Earlier this week, we released Alaveteli 0.23, the latest version of our Freedom of Information software for usage anywhere in the world.
Martin Wright, one of our enterprising designers, has been hard at work giving Alaveteli a new default homepage which explains how the site works. He’s also been improving the HTML to make the site easier to customise without needing to be a CSS guru.
Liz Conlan has joined the Alaveteli team, and we have been
hazingwelcoming her by getting her to tackle some of the annoying little bugs that have been around for a long time – so the site should now be smoother to use and more of a joy for admins to run. Petter Reinholdtsen also chipped in here with better handling of the graphs that show how much new installs are being used.
We’ve continued to refactor the code for simplicity, clarity and extensibility. We plan for Alaveteli to be around for many years to come – that means it needs to be easy for new developers to understand what it does, and why (nerd alert, our Code Climate score continues to inch its way up and test coverage is now over 90%). This isn’t glamorous work, but it is an important investment in the future of the code that mySociety developers are lucky enough to be in a position to consider. Its not just us though – Caleb Tutty and James McKinney both contributed substantial code refactorings to this release.
We’ve also been working to improve the process of translating Alaveteli into a new language – standardising the way phrases for translation appear to translators, and, thanks to Gareth Rees introducing support for language-specific sorting, ensuring that “Åfjord Municipality” will now appear after “Ytre Helgeland District Psychiatric Centre” in Mimesbronn, the Norweigian Alaveteli site, as it should.
We’ve dipped our toes into the water of two-factor authentication to keep accounts secure. As Alaveteli runs all over the world, on all kinds of devices, we’ve kept it simple without introducing the need for apps or other technologies. Users now have the option of activating an extra one time passcode that they’ll need to supply if they ever want to change their password in the future.
Spam spam spam spam
We continue to fight the good fight against spam – in this release we introduce a configuration parameter that allows site admins to adjust the period in which requests remain open to responses – closing the window in which spammers can target them. We’ve also extended our use of reCAPTCHA to keep spambots at bay.
Alaveteli, don’t phone home
Thanks to Ian Chard, Alaveteli now uses a local GeoIP database by default to find the country for HTTP requests (and tell users if there is an Alaveteli in their country), rather than the mySociety Gaze service. This should improve performance and reliability.
The full list of highlights and upgrade notes for this release is in the changelog.
Thanks again to everyone who’s contributed!
Not many people realise that we fund a proportion of our charitable work by carrying our commercial development and consultancy work for a wide range of clients.
Last year, we scoped, developed and delivered a real variety of digital tools and projects. Some of the projects were surprising. Some of them made us gnash our teeth, a bit, as we grappled with new problems. But all of them (and call us geeks if you like) got us very excited.
Here are just twelve of our personal high points from last year. If you have a project that you think we might be able to help you with in 2015, we’d love to hear from you!
1. We Changed the Way in Which Parliament Does Digital
This time last year, a small team from mySociety was poring over analytics, interview content and assorted evidence from Parliament projects dating back last 2-3 years, to help us put together a simple set of recommendations to conclude our review.
11 months later, Parliament have announced their first Head of Digital, fulfilling one of our key recommendations.
2. We helped the MAS and the FCA protect financial consumers
We built the Money Advice Service’s (MAS) first responsive web application, the Car Cost Calculator.
This tool takes one simple thing you know (the car you wish to buy) and tells you roughly how much it’ll cost to run that car against any others you might be interested in. It has been one of MAS’ most successful online tools in terms of traffic and conversion.
We also built the Financial Conduct Authority’s Scam Smart tool, aiming to prevent financial scams.
This tool helps users considering a financial investment to check a potential investment. Users enter information about the type of investment, how they heard about it and the details of the company offering it to them and get back tailored guidance and suggested next steps to help them ensure the investment is bona fide.
3. We Gave Power to the People of Panama (soon)
Working with the The National Authority for Transparency & Access to Information (ANTAI) and the Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO), we set up our first government-backed instance of our Freedom of Information platform, Alaveteli, in Panama.
This project will ensure that Panama’s FOI legislation is promoted and used, but it will also shine a light on ANTAI, who are responsible for ensuring ministries and organisations publish their information, and handling case appeals.
