1. Where there’s muck there’s brass

    We created FixMyStreet Pro to help councils and city governments better manage inbound street reports and issues from their residents.

    In the past few months we’ve rolled out the FixMyStreet Pro service to new customers including Bath & North East Somerset, Buckinghamshire and Rutland councils; each of whom are taking the opportunity to get rid of legacy software, simplify their operations and make use of a much simpler and intuitive way for their residents and staff to make and manage reports.

    We’re now looking for input from councils to help us guide the next phase of our service development on FixMyStreet Pro.

    Having spoken to dozens of councils we think we can help them save more money by extending FixMyStreet Pro to other areas like waste and environment services and we would like to explore how much development work that might entail.

    Not just for streets

    As FixMyStreet’s name would suggest our focus so far has been on handling issues related to highways like potholes, lighting and gullies (drains to me and you), but FixMyStreet Pro already handles reports for a whole range of issues beyond streets.

    Typically council users of FixMyStreet Pro have around 13 to 15 different self-selected categories that they accept reports on – each of which can be directed to different teams or departments. Tree reports can be sent directly to the parks department, graffiti or abandoned cars can be passed along to the just the right team in street cleansing.

    These ‘front end reports’ all have one thing in common: all we need to make the report is a location and description, plus a contact for the reporter, which could be as simple as an email address or phone number.

    But once you get deeper into the glamorous world of bins and waste services for individual residents the situation gets a little more complicated.

    Missed bin collections, requests for recycling bags, bulky waste collection – these all require the resident to be identified, the particular property to be checked with the UPRN (Unique Property Reference Number), and in some cases payments levied and collected.

    FixMyStreet Pro doesn’t currently offer these additional waste services, although it doesn’t require a huge leap of imagination to see how we could add these adjacent features to the service, not least because we already do a lot of the pieces across our other commercial services.

    Fortunately there has already been a lot of work done to define common standards, such as the Local Waste Service Standards Project from 2016 and more recent work by individual councils to apply some of this work – we also have a lot of our own research and experience to draw upon with numerous specific feature requests from our current local authority clients.

    Let’s talk

    To make this happen we’d like to recruit at least two or three friendly councils available for interviews and possibly a workshop or two, to help us determine specific requirements and test out some of our early prototypes and hypotheses. From here we’d aim to develop these features into fully working aspects of FixMyStreet Pro over the summer.

    If this is of interest to you, if you’re already grappling with this in your own council, or you’d just like to find out more, please get in touch with enquiries@fixmystreet.com and we can have a chat.

    In the meantime you can always find out more about what FixMyStreet Pro can do on one of our regular Friday Webinars.

    Image: Smabs Sputzer CC BY 2.0

  2. A look at Participatory Budgeting

    Every now and then, we in the mySociety research team are fortunate enough to be given the opportunity to explore specific themes in civic participation, in partnership with some of the leading philanthropic bodies in our field. Last year, we worked with the Hewlett Foundation and the Omidyar Network to examine Participatory Budgeting. These organisations were keen to explore where there might be opportunities for the Participatory Budgeting field to be supported or developed, and alongside academic experts Brian Wampler, Stephanie McNulty and Michael Touchton, the mySociety research team conducted a wide-ranging review of some of the key questions surrounding Participatory Budgeting, and interviewed a number of practitioners and global experts.

    You can read the full report here.

    One of the truly fascinating things about the spread of Participatory Budgeting over the last 30 years is how it has evolved, mutated and emerged in almost all corners of the world. The model conceived in Porto Alegre 30 years ago is very different from the implementations of Participatory Budgeting operational today in Europe, Africa, Asia, Australasia and North and South America. That is not necessarily a bad thing of course. Projects and frameworks for participation must evolve with changing attitudes, must be culturally appropriate, and must work within the resources available. However, the very reasons that implementing bodies have for doing Participatory Budgeting have also changed.

