1. Open311: Explained

    In the previous blog post we explained why we think Open311 is a good idea. In this post we’ll explain what it actually does.

    Open311 is very simple, but because it’s fundamentally a technical thing it’s usually explained from a technical point of view. So this post describes what Open311 does without the nerdy language (but with some nerdy references for good measure). At the end there’s a round-up of the terms so you can see how it fits in with the actual specification.

    We’re using an unusual example here — a blue cat stuck up a tree — to show how applicable Open311 is to a wide range of problems. Or, to put it another way, this is not just about potholes.

    Cat up a tree and an Open311 robot

    So… someone has a problem they want to report (for this discussion, she’s using a service like FixMyStreet).

    There’s one place where that report needs to be sent (in the UK, that’s your council). That administrative body (the council) almost certainly has a database full of problems which only their staff can access.

    I have a problem :–(

    the “client”

    I fix problems!

    the “server”

    In this example, FixMyStreet is an Open311 client and the council is an Open311 server. The server is available over HTTP(S), so the client can access it, and the server itself connects to the council’s database. In reality it’s a little bit more complicated than that (for now we’ll ignore clients that implement only part of Open311, multiple servers, and decent security around these connections), but that is the gist of it.

    Although it’s not technically correct to confuse the client with the user, or the server with the council, it makes things a lot easier to see it this way, so we’ll use those terms throughout.

    Service discovery

    To start things off, the client can ask the server: what services do you provide?

    Until the client has asked the server what problems it can fix, it can’t sensibly request any of them.

    What services do you offer?

    I can:
    POT: fix potholes
    TELE: clean public teleports
    PET: get pets down from trees
    JET: renew jetpack licenses …

    FixMyStreet can use the response it gets from such a service discovery to offer different categories to people reporting problems. We actually put them into the drop-down menu that appears on the report-a-problem page.

    In the Open311 API, this is handled by GET Service List. Each service has its own service_code which the client must use when requesting it. Note that these services and their codes are decided by the server; they are not defined by the Open311 specification. This means that service discovery can easily fit around whatever services the council already offers. The list of services can (and does) vary widely from one council to the next.

    Service definitions

    Some services require specific information when they are requested. For example, it might be important to know how deep a pothole is, but it’s not relevant for a streetlight repair.

    Tell me more about the PET service!

    I can get pets down from trees, but when you request the service, you *must* tell me what kind of animal the pet is, OK?

    In the Open311 API, this is handled by the GET Service Definition method. It’s not necessary for a simple Open311 implementation. In fact, it only makes sense if the service discovery explicitly told the client to ask about the extra details, which the server does by adding metadata="true" to its response for a given service.

    Requesting a service

    This is where it gets useful. The client can request a service: this really means they can report a problem to the server for the body to deal with. Some submissions can be automatically rejected:

    My hoverboots are broken :–( I need BOOT service!

    404: Bzzzt error! I don’t fix hoverboots (use service discovery to see what I *do* fix)

    Hey! Blueblue is up a tree! I need PET service (for cats)!

    400: error! You forgot to tell me where it is.

    If the report is in good order, it will be accepted into the system. Open311 insists that every problem has a location. In practice this is usually the exact position, coordinates on planet Earth, of the pin that the reporter placed on the map in the client application (in this case FixMyStreet.com).

    I need PET service (for cats)! Blueblue is stuck up the biggest tree in the park :–(

    200: OK, got it… the unique ID for your request is now 981276

    In the Open311 API, this is handled by POST Service Request. You need an API key to do this, which simply means the server needs to know which client this is. Sometimes it makes sense for the server to have additional security such as IP address restriction, and login criteria that’s handled by the machines (not the user).

    Listing known requests

    The server doesn’t keep its reports secret: if asked, it will list them out. The client can ask for a specific report (using the ID that the server gave when the report was submitted, for example) or for a range of dates.

    Did anyone ask you for help yesterday?