4. We Mapped All the Public Services in Wales
After we extended the Mapumental API to produce data output suitable for GIS (geographical information systems), the Welsh Government were able to map public services in Wales for their Index of Multiple Deprivation calculations.
Over the course of the year they have calculated travel times for over seventy thousand points of interest.
5. We Launched a New Organisation in Four Weeks
Simply Secure approached us in dire need of a brand, an identity and a website to accompany the launch of their new organisation to help the world build user-friendly security tools and technologies.
Cue four weeks of very intense work for mySociety’s designer, supported by members of the commercial team. And we did it.
6. We Printed Stuff BIG (and found people jobs)
Xerox will be using these with the DWP to help job seekers find work that is within reach by public transport. As a byproduct, Mapumental now handles high-fidelity print based outputs: get in touch if that is of interest.
7. We Opened Up Planning Applications
With Hampshire County Council we had the opportunity to build a new application to help assist members of the public and business better understand what was happening around them. For us, it was also the first application in which we worked closely with a provider of a linked data store, in this case Swirrl.
When Open Planning goes live, it will look to help improve social engagement and the economy of Hampshire through better understanding and transparency of planning data.
8. We Proved (Again) That FixMyStreet Isn’t All About Potholes
We launched Collideoscope on October the 7th with our first sponsor—Barts Charity, with the aim of generating data both on incidents involving cycles, and near misses.
9. We Helped Launch a Film
We built a tool for the British Museum, to go alongside the general release of Vikings Live. The Norse Names project brought a sense of context and personalisation to a dataset gathered by the University of Nottingham.
10. We Made Data More Exciting
This year, they asked us to build something similar for bus users. We’re entering the final week of development now, and the finished product should be launched in March.
The main aim of this site? To take data that could be considered pretty dry, and make it a lot more engaging.
11. We Fixed Yet More Potholes
That means that residents of those places can now make their reports direct from their council’s website, or via FixMyStreet, and either way they’ll have all the benefits of FixMyStreet’s smooth report-making interface.
12. We Showed Parliament the Way
And so, we end where we began. While Parliament were busy interviewing candidates for their new ‘Head of Digital’ position, we were commissioned to demonstrate what Hansard might look like were a platform like SayIt used instead of the largely print-based publishing mechanisms used today.
The result was shared internally. While SayIt may not be the end solution for Parliament, it’s great to have had some input into what that solution might be.
And in 2015…?
Got a project that you’d like us to be involved in?
Every year, thousands of people in the UK fall prey to financial scams. For the last six months, mySociety has been working with the Financial Conduct Authority to create an online tool, the FCA Warning List, to try and help potentially vulnerable financial consumers avoid scams.
The tool launched on Wednesday last week as part of a wider communications campaign aimed at educating the public on the typical characteristics of scams.
The homepage of the FCA Warning List
The sophistication of financial scams
When I’ve mentioned this project to people, they invariably think of emails from extravagantly-named lawyers in far-flung countries identifying you as the lucky beneficiary of a lost inheritance. These scams seem, to most people, obvious and the people who fall prey easy to ridicule: how can people possibly think this stuff is real?
But many scams are actually incredibly sophisticated and work on people over a long period of time, with even the most experienced investors at risk of being taken in.
An introductory approach is made by someone who knows your name on a realistic pretext. Might you be interested in this investment? No? Well, John, it was good to chat and I’ll call again in a few months. A few months later another call. Did you know that if you’d invested you’d have made 20% by now? I have another investment here that I think might interest you, let me introduce you to my colleague who knows the director at this firm personally.
Scammers work their victim as a team, they lure us in and use our cognitive flaws and emotional weaknesses to ensnare us.
Disconcertingly informative user research
During this project, we interviewed 15 or so potential users, recruited as having the characteristics of people likely to be targeted by scammers. About half of these people had come in contact with a scam. As far as we know, none of them had fallen victim but only one of them reported their experience to the authorities.
Almost all of them thought that a website to help them research investment opportunities—provided by an independent third party like the FCA—would be useful for them.