    While many practitioners view Participatory Budgeting as a very process based activity, there are many differing opinions on what it is actually structured to achieve. In Brazil, this model was developed as a new political offering to build a fundamentally redistributive programme, allowing citizens with the greatest need to input into real-world budgeting solutions to leverage funding into the poorest neighbourhoods. This concept of redistribution has, based on our research, appeared to have waned in the majority of places, with the focus of Participatory Budgeting now firmly upon the commonly accepted ideal of broad citizen participation, with the merit assigned to the act and volume of participation by the general populace in local budgeting.

    There is nothing inherently wrong about this shift in focus, but it does raise questions around scale, legitimacy and programme outcomes. What are institutions really trying to achieve when implementing Participatory Budgeting? Is it redistribution, is it genuine participation, or is it the appearance of genuine participation? And is there any desired outcome beyond having citizens participate? Is the high cost of engaging the most disadvantaged citizens offset by the educational benefits of small-scale Participatory Budgeting exercises? Do implementers want these programmes to be large scale but relatively ‘light touch’? And if so, does that devalue the process of participation or exclude disadvantaged citizens or minorities? Is it right that those citizens able to mobilise support and votes for specific projects are most likely to be from comparatively wealthy and educated sections of society? Does the scaling potential of digital Participatory Budgeting platforms gentrify the process? And what is the point of investing in exercises such as Participatory Budgeting when the political and bureaucratic institutions overseeing them are evidently corrupting or subverting the process?

    This research project was incredibly compelling, and while we reluctantly concluded the project with more questions than answers, we hope that these points will focus the international Participatory Budgeting community towards genuine development that will benefit all of the many hard-working and dedicated practitioners around the world.


    Image: Chris Slupski

  3. Is your local authority making life difficult for wheelchair users?

    If you’re in a wheelchair, it can be tricky enough getting around. So it’s particularly disappointing to learn that some taxi firms charge wheelchair passengers extra, and that some drivers refuse to take passengers in wheelchairs at all.

    If you’re thinking ‘surely that’s illegal’ — well, it is. Only from quite recently, though: it was last April that a law came in which imposed a £1,000 fine for drivers who refused or charged extra for those in wheelchairs.

    But there’s a complication. This fine can only be imposed by councils who keep a designated list of all wheelchair-accessible public hire vehicles: no list, no fines.

    Does it matter? Well, that depends on how many councils are intending to compile the list. And as WhatDoTheyKnow volunteer Doug Paulley knows very well, there’s one good way to find out information from every local authority: via a Freedom of Information request.

    Doug used WhatDoTheyKnow to submit FoI requests to all 366 taxi licensing councils, and Transport for London, who administer taxi licensing on behalf of all the London boroughs. The results of his research can be seen in full here, or you can quickly check your own local council on this map.

    As indicated, if your council is one of the 59% who, by not keeping a list, are unable to implement the anti-discrimination law, you might like to contact your councillors to let them know how you feel about that.

    Map of councils keeping/not keeping an S167 list by Doug Paulley


    Header image: Derek Mindler (CC by/2.0)

  4. FixMyStreet reaches Borsetshire

    What would Eddie Grundy do if he came across a pothole? And how would Linda Snell deal with flytipping on the site of the Ambridge village fete?

    Fortunately, these fictional characters now enjoy the same access to FixMyStreet as the rest of us, thanks to the new demo site we’ve built.

    The thinking behind it is not, of course, to gather reports from an entirely fictional world. We’re not that mad. Rather, we needed a sandbox interface where we could show councils exactly how FixMyStreet works, and allow them to play about with both the customer end and the admin side, all without causing any major repercussions to the running of the standard site. Enter FixMyStreet Borsetshire.

    Prospective buyers of the system from local councils can experience the various levels of administration that the back-end allows. Just log in with the credentials seen on this page and see exactly how reports can be shortlisted, actioned, or moderated.

    So, we’re expecting reports of pigs on the loose, flooded culverts and perhaps even a flying flapjack. But if you’re hoping to find out the precise location of Ambridge, unfortunately you’ll be disappointed: the map is actually centred around Chipping Sodbury, far from the village’s supposed Midlands locale.


    Image: Martin Pettitt (CC by/2.0)

  5. 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

  6. 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.

  7. 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)

  8. 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.

  9. 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)
  10. 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.