1. The big one million: celebrating FixMyStreet

    This month, FixMyStreet.com sent one more report off to a council. There was nothing to distinguish it from all the other reports of fly-tipping, potholes and graffiti… except that it was the one millionth to be sent since the site began.

    Back in 2007, when mySociety first launched FixMyStreet, we had a feeling it’d be useful — but we couldn’t have foreseen the take-up it’s had not only here in the UK, but across the world and in many forms. One million seems like a real milestone, so in celebration, here’s a whistle-stop tour of FixMyStreet’s life so far.

    First through the doors

    The first report ever sent to a council through FixMyStreet was this one, concerning a broken streetlight.

    It was created by a mySociety staff member during beta testing of the site, and sent off to Oxford City Council — who fixed the streetlight. Proof of concept, and we were off.

    Official launch

    Once it was clear that everything was working smoothly, FixMyStreet had its official launch that March.

    Those who know and love FixMyStreet may be surprised to hear that in this first incarnation, it was given the slightly less snappy title of Neighbourhood Fix-It.

    Some might suggest that names have never been mySociety’s strong point. Personally I think we got much better at that later.

    Early take-up

    Just a week after launch, users had already filed over 1,000 reports — a sign that there really was a need for this site.

    The reasons for its popularity? After all, all councils these days provide a fault-reporting system themselves, so why the enthusiastic take-up of a site that duplicates this functionality? We think the reasons are twofold:

    • You don’t have to worry about which council is responsible for an issue: FixMyStreet just automatically sends it off to the right one. There are lots of reasons why you may not know where to send a street report, not least the UK’s two-tiered system of local authorities.
    • We make the reporting process as simple as possible. It’s that whole ‘swans looking graceful but paddling like crazy under the waterline’ thing: we put in an awful amount of work to make sure that you don’t even notice the issues FixMyStreet has to deal with to make the user experience super-smooth. Back in 2012 we blogged about some of the thinking behind the site; for example here’s why FixMyStreet begins by asking just one simple question.

    Name change

    By June we’d realised that Neighbourhood Fix-It wasn’t the snappiest of names, and thus was born FixMyStreet as we know and love it.

    Early app-dopters

    In June 2008, Apple launched their app store.

    Our developers saw the future, it seems: by December that year, we’d launched a FixMyStreet app (NB, the links in that 2008 post don’t work any more: if you’d like current versions of the app, you’ll find them here for Apple and here for Android).

    The FixMyStreet apps have been downloaded more than 40,000 times, and we’re seeing a real growth in those who use it to make their reports: in the last year it accounted for 27% of reports. This reflects a general increase in the use of mobile (you can also use your mobile’s browser to access www.fixmystreet.com) — 55% of our visitors came via a phone or tablet in the last year.

    Open for re-use

    Like most mySociety software, the code that FixMyStreet runs on is Open Source: that means that anyone can pick it up for free, and run their own site on it.

    In March 2011, a group of coders in Norway were the very first to do this, with their version FiksGataMi (it means FixMyStreet in Norwegian. They could have gone for Nabolaget Fikser Det, which means Neighbourhood Fix-It, but, well, you know…).

    Since then, we’ve made real efforts to make the code easier for others to deploy, and ensured that the improvements we add to our own FixMyStreet are also available for all the others: just recently we rolled out version 2.1 of the codebase.

    Taking a peek to see what’s being reported around the world is one of our favourite, if non-standard, means of armchair travelling.

    For example:

    FMS around the world

    A Norwegian puddle-prone footbridge gets in the way of christenings, confirmations and school meetings; meanwhile in Spanish city Alcalá de Henares, a resident complains about the smell created by rubbish lorries while allowing us a splendid view across the rooftops; and in Malaysia, a pack of stray dogs is causing problems for one reporter.

    FixMyStreet Professional

    We’d wanted to provide a reporting system that bettered those offered by local councils: in June 2012 that goal was seemingly affirmed when some councils purchased the system to place on their own websites.

    We officially launched FixMyStreet for Councils, with Bromley and Barnet being the very first local authorities to implement it. Since then, we’ve been in a continual process of improvement, driven by input and collaboration with many councils around the country. Several more have become clients, too. We’ll have more news on the latest developments soon (and meanwhile, if you are from a council, you can learn more here).