We’ve built an online tool that we hope will help investors avoid scams. A person using it gives it some basic facts about an investment opportunity (what is it an investment in? how did you hear about it?) and it gives them back some guidance specific to them.
For example, did you know that if you’re cold called about an investment opportunity, in all likelihood it’s a scam? Just that simple message alone has the potential to be very disruptive to scams.
The tool also allows users to search a list of firms that the FCA knows to be operating without their permission: if someone’s talking to a firm on that list about an investment, that’s probably a pretty bad idea.
Finally, it gives people other suggested actions at the end of the process. Been cold called? You should report it. Considering an investment in an unregulated commodity like bamboo? You should research further before investing.
We also made a widgetty version of the tool homepage that can be easily embedded into other websites.
Scammers rob people of cash, but they can also take people’s self-respect and damage their personal relationships, often at a time of life when they are particularly vulnerable.
We’re excited about the launch of the Warning List and are proud to be supporting the FCA in its mission to protect consumers by disrupting more of the scams that have such a destructive effect on people’s lives.
It’s always good to know a tool we’ve built is useful, and that certainly seems to be the case with the Car Comparison Calculator we built for the Money Advice Service.
Forecasts on user numbers for a completely new offering are, let’s be honest, always going to be based on loose estimates at best. During development, we were both working to the basic figure of 160,000 users a year. Well, pop open the champagne and rip off those L-plates, because in just ten weeks since launch, more than 180,000 people have already checked the running costs of the car they’re thinking of buying.
Almost as pleasing is the news that almost all users see the process through to the end. That might sound like a given, but in all web transactions you can expect to see some ‘drop-off’ as users abandon their path.
So, all in all, a great start for the Car Comparison Calculator. Try it out for yourself here.
And if you’d like mySociety to build something digital for you, start here.
That was the question that sparked our latest project, an online interactive tool for the Money Advice Service. The Car Costs Calculator, built by mySociety, allows you to see outgoings at a glance, and compare one second-hand model against another.
The Money Advice Service helps people manage their money. It does this directly through its free and impartial advice service, and by working in partnership with other organisations to help people make the most of their money.
It is an independent service, set up by government, which proactively offers advice and services to help people with the big financial commitments in their lives.
The proposed tool was to be part of a wider, content-driven campaign about the process of buying a car, the possible pitfalls of doing so, the financial implications, and the best ways to save money.
The costs of car ownership aren’t always apparent until you’re up and running – and that’s not helpful when you’re browsing the second-hand car ads.
The Car Costs Calculator gives potential buyers a clearer understanding of exactly what outgoings are associated with each make and model of car.
Several factors make up the costs of running a car: fuel, servicing and maintenance, vehicle tax, annual insurance, and the likely annual depreciation. Before making the decision to commit to what is, for many people, one of the largest outgoings in their monthly budget, it pays to have a full understanding of all of these costs.
We needed to build a tool that could present this complex data, simply and clearly. It made sense to model it on the sort of comparison service that we’re all familiar with from online electronics retailers – that way, most users would have an intuitive understanding of how to access the data.
Before we started work, the Money Advice Service gamely answered all our many questions, allowing us to create a collaborative scoping and feasibility document.
This, together with clear guidance on the branding and house style, was indicative of what was to come – open communication, with frequent meetings and calls throughout the entire build.
We worked to our preferred Agile method. This approach allows for the overall build to be divided into small chunks, each of which is presented to, and tested by, the client on a regular basis: feedback can then be incorporated into the next sprint.
The tool was given plenty of use and testing by the Money Advice Service stakeholders at every stage, and their comments were a valuable resource for our developers.
We also benefited from the client’s in-depth understanding of their audience. With their help, we drew up user stories, including characteristics and motivations, so that we knew we were all on the same page and could really focus on the tool’s users.
While the build went smoothly, we did encounter one issue. It just happened that the Money Advice Service had only recently introduced new styles across its website, and mySociety was the first third-party supplier to use them.
As it turned out, they weren’t entirely pinned down, meaning that some finished pieces of design needed to be re-done as the project neared completion.
Remember all that communication we talked about above? This is where it came in really useful, and we got there in the end.
