Our recent collaboration with a team of researchers at the World Bank goes to show that it’s no different when it comes to civic participation. The team analysed almost 400,000 anonymised FixMyStreet reports to prove the hypothesis that, if a user’s first report is fixed, he or she is more likely to go on and make more.
So, just as a biscuit may give us a sugary high that we’re keen to experience again and again, the knowledge of having done ‘local public good’ is enough of a hit to bring people back to make another FixMyStreet report. In fact, they are 54% more likely to do so.
A learning for local government
What can our councils learn from this research? That responding to a resident’s report may have more than the obvious, immediate effect.
By fixing a user’s issue, a council is increasing the probability that that citizen will become a regular reporter of issues, and possibly (although this wasn’t covered by the current research) a more engaged citizen all round.
In short, it’s a two-way street. Ignore a report, and you run the risk of alienating a user enough that they never bother to engage again. Fix it, and you’ve proved the value of making contact.
Beautifully crafted prose: it’s not generally the first thing on your mind when you’re contacting the council about potholes, overflowing bins, or a faulty streetlight.
And yet, some FixMyStreet users clearly take a certain delight in the art. Today, we’d like to bring you ten FixMyStreet reports that go above and beyond the usual calibre of citizen-to-council communication, and ascend almost to the level of… dare we say, art?
1. The clanking manhole
Last night I conjured a horde of Spartan warriors smashing their shields with copies of the Highway Code. I believe that’s what they call an involuntary metaphor.
Michael bought a flat near the main road. He didn’t mind, until one day, a manhole started clanking… and clanking… Read the whole report here.
2. The missing road sign
The posts designed to proudly hold aloft the road name, guiding lost wanderers towards their destination, stand forlornly, relics from a forgotten age, their purpose lost to the mists of time.
The initial report is nothing out of the ordinary – it’s in the updates that this Hythe resident starts really going to town. Read the whole report here.
3. Roland Rat
Ten days on, he stinks and if he gets any flatter from vehicles running over him, I’ll stick a stamp on him and post him.
A concerned citizen of Appledore left a dead rat in situ, just to see what would happen. Read the full report here.
Maybe laid by a new breed of super dog. It is still steaming and has been there for weeks.
Need we explain the context for this one? In fact, there’s little more to it than you see quoted above, but with imagery like that, who needs reams of prose? See the whole report here.
5. Battling gulls of Cardiff
Splattered birds on the road, presumably […] too exhausted after battling with piercing the hardy black plastic, to get to the riches within, to attempt fly away to safety.
This anonymous user was fed up with seeing residents put food out in their rubbish, attracting gulls. Read the whole report here.
6. With a little imagination, any street fault can be a boon
I have had my windows open fantasising that I am living on an Italian Piazza with an enormous fountain at its centre.
One Fulham resident reports a leak; a commenter urges them not to fix it. See the full report here.
7. Are clowns made of balloons?
It looks like a clown has exploded
In an otherwise standard report, a Nottingham resident pulls out this extraordinary turn of phrase to describe the detritus left after a water balloon fight. Read the full report here.
8. Happy Easter
PLEASE stop moving the bin. PLEASE keep it in ONE place *next* to the path. Not a meter away from the path, not two meters away from the path and not in the daffodils against the wall, but actually next to the path where people can reach it.
Actually, it’s not the main body of this Coldstream report itself; it’s more the polite sign-off coming straight after a rant. Very British. Read the full report here.
9. A poor, innocent mini roundabout sign
If I didn’t know better, I’d worry [it] had been done by the Incredible Hulk after someone had made him very angry.
This Brighton mini roundabout sign has a few worries. Read the full report here.
10. Stinky bin
A bin here smells like the devil’s halitosis
Another wonderful turn of phrase from a Plymouth FixMyStreet user in this short, but amply descriptive, post. See the full report here.
You don’t have to be a great author to make a report on FixMyStreet
Your prose may not be as purple as in the examples above, but that doesn’t matter.
In fact, if you keep reports clear, polite, and accurate, you’ll still run a good chance of getting things fixed.
Giving council workers – and FixMyStreet readers – a good laugh? That’s optional.
Residents of East Sussex County Council and Hart District Council can now report potholes, broken street lights, and other local issues, simply and speedily. The two local authorities are the latest to integrate FixMyStreet onto their own websites.
Whether reports – and subsequent updates – are made on the councils’ websites, or within their boundaries on FixMyStreet.com, they will be published on both the council site and FixMyStreet.
FixMyStreet is a proven aid to channel shift, moving report-making online, to save time and money for both residents and councils. Hart and East Sussex’s adoption of the software is just one strand of their ‘digital by default’ approach to transactional services.
