Today, mySociety, in partnership with Microsoft, launch Civic Tech Cities, a new piece of research looking at the technologies local governments implement to serve and communicate with their citizens. You can download it here.
Civic Tech: whose job is it?
Debating and making decisions on behalf of the people; managing services, disseminating information — all of these have been the agreed tasks of local government for a very long time. But has citizen-facing technology now also become a core function of government? And if so, how are they doing?
We often say that mySociety was originally set up to show governments how they could be using digital better, and that one day we hope to have done ourselves out of a job.
But perhaps it’s wrong to foresee a time when we’ll be able to pack up and go home. Perhaps those within government will never be able to escape internal bureaucracies and budget constraints to provide the software that their citizens will really benefit from; perhaps the provocative NGO, one step ahead with citizen-to-government technologies, will always be a necessary agent.
We won’t know for sure until we start researching beyond our own sphere.
A vital new area for research
When we set up the mySociety research programme, as you’d expect, our first priority was to look at the impact of the services we, and other organisations like us, were providing.
Around the same time, the term ‘Civic Tech’ was gaining traction, and it carried with it an implicit reference to applications made outside government, by organisations like us, cheekily providing the tools the citizens wanted rather than those the government decided they needed.
If our aim was to wake governments up to the possibilities of digital, to some extent it has been successful. Governments around the world, at all levels, have seen the financial and societal benefits, and are producing, buying in, and commissioning civic software for their own online offerings.
It is, then, high time that the sphere of government-implemented civic technologies were more closely examined: how effective are they? Who is using them? What changes are they wreaking on the relationship between citizen and government? How, indeed, are governments themselves changing as a result of this new direction?
Civic Tech Cities
Thanks to generous funding from Microsoft, we were able to conduct research that seeks to answer these questions, in the context of municipal-level council digital offerings in five US cities.
Emily Shaw, in collaboration with mySociety’s Head of Research Rebecca Rumbul, examined standalone projects in Austin, Chicago, Oakland, Washington DC and Seattle, to produce case studies that cast a light on the state of institutional civic tech in the current age.
The technologies chosen for scrutiny were diverse in some ways, but the challenges they faced were often alike: and we can all, whether inside or outside government, recognise common pitfalls such as failing to budget for ongoing maintenance of a service that was expected to roll happily along, untended, for the foreseeable future; or building a world-changing digital service that fails to gain traction because its potential users never get to hear about it.
It’s our hope that local governments everywhere will benefit from this in-depth look at the tools US municipal governments have put in place, from LargeLots in Chicago which sold disused land in disadvantaged neighbourhoods for a nominal $1 fee, to RecordTrac in Oakland, a request and response tool for those seeking information under California’s Public Record Act.
Better tools make better policy
Interestingly, one of the key findings of this report is that developing digital tools alongside policy, rather than bolting these tools on afterwards, results not only in better tools, but better policy too.
The user-centred design principles that have been central to the Civic Tech movement had a knock-on effect beyond the software development departments of municipal government. They began to shape the ways in which policy itself was developed, resulting in services that were more accessible and appropriate to the communities they serve.
Finally, it’s not just governments who will learn from this examination of best practices, potential problems and unexpected bonuses; we, and other NGOs like us, can gain crucial insights from the sector which, after all, is pursuing the same aim that we are.
You can read the research paper here. Many thanks to Microsoft for making it possible, and to Emily Shaw for putting in the time and effort to make it a reality.
Image: Jindong H
Over the past six months, mySociety has been working on a project so sensitive that we even referred to it by codename when talking about it internally.
That might seem a little over the top, until you realise that we were partnering with asl19.org, an organisation working — for their own safety — out of Canada, with the mission of helping Iranian citizens to assert their rights to freedom of expression and access to information.
Ironically, this level of secrecy was necessary in the name of providing citizens with a platform for openness and transparency: we were working on a website, based on our WriteInPublic software, that encourages Iranian citizens to ask questions of their MPs. The project would enable Iranian citizens to pose their questions directly, online and in public, and anonymously.
Such a concept has never before seen in Iran, where there is a culture of heavy censorship, clampdowns on free speech, and online surveillance — so there was a real risk of personal endangerment for those involved.
Writing in Public
Here in the UK, mySociety runs WriteToThem, a service which allows citizens to contact their elected representatives quickly and simply.
