When we asked this question on Twitter, the first person to reply was Tim Morton, who told us how he’d used our services to get a useful addition to his local neighbourhood. The story began on FixMyStreet, but really came to fruition thanks to WriteToThem.
Tim says that he’s been using FixMyStreet since 2008: “If you look at my reports, the vast majority relate to the street I live in, and my local park” — and indeed, that’s the scene for the success he tweeted to tell us about: the story of the Grit Bin.
It began with a report, back in 2010:
“I pressed send,” says Tim, “and waited for something to happen”.
But unfortunately, nothing did — had Tim’s message been lost in the internal workings of his council?
It was radio silence until four weeks later when FixMyStreet’s automated mail arrived, asking whether the report had been seen to. If you click ‘no’, you’re taken to a screen suggesting a few ideas for escalating your issue, one of which is to contact your local councillors through WriteToThem.
Tim decided that this was a good idea, and posted an update on his FixMyStreet report to say so:
“Again, though, there was a period of silence… and I’d almost forgotten about it,” says Tim.
But sometimes these things take a bit of time. Because, seven weeks later, and just in time for Christmas:
Tim’s simple request had brought about a useful and tangible change for his community.
OK, so, ideally it would have happened quickly and with full communication from the council, after that first FixMyStreet report. But on the other hand, this is a great example of how sometimes you have to persevere, and try another route, before you get success.
“The grit bin is still there: occasionally I ask for a refill, and when the snow falls I trudge along the road and shovel grit across the junction.”
So the benefit has lasted — and is allowing Tim to do his bit for his community even now, a decade later.
Tim rates FixMyStreet so much that he’s demonstrated it to community groups and on training courses. He explains, “I think the great thing about FixMyStreet is its ease of use, and the very visible audit trail.
“One thing I always point out is the timestamps on my initial reports. I often make reports in the evening, or at weekends: they’re done in the moment and not by trying to get through to the council on Monday morning or when the office is open. I find if I had to wait, I’d forget about the issue.
“Leicester Council has been good at responding to my requests, and I always post their replies in the comments on my reports.” (Leicester is not currently a FixMyStreet Pro client, so their responses are not automatically published on the website, but sent to the report-maker by email.)
Being an expert user, of course Tim knows all about FixMyStreet’s more advanced features.
“I’ve recommended that community groups use the local alerts function. This means they can see what other people are reporting in their area, which they may be unaware of.
“If they’re a group that focuses on neighbourhood improvement, it will identify potential issues for them to work on, and in fact, may introduce them to potential new activists in their area. I’ve pointed Ward Councillors to this, as well, as it can be really helpful in their work”.
Thanks so much to Tim for telling us all about the grit bin and his efforts to help spread the word about FixMyStreet. A grit bin may seem like a small win, but when you consider how many thousands of reports are made up and down the country every week on FixMyStreet, and how many messages are sent to councillors on WriteToThem to ask for a neighbourhood improvement, you can see that the net effect could be massive.
And on that note, if you have brought change by writing to your MP or councillor, by making a FixMyStreet report or perhaps by using one of our other services, please let us know — we’re all ears.
We’re using these stories as part of a training module that helps young people understand how democracy functions in the UK, and how to work within it to make positive change. Your stories will help us to show this in action, rather than just theoretically, so you’ll be helping us to help those who need it. Thanks!
City Hall in London is a spiral-shaped building that some say resembles a snail.
The same could not be said for the speakers at TICTeC Local, the conference on the Impacts of Civic Technology for communities and local government, which took place on the building’s top floor last Friday. These proactive people move fast and get things done!
Surrounded by a wraparound view of the Thames and Tower Bridge, we heard from a selection of folk with hands-on experience of using technology at the local or community level. See the full agenda here, where you’ll also find links to the collaborative notes that were taken during each session.
Here’s a brief run-down of the presentations and discussions.
mySociety research: evidence and impact
Our own Head of Research, Dr Rebecca Rumbul, kicked things off with a call for research-based decisions when it comes to attractive new forms of engagement such as the current trend towards Citizens’ Assemblies. As always, it’s important to assess what ensures good results and what can go wrong, so that we can ensure the outcomes are desirable.
