This past month, we’ve been laying some more of the groundwork for our climate work, and getting stuck into some finer details. The recent recruitment drive is starting to pay off — we’ve had four new members of staff join mySociety this week, and in the climate team we’re delighted to be joined by Emily Kippax.
As Delivery Manager on the programme, Emily’s going to be working with us on getting the right balance between planning and acting — and making sure that we align the work to play to our different skillsets and roles.
Researcher Alex and designer Zarino have been figuring out the best ways to learn more about how and why people are using the Climate Action Plans explorer site. This should help us understand how to improve it, particularly as we start to share it with more people.
First of all, we’re thinking about a pop-up asking visitors to click a few buttons and let us know who they are — what sectors they work in, what they’re trying to find, et cetera. Zarino is working on the hunch that if we add our friendly faces to this request, showing the real people behind the project, it might get a better take-up. I’m looking forward to finding out whether he’s right.
Meanwhile Alex has been doing some work on the other end of that request. He’s seeing how to make it easy for the team to understand the inputs and use them to measure our progress.
He also took a quick diversion into non-contiguous cartograms (courtesy of the templates produced by the House of Commons library), to map the creation of climate action plans by local authorities in a way that accurately reflects the population covered by those plans.
Mid-month, we co-hosted a webinar along with Friends of the Earth and Climate Emergency UK: ‘How can local councillors help to meet UK climate targets?’.
This was particularly aimed at newly-elected councillors wanting to understand what they can do around the climate emergency, and what resources are available to help them (a video of the session is available). It was really exciting that the session was so well attended, with an audience of more than 200.
Finally, our colleagues Grace McMeekin, Isaac Beevor and Suzanna Dart over at Climate Emergency UK have produced a set of questions to ask about climate emergency action plans that will illustrate what the differences are between them. This builds on previous work with Ashden, The Centre for Alternative Technology, APSE and Friends of the Earth to produce a checklist for the plans.
We’re really keen to see if we can work together to turn what can be quite dry documents into something a bit more accessible and comparable that we can share openly, with other councils, citizens, action groups…anyone who wants to see it.
As the team embarks on the hard work it takes to make simple services, it reminded me of what the journalist Zoe Williams wrote about civic technology a few years ago:
“Any meaningful access to democracy requires that the citizen can navigate the terrain. These mini institutions […] collate, editorialise, create digital order for the public good. The more transparent and accessible democracy is, the more obvious it is which bits could be better. It’s like sitting in on the meeting where they invented dentistry, or clean water: kind of obvious, kind of earth-shattering, kind of tedious, kind of magical.”
Image: Tim Rickhuss
KeepItInTheCommunity, the site that maps Assets of Community Value and other community-owned spaces and places, is moving to a new home with the Plunkett Foundation.
It was, in fact, Plunkett that first helped us conceive and scope KIITC (pronounced by mySociety staff, affectionately, as ‘Kitsy’); it was funded by Power to Change and launched in 2018.
The vision was, and still is, to provide a UK-wide map of assets across England, bringing together fragmented information from the country’s many local councils, and underpinned by a consistent data standard. This allows for countrywide analysis, comparisons and research.
On an individual level, it also allows citizens of England to search for local spaces and places in their area, check the status — do they have active ACV status or not? — and add photos, more detailed information, or missing assets to the map.
A perfect match
Now KIITC is moving across to Plunkett, who work closely with community organisations, in particular pubs and community shops, to help them with skills, training and general organisational support. As you can see, they’re a perfect match for the project.
In this new home, KIITC’s data can be kept better updated and even expanded to be more useful to the organisations running and managing community spaces.
Places and spaces
KIITC wasn’t coded from scratch: the underlying codebase is the open source FixMyStreet platform, showing once again how this can be purposed for any project that allows users to place assets on a map, adding details and photographs.
We’re glad to say that the site will continue to fulfil all the same purposes for which it was conceived. As we transfer the site to its new home, please direct any enquiries to the Plunkett Foundation.