    Diverse uses

    One of the nicest things about a codebase like FixMyStreet is that it can be deployed in many — sometimes surprising — ways. If you’ve followed our blog over the years, you’ll have seen the Channel 4 collaboration Empty Homes Spotter; the bicycle incident-reporting platform Collideoscope; and a project fighting corruption in Malaysia.

    Bringing out the poetry in potholes

    There’s something about FixMyStreet that inspires some users to exercise their powers of descriptive prose: we celebrated many of them in this 2014 post.

    Then there are the reports which attract comments from other users. Lots of them, year in, year out. This one about seagulls in Brighton, for example, has become a one-stop forum for people all around the country to come together in their mutual despair of and/or love for our coastal avian friends.

    Ever more reports

    stats page fms

    You can track the progress as we head towards the next million reports on our new stats page; where you might also be interested to see which councils are currently responding to issues most quickly, and what categories of problem are most-reported at any given time.

    As you can see, at the moment the site is handling around 4,000 reports a week: but you can expect that to rise when the weather gets colder — we always get a lot more pothole reports in the winter.

    And, are you wondering just what that millionth report was about? Nothing is ever simple: because some reports are made and then subsequently deleted at the user’s request, or because they contravene FixMyStreet’s house rules, we can’t just identify report number 1000000 as the millionth. Those deleted reports retain their original numbers, even though they’re not live.

    But doing a quick bit of calculation, we suspect that the rightful millionth report might be this utterly unremarkable one in Knowsley. Long live the unsensational reports that simply get things fixed.


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    Image: Alison Benbow (CC by/2.0)

  2. Happy birthday FixMyStreet

    On Friday the 2nd of February, 2007, the very first public report was sent through FixMyStreet. It concerned a broken light on a canal footbridge in Oxford.

    It’s a little-known fact that FixMyStreet was originally called Neighbourhood Fix-It. Launching the site was a good idea, but changing that name may be the next best thing we ever did.

    Ten years on, the site has processed over 900,000 reports, sending them to every local authority in the UK. In doing so, it helps citizens take an active part in keeping their own local communities clean, safe and functional. Meanwhile it ensures that you, the user, never have to give a second thought to which council needs to receive which type of report.

    But it’s not just a local success: FixMyStreet’s codebase has also been used to set up similar sites in more than 20 countries worldwide, from the Maldives to Malaysia and beyond.

    It’s been adopted as several councils’ primary fault-reporting interface on their own websites, from Bristol to Oxfordshire and even Zürich, and we’ve worked in partnership with these authorities to develop new features that make it as useful and simple to use as possible. Watch this space, as we’ll be talking a lot more about these soon.

    FixMyStreet continues to surprise even us. Thanks to its remarkable flexibility, the codebase has also been used to underpin a number of other projects, including Collideoscope, where you can report cycling collisions and near misses, and the Channel 4 tie-in, the Empty Homes Spotter. We know there will be many more to come.

    So, here’s to FixMyStreet. At heart, it’s a little site that matches a pin on a map with the body that’s responsible for that location. But when you consider what it’s achieved — getting communities fixed up, making council reporting interfaces more user-friendly, empowering people to take their first steps into local participation, even challenging corruption — well, we hope you’ll see why we’re proud of how far FixMyStreet has come.


    Image: S. (CC by-sa/2.0)

  3. Stats, technology and at least one really bad joke about tapirs: the mySociety year in review

    If you’re wondering what a year in Civic Tech looks like, well, here’s the answer:
    plenty of coding, video calls with partners around the world, the occasional conference, and tea. Lots of tea.

    Oh, and then there’s the annual treat of posing for the team photo on a windy winter’s day. That’s us, above. Damp. Cold. Still believing in the transformative power of digital technologies.

    We bundled it all together, with plenty of stats, a couple of jokes, and tweets from some of our happy users.

    Here’s the result. Sit back and enjoy the mySociety Year in Review, 2015.

     

    Read the 2015 mySociety Annual Report

  4. WhatDoTheyKnow informed half a million people last month

    In September, it was just over 491,000.

    In August, nearly 495,000.

    July, more like 480,000 and June, 470,000.

    In May, we were just ELEVEN blinkin’ visitors off half a million.

    But in October, finally, we saw half a million unique users accessing WhatDoTheyKnow.

    Talk about edge-of-the-seat stuff.

    half a mil

    It’s one of the figures that isn’t greatly talked about when it comes to WhatDoTheyKnow: people tend to focus on the number of requests being made, or answered.

