Over the last few months, we’ve been working with Hackney Council to design and make a Freedom of Information management system, imaginatively named FOI For Councils — and last time we left you with our pre-development thoughts. Well, now it’s up and running.
With this project, we had two main aims:
- first, to make the process really slick and easy to use for citizens;
- second, to reduce the quantity of FOI requests submitted, relieving some pressure on the Information Officers at the receiving end.
The solution we came up with achieves both those aims, and there’s one feature in particular that we’re super-excited about.
Case Management Integration
One of the development decisions taken early on was for the system to be a very lightweight layer, largely powered by the new Infreemation case management system that Hackney were in the process of commissioning.
Infreemation is targeted primarily at Information Officers, so there was no use in reinventing the wheel and building a heavy backend for our own FOI for Councils software.
Instead we built the FOI request process, using our experience in designing for citizens, and submitted the data directly to Infreemation using their API. This means that every request goes straight in to the case management system used by Information Officers, with no need for double entry; a set-up we’re very familiar with from our work integrating council systems with FixMyStreet.
Information Officers respond to the FOI request through Infreemation, and when they publish the response to Infreemation’s disclosure log, FOI for Councils can pull that response into its innovative suggestions engine, which we’ll discuss shortly.
All this means that Information Officers get to use the tools that are designed directly with them in mind, but citizens get the best experience possible for the process at hand, rather than trying to battle the typical generic forms offered by one-size-fits-all solutions.
On the user side of things we managed to reduce the process to a maximum of 6 screens for the entire process.
Throughout the whole user journey we ask for only three details: name; email address and then the actual request for information.
Each screen provides contextual help along the way, maximising the chances that the FOI request will be well-formed by the time it gets submitted.
Making the process intuitive for the people using it is a key factor in building citizens’ trust in an authority. Too often we see complex forms with terrible usability that almost seem designed to put people off exercising their rights.
So far, so good. But for us, the most interesting piece of the process is the suggestions step.
Before the citizen submits their request to the authority, we scan the text for keywords to see if anything matches the pool of already-published information.
If we find any matches, we show the top three to the citizen to hopefully answer their question before they submit it to the authority. This helps the citizen avoid a 20-day wait for information that they might be able to access immediately. If the suggestions don’t answer their question, the citizen can easily continue with their request.
Suggestions also benefit the authority, by reducing workload when requests can be answered by existing public information.
We’ve tried to make this suggestions step as unobtrusive as possible, while still adding value for the citizen and the authority.
The suggestions system is driven by two sources:
- Manually curated links to existing information
- The published answers to previous FOI requests
The curated links can be added to the suggestions pool by Information Officers where they spot patterns in the information most commonly requested, or perhaps in response to current events.
The intelligent part of the system though, is the automated suggestions.
As FOI for Councils integrates with the Infreemation case management system, we can feed the suggestion pool with the anonymised responses to previous requests where the authority has published them to the disclosure log.
By doing this the authority is making each FOI response work a little harder for them. Over time this automatic suggestion pool should help to reduce duplicate FOI requests.
FOI for Councils also analyses the number of times each suggestion is shown, clicked, and even whether the suggestion has prevented any additional FOI requests being made.
This allows Information Officers to see which information is being asked for, but where existing resources aren’t providing the information necessary to the citizen.
We’ll be keeping a keen eye on how this works out for Hackney, and we’ll be sure to report back with any insights.
As you’ll know if you read our first blog post from this project, we did originally envision a platform that would process Subject Access Requests as well as FOI. In the end this proved beyond the resources we had available for this phase of work.
For us, this has been a really instructive piece of work in showing how authorities can commission process-specific services that connect together to give everyone a better user experience.
If you’re responsible for managing FOI requests or data protection in your own public sector body and you’d like to talk about project in more detail, please get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Lincolnshire County Council is the latest authority to adopt FixMyStreet Pro as their official reporting system — and we’ve never even met them.
We’ve installed FixMyStreet for many councils up and down the UK, and until now, traveling to the council’s offices has always been an expected part of the procedure.
But for Lincs, the entire project was managed virtually — and it all went without a hitch.
