1. OpenPlanning is making planning applications more accessible

    Open Planning

    If you’ve got a problem with your planning applications, we’ve got a little something for you…

    Back in September, we wrote about our project with Hampshire Hub to build a prototype, open source web application that would help members of the public find out more about planning applications in their area:

    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?

    The site helps 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.

    That project can now be seen at http://openplanning.hampshirehub.net/: go and have a poke around!

    How it works

    OpenPlanning displays planning applications clearly on a map. Users can browse their local area and learn more about how to complete their own request by looking at the success or failure of what has gone before.

    This benefits everyone, from residents who are less likely to have their applications turned down, to the council who will find themselves dealing with higher-quality submissions.

    By aggregating planning application details from multiple councils, the site allows users to browse irrespective of administrative boundaries or the authority in charge. After all, neither of those considerations are very high on the list of the resident’s priorities.

    There’s nothing new about putting planning applications online, of course: they can already be browsed and submitted in many places across the web. This project isn’t hoping to replace those tools, but to complement them, providing links to existing data sources where possible, all accessible via a much more user-friendly interface.

    We know many councils and residents struggle with planning applications on a daily basis, and we hope that OpenPlanning will provide the first step towards making the whole process easier for all parties.

    The future for OpenPlanning

    OpenPlanning is the first iteration of a new product. At this early stage, we haven’t included a facility to submit a planning application – that’s something we could slot in cost-effectively at a later phase though, and of course we’d be happy to hear from any councils who would be interested in adopting that approach.

    The code is based on Open Australia Foundation’s PlanningAlerts platform, which means it’s already been tried and tested by a wide community down under. It’s still under active development and, thanks to the joys of Open Source code, we’ll be able to contribute improvements back to the original codebase too.

    We’ve really enjoyed working with Hampshire Hub: a forward-thinking  partnership of councils and other public organisations, led by Hampshire County Council, which aims to provide useful open data for the county. Hampshire understands the benefits, both direct and indirect, of open source tools and open data.

    Now we’re seeking local councils who are struggling with the quality of planning applications, perhaps processing large volumes of applications that are not granted. If that sounds like you then please get in touch to speak to mySociety Services about what OpenPlanning can do for you.

     

  2. FixMyStreet for Councils cuts call handling times, makes savings

    FixMyStreet for Councils delivers cost savings—and that’s a fact.

    Oxfordshire County Council installed FixMyStreet as their fault-reporting system in March 2013. Like every council, they were keen to see reductions in their expenditure, and were hopeful that FixMyStreet would help them in their aim to shift problem-reporting online.

    We’re delighted to hear that, two years on, those benefits are tangible. Not only can they demonstrate a cut in call handling times, but they can also put a figure on just how much they have saved.

    Tim White, Oxfordshire’s Service Improvement Lead in the Customer Service centre, says:

    FixMyStreet has reduced the average handling time of our calls from nearly four minutes to around two minutes.

    Robert Hill, Oxfordshire’s Web Services Manager, puts a figure on the savings, reckoning that the reduced time logging faults equates to £16,047.60 a year in staff costs.

    But that’s just a small proportion of the reductions they could be looking at. Oxfordshire chose not to opt for full back-end integration at the time of install, but it is something they are now considering:

    “By moving to an end to end system provided by FixMyStreet we would be able to remove additional cost by eliminating the need to inspect reports that meet certain criteria and passing them straight through for repair.”

    mySociety’s agile approach has worked well for Oxfordshire. Tim White continued:

    “Working with My Society has been a refreshing experience.

    “They are very open to making changes to the way that the product works in order to improve both the customer experience and the experience for council employees.

    “Using an agile approach to development means that we are able to get changes made quickly and incrementally, making the council more responsive to the demands of our residents.”

    If you’d like to see a drop in your own call-handling times, and the associated cost benefits, take a look at FixMyStreet for Councils.

    Image: David Howard (CC)

  3. FixMyStreet for Councils: ticking all the boxes

    FixMyStreet for Councils is great for citizens, but there are plenty of reasons why it’s also great for councils.

    Here are six ways in which FixMyStreet for Councils can help you save money and meet internal targets.

    1. Proven cost savings

    FixMyStreet for Councils’ highly usable interface has been proven to deliver channel shift, with shorter call times and resulting cost savings on staff FTE.