    Yes, I got two requests:

    request 981299: TELE dirty teleport at the cantina (I’m waiting for a new brush)

    request 971723: POT pothole at the junction of Kirk and Solo (I filled it in)

    In the Open311 API this is handled by GET Service Request(s). The client can indicate which requests should be listed by specifying the required service request id, service code, start date, end date or status.

    Does Open311 work?

    Oh yes. On the Open311 website, you can see the growing list of places, organisations, and suppliers who are using it.

    The technical bit

    In a nutshell: Open311 responds to HTTP requests with XML data (and JSON, if it’s wanted). There’s no messing around with SOAP and failures are reported as the HTTP status code with details provided in the content body.

    You can see the specification for Open311 (GeoReport v2). It doesn’t feature blue cats, but if you look at the XML examples you’ll be able to recognise the same interaction described here. And remember the specification is an open standard, which means anyone can (and, we think, should) implement it when connecting a client and server in order to request civic services.

    Coming next…

    In the next blog post we’ll look at how FixMyStreet uses Open311 to integrate with local council systems, and explain why we’re proposing, and utilising, some additions to the Open311 specification.

    Find out more about FixMyStreet for Councils

    Illustrated especially for us by René Carbonell.

  2. Open311 – What is it, and why is it good news for both governments and citizens?

    Open by Rupert Ganzer

    The Internet has thrown up a host of challenges for governments, large and small. Most people are familiar with the problems presented by issues like hacking, but there is another challenge which probably worries local governments just as much.

    The challenge is this – how can a local government cheaply and efficiently cope with the fact that the public wants to request many services through a rapidly expanding plethora of different channels – phones, websites, email, apps, and Twitter? And how can it keep control of costs when new channels are being invented all the time?

    The good news is there’s an answer that can prevent each new channel leading to ever-greater costs – a free technology called Open311. The bad news is not many people know it exists, let alone how to use it, or how it works.

    In this post, and two more to follow, we’ll explain how Open311 can help governments (and citizens), how it functions, and what mySociety is doing to make Open311 work a bit better.

    Background – the status quo

    At mySociety, we’ve been running services for years that send messages of different kinds to government bodies, on behalf of our users. Since the very beginning we’ve always been keen that any public servant or politician who receives a message via one of our systems gets it in a familiar form that doesn’t require any special knowledge or training to read or reply to. That’s why for the first few years FixMyStreet sent all its problem reports via email, WhatDoTheyKnow sent all its FOI requests via email, and WriteToThem sent all its letters to politicians via email and fax (remember fax?).

    However, despite the fact that reading and responding to emails doesn’t require governments to procure any new technology or any new skills, these days this approach can clearly be bettered. Today, an email report of a broken paving slab will typically be received by a public servant working in a call centre. This person will normally cut and paste text from the email into a new database, or into a new email, before dispatching it for someone else to consider, and action.

    Now, imagine that instead of this, a problem report about a broken paving slab could be sent directly from a citizen and placed into the electronic to-do list for the local government team who fix paving slabs. This would do more than just cut costs – it would make it much easier for the citizen to get sent a notification when their problem is marked as ‘resolved’ in the official database.

    This is not an original idea. The team at mySociety are not the only people who think that enabling citizens to directly slot requests, messages and problem reports into local government ‘to do’ databases is desirable. In the USA a group of civic minded technologists at OpenPlans were concerned by the same issue. They decided to do something about it – and they launched a project under the banner of Open311.

    Why ‘311’?

    In the USA a number of cities have non-emergency government telephone helplines, accessible at the phone number 311. As a consequence ‘311’ has come to refer to more than just a phone line – it has come to mean the entire process of handling service requests from citizens around a whole range of non-emergency issues, from garbage to noisy neighbours.

    To the ears of some American public servants the name ‘Open311’ consequently conjures up an image of a better, nicer more ‘open’ way of handling such non-emergency requests from citizens.

    So what is Open311?

    Beyond a brand, what is Open311? The answer is simple: Open311 is standardised way for computers to report problems (like potholes or fallen trees) to the computers run by the bodies that can fix them (like local governments or city departments). It’s an open standard that was started by the lovely people at OpenPlans, and which is now slowly iterating with the help of people inside and outside of governments.