What role can digital technologies play in citizen participation?
This panel comprised four people who are very well-equipped to speak on the subject in hand: Miriam Levin from DCMS, Eva O’Brien of FutureGov, Graham Smith, Director of the Centre for the Study of Democracy, and Tim Hughes of Involve.
Beginning with a look at the role of digital technologies and a nod to those which are working well in citizen participation, conversation soon turned to the ways in which Citizens’ Assemblies can deliver less than desirable results — and, just as importantly, how to avoid that.
Data changes everything: informed public services
In this session, two speakers brought two very different stories to the table. First, James Maddison of the Open Data Institute presented the toolkit which the ODI has produced to help public services through the process of generating, sharing and using more open data. The rainbow-hued toolkit itself can be found here.
Secondly, Georges Clement of JustFix in New York told the inspiring tale of how data empowered millions of tenants who were living in conditions considered deficient even by the city’s own definition. Simply by sharing data on who owned buildings (something often deliberately obscured by landlords) the organisation enabled joint campaigns, group litigation and the ranking of the ‘worst evictor’ landlords. This work led to New York’s City Mayor introducing a law that guarantees legal representation to low-income residents facing eviction.
Click to engage: creating active citizens through digital technologies
In this session we heard experiences from two sides of the pond: Tammy Esteves of Troy University Alabama ran through examples of local digital projects across the US, especially relating to disaster/emergency management; while Joe Mitchell from the UK’s Democracy Club explained the difficulties in measuring the impact of the work they do: making sure people are informed prior to elections.
Earlier actions & better connections: technology combatting social problems
Giselle Cory and Lucy Rimmington of DataKind explained how the organisation, which benefits greatly from data scientist volunteers, had used machine learning to help a Huddersfield foodbank identify which of its clients were likely to benefit most from early intervention by other services.
In the second half of the session, Chris Hildrey outlined the work of Proxy Address, a system for giving a stable address to people facing or experiencing homelessness, and thus removing barriers in processes such as applying for jobs, opening a bank account or claiming benefits. One interesting piece of information was that, out of superstition, many streets in the UK have no number 13, with Birmingham being the city most likely to omit it.
Showing the way: support with the digital transformation process
Laura Payten from Government Digital Service (GDS) gave an overview of how local government pay can be used locally; while Richard Smith and Sam Whitlock from Hackney Council and Mirabai Galati of Croydon demonstrated the benefits of councils working together, especially in getting user insight and sharing evidence. They introduced a nascent user research repository that has great potential for local government across the country.
Better foresight: Civic Tech for the urban planners
Jonathan Pichot from NYC Planning Labs talked about the app they have produced to help automate environmental impact analyses in New York City. It’s had great impact: agency staff now spend 50% less time checking environmental analyses, saving city agencies $200,000 since 2018.
mySociety’s researcher Alex Parsons explored some of the findings about how different groups use FixMyStreet in different ways, which can be read as a blog series here on our own site.
Bringing the citizens in: Civic Tech for engagement and participation
Jo Corfield and Joe Wills from the Centre for London talked about how the city’s wasted spaces can be used in a ‘meanwhile’ context (often also known as ‘pop-up’ initiatives) for the community. The thinktank’s research looked at 51 such spaces and came up with recommendations for maximising the benefits of this phenomenon.
Then Gail Ramster of the Royal College of Art and Mike Saunders from Commonplace gave an overview of the digital tools they’d used in two projects to try and engage citizens. When there are big changes on the horizon, such as the introduction of autonomous vehicles, how can digital technologies help ensure that everyone in the community has a voice for their hopes, fears and interests? And what does being involved in an engagement process actually do to one’s stance on an issue?
Taking back control: why community power matters to our economy and society and what gets in its way
Vidhya Alakeson, CEO of Power To Change, gave an inspirational keynote about the power of community ownership, with examples including a bakery in Anfield, training on home building in Bristol, and an energy company on the Isle of Wight. But she explained that in England the policy around shared ownership is not yet robust enough (in Scotland it is much better) as is demonstrated by the high rate of Assets of Community Value that are registered but which never make it into the community.