    Read our recent figures from Oxfordshire County Council, or take a look at our case studies from Barnet Borough Councilpdf and the city of Zurichpdf to see just what benefits these authorities saw with their FixMyStreet for Councils installations.

    2. We take the risks

    In these times of budgetary cuts, it helps to know there won’t be any unforeseen costs in maintenance or hosting. We manage all of that, and as it’s all included as standard, that counts as real added value.

    Worried about the loss of data? No need: because FixMyStreet is all ‘in the cloud’, there’s no risk of it ever going missing.

    3. Sustainable contracts

    We know you’re looking for partners you can rely on. With twelve years in the business, we’re a solid, reliable organisation that can offer long-term contracts with no worries about sustainability.

    4. Meet your Social Values Act quota

    As a not-for-profit charity, mySociety ticks all the right boxes when it comes to your Social Values Act quota. Every penny we make goes towards our charitable projects, empowering people and giving better access to democracy.

    mySociety also employs volunteers and runs various forms of outreach in the civic technology area, aided by profits from our commercial services—your money does good.

    5. Accessible—for all your residents

    FixMyStreet has a WCAG 2.0 accessibility level AA, opening it up to the blind, partially-sighted and any other users who rely on screen readers.

    6. Open and transparent

    If your council has an overall remit towards transparency and accountability, FixMyStreet offers a great step forward. Publishing all reports online, it provides a platform for you to show exactly what’s being fixed and what the persistent issues might be in each area.

    FixMyStreet also provides a continually-updating source of data which can be invaluable in analysing common problems, report hotspots, response times and seasonal cycles.

     

    Get in touch

    if you’d like to know more about any of these points, or have further questions then please do drop us a line. We’ll be happy to talk.

  4. Boom times for FixMyStreet

    Each of the previous three months has been a record-breaker for FixMyStreet. In January, you made the highest number of reports in the site’s history… until February. And then that record was smashed again in March with over 17,000 reports across the month.

    FixMyStreet has been running since 2007, and it’s enjoyed increasing usage over that time, as you’d expect any site to do organically. The performance in the last few months, though—a 30% rise from the year before—has been notable. We reckon it’s been driven by a couple of factors.

    Grassroots outreach

    At mySociety, we tend not to go for big advertising campaigns (read: we can’t afford them), but you might have noticed that we put quite a bit of effort into spreading the word about FixMyStreet at the beginning of the year.

    Everything we did was low-cost and designed to help us promote the site to as many new people as possible:

    • We offered a number of downloadable posters and other promotional materials (if you haven’t seen these yet, go and take a look; we think they’re pretty nice)
    • We sent our users a stack of branded postcards that they could share with others to let them know about FixMyStreet
    • We also contacted a large number of community newsletters and magazines, serving towns, parishes and villages across the country: perhaps you saw us featured in your local publication.

    Users from council sites

    That all paid off, but there was another source of reports helping us achieve our record figures.

    That source was our client councils, who have FixMyStreet as the primary fault-reporting system on their own sites.

    Eight UK councils currently have FixMyStreet installed, with every report made on via the system on the council site being published on fixmystreet.com, and vice versa.

    Between them they’ve added just over 16,500 reports this year.

    Riding the wave

    So far this year, we’ve seen an overall average of 16,000+ reports per month, and there have been over 50,000 reports since 2015 began.

    Now, let’s hope all those reports get some kind of a response, because as the recent research we collaborated on showed, getting something fixed has the power to turn first-time reporters into conscientious, engaged repeat reporters. And that’s all for the good.

     

    Image: Jamie Taylor (CC)

  5. 12 exciting projects mySociety was hired to deliver last year

    Image by Craig Sunter

    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

    Palace of Westminster by Greg DunlapThis 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

    Bubble Car by Allen WatkinTwo of our projects helped people financially.

    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)

    Alaveteli homepageWorking 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

    Bws Ysgol - Image by Aqwis via Wikimedia, CCAfter 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 SecureSimply 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)

    Public transport travel times to Birmingham meet-up, from Mapumental by mySocietymySociety developer Dave Arter figured out how to generate A1 sized maps from Mapumental for every job centre in the UK – all 716 of them.

    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

    open-planning-shotWith 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

    CollideoscopeAfter a spate of cyclists’ deaths in London last year, we felt that the moment was right to build something that would support cycle safety in the UK.