    But just as significant, in our view, is the number of people who access the information that comes from those requests. In fact, it’s the main reason that WhatDoTheyKnow publishes Freedom of Information requests, and their responses, online. It maximises the benefit, for everyone.

    We reckon that, on average, 20 people view every request (some have many more viewers, others have fewer). That’s 20 people being informed for the price of one – a pretty good deal, we hope you’ll agree.

  5. My last post

    As you may well already know, I’m leaving mySociety and taking some time off to chillax and think about what I should do next.

    Today is my last day and it seems appropriate to sign off with a blog post, 11 years and 5 months after the first one that I can find.

    It feels too early to share any deep thoughts on what mySociety means, where we are with civic tech, what worked and what didn’t, what I learned as a founder and what we should all be focusing on next.

    One of my many reasons for wanting to move on was to regain the kind of mental freshness and detachment that comes from having fewer responsibilities for a while. So I promise that I’ll think and write more.

    Follow me on Twitter if you want to, or add your email address to my new notification list if you just want a ping when I’ve written something. Or mail me direct at tom@tomsteinberg.co.uk if you want to talk about anything.

    My main reason for writing today is to thank people. A lot of people gave up very significant portions of their lives to get mySociety to a point where it helps so many people in so many countries in so many different ways.

    So I’ve written a huge list of thankyous. If you’re missing, ping me and I’ll thank you too 🙂

    Thank you to:

    Paul Lenz for his strength, energy, focus, morality, tolerance of my foibles, and his financial and legal skills that stop this happening to me.

    Tim Morley for loving and caring for PledgeBank for so many years, and for bringing a little Esperanto to our lives. And for cooking.

    James Crabtree for writing the original article that said that something like mySociety should exist, and for being a patient trustee from many timezones away

    Tony Bowden for being the first person to try to help people outside the UK to benefit from the ideas and tools we’d built here, and for the miracle that is EveryPolitician (100+ countries, anyone?)

    James Cronin for being the chair of trustees for so long, and doing so with a calm, kind level-headedness that I think would drive other charity CEO’s wild with jealousy. And for being such a key part of starting mySociety in the first place.

    Mark Cridge for taking on the challenge of running mySociety, and for resisting the temptation to use me as a scapegoat for everything [n.b. this thanks may be retroactively repealed]

    Ian Chard for keeping the server lights on, for making me believe I can do more with every day of my life, and for telling me about the British Library’s amazing online newspaper archive.

    FOIMonkey for spotting when councils dump tons of private data out via accidental FOI. You are what other people mean by eternal vigilance.

    Deborah Kerr for being eternally patient and kind to the users, even when they were taxing, and for doing super retreat organising on a shoestring.

    Ganesh Sittampalam for a billion hours of patient FOI administration, helping make WhatDoTheyKnow the institution it is today.

    Alex Skene for so much volunteering on WhatDoTheyKnow, for grown-up management advice that I took seriously, and for surprising me at the Olympics

    Abi Broom for nothing*.

    Richard Taylor for years of diligent volunteering on WhatDoTheyKnow, making us all laugh with his videos of council meetings, and being perhaps the most knowledgeable person about every vote in Parliament who has ever lived.

    Adam MacGreggor for server cabinet wrangling at difficult moments.

    Ben Nickolls for heading up such a happy, productive commercial team, and for helping me understand that £200 is an entirely reasonable sum to spend on bicycle pedals.

    Owen Blacker for a lot of trustees meetings, and for always keeping us spiritually close to the digital rights world.

    Ethan Zuckerman for helping me gain perspective, and for being my biggest fan in the USA.

    Jen Pahlka for being an even bigger fan than Ethan, and for endlessly quoting me on stages around the world.

    Sam Smith for early hacking, for running OpenTech, and for reminding me that chippiness always has a place.

    Dave Whiteland for the stories, and for travelling far and wide to help people take advantage of our tools and learnings. And, on a personal note, for showing me what it means to be a truly good son.

    Michal Migurski for making Mapumental so beautiful, and for bringing your tech skills to Code for America

    Amandeep Rehlon for being the volunteer finance department before we had a finance department, and for giving me the unique pleasure of sending my expense receipts to the Bank of England’s financial crises department.

    Bill Thompson for organising the first puntcon, where I first met Chris. And for giving feedback on the very earliest versions of the mySociety plan.