If you’re from a council, and would like to find out more about FixMyStreet for Councils, everything you need to know is here.Image: Dominic Alves (CC)
We’re pleased to announce new moderation features for clients of FixMyStreet for Councils.
This new functionality enables nominated members of staff to edit user reports from within the FixMyStreet front end.
It’s quick and easy, and allows you to react immediately to unwanted content on your site. Read on to find out more.
What’s wrong with this report?
So what is wrong with the report in the screenshot above?
If you run a site on the FixMyStreet platform, you’ll be familiar with this kind of report, and the chances are that you’ll already be twitching to edit it.
User-generated content is wonderful in many ways – but it can also present problems on a public-facing site. Let’s look at a few of the potential issues in the report above:
- The user has included his phone number in the report description, and now it’s available for anyone to see.
- The user’s name is also public. While this is the default option on FixMyStreet, users often get in touch to say that they meant to make their report anonymously (an option on FixMyStreet, but one which the user can only access at the point of submission).
- There’s an inappropriate photo. This one is a statue of Carl Jung, which obviously has nothing to do with the report. But even relevant photos can be problematic: imagine if it was a graphic depiction of a dead animal, or some rude graffiti.
- Profanity: in the example above, we’ll imagine that “pesky” is a mild profanity, but experience tells us that users don’t always hold back on their language.
There are other common problems too, not represented in this report. Users sometimes post potentially libellous information: naming someone they suspect of flytipping, for example, or giving an address where they believe planning permission has been flouted.
In the run-up to local election, councils have to be particularly sensitive to any content that might be construed as political – commonly they wish to remove any mention of any candidate.
Moderation in all things
So we’ll shortly be introducing the ability for client moderation of sites. Councils or other bodies who run FixMyStreet will be able to nominate trusted users and give them the ability to edit problematic reports from within the report page.
When logged in, these users will see a “moderate” button on every report – this feature will not be available to any user unless explicitly authorised.
As you can see, this panel provides the ability to:
- Hide the report completely
- Hide the name of the poster
- Hide or show a photo (if one was originally provided)
- Edit the title and body of the report.
For some reports, it might be necessary to make a number of edits, and finally submit the changes:
The moderator can also add a reason for the changes, so it’s recorded if a colleague needs to know the history of the report in the future.
This functionality gives a lot of power to admins to remove inappropriate information – but the user took the time to submit their report, and it’s only fair to let them know it’s been changed. So the system sends them an automatic email, as below:
Finally, the system automatically updates the report to show that it has been moderated. As well as a timestamp, it signals where any information has been removed in the title or body of the report.
Updates can be just as problematic as reports, so the same functionality will apply to them.
We’d welcome feedback on this mechanism, so please let us know if you think we’ve missed any features.
Note: These screenshots are from our work in progress and do not yet display the slick design that we habitually apply right at the end of the build process. Please regard them as preview shots only!
We’ve just published the WriteToThem responsiveness league table for 2013. Check your MP’s performance here – just enter your postcode.
League table? What’s that?
Our website WriteToThem.com allows anyone to send a message to their elected representatives.
If you’ve ever done this, you’ll know that two weeks later, we email you to ask whether or not your representative replied.
The information we obtain from this questionnaire is important to us: it helps us check that WriteToThem remains an effective way to contact politicians. But, when it’s analysed further, there are interesting results to be found.
WriteToThem launched in 2005. Until 2008, we published an annual ‘league table’, ranking MPs by responsiveness. We did this because we believe that it is a fundamental part of an MP’s duty to respond to their constituents’ messages; we wanted to recognise the best performers, and highlight the ones who were falling below expectations.
We haven’t run this data since 2008 – mainly because we’re a very busy organisation with a wide range of priorities.
But our users frequently ask for the latest stats, and to that end we’ve now run the 2013 data. Take a look at it here.
A big WriteToThem gold star to some MPs
The people of Romsey and Southampton North should rest easy. Their Conservative MP Caroline Nokes is on the case. Top of our league table, she replied to 96% of messages sent through WriteToThem.
Other good performers include Conservatives John Glen MP for Salisbury, and Justin Tomlinson representing North Swindon. Gloria De Piero, Labour MP for Ashfield, comes in at 4th position. Check your MP’s performance here.
And ‘could do better, see me’ to others
Mansfield residents may feel like nobody’s listening; their representative Alan Meale (Labour) comes bottom of the rankings, having replied to a sole message in 2013.
