1. Hit the Highway with FixMyStreet

    It’s something we’ve been wanting for a long time, and it’ll very soon be a reality: FixMyStreet reports will, where appropriate, be channeled to Highways England. Look out for this functionality in the coming week.

    My way or the highway

    Previously, if you reported a problem on one of the country’s motorways or major A roads, we had no way of identifying whether it was the responsibility of the government department rather than the council. We had to rely on whichever council the report fell within, and hope that they would forward it on.

    But now, we can send reports off to just the right authority. What’s changed to make this improvement possible?

    Well, FixMyStreet uses our MapIt software, which matches points (in this case, the pin you put in the map when you make a report) with the boundaries they fall within (mainly, until now, council boundaries). That’s how it knows which council to send your issue to, even if you have no idea yourself when you make the report.

    Motorways and A roads have boundaries too, of course, but that data wasn’t previously available under an open licence that would allow us to use it on the site. That all changed with GOV.UK’s release of the Highways England Pavement Management System Network Layer — just what we needed!

    So now, if you make a report that falls within a small distance from one of the relevant roads, FixMyStreet will use MapIt in combination with this data layer. You’ll see a message asking for confirmation that your report actually does pertain to the highway: where roads cross a motorway, for example, a pin could relate to the road on a bridge, or the motorway below.

    Confirm either way and boom: off it goes to either Highways England or to the council, as appropriate.

    So that’s a big thumbs up for open data: thanks, GOV.UK! It’s also a good example of how our commercial work, providing FixMyStreet Pro to councils as their default street reporting system, has a knock-on benefit across the open source FixMyStreet codebase that runs not only FixMyStreet.com, but sites run by other folk around the world.

    As you may remember, we recently added red routes to Bromley for FixMyStreet Pro, and it was this bit of coding that paved the way for the highways work. We can only prioritise not-for-profit development if we have the funding for it; but being able to improve FixMyStreet for everyone on the back of work done for commercial clients is a win for everyone.

    Or, as our developer Struan says, in a metaphor perhaps better suited to shipping routes than highways, “a rising tide raises all boats”.

     

    Image: Alex Kalinin

     

     

  2. Help us find the world’s electoral boundaries

    We, and Open Knowledge International, are looking for the digital files that hold electoral boundaries, for every country in the world — and you can help.

    Yeah, we know — never let it be said we don’t know how to party.

    But seriously, there’s a very good reason for this request. When people make online tools to help citizens contact their local politicians, they need to be able to match users to the right representatives.

    So head on over to the Every Boundary survey and see how you can help — or read on for a bit more detail.

    Data for tools that empower citizens

    If you’ve used mySociety’s sites TheyWorkForYou — or any of the other parliamentary monitoring sites we’ve helped others to run around the world — you’ll have seen this matching in action. Electoral boundary data is also integral in campaigning and political accountability,  from Surfers against Sewage’s ‘Plastic Free Parliament’ campaign, to Call your Rep in the US.

    These sites all work on the precept that while people may not know the names of all their representatives at every level — well, do you? — people do tend to know their own postcode or equivalent. Since postcodes fall within boundaries, once both those pieces of information are known, it’s simple to present the user with their correct constituency or representative.

    So the boundaries of electoral districts are an essential piece of the data needed for such online tools.  As part of mySociety’s commitment to the Democratic Commons project, we’d like to be able to provide a single place where anyone planning to run a politician-contacting site can find these boundary files easily.

    And here’s why we need you

    Electoral boundaries are the lines that demarcate where constituencies begin and end. In the old days, they’d have been painstakingly plotted on a paper map, possibly accessible to the common citizen only by appointment.

    These days, they tend to be available as digital files, available via the web. Big step forward, right?

    But, as with every other type of political data, the story is not quite so simple.

    There’s a great variety of organisations responsible for maintaining electoral boundary files across different countries, and as a result, there’s little standardisation in where and how they are published.

    How you can help

    We need the boundary files for 231 countries (or as we more accurately — but less intuitively — refer to them, ‘places’), and for each place we need the boundaries for constituencies at national, regional and city levels. So there’s plenty to collect.

    As we so often realise when running this sort of project, it’s far easier for many people to find a few files each than it would be for our small team to try to track them all down. And that, of course, is where you come in.

    Whether you’ve got knowledge of your own country’s boundary files and where to find them online, or you’re willing to spend a bit of time searching around, we’d be so grateful for your help.