Image: Vidar Nordli-Mathisen
The last in the current season of online Show and Tell TICTeC events gathered together six speakers, each looking at how geospatial data has brought benefits to their sector. From fighting corruption to closing down illegal factories, preventing female genital mutilation and enabling people to envisage what new buildings will look like in their neighbourhood, the applications are wide-ranging, ingenious and sometimes surprising.
We heard about the increased levels of confidence and happiness of OpenStreetMappers in Kathmandu; how hard it can be to get governments off paper and onto digital in Ukraine; how mapping has allowed the police to raid illegal FGM events in Tanzania; and an app allowing the reporting of illegal factories in Taiwan, as well as two projects from the UK focusing on improving the planning system.
Our technical luck had held for all the online events we’d hosted previously, but sadly this one did feature some gremlins that meant Yun Chan’s presentation wasn’t audible in places. Fortunately her slides can be seen here and you can read about the project in English in this article.
- All videos are all available over on our YouTube channel. You can watch the entire event, or pick and choose from the individual presentations, as below.
- Speakers have shared their slides. Access them via the links to each presentation on the TICTeC website.
- There’s also a collaborative notes document here.
#PlanTech and the geospatial ecosystem
Ben Fowkes, Delib
The climate crisis and the pandemic have shown that we have to modernise the places we live and work, and the means by which we get between them, if we’re to be ready for the future. Every local policy decision now has a spatial consideration, from how we reduce our transport systems’ impact on the environment to how our cities adapt to more people working from home.
Delib’s new PlanTech product, Citizen Space Geospatial, incorporates interactive mapping and geospatial data throughout the digital engagement process, with broad-reaching implications for the field of public participation.
What are the effects of OpenStreetMapping on the mappers themselves?
Aishworya Shrestha, Kathmandu Living Labs
We all understand the benefits of OpenStreetMap to society as a whole — but new research indicates that the very experience of contributing to the crowdsourced geospatial database has quantifiable long term beneficial effects, increasing the skills, wellbeing and self-belief of those who volunteer.
Aishworya talks through an extended study which examined the skill-based and emotional effects on a cohort of interns who contributed to maps in Nepal.
Open data for local self governance: learnings from five Ukrainian cities
Nadiia Babynska, OpenUp Ukraine
Nadiia, who project managed the GIS for Integrity cities project, discusses how to improve data and assets governance at the local level, how digitalisation can allow access to public information and the development and launch of (geo)information systems.
Using examples from five Ukrainian cities she discusses implementation, problems and barriers. Open data, open source and open by default/by design principles are at the core of these projects.
Digital Champions: community led development monitoring in Tanzania
Janet Chapman (Tanzania Development Trust/Crowd2Map)
In another vivid demonstration of the power and versatility of OpenStreetMap, Janet presents Crowd2Map’s activities in Tanzania, which include countering female genital mutilation and gender-based violence, plotting access to water and health facilities and surveying villagers’ SDG priorities.
This volunteer project trained first time smartphone users in all 87 villages of Serengeti District to become digital champions, with positive results.
Disfactory: mapping and reporting illegal factories in Taiwan
Yun Chen, g0v.tw community, Taiwan
Taiwan is home to an estimated 55,000 illegal factories, situated on farmland across the country. Thanks to the Disfactory platform, a crowdsourced project born from a hackathon, anyone can now report a factory they suspect of operating illegally.
The project has changed government policy, opened up data and brought about the investigation — and even demolition — of more than 150 factories. Here is a real example of where civic tech has brought positive change to society.
Unfortunately Yun-Chen experienced technical issues during their presentation, so there is currently no recording of their presentation, but you can find their presentation slides on this page.
Visualising the future: how 3D imaging helps residents understand proposed changes
Peter Kemp, Planning at the Greater London Authority
London needs housing: that is clear. But when construction is planned in a local neighbourhood, it’s understandable that existing residents might not fully comprehend the changes that are proposed — and evidence suggests that 45% of the UK’s population are unable to read a plan.
What if game engine technology could be repurposed to give people a realistic image of how their neighbourhood would look, should plans be passed? With everyone better informed, any objections would be based on facts rather than assumptions. When 3D Repo brought this idea to the Mayor of London’s Civic Innovation Challenge, it won the award.
