kind of insights that it’s now very easy to discover on the Passenger Focus website, thanks to the latest project by mySociety Services.

    It’s an extension of the work we did last year to help the transport watchdog display their train satisfaction data. We’ve introduced a new design which, we hope, makes it much easier to explore the results of Passenger Focus’ annual passenger satisfaction survey.

    We’ve used a new visual approach that is appropriate for the bus data: it makes it really easy to browse through 32 different survey categories, from cleanliness to safe driving.

    When you have that many categories, drop-downs aren’t really an option, and we’re pleased with what we came up with to make it easy to make the most important categories prominent, while still allowing easy and intuitive access to the others.

    We’ve also used responsive design, which means it performs beautifully whether viewed on mobile or at the desktop. Check it out for yourself here – be sure to resize your browser to see the mobile version kick in!

  7. Welcome to mySociety Services

    mysocietyservicesNeed someone to develop a web application or an online tool for your organisation?

    Enjoy what we do here at mySociety?

    The good news is that mySociety’s experience and skills can be all yours… and now we have a brand new website that gives us enough space to really go into detail about what we offer.

    Open for business

    At mySociety Services you’ll find everything you need to know about hiring us for your organisation.

    We’ve included a bunch of case studies—in fact, they make up the bulk of the new site—because we reckon that’s the most immediate way to show you how we work, and how we’d approach your projects, too.

    Elsewhere, we’ve divided our services up, so there’s an obvious place to look whether you need a web application building, or perhaps something nifty with maps, or your organisation could benefit from a little direction with everything digital. Plus, there’s a page about our “off the peg” products such as FixMyStreet for Councils.

    Still doing good

    So far, so much like any other digital agency. But there is, of course, the little thing that makes us different: when you commission us, all the revenue goes to support the mySociety charitable projects that you know and love.

    Growing up

    The mySociety Services site is a step forward for us, and it represents a coming of age for our commercial team. You might like to think of us as an agency in our own right from here on in.

    But meanwhile, we’ll still be retaining the same ethos and working methods that inform everything we do at mySociety. Hopefully, you’ll find that it’s the best of both worlds.

    Enough of the chit-chat. We’re ready to talk commercial: come and see what we offer.

     

     

     

  8. Order the map you need: Mapumental Public Transport Maps

    Mapumental order this map

    Mapumental just became self-service! Now you can order maps as images or data, right from the Mapumental website.

    Public transport travel times to Birmingham meet-up, from Mapumental by mySocietyMapumental creates maps that display transit time rather than distance. The results, showing time bands in an array of colours, are both useful and rather beautiful (see the example, right).

    We’ve added new functionality so that you can download your maps direct – just go to www.mapumental.com and click the ‘try it’ button.

    Once you’ve input a postcode and moved the slider bar to reflect the maximum travel time you want to display, you can go ahead and click on ‘order this map’, and choose parameters including direction of travel,  zoom level, size and title.

    Mapumental maps as data

    Choosing the ‘data’ option will export your map as a 500m resolution GRASS ASCII raster, which can be imported directly into your preferred GIS software.

    Mapumental maps as images

    You may prefer to simply download the end product – a graphic image that you can save to your own hard drive and use in presentations or reports, on websites, or anywhere else you choose.

    It’s as easy as that

    Payment is via a credit system: the more credits you buy, the cheaper each map is.

    We hope you’ll find the self-service Mapumental useful – we’d love to hear feedback about your experience using it, and how you utilise the resulting maps.

    Don’t forget that we can also create bespoke maps with your own data – get in touch to find out more.

  9. 12 exciting projects mySociety was hired to deliver last year

    Image by Craig Sunter

    Not many people realise that we fund a proportion of our charitable work by carrying our commercial development and consultancy work for a wide range of clients.

    Last year, we scoped, developed and delivered a real variety of digital tools and projects. Some of the projects were surprising. Some of them made us gnash our teeth, a bit, as we grappled with new problems. But all of them (and call us geeks if you like) got us very excited.