That’s not just our opinion: let’s hear from one of the folk at the other end of our online video calls. Andrea Bowes, ICT Data and Information Systems Architect at the authority, says:
The whole implementation process, from start to finish, has been incredibly smooth.
Lincolnshire found out about FixMyStreet Pro via G-Cloud, and emailed us to arrange a chat. A couple of months later, with the help of email, Skype and Basecamp, their FixMyStreet instance was ready to roll out!
mySociety are, of course, well used to working remotely, since that’s how our entire organisation is set up, but it’s good to see that we can bring our experience in this area to cut down travel costs, maximise the time available, and get installations rolling, all without feeling that we’ve missed out on the personal touches.
After all, thanks to online video calling, you can be in those council offices to all intents and purposes, sharing your screen, answering questions and getting to know one another. The only thing we missed out on was a chance to check out Lincoln Cathedral!
Just as with Buckinghamshire Council, featured on this blog last week, Lincolnshire’s FixMyStreet will also display scheduled roadworks. That ensures that no-one’s time is wasted with reports of issues that are already on the fix list.
And there’s some more integration going on behind the scenes, with FixMyStreet working in harmony with Lincolnshire’s existing infrastructure management system, Confirm.
Speaking practically, that means that FixMyStreet reports drop directly into the workflows the council staff are already familiar with. It’s a time-saver and a money-saver too — and it also ensures that residents can easily be kept up to date about the progress of their reports as they go through the resolution cycle. If you’d like to understand more about this, our developer Struan recently wrote a good, simple blog post on the whole topic.
You’d perhaps think that all this fiddling with different systems to make them communicate with one another would be a long, drawn out job — but fortunately not. Back to Andrea:
I approached mySociety in early May to replace our existing online fault reporting system which was to be switched off at the end of that month, and since we’ve engaged them, they have bent over backwards to help get the new fault reporting portal ready.
So much so that in a matter of a few weeks we had a test site up and running and integrated with our central asset management system, and several weeks later we now have a live fault reporting system that can be accessed from anywhere on any device, that is fully integrated into our central asset management system, that displays local data for users to report against.
The platform makes it easier for our citizens to report faults to us and receive updates and alerts, and provides us with more accurate information to work with.
So, in short, there are wins all round: a nice easy-to-use interface for residents; time and cost savings for the council; and there’s even a nice benefit for us here at mySociety as well. Confirm is a very popular system amongst UK councils up and down the land, so this was a great opportunity to showcase just how well it can work in tandem with FixMyStreet Pro.
And we couldn’t be happier to know that Lincolnshire are so happy, too:
mySociety have been fantastic. I cannot praise them enough; it has been a delight to work with them. They have been very responsive and fully supportive throughout the whole implementation process.
Our most recent improvement to FixMyStreet means that users in Bromley will experience some clever routing on their reports.
It’s something quite a few FixMyStreet users have requested, telling us that they’d reported a street issue in London, only to have a response from their authority to say that it was located on a ‘red route‘ — roads which are the responsibility of TfL rather than the council.
Of course, most councils have systems set up so that they can easily forward these misdirected reports to the right place, but all the same, it wasn’t ideal, and added another step into a reporting process we’ve always tried to keep as simple and quick as possible.
Thanks to some development for Bromley council, we’re now glad to say that within that borough, reports on red routes will automatically be forwarded to TfL, while other reports will be sent, as usual, to the relevant council department.
As a user, you don’t have to do a thing (although you can see this automated wizardry in action by watching changes in the text telling you where the report will be sent, as you click on the map in different places and select a different category – give it a go!).
Note that this functionality has not yet been extended to the FixMyStreet app; however in the meantime it will work if you visit fixmystreet.com via your mobile browser.
A new layer
As you’ll know if you’re a frequent FixMyStreet user, the site has always directed reports to the right UK council, based on the boundaries within which the pin is placed.
And equally, even within the same area it can discern that different categories of report (say, streetlights as opposed to parking) should be sent to whichever authority is responsible for them: that’s an essential in a country like the UK with its system of two-tier councils.
So this new innovation just meant adding in a map layer which gives the boundaries of the relevant roads that are designated red routes, then putting in extra code that saw anything within the roads’ boundaries as a new area, and TfL as the authority associated with road maintenance categories within that area.