    Fortunately, there’s a tool we can use to help collect these files — and we didn’t even have to make it ourselves! The Open Data Survey, first created by Open Knowledge International to assess and display just how much governmental information around the world is freely available as open data, has gone on to aid many projects as they collect data for their own campaigns and research.

    Now we’ve used this same tool to provide a place where you can let us know where to find that electoral boundary data we need.

    Where to begin

    Start here  — and please feel free to get in touch if anything isn’t quite clear, or you have any general questions. You might want to check the FAQs first though!

    Thanks for your help — it will go on to improve citizen empowerment and politician accountability throughout the world. And that is not something everyone can say they’ve done.

    Image credit: Sam Poullain

  3. Which ward will you be in on May 4?

    It’s that time of year again. Local elections are on the 4th of May and we have updated our boundary change checker. It also helpfully lets you know if your ward is not having elections (not that your author was unaware of course.)

    On May 4th elections will be taking place across English, Welsh and Scottish councils as well as the the elections for the new ‘combined authority’ Mayors.

    Ward boundaries are changing

    You might think you already know where to vote, and who’s standing for election in your area.

    But both are dictated by which ward you live in — and that may not be the one you’re used to, thanks to ongoing changes in ward boundaries.

    There’s no need to worry, though. As before, we’ve got the data that will tell you whether your ward has changed. Just enter your postcode here.

    Once again the Democracy Club’s project Who Can I Vote For? will allow you to see whatever information is available for candidates in your ward.

    Image: Roger (CC by-sa/2.0)

  4. Meet the new-ish MapIt

    MapIt has had a bit of a refresh to bring the look into line with the rest of the mySociety projects. At the same time, we thought we’d take the opportunity to make it a bit easier for non-technical folk to understand what it offers, and to make the pricing a little less opaque.

     

    New MapIt homepage from mySociety

     

    You may not be familiar with MapIt, but all the same, if you’ve ever found your MP on TheyWorkForYou, written to your representatives on WriteToThem, or reported an issue through FixMyStreet, you’re a MapIt user!

    That’s because MapIt does the heavy lifting in the background when you enter a postcode or location, matching that input to the boundaries it falls within (ward, constituency, borough, etc). It is, if you like, the geographic glue that holds mySociety services together.

    What MapIt does

    Like most of mySociety’s software offerings, MapIt is available for others to use. So for example, the GOV.UK website uses it to put users in touch with the right council for a number of services, and Prostate Cancer UK uses it on their campaign site, using MapIt’s knowledge of CCG (Clinical Commissioning Group) region boundaries.

    And you can use MapIt too: if your app or website needs to connect UK locations with areas like constituencies or counties, it will save you a lot of time and effort.

    Simple payment

    Pricing and payment is a lot slicker now: while it was previously managed manually, you can now purchase what you need online, quickly and without the need for human intervention. It’s also quite simple to see the pricing options laid out.

    We hope that this will make it easier for people to make use of the service, and better understand what level of usage they need. But if you need to experiment, there’s a free ‘sandbox’ to play about with!

    As ever, we’re happy to provide significant discounts for charity and non-profit projects: see more details on the licensing page.

    Selection_012

    The new MapIt pricing

     

    If you have any questions or comments please do get in touch.

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  5. New on MapIt: Local Authority codes for England

    There’s a new piece of data on MapIt, and it wasn’t added by us. It’s tiny but useful, and it’s slightly esoteric, so bear with us and we’ll explain why it’s worth your attention.

    Local Authority codes come from the government’s set of canonical registers. They may not look much, but they’re part of a drive to bring consistency across a wide range of data sets. That’s important, and we’ll try to explain why.

    MapIt page showing the local authority codes

     

    One name can refer to more than one thing

    If you try to buy a train ticket to Gillingham in the UK, and you are lucky enough to be served by a conscientious member of staff, they will check whether you are going to the Gillingham in Kent (GIL), or the one in Dorset (GLM).

    The names of the two towns might be identical, but their three-letter station codes differ, and quite right too — how, otherwise, would the railway systems be able to charge the right fare? And more importantly, how many people would set off confidently to their destination, but end up in the wrong county?

    I mention this purely to illustrate the importance of authoritative, consistent data, the principle that is currently driving a government-wide initiative to ensure that there’s a single canonical code for prisons, schools, companies, and all kinds of other categories of places and organisations.