    Etienne Pollard for helping at every stage, whether a drama hippy, a McKinsey suit, or a harried public servant.

    Stephen King for, yes, representing our biggest funder, but also for being clear, friendly, and a quiet champion for mySociety. And for sometimes helping translate from Californian to English.

    Alistair Sloan for being such a dedicated WhatDoTheyKnow volunteer that he once got the bus from Glasgow to London for a meeting.

    Duncan Parkes for making Mapumental performant in the post-flash era, even when it looked like it might not be possible. And for the best retreat presentation ever.

    Struan Donald for the puns, the deadpan one liners, and for making both FixMyStreet and TheyWorkForYou so much better.

    Micah Sifry and Ellen Miller for making me unofficial members of the US civic tech family.

    Eben Upton, now Raspberry Pi legend, who booked me a speaking gig in the Cambridge Microsoft Research labs which is where I first met Francis Irving and (I think) Chris Lightfoot.

    Dan Jellinek for bringing together VoxPolitics with me and James Crabtree, which was the precursor to mySociety.

    Janet Haven for the money. For her ‘massive thermonuclear powered bullshit detector’ [ht Tom Longley]. And, oh yes, for becoming a friend too.

    Ayesha and Keith Garrett for design help on PledgeBank, and sysadmin skills, long ago.

    Tim Jackson for taking a philanthropic punt on a wild idea, long ago, which worked.

    Robin Houston for doing battle on a project you didn’t really love, but that was for the right purpose.

    Pierre Omidyar for making all that money at eBay, and then deciding that we deserved some of it.

    Tom Loosemore for hacking together our very first web presence, and for being a positive, confidence inspiring presence in good times and bad ever since.

    Mike Bracken for the vital job of helping us get out first significant grant, and then years later for successfully smuggling mySociety values into government.

    Richard Pope for being a ceaseless fount of new ideas, and for driving the first redesign of TheyWorkForYou.

    Edmund von der Burg for showing that you can both be a charming coder, and capable of building an office out of a shipping container, with your own hands.

    Julian Todd for realising that vote data in the UK parliament deserved clear, regular, semi-automated analysis to make it useful for most people, and then for making it real in PublicWhip. If history is fair it will note him as the inventor of modern vote analyses.

    Helen Goulden for helping us navigate the tricky paths to government money, back when there was any.

    Doug Paulley for blazing onto the scene as an amazing new WhatDoTheyKnow volunteer.

    Martin Wright for turning us from an organisation that sucked at design, to one that really rocks. And for his enduring love of Yo.

    Stef Magdalinski for the name of the charity, and for trusting me with TheyWorkForYou

    Nick Jackson for happy rats and research stats.

    Jason Kitcat for the very first mySociety.org!

    Matt Jones for mySociety’s logo, which is still going strong, albeit in a gently shaded new style.

    Alex Smith for helping us through TV-driven load spikes with customarily despairing good humour.

    Manar Hussain for diligent, challenging trusteeship that was always good humoured, and never afraid to bring in new ideas.

    The public sector for being such a terrible employer of programming talent that it gave us both Matthew and Steve

    John Cross for being a brilliant WhatDoTheyKnow volunteer.

    Steve Day for being a brilliant, sensitive engineering manager, wise far beyond his age, all whilst riding a BMX.

    Christoph Dowe for helping organise the series of Berlin-based conferences that first brought together Europe’s civic hackers, and which ultimately helped attract funding to the scene.

    Liz Conlan for the coffee advice

    Chris Mytton – for introducing the words ‘craft ales’ to mySociety’s internal discourse, for showing that not going to university has no impact on your ability to be either an amazing coder or a well rounded human being.

    Steve Clift for being there to talk to about digital politics when nobody else was interested, and for loving Poplus into life.

    Dave Arter for wrestling Mapumental into a truly beautiful state, for your Github robot, and for convincing me that Wales is disproportionately full of bright young coders.

    Gareth Rees for helping make Alaveteli our most-used platform, and for bringing a little race-car glamour to our team.

    Rebecca Rumbul for getting our new research programme of to a flying start, and for showing me that the art of creative swearing is never truly mastered

    Jen Bramley for cheerfully travelling the world and making people feel that mySociety must be worth working with if everyone is so nice

    Gemma Humphrys for bringing a tornado of efficiency to our events organisation, and for having absolutely no boundaries that I am aware of.