    Here are just twelve of our personal high points from last year. If you have a project that you think we might be able to help you with in 2015, we’d love to hear from you!

    1. We Changed the Way in Which Parliament Does Digital

    Palace of Westminster by Greg DunlapThis time last year, a small team from mySociety was poring over analytics, interview content and assorted evidence from Parliament projects dating back last 2-3 years, to help us put together a simple set of recommendations to conclude our review.

    11 months later, Parliament have announced their first Head of Digital, fulfilling one of our key recommendations.

    2. We helped the MAS and the FCA protect financial consumers

    Bubble Car by Allen WatkinTwo of our projects helped people financially.

    We built the Money Advice Service’s (MAS) first responsive web application, the Car Cost Calculator.

    This tool takes one simple thing you know (the car you wish to buy) and tells you roughly how much it’ll cost to run that car against any others you might be interested in. It has been one of MAS’ most successful online tools in terms of traffic and conversion.

    We also built the Financial Conduct Authority’s Scam Smart tool, aiming to prevent financial scams.

    This tool helps users considering a financial investment to check a potential investment. Users enter information about the type of investment, how they heard about it and the details of the company offering it to them and get back tailored guidance and suggested next steps to help them ensure the investment is bona fide.

    3. We Gave Power to the People of Panama (soon)

    Alaveteli homepageWorking with the The National Authority for Transparency & Access to Information (ANTAI) and the Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO), we set up our first government-backed instance of our Freedom of Information platform, Alaveteli, in Panama.

    This project will ensure that Panama’s FOI legislation is promoted and used, but it will also shine a light on ANTAI, who are responsible for ensuring ministries and organisations publish their information, and handling case appeals.

    4. We Mapped All the Public Services in Wales

    Bws Ysgol - Image by Aqwis via Wikimedia, CCAfter we extended the Mapumental API to produce data output suitable for GIS (geographical information systems), the Welsh Government were able to map public services in Wales for their Index of Multiple Deprivation calculations.

    Over the course of the year they have calculated travel times for over seventy thousand points of interest.

    5. We Launched a New Organisation in Four Weeks

    Simply SecureSimply Secure approached us in dire need of a brand, an identity and a website to accompany the launch of their new organisation to help the world build user-friendly security tools and technologies.

    Cue four weeks of very intense work for mySociety’s designer, supported by members of the commercial team. And we did it.

    6. We Printed Stuff BIG (and found people jobs)

    Public transport travel times to Birmingham meet-up, from Mapumental by mySocietymySociety developer Dave Arter figured out how to generate A1 sized maps from Mapumental for every job centre in the UK – all 716 of them.

    Xerox will be using these with the DWP to help job seekers find work that is within reach by public transport. As a byproduct, Mapumental now handles high-fidelity print based outputs: get in touch if that is of interest.

    7. We Opened Up Planning Applications

    open-planning-shotWith Hampshire County Council we had the opportunity to build a new application to help assist members of the public and business better understand what was happening around them. For us, it was also the first application in which we worked closely with a provider of a linked data store, in this case Swirrl.

    When Open Planning goes live, it will look to help improve social engagement and the economy of Hampshire through better understanding and transparency of planning data.

    8. We Proved (Again) That FixMyStreet Isn’t All About Potholes

    CollideoscopeAfter a spate of cyclists’ deaths in London last year, we felt that the moment was right to build something that would support cycle safety in the UK.

    We launched Collideoscope on October the 7th with our first sponsor—Barts Charity, with the aim of generating data both on incidents involving cycles, and near misses.

    9. We Helped Launch a Film

    A map of old Norse place namesWe built a tool for the British Museum, to go alongside the general release of Vikings Live. The Norse Names project brought a sense of context and personalisation to a dataset gathered by the University of Nottingham.

    10. We Made Data More Exciting

    To the Trains by Nic McPheeIn 2013, we built an interface to help people explore the data in the National Rail Passenger Survey (NRPS) data explorer  for Passenger Focus.

    This year, they asked us to build something similar for bus users. We’re entering the final week of development now, and the finished product should be launched in March.