The Car Cost Calculator launched in July, fitting into the Money Advice Service’s wider campaign on financial advice about buying, selling and running a car.
Both sides are pleased with this innovative tool that gives buyers such a simple route to the financial information they need to make an informed decision.
For the Money Advice Service, the project represents what every client would like to see: “low input, high output”. That is to say, for a relatively low overhead, they have provided the UK with an online tool that will make a real difference.
Try it out
Whether or not you’re in the market for a second-hand car, it’s still fun to try out – have a go with the tool here.
Need something similar? We can build it for you.Image credit: Allen Watkin (cc)
Poplus Components are interdependent, Open Source pieces of code for civic and democratic websites. Find out more on the Poplus website.
Do you have an idea for a new Poplus Component? Or would you like to add features to an existing one?
We’re currently inviting groups and individuals to apply for grants. You may apply for up to USD $5,000 to help you with development work on creating or improving a Poplus Component.
- Priority will be given to proposals for the development of new Poplus Components, or new features for existing Components.
- We will also consider grants for those planning to implement existing Poplus Components into wider projects.
How to apply
Please complete this form before 10th September 2014.
We hope to inform successful applicants by 17th September. If you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to get in touch.
Help us fund more projects
This funding will be the final expenditure from the original Poplus start-up grant.
If you represent a funding organisation, and might be interested in helping support the growth of Poplus through funding micro-grants, please do let us know! Poplus Components represent great ‘bang for your buck’, since they are re-usable across the entire eDemocracy worldwide community.
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.
Last week we asked what improvements you’d like to see on TheyWorkForYou. Thanks so much for all the comments on that post (do keep them coming). They’ve all been carefully documented on our development list.
Our standard way of working on a project like this is in ‘sprints’ – short periods of activity after which we can spend some time reflecting on what went well, and what could have gone better.
This system is great for ensuring that we don’t get involved in a large piece of work, only to realise that it doesn’t do what was intended, or hasn’t had the desired effect. So, for example, if we’ve added a new feature, we might be asking ourselves, ‘Is anyone using it?’, ‘Have there been any bug reports?’, and ‘Has it fulfilled our original aim?’. We’re striving to be as analytical and methodical as possible about these assessments, so part of the process has also been figuring out which types of metrics to collect, and how.
That said, what have we already done?
It’s easier to find a specific representative
Where previously our pages listing all MPs, all MSPs and all MLAs just contained one very long list of names that you had to search or scroll through, there’s now an A-Z navigation at the top. We also added the ability to find your own MP from this page.
Why? This is an example of a small usability tweak which should make a difference to a large number of people – not everyone knows how to search a web page with Ctrl+F. It’s also a fix that’s been on our to-do list for two years!
The addition of the ‘find your MP’ box helps to serve one of our core aims: to make democracy easy to understand for the uninitiated.
We’ve added ‘like’ and ‘follow’ buttons
We thought you might not notice these discreet additions to our page footers – but we’ve certainly seen an upturn on the rate at which people are ‘liking’ our Facebook page. Whereas Twitter – not so much. Maybe TheyWorkForYou users are just more Facebook-inclined?
Why? In part, this addition is for our own benefit – we welcome the opportunity that social media gives our users to spread the word. As a small organisation with no advertising budget, this kind of grass roots promotion is invaluable. Then, we are hoping that it will help us to understand our users. Clicking that ‘like’ button can be seen as a form of positive affirmation and enagement that it’s very hard to quantify by other means.
We are still considering the addition of buttons which would allow you to share specific debates with your social circles.
We have noted the comments on our last post which made it clear that some of our users do not welcome integration with social media. That’s fine – we’ll never do anything that excludes you from the core activities of the site, whether you use Facebook and Twitter or not – our intention is simply to provide the functionality for those who want it.
Those comments have been a useful reminder to us that we should continue to consult our users, because we can’t always predict what you might object to!
You can change your email address
If you have an account, now you can change your email address yourself.
Why? This was identified as a common request that often puzzled users, and took up support time on our side.