Other low responders were Khalid Mahmood (Labour), representing Birmingham Perry Barr; Kenneth Clarke (Conservative) for Rushcliffe; and Tom Blenkinsop (Labour) in Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland. Check your MP’s performance here.
Not just MPs
WriteToThem isn’t just for contacting your MP. You can also use it to write to Lords, councillors, MEPs and members of the assemblies of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.
Running this data also allows us to make broad comparisons across all of these bodies – see our figures here.
The Welsh Assembly comes out looking fairly respectable, with a 70% response rate, while the House of Lords (who, it must be noted, do not have an obligation to respond to correspondence) slink in at 27%.
We’ve also sliced the data so you can see which political parties perform best and worst overall. Guess who comes top?
Data and methodology
- Our figures are based on our follow-up questionnaire, and of course, not all users respond to it. This data is based on 58,573 responses; you can see more about the data below.
- Letters sent via WriteToThem represent less than 1% of the entire parliamentary postbag, so this has to be taken as a sample rather than giving the full picture across the board.
- WriteToThem is not the only way that people can contact their representatives. For all we know, those poor performers may be responding perfectly adequately to messages sent by other channels – although we do make it as simple as we can for them to reply to WriteToThem users, and it’s our belief that the channel of communication should not make any difference.
We know, too, that some messages don’t require an answer. We would not expect to see a 100% response rate, and, by the way, we are considering altering our questionnaire so that it includes the option “I didn’t get a reply, but my message didn’t need one”.
- It’s also important to note that this league table is not a ‘laziness’ ranking. MPs do many other things besides reply to their constituents’ letters. Poor responders may be incredibly active in their constituency, or in Westminster debates. So it’s what it says it is – a responsiveness league table, no more, no less.
- WriteToThem sent 96,396 messages to MPs in the year 2013 and 103,965 to other elected representatives.
- 58,573 people answered our feedback survey about communicating with their MP.
The survey asked whether people had had a reply (not just an acknowledgement) from their representative.
People were surveyed initially after 2 weeks, and if they didn’t answer, were surveyed again after 3 weeks.
Because of this, and because of the way different people interpret the survey, you should interpret the figures with some caution.
We did not include any MP who received fewer than 20 messages in 2013, as the sample numbers are too small to be indicative. See the bottom of our league table for the MPs affected: here you may also see which MPs do not accept correspondence sent via WriteToThem.
Before preparing this table, we contacted the lowest performers to ensure that we had the right email addresses for them.
In the cases of Caroline Flint (9 out of 63 positive responses to our survey), Stephen Dorrell (18 out of 94) and Tom Watson (4 out of 42), we were informed that while the addresses were monitored, there were better ones to use – these are now in place on WriteToThem.
In the case of Alasdair McDonnell (10 out of 57), we were informed that we had the correct address. Jack Lopresti (4 out of 70) and Stephen Williams (53 out of 267) did not respond.Image credit: Barry (CC)
WriteToThem allows you to email the people who represent you – even if you don’t know who they are. Input your postcode, and you’ll see all your representatives, from local councillors, to your MP and MEPs. You can then choose who you want to write to, and send off your message.
Never done anything like this before? You’re not alone. In fact, we ask all our users whether this is the first time they have contacted a representative. The number who say ‘yes’ is consistenly over 50%.
Kate found WriteToThem in the same way that many others do: searches for phrases such as ‘contact my local MP’ bring a lot of users to the site.
I first came across WriteToThem a few years ago when looking for my local MP’s contact details. It was the first time I had contacted an MP, apart from when I wrote a letter to Parliament as part of a secondary school project.
I chose WriteToThem because it had a full list of representatives, as well as a letter template.
The first time I used the site, I got an almost immediate response from my local MP.
That’s great. Of course, every MP is different, and we can’t guarantee that they’ll respond – but it’s good to hear that yours was on the ball. So, what do you contact your representatives about?
I only write to an MP when I feel that public service providers have acted unprofessionally or not helped in any way.
I have written about more support being given to single working parents. I have written about traffic wardens handing out unjustified parking fines to cars with permits displayed, and I have also written about the lack of housing.
Has it been useful?
I have had responses to every letter, and I have also seen results: one of my letters about single working mothers was sent from my local MP to Iain Duncan Smith, and since April there has been more support around child-care.
WriteToThem is a direct and simple way to contact representatives. The site is easy to use, and every time I have used it I have had a response from the MP either by letter or email.
It’s a good way to get your opinions heard by politicians, and a good way to encourage positive change within local and national politics.
Thanks very much to Kate for telling us how she uses WriteToThem.
This post is part of a mini-series, in which we meet people who regularly use mySociety’s websites.
