1. Making planning applications more open with the Hampshire Hub Partnership

    Every day, thousands of planning applications are submitted to local councils around the country by people applying to demolish a garage, erect a fence or convert a loft. More often than not these applications disappear into proprietary systems that, despite being publicly available, make it hard for members of the public to find out what’s going on in their area.

    Last week, we kicked off the first sprint of an exciting new piece of work with the Hampshire Hub Partnership to build a prototype, open source web application to help members of the public find out more about planning applications in their area.

    We jumped at the chance to work on this for a number of reasons.

    Serving the needs of the public

    Firstly, it has the needs of the general public as its focus. The planning process can be baffling if you’re new to it and this tool aims to help make it easier to understand. We’ll be helping people answer some of the most common questions they have about planning applications: What applications are happening near me? What decisions have been made in the past on applications like mine? How likely is it that my application will be dealt with on time?

    2 Map results

    A wireframe illustrating the potential functionality of the search results page

    The site will help people browse planning application data by location — whether a postcode or a street address — and by type — whether it’s an extension, a loft conversion, or a major development like a retail park or commercial warehouse.

    Built on Open Data

    Secondly, it’s being made possible by the release of open data from local councils, once Ordnance Survey has granted the necessary exemption for locations derived from their data. Many of our projects rely on organisations publishing open data, so it’s great to have the chance to help demonstrate the value of releasing this kind of data openly.

    The Hampshire Hub team has already spent a lot of time working with the LGA, DCLG and LeGSB to define a schema for how planning application data should be published. They’ve collaborated with local authorities, in particular Rushmoor Borough Council, to gather planning application data. And they’ve worked with Swirrl to set up an open data platform to collect all of this together, publish it openly and give us and others access to it.

    Reuse, don’t rebuild

    And finally, rather than build something from scratch, we’ll be using the fabulous PlanningAlerts.org.au open source codebase as a starting point. Planning Alerts is a piece of software built in Ruby on Rails by our friends down under at Open Australia. It gives us a lot of the functionality that we need for free. We plan in time to repay them for their kindness by submitting the features we develop back into their codebase (if they want them, of course).

    We’ll also be using a customised version of our administrative boundaries service http://mapit.mysociety.org to store and query the geographical boundaries of different planning authorities in Hampshire (including National Park boundaries from Natural England as well as local council boundaries.)


    We’ve just started our second sprint of work atop the Open Australia codebase, building the search functionality we need to help people find applications by location and category.  We’re looking forward to seeing the tool grow, get into the hands of users and fill up with data.

  2. FixMyStreet’s been redesigned

    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.

    Technical details

    For the web developers amongst you – we have a base stylesheet for everyone, and another stylesheet that is only included if your browser width is 48em or above (an em is a unit of measurement dependent on your font size), or if you’re running Internet Explorer 6-8 (as they don’t handle the modern CSS to do this properly, we assume they’ll want the larger styles) using a conditional comment. This second stylesheet has slight differences up to 61em and above 61em. Whilst everything should continue to work without JavaScript, as FixMyStreet has done with its map-based reporting since 2007, where it is enabled this allows us to provide the full screen map you can see at large screen sizes, and the adjusted process you see at smaller resolutions.

    We originally used Modernizr.mq() in our JavaScript, but found that due to the way this works (adding content to the end of the document), this can cause issues with e.g. data() set on other elements, so we switched to detecting which CSS is being applied at the time.

    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.

    From a performance point of view, on the front page of the site, we’re e.g. using yepnope (you can get it separately or as part of Modernizr) so that the map JavaScript is downloading in the background whilst you’re there, meaning the subsequent map page is hopefully quicker to load. I’m also adding a second tile server today – not because our current one isn’t coping, it is, but just in case something should happen to our main one – we already have redundancy in our postcode/area server MapIt and our population density service Gaze.

    If you have any technical questions about the design, please do ask in the comments and I’ll do my best to answer.

  3. Nice use of PledgeBank for Royal Wedding Street Parties in Barnet

    We’ve been doing some work with Barnet Borough Council recently, such as a nice planning alerts tool. Simple, useful, well built stuff that meets an obvious need – exactly the sort of stuff we’re keen to work on with all our clients.

