1. Barnet Council and their use of Pledgebank

    How do you get everyone working together when the community needs it most – like when there’s a heavy snowfall?

    Recently, we posted a conversation with Chris Palmer of Barnet Council, where he talked about integration of FixMyStreet with the council website.

    Barnet also use another mySociety tool – Pledgebank – and Chris explained how it helps them within the Barnet communities.

    Turning complaints into action

    Big Dig by Shashi Bellamkon

     

    “We took on Pledgebank in the belief that the council needs to get out of people’s way. Online communities are good at complaining about things: it’s easy to get instant outrage on the web, and actually we need mechanisms that allow people to get together creatively.

    “One of the issues we had during the heavy winter of 2010 was that people complained the council wasn’t coming round and clearing their paths. Well, the council never came round and cleared the pavement outside those particular houses.

    “Many people said, well if the council allowed us to, we would do it ourselves. Pledgebank allowed us to get parents at 25 schools to sign up last year. They pledged to come and spread grit and clear the snow from outside just in return for free shovels and a ton of grit.

    “That kind of thing encourages residents to be active, it frees them from the frustrations that the political system gives them. If people feel, ‘Oh, there’s a legal process stopping me doing this’,  it moves the council forward, to being an enabler rather than a provider of services.

    “A parent can spend 15 minutes in the morning and then be confident their child will be at school for the day and that they can go off to work, so for the parents, it’s win-win.

    “One of the things that surprised us was the response of local residents who live in the street but don’t necessarily have children at the school. They felt that they should be helping to clear the snow. It gave a group of active residents who we hadn’t even asked, a chance to be involved”.

    Tapping into community interest

    Why do you think that is? Is it just that people just want to contribute within their community?

    “I genuinely think people just aren’t interested in councils. I couldn’t tell you the name of my council leader where I live, never mind the name of cabinet members. However, I am very interested in the services the council provides: the only public meeting I’ve ever been to was about parking, because it directly affected my street. And I’d probably say there’s a rule, where people will take responsibility for the space outside their own house, and be prepared to extend that a few houses either side. And this just gives people a mechanism to be involved in their local community.

    “With Pledgebank, we can leave people to do things amongst themselves, with the understanding that the council is not just a provider of services, but a catalyst to people doing those things themselves”.

    Adopt-a-street

    Lakeside Daisy by Matt MacGillivray

    What else have you done with Pledgebank?

    “We’re hoping residents will play a part in keeping their streets tidy with our Adopt-a-Street scheme. There’s a real sense of ownership if somebody controls the green space outside their house: do they plant the bottom of trees in the street with wild flowers, do they plant bulbs in what’s currently a grass verge? We can give them that element of ownership, and give them control of their local environment.

    “So with Adopt-a-Street, we found one or two people locally with an interest in doing it, and we’re looking now at how we encourage them to leaflet their neighbours, get in contact with their neighbours.

    A challenge for the marketing department

    “It’s worth adding, though, that Pledgebank has taken us a lot of learning. It’s quite easy to imagine that anything you bung up on the web suddenly becomes viral: it doesn’t.

    “One of the challenges for us is how we link into what we’re doing, how we publicise what we’re doing with Pledgebank and the web. So we have to look at it not so much as, here’s an interesting web device, but here’s a device that enables residents to do things. But the council has a responsibility to publicise it.

    “The key challenge for us is making information available to the relevant people. It’s all about defining communities, and making information available to those communities – and mySociety has been tremendously helpful with that.

    “It’s changed the way we’re using our information now and it’s fair to say it’s informed how we’ve built our new website.”

    Diamond Jubilee Street Party on Kenyon Clough by Dave Haygarth

    Barnet have been inventive with Pledgebank. As well as using it during the snows, they’ve managed street parties for the Jubilee and Royal Wedding; got volunteers to give IT training to residents; and encouraged visits to carehomes.

    If you’re from a council and you think Pledgebank might work for you, drop us a line to find out more.

    Image credits: Snow Big Dig by Shashi Bellamkonda, Lakeside Daisy by Matt MacGillivray, and Diamond Jubilee Street Party on Kenyon Clough by Dave Haygarth, all used with thanks under the Creative Commons licence.