    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

    A map of old Norse place namesWe 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

    To the Trains by Nic McPheeIn 2013, we built an interface to help people explore the data in the National Rail Passenger Survey (NRPS) data explorer  for Passenger Focus.

    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

    Fixed, by Tup WandersThis year Warwickshire, East Sussex, Hart & Harrogate joined the list of councils using FixMyStreet as their main street fault reporting platform.

    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

    Parliament Square by Duncan HarrisAnd 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?

    Get in touch and tell us about it.

    Image credits:

    Eggs: Craig Sunter; Parliament: Greg Dunlap; Bubble car: Allen Watkin; To the Trains: Nic McPhee; Potholes: Tup Wanders; Parliament Duncan Harris. All Creative Commons.

     

  6. How to use SayIt to publish transcripts of meetings

    A Scribe from the Book of HoursIn yesterday’s blog post we talked about using our free, Open Source software, SayIt, to create collections of statements, like our collections of Party speeches.

    That’s one use of SayIt – but we actually built it with a slightly different aim in mind: the storing and publication of transcripts.

    SayIt really does transform transcripts – so, if you regularly take minutes of meetings at work, or in another capacity, it’s worth a look.

    That’s easy for us to say, we know. But if you play with it for half an hour, we think you’ll see the benefits.

    Making online transcripts better for your readers

    Traditionally, transcripts of meetings are published as PDFs or Microsoft Word documents. The information is there; you’ve done your duty in making it available – but do you ever wonder if it’s really working for your readers?

    For example, let’s say you are a clerk in the local council, and you routinely publish transcripts from council meetings online.

    The chances are that residents access your transcripts when they have an interest in one specific topic. Typically your meetings cover many subjects, and readers have to wade through pages to find the part they want. On SayIt, searching is very easy, even for people who are not very familiar with internet technology.

    Search on SayIt

    Or suppose that you are a member of a pressure group, and you’ve transcribed a local community meeting to share on your website. You might want to highlight particular parts of the meeting. With SayIt, you can link to individual statements, so it’s simple to share them by email, social media, or on your website.

    A SayIt speech is linkable in context

     

    See some examples

    If you’d like to see how your meeting transcripts will look, once they’ve been published on SayIt, have a browse through these two examples:

     

    Getting started

    SayIt sign-upReady to have a go? Here’s how to start your own SayIt site:

    1. Go to this page and sign up.

    We’ll ask you for:

    • Part of the URL (web address) for your site – for example, if you choose “TotnesCouncil”, your new URL will be http://TotnesCouncil.sayit.mysociety.org. Note that URLs can’t contain spaces or non-regular characters.
    • A title: this will appear in the top bar of your website. Don’t sweat too much: you can always change this later. In this example we might choose “Totnes Council meetings”.
    • A description (optional): this is a good place to explain the purpose of your site at a little more length. You might write something like “Transcripts from local council meetings in Totnes, UK, 2014 onwards”. Again, you will have the chance to change this later if you like.

    2. Confirm your email address

    If this is the first time you have used SayIt, you will need to input your email address, then go to your email and find our automated message so you can click on the confirmation link.

    SayIt congratulations

    Keep a note of your password, as you will need it whenever you want to edit your site.

    Inputting transcripts

    SayIt is currently in Beta – that’s to say, it’s functional and live, but we’re still developing it.

    In this phase, you can manually type (or copy and paste) each statement of your transcript in. Soon, it will also be possible to import a document of the entire meeting, as long as it’s in the required format – if you have a lot of existing transcripts and you’d like to try this, get in touch and we may be able to help.

    In this post, we’ll look at the manual input of speeches.

    Manual input

    You will need either a copy of your transcript, or a recording of the meeting you wish to transcribe.

    Here’s how to begin:

    1. Click on the ‘add your first statement’ button.

    Add your first speech to SayIt

     2. You can paste, or type, your content directly into the box marked “text”.

    Adding content to SayItIn the fields below the text box, you have the option to add more details about this piece of text. None of these fields are mandatory, but all of them add functionality or information to your transcript:

    • Date and time If you know these, they are useful because they will help SayIt to order your speeches chronologically. Don’t worry if you don’t know them, though – SayIt automatically arranges speeches in the order that you input them, unless the timestamps tell it otherwise.
    • Event and location What sort of meeting was it, and where did it happen? For our example, we might input “Totnes Town Council Meeting” and “Guildhall, Totnes”.
    • Speaker Enter a name, and then click on the underlined text to add it to your database. As with all text fields on SayIt, once you have added it, it will be offered as an auto-fill option for subsequent speeches. Attaching names to your speeches also means that SayIt can do clever things, like display everything said by one speaker.