MPs’ pages will look better
You can’t see these yet, because they’re still in progress. Due to some quirks of the code in which the site was originally built, the new design for the MPs’ pages has taken longer to implement than we’d anticipated. But we’re getting there.
Why? MPs’ pages contain an awful lot of information, from voting history to recent appearances, and more. The redesign will help us present all this information more clearly, making the page just as easy to read on a mobile device as it is on a desktop, and simply bringing the (frankly, dated) pages a more current look.
Bullets are bullets
This is almost ridiculous, but we think it was worth attending to. In recent user tests, we noticed some confusion, caused by the fact that our bullet points were in the form of small squares – they were frequently mistaken for check boxes.
Why? Just to rid the world of that one small piece of frustration that occurs when you try to tick a box that is not, in fact, a checkbox.
As I say, we are still actively collecting and working on your feedback, so please do keep it coming. Comment below this post, or drop us a line on firstname.lastname@example.org. I’ll be reporting back after our next sprint.
Photo by William Warby (CC)
mySociety is an organisation with many priorities, and they often compete for attention. Right now, we have some time and budget to lavish on TheyWorkForYou. We need your input to help us understand what development we should prioritise for the site.
Note: if you don’t know much about TheyWorkForYou, your opinion still counts! See the foot of this blog post for an overview of the site and its aims.
Some suggested improvements
Below is a list of improvements that other users have suggested, or that we think are desirable. Which improvements would you most like to see – from this list, or based on your own needs?
- Easier sharing via social media If you see a debate you want to share with your Twitter or Facebook buddies, all you’d have to do is click a button. More details
- When your MP voted Letting you know, via email alerts, when your MP has taken part in a vote. More details
- Option to search just headings At the moment, search covers all content of debates, including everything anyone said. This option would allow you to only search headings, meaning that you could be sure the results were entirely focused on your topic. More details
- Tweeting debate headings or future business A Twitter account which would tweet, and link to, every debate in Parliament, or upcoming events. More details
- Signposting of big ‘events’ such as the Budget These are not always easy to find if you don’t know your way around, so we’d make sure the big events were always trumpeted on the site. More details
Great ideas, or utter bunkum? Let us know. You can give us feedback via any of the following methods:
1. Leave a comment under this blog post;
3. If you’d like to see the whole list of suggestions and issues, you can do so on our development list at Github (and the ‘more details’ links in the list above go to the issues on there). Note that anyone is welcome to add comments to these issues, or even to create your own (please search first to make sure you’re not duplicating an existing issue). Github may look complex, but it’s easy enough to use – you just need to set up a user account here.
We’re keen to understand whether we’re serving all kinds of users, so it’d also be helpful if you could tell us whether you consider yourself to be someone who knows a bit about Parliament (through work, interest, or experience) or a novice user.
Note – you can see what we’re currently working on here. Some changes were obvious – for example, we’re improving MPs’ individual pages.
What is TheyWorkForYou for?
TheyWorkForYou has been running since 2004. We know why we launched it, though the way you use it may be totally different – and if so, we want to hear about that. Its aim is to give a window into Parliament, for everyone, but including people who may never have previously thought that parliamentary proceedings had anything to do with them.
TheyWorkForYou does a lot of things. It lets you find out who your MP is – if you don’t know – and then it tells you all about them.
It publishes the written record of debates in Parliament, and lets you search it, and link to it easily.
It allows you to set up alerts, so you get an email every your chosen words or phrases are mentioned in Parliament – or every time a particular person speaks.
It publishes future business (there are alerts for that, too), written answers, Public Bill Committees, and more.
So, it does a lot – but we know that it still doesn’t do everything our users request, and it doesn’t neccessarily do everything in the way that they want, either. Some changes are obvious, and we’re working on them – right now, for example, we are improving individual MPs’ pages. But we want your thoughts too.
Photo by Lindsay Bremner (CC)
You may remember our recent post announcing that we’d been nominated for an Emmy and a BAFTA award. Always the bridesmaid and never the bride, you might have thought.
As you’ll recall, we created the app and the website tools for the Channel 4 programme alongside production companies Tiger Aspect and the Project Factory, who share the accolade.
So: yays all round – and don’t forget, our award-winning skills are for hire.