Messages sent through WriteToThem are private, and we’re sure that’s most appropriate for our users. Often people are requesting help with personal problems, or informing representatives how they would like them to vote — either way, messages usually deal with matters that people tend to keep to themselves.
But there’s certainly an argument for putting some conversations between citizens and their representatives in public. Imagine, for example, asking a councillor what had happened to funds that had been allocated to a project that never came to light; or spotting what appeared to be a falsehood in an MP’s statement, and being able to ask them to justify it with facts.
If such conversations are carried out online, they create a permanent public record that everyone can access.
That’s why we created the WriteInPublic software, building atop the WriteIt software created by the Chilean Civic Tech group Ciudadano Intelligente (also known as FCI).
As a side note — if you have the contact details of your politicians, or can find them on our data project EveryPolitician, it’s extremely simple to set up your own WriteInPublic site, with no coding required.
Up and running
In fact, Asl19 say that the most challenging part of the project wasn’t something technical at all. To their surprise, it proved very difficult to locate email addresses for Iran’s members of Parliament. While most MPs have their own websites, they tend to use web forms rather than publish an email address.
That challenge was eventually overcome with help from other organisations. Asl19 collected the emails, which they shared with us. We added them to EveryPolitician’s data, which WriteInPublic uses.
The site is now live and people have sent over 400 messages. As a taste of how it’s being used, one citizen is requesting help with legal obstacles to getting medical treatment, and others, encouraged by an activist group, are asking that their MPs vote for a forthcoming bill which will give protection to those with disabilities.
And, best of all, MPs are responding — well, there are 33 responses thus far. So will the project blossom, becoming an active forum for open debate between citizens and their government?
It’s early days yet, but we hope that this project will provide a groundbreaking space for open debate in Iran.
When we talk to the users of our sites, sometimes there’s no remarkable tale to tell — just a day-to-day story of how someone is making a small but persistent positive change in their community.
Every month, around 7,500 people use FixMyStreet to help improve their neighbourhoods: getting potholes fixed, making dangerous pavements safer, or — as in the case of Van Tri Nguyen from Norbury, requesting the removal of unsightly rubbish and fly-tipping.
As Mr Nguyen told us, he first heard about FixMyStreet at a local association meeting.
“In front of my house there is a big park. It’s frequented by a lot of people, and particularly at night a lot of things happen there — and mountains of litter are left behind.
“Rubbish accumulates, not inside the park but on the road in front of it — just opposite my house! People just dump stuff from their car windows. There are three lime trees which I often find decorated around their base with rubbish, on average once a fortnight, but sometimes as many as three or four times a week.
“Once fly-tippers came and left an entire truckload of stuff. This road really is just a dumping ground, and while Croydon Council are aware of the problem, no-one has been brave enough to take a grip and get it sorted out.
“I reported the eyesore, both on FixMyStreet and to Croydon Council. I believe that when reports are published online, the council may feel some kind of pressure and ashamed.
“The results have been good. Right now, the road is reasonably clean.”
We’re sure that Mr Nguyen will continue to be the good citizen who takes action and reports rubbish as it reoccurs. He’s telling others, too:
“I’ve already spread the word to people who seem to care about the environment where they live.”
Some before shots
All images: Van Tri Nguyen
Who needs a calendar? If we want to see the seasons passing, we just check what’s being reported on FixMyStreet.
In these dark winter days, issues like broken streetlights become a lot more of a concern. There’s an increase in potholes, as frost damage plays its part. And our users are quick to let councils know if road-gritting has been inadequate on icy days.
It’s enough to make us nostalgic for spring and summer’s reports of overgrown footpaths, smelly bins, and barbecues left smouldering in parks.
Over the last year, across the seasons, you’ve sent more than 160,000 FixMyStreet reports to councils across the UK. October was responsible for more than 12,000 of them — a 20% rise on the same month last year.
We hope those numbers will keep rising — after all, each of them is potentially a problem solved. So, if you’ve spotted the beginnings of a pothole, or a streetlight that needs mending, don’t forget to let your council know, on FixMyStreet.
Why we do what we do. No, not the name of a wonderfully named new mySociety product, instead it’s an excuse for me to take stock of where we are and where we go next.
Inevitably over the past decade we’ve tackled lots of issues and projects from lots of different angles. What we’re currently focused on is Freedom of Information, Parliaments and Elections, and Local Issue Reporting.