    If you are not sure who spoke, don’t worry – you can leave this field blank, or enter a name such as ‘Unknown’.

    • Section Meetings often have distinct sections: an introductory period, apologies for absences, following up on agreed actions, etc. Or you might use Section to identify items on the agenda. If you use the Section field, SayIt will automatically arrange your transcript into groups of associated content.
    • Source URL If you are taking speeches from a source such as a news report or another website, you can add the web address so that interested people can see it in context.
    • Title and tags: These enable you to tag your content – for example, you might want to tag everything to do with road-building, and everything to do with tourism, et cetera. That means that your readers will be able to find the sections of the content they are most interested in.

    When you’ve added everything you want to for this part of speech, click “Save speech”.

    Well done! You’ve just added your first speech to SayIt.

    You can go back and edit it at any time – and that applies to every field.

    A SayIt speech

    3. Continue adding speeches.

    As you do so, SayIt will be making connections and organising things neatly.

    Tip: If you click ‘add another speech like this’ then fields such as ‘event and location’ will automatically be filled for you – you can overwrite them if they are incorrect for your next speech.

    Click on ‘Speakers’ to see an icon for everyone you’ve added:

    Speakers screen on SayIt

    – and click on any one of those icons to see just their speeches:

    One person's speeches on SayIt

    Clicking on ‘Speeches’ in the top bar will show you every speech you’ve input; if you used Sections, they will be divided up neatly:

    Speeches on SayItClick on any of those sections to see its content:

    speeches on SayIt

    You’ve done it

    So there you are, now you’ve seen what SayIt can do – we hope you liked it enough to consider using it in the future. Remember, it’s completely free.

    Let us know if you hit any problems, or if there are features you’d like us to add. SayIt is in active development at the moment, so your feedback will help shape it. We’d also love to hear if you are using it.

    Importing content

    Manual inputting is clearly only practical for shorter meetings (or people who have plenty of time on their hands!). As mentioned above, we’ll be adding the ability to import your transcripts.

    They will need to be in the format that SayIt accepts, which is Akoma Ntoso, a schema for Parliamentary document types – you can read more about that here.

    If you already have documents in Akoma Ntoso, get in touch and we can get them imported for you.

    Hosting

    You can host SayIt on your own servers, but for beginner users it’s quicker and easier to start by creating a version that we host, as described in the steps above.

    If you decide later on that you want to host the content yourself, and perhaps embed it on your own website, that option will remain open to you.

    SayIt is a Poplus Component – open-source software that is designed to underpin digital democracy projects. It can stand alone, or work with other Poplus Components. The source code is also available for developers to modify and improve, so if you are already imagining more ambitious ways that you might use SayIt on your website, let us know.

    Other ways to use SayIt

    We’ve recently written about:

    Using SayIt to make collections of statements.

    Using SayIt to store interviews from your research project

    We’ll also be looking at the following soon:

    – Collaborating with other users on SayIt transcripts

    Image: A scribe from the Book of Hours (public domain)

  7. 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.

  8. New functionality for FixMyStreet for Councils

    We’re pleased to announce new moderation features for clients of FixMyStreet for Councils.

    This new functionality enables nominated members of staff to edit user reports from within the FixMyStreet front end.

    It’s quick and easy, and allows you to react immediately to unwanted content on your site. Read on to find out more.

    Screenshot of a problematic report in FMS

    Screenshot of a problematic report in FMS

    What’s wrong with this report?

    So what is wrong with the report in the screenshot above?

    If you run a site on the FixMyStreet platform, you’ll be familiar with this kind of report, and the chances are that you’ll already be twitching to edit it.

