It’s a question which periodically arises from our users: why aren’t mySociety (and our Freedom of Information site WhatDoTheyKnow) subject to the FOI Act?
We can see why this is an obvious question to ask. We run a site which makes it easier for people to uphold their right to information from governmental bodies. We are quick to criticise if we feel that those bodies are not adhering to the law. And if you don’t follow the standards you set for others, you’re a hypocrite, right?
But it’s also a question which fundamentally misunderstands the scope of the law, and the purpose of WhatDoTheyKnow. Since it came up again recently, we thought we’d answer it in a public blog post, so we can link here whenever it gets asked again in the future.
The recurring question
Here’s the question as it was posed in the comments to our recent post on proposed governmental FOI restrictions:
As My Society is committed to the importance of FOI, isn’t it about time your parent charity voluntarily acted as if you were subject to the Freedom of Information Act?
Well, what would you like to know?
We invited the commenter to ask us anything he would like to know, and he did so:
Please can you elaborate on the reasons why your parent charity or WDTK decided not to voluntarily become subject to FOI?
Don’t you think that it undermines your arguments in favour of FOIA if a website which is promoting the legislation decides not to voluntarily be more transparent, rather than just sticking to minimum legal requirements for charities?
In response to your offer to deal with a request for information, please can you provide:
1. the maximum fee which has been charged to an individual council for Fix My Street and which council it was;
2. the minimum fee which has been charged to an individual council for Fix My Street and which council it was.
3. all the councils which have purchased Fix My Street in the last year (to facilitate making FOI requests to them).
Here’s the answer
We responded as follows:
Strictly speaking, it is impossible to voluntarily become subject to a law which covers public authorities, if you are not yourself a public authority. However, we are interpreting this question to mean “why do you not allow members of the public to request information about your work?”
The simple answer to that is: we do. As an organisation, mySociety is in favour of transparency. We advocate for it in other organisations, and we try to practice what we preach within our own, to a much further extent than is required by law.
For example, the development of all our projects1 is conducted in public on Github, where anyone may track the conversations and issues that arise. Our website and blog both include frank content about our funding and user numbers; our published research reveals facts such as our user demographics, even where we’ve found that they paint a disappointing picture.
Another way to interpret your question might be, ‘Why is mySociety (or WhatDoTheyKnow/our parent organisation UKCOD) not included on WhatDoTheyKnow as a body to which you may address questions in public?’.
WhatDoTheyKnow.com is a site which was conceived to make it much easier for members of the public to use their right to hold the government accountable. Charities are not government bodies and do not fall under the scope of the FOI Act, and so when this question has arisen (as it occasionally does in conversation or by the request of a user) our answer has always been that including them is not part of our remit and would, in fact, reduce the value of the site by muddying its primary purpose.
[Note that, as a charity, our accounts are audited and published in line with the Charity Commission’s rulings.]
Of course, like most mySociety projects, the source code is publicly available for anyone to pick up and use, so if anyone wished to initiate a similar project which put questions to charities or any other type of body, they are free to do so.
We can’t answer that bit, though
We were just about to provide the financial details asked for, when we realised that a couple of our contracts specifically forbade us from doing so.
Unlike us, the local authorities for whom we provide services are subject to FOI, so full details of the contracts and other details can be found out by requesting the information from them. Typical wording in a contract states that we’ll do everything necessary to aid any FOI requests the councils receive about our services.
Here’s how we answered the final two questions, then:
a. the maximum fee which has been charged to an individual council for Fix My Street and which council it was; b. the minimum fee which has been charged to an individual council for Fix My Street and which council it was.
The terms of some of our contracts with councils explicitly state that we must not disclose this information; however, as previously indicated, you may contact each council under the terms of the FOI Act; they are listed below in response to your final question together with a link to their profile on WhatDoTheyKnow should you wish to make an FOI request.
At this juncture, we think it is worth mentioning that the costs for installing and maintaining FixMyStreet for Councils (which are laid out here) are very reasonable when compared to those charged by the giants in local government provision. Seven or eight times more reasonable in some cases.