That’s the last TICTeC Show and Tell for now, but watch this space for details of our future events, online and — here’s hoping — in person.
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Every road user relies on signs, so keeping them tip-top is in everyone’s interest. Now Transport Focus have launched their Sort My Sign campaign, asking road users to help them do just that.
They’d like everyone to report any signs they spot that are dangerous, dirty, broken, or obscured.
To support this programme digitally, Transport Focus came to mySociety, asking if we could help create a simple and intuitive mapping interface where these issues could be reported.
Keep your eyes on the road
Specifically, the scheme covers signs on roads managed by Highways England, which means motorways and some A roads.
FixMyStreet was the obvious starting point — we already have a data layer for these roads, which means that your everyday FixMyStreet reports can be routed to Highways England rather than the council if they are the responsible body.
Plus, as we’ve detailed many times before, the FixMyStreet platform can be repurposed for any project dealing with location-based reports, and has in the past been put to all sorts of uses, from reporting empty homes to helping fight corruption.
Nonetheless, we perceived one potential challenge when it came to setting up sign reporting.
Don’t report and drive!
FixMyStreet is generally well-suited for people making reports on the go — in fact, thanks to the ‘use my location’ functionality, it is ideal for reporting issues like potholes or broken pavements on your mobile while out on a walk. But obviously, road signs are a slightly different matter. If you are driving, you certainly mustn’t be fiddling with your mobile phone, so ‘use current location’ is only helpful if you have an amenable passenger to make the report.
That’s fine — you can always make the report later of course: but that means you’ll need to know roughly where you were when you saw the sign, something that’s a bit trickier on a long drive than it might be on a stroll around your neighbourhood. FixMyStreet allows you to find any UK location with the input of a postcode or street name, but these are details you’re unlikely to have to hand if you have simply driven through.
After some thought we realised that, on a motorway, the location identifier most people will find easiest to recall will probably be the junction number.
So that set us a challenge: how could we best enable ‘search by junction number’?
Sign here…and here
Ideally, we wanted a user to be able to visit the Sort My Sign site and enter the name of a junction, just as they’d enter a postcode or street on the FixMyStreet homepage — and then to be taken to a map centred on that point.
But sourcing a mapping between motorway/junction number and co-ordinates proved surprisingly tricky. mySociety developer Matthew takes over the story.
“I first looked at OpenStreetMap data — its geocoder, Nominatim, worked really well for some junction numbers, but didn’t work at all for others. If a junction has been assigned a name (like J23 on the M6, which is known as ‘Haydock’) it can only be looked up by that name, not by number. But we wanted users to be able to look up junctions by number.
“I could also export all the junction data from OpenStreetMap, but the junction nodes alone aren’t linked to the motorway, so that looked like it would prove tricky to match up.”
FOI to the rescue
“But by a stroke of luck, I then discovered that someone had used another of mySociety’s services, our Freedom of Information site WhatDoTheyKnow, to make a request to Highways England asking for the positions of all the driver location signs (the repeaters every 100m or 500m along the motorways giving the name and distance from start).
“In response, Highways England had provided that information, so I knew I could use that to at least provide a mapping between location sign and geographic co-ordinates.
“Each sign also had information about what junction it was nearest or between, so by constructing an average of all the location sign co-ordinates associated with a particular junction, I came up with a pretty good estimate for the location of the junction itself.
“I added all the sign and junction data into a small SQLite database (which means it’s portable and doesn’t need to be associated with the main database) and wrote a little bit of code to spot when someone entered a junction name in any of a variety of different formats, then look up the matching location in this database”.
Signed, sealed, delivered
To test this out, Matthew had all his colleagues name their favourite junction… perhaps not to be recommended as a party game, but it did at least prove that his code had cracked the problem.
Something much appreciated by Head of Strategy at Transport Focus, Guy Dangerfield, who says, “mySociety has been excellent in understanding what we needed and finding ways to achieve our objectives.”