    User-generated content is wonderful in many ways – but it can also present problems on a public-facing site. Let’s look at a few of the potential issues in the report above:

    • The user has included his phone number in the report description, and now it’s available for anyone to see.
    • The user’s name is also public. While this is the default option on FixMyStreet, users often get in touch to say that they meant to make their report anonymously (an option on FixMyStreet, but one which the user can only access at the point of submission).
    • There’s an inappropriate photo. This one is a statue of Carl Jung, which obviously has nothing to do with the report. But even relevant photos can be problematic: imagine if it was a graphic depiction of a dead animal, or some rude graffiti.
    • Profanity: in the example above, we’ll imagine that “pesky” is a mild profanity, but experience tells us that users don’t always hold back on their language.

    There are other common problems too, not represented in this report. Users sometimes post potentially libellous information: naming someone they suspect of flytipping, for example, or giving an address where they believe planning permission has been flouted.

    In the run-up to local election, councils have to be particularly sensitive to any content that might be construed as political – commonly they wish to remove any mention of any candidate.

    Moderation in all things

    New FMS Moderation panel
    Up until now, we’ve edited reports for our council clients, on request. However, this is clearly a long-winded way of getting sensitive material off the site, especially when time is of the essence.

    So we’ll shortly be introducing the ability for client moderation of sites. Councils or other bodies who run FixMyStreet will be able to nominate trusted users and give them the ability to edit problematic reports from within the report page.

    When logged in, these users will see a “moderate” button on every report – this feature will not be available to any user unless explicitly authorised.

    As you can see, this panel provides the ability to:

    • Hide the report completely
    • Hide the name of the poster
    • Hide or show a photo (if one was originally provided)
    • Edit the title and body of the report.

    For some reports, it might be necessary to make a number of edits, and finally submit the changes:

     

    FMS Moderation in Progress

    FMS Moderation in Progress

    The moderator can also add a reason for the changes, so it’s recorded if a colleague needs to know the history of the report in the future.

    This functionality gives a lot of power to admins to remove inappropriate information – but the user took the time to submit their report, and it’s only fair to let them know it’s been changed. So the system sends them an automatic email, as below:

    FMS Moderation Email

    FMS Moderation Email

     

    Finally, the system automatically updates the report to show that it has been moderated. As well as a timestamp, it signals where any information has been removed in the title or body of the report.

    FMS Moderation Displayed on Report

    FMS Moderation Displayed on Report

     

    Updates can be just as problematic as reports, so the same functionality will apply to them.

    We’d welcome feedback on this mechanism, so please let us know if you think we’ve missed any features.

    Note: These screenshots are from our work in progress and do not yet display the slick design that we habitually apply right at the end of the build process. Please regard them as preview shots only!

  9. Brighton and Hove City Council launch new FOI system in aim to become more transparent

    You may be familiar with WhatDoTheyKnow, our website which simplifies the process of making a freedom of information request.

    mySociety also provides the underlying software as a service for councils: it sits on the council website, templated and branded to fit their site’s style. When someone submits a request, it goes directly into the council’s own back-end processes.

    Just like WhatDoTheyKnow, the system publishes all requests, and their answers, online. This helps the council show a commitment to transparency – it also has the effect of cutting down on duplicate requests, since users can browse previous responses.

    Brighton and Hove Council are the first council to implement the software.

    Now, ordinarily, when we sign off a new project for a client, we write up a case study for our blog. But this time, we were delighted to read an interview by Matt Burgess on FOI Directory, which has done all the hard work for us.  With Matt’s permission, we are reproducing the piece in full.

     BrightonCouncil FOI system

     

    The number of Freedom of Information requests public authorities receive is generally rising and central government dealt with more requests in 2012 than in any year since the Act was introduced. One council has decided to try and open up access to their requests using custom software from mySociety. 

     

    Brighton and Hove City Council have implemented a custom version of the popular WhatDoTheyKnow website where more than 190,000 requests have been made.

    The council hope it will allow others to easily browse requests that have been made and make them more accountable.

    We spoke to council leader Jason Kitcat about why the council decided to implement the new system – which was soft-launched at the beginning of November.

    Why did you decide to implement the new system?

    JK: I personally, and we collectively as a Green administration, believe passionately in openness and transparency. That’s the primary motivation. So digital tools to support making it easier for citizens to access council information I think are strongly in the interest of our city and local democracy.

    We also were seeing an increase in the number of FOI requests, many of them similar. So using a system like this helps people to find the information that’s already published rather than submitting requests for it, when it’s actually already been published.

    How does it work?