    Of particular interest to us at mySociety? Local authorities. That’s because several of our services, from FixMyStreet to WriteToThem, rely on MapIt to connect the user to the correct council, based on their geographical position.

    One thing can have more than one name

    I live within the boundaries of Brighton and Hove City Council.

    That’s its official name, but when talking or writing about my local authority, I’m much more likely to call it ‘Brighton’, ‘Brighton Council’, or at a push, ‘Brighton & Hove Council’. All of which is fine within everyday conversation, but which is an approach which could cause mayhem for the kind of data that digital systems need (“machine readable” data, which is consistent, structured and in a format which can be ‘understood’ by computer programs).

    Registers of Open Data

    The two examples above go some way towards explaining why the Department for Local Government & Communities, with Government Digital Services (GDS), are in the process of creating absolute standards, not just for councils but for every outpost of their diverse and extensive set of responsibilities, from the Food Standards Agency to the Foreign & Commonwealth Office, the Land Registry and beyond.

    Where possible, these registers are published and shared as Open Data that anyone can use. It’s all part of GDS’ push towards ‘government as a platform’, and in keeping with the work being done towards providing Open Data throughout the organisation. Where possible these registers are openly available, and can be used by anyone building apps, websites and systems.

    And now we come to those Local Authority codes that you can find on MapIt.

    Anyone can contribute to Open Source code

    Like most mySociety codebases, MapIt is Open Source.

    That means that not only can anyone pick up the code and use it for their own purposes, for free, but that they’re also welcome to submit changes or extensions to the existing code.

    And that’s just how GDS’ Sym Roe submitted the addition of the register.

    What it all means for you

    If you’re a developer, the addition of these codes means that you can use MapIt in your app or web service, and be absolutely sure that it will integrate with any other dataset that’s using the same codes. So, no more guessing whether our ‘Plymouth’ is the same as the ‘Plymouth’ in your database; the three-letter code tells you that it is.

    Plus, these register codes identify a local authority as an organisation, or a legal entity, as opposed to setting out the boundary, so that’s an extra layer of information which we are glad to be able to include.

    Image (showing another example of uniformly-used three-letter codes): Jim Linwood (CC by/2.0)

  6. Standing up for erectile dysfunction care: a digital empowerment tool

    What’s the best way to get your supporters to campaign, when the finer details of what they’re pressing for may vary from place to place? That’s the issue that faced Prostate Cancer UK as they call for better provision for men across the country with erectile dysfunction as a result of prostate cancer.

    There are five core treatments for tackling erectile dysfunction, but whether all of them will be offered to you depends on your postcode. In some areas, all are offered as standard, while in others there may be none.

    The tool we built for Prostate Cancer UK used several of mySociety’s areas of expertise, from mapping to user testing — we even used Freedom of Information. And putting it all together, we have a powerful campaigning platform that responds to users’ location, while raising awareness and pushing for improvement.

    Prostate Cancer UK’s Erectile Dysfunction campaign site informs people about what care should be available to those who experience the condition as a result of prostate cancer treatment, and urges them to write to their local health commissioner if provision is poor in their area.

     

    Prostate Cancer tool, built by mySociety

    Educating, campaigning, sharing

    The user is first informed: they are shown the five factors which constitute good treatment of erectile dysfunction. After that, they are prompted to input their postcode to see how many of those measures are provided by the NHS body responsible for their region.

    If provision is poor, they are encouraged to help campaign: users can opt to write to their Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG), Health Board or Health and Social Care Board to ask them to improve what’s available. They are given the choice between writing a letter from scratch, or using a pre-composed template which also contains a section for the writer to add a paragraph of their own words — a pragmatic balance that avoids an influx of identical form letters, while still addressing fact that when users are faced with a completely blank page, many will drop out of the process.

    When you’ve done that, for those in England there’s also an opportunity to contact Jeremy Hunt, Secretary of State for Health to highlight the variation in treatment for erectile dysfunction and establish which organisation is responsible for the national commissioning guidelines.

    Finally, the user is invited to share what they’ve learned, via Facebook, Twitter or email. Our user testing revealed that, contrary to our worries, people were happy to do this without embarrassment.

    How it works

    Like most of mySociety’s own sites, the ‘Better Care’ site uses MapIt to match the user’s postcode with a boundary, in this case the boundaries of the CCGs, Health Boards and Health & Social Care Boards. That’s how we deliver the information about what’s available in their local area.