Additionally, we encourage the use of the Open311 standard, which means that councils aren’t locked in to FixMyStreet forever, or solely. Once the Open311 endpoint is installed, other systems can easily connect.
Ah, but we can help you access that information
b. All the councils which have purchased Fix My Street in the last year (to facilitate making FOI requests to them).
Note that these are already listed on https://www.fixmystreet.com/reports (any council where we note a council URL below the FixMyStreet link). Additionally we provided a bespoke version of the FixMyStreet software to the city of Zurich.
Taking “the last year” to be 1 November 2014 to the present date, and taking “purchased” to mean “have given us money for anything FixMyStreet-related”, our clients are:
Annual support fee charged for existing installation:
Stevenage Borough Council (on WhatDoTheyKnow)
Oxfordshire County Council (on WhatDoTheyKnow)
Hart District Council (on WhatDoTheyKnow)
Bromley Borough Council (on WhatDoTheyKnow)
East Sussex County Council (on WhatDoTheyKnow)
Warwickshire County Council (on WhatDoTheyKnow)
New work done on existing installation:
Oxfordshire County Council
Warwickshire County Council
Zurich City Council
Scoping work done so that they could build their own Open311 integration:
Camden Borough Council (on WhatDoTheyKnow)
So there you go: that’s how we answered this particular request for information. We hope that, in doing so, we’ve also cleared up a few points for others who have wondered the same thing.
1In fact, this should have read ‘nearly all our projects’. Internal codebases (eg for our organisational sites) and some commercial codebases (eg Mapumental) are private.
We’ve recently made a few small changes to FixMyStreet. Nothing new there; we’re often tweaking things to make FixMyStreet more usable. Except, these changes weren’t our own idea: they were based on feedback from a council.
Oxfordshire County Council, who use FixMyStreet for Councils as their main fault reporting system, requested these features, which are now available to all client councils (and which, in two cases, are now also benefiting users on our own FixMyStreet.com):
Much easier, especially in some of the very report-dense areas of the country.
Different coloured pins
But Oxfordshire spotted an opportunity to make things a little clearer. Where a council has opted for full integration, FixMyStreet can automatically update the status of reports as they go through the fix cycle.
So why not reflect these statuses on the colours of map pins? Red, green and grey pins now indicate problems that are fixed, unfixed or closed. See for yourself how this looks on the Oxfordshire website:
When you go to report your problem on FixMyStreet, you can zoom in and out of the map and pan it around until you find exactly the right spot in which to place your pin. There was just one thing, though: while the streets and other map features got bigger and smaller as you zoomed in or out, the pins remained the same size.
Not any more! Now, in one of those ‘you probably don’t notice it but it does make things easier’ moves, pins shrink and expand at the same rate as the map:
Expanded userbase = more insights
Several councils around the country use FixMyStreet as the main problem-reporting system on their own websites—so if you report a problem on the Stevenage, Oxfordshire, Bromley or Warwickshire council websites (among others) you may find the interface very familiar.
There are obvious benefits for us in supplying FixMyStreet as software for councils—not least that the revenue goes to support our charitable work! But cases like this highlight a more subtle benefit: with the increased userbase, and with the additional council administrators who are actually thinking about the FixMyStreet experience at any one time, we gain valuable insights into its usability.
Where we can, we’ll make the changes for our clients, and, if desirable, we can push the same code onto the main FixMyStreet.com site.
That benefit goes two ways: equally, improvements we make to FixMyStreet are generally available on FixMyStreet for Councils. So, those frequent tweaks we talked about at the beginning? They get rolled out for our clients, too.
The winner in all of this is the user, which is just as it should be.
If you’re from a council and would like to know more, please visit our FixMyStreet for Councils page.
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.
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.
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 Council and the city of Zurich 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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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:
- 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.
Keep a note of your password, as you will need it whenever you want to edit your site.
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.
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.
2. You can paste, or type, your content directly into the box marked “text”.
In 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.
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:
– and click on any one of those icons to see just their speeches:
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:
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.
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.
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:
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)
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?
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.
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.
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
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:
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:
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.
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!