    In other words, Open311 is the mechanism through which citizens can slot their service requests directly into the computerised ‘to do’ lists of local government staff, and the way they those citizens can get back progress updates more quickly and easily.

    Why is an Open Standard a good thing?

    An open standard is just a way of communicating that anyone can implement it, without paying any money for permission to use the technology. The good thing about open standards is that once several technology systems start using the same ones, different systems from different manufacturers can talk to each other. When you phone someone else’s telephone, you are using an open standard – this means you don’t have to have the same brand of phone as the person at the other end.

    What this means for a government is that if you can make your database of pothole reports speak to the outside world using Open311 then you don’t have to worry if reports are coming from two, ten or a thousands different websites or apps. You just run one system and it copes with all of them. This is not actually a new idea at all – local government call centres don’t worry what telephone network people are phoning from, or what brand of phone they are using.

    However, it is a new idea in the realm of government IT systems for storing things like pothole repair requests, or school-admission applications. Traditionally these systems have not been set up to speak a common language with the outside world. Unfortunately, this failure to speak a common language has not always been by accident. Unscrupulous suppliers will sometimes intentionally set up systems so that the government has to pay extra money if they want any new channels to be added. Using Open311 is both a way to lower your future costs, and a way to make sure your current supplier can’t lock you into expensive upgrades.

    Isn’t opening our systems to the outside a security nightmare?

    Open311 is not about opening up private data, such as exposing the home addresses of vulnerable children. Open311 can be configured to open up government systems where that is appropriate, and everything that needs to stay private will stay private. There are no fundamental security problems to using an Open311 system.

    Is this just about pothole reports?

    No. Open311 isn’t limited to street-fixing services like FixMyStreet, even though that kind of problem is where Open311 started. As more and more public bodies offer their services online, they all face the same problem of spiralling costs as the public demands access through more and more diverse channels. In the future it should be possible to renew parking licenses, pay local taxes and do other complex transactions via Open311. But for today we encourage everyone interested to start at the simpler end of the scale.

    How does mySociety use Open311?

    When a local government anywhere in the world contracts mySociety to deliver a version of FixMyStreet for them (like BromleyBarnet and Stevenage ) we recommend Open311.

    We will still happily connect FixMyStreet to systems that don’t use Open311, but we always explain to clients that Open311 is the most desirable way of connecting their new FixMyStreet deployment with their current problem databases. We even offer lower prices to governments who use Open311.

    We offer lower prices this partly because our costs go down, but also because we want to leave local governments with street-fault reporting systems that can connect not just to FixMyStreet, but to any new services in this area that emerge in the future. If Google maps or Twitter suddenly add street fault reporting, why should the local governments have to pay more money to handle those problems, when it could get them for free using Open311?

    In short, we see Open311 as a solid foundation for building local government services without locking our clients into a relationship with mySociety as suppliers. In future we will also recommend the use of Open311 for services like ‘Please send me a new recycling bin’, ‘Please tell me what jobs you have open’ and ‘Please answer this FOI request’.

    In the next post we’ll cover how Open311 works in a bit more detail (but still as clearly as we can), and in a third post we’ll explain how our work with FixMyStreet for Councils has led us to propose some improvements to the Open311 standard.

    Find out more about FixMyStreet for Councils

    Photo by Rupert Ganzer (CC)

  3. Looking back: our experience of the Google Summer of Code

    Summer may seem like a long time ago, but despite the cold outside, we’ve been looking back over our participation in Google’s Summer of Code project. It’s almost enough to warm us up!

    This post is an attempt to record the process from our point of view. We hope it will be useful for other organisations considering participating next year, and for students who want to know more about how the scheme works.

    What is Google Summer of Code?

    It’s a programme sponsored by Google’s philanthropic arm, giving students the chance to experience real-life coding on open source software.

    The scheme is open to students all over the world, who are then paired up with open source organisations like us. The students gain paid work experience and mentoring; the organisations gain willing workers and some fresh new perspectives; the world gains some more open source code to use or develop further.