- See also: our posts on FixMyStreet user, Steve and WhatDoTheyKnow user, Jonathan.
- If you are a regular user of any of our sites, do drop us a line – we’d love to profile you too.
We hope that’s a question that is hard to answer, since FixMyStreet was built for everyone – or rather, anyone who wants to report a street problem to their council. Computer whizz or internet newbie, one-off reporter or serial council communicator, FixMyStreet is for you.
All the same, we wanted to chat to someone who uses FixMyStreet regularly, to find out more about how they see the site, and whether it makes a difference. So…
Meet Steve, from Exeter.
Steve’s been using FixMyStreet almost since it launched, in March 2007:
I’m not sure how I heard about it – it’s lost in the mists of time, but it was pretty soon after it went public. I see from your archives that I first reported a problem in July 2007, but I’m sure I knew about it before then.
As a board member for Schoolforge I was always searching for UK open source projects for education, and that’s probably where I came across it initially.
FixMyStreet can be used to report any street problems to the council – it’s most commonly used for potholes, broken streetlights, fly tipping, etc. But every user has their own concerns. What does Steve tend to report?
It’s usually road-related, as I used to push /walk the kids to school when they were young, and I cycle around a lot.
So potholes, traffic lights not responding to bikes, broken street lights, bad signage, low hanging vegetation… I think I reported a crop of Japanese knotweed once.
You did! Here it is. And have the issues been fixed?
Many have, according to your archive. I reckon that using FixMyStreet helped raise the priority, but you never know – and that’s fine. I like to think that reports come to attention of the relevant people more quickly when you put them online where everyone can see them.
Also, when you see an issue in the neighbourhood, it’s easy to assume that someone else has reported it, but as it’s so easy to ping off a report with FixMyStreet, there’s no excuse not to play your part as a citizen.
I appreciate that there’s no need to find the relevant council department, website, or whatever. Just point your browser at FixMyStreet, type in a location, click on the map and type in the problem. Sorted.
Plus if others have used it to report the same issue, you’ll see straight away.
Steve’s noticed an improvement in the way that councils interact with FixMyStreet reports.
I can’t vouch for how fast they get fixed, but at least I usually get an email response from the council to acknowledge receipt.
These have improved over the years too, indicating that the council have sorted their processes to better incorporate FixMyStreet reports.
Does Steve ever browse FixMyStreet to see what has been reported in his local area? Or subscribe to email alerts?
Very rarely, but it is interesting to see what’s been going on. When you report a problem, the process shows you issues that have already been reported in the same area, so you don’t need to browse first as a separate step.
And some final thoughts…
It’s well thought out and easy to use. I especially appreciate that I don’t have to create an account as a first step to reporting a problem: more sites should use a lazy login like this. FixMyStreet has slowly improved over the years; the most noticeable thing is the improved maps.
Also, it’s open source and that is important for such civic software. I don’t know if you get much open development with others contributing, but I do suspect that others use the code.
Yep, they sure do. FixMyStreet Platform is the place to look for that activity, where there’s also a link to our mailing list. The most significant contributions come from people in other countries who are setting up their own version – FixMyStreet in Norway, for example.
Thanks very much to Steve for telling us about how he uses FixMyStreet.
This post is part of a mini-series, in which we’ll be chatting to people who regularly use mySociety’s websites.
When FixMyStreet.com was first launched it sent all of our users’ problem reports to councils via email.
If your council implements an ‘Open311 endpoint’, then reports created by users of FixMyStreet.com (and other such websites run by other people) can be dropped directly into your back office system, without anyone ever having to re-key an email. Or, to put it more clearly:
Use Open311 correctly and you need never receive an email from FixMyStreet.com ever again. And you won’t have to pay us anything for this service. In fact, you should save money.
What is Open 311?
Open 311 is a free, public set of standards which allow councils to receive problem reports in a format that is better than email. It’s an international standard, and the idea is that if you implement it once, then you won’t have to build custom software to connect to every new problem reporting app or tool that comes along.
How is this different from FixMyStreet for Councils?
You may already know of our service FixMyStreet for Councils, which is a commercial service we supply to councils around the country, and abroad. So you might be wondering how this relates to the entirely free offer to connect FixMyStreet.com to your council back-office systems.
The main difference is that with FixMyStreet for councils you can put FixMyStreet’s famously easy-to-use problem reporting interface directly on your website. This means that users of your council’s site who want to report problems will have a much more satisfying experience, and that they will be able to see if their problem report is a duplicate before they contact the council.