  2. Local e-Petitions – See if mySociety is providing your local system

    Councils all around England have been busy getting ready to comply with the new duty to provide e-Petitions which kicks in today, 15th December. This means that on council sites across England you should now be able to make petitions which will be formally considered by the councils, in accordance with their chosen policies.

    At mySociety we’ve spent a lot of time over the last twelve months helping councils to cope with this new duty by offering  them a commercial petitions service that is really good for users and easy to administer for councils. Some of the sites have been live for months, but many of the 35 council e-petitions sites we’re currently contracted to supply launch today.

    mySociety’s core developers Matthew Somerville and Dave Whiteland deserve huge credit for all the work they did re-purposing the No10 Petitions codebase and doing dozens of council customisations and rebrands. I’ve just seen one council officer email “Yippeee” at the prospect of launching, so I reckon they’ve done a pretty good job  – well done gents, everyone in mySociety owes you a debt of gratitude for a time consuming job well done.

    Here’s the current list of live local petitions sites. We’ll be adding more as they go up. Happy petitioning!

    Ashfield http://petitions.ashfield-dc.gov.uk/

    Barnet http://petitions.barnet.gov.uk

    Barrow http://petitions.barrowbc.gov.uk/

    Bassetlaw http://petitions.bassetlaw.gov.uk/

    Blackburn with Darwen http://petitions.blackburn.gov.uk/

    East Cambridgeshire http://petitions.eastcambs.gov.uk/

    East Northants http://petitions.east-northamptonshire.gov.uk

    Elmbridge http://petitions.elmbridge.gov.uk

    Forest Heath http://petitions.forest-heath.gov.uk

    Hounslow http://petitions.hounslow.gov.uk

    Ipswich http://petitions.ipswich.gov.uk

    Islington http://petitions.islington.gov.uk

    Lichfield http://petitions.lichfielddc.gov.uk

    Mansfield http://petitions.mansfield.gov.uk/

    Melton http://petitions.melton.gov.uk/

    New Forest http://petitions.newforest.gov.uk

    Nottinghamshire http://petitions.nottinghamshire.gov.uk

    Reigate & Banstead http://petitions.reigate-banstead.gov.uk

    Runnymede http://petitions.runnymede.gov.uk

    Rushcliffe http://petitions.rushcliffe.gov.uk/

    South Holland http://petitions.sholland.gov.uk

    Spelthorne http://petitions.spelthorne.gov.uk

    St Edmundsbury http://petitions.stedmundsbury.gov.uk

    Stevenage http://petitions.stevenage.gov.uk

    Suffolk Coastal http://petitions.suffolkcoastal.gov.uk/

    Surrey County Council http://petitions.surreycc.gov.uk

    Surrey Heath http://petitions.surreyheath.gov.uk

    Tandridge http://petitions.tandridge.gov.uk

    Waveney http://petitions.waveney.gov.uk

    Waverley http://petitions.waverley.gov.uk

    Wellingborough http://petitions.wellingborough.gov.uk

    Westminster http://petitions.westminster.gov.uk

    Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead http://petitions.rbwm.gov.uk

    Woking http://petitions.woking.gov.uk

  3. A wish list for geodata on FixMyStreet

    I was just talking to someone in a local council about the fact that they’d opened up the location of 27,000 streetlights in their council area. They wanted to know if FixMyStreet could incorporate them so that problem reports could be more accurately attached.

    This conversation reminded me that we’ve had an informal wish list of geodata for FixMyStreet for some time. What we need is more data that lets us send problems to the correct entity when the problem is not actually a council responsibility.

    I’m just posting these up to see if anyone knows a guy who knows a girl who knows a dog who knows how to get hold of any of these datasets. In some vector data format, if possible, please!

    • Canals and responsible authorities
    • Supermarkets (esp car parks) and responsible companies
    • Network Rail’s land
    • Council owned land
    • Land and roads controlled by the Highways agency
    • Shopping malls
    • National parks
    • BT phone boxes (the original problem which inspired FixMyStreet)

    So, do you know someone who might know someone who can help us improve FixMyStreet? And guess what, if we do add this to our web services, you’ll probably be able to query them too.