    The main aim of this site? To take data that could be considered pretty dry, and make it a lot more engaging.

    11. We Fixed Yet More Potholes

    Fixed, by Tup WandersThis year Warwickshire, East Sussex, Hart & Harrogate joined the list of councils using FixMyStreet as their main street fault reporting platform.

    That means that residents of those places can now make their reports direct from their council’s website, or via FixMyStreet, and either way they’ll have all the benefits of FixMyStreet’s smooth report-making interface.

    12. We Showed Parliament the Way

    Parliament Square by Duncan HarrisAnd so, we end where we began. While Parliament were busy interviewing candidates for their new ‘Head of Digital’ position, we were commissioned to demonstrate what Hansard might look like were a platform like SayIt used instead of the largely print-based publishing mechanisms used today.

    The result was shared internally. While SayIt may not be the end solution for Parliament, it’s great to have had some input into what that solution might be.

    And in 2015…?

    Got a project that you’d like us to be involved in?

    Get in touch and tell us about it.

    Image credits:

    Eggs: Craig Sunter; Parliament: Greg Dunlap; Bubble car: Allen Watkin; To the Trains: Nic McPhee; Potholes: Tup Wanders; Parliament Duncan Harris. All Creative Commons.

     

  10. Protecting vulnerable financial consumers with the FCA Warning List

    Every year, thousands of people in the UK fall prey to financial scams. For the last six months, mySociety has been working with the Financial Conduct Authority to create an online tool, the FCA Warning List, to try and help potentially vulnerable financial consumers avoid scams.

    The tool launched on Wednesday last week as part of a wider communications campaign aimed at educating the public on the typical characteristics of scams.

    FCA-warning-list-homepage

    The homepage of the FCA Warning List

    The sophistication of financial scams

    When I’ve mentioned this project to people, they invariably think of emails from extravagantly-named lawyers in far-flung countries identifying you as the lucky beneficiary of a lost inheritance. These scams seem, to most people, obvious and the people who fall prey easy to ridicule: how can people possibly think this stuff is real?

    But many scams are actually incredibly sophisticated and work on people over a long period of time, with even the most experienced investors at risk of being taken in.

    An introductory approach is made by someone who knows your name on a realistic pretext. Might you be interested in this investment? No? Well, John, it was good to chat and I’ll call again in a few months. A few months later another call. Did you know that if you’d invested you’d have made 20% by now? I have another investment here that I think might interest you, let me introduce you to my colleague who knows the director at this firm personally.

    Scammers work their victim as a team, they lure us in and use our cognitive flaws and emotional weaknesses to ensnare us.

    Disconcertingly informative user research

    During this project, we interviewed 15 or so potential users, recruited as having the characteristics of people likely to be targeted by scammers. About half of these people had come in contact with a scam. As far as we know, none of them had fallen victim but only one of them reported their experience to the authorities.

    Almost all of them thought that a website to help them research investment opportunities—provided by an independent third party like the FCA—would be useful for them.

    The product

    We’ve built an online tool that we hope will help investors avoid scams. A person using it gives it some basic facts about an investment opportunity (what is it an investment in? how did you hear about it?) and it gives them back some guidance specific to them.

    For example, did you know that if you’re cold called about an investment opportunity, in all likelihood it’s a scam? Just that simple message alone has the potential to be very disruptive to scams.

    The tool also allows users to search a list of firms that the FCA knows to be operating without their permission: if someone’s talking to a firm on that list about an investment, that’s probably a pretty bad idea.

    Finally, it gives people other suggested actions at the end of the process. Been cold called? You should report it. Considering an investment in an unregulated commodity like bamboo? You should research further before investing.

    FCA-warning-list-widget

    We also made a widgetty version of the tool homepage that can be easily embedded into other websites.

    Scammers rob people of cash, but they can also take people’s self-respect and damage their personal relationships, often at a time of life when they are particularly vulnerable.

    We’re excited about the launch of the Warning List and are proud to be supporting the FCA in its mission to protect consumers by disrupting more of the scams that have such a destructive effect on people’s lives.