FixMyStreet has always been flexible in this regard: you can swap map layers in or out as needed, leading to all sorts of possibilities. Yesterday, we showed how this approach has also averted one common time-waster for councils, and the same set-up is behind the display of council assets such as trees and streetlights that you’ll see for some areas on FixMyStreet.
The integration of red routes is available for any London Borough, so if you’re from a council that would like to add it in, get in touch. And to see all the new innovations we’re working on to make FixMyStreet Pro the most useful street reporting system it can be, check out the website.
Image: Marc-Olivier Jodoin
Seen a pothole or a broken paving stone? Great, the council will want to know about that… well, usually.
Buckinghamshire County Council’s version of FixMyStreet now shows where there are pending roadworks — alerting you to the fact that you may not need to make a report, because it’s already in hand.
When reports are a waste of time
In general, councils appreciate your FixMyStreet reports: their inspectors can’t be everywhere, and often they won’t be aware of a problem until it’s reported.
But there are some reports that won’t be quite so welcome.
If the council is already aware of an issue, and in fact has already scheduled a repair, then sad to say but your report will be nothing more than a time-waster for both you and the council.
Fortunately, there’s already a comprehensive service which collates and displays information on roadworks, road closures and diversions, traffic incidents and other disruptions affecting the UK road network, from a variety of sources — it’s called Roadworks.org.
Just like FixMyStreet, Roadworks.org generates map-based data, so it correlates well with FixMyStreet.
But we don’t want to clutter things up too much, so you’ll only be alerted to pending roadworks when you go to make a report near where maintenance is already scheduled.
At that point, you’ll see a message above the input form to tell you that your report may not be necessary:
Of course, you can still go ahead and make your report if the roadworks have no bearing on it.
We were able to integrate the Roadworks.org information like this because Buckinghamshire have opted for the fully-featured ‘Avenue’ version of FixMyStreet Pro. This allows the inclusion of asset layers (we’ve talked before about plotting assets such as trees, streetlights or bins on FixMyStreet) and the Roadworks.org data works in exactly the same way: we can just slot it in.
We’re pleased with this integration: it’s going to save time for both residents and council staff in Buckinghamshire. And if you’re from another council and you would like to do the same, then please do feel free to drop us a line to talk about adopting FixMyStreet Pro.
Header image: Jamie Street
A big welcome to Rutland, the latest local authority to adopt FixMyStreet Pro as their street fault reporting platform. If you’re a resident of what has been described as the UK’s prettiest county, we hope that you’ll enjoy using FixMyStreet to keep it that way.
You can make your reports on the council’s site here, or if you’re already used to the main FixMyStreet. com website or via our mobile app, you’ll find that all reports go into the same central database, and can be seen in all three places.
As a resident, all you need to know is that it all works, but councils — especially those using the Salesforce CRM — will be interested to know that behind the scenes there have been some interesting tweaks.
How it looks in Salesforce
Salesforce is a very common CRM, in use across many councils as well as countless other businesses and organisations, so this integration stands as a useful proof of concept when it comes to FixMyStreet integration.
For Rutland, FixMyStreet reports now drop directly into Salesforce, from where they can be allocated to the Highways team. Click on any of the images below to see them at a larger size.
Staff now have the choice of updating reports within Salesforce, or, if they prefer (as many do), through the FixMyStreet admin interface.
This is our first Salesforce integration, and it was made possible through the use of an API, developed by Rutland’s own tech team. At our end, all we had to do was write the code to integrate with it, and boom, two-way communication.
Even better, any reports made through other means can be pulled from Salesforce and into the FixMyStreet system: so a council staff member inputting reports from, say, an email report or phone call can input it into the interface they’ve always used.
We’re delighted to add Salesforce to the list of CRMs FixMyStreet Pro has integrated with. If you’re from a council and would like to find out more, pop over to the FixMyStreet Pro website where you’ll find case studies, pricing, an interactive demo and the chance to join one of our regular online chats.
If you visit FixMyStreet and suddenly start seeing spots, don’t rush to your optician: it’s just another feature to help you, and the council, when you make a report.