  4. New features on MaPit

    We’ve added a variety of new features to our postcode and point administrative area database, MaPit, in the past month – new data (Super Output Areas and Crown dependency postcodes), new functionality (more geographic functions, council shortcuts, and JSONP callback), and most interestingly for most people, a way of browsing all the data on the site.

    • Firstly, we have some new geographic functions to join touches – overlaps, covered, covers, and coverlaps. These do as you would expect, enabling you to see the areas that overlap, cover, or are covered by a particular area, optionally restricted to particular types of area. ‘coverlaps’ returns the areas either overlapped or covered by a chosen area – this might be useful for questions such as “Tell me all the Parliamentary constituencies fully or partly within the boundary of Manchester City Council” (three of those are entirely covered by the council, and two overlap another council, Salford or Trafford).
    • As you can see from that link, nearly everything on MaPit now has an HTML representation – just stick “.html” on the end of a JSON URI to see it. This makes it very easy to explore the data contained within MaPit, linking areas together and letting you view any area on Google Maps (e.g. Rutland Council on a map). It also means every postcode has a page.
    • From a discussion on our mailing list started by Paul Waring, we discovered that the NSPD – already used by us for Northern Ireland postcodes – also contains Crown dependency postcodes (the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man) – no location information is included, but it does mean that given something that looks like a Crown dependency postcode, we can now at least tell you if it’s a valid postcode or not for those areas.
    • Next, we now have all Lower and Middle Super Output Areas in the system; thanks go to our volunteer Anna for getting the CD and writing the import script. These are provided by ONS for small area statistics after the 2001 census, and it’s great that you can now trivially look up the SOA for a postcode, or see what SOAs are within a particular ward. Two areas are in MaPit for each LSOA and MSOA – one has a less accurate boundary than the other for quicker plotting, and we thought we might as well just load it all in. The licences on the CD (Conditions of supply of SOA boundaries and Ordnance Survey Output Area Licence) talk about a click-use licence, and a not very sraightforward OS licence covering only those SOAs that might share part of a boundary with Boundary-Line (whichever ones those are), but ONS now use the Open Government Licence, Boundary-Line is included in OS OpenData, various councils have published their SOAs as open data (e.g. Warwickshire), and these areas should be publicly available under the same licences.
    • As the UK has a variety of different types of council, depending on where exactly you are, the postcode lookup now includes a shortcuts dictionary in its result, with two keys, “council” and “ward”. In one-tier areas, the values will simply by the IDs of that postcode’s council and ward (whether it’s a Metropolitan district, Unitary authority, London borough, or whatever); in two-tier areas, the values will again be dictionaries with keys “district” and “council”, pointing at the respective IDs. This should hopefully make lookups of councils easier.
    • Lastly, to enable use directly on other sites with JavaScript, MaPit now sends out an “Access-Control-Allow-Origin: *” header, and allows you to specify a JSON callback with a callback parameter (e.g. put “?callback=foo” at the end of your query to have the JSON results wrapped in a call to the foo() function). JSONP calls will always return a 200 response, to enable the JavaScript to access the contents – look for the “error” key to see if something went wrong.

    Phew! I hope you find this a useful resource for getting at administrative geographic data; please do let us know of any uses you make of the site.

  5. April Fools’ Day Council changes

    They could perhaps have picked a better day, as it was quite serious – at the stroke of midnight on the 1st of April, 37 district councils and 7 county councils in England ceased to exist, replaced by 9 new unitary authorities. This means people in Durham, Northumberland, Cornwall, Shropshire, Wiltshire, Chesire, and Bedfordshire only have one principal local authority to deal with now. The Wikipedia article on the changes has more information on the background to this change.

    Obviously this meant some work for WriteToThem and FixMyStreet, both of which require up-to-date local council information. Our database of voting areas, MaPit, has “generations”, so we can keep old areas around for various historical purposes. So firstly, I created a new generation and updated all the areas that weren’t affected to the new generation. Next, six of the new unitary authorities (all the counties except Cheshire and Bedfordshire, plus Bedford) share their boundaries and wards with the coterminous councils they’re replacing, so for them it was a simple matter of updating those councils to be unitary authorities.