    Rowena Young for being a person I could really moan to, when things got tough.

    Myf Nixon for being our organisation’s voice, for looking after our users, and for making sure that we get noticed.

    Tony Blair for starting a war that inspired Julian Todd to build PublicWhip, and much later for commissioning a petitions website that caused all sorts of fun and games.

    Seb Bacon for making DemocracyClub happen in 2010, for starting the conversion of WhatDoTheyKnow.com into the generic Alaveteli, and for going off to OpenCorporates to make it harder for the b*&^&ds to get away with it.

    Sym Roe for making DemocracyClub happen in 2015, and for giving a lot of his time to the cause of good political information in the UK.

    Tim Green for being the new Chris Lightfoot

    Tom Longley for giving us a no-nonsense introduction to how hard it was going to be to conduct successful partnerships in the developing world.

    Mark Longair for making sure that technological excellence and human kindness are are the core of what we do.

    Camilla Aldrich for the lungs

    Angie Martin for giving all she could, for as long as she could.

    Zarino Zappia for ceaseless energy and good humour, and for asking hilariously straight questions about why we made terrible design decisions previously

    Karl Grundy, Kristina Glushkova and Mike Thompson for helping us grow a commercial team, over several years.

    The vandal who repeatedly smashed up the phone booth on London’s Caledonian Road, and thus planted the idea for FixMyStreet

    William Perrin for helping make government interested in data and tech before it was cool, and for virtually single-handedly starting the UK government’s work on Open Data. And for all the support and the ideas in his post civil service life.

    Fran Perrin for the support, and for protecting me from William’s ideas.

    Louise Crow for showing me what a technology leader really looks like.

    Matthew Somerville for always standing up for the user, for making everything work, and for doing it all in a tenth the time expected. And for a hug when I needed it most.

    Francis Irving for joining at the right time, for leaving at the right time, and being a monster of thoughtful product design and speedy, skilful implementation in between. For always being excited, and always wise.

    Chris Lightfoot for giving me a brief, life-changing glimpse of what the raging, brilliant light of genius looks like. And being the person who introduced me to Anna.

    Anna Powell-Smith for everything, everyday.

     

     

     

     

     

     

    * Trust me, this is how she’d want it

  6. Now we are 10

    At some point in the final quarter of this year – and the exact moment differs, depending on who you believe – mySociety turned ten.

    Our Director Tom, mySociety’s founder, describes this as “a frankly improbable milestone”. He has seen mySociety grow from an idea on the back of an envelope, to an international social enterprise with friends, partners, volunteers and clients around the world.

    Last week, at a small birthday party, Tom pulled out five key elements of  mySociety’s first decade – elements that symbolise different facets of the organisation’s growth and impact.

    Not all of our many friends, associates and partners could join us at that party, so I’m going to share those elements here.

    1. mySociety’s first project

    writetothem screenshotThis screenshot shows the brand new design for WriteToThem.com, which we have just recently put live.

    WriteToThem, our site for sending messages to politicians, was the first mySociety launch. That was way back in 2004. This launch, says Tom, was a key moment because it showed that mySociety wasn’t just ideas and bluster – it could build useful things that people actually wanted.

    WriteToThem was of course followed by sites like FixMyStreet, FixMyTransport and TheyWorkForYou, all built by marvellous developers to whom the organisation owes great thanks (see the foot of this post for a large quantity of thanks).

    2. Our volunteers

    Another of our UK websites is WhatDoTheyKnow, which lets you make or browse Freedom of Information requests, as simply as possible. It’s visited about half a million times a month, and has become a bit of a UK internet institution – a place you go for a certain kind of information.

    Confirm or Deny blog post

    Above is a screenshot from FOI blog Confirm or Deny: a list of 366 interesting things we know because of FOI requests made on the site. It was lovingly compiled by Helen, one of our volunteers; she’s a member of the truly heroic team who help keep that site running, and it represents the dedication that all our volunteers bring to their work.

    See the thanks section for lots more gratitude to our volunteers – and read more about volunteering for mySociety here.

    3. Our international partners

    kimittud screenshot

    Above you can see a screenshot of Ki Mi Tut, a Hungarian Freedom of Information site, run by a local NGO. It already contains nearly 2,000 FOI requests.  This site is a deployment of Alaveteli – the technology we spun out of WhatDoTheyKnow so that people around the world could run sites that would help citizens to chisel information out of their governments.