    Everyone’s a winner, basically.

    The beginnings

    2012 was our first year on the programme: once we had been accepted on the scheme, we were given two student slots – the maximum allowed for a first-time organisation.

    Given mySociety’s wide suite of codebases, there were several projects that could have benefited. We listed all our ideas, and let people apply for the ones they found appealing.

    Goodness, there were a lot of applicants! It was very heartening to discover that there is such an enthusiastic community of young coders all around the world – even if it did take us a long time to sift through them all and make our choices.

    You might remember our post back in May, when we announced that we’d made our choices. We were delighted to get working with Dominik from Germany and Chetan from India.

    The project

    As things turned out, our students ended up working on a project that wasn’t even on our original list: PopIt, our super-easy ‘people and positions’ software.

    That’s because once we spoke to our chosen students, we realised they had the skills that could really help us forge ahead with this project – and once we discussed it with them, they were keen. So PopIt it was.

    Logistics

    Germany and India are a bit of a commute away, but fortunately development work can be managed remotely. We know this particularly well at mySociety: our core team work from home and are scattered across the UK.

    The only difference here was the 6+ hour time difference between us and India: it was important to be rigorous about checking in at times when Chetan would be awake!

    We communicated via IRC (instant chat), email, and occasionally Skype, and it all worked well.

    Edmund, the team member chosen to be mentor, broke the required tasks down into big pieces so that the students would have realistic work units of several days each.

    What was achieved

    PopIt is primarily a tool for helping people create and run parliamentary monitoring websites (like TheyWorkForYou) with minimal coding knowledge/effort, though we anticipate that it will have many other uses too.

    Our students spent the first half of the summer learning and improving the PopIt codebase. Once they were confident in it, they created their own sites using PopIt as a datasource to test the API, and, hopefully, create a valuable reference resource for the community.

    Dominik added a migration tool to PopIt, which lets you upload data as a CSV. This means that you can start a site with a database of names, positions and dates at its heart – within seconds.

    His test site was a professors’ database (the code is here). Dom also wrote some helpful posts on the dev blog like this one.

    Chetan created an image proxy that lets us serve images in a smart way that makes sense for APIs. His test site was for Indian representatives (here’s the code).

    Neither site is being maintained now, which just confirms that it is harder to run a site than to start it. This is not a failing, though. The creation of these sites, along with Chetan and Dom’s feedback, helped us understand where improvements needed to be made. In the course of one summer, PopIt became much more mature.

    Looking back on the Summer of Code

    Edmund attended a follow-up ‘mentors’ summit’ at the Googleplex in California – he found it very helpful to compare notes with other organisations and find out what had worked best for them all, and he made some good contacts too.

    Assuming we get the chance again, would we participate in 2013? Our experience was very positive, but as yet we are undecided, purely because of the fluid nature of our workflow: we don’t yet know whether time and resources will permit.

    Obviously, we have enjoyed great benefits from the scheme, but that has depended on quite a bit of input from our side, and we need to be sure that we can ensure that happens again.

    Edmund has compiled a list of advice, from the practical (ask students to treat the placement like a full-time job; test coding skills before acceptance) to the desirable (a weekly blog post from participants; make sure you over-estimate the time you’ll spend mentoring). If you’re thinking of participating next year, he’d be happy to pass on his tips for ensuring that you, and your assigned students, get the best out of the Google Summer of Code. Just drop him a line.

  4. mySociety Launches FixMyStreet Platform Version 1.0 – Testers and Translators Sought

    FixMyStreet logo (square)Today sees the official launch of FixMyStreet’s open source codebase as a proper tool that we hope people will want to deploy in cities and countries around the world. It is based on FixMyStreet.com which we believe is the most usable, most mature street problem reporting tool in the world, but which is only available to British users.

    We’re shouting about this launch a bit because we need your help to make the service ever better. First, we need feedback from programmers about whether we’ve got the install process right – whether it’s as easy and clear as we want it to be. And for non-coders who want to get involved, we want to ask for help with the process of translating the site’s text into different languages.