In our last two blog posts we announced Buckinghamshire and Bath & NE Somerset councils’ adoption of FixMyStreet Pro, and looked at how this integrated with existing council software. It’s the latter which has brought on this sudden rash.
At the moment, you’ll only see such dots in areas where the council has adopted FixMyStreet Pro, and gone for the ‘asset locations’ option: take a look at the Bath & NE Somerset installation to see them in action.
What is an asset?
mySociety developer Struan explains all.
Councils refer to ‘assets’; in layman’s language these are things like roads, streetlights, grit bins, dog poo bins and trees. These assets are normally stored in an asset management system that tracks problems, and once hooked up, FixMyStreet Pro can deposit users’ reports directly into that system.
Most asset management systems will have an entry for each asset and probably some location data for them too. This means that we can plot them on a map, and we can also include details about the asset.
When you make a report, for example a broken streetlight, you’ll be able to quickly and easily specify that precise light on the map, making things a faster for you. And there’s no need for the average citizen to ever know this, but we can then include the council’s internal ID for the streetlight in the report, which then also speeds things up for the council.
So, how do we get these assets on to the map? Here’s the technical part:
The council will either have a map server with a set of asset layers on it that we can use, or they’ll provide us with files containing details of the assets and we’ll host them on our own map server.
The map server then lets you ask for all the streetlights in an area and sends back some XML with a location for each streetlight and any associated data, such as the lamppost number. Each collection of objects is called a layer, mostly because that’s how mapping software uses them. It has a layer for the map and then adds any other features on top of this in layers.
Will these dots clutter up the map for users who are trying to make a report about something else?
Not at all.
With a bit of configuration in FixMyStreet, we associate report categories with asset layers so we only show the assets on the map when the relevant category is selected.
We can also snap problem reports to any nearby asset which is handy for things like street lights as it doesn’t make sense to send a report about a broken street light with no associated light.
Watch this space
And what’s coming up?
We’re working to add data from roadworks.org, so that when a user clicks on a road we’ll be able to tell them if roadworks are happening in the near future, which might have a bearing on whether they want to report the problem — for example there’s no point in reporting a pothole if the whole road is due to be resurfaced the next week.
Then we’ll also be looking at roads overseen by TfL. The issue with these is that while they are always within a council area, the council doesn’t have the responsibility of maintaining them, so we want to change where the report is going rather than just adding in more data. There’s also the added complication of things like “what if the issue is being reported on a council-maintained bridge that goes over a TFL road”.
There’s always something to keep the FixMyStreet developers busy… we’ll make sure we keep you updated as these new innovations are added.
From a council and interested in knowing more? Visit the FixMyStreet Pro website
We often talk about how FixMyStreet Pro can integrate directly with council’s existing systems, and how doing so can help councils be more efficient — but what exactly does that mean in practice?
Let’s take a look at our two most recent FixMyStreet Pro installations. Both B&NES and Buckinghamshire councils use the same asset management system, Confirm, and it gives us a great example of how FixMyStreet Pro’s ability to ‘communicate’ with such systems will make everything a whole lot easier for residents and for council staff, even with two very different types of local authority.
Saving time and effort
FixMyStreet has always provided the resident with an easy interface through which to file a street report. For many councils, however, such reports arrive in an email inbox and then have to be forwarded to the right location or typed into the council’s CRM, all adding to the sum total of time and effort dedicated to each report.
Now, using the Confirm API, Bucks and B&NES councils can access and work on FixMyStreet reports through Confirm’s standard ‘inspector module’, removing any need for this extra step.
Optionally, the information flow can go both ways, and indeed this is the case for both B&NES and Buckinghamshire councils. What this means is that for example, when an issue has been inspected and council staff change its status (perhaps from ‘report received’ to ‘repair underway’), this status change will be passed back to FixMyStreet, automatically syncing with the site, and notifying the report-maker with the update — again removing another mundane task from customer services staff.
If a highways inspector should come across a new issue while they are out and about on their rounds, they can raise an issue in Confirm just as they always would have. But now, that will also create a report on FixMyStreet which residents can view, keeping everyone up to date and ensuring that reports aren’t made about issues that the council already know about.