You can give the new system a go here — and perhaps bookmark the site so that you know where to report a sign next time you see one that needs fixing.
Once you’re safely off the road, that is.
If you’re reporting an issue on Buckinghamshire Council’s FixMyStreet installation, you might have seen yellow dots appearing on the map. These represent items such as streetlights, bins or drains, and we blogged about it when we first added the feature.
When it comes to assets like streetlights, it can save the council considerable time and effort if your report tells them precisely which light needs fixing: it’s far quicker to find an identified light than it is to follow well-meaning but perhaps vague descriptions like ‘opposite the school’!
But even when the assets are marked on a map, it’s not always easy for a user to identify exactly which one they want to report, especially if they’ve gone home to make the report and they’re no longer standing right in front of it.
After the system had been in place for a few weeks, the team at Buckinghamshire told us that users often weren’t pinpointing quite the right streetlight. So we thought a bit more about what could be done to encourage more accurate reports.
As you might have noticed, streetlights are usually branded with an ID number, like this:Buckinghamshire, as you’d expect, holds these ID numbers as data, which means that we were able to add it to FixMyStreet. Now when you click on one of the dots, you’ll see the number displayed, like this:
The same functionality works for signs, Belisha beacons, bollards and traffic signals, as well as streetlights. Each of them has their own unique identifier.
So, if you’re in Bucks and you want to make a report about any of these things, note down the ID number and compare it when you click on the asset. This means the correct information is sent through the first time — which, in turn, makes for a quicker fix. Win/win!
This type of functionality is available to any council using FixMyStreet Pro: find out more here.
Header image: Luca Florio
With funding from the Consumer Data Research Centre (CDRC) we’ve been working with researchers from the University of Sheffield and University of Stirling to open up FixMyStreet data for researchers.
For an example of the kind of thing that can be done with this data, this group have produced maps for every local authority in the UK, mapping FixMyStreet reports against indices of deprivation (a few examples: Sheffield, Harrogate and Cardiff). These can be explored on our mini-site, where for each authority you can also download a printable poster with additional statistics.
If you’d like to know more about what these maps mean and what we learned from the process, there’s a report exploring what we learned here.
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It’s something we’ve been wanting for a long time, and it’ll very soon be a reality: FixMyStreet reports will, where appropriate, be channeled to Highways England. Look out for this functionality in the coming week.
My way or the highway
Previously, if you reported a problem on one of the country’s motorways or major A roads, we had no way of identifying whether it was the responsibility of the government department rather than the council. We had to rely on whichever council the report fell within, and hope that they would forward it on.
But now, we can send reports off to just the right authority. What’s changed to make this improvement possible?
Well, FixMyStreet uses our MapIt software, which matches points (in this case, the pin you put in the map when you make a report) with the boundaries they fall within (mainly, until now, council boundaries). That’s how it knows which council to send your issue to, even if you have no idea yourself when you make the report.
Motorways and A roads have boundaries too, of course, but that data wasn’t previously available under an open licence that would allow us to use it on the site. That all changed with GOV.UK’s release of the Highways England Pavement Management System Network Layer — just what we needed!
So now, if you make a report that falls within a small distance from one of the relevant roads, FixMyStreet will use MapIt in combination with this data layer. You’ll see a message asking for confirmation that your report actually does pertain to the highway: where roads cross a motorway, for example, a pin could relate to the road on a bridge, or the motorway below.
Confirm either way and boom: off it goes to either Highways England or to the council, as appropriate.
So that’s a big thumbs up for open data: thanks, GOV.UK! It’s also a good example of how our commercial work, providing FixMyStreet Pro to councils as their default street reporting system, has a knock-on benefit across the open source FixMyStreet codebase that runs not only FixMyStreet.com, but sites run by other folk around the world.
As you may remember, we recently added red routes to Bromley for FixMyStreet Pro, and it was this bit of coding that paved the way for the highways work. We can only prioritise not-for-profit development if we have the funding for it; but being able to improve FixMyStreet for everyone on the back of work done for commercial clients is a win for everyone.