So you’ve declared a climate emergency. Now what?
The final panel looked at the very real issues facing those in authorities who have taken up Extinction Rebellion’s challenge and declared a climate emergency. How does that translate into fast real-world action in the sometimes slow-moving world of local government?
Sian Berry from Camden Council, Emily Tulloh from FutureGov, Trewin Restorick of Hubbub and Alasdair Roxburgh from Friends of the Earth were able to share their experiences, and a final question on what gave each speaker hope for the future ensured that we ended the day without feeling too overwhelmed.
Thanks are due
A special thanks to Theo Blackwell, Chief Digital Officer for London, who welcomed us to his very special workplace; and to his assistant Davina who helped so much in setting things up. Thanks too, to all the staff at City Hall, who were without exception helpful and positive.
Further thanks, of course, to our thoughtful and inspiring speakers, for sharing your experience and knowledge, and to attendees for making TICTeC local a place for debate and collaboration.
Slides, photos and the notes from each session can all now be found on the TICTeC website, so go and have a browse.
Last year, we blogged about the work we did for Médecins Sans Frontiers, suggesting improvements for their Patents Oppositions Database.
Need a quick recap? Two things you should know:
- When medicines are re-patented, it prevents the development of generic versions. One company retains the monopoly, and costs remain high, where otherwise the generics would have provided a cheaper option.
- Médecins Sans Frontiers support those who challenge patents in court by providing resources, such as arguments which have previously succeeded in similar cases, via their Patents Oppositions Database site.
As we explained in our last post, it was clear to MSF that while the idea of the Patents Opposition Database was sound, it relied on active take-up from community members — members who were often too busy to engage in a site that was anything less than simple and inviting.
That’s when they came to us, first for consultation, and then to put our suggestions into action. It’s exactly the sort of work we enjoy: it potentially changes lives, and it involves using good design and coding to do so.
Getting to the bottom of things
MSF had a good idea of why their site wasn’t enjoying the kind of take-up they’d hoped for, and in that initial phase we were able to confirm this through research.
As we talked directly to a number of the site’s users, and gave the site a rigorous analysis ourselves, we found some recurring frustrations:
- It was difficult to find content
- While there was patent information from a variety of sources, linking it together was a chore
- People weren’t contributing to the site because it took too long to do so
- There was no feeling of community, so users didn’t feel a strong compulsion to help one another
And that pretty much brings you up to speed with where we were last time we blogged this project. Since then, we’ve been beavering away on making improvements.
How do you encourage community?
People tend to look at community as a nebulous concept: all the more so with online communities, where success is often seen as a coincidental factor rather than one that you can foster.
But for this project, it was clear what to do. And the site has the odds stacked in its favour: visitors have a very strong motivation to contribute, so we just needed to make that as simple as possible.
We worked on two broad areas: the site’s design, and some new core functionality.
New design that removes barriers
- The first thing to do was to ensure the site met modern standards, breaking down any impediments to participation. It’s now responsive (ie it displays well on any size of screen), clear, and accessible.
- Then we made sure that, when visiting the homepage, it was obvious what to do next. This was achieved with a prominent search function, and some clearly signposted ‘next steps’.
- We wanted to reward people and organisations for playing an active part, so we created profile pages which highlight their activity.
- Documents are the mainstay of the site, so they’re now highlighted as the main resource on any pages where they’re relevant. We also tidied up the way they were being stored, so they’re consistent across the board.
- We tackled that user frustration and made sure that patent data from sources such as WIPO and EPO were cross-referenced and brought together.
New functionality that fosters participation
- Users can now view and mark up documents right on the site, and then share what they’ve discovered with other users, thanks to the ‘add an annotation’ function.
- We created an email alerts service, drawing on our experience running TheyWorkForYou, which sends out thousands of alerts to people tracking topics in Parliament. This kind of alerting system is great for bringing people back to the site at their own convenience. So now, when there’s a new case concerning a specific drug, anyone with an interest in that drug will receive an email. If someone leaves a note on one of your annotations, you’ll know about it too.