What links all of our work is the creation of civic technology that enables greater access for citizens to the work of government and the democratic process:
Lack of access to elected representatives amongst disadvantaged or underrepresented groups is a key driver of exclusion and inequality, yet governments tend only to become better at serving the needs of citizens when those citizens are capable of demanding better.
Simply put, this is our cause.
Our Theory Of Change
Citizens will only demand better from governments if they have access to a mix of often scarce resources: from education, to wealth, to knowledge about government failings. At mySociety we are highly aware that we can’t give people most of these things: we can’t boost business in failing economies or bring teachers into schools that have none. These are the tasks of development funders, political leaders and well-regulated markets.
Tremendous human suffering happens when governments fail to serve the needs of their citizens, and human welfare is dramatically increased when governments serve citizens’ needs well. Some governments are excellent at meeting some citizen needs, but weak at meeting others, harming a minority, often invisibly. Others make no attempt to meet any of their citizens’ needs, robbing, starving and failing them in every possible way.
Our theory of change is based on a reading of political history, and specifically of the history of reform campaigns, such as those that drove the democratisation of nations from the 17th to the 20th century. We believe that governments tend only to get better at serving the needs of citizens when citizens are capable of demanding better, creating a virtuous circle that leads steadily to better government.
Each of our services give citizens the skills, confidence and knowledge they need in order to be capable of demanding better.
Freedom of Information
FOI is a core plank of a healthy, transparent and accountable democracy. Every citizen should have the right to query and understand the workings of government and public bodies on their own terms.
Alaveteli is our platform for FOI request websites. We currently support partners in over 20 countries, from Australia to Hungary, Nicaragua to Ukraine, as well as a pan-European site AskTheEU. Our most successful site is WhatDoTheyKnow in the UK, with almost 300,000 individual FOI requests alone – drawn from over 16,000 UK public bodies.
Over the next year we will continue to refine and develop Alaveteli to better support the expansion and proper use of FOI around the world. At the same time, we’ll be actively campaigning to preserve FOI in the UK which is currently under threat from the Government’s FOI commission.
Parliaments and Elections
The activities of Government can often be opaque and difficult to interpret. We improve access to elected representatives, providing clarity, context and understanding to the decisions they make on our behalf.
We tackle the workings of government at a variety of points throughout the electoral cycle; YourNextMP/Rep for candidate information, TheyWorkForYou and WriteToThem allow people to query and explain the workings of government at all levels.
Increasingly central to these efforts is EveryPolitician, our crowdsourcing effort to sustainably store and share a structured open data set of every national politician around the world. It currently holds data on more than 60,000 politicians from over 230 territories.
In the next few weeks we’ll complete work to integrate all of our existing Parliament services with EveryPolitician and continue to encourage more journalists, developers, and NGOs to create the tools they need in their own countries.
Local Issue Reporting
FixMyStreet gets right to the root of any disconnect between citizens and those who provide their local services. Literally dealing with street-level issues, FixMyStreet can help turn our everyday feelings of frustration into action.
The original and much emulated FixMyStreet.com makes it easy to report street faults like broken street lights or potholes, raising over 650,000 reports in the last 8 years.
We’ve extended the principle of issue – reporting – resolution, to create a generalised platform catering to a variety of interesting and practical new use cases; with projects as varied as empty home identification, or logging road collisions and near misses for cyclists.
Citizens feel more in control. Local councils can target their efforts more effectively. Together this can contribute to better government.
For the moment we’ll continue to consolidate our offer in these three areas.
There’s ample scope for further development, refinement of concepts and of course directly increasing the impact of currently deployed sites.
What gets really interesting is when we start to scale up the delivery of each of these in more countries, delivered to more people, ensuring we see more citizens gain greater influence over those with power.
I’ll post again later this week about some of the practical changes that we are making to better encourage the take up of our services and how we’re improving the way we work with our partners.
We’ve recently made a few small changes to FixMyStreet. Nothing new there; we’re often tweaking things to make FixMyStreet more usable. Except, these changes weren’t our own idea: they were based on feedback from a council.
Oxfordshire County Council, who use FixMyStreet for Councils as their main fault reporting system, requested these features, which are now available to all client councils (and which, in two cases, are now also benefiting users on our own FixMyStreet.com):
Much easier, especially in some of the very report-dense areas of the country.
Different coloured pins
But Oxfordshire spotted an opportunity to make things a little clearer. Where a council has opted for full integration, FixMyStreet can automatically update the status of reports as they go through the fix cycle.