FixMyStreet Pro also allows for council administrators to create template responses — an invaluable timesaver when responding to one of the more common situations such as “issue identified and prioritised” or “issue now fixed and closed”. While Confirm also has its own template responses, FixMyStreet Pro offers more flexibility, as the same template can be reused across multiple report categories and status types. Buckinghamshire really saw the benefit of this: they were able to reduce the number of templates in use from around 450 to 46.
Assets such as streetlights, grit bins and gullies can be pulled through from Confirm and overlaid on the map. This makes it significantly easier for both residents and staff to locate and report issue, speeding up the issue resolution time — we’ll be delving more deeply into this in our next blog post, with a few more technical details for those who are interested.
Residents in these areas can make reports on the councils’ own websites, where they’ll find FixMyStreet as the street fault interface — or through the main FixMyStreet website and app. Whichever you choose, your reports will be published in all three places.
So far, so convenient for residents — but behind the scenes, there’s lots more going on that improves the efficiency of the whole fault-fixing cycle.
Both councils are users of the Confirm CRM system, with which FixMyStreet Pro can now be fully integrated. What that means in practice is that when you make a report, it drops directly into the council’s existing workflows, with no need for someone in the middle to retype or redirect your report.
Council staff can use the best of both systems’ useful tools for shortlisting, inspecting and updating the status of your issues — and when a report has been progressed to the next stage of the fixing cycle, you’ll be automatically kept up to date both by email, and with messages posted directly to your report page.
In another advance, both councils are now displaying assets such as bins, trees and adopted highways in context-sensitive areas of the report-making journey, so it’s easy to identify exactly which one you’re talking about when you make your report. That saves time for you, and for the council when they go out to fix it .
If you’re interested in the technical details, we’ll have more about both Confirm integration and asset layers in future blog posts.
FixMyStreet sends users’ street reports to councils across the UK.
But if you’re one of the staff that receives these reports, you might sometimes wish for more insights: which issues are most commonly reported in your area? What’s a bigger problem, dog fouling or potholes? How quickly do reports get fixed, and how does this compare with other councils’ performance?
To make it easy to discover the answers to all these questions, we’ve just rolled out a new stats dashboard on FixMyStreet — and it’s free to access if you work for a council.
Council staff can now view and download information that answers questions such as:
- How many FixMyStreet reports have been made in your area across various time periods?
- How many reports have been made in each category?
- What are the average times between reports being made and being marked as fixed, and how does this compare to other councils?
- Which categories of report are most common within your area?
- Which categories of report does FixMyStreet send to your council, and which email addresses does it use?
From this exclusive area, you can gain a more in-depth understanding of how FixMyStreet is being used in your area, while also getting a taste of the fuller functionality available with FixMyStreet Pro.
So, if you work for a council, head over to the dashboard page now, and start exploring.
This is part II in a series of blog posts about our work with Hackney Council to conduct a discovery and prototyping project to improve the public-facing parts of information request processes. Read the first part here.
With our experience of running WhatDoTheyKnow and Alaveteli, we’re big believers in the importance of information transparency laws in our democratic system. But at the same time, we understand the operational challenges of meeting the statutory requirements of these laws for public bodies.
The challenges of dealing with information requests
While many local authorities have dedicated information governance staff whose job it is to manage requests, finding and compiling the information is often done by hard-pressed staff within services, fitting in information-related work around their core responsibilities.
Requesters sometimes have the expectation that information is all carefully organised in a few databases, ready to be aggregated and extracted at the click of a button. In reality, the degree to which information is well-organised varies a lot between services in a council and between different councils, often because of procurement decisions and departmental priorities stretching back many years.
Working with Hackney Council
We’re part way through our project with Hackney Council that Mark wrote about a few weeks ago, helping them redesign the public-facing parts of their FOI and Subject Access Request (SAR) services, so we’ve seen these challenges up close. We’ve also seen how they can be made even trickier by legacy IT systems that are no longer fit for purpose.
— Rob Miller (@RobMiller31) February 28, 2018
At our ‘show and tell’ last week with Hackney, we shared findings from some of the research we’ve done, along with early prototypes of potential new FOI and SAR submission forