TICTeC is our annual conference on the impacts of civic technologies.
This year, we’ll be in Barcelona, Spain, with a diverse programme of speakers from all over the world.
Guy Grossman, assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s political science department, will deliver one of two keynotes. See details of our other keynote speaker, Helen Milner OBE, here.
Guy has had a long history in civic tech research, with a special focus on Uganda and Sub-Saharan Africa, and we are delighted that he will be sharing his insights to our audience of practitioners and researchers.
Hi Guy! Tell us what you’ll be covering in your TICTeC keynote.
The state of academic knowledge about the promises and pitfalls of ICT applications designed to increase voice and accountability in low-income countries. Specifically:
- Under what conditions are citizens more likely to communicate with government officials using mobile-platforms? If we “build them – will they come”?
- Do mobile platforms exacerbate inequalities in political access, privileging groups (men, urban, better-off) that are heavier users of ICTs?
- What can be done to help increase the participation rates of marginalised populations (such as women and the poor)?
Low-income countries have leapfrogged past the landline era and directly into the mobile era. Citizens can now connect with each other and with their public officials in unprecedented ways.
Even though mobile technology is so pervasive, our collective understanding of many first-order questions in this area is surprisingly limited.
The massive penetration of mobile technology, even to remote areas of the least developed countries, has great potential to reshape both the social and political landscapes.
Even though mobile technology is so pervasive, our collective understanding of many first-order questions in this area is surprisingly limited. My goal at TICTeC is to help take stock of what we know and don’t know in this emerging field.
What are you hoping to get out of TICTeC?
I’m hoping to interact with practitioners, policy makers, technologists and fellow academics to figure out where the overlap is between practical needs and academic research.
I’m also hoping to get exposed to promising and innovative applications that I am unaware of.
Your civic tech research focuses especially on Uganda and Sub-Saharan Africa. What led you down this path?
I found very few applications and platforms, if any, designed to improve governance and accountability in low-income countries.
I care deeply about poverty and social and gender inequality, so working and studying in Africa has been a natural choice.
How did I get involved with civic tech? In the past decade I have witnessed an increasing number of mobile-based applications designed to enhance such things as agriculture productivity and financial transactions or match between buyers and sellers.
On the other hand, I found very few applications and platforms, if any, designed to improve governance and accountability in low-income countries. I came to believe that this was a great void that needed to be filled.
In fact, unfortunately, we are still quite far from saturation in the development of governance-related ICT applications.
What do you think are the big unanswered questions when it comes to civic tech?
Does participation in mobile communication spill into more traditional forms of political participation?
Here’s a very partial list of some of the answered questions when it comes to civic tech in the global south:
Can simple innovations in mobile technology be used to facilitate new meaningful forms of political participation?
If so, what types of mobile-based political communication are most likely to be adopted by voters?
What is the potential of ICTs to flatten political access to marginalised populations?
What are some of the ways to increase the usage of mobile-based political communication in the face of clear collective action problems?
How can ICT be used to overcome political economy constraints to growth (e.g. by resolving monitoring challenges in government bureaucracies, reducing the cost for citizens of tracking bureaucratic performance, or making it easier to detect corrupt practices in public-sector salary distribution)?
And, does participation in mobile communication spill into more traditional forms of political participation?
If you could make one recommendation to those developing new civic tech, and wanting to see real impact from it, what would it be?
Adopt a user perspective — make sure that the suggested application/platform addresses a real need that could not be addressed using a low-tech solution.
You won’t want to miss what Guy has to say at TICTeC, so make sure you book your tickets now.
In this post, we want to explain a bit more about why we spent time and effort on making them, when normally we advocate for mobile websites.
Plus, for our technical audience, we’ll explain some of the tools we used in the build.
The why bit
When we redesigned FixMyStreet last year, one of the goals was to provide a first class experience for people using the website on their mobile phone browsers. We’re pretty happy with the result.
We’re also believers in only building an app if it offers you something a mobile website can’t. There are lots of reasons for that: for a start, apps have to be installed, adding a hurdle at which people may just give up. They’re time-consuming to build, and you probably can’t cater for every type of phone out there.