So why not reflect these statuses on the colours of map pins? Red, green and grey pins now indicate problems that are fixed, unfixed or closed. See for yourself how this looks on the Oxfordshire website:
When you go to report your problem on FixMyStreet, you can zoom in and out of the map and pan it around until you find exactly the right spot in which to place your pin. There was just one thing, though: while the streets and other map features got bigger and smaller as you zoomed in or out, the pins remained the same size.
Not any more! Now, in one of those ‘you probably don’t notice it but it does make things easier’ moves, pins shrink and expand at the same rate as the map:
Expanded userbase = more insights
Several councils around the country use FixMyStreet as the main problem-reporting system on their own websites—so if you report a problem on the Stevenage, Oxfordshire, Bromley or Warwickshire council websites (among others) you may find the interface very familiar.
There are obvious benefits for us in supplying FixMyStreet as software for councils—not least that the revenue goes to support our charitable work! But cases like this highlight a more subtle benefit: with the increased userbase, and with the additional council administrators who are actually thinking about the FixMyStreet experience at any one time, we gain valuable insights into its usability.
Where we can, we’ll make the changes for our clients, and, if desirable, we can push the same code onto the main FixMyStreet.com site.
That benefit goes two ways: equally, improvements we make to FixMyStreet are generally available on FixMyStreet for Councils. So, those frequent tweaks we talked about at the beginning? They get rolled out for our clients, too.
The winner in all of this is the user, which is just as it should be.
If you’re from a council and would like to know more, please visit our FixMyStreet for Councils page.
We received a tweet this morning wondering how many emails there had been to MPs on the subject of the ‘Refugees Welcome’ campaign, and whether WriteToThem, our contact-a-politician website, might have some relevant data.
Even if we could, WriteToThem is a completely non-partisan service, and users may be writing on either side of an issue.
We do use Google Analytics, which collects entirely anonymous statistics on how many people visit the site, how long they stay on it, etc. There is one clear indication that the site is being used more than usual: user numbers on Thursday and Friday of last week were about 5 or 6 times higher than the norm. There was a dip at the weekend — there generally is — and numbers have continued to climb on Monday and today.
Google Analytics also allows us to see which websites have referred people to our site. Over this period, it seems it was mostly Facebook and the petitions site Avaaz.
With most websites, you can regard visitor numbers as a pretty good indication of your success — if they’re going up, then at least something’s right.
With WriteToThem though, user numbers regularly fluctuate so wildly that you could be fooled into thinking we’re on the brink of disaster, or the brink of world domination, from one week to the next.
In the normal way of things, there seems to be a baseline at which the UK populace will toddle along. A small percentage of us will write to our politicians whenever we have an opinion that we want to express, but most of us are content with a few acerbic Facebook updates or heated discussions down the pub.
Then, now and then, an issue comes along which grips the nation. This week, that would indeed appear to be the issue of refugees.
Of course, we’re always glad to see the site used, and we hope that people who are referred to it because of an issue they care about will also remember it’s there whenever they need to contact their representatives in the future.
Incidentally, if you are running any kind of campaign and you would like to harness WriteToThem’s functionality on your own site, don’t forget that we’ve written a guide to doing just that.
If you use FixMyStreet to make a report in the Royal Borough of Greenwich, you won’t notice anything different from the norm. But once you click submit, your report is doing something a little bit different—it’s using a standard called ‘Open311’ to place your request directly into the council’s systems.
You might be thinking, “Yawn-o! What do I care, so long as my pothole gets filled?” and—well, that’s a fair point. But there’s a wider issue here, which we think is one that’s worth getting excited about.
Greenwich have taken a forward-thinking and sensible step—because Open311 doesn’t just let FixMyStreet reports come into their systems smoothly. It also opens up their data in a way that allows other developers to create exciting applications that can work with it, talk to their systems or provide new interfaces for us to do so.
What might those be? Well, one of the great things about technology is that it’s very hard to predict how users will behave in even the near future. Just a few years ago, who would have guessed that we’d be chatting to companies, organisations and our MPs in snappy, public 140-character soundbites, for example?
With Open311 in place, Greenwich do in fact have the option of receiving reports via Twitter, Facebook, and, crucially, whatever the next big platforms happen to be. Meanwhile they benefit from FixMyStreet reports dropping directly into their workflow.