    When you input your postcode to see how your local provisioners are doing, MapIt also delivers information for other areas, including a couple of close neighbouring ones. This allows us to provide a nice comparison, along with the statistic that shows whether your provisioner is better, worse, or within the same range as the average.

    PCUK comparison screen

    But how did we gather the data to tell you how well each CCG, Health Board or Health and Social Care Board is catering for erectile dysfunction patients? Well, fortunately, thanks to our own WhatDoTheyKnow website, it was relatively easy to send a Freedom of Information request to every one in the country — 235 of them in total. The WhatDoTheyKnow volunteer admin team were able to help with this large batch request.

    Once we had all the data and a general idea of how the tool would work, we took an early version out to test it with users. The insights we gained from this process were, as always, extremely useful, and led to us altering page layouts and other elements that made the whole process as clear as it could be.

    Finally, we incorporated quite a bit of statistics-gathering into the whole tool, so that Prostate Cancer UK would be able to see where their campaign might benefit from further optimising in the future.

    All in all, we’re very glad to have been part of this important campaign to help men understand what’s available to them, and where they might need to push for more.

     

    Image: Brad Hagan (CC-by/2.0)

  7. MapIt: creating a more flexible service for our customers

    If you’ve visited the MapIt site this week, you might have noticed a change: we’ve introduced key-based authentication for API users.

    This enables us to be more flexible about how we provide our service, which means you can be more flexible about how you serve your users.

    MapIt is both an open source application and, via https://mapit.mysociety.org, a web service. Use of the API is free for low-volume, charitable use, while all other uses require a licence.

    For the moment API keys are optional. We’ll always offer a free level of service to support independent developers and charities.

    We’ll have more details soon about the increased flexibility this change will bring.

    Image: Clare Black (CC)

  8. Which ward will you be in on May 5?

    Are you still in the same ward? Check whether your ward boundaries have changed here.

    May 5 is election day

    If you’re a UK citizen, you have an election in your near future. We can say that with confidence.

    May 5 sees elections not only for the Scottish Parliament, the National Assembly of Wales and the Northern Ireland Assembly, but also for many local councils. Londoners will be picking their London Assembly representatives and their Mayor. As if all that isn’t enough, there are also Police and Crime Commissioner Elections.

    Ward boundaries are changing

    You might think you already know where to vote, and who’s standing for election in your area.

    But both are dictated by which ward you live in — and that may not be the one you’re used to, thanks to ongoing changes in ward boundaries.

    There’s no need to worry, though. As before, we’ve provided a nifty tool that will tell you whether your ward has changed. Just enter your postcode here.

    Thanks to Democracy Club’s new project Who Can I Vote For? you’ll also be able to click through to see whatever information is available for candidates in your ward.

    Image: Matt Brown (CC)

  9. How SocialCareInfo matches people to resources

    socialcareinfo - homepage

    It’s great to see the launch of SocialCareInfo, a new website which helps people in the UK find local & national social care resources.

    All the more so because it uses one of our tools, MapIt, to match postcodes with the relevant local authorities. The site’s builders, Lasa, came to us when it became clear that MapIt did exactly what they needed.

    Socialcareinfo.net covers the whole of the UK. Users begin by typing in their postcode, whereupon they are shown the range of services available to them.

    SocialCareInfo map page

    That’s also how many of our own projects (think FixMyStreet, WriteToThem or TheyWorkForYou) begin, and there’s a good reason for that: users are far more likely to know their own postcode than to be certain about which local authority they fall under, or even who their MP is.

    MapIt is really handy for exactly this kind of usage, where you need to match a person to a constituency or governing body. It looks at which boundaries the geographic input falls within, and it returns the relevant authorities.

    We’re glad to see it working so well for SocialCareInfo, and we feel sure that the site will prove a useful resource for the UK.

  10. Are you still in the same ward?

    You might not be in the ward you think you are. Due to ongoing boundary changes, many people will be voting within new wards this year. Confused? Fortunately, you can use our new MapIt-powered ward comparison site to see whether you’ll be affected by any new boundaries.

    Pop your postcode in at 2015wards.mysociety.org and if your boundary is changing you’ll see your old and new wards.

    These alterations are generally put in place by the Local Government Boundary Commissions, in an aim to even out the number of constituents represented by each councillor.