Given that, why did we spend time on making a mobile app? Well, firstly, potholes aren’t always in places with a good mobile signal, so we wanted to provide a way to start reporting problems offline and then complete them later.
Secondly, when you’re on the move you often get interrupted, so you might well start reporting a problem and then become distracted. When that happens, reports in browsers may get lost, so we wanted an app that would save it as you went along, and allow you to come back to it later.
And the how bit (with added technical details, for the interested)
Having decided to build an app the next question is how to build it. The main decision is whether to use the native tools for each phone operating system, or to use one of the various toolkits that allow you to re-use code across multiple operating systems.
We quickly decided on using Phonegap, a cross platform toolkit, for several reasons: we’d already used Phonegap successfully in the past to build an app for Channel 4’s Great British Property Scandal (that won an award, so clearly something went right) and for Züri Wie Neu in Zurich, so it was an easy decision to use it again.
We decided to focus on apps for Android and iOS, as these are the two most popular operating systems. Even with this limitation, there is a lot of variety in the size and capability of devices that could be running the app – think iPads and tablets – but we decided to focus primarily on providing a good experience for people using phone-sized devices. This decision was partly informed by the resources we have at hand, but the main decider was that we mostly expect the app to be used on phones.
There was one big challenge: the functionality that allows you to take photos in-app. We just couldn’t get it to work with older versions of Android – and it’s still not really adequate. We just hope most people are updating their operating systems! Later versions of Android (and iOS) were considerably less frustrating, and perhaps an earlier decision to focus on these first would have led to a shorter development process.
On balance though? We’d still advocate a mobile-optimised browser site almost every time. But sometimes circumstances dictate – like they did for FixMyStreet – that you really need an app.
We’d give you the same advice, too, if you asked us. And we’d happily build you an app, or a mobile-friendly site, whichever was more suitable.
Ah, summer: walks in the park, lazing in the long grass, and the sound of chirping crickets – all overlaid with the clatter of a thousand keyboards.
That may not be your idea of summer, but it’s certainly the ways ours is shaping up. We’re participating in Google’s Summer of Code, which aims to put bright young programmers in touch with Open Source organisations, for mutual benefit.
What do the students get from it? Apart from a small stipend, they have a mentored project to get their teeth into over the long summer hols, and hopefully learn a lot in the process. We, of course, see our code being used, improved and adapted – and a whole new perspective on our own work.
Candidates come from all over the world – they’re mentored remotely – so for an organisation like mySociety, this offers a great chance to get insight into the background, politics and technical landscape of another culture. Ideas for projects that may seem startlingly obvious in, say, Latin America or India would simply never have occurred to our UK-based team.
This year, mySociety were one of the 180 organisations participating. We had almost 100 enquiries, from countries including Lithuania, India, Peru, Georgia, and many other places. It’s a shame that we were only able to take on a couple of the many excellent applicants.
We made suggestions for several possible projects to whet the applicants’ appetite. Mobile apps were popular, in particular an app for FixMyTransport. Reworking WriteToThem, and creating components to complement MapIt and PopIt also ranked highly.
It was exciting to see so many ideas, and of course, hard to narrow them down.
In the end we chose two people who wanted to help improve our nascent PopIt service. PopIt will allow people to very quickly create a public database of politicians or other figures. No technical knowledge will be needed – where in the past our code has been “Just add developers”, this one is “Just add data”. We’ll host the sites for others to build on.
Our two successful applicants both had ideas for new websites that would use PopIt for their datastore, exactly the sort of advanced usage we hope to encourage. As well as making sure that PopIt actually works by using it they’ll both be creating transparency sites that will continue after their placements ends. They’ll also have the knowledge of how to set up such a site, and in our opinion that is a very good thing.
We hope to bring you more details as their projects progress, throughout the long, hot (or indeed short and wet) summer.
PS: There is a separate micro-blog where we’re currently noting some of the nitty gritty thoughts and decisions that go into building something like PopIt. If you want to see how the project goes please do subscribe!
