1. Foie gras, Turkish baths and machine guns: the strange world of local government procurement

    Local government has a need for all kinds of services, from taxis to stationery. And to ensure that they get the best deals, they acquire them through a procurement process—one that, as suppliers of software to councils, we’ve become very familiar with ourselves.

    It’s quite simple: every category of goods or services has its own ID number. You identify the ones that are closest to what you provide—so in our case, it might be software development, software consultancy, and the provision of software packages.

    Then you sign up to receive notifications every time a council puts out a request for tenders that fall within one of those categories.

    Our newest team member, Camilla, has been spending a lot of time signing up for these notifications across all the various platforms in the UK (buy her a drink if you see her: procurement websites might just be amongst the most infuriating and clunky known to man), and as a result, she’s noticed that as well as all the categories you’d expect, there are also plenty more that you wouldn’t.

    For example, who knew that councils had such a regular need for

    15112310 Foie gras

    or indeed

    18318000 Nightwear
    98331000 Turkish bath services
    18511100 Diamonds
    14523400 Platinum
    16710000 Pedestrian-controlled agricultural tractors

    Then there’s

    35321100 Hand guns

    and as if that’s not enough…

    35321300 Machine guns

    There are plenty more categories that might make you go ‘hmm’ – take a look for yourself.

    Oh, and here’s a thought – if you’d like to ask your own local council what their expenditure is on nightwear, foie gras or machine guns, you can do so very easily at our own WhatDoTheyKnow.com.

    Image: Dynamosquito (CC)

  2. Are you still in the same ward?

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

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

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

  3. Two new SayIt demos: Transcripts from Philadelphia City Council and the Federal Reserve

    Philadelphia City Hall by Stephen Downes

    Back in January, we introduced SayIt, our new software for the publication of transcripts. To show what it could do, we launched with a few demos.

    Today we’re launching a couple more demos using data from the United States, as a way of saying ‘hello!’ to American groups and individuals who might want to use modern transcripts for their own purposes.

    Philadelphia City Council Meetings

    Decisions affecting your house, your street or your job are often made in city government meetings. But who can be bothered to sit through hours of irrelevant waffle? Why can’t you just look for the things that matter to you?

    To show a better way, we’ve published a searchable, shareable version of Philadelphia’s City Council meetings available for use. It’s just a deployment of SayIt, filled with screen-scraped data.

    You don’t have to live in this city to find some of what’s talked about interesting. Some issues are international, and it’s interesting to see how e-cigarettes are also a concern for Philadelphia. There are also issues which, we suspect, are not common to all city governments.  ‘Giant tomato cannon‘ is one of them.

    Federal Reserve Transcripts

    We’re keen to demonstrate that SayIt isn’t just about what politicians say. Often unelected people say very important things too. Few discussions are more important to the way the world runs than the meetings of the Federal Reserve.

    The Fed publishes these with a five year delay, which means that what’s coming out now is all about the financial crisis in 2008. What exactly was said? Now that we’ve put the Federal Reserve Open Market transcripts from 2002 to 2008 online, you can find out far more easily than before.

    Browsing and searching these transcripts can be fascinating. At what point did the Committee first perceive there to be a crisis? And what kind of data indicates a recession?

    Do financial experts use loose terms like ‘gazillion’? Apparently so. How many times is the word ‘subprime’ used? Lots.

    Also, with SayIt you can search through the speeches of just one person. Want to know whether Ben Bernanke used certain terms? Have at it.

    As with other SayIt instances, these transcripts were previously available online, but spread across a huge number of old fashioned PDFs. For the first time, SayIt makes them easy to browse, search or link to.

    Want to see more transcripts up there?

    We’re looking to find one or more groups in the US who would be interested to use SayIt to help make citizens more powerful, in one way or another. We’re looking for people who think that access to certain kinds transcripts would really make a difference, and we’re not snobbish about whether it’s a really big issue or a really small one.

    If these two examples have given you ideas for transcripts you’d like to publish with SayIt, do get in touch.

    Image: Philadelphia City Hall by Stephen Downes (CC)
  4. See you in Manchester

    Edge Street Window by Duncan Hill

    Yep, now it’s Manchester’s turn. We’ve been having mySociety meet-ups in towns all over the UK –  it’s been great to meet people for a friendly chat and a drink.

    If you’re local to Manchester and you’d like to know more about what mySociety do, drop by. There’s no agenda, but we’re always happy to talk about open data, eDemocracy, and online civic stuff in general. And we hear that our chosen venue does excellent pancakes.

    We’re in town ahead of the Capita Channel Shift conference. If you’re also attending, you’d be welcome to come and join us for a drink and a chat about digital tech for local government.

    When: 7pm onwards, Weds 4th December
    Where:  Home Sweet Home on Edge Street, M4 1HE. Map
    How: Add your name to our Lanyrd page to let us know you’re coming.
    Who: Anyone who fancies it.
    Hashtag: #mysocial

    NB: Look out for the mySociety hoodie (they look like this, only usually with a person inside). Watch our Twitter stream on @mySociety to check for last minute advice about where we are sitting or if we have moved venues for unforseen reasons.