    That left Bedfordshire and Cheshire. I created areas for the three new councils (Cheshire West and Chester, Cheshire East, and Central Bedfordshire), and transferred across the relevant wards from the old county councils – basically a manual process of working out the list of correct ward IDs.

    WriteToThem was now dealt with, but FixMyStreet needed a little more work. The councils that no longer existed had understandably disappeared from the all reports table, so I had to modify the function that fetches the list of councils to optionally return historical areas so they could be included. And lastly, FixMyStreet needs a way of mapping a point on a map to the relevant council. For this, it needs to know the area covered by a council, which was missing for the new authorities I’d manually created. Thankfully, each of the three new authorities are made up of the areas of either 2 or 3 district councils (e.g. Cheshire East is the area covered by Congleton, Macclesfield, and Crewe and Nantwich), so I just had to write a script that stuck those areas together to create the area of the new council. It all seems to work, and I’m sure our users will be in touch if it doesn’t 🙂

    So goodbye to Alnwick, Bedfordshire, Berwick-upon-Tweed, Blyth Valley, Bridgnorth, Caradon, Carrick, Castle Morpeth, Cheshire, Chester, Chester-le-Street, Congleton, Crewe and Nantwich, Derwentside, Durham City, Easington, Ellesmere Port and Neston, Kennet, Kerrier, Macclesfield, Mid Bedfordshire, North Cornwall, North Shropshire, North Wiltshire, Oswestry, Penwith, Restormel, Salisbury (which is getting a new town council), Sedgefield, Shrewsbury and Atcham, South Bedfordshire, South Shropshire, Teesdale, Tynedale, Vale Royal, Wansbeck, Wear Valley, and West Wiltshire. RIP.

  6. Postcode and boundary refresh

    We updated our boundary and postcode database at the start of the week (apart from two wards in Scotland that I misspelled and updated on Tuesday, sorry), so hopefully everyone in the country can contact their representatives at WriteToThem or have their postcode recognised on HearFromYourMP or TheyWorkForYou. This applies especially to a small number of councils, such as Bradford, for which the boundaries had completely changed at their last election and which we were unable to get working until now – apologies for the inconvenience.

    Related to this, and for interest, on 1st April, a number of councils are being abolished as their county councils become unitary authorities. The district councils within Durham, Northumberland, Cornwall, Wiltshire, Shropshire, and Cheshire/Chester all disappear – Cheshire becomes two unitary authorities called Cheshire West and Chester, and Cheshire East. Lastly, Bedford borough council becomes a unitary authority, and Central Bedfordshire council covers the area previously covered by Mid Bedfordshire and South Bedfordshire.

    Parliamentary boundaries in England and Northern Ireland are changing, but these do not take effect until the next general election – until then, your constituency and MP remains the same.

  7. ReportEmptyHomes.com vs. EveryHomeCounts.info

    Last month saw the launch of not one but two websites asking the public to report empty properties to the relevant council. First off the blocks was mySociety’s ReportEmptyHomes.com, commissioned by the Empty Homes Agency, followed shortly afterwards by EveryHomeCounts.info from a group of eight councils in Surrey and Hampshire. Since mySociety claims to want to show the public sector how to use the internet properly, I thought it might be interesting to compare the two sites, at least from a user’s perspective.

    I’m going to imagine I was walking down, say, Fosters Lane in Knaphill, Surrey, and I noticed that the house on the corner next to the chip shop was in a state of disrepair.* I snapped a picture on my mobile phone, and I want to send it to the council to see if they can do something about it.
    [*I ought to just add that this is entirely fictional. I’ve never been to Knaphill, I’ve no idea whether there’s a chippy on Fosters Lane, and even if there is, the house next to it probably belongs to a lovely couple. Please don’t go taking pictures of their house for the council.]

    So, first up: EveryHomeCounts.info. Clicking the big red reporting an empty property REPORTING AN EMPTY PROPERTY button takes me to a page of text telling me why the council might like people to report empty properties, although presumably if I’ve got as far as finding the website and clicking the big red button, I’m already convinced of the case. At the bottom of the text I’m invited to “click here” to report an empty property.

    On the next page I’m asked for… a whole load of personal information. I want to tell you about an empty house; do I really need to declare my title, first name, surname, house name, house number, street, locality, town, county, postcode, country, telephone number, and email address before doing so? Well, as it turns out, no — they only insist on an email address (although the single letter “f” was accepted as a valid email address).