    During our conversations with the officers at Barnet, it became apparent that one thing they were thinking about a lot was how to support all the people who want to have Royal Wedding street parties. The dilemma was pretty simple: they want people to have a good time, but each street party means closing a street to traffic and doing other things that take time and money. And this isn’t worth doing if it turns out the people on the street weren’t really up for it anyway.

    Reducing a risk like this sounded like exactly the sort of problem that PledgeBank was built to tackle, so we’ve customized it a bit for this specific purpose, added a big, cheesy picture of the happy couple, and launched Barnet’s Royal Wedding Street Party page.

    The mechanic is nice and simple – you tell the council who you are and what street you live on. They then send you a back link to a street-specific pledge that needs signing by people in three households. You pass this around your neighbours, get the signatures, and presto,  Barnet will support your party.

    Lovingly built by mySociety’s Dave Whiteland, this might not exactly be the biggest story in local government history. However I do  think it’s a nice and surprisingly rare example of developing a small bit of policy that aligns just so with a new bit of technology. It’s not trying to ram a square technology peg into a round policy hole. I hope we get to work on more things like this in future.

  4. Duncan Parkes is our new Core Developer

    We are very happy to announce that Duncan Parkes has joined mySociety, bringing our team of full time core developers up to four.

    Duncan is the incredibly prolific author of screen scrapers for the lovely PlanningAlerts.com which he runs with Richard Pope.

    He also has a PhD in Mathematics, which I expect you’ll want to read all of here, and is an editor of Open Source programming books with APress. During the vetting process he listed one of the passions of his life as being ‘Unit Testing‘, which, combined with his love of postbox crowdsourcing, made picking him more or less a no brainer.

    In the short run we’ve let him loose, under the tutelage of Francis Irving, on the scaling challenges presented by Mapumental – I can’t wait to see what comes out of it.

  5. He was a man, take him for all in all

    Chris Lightoot died a year ago today (or yesterday, by a few minutes).

    I’m just sitting here reading the very first emails I ever got from him, back in 2003. Within the first few mails he’s invented and hacked up the idea that is now Richard Pope’s PlanningAlerts.com, coded and developed the idea that persuaded YouGov to donate vast amounts of free polling data to form PoliticalSurvey2005.com (a wider understanding of which would greatly help in the US election if the methodology was only applied there) and in this post he’s foreseen the Google maps mashup craze and offered it on a plate to the Ordnance Survey to pioneer, two years before Google started.

    The invention and brilliance comes so thick and fast reading these mails that I now realise that I’d persuaded myself over the year that I’d mis-remembered quite how insanely creative he was, trying to correct for rose-tinted lenses. But he was a proper, bona fide, no-holds-barred cantankerous genius. Most days I think about Chris at least once: I try to make sure we live up to his standards (he wouldn’t have tolerated my use of ‘But’ at the start of the last sentence, for example). Reading these mails tonight drives home the scale of what we all lost, amongst our friends, on the Internet and in society at large. It aches to contemplate.

  6. New Media Awards 2007

    Last night was the annual New Statesman New Media Awards, held in Westminster Abbey’s College Gardens. mySociety were finalists in two categories, Modernising Government and Contribution to Civic Society, with both Number 10 petitions and FixMyStreet nominated in both. Also, two other projects we host, PlanningAlerts and The Government Says, were both finalists in the Information & Openness category.

    It was a lovely evening, seeing some people I haven’t seen for some time and meeting new people too. We ended up winning in both our categories – the Number 10 petitions site in Modernising Government, and FixMyStreet in Contribution to Civic Society, which is obviously fantastic for everyone involved. The judges were impressed at the open source nature of the petitions site, and the “deceptive simplicity” of FixMyStreet. This is now the third year in a row we’ve won the Civic Society award – TheyWorkForYou won in 2005, and WriteToThem in 2006, so we’re obviously doing something right. 🙂

    It’s a shame that Chris could not be with us, but his mother did attend to see the projects he worked on recognised.

    Thanks and congratulations to all the other winners and finalists.