    Ki Mi Tut symbolises the growing success of our international team, and mySociety’s international focus more generally. If you know mySociety as the builder of  UK sites, you might not know that the great majority of our development efforts today goes towards helping groups like this to run services around the world: helping people to keep an eye on their politicians, obtain information from governments, get streets fixed and so on.

    4. Our commercial work

    empty homes spotter

    mySociety isn’t just a charity any more – mySociety ltd is our trading subsidiary, and is growing fast. It’s twice the size the whole of mySociety used to be, and it’s still growing.

    As a symbol of this success, we proffer mySociety’s first Emmy nomination – yes, we were surprised too! – for a site and app we made for a campaigning TV show in conjunction with Channel 4.

    5. mySociety’s future

    Tom finished by giving a glimpse at a new tool we have in development – SayIt – focused on helping people around the world find out more about what decision makers have been saying about things that matter to their lives, their homes, their jobs their kids or their communities. SayIt will go into a public alpha early in the New Year, and we’ll talk more about it then.

    Unlike our earlier projects, SayIt isn’t being built for Britain first – it’s being built to work anywhere.  We’re not building it alone: it’s just one of the components that form the Poplus partnership, a federation of collaborative empowerment tech builders that we have kicked off in conjunction with FCI Chile. And we promise we’ll let you all have a play very soon.

    So, that’s it – a whistlestop tour of our first decade, and a glimpse at what’s to come.

    We’d like to thank you for reading this far – and talking of thanks…

     

    (more…)

  7. A WhatDoTheyKnow milestone: 50,000 subscribers

    Information Overload by Peter Asquith

    This month, our Freedom of Information site WhatDoTheyKnow passed a significant milestone: 50,000 registered users.

    That doesn’t mean that 50,000 people have used the site to send a request for information – many have signed up simply to receive email alerts*, or to add annotations to existing requests. They’re all part of the WhatDoTheyKnow community, as are the 500,000 monthly visitors who browse the site.

    And incidentally, we should give thanks to the bedrock of that community – the WhatDoTheyKnow volunteers, who work on the site’s admin, as well as giving advice and support to users. Alex, John, Richard, Ganesh, Alistair and Helen have given up many, many hours of their own time to make sure that WhatDoTheyKnow runs smoothly.

    By coincidence, I’ve recently been reading through our archived blog posts, so WhatDoTheyKnow’s history is fresh in my mind.

    The project came about as a result of a mySociety call for proposals – we asked you what we should build next, and the idea of an ‘FOI archive’ came out tops.

    By December 2006, we had received funding to make it possible, and we were asking for example requests to help us see how the tool needed to work.

    In February 2008,  WhatDoTheyKnow launched. It’s worth mentioning that the concept of FOI requests being made in public was a very new one, and not one that was met by universal delight from public authorities.

    Just six months later, the ability to add annotations was added. Since then, we’ve created Alaveteli, our software that lets anyone in the world run their own Right To Know site, anywhere in the world.

    Hmm, now what would the number be if we counted the registered users of all the Alaveteli sites around the world…? In any case, we’re really glad to see WhatDoTheyKnow continuing to be used by so many. Thank you for being part of it.

     

    *There are a several ways you can track information on WhatDoTheyKnow:

    • Receive an alert whenever someone requests information from a specific body. Locate the public authority on this page, then click the green button marked ‘Follow’. Subscribe to your local council, for example, and you’ll really be up to date with the major issues in your own community.
    • Receive an alert whenever a specific word or phrase is mentioned in an FOI request. Search for any phrase, and you’ll also see that green button, inviting you to ‘track this search’. This is useful for campaigners who want to know when certain topics come up, or anyone with a specific interest.
    • Follow a request. If you see a request that is of interest to you, again, just find the green ‘follow’ button. Once you’ve subscribed, we’ll email you every time there’s some activity on the request, whether it’s a response from the public authority or a comment from another user.

  8. FixMyTransport one year on: the operators who won’t play ball

    Image by Magnus Franklin

    Exactly one year ago today, we quietly put FixMyTransport.com live. We’d built it as a place where you could contact transport operators, and receive their responses, in public. But would it work?

    That depended, of course, on the transport companies, and how they would rise to the challenge. A year on, we’re in a position to see how things have panned out.