  5. Councils: Use Open311 and you’ll never have to re-key a problem report from FixMyStreet. And it’s free.

    image by Ardonik

    When FixMyStreet.com was first launched it sent all of our users’ problem reports to councils via email.

    But that was a while ago, and for some time we’ve been trying to encourage councils to open up their back-office systems to websites like FixMyStreet.com using an open standard called Open311.

    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.

    What now?

    Image by Ardonik (CC)

  6. FixMyStreet: aligned with your council’s aims

    Weekend This Way by Dennis Skley

    When we built FixMyStreet in 2006, our primary focus was to create a tool for citizens. We wanted to make it easy, quick, and effective to report street problems, even if the user had no prior knowledge of where their reports should go. And while the tool obviously had to work for the councils who were receiving reports, it never crossed our minds to research, or try to key into, prevailing council strategies.

    But over the last few years, and to the benefit of both sides, council strategy has become strongly aligned with several of the qualities that FixMyStreet was founded on. The development of our specialised software, FixMyStreet for Councils, cemented that further, based, as it is, on consultation with local authorities.

    If your current strategy focuses on any or all of the following points, then FixMyStreet is extremely well-positioned to help you.

    Channel shift

    UK local authorities are fully aware of the channel shift theory by now: put reporting online, make it self-service, and see efficiency rise while costs fall.

    It sounds simple, but it hinges on one important factor – you have to get the reporting interface right. Otherwise, all those hassle-free online transactions turn into irate residents on the phone, seeking help.

    Citizen engagement

    On first impressions, many assume that FixMyStreet is just a public platform for grumbling – so it can be quite a surprise to discover that it often has the opposite effect. By allowing everyone to see what the problems are in their own community, it provides a platform for engagement, debate – and, sometimes, solutions.

    FixMyStreet is a superb tool for councils who are looking for ways to encourage residents to take a stake in their own communities.

    Usability

    Any council web team worth its salt will be anxious to maximise usability across the website. FixMyStreet was designed with the user at its heart: from minimising the number of clicks it takes to make a report, to making sure that every step is as easy and comprehensible as possible.

    Transparency

    Modern society is demanding transparency across a vast array of organisations, not least government. By putting a record of every report online, FixMyStreet helps you fulfil those demands. And there are side benefits, too.

    First, FixMyStreet brings previously ‘hidden’ work into the open, allowing your residents to understand the degree and quantity of work you do on their behalf.

    And second, having reports online allows citizens to see at a glance whether their problem has already been reported, thus cutting down on duplicates – and saving you time.

    Lowering costs

    FixMyStreet is efficient when used on a desktop; it also works very easily on mobile devices, meaning that your residents help you crowd-source information. You’re effectively multiplying your inspection capabilities by a factor of hundreds, and your residents become your ‘eyes and ears on the ground’, as one of our client councils has said.

    Find out more

    Drop us a line now and we’ll get right back to you.

     

    Image credit: Dennis Skley (cc)

  7. FixMyStreet: “Why doesn’t every council use this?”

    We were recently invited to the LGA annual conference to exhibit FixMyStreet for Councils in Nesta’s Innovation Zone along with a lot of interesting social enterprises.

    At one memorable point, we each had the opportunity to pitch to the surrounding crowds. Having to drum up interest from people passing through made me feel somewhat like a travelling salesman, but I channelled my semi-theatrical background and that seemed to do the trick.

    As one councillor said to me incredulously: “Why doesn’t every council use this?” If you’d like to see what inspired such a comment, here’s my presentation (click through and scroll to the bottom of the page if you’d like to see the accompanying notes, too).

    [iframe src=”http://www.slideshare.net/slideshow/embed_code/23841090″ width=”427″ height=”356″ frameborder=”0″ marginwidth=”0″ marginheight=”0″ scrolling=”no” style=”border:1px solid #CCC;border-width:1px 1px 0;margin-bottom:5px” allowfullscreen webkitallowfullscreen mozallowfullscreen]

    We’ll be putting all our presentations, of every kind, on our Slideshare account from now on, so do subscribe if that’s of interest. Just click the orange ‘follow’ button on that page.

  8. A smooth ride for FixMyStreet Oxfordshire

    Oxford April by Tejvan Pettinger

    We were really pleased by this report on BBC Oxfordshire this morning.

    Oxfordshire County Council is one of the local authorities who have integrated FixMyStreet into their own website. We’re delighted to see what a success it’s been for them: over 15,000 potholes fixed since its installation in March.

    We can’t take any credit for the actual repairs, of course, but we like to think that FixMyStreet’s easy interface has simplified the reporting process for the people of Oxfordshire. Read more about FixMyStreet  For Councils here.

     

    Photo by Tejvan Pettinger (CC)

  9. Unofficial Transcripts: mySociety is seeking councillors, council officers, local activists and hyperlocal bloggers interested in Hansards at the local level

    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.

  10. 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.