- Search is absolutely crucial to the site, so we implemented a powerful new search facility which can look through not just the site’s own pages, but the documents it hosts, too. We added filtering tools to give the user more control over what they see.
- Advanced users can also obtain search results in a standardised csv format for download, so they can be used for their own reporting, or even as a data source for other sites.
- We created a new ‘call for help’ service, so users can ask the community to contribute to a patent opposition. These become touchpoints across the site, where users are urged to help if they can.
Our improvements were presented at the AIPPI (International Association for the Protection of Intellectual Property) World Congress, and the new site is now live at www.patentoppositions.org.
Of course, we’ll be keeping an eye on its performance, and until April we’ll be refining and tweaking until we know that the much-needed community is up and running happily.
International emergency aid charity Médecins Sans Frontiers are one of the biggest purchasers of medicine worldwide, and naturally it’s important that the drugs they buy are cost-effective. Where possible, they choose generics—white label medicines that contain the same ingredients even if they don’t carry the well-known brand names: think ‘ibuprofen’ or ‘aspirin’ rather than ‘Nurofen’ or ‘Anadin’.
But when a specific medicine is only available as a patented product from a big drugs company and with an equally big price tag attached, MSF, like everyone else, has little choice but to pay.
Curiously, this turned out to be a problem that can be solved, in part, through good web design. Here’s the story.
Obviously, drugs companies have an interest in keeping their medicines under patent. As MSF explained, patents, and in particular the practice of ‘evergreening’ them (extending their life indefinitely by making slight modifications to the medicine’s make-up), give pharmaceutical companies a monopoly on pricing, and can impede access to patients who would benefit from them.
MSF’s online project, the Patent Oppositions Database (PODB) is a resource for helping people challenge medicine patents. PODB helps groups around the world to find each other and work on cases together, and to share previous examples of art and arguments used in lawsuits which may help others in future oppositions.
The site was already up, running and functional, and the concept was sound. But it wasn’t attracting much take-up. On analysis, it became clear that this was because there was no focused experience on the site, encouraging users towards the core interactions which would power the whole concept of collaborating and sharing knowledge.
Where design came in
MSF asked us to suggest improvements that would enable groups to communicate about specific cases, and to improve the sense of community. Our solutions will add intuitive user paths that lead people to existing opposition cases and the information they need, then encourage them to join in by placing discussions and information about contributors on the page.
It’s crucial for MSF that the project reaches its full potential, and with the in-depth design changes we’ve suggested, and have now been asked to implement, we know it will.
You can read more about how we approached this project in our latest case study, over at the mySociety Services website.
The open federation for sharing civic tech, Poplus, is inviting YOU to get involved.
If you’re not sure what Poplus is, or how it works, there’s a great opportunity coming up to learn more.
On Wednesday February 18th there will be a Poplus live online Hangout which everyone is welcome to watch via Google Hangouts-on-Air. The specific aim of this Hangout is to invite new people and explain just what Poplus is. There will also be the opportunity to ask questions.
Steven Clift, Poplus’ Engagement Lead, writes:
Poplus is a global federation for the next generation of civic tech. We share knowledge and technology to help our organisations help citizens.
We do this through collaborative civic coding. We share reusable open source civic technology components. We leverage open government data or make our own across many countries.
This online video-based event specially invites those new to Poplus. Everyone is welcome.
The presentation includes Tom Steinberg with mySociety and a few project participants from around the world on the Hangout-on-Air “stage.” Questions will be taken via comments on the Hangout event page. The video stream is one-way, commenting two-way.
How to get involved
Share this event by forwarding this email or by sharing this hangout here.
Join our friendly online group with 350+ members from over 60 nations and representing 200+ organisations. Read the awesome participant introductions to see the amazing talent coming together. Add your introduction. Be part of what’s next with civic tech sharing.
Check out the Poplus components – test them – explore the code on GitHub – deploy them – enhance them – and learn about turning your open source code into a new Poplus Component for global sharing and impact.
- Follow the blog – Lightly follow this initiative and stay tuned for future events with occasional email updates.For questions about Poplus, post to our friendly online group or contact our engagement team.