    As you will know if you have submitted a message to them, there are a handful of operators who refuse to engage via FixMyTransport, even though this requires less effort for them than holding the conversation in private. Worst offenders include Northern Rail, Scotrail, Arriva Trains Wales and South West Trains.

    These operators are starting to look as if they might have some customer service secrets to hide. You can see some of their excuses in our archive of correspondence, and frankly, they aren’t all that persuasive:

    Scotrail: “We encourage our customers to contact us directly to help give them the service they expect and deserve.”
    South West Trains: “In order to guarantee a full and consistent response to the concerns raised, would you please advise our customer to use one of our established methods of contact.”
    Arriva Trains Wales: “Receiving feedback from our customers is important to us, and I am grateful for you taking time to report these issues. However, we would ask any customer wishing to log an issue with us to make direct contact with us, rather than submit it to us via a third party.”

    Meanwhile, Northern Rail – perhaps not coincidentally one of our most-contacted operators – has a policy of sending a one-liner to say that comments have been ‘passed on to the relevant teams’. That does not comfort those who submit some of their more upsetting or important complaints.

    While we are disappointed by this lack of communication, we still think it’s worthwhile using FixMyTransport to make initial contact with such companies.

    Why? Because you gain the benefit of comments, advice and support from other users – and your complaint is in public for everyone to see. Even if the operator doesn’t respond, that has to make a difference. Plus, FixMyTransport users will often suggest next steps, such as contacting pressure groups or passenger watchdogs.

    You see, while we may have faced difficulties with some operators, there were no such issues with the general public. You came to the site, and you quickly understood what FixMyTransport was trying to achieve. And you chose to use it in preference to the transport companies’ own channels. Perhaps the operators might like to think about why that is.

    But let’s not dwell on the negatives. We have to give kudos to East Midlands Trains, First Capital Connect, First Great Western, London Midland, Southern and Virgin, all of whom stepped up to the mark and had no problems whatsoever replying to you via FixMyTransport. Equally, praise is due to Transport for London who act as the central contact for a variety of operators across the city, and Stagecoach Buses’ many subsidiaries.

    These companies, along with many other smaller outfits, have consistently responded to your complaints via the site. As a result they have created a large public archive of their good customer service.

    A helpful, friendly community has grown, too, aided by our team of volunteers. Over 3,500 people have sent messages through FixMyTransport, and with monthly visitors to the site now coming in at over 180,000, each of those messages has had an average of 50 readers.

    This is our first year of many. We’re certainly here for the long haul, and confident that eventually, even the most reluctant operators will come on board. If they don’t, increasingly, their customers are going to be asking why. The last year has shown that there is a demand for our service, and we see ourselves as part of a wider shift towards holding companies to account in public. Think how often you’ve seen a disgruntled customer tweeting or blogging their experience.

    Meanwhile, we hope you’ll keep using the site, and telling others about it. You might even consider telling your local transport operators how FixMyTransport can work for them.

    We hope, too, that you’ll carry on telling us what works or doesn’t work, via the feedback button at the top of every FixMyTransport page. We’re still in active development, and every suggestion is discussed and considered.

    Thanks for helping make FixMyTransport what it is. Now, have a piece of birthday cake.

     

    Image credit: Magnus Franklin

    This post is cross-posted from the FixMyTransport blog.

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

  9. FixMyStreet – another big number

    CAT 320D L Excavator Diecast Diorama: Demolition site by PMC 1stPix

    Just a week after WhatDoTheyKnow’s big, round number, FixMyStreet also passed a significant milestone.

    200,000 reports have been sent through FixMyStreet since its launch in February 2007. It currently sends an average of 250+ messages about potholes, broken streetlights, and other problems to local authorities each day. So far this month, we’ve processed just over 5,000 reports.

    Those reports are the work of over 87,000 people, 52% of whom had never before reported an issue to the council. That statistic is important to us: we aim to make it easy to access civic rights, especially for people doing so for the first time.

    FixMyStreet.com is a site with a simple premise, and it hasn’t changed greatly since 2007 – though it is currently undergoing a facelift, bringing it more in line with today’s design expectations. Last year we introduced user accounts and zoomable maps, along with a few tweaks here and there.