    Over the years there have been many copies of FixMyStreet set up in many countries, often using the site’s original name, but always written by developers from scratch. We’re delighted to have inspired people, but all too often the people trying to build copies have stumbled as they realise just how hard it is to build a tool like this with the polish that users expect. We think that people everywhere would be better off if they could have a local FixMyStreet that was really usable, and really connected to the right people.

    So we’re very happy to be able to open up a codebase that has been extensively modified in the last year, to help users around the world manage easy, successful deployments. Steps we have taken include:

    • Putting the translation text into Transifex, so that non-technical translators can get started whenever they feel like it
    • Developing Amazon Machine Images so people who want to tinker can get started in the minimum possible time
    • Rewriting the entire codebase in order to make it a less confusing installation
    • Building a global version of our MapIt political boundaries web service, so you can get going without having to wrestle administrative data out of your government before you get started.

    Plus with the help of the wonderful OpenStreetMap, you can get maps without licensing hassles too.

    Calling it version 1.0 is our way of saying two things. First, that the tool still has a lot of evolution left to do, and a long way to go before it is as good as we want it to become. But more ambitiously, calling it 1.0 is also our way of saying that it’s no longer just a codebase dumped into Github. It’s a real open source project, which we plan to support, and which we hope will make a real difference in the lives of ordinary people. Check it out.

  5. New MapIt Global: An Administrative Boundaries Web Service for the World

    Introducing MapIt Global

    All of us at mySociety love the fact that there are so many interesting new civic and democratic websites and apps springing up across the whole world. And we’re really keen to do what we can to help lower the barriers for people trying to build successful sites, to help citizens everywhere.

    Today mySociety is unveiling MapIt Global, a new Component designed to eliminate one common, time-consuming task that civic software hackers everwhere have to struggle with: the task of identifying which political or administrative areas cover which parts of the planet.

    As a general user this sort of thing might seem a bit obscure, but you’ve probably indirectly used such a service many times. So, for example, if you use our WriteToThem.com to write to a politician, you type in your postcode and the site will tell you who your politicians are. But this website can only do this because it knows that your postcode is located inside a particular council, or constituency or region.

    Today, with the launch of MapIt Global , we are opening up a boundaries lookup service that works across the whole world. So now you can lookup a random point in Russia or Haiti or South Africa and find out about the administrative boundaries that surround it. And you can browse and inspect the shapes of administrative areas large and small, and perform sophisticated lookups like “Which areas does this one border with?”. And all this data is available both through an easy to use API, and a nice user interface.

    We hope that MapIt Global will be used by coders and citizens worldwide to help them in ways we can’t even imagine yet. Our own immediate use case is to use it to make installations of the FixMyStreet Platform much easier.

    Thanks OpenStreetMap!

    We’re able to offer this service only because of the fantastic data made available by the amazing OpenStreetMap volunteer community, who are constantly labouring to make an ever-improving map of the whole world. You guys are amazing, and I hope that you find MapIt Global to be useful to your own projects.

    The developers who made it possible were Mark Longair, Matthew Somerville and designer Jedidiah Broadbent. And, of course, we’re also only able to do this because the Omidyar Network is supporting our efforts to help people around the world.

     

    From Britain to the World

    For the last few years we’ve been running a British version of the MapIt service to allow people running other websites and apps to work out what council or constituency covers a particular point – it’s been very well used. We’ve given this a lick of paint and it is being relaunched today, too.

    MapIt Global is also the first of The Components, a series of interoperable data stores that mySociety will be building with friends across the globe. Ultimately our goal is to radically reduce the effort required to launch democracy, transparency and government-facing sites and apps everywhere.

    If you’d like to install and run the open source software that powers MapIt on your own servers, that’s cool too – you can find it on Github.

    About the Data

    The data that we are using is from the OpenStreetMap project, and has been collected by thousands of different people. It is licensed for free use under their open license. Coverage varies substantially, but for a great many countries the coverage is fantastic.