Top image by Elaine Millan, used with thanks under the Creative Commons licence.
FixMyStreet, our site for reporting things like potholes and broken street lights, has had something of a major redesign, kindly supported in part by Kasabi. With the help of Supercool, we have overhauled the look of the site, bringing it up to date and making the most of some lovely maps. And as with any mySociety project, we’d really appreciate your feedback on how we can make it ever more usable.
The biggest change to the new FixMyStreet is the use of responsive design, where the web site adapts to fit within the environment in which it’s being viewed. The main difference on FixMyStreet, besides the obvious navigation changes, is that in a small screen environment, the reporting process changes to have a full screen map and confirmation step, which we thought would be preferable on small touchscreens and other mobiles. There are some technical details at the end of this post.
Along with the design, we’ve made a number of other improvements along the way. For example, something that’s been requested for a long time, we now auto-rotate photos on upload, if we can, and we’re storing whatever is provided rather than only a shrunken version. It’s interesting that most photos include correct orientation information, but some clearly do not (e.g. the Blackberry 9800).
We have many things we’d still like to do, as a couple of items from our github repository show. Firstly, it would be good if the FixMyStreet alert page could have something similar to what we’ve done on Barnet’s planning alerts service, providing a configurable circle for the potential alert area. We also are going to be adding faceted search to the area pages, allowing you to see only reports in a particular category, or within a certain time period.
Regarding native phone apps – whilst the new design does hopefully work well on mobile phones, we understand that native apps are still useful for a number of reasons (not least, the fact photo upload is still not possible from a mobile web app on an iPhone). We have not had the time to update our apps, but will be doing so in the near future to bring them more in line with the redesign and hopefully improve them generally as well.
The redesign is not the only news about FixMyStreet today
As part of our new DIY mySociety project, we are today publishing an easy-to-read guide for people interested in using the FixMyStreet software to run versions of FixMyStreet outside of Britain. We are calling the newly upgraded, more re-usable open source code the FixMyStreet Platform.
This is the first milestone in a major effort to upgrade the FixMyStreet Platform code to make it easier and more flexible to run in other countries. This effort started last year, and today we are formally encouraging people to join our new mailing list at the new FixMyStreet Platform homepage.
Coming soon: a major upgrade to FixMyStreet for Councils
As part of our redesign work, we’ve spoken to a load of different councils about what they might want or need, too. We’re now taking that knowledge, combining it with this redesign, and preparing to relaunch a substantially upgraded FixMyStreet for Councils product. If you’re interested in that, drop us a line.
Kasabi: Our Data is now in the Datastore
Finally, we are also now pushing details of reports entered on FixMyStreet to Kasabi’s data store as open linked data; you can find details of this dataset on their site. Let us know if it’s useful to you, or if we can do anything differently to help you.
On a mobile, you can see that the site navigation is at the end of the document, with a skip to navigation link at the top. On a desktop browser, you’ll note that visually the navigation is now at the top. In both cases, the HTML is the same, with the navigation placed after the main content, so that it hopefully loads and appears first. We are using display: table-caption and caption-side: top in the desktop stylesheet in order to rearrange the content visually (as explained by Jeremy Keith), a simple yet powerful technique.
If you have any technical questions about the design, please do ask in the comments and I’ll do my best to answer.
We had a complaint that FixMyStreet maps weren’t displaying on someone’s computer. We hadn’t had any other complaints, and we quickly narrowed it down to the fact that the person was on the internet using a tethered T-Mobile phone.
Their decision to inline lots of the CSS also seems a bit odd – sure, on a mobile this might be quicker, but even ignoring tethering nowadays plenty of mobiles have caches too and having the CSS download once and be cached would seem better than adding weight to every page download. But I’m sure they’ve studied their decision there, and it doesn’t make any difference to the actual browsing, as opposed to the comment removal.
To turn off this feature on your mobile phone or broadband, visit accelerator.t-mobile.co.uk or accelerator.orange.co.uk on your connection and pick the relevant option – if anyone knows of similar on other networks, do leave updates in the comments.