    On to page four, and I’m finally asked for the address of the house. I suppose “house on the corner next to the chippy, Queens Road, Knaphill” would probably be enough for the council to identify it. But then — get this — they want me to tell them which borough council might be responsible for this address, so that the report can be sent to the right place! Unless I happen to live in that street, how would I know? Even if I could have an educated guess, it might be near a boundary, or just over a boundary… Leaving the field blank isn’t allowed, and there’s no option that says “I’m not sure, sorry” — I’m told in red ink that I must specify a council if I want to continue filing my report.

    Finally, I reach a screen that says at the top, “Thank you. You have reached the end of this form. blah blah” The second paragraph says, “What will happen next? The council will process your form. You will receive an email blah blah.” So, I pat myself on the back, turn off the computer and go for a walk. Except that if I’d scrolled down the page, I would have seen “submit” button, along with the “review” and “cancel” buttons. My form hasn’t been submitted, and I’ve wasted half an hour filling in a form that’s been thrown away.

    Now, what would have happened if I’d gone to ReportEmptyHomes.com instead?

    The top of the front page asks me for a postcode, street name or area. I enter “Fosters Lane, Knaphill” and hit enter. This brings up an Ordnance Survey map with Fosters Lane in the middle of it, and I click on the offending property. The text on the page immediately changes and tells me that this problem falls in the area of Woking Borough Council, and I’m asked for a description of the property, a photo if I’ve got one to upload, my name, email and phone number.

    Having filled in the information and clicked “submit”, I’m told to go off and check my emails, where I’ll find a confirmation link to click. This finalises the report.

    So, how do the two sites compare? The mySociety site certainly gets the user through the process quicker, and offers maps and photos to boot. It helps the user greatly by taking responsibility for finding the right council, and does so for the whole country too, not just for a couple of counties in the south. On the down side, one could question why it’s so important to verify the user’s email address before filing the report; waiting for a confirmation link by email adds an extra hurdle which will probably trip at least some users, so why do it?

    Also, EveryHomeCounts.info isn’t just for filing reports about empty homes; it contains information on buying, selling, owning and letting them too, providing ways for local people to perhaps make use of empty properties without enlisting the council’s help at all, which can only be a good thing.

    To be fair, the councils concerned should be applauded for taking the initiative to launch this service, and I hope it proves to be a worthwhile use of council tax money. It’s great to see public bodies using the internet in innovative ways to try to make concrete improvements in people’s immediate environment. It appears though that mySociety have shown that it can be done better, and for the whole country, and probably more cheaply to boot.

  8. What does it take to get FixMyStreet to post reports directly into a council CRM? One good public servant.

    Recently I gave a talk at a conference where I told a group of local government officials that FixMyStreet was built not just to provide cleaner streets for their citizens, but also to force the hands of councils to procure and contract internal IT systems fit for the 21st century. In particular I pointed out that companies like Google seek to have people use their service from any site, any browser and device – they don’t just demand that everyone goes to www.google.com. And, I said, it’s only through building nice interfaces (APIs) that you can become an organisation that realises the benefits for yourself and other organisations from taking this ‘we’re happy to interoperate with anyone’ approach.

    Less than three weeks later Michael Houlsby from East Hants council has single-handedly built an external facing API for their faults and problems database. So now FixMyStreet posts problems in that council direct into their database, without them first being translated into emails.

    This is fantastic, especially as Michael clearly knocked it together in his spare time, and helps confirm what we’ve said before – if government builds nice interoperable APIs people like mySociety will use them to improve citizens’ experiences, whist simultaniously keeping everyone’s unnecessary workloads and expenses to a minimum. Plus it shows that if your IT supplier tells you you need to sign a new five or six figure contract to add an API to a CRM system you’ve already bought – you’re being jerked around.

    Hats off to Michael – you’re a great example of a pro-active public servant using your skills to make government both better and more efficient.

  9. Avoid exhausting train journeys!

    Last week I gave my first presentation by video conference. It was to the intriguing Circus Foundation, who are running a series of workshops on new democracy. It came about because I was a bit busy and tired to travel from Cambridge into London. Charles Armstrong, from the Circus Foundation, suggested that I present over the Internet.