    The brilliant thing about using OpenStreetMap data is that if you find that the boundary you need isn’t included, you can upload or draw it direct into Open Street Map, and it will subsequently be pulled into MapIt Global.  We are planning to update our database about four times a year, but if you need boundaries adding faster, please talk to us.

    If you’re interested in the technical aspects of how we built MapIt Global, see this blog post from Mark Longair.

    Commercial Licenses and Local Copies

    MapIt Global and UK are both based on open source software, which is available for free download. However, we charge a license fee for commercial usage of the API, and can also set up custom installs on virtual servers that you can own. Please drop us a line for any questions relating to commercial use.

     Feedback

    As with any new service, we’re sure there will be problems that need sorting out. Please drop us an email, or tweet us @mySociety.

  6. DIY mySociety

    The Load by Kennymatic

    mySociety’s sites are all open-source, which means that anyone can take our code and build their own sites with it. That’s been a core mySociety principle from the very beginning, but as time has passed, we’ve realised that we could have made the process easier.

    Until recently, you had to be pretty techie to use our code. But now, under the banner DIY mySociety, we’re actively working to lower the bar. Firstly, and most importantly, we’re in the process of rewriting much of our code so that it’s nearer ‘plug and play’ status than previously. Then, we’re backing it up with documentation in the form of easy-to-read handbooks, and supportive communities.

    If you’ve ever thought of replicating a mySociety-style site in your own neck of the woods, take a peek at DIY mySociety. We’ll be regularly updating with news and advice.

    Image by Kenny Louie, used with thanks under the Creative Commons licence.

  7. Welcome, Mzalendo – Monitoring Kenya’s MPs and Parliament

    When TheyWorkForYou was built by a group of volunteer activists, many years ago, it was a first-of-a-kind website. It was novel because it imported large amounts of parliamentary data into a database-driven website, and presented it clearly and simply, and didn’t supply newspaper-style partisan editorial.

    These days dozens of such sites exist around the world. But today sees the launch of a rather-special new transparency site: Mzalendo, covering the Parliament of Kenya.

    Mzalendo (which means ‘Patriot’ in Swahili) has been around for a few years too, as a blog and MP data website founded by volunteer activists Conrad and Ory. However, over the last few months mySociety’s team members Paul, Jessica and Edmund, plus the team at Supercool Design have been helping the original volunteers to rebuild the site from the ground up. We think that what’s launched today can stake a claim to being a true ‘second generation’ parliamentary monitoring site, for a few reasons:

    • It is entirely responsively designed, so that it works on the simplest of mobile web browsers from day one.
    • All the lessons we learned from storing political data wrongly have been baked into this site (i.e we can easily cope with people changing names, parties and jobs)
    • Every organisation, position and place in the system is now a proper object in the database. So if you want to see all the politicians who went to Nairobi University, you can.
    • There is lots of clear information on how parliament functions, what MPs and committees do, and so on.
    • It synthesizes some very complex National Taxpayer’s Association data on missing or wasted money into a really clear ‘scorecard‘, turning large sums of money into numbers of teachers.

    The codebase that Mzalendo is based on is free and open source, as always. It is a complete re-write, in a different language and framework from TheyWorkForYou, and we think it represents a great starting point for other projects. Over the next year we will be talking to people interested in using the code to run such sites in their own country. If this sounds like something of interest to you, get in touch.

    Meanwhile, we wish Ory and Conrad the best of luck as the site grows, and we look forward to seeing what the first users demand.

  8. 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.

  9. PetitionYourCouncil.com: making local council petitioning easier

    PetitionYourCouncil.com from mySociety

    [Note, November 2014: Petition Your Council has now been retired]

    Local petitions can be highly effective, and we think that making them easier to create is in the public interest. Many councils have petitions facilities buried deep within their websites,  most often, very deeply. In fact it brings to mind Douglas Adams’ quote about important council documents being “on display on the bottom of a locked filing cabinet stuck in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying ‘Beware of the Leopard'”.

    Our most recent mini-project is an attempt to make it as easy as possible to find your local council’s e-petitioning site, if they have one. PetitionYourCouncil.com (you’ll notice we stuck to our tried and tested format for site names, there) is a way of finding every council e-petitioning website we know about.