    Like other mySociety projects, FixMyStreet is, of course, built on open code, so that it can be replicated by anyone with a little technical knowledge. The FixMyStreet interface is already up and running in Norway, and soon, the Philippines will see trials of their own version – proving that the model can work in very different infrastructures. Meanwhile, the basic FixMyStreet concept has been replicated in Brazil, New Zealand, and South Korea. Here in the UK, some councils have bought FixMyStreet to embed into their own websites.

    FixMyStreet sends reports to the council, and also publishes them online – so each report is read by many people. This simple system helps them find out more about their local community, and what the council are doing to get things fixed.

    Uneven paving stones and malfunctioning pelican crossings may not be the stuff of high drama, but against expectations, FixMyStreet does make for fascinating reading sometimes. Take a look at this page if you’d like to see some of the more unusual reports. And if you’d like some insight into some of the issues our developers deal with, you might like to read Matthew Somerville’s solution to the dog poo problem. It’s all glamour at the cutting edge of FixMyStreet.

  10. WhatDoTheyKnow.com’s public archive now contains 100,000 Freedom of Information requests

    The Cupcake 100000 by Adam Tinworth

    Some time in the middle of last night, our Freedom of Information site WhatDoTheyKnow.com was used to send its 100,000th FOI request. It was a simple one, made to the Queen Victoria Hospital NHS Foundation Trust.

    WhatDoTheyKnow was launched in February 2008, with these aims: to make it easy to file a FOI request, and to keep a public archive of the requests and (more importantly) the responses received from public bodies. The Freedom of Information Act had been in force since 2005, but we wanted to make it fully accessible to people who were not journalists, lobbyists or professional operatives – it is a law that gives us all a right, not just those experts.

    At base, mySociety is about giving people power to people who don’t believe that they have any way of affecting the world around them. Giving practical access to the right enshrined in this Act was and is a meaningful way of advancing that goal.

    Then, thanks to a flash of inspiration from our late colleague Chris, we saw a great opportunity to increase the value created by the existence of the Act: we built a system that published the entire exchange of messages between users and public bodies online.

    We believe that because of this decision to publish all exchanges with public bodies, WhatDoTheyKnow represents a very unusual phenomenon: a third-party web site that takes an existing piece of legislation and makes it better value for money for the taxpayer. Public money was already being spent answering FOI, but by running WhatDoTheyKnow we could magnify the value generated by each request by making it public, without requiring anyone who worked in a public sector to retrain, buy a new computer system or spend any new money.

    And this theory turned out to be right. For every request made on the site, around twenty people come to read materials contained on WhatDoTheyKnow. The multiplier is remarkable, and one of the things that we think is most worth celebrating about this site.

    WhatDoTheyKnow’s success is only possible because of a team of fantastically dedicated volunteers. These loyal enthusiasts have helped countless users, and do a simply amazing amount of maintenance work to keep the site friendly, helpful and effective. They are astonishingly talented, principled and knowledgeable, and mySociety owes them a debt of gratitude it will never really be able to pay back.

    However, to give them a bit of the credit they deserve, and to highlight some of the countless uses of WhatDoTheyknow, we asked them to pick out some notable requests from the last four years.

    Helen “The use of the site by campaign groups like the Campaign for Better Transport to find out about bus subsidy cuts as part of their save our buses campaign.”

    John “There was the accidental release of how tax is applied to the Royal Family – which resulted in a Daily Mail front page story.”

    Alex “This request about the Warmfront boiler installation scheme has a significant number of annotations. What makes it different is that the user patiently persisted with her original FOI requests, and then has carried on by continuing to help loads more people with details of how to complain and lobby for help and general warm encouragement.”

    WhatDoTheyKnow is one of mySociety’s most visited sites, with one and a half million unique visitors in 2011. Like our other projects, it was built as an open source project. Thanks to the Open Society Foundation, we are in the process of making it much easier to re-deploy around the world, under the brand name ‘Alaveteli’.  As we speak, there are sites based on our code in places as far apart as New Zealand, Kosovo, Brazil, and the EU, and we’re looking forward to helping people from around the world create more grandchild sites in the years ahead.

    Our 100,000 request milestone comes at an interesting time for the Freedom of Information Act. It’s currently under scrutiny by the Justice Select Committee, who are investigating whether it works effectively and in the way that it was intended.

    As you might expect, at mySociety, we’re passionate about the right to information. We’ll be submitting evidence to the Justice Select Committee to show just how vital FOI is to good government and a good society. If FOI has touched your life, you might want to do the same.