    We used Skype audio and video, combined with GoToMeeting so my laptop screen was visible on a projector to an audience in London. Apparently my voice was boomed round the room. It was a slightly odd experience, more like speaking on the radio. However, I had a good serendipitous one to one chat while we were setting up, with Jonathan Gray from OKFN.

    I was asked to give a quick overview of mySociety, as a few people in the audience hadn’t heard of us, and also to talk about how I saw the future of democracy. I talked about three of our sites, and what I’d like to see in each area in 10 years time.

    • TheyWorkForYou opens up access to conventional, representational democracy, between and during elections. In 10 years time, I asked for Parliament to publish all information about its work in a structured way, as hinted at in our Free Our Bills campaign. So it is much easier for everyone to help make new laws better.
    • FixMyStreet is local control of the things people care about, a very practical democracy. In 10 years time I’d like to see all councils running their internal systems (planning, tree preservation orders… everything that isn’t about individuals) in public, so everyone can see and be reassured about what is being done, why and where.
    • WhatDoTheyKnow shows the deep interest that there is by the public in the functioning of all areas of government. In 10 years time, I’d like to see document management systems in wide use by public authorities that publish all documents by default. Only if overridden for national security or data protection reasons would they be hidden.

    Charles Armstrong, from the Circus Foundation, has written up the workshop.

    Downsides of the video conferencing were that I couldn’t hear others speak, as they didn’t have the audio equipment. I had to take questions via Charles. This meant I also couldn’t participate in the rest of the evening, or easily generally chat to people. All very solvable problems, with a small amount of extra effort – Charles is going to work on it for another time.

    Of course this also all saves on carbon emissions (cheekily, taking off my mySociety hat for a moment, sign up to help lobby about that).

  10. A few words on the Guardian

    Obviously it’s always great when any paper gives mySociety coverage – it helps get the word about our services out and helps more people get things done that help their lives.

    However, today’s look at mySociety’s 5 years in the Guardian makes a few claims I think it’s important to challenge, so instead of writing to the readers editor I thought I’d just seize the power of Citizen Media(TM) to note them here.

    First, has the No10 petitions site had “little notable impact” on government policy? Given that that project appears almost single handedly to have bounced Parliament into developing an online petitioning system and devoting debate time to major petitions, I’d say that it certainly has had some impact. But there is indeed a bigger problem of pointing at No10 petitions and going “That one changed policy.” It’s a problem of two halves: scale, and deniability.  Governments almost never acknowledge that they were forced into anything, ever. Policy announcements are almost always framed as if the right course of action was being followed all along. So apart from the fact that I don’t know how one could possibly assess the impacts of so many thousands of petitions without a huge research project, I would expect that even those that do have in impact will still usually be denied by the government, even when shifting policy. I would encourage No10 and the whole of Government to take a look at directly challenging this culture, and employ someone whose job it is to find out which petitions are having an impact, and shout about them in plain English.

    Second, the majority of mySociety’s sites are programmed by staff and contractors, not volunteers. The volunteers are super-essential to mySociety running every day, but the sheer size of some of our projects makes it unlikely a volunteer could have built them without giving up their day job for many months. This needs mentioning to explain why it matters if our finances are precarious!

    Next – do councils find FixMyStreet an irritation or an asset? Well, last time we did a count a few weeks ago, we had 4 complaining emails from councils, and 62 supportive ones, with several linking directly to us. As for the Customer Relationship Management at councils, we’d be delighted to send reports straight into their databases without going via email first, it’s just that only one council has set up such an interface so far. I hope that FixMyStreet can put pressure on councils and their suppliers to build a small number of standardised interfaces for the good of everyone. And yes, we are building FixMyStreet for iPhone and Android, and I’m happy to talk to anyone who wants to build UIs for any other phones.

    There – hope that doesn’t come across as too ungrateful to Michael Cross et al. See you at the next birthday party, I hope!

    Update: I also meant to mention that I’ve never been a ‘Downing Street Insider’. I was a junior civil servant in the Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit, which is not in Downing Street and more loosely affiliated than the name might suggest.