Or, as our developer Struan says, in a metaphor perhaps better suited to shipping routes than highways, “a rising tide raises all boats”.
Image: Alex Kalinin
Our most recent improvement to FixMyStreet means that users in Bromley will experience some clever routing on their reports.
It’s something quite a few FixMyStreet users have requested, telling us that they’d reported a street issue in London, only to have a response from their authority to say that it was located on a ‘red route‘ — roads which are the responsibility of TfL rather than the council.
Of course, most councils have systems set up so that they can easily forward these misdirected reports to the right place, but all the same, it wasn’t ideal, and added another step into a reporting process we’ve always tried to keep as simple and quick as possible.
Thanks to some development for Bromley council, we’re now glad to say that within that borough, reports on red routes will automatically be forwarded to TfL, while other reports will be sent, as usual, to the relevant council department.
As a user, you don’t have to do a thing (although you can see this automated wizardry in action by watching changes in the text telling you where the report will be sent, as you click on the map in different places and select a different category – give it a go!).
Note that this functionality has not yet been extended to the FixMyStreet app; however in the meantime it will work if you visit fixmystreet.com via your mobile browser.
A new layer
As you’ll know if you’re a frequent FixMyStreet user, the site has always directed reports to the right UK council, based on the boundaries within which the pin is placed.
And equally, even within the same area it can discern that different categories of report (say, streetlights as opposed to parking) should be sent to whichever authority is responsible for them: that’s an essential in a country like the UK with its system of two-tier councils.
So this new innovation just meant adding in a map layer which gives the boundaries of the relevant roads that are designated red routes, then putting in extra code that saw anything within the roads’ boundaries as a new area, and TfL as the authority associated with road maintenance categories within that area.
FixMyStreet has always been flexible in this regard: you can swap map layers in or out as needed, leading to all sorts of possibilities. Yesterday, we showed how this approach has also averted one common time-waster for councils, and the same set-up is behind the display of council assets such as trees and streetlights that you’ll see for some areas on FixMyStreet.
The integration of red routes is available for any London Borough, so if you’re from a council that would like to add it in, get in touch. And to see all the new innovations we’re working on to make FixMyStreet Pro the most useful street reporting system it can be, check out the website.
Image: Marc-Olivier Jodoin
We, and Open Knowledge International, are looking for the digital files that hold electoral boundaries, for every country in the world — and you can help.
Yeah, we know — never let it be said we don’t know how to party.
But seriously, there’s a very good reason for this request. When people make online tools to help citizens contact their local politicians, they need to be able to match users to the right representatives.
So head on over to the Every Boundary survey and see how you can help — or read on for a bit more detail.
Data for tools that empower citizens
If you’ve used mySociety’s sites TheyWorkForYou — or any of the other parliamentary monitoring sites we’ve helped others to run around the world — you’ll have seen this matching in action. Electoral boundary data is also integral in campaigning and political accountability, from Surfers against Sewage’s ‘Plastic Free Parliament’ campaign, to Call your Rep in the US.
These sites all work on the precept that while people may not know the names of all their representatives at every level — well, do you? — people do tend to know their own postcode or equivalent. Since postcodes fall within boundaries, once both those pieces of information are known, it’s simple to present the user with their correct constituency or representative.
So the boundaries of electoral districts are an essential piece of the data needed for such online tools. As part of mySociety’s commitment to the Democratic Commons project, we’d like to be able to provide a single place where anyone planning to run a politician-contacting site can find these boundary files easily.
And here’s why we need you
Electoral boundaries are the lines that demarcate where constituencies begin and end. In the old days, they’d have been painstakingly plotted on a paper map, possibly accessible to the common citizen only by appointment.
These days, they tend to be available as digital files, available via the web. Big step forward, right?
But, as with every other type of political data, the story is not quite so simple.
There’s a great variety of organisations responsible for maintaining electoral boundary files across different countries, and as a result, there’s little standardisation in where and how they are published.
How you can help
We need the boundary files for 231 countries (or as we more accurately — but less intuitively — refer to them, ‘places’), and for each place we need the boundaries for constituencies at national, regional and city levels. So there’s plenty to collect.