On Wednesday we had our first community virtual hangout for Alaveteli. The idea of a drop-in virtual meeting was inspired by meeting community members in person over the last few months.
Louise visited AskTheEU in Madrid and mySociety’s International Team spent time with community members from Australia, Spain, Canada and many other countries at Transparency Camp. Henare’s session with David Cabo and Michael Morisy from MuckRock on FOIA at Transparency Camp provided an inspirational opportunity to talk more with the people running Alaveteli sites.
We wanted to have a regular time where we could share experiences of running FOI sites in general and installing the Alaveteli software in particular. Though everyone that joined was running an Alaveteli install, we’d love for people interested in running a site or who already run a site using different software to join future hangouts! Your experiences could shed light on issues that people might be having, and vice versa.
It was great to learn from groups in Romania, Canada, Norway, Australia and New Zealand. We had representatives from three new or fairly new installs as well as sites like Right To Know and FYI.Nz which have been running for a couple of years, each with their own stories of success and pinch points where things have been more difficult.
What did we learn?
First off, we have a great, open community that’s happy to discuss problems, suggest solutions and speak about what it’s like to run an FOI site in their countries. So thank you for that!
Despite differences in laws across the world, people do face similar issues in driving awareness of FOI and FOIA sites. People share ideas for positioning FOI sites came up such as using them to investigate specific issues that are current and getting a lot of press. For example the issue of detention logs in Australia (which you can see more of here and here) helped Right To Know raise more awareness of both the FOI law and the site. According to Henare:
“The news buzz made people realise they had FOI rights, which isn’t general knowledge in Australia. They started thinking “oh, I could put in a request about X””
The next hangout will be in around a month and we’re going to set an agenda to talk about different ways to increase usage and awareness of FOI sites, what has worked, and what hasn’t. All details will be posted on the google group, please join if you want to attend!
We also got some great feedback on places where we can support people launching and running an Alaveteli install – by making it easier to make a complete set of translations for a particular release of the software, and by making the process of upgrading to a new version easier in general. All this input is really useful to us, especially as we’re currently updating the documentation on Alaveteli.org to make it easier to get started.
Finally we touched on the alaveteli-users google group as a place where people can share their issues, stories and successes, and get input from other FOI practitioners. It’s useful for tapping into the expertise of teams in other timezones! This seemed like a pretty decent plan when it was mentioned, do let us know what you think!
One of the key differences between the UK’s national parliament and its local governments is that Parliament produces a written record of what gets said – Hansard.
This practice – which has no actual legal power – still has a huge impact on successful functioning of Parliament. MPs share their own quotes, they quote things back to one-another, journalists cite questions and answers, and every day TheyWorkForYou sends tens of thousands of email alerts to people who want to know who said what yesterday in Parliament. Without freely available transcripts of Parliamentary debates, it is likely that Parliament would not be anything like as prominent an institution in British public life.
No Local Hansards
Councils, of course, are too poor to have transcribers, and so don’t produce transcripts. Plus, nobody wants to know what’s going on anyway. Those are the twin beliefs that ensure that verbatim transcripts are an exceptional rarity in the local government world.
At mySociety we think the time has come to actively challenge these beliefs. We are going to be building a set of technologies whose aim is to start making the production of written transcripts of local government meetings a normal practice.
We believe that being able to get sent some form of alert when a council meeting mentions your street is a gentle and psychologically realistic way of engaging regular people with the decisions being made in their local governments. We believe transcripts are worth producing because they show that local politics is actually carried out by humans.
The State of the Art Still Needs You
First, though – a reality check. No technology currently exists that can entirely remove human labour from the production of good quality transcripts of noisy, complicated public meetings. But technology is now at a point where it is possible to substantially collapse the energy and skills required to record, edit and publish transcripts of public meetings of all kinds.
We are planning to develop software that uses off-the-shelf voice recognition technologies to produce rough drafts of transcripts that can then be edited and published through a web browser. Our role will not be in working on the voice recognition itself, but rather on making the whole experience of setting out to record, transcribe and publish a speech or session as easy, fast and enjoyable as possible. And we will build tools to make browsing and sharing the data as nice as we know how. All this fits within our Components strategy.