    JK: It’s a customised version of the mySociety WhatDoTheyKnow site, delivered by mySociety for us in the council’s branding. It allows anyone to submit their FOI request in a structured way through the web and others can see the requests and any responses. The requests are linked in with the main WhatDoTheyKnow site to help further reduce duplication of requests and enable consistent commenting.

    Behind the scenes it also offers workflow management to assist the council team who are responding to the requests.

    What benefits will the system have to those answering and making FOI requests?

    JK: It opens up the process, helps others to see what is going on even if they aren’t making requests themselves. Particularly important is that it by default puts requested information out there on the web without any more effort by the council or those making the requests.

    Were there any obstacles in setting the system up and how much did it cost the council?

    JK: Obstacles were mainly stretched resources within the council to prepare for the changed workflow, making sure our information governance was ready for this and that our web team could support the minor integration work needed.

    Given this is a web-based ’software as a service’ offering it’s pretty straightforward to implement in the grand scheme of things. I don’t have the final costs yet as we’ve been doing some post-launch tweaks but, as is the way with nimble organisations like mySociety, I think pricing is very reasonable.

    Do you think it will improve the council’s performance in responding to FOI requests and make the council more transparent to the public?

    JK: Yes absolutely. Not only will the council’s FOI performance be more publicly accountable but I’m hoping we can reduce duplicate requests through this so that our resources are better focused.

    Would you say it has been worth creating and why should other public authorities follow suit?

    JK: Yes it’s worth it. I think we as councils have to be ever more open by default, use digital tools for transparency and relentlessly publish data. I believe this will result in better local democracy but also is one of the ways we can truly challenge cynicism in the whole political system.

    N.B.: The website current shows a large number of requests that appear to be unanswered. We asked about these and it includes the number of historic requests that were loaded into the site.  
    ————————————
    Many thanks to Matt of FOI Directory for allowing us to reproduce this interview in full.
  10. FixMyStreet: aligned with your council’s aims

    Weekend This Way by Dennis Skley

    When we built FixMyStreet in 2006, our primary focus was to create a tool for citizens. We wanted to make it easy, quick, and effective to report street problems, even if the user had no prior knowledge of where their reports should go. And while the tool obviously had to work for the councils who were receiving reports, it never crossed our minds to research, or try to key into, prevailing council strategies.

    But over the last few years, and to the benefit of both sides, council strategy has become strongly aligned with several of the qualities that FixMyStreet was founded on. The development of our specialised software, FixMyStreet for Councils, cemented that further, based, as it is, on consultation with local authorities.

    If your current strategy focuses on any or all of the following points, then FixMyStreet is extremely well-positioned to help you.

    Channel shift

    UK local authorities are fully aware of the channel shift theory by now: put reporting online, make it self-service, and see efficiency rise while costs fall.

    It sounds simple, but it hinges on one important factor – you have to get the reporting interface right. Otherwise, all those hassle-free online transactions turn into irate residents on the phone, seeking help.

    Citizen engagement

    On first impressions, many assume that FixMyStreet is just a public platform for grumbling – so it can be quite a surprise to discover that it often has the opposite effect. By allowing everyone to see what the problems are in their own community, it provides a platform for engagement, debate – and, sometimes, solutions.

    FixMyStreet is a superb tool for councils who are looking for ways to encourage residents to take a stake in their own communities.

    Usability

    Any council web team worth its salt will be anxious to maximise usability across the website. FixMyStreet was designed with the user at its heart: from minimising the number of clicks it takes to make a report, to making sure that every step is as easy and comprehensible as possible.

    Transparency

    Modern society is demanding transparency across a vast array of organisations, not least government. By putting a record of every report online, FixMyStreet helps you fulfil those demands. And there are side benefits, too.

    First, FixMyStreet brings previously ‘hidden’ work into the open, allowing your residents to understand the degree and quantity of work you do on their behalf.

    And second, having reports online allows citizens to see at a glance whether their problem has already been reported, thus cutting down on duplicates – and saving you time.

    Lowering costs

    FixMyStreet is efficient when used on a desktop; it also works very easily on mobile devices, meaning that your residents help you crowd-source information. You’re effectively multiplying your inspection capabilities by a factor of hundreds, and your residents become your ‘eyes and ears on the ground’, as one of our client councils has said.

    Find out more

    Drop us a line now and we’ll get right back to you.

     

    Image credit: Dennis Skley (cc)