1. Civic Tech Cities: researching US government inhouse technologies

    Today, mySociety, in partnership with Microsoft, launch Civic Tech Cities, a new piece of research looking at the technologies local governments implement to serve and communicate with their citizens. You can download it here.

    Civic Tech: whose job is it?

    Debating and making decisions on behalf of the people; managing services, disseminating information — all of these have been the agreed tasks of local government for a very long time. But has citizen-facing technology now also become a core function of government? And if so, how are they doing?

    We often say that mySociety was originally set up to show governments how they could be using digital better, and that one day we hope to have done ourselves out of a job.

    But perhaps it’s wrong to foresee a time when we’ll be able to pack up and go home. Perhaps those within government will never be able to escape internal bureaucracies and budget constraints to provide the software that their citizens will really benefit from; perhaps the provocative NGO, one step ahead with citizen-to-government technologies, will always be a necessary agent.

    We won’t know for sure until we start researching beyond our own sphere.

    A vital new area for research

    When we set up the mySociety research programme, as you’d expect, our first priority was to look at the impact of the services we, and other organisations like us, were providing.

    Around the same time, the term ‘Civic Tech’ was gaining traction, and it carried with it an implicit reference to applications made outside government, by organisations like us, cheekily providing the tools the citizens wanted rather than those the government decided they needed.

    If our aim was to wake governments up to the possibilities of digital, to some extent it has been successful. Governments around the world, at all levels, have seen the financial and societal benefits, and are producing, buying in, and commissioning civic software for their own online offerings.

    It is, then, high time that the sphere of government-implemented civic technologies were more closely examined: how effective are they? Who is using them? What changes are they wreaking on the relationship between citizen and government? How, indeed, are governments themselves changing as a result of this new direction?

    Civic Tech Cities

    Thanks to generous funding from Microsoft, we were able to conduct research that seeks to answer these questions, in the context of municipal-level council digital offerings in five US cities.

    Emily Shaw, in collaboration with mySociety’s Head of Research Rebecca Rumbul, examined standalone projects in Austin, Chicago, Oakland, Washington DC and Seattle, to produce case studies that cast a light on the state of institutional civic tech in the current age.

    The technologies chosen for scrutiny were diverse in some ways, but the challenges they faced were often alike: and we can all, whether inside or outside government, recognise common pitfalls such as failing to budget for ongoing maintenance of a service that was expected to roll happily along, untended, for the foreseeable future; or building a world-changing digital service that fails to gain traction because its potential users never get to hear about it.

    It’s our hope that local governments everywhere will benefit from this in-depth look at the tools US municipal governments have put in place, from LargeLots in Chicago which sold disused land in disadvantaged neighbourhoods for a nominal $1 fee, to RecordTrac in Oakland, a request and response tool for those seeking information under California’s Public Record Act.

    Better tools make better policy

    Interestingly, one of the key findings of this report is that developing digital tools alongside policy, rather than bolting these tools on afterwards, results not only in better tools, but better policy too.

    The user-centred design principles that have been central to the Civic Tech movement had a knock-on effect beyond the software development departments of municipal government. They began to shape the ways in which policy itself was developed, resulting in services that were more accessible and appropriate to the communities they serve.

    Two-way learning

    Finally, it’s not just governments who will learn from this examination of best practices, potential problems and unexpected bonuses; we, and other NGOs like us, can gain crucial insights from the sector which, after all, is pursuing the same aim that we are.

    You can read the research paper here. Many thanks to Microsoft for making it possible, and to Emily Shaw for putting in the time and effort to make it a reality.

    Image: Jindong H

  2. How SocialCareInfo matches people to resources

    socialcareinfo - homepage

    It’s great to see the launch of SocialCareInfo, a new website which helps people in the UK find local & national social care resources.

    All the more so because it uses one of our tools, MapIt, to match postcodes with the relevant local authorities. The site’s builders, Lasa, came to us when it became clear that MapIt did exactly what they needed.

    Socialcareinfo.net covers the whole of the UK. Users begin by typing in their postcode, whereupon they are shown the range of services available to them.

    SocialCareInfo map page

    That’s also how many of our own projects (think FixMyStreet, WriteToThem or TheyWorkForYou) begin, and there’s a good reason for that: users are far more likely to know their own postcode than to be certain about which local authority they fall under, or even who their MP is.

    MapIt is really handy for exactly this kind of usage, where you need to match a person to a constituency or governing body. It looks at which boundaries the geographic input falls within, and it returns the relevant authorities.

    We’re glad to see it working so well for SocialCareInfo, and we feel sure that the site will prove a useful resource for the UK.

  3. 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)

  4. 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.

  5. 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)
  6. 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.

  7. 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)

  8. 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)

  9. 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.

  10. 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)