FixMyStreet for Councils is templated to match your own design, and offers several other features such as a performance dashboard for council staff. Read more about FixMyStreet for Councils here.
Is Open 311 only for FixMyStreet?
Open 311 doesn’t just work for FixMyStreet reports – configure it right, and it will allow you to more easily process problems reports made by users using all sorts of other channels. We think that your residents should be able to make reports from whichever platform they choose – Open 311 means you can accept them all at the lowest possible cost.
How do we know if we have implemented Open311 correctly?
In the future mySociety will launch a validator service, to make testing easier. But for now just get in touch with us, and we’ll try sending you a test problem. If it works, we’re all good to go.
- Request your free FixMyStreet Open311 integration.
- Read more about Open 311.
- Not sure if your systems are set up for Open 311? Get in touch and we’ll tell you how to find out.
Image by Ardonik (CC)
Simple things are the most easily overlooked. Two examples: a magician taking a wand out of his pocket (see? so simple that maybe you’ve never thought about why it wasn’t on the table at the start), or the home page on www.fixmystreet.com.
The first thing FixMyStreet asks for is a location. That’s so simple most people don’t think about it; but it doesn’t need to be that way. In fact, a lot of services like this would begin with a login form (“who are you?”) or a problem form (“what’s the problem you want to report?”). Well, we do it this way because we’ve learned from years of experience, experiment and, yes, mistakes.
We start off by giving you, the user, an easy problem (“where are you?”) that doesn’t offer any barrier to entry. Obviously, we’re very generous as to how you can describe that location (although that’s a different topic for another blog post). The point is we’re not asking for accuracy, since as soon as we have the location we will show you a map, on which you can almost literally pinpoint the position of your problem (for example, a pothole). Pretty much everyone can get through that first stage — and this is important if we want people to use the service.
How important? Well, we know that when building a site like FixMyStreet, it’s easy to forget that nobody in the world really needs to report a pothole. They want to, certainly, but they don’t need to. If we make it hard for them, if we make it annoying, or difficult, or intrusive, then they’ll simply give up. Not only does that pothole not get reported, but those users probably won’t bother to try to use FixMyStreet ever again.
So, before you know it, by keeping it simple at the start, we’ve got your journey under way — you’re “in”, the site’s already helping you. It’s showing you a map (a pretty map, actually) of where your problem is. Of course we’ve made it as easy as possible for you to use that map. You see other problems, already reported so maybe you’ll notice that your pothole is already there and we won’t have wasted any of your time making you tell us about it. Meanwhile, behind the scenes, we now know which jurisdictions are responsible for the specific area, so the drop-down menu of categories you’re about to be invited to pick from will already be relevant for the council departments (for example) that your report will be going to.
And note that we still haven’t asked you who you are. We do need to know — we send your name and contact details to the council as part of your report — but you didn’t come to FixMyStreet to tell us who you are, you came first and foremost to report the problem. So we focus on the reporting, and when that is all done then, finally, we can do the identity checks.
Of course there’s a lot more to it than this, and it’s not just civic sites like ours that use such techniques (most modern e-commerce sites have realised the value of making it very easy to take your order before any other processing; many governmental websites have not). But we wanted to show you that if you want to build sites that people use, you should be as clever as a magician, and the secret to that is often keeping it simple — deceptively simple — on the outside.
This post was written by mySociety developer Dave Whiteland, and first published on our DIY mySociety blog.
Did you know that you can subscribe to FixMyStreet alerts within a chosen area? Like most mySociety sites*, FixMyStreet lets you subscribe to the content that is most meaningful to you, for free.
The feature was created with local residents in mind, but it’s proved useful for others with a stake in the area, such as councillors, MPs and community groups – especially as you can opt to receive reports within an electoral ward or a council area.
It just takes a couple of minutes to sign up for email alerts. You’ll get a deep understanding of the local area: what are the recurring issues, what concerns residents, and where are the trouble hotspots.
Here’s what to do.
Go to www.FixMyStreet.com and click on ‘local alerts‘ in the top bar, as indicated by the arrow in the image above.
On that page, input your postcode, or, if you have geolocation enabled, click ‘locate me automatically’.
As you can see in the image above, you have the option to subscribe to a geographic area, to the entire council area, or to a specific ward.
If you already use a ‘reader’ (eg Feedly or Newsvibe, to name a couple at random) then you may wish to use the RSS feeds. Feeds can also be used to put local content onto your own website, if you have one.
But if you would like to have FixMyStreet alerts delivered directly into your inbox, select the email alert option.
The final step is to check your email for our confirmation link. And then all you have to do is sit back and wait for the reports to roll into your inbox.