But mySociety cannot ourselves go to all these meetings. And it appears exceptionally unlikely that councils will want to pay for official transcribers at this point in history. So what we’re asking today is for interest from individuals – inside or outside councils – willing to have a go at transcribing meetings as we develop the software.
It doesn’t have to be definitive to be valuable
Hansard is the record of pretty much everything that gets said in Parliament. This has led to the idea that if you don’t record everything said in every session, your project is a failure. But if Wikipedia has taught us anything, it is that starting small – producing little nuggets of value from the first day – is the right way to get started on hairy, ambitious projects. We’re not looking for people willing to give up their lives to transcribe endlessly and for free – we’re looking for people for whom having a transcript is useful to them anyway, people willing to transcribe at least partly out of self interest. We’re looking for these initial enthusiasts to start building up transcripts that slowly shift the idea of what ‘normal’ conduct in local government is.
Unlike Wikipedia we’re not really talking about a single mega database with community rules. Our current plans are to let you set up a database which you would own – just as you own your blog on Blogger or WordPress, perhaps with collaborators. Maybe you just want to record each annual address of the Lord Mayor – that’s fine. We just want to build something that suits many different people’s needs, and which lifts the veil on so much hidden decision making in this country.
Get in touch
The main purpose of this post is to tell people that mySociety is heading in this direction, and that we’d like you along for the ride. We won’t have a beta to play with for a good few months yet, but we are keen to hear from anyone who thinks they might be an early adopter, or who knows of other people who might want to be involved.
And we’re just as keen to hear from people inside councils as outside, although we know your hands are more tied. Wherever you sit – drop us a line and tell us what sort of use you might want to make of the new technology, and what sort of features you’d like to see. We’ll get back in touch when we’ve something to share.
21st to 29th July is Love Parks Week – a campaign that raises awareness of the importance of green spaces in local communities.
This year, they are focusing on “healthy” parks – that is to say, parks that are safe, clean, well-maintained, a home for wildlife, and a hub for the local community.
The Love Parks website features a quick online health check which you can complete for your local facilities.
If your local park isn’t up to scratch, this is a great week to report it via FixMyStreet. You might think that you can only report problems on streets and roads, but in fact the automatic geolocation function, and the zoomable, draggable maps mean that you can also pinpoint issues very precisely, even if they’re on open ground.
So, if your playground equipment is rusty, the pond is full of algae, or the dog bin’s overflowing, you know where to turn.
Image by Barbara Mazz, used with thanks under the Creative commons licence.
Describe your idea:
Introduce volunteer citizen participation directly into the daily operation of elected politicians, on both national and local levels. Start with local councilors and: A) TASK TRACKER = simplified version of Request Tracker, or Basecamp, to track tasks that citizens ask councilors to work on and tasks that councilors work on otherwise; B) OPEN COMMITTEES – tool to have citizen discussing tasks/decisions and related documents that councilors work on in committees, with citizen ability to collectively comment on and edit documents. Couple of my local concilors are willing to start using it and i’ll work with them anyway. more here.
What problem does it solve?:
Problem of political representation, which is a broken way to conduct politics democratically. Since it doesn’t enable citizens to participate in it directly. This proposal would open the doors for the Internet Model, by introducing the concept of Open Process. With the tools for communication and cooperation we have available, our current political models are a problem in itself. They have been designed centuries ago and are quite inappropriate today. We can do far better. Example proposal of Open Process in academic publishing.
Type of idea: A brand new project
Last week at the SustainIT eWell-Being Awards, we picked up an award for FixMyStreet. The judges said it was “[a]n excellent example of an independent website which empowers the general public in their dealings with their local council. It is a relatively simple application, yet highly effective and replicable.” One example the accompanying Independent supplement mentioned was “a community in Great Yarmouth which joined forces through FixMyStreet to clear their local unused railway track. The site made possible a dialogue between community members and the council’s community development worker, who organised a “clear up” day where locals could get involved with rectifying the situation, with tools, insurance and even a barbeque provided.” It’s great to see that sort of thing happening on the site, and also great to be recognised in this way.