As we so often realise when running this sort of project, it’s far easier for many people to find a few files each than it would be for our small team to try to track them all down. And that, of course, is where you come in.
Whether you’ve got knowledge of your own country’s boundary files and where to find them online, or you’re willing to spend a bit of time searching around, we’d be so grateful for your help.
Fortunately, there’s a tool we can use to help collect these files — and we didn’t even have to make it ourselves! The Open Data Survey, first created by Open Knowledge International to assess and display just how much governmental information around the world is freely available as open data, has gone on to aid many projects as they collect data for their own campaigns and research.
Now we’ve used this same tool to provide a place where you can let us know where to find that electoral boundary data we need.
Where to begin
Thanks for your help — it will go on to improve citizen empowerment and politician accountability throughout the world. And that is not something everyone can say they’ve done.
Image credit: Sam Poullain
When you consider that FixMyStreet has been running for over a decade, it’s not really surprising that the maps in some areas are a little over-crowded with pins.
That can be a problem for anyone trying to make a new report — even when you zoom right in, we were beginning to find that in some very congested areas, it was difficult to place a new pin without clicking on an existing one.
We’ve tried to remedy this in various ways in the past. For a while we only displayed newer reports by default, a decision which we discarded when we brought in pagination, allowing users to click through batches of reports rather than seeing them all in one long list on a single page.
For some time now we’ve also provided the option to hide the pins completely, via this button both on the desktop and app versions:
And there’s also a ‘hide pins’ option at the foot of the map:
But even so, arriving at a map absolutely covered in pins and having to look around for that button doesn’t exactly seem like a nice, smooth user journey, so we’ve revisited the matter.
Why not just delete the old reports?
We’ve always had a policy of keeping every report live on FixMyStreet (unless it’s reported to us as abusive, or its maker contacts us to ask us to remove it — and even in this latter case we’d prefer to retain the content of the report while anonymising it).
This is because the reports made to councils build up to create an invaluable archive of the issues that various regions of the country face, through time.
The historic collection of reports allows planners to understand recurring or seasonal problems; and researchers use this data as well, to get insights into all sorts of issues. For examples, see Réka Solymosi’s presentation at TICTeC on using FixMyStreet data to understand what counts as ‘disorder’ in the environment, or mySociety’s own research on why some areas of the country report on FixMyStreet more than others.
And so here’s what we’ve done
- When you visit a map page on the main FixMyStreet site, by default, you’ll again only see reports that are less than six months old, and that are still open.
A report remains ‘open’ until the council marks it as ‘closed’, or a user or the council marks it as ‘fixed’. ‘Closed’ means that the council doesn’t intend to do further work on the issue, which can be for reasons such as the issue not falling within their responsibilities or because it is part of their regular maintenance schedule and will be seen to in time.
- You can still opt to see closed and fixed reports by selecting from the dropdown at the top of the list:
- And you can also still see reports older than six months by clicking the checkbox:
- The two filters work together, giving you the options of displaying:
- Open reports less than six months old (the default)
- Open reports of any age
- All reports less than six months old
- All reports of any age
- Any combination of open/closed/fixed reports less than six months old
- Any combination of open/closed/fixed reports of any age
To keep things simpler for app users, the display there is set to only show newer, open reports, so if you want the full range of options, you’ll need to switch to viewing the site on a desktop.
Additionally, reports that have been closed for six months without any update being made will now no longer allow updates. If you need to update an issue that falls into this category, we recommend starting a new report (possibly linking to the old one for reference if it provides useful information for the council).
But you might not see this everywhere
Some councils use FixMyStreet Pro as their own fault-reporting software. These councils can opt whether or not to adopt these defaults, so your experience may be slightly different when visiting FixMyStreet via your local council’s own site.
We think that we’ve arrived at a more intuitive solution than those we tried before — and we hope that these options will suit everyone, whether you’re a user in a hurry coming to make a quick report, or someone who’d like to see a more in-depth history of the area. Give it a go, and then let us know your thoughts.