Reports sent by email (which FixMyStreet does by default) can be a bit of an inconvenience for councils using CRM systems, because staff have to copy and paste the details in. But Open311 sends your report, along with every detail the council needs to know, into their chosen systems.
You can read more about the nitty-gritty of that here, but in the meantime, all you need to know is that Greenwich have proactively taken the step to allow FixMyStreet to send reports in this way, installing our Open 311 endpoint, and taking advantage of our offer to connect for free.
This is quite separate from the option of installing FixMyStreet for Councils as their main reporting system, which incidentally Greenwich also does.
So it’s a big high five for Greenwich, who with this simple step have allowed a wealth of potential applications, services and developers to interact with them over the web. Now—any other councils want to follow their example?
If you live almost anywhere in the UK, you can use FixMyStreet to report problems to councils.
The vast majority of councils have no problem with this, and they do a good job of responding to and dealing with reported problems. A bunch of councils even like the service enough that they’ve actually become clients, paying for customised versions that sit on their own websites.
But there have always been a small number of councils that have said ‘no dice’ to FixMyStreet: they either refuse to accept reports at all, or they tell FixMyStreet users to re-submit problems through another channel. Today the total number in the ‘no thanks’ column stands at ten councils – that’s out of about 430 in total.
Idealism versus Pragmatism
Recently we had a bit of a debate about what to do. On the one hand we want users to succeed in getting their problems fixed. But on the other we don’t want councils to simply opt out of the transparency and convenience that FixMyStreet offers.
We could digress into a long post with many other related issues, but today we’re simply talking about how we have decided to change the user interface for users trying to report problems to the minority of councils that claim not to be able to cope.
What to expect if you report a problem in the unlucky 2% of the UK
In order not to leave you high and dry, we’ll provide a link to the council’s own reporting system—because, irrespective of the platform, your report still needs to be made.
But we don’t think that this situation should be quietly accepted, by us or by our users, especially since it means some councils get to simply opt out of transparency about problem handling.
So at the same time we’re telling a user how to report the problem, we’ll also invite them to tweet about it, and/or contact their local councillors.
Why the situation arose
You may be wondering why some authorities won’t accept our reports. We do not, after all, ask councils to adapt or modify their internal systems in any special way, unless they actively want to adopt the Open311 standard.
The messages our users generate are just plain text emails, and they go into the same email inboxes as any other message to a council would.
These reports are carefully appended with lots of useful details, too, including the category of the problem, its exact longitude and latitude, and the postcode or street address where available. Users can also attach photos.
Generally the reason cited for not accepting such email reports (or the same reports made by the industry standard Open311 API) is that the computer system inside the council can only handle problems reported via the council’s own official web interface. Why this is only a problem in 2% of councils is a mystery that remains to be solved.
Does your council accept FixMyStreet reports? Input your postcode on the site, and see if you get the alert. If not – there’s no problem.
FixMyStreet for Councils delivers cost savings—and that’s a fact.
Oxfordshire County Council installed FixMyStreet as their fault-reporting system in March 2013. Like every council, they were keen to see reductions in their expenditure, and were hopeful that FixMyStreet would help them in their aim to shift problem-reporting online.
We’re delighted to hear that, two years on, those benefits are tangible. Not only can they demonstrate a cut in call handling times, but they can also put a figure on just how much they have saved.
Tim White, Oxfordshire’s Service Improvement Lead in the Customer Service centre, says:
FixMyStreet has reduced the average handling time of our calls from nearly four minutes to around two minutes.
Robert Hill, Oxfordshire’s Web Services Manager, puts a figure on the savings, reckoning that the reduced time logging faults equates to £16,047.60 a year in staff costs.
But that’s just a small proportion of the reductions they could be looking at. Oxfordshire chose not to opt for full back-end integration at the time of install, but it is something they are now considering:
“By moving to an end to end system provided by FixMyStreet we would be able to remove additional cost by eliminating the need to inspect reports that meet certain criteria and passing them straight through for repair.”
mySociety’s agile approach has worked well for Oxfordshire. Tim White continued:
“Working with My Society has been a refreshing experience.
“They are very open to making changes to the way that the product works in order to improve both the customer experience and the experience for council employees.
“Using an agile approach to development means that we are able to get changes made quickly and incrementally, making the council more responsive to the demands of our residents.”
If you’d like to see a drop in your own call-handling times, and the associated cost benefits, take a look at FixMyStreet for Councils.