    Our original motivation for building the site was that we, along with other suppliers, have supplied online e-petitioning sites to numerous councils ourselves – it’s one of the ways in which we fund our charitable activities. Having delivered these sites, we later noticed that many of them are left under-used and in some cases, not used at all: only because people don’t know about them. We hate to think of councils spending money on a splendid resource that could be improving democratic processes for their citizens – and those citizens never knowing that they exist. In particular, we owe Dave Briggs thanks for pushing us into action with this blog post.

    And yes, in case you’re wondering, PetitionYourCouncil links to every council petitions site, not just the ones we made.

    The site was built by mySociety developer Edmund von der Burg using Django, jQuery, Google maps and Mapit, and like most mySociety projects, it’s open source. There’s a bit more detail on the About page. Please do try it out, and let us know what you think.

  10. FixMyStreet in Norway

    At mySociety we love our site FixMyStreet – it’s the epitome of a web tool that gives simple tangible benefits whilst generating a little accountability at the same time. Reports through the site were up 40% last year, so it’s clear that users quite like it too.

    FixMyStreet has been copied in many different countries, which makes everyone in mySociety very happy, too, even apparently appearing in a slide deck the White House uses to show innovative services. However, it turns out that the cheerfully minimalist, almost wantonly unfashionable user-interface has an unfortunate down side: most people who copy the site look at it, think “That looks easy!” and then cheerfully start coding their own clone.

    Deceptive simplicity

    Alas – the very simplicity that makes the site good hides the fact that making a site like FixMyStreet really work well is actually way harder than it looks. What will you do when a government email inbox fills up? What about when administrative boundaries change, due to an election or restructuring? How do you know you’re not scaring users away with careless wording? All the hard-won lessons from these questions have been baked into the FixMyStreet codebase, and we’re only too keen to talk to people about them.

    We were therefore particularly pleased when the Nowegian Unix User’s Group (NUUG) came to us to ask if we could help improve FixMyStreet to make it easier for them to install. Over the last month mySociety Senior Developer Matthew Somerville has been working hard with Petter Reinholdtsen and Christer Gundersen of NUUG, and here’s what they’ve managed in just a handful of weeks.

    • The launch of a Norwegian FixMyStreet called Fiksgatami, covering nearly every corner of Norway’s 300,000 square kilometers.
    • Problems reported anywhere within Norway will be correctly directed to any of the 400+ responsible municipalities, thanks to Petter and Christer’s amazing data sourcing skills.
    • As a necessary side-effect of developing this, Norway now has a free, public administrative web service gazeteer – http://mapit.nuug.no. If Norway is anything like the UK this will soon become an indispensable service for many other web sites and mobile tools.
    • The standard mapping is now OpenStreetMap, pulled together by the brilliant Norwegian OpenStreetMap community*. We couldn’t take a technological step backward, and so whilst the site uses OpenLayers if you have JavaScript, the map continues to work just fine without as well.
    • The open source FixMyStreet codebase has been upgraded to make it easier to translate into other languages, easier to use different mapping with, and easier to install. These efforts will continue, as we realise this has been one reason why others have made their own versions.
    • All this has been done without forking, so various major upgrades we have planned for the UK version will be exportable later in the year.

    NUUG’s Fiksgatami is the epitome of what makes civic open source at its best so unmatchably good. It was developed incredibly quickly: just a month to create what is effectively a fully fledged, best-of-breed nationwide e-government service – albeit an unofficial one. Thanks to the hard work of the public servants who fix problem reports, it will make small but meaningful improvements to the lives of a lot of people in Norway.  And it has made the free FixMyStreet codebase better and easier for other people to use to help them do the same thing in other countries.

    I know that at mySociety we are all looking forward to working with NUUG again. And I hope that this story inspires others to look at our code, and to work with mySociety to make FixMyStreet a service that can help everyone who would benefit from it.

    * We’ll be rolling out updated mapping (including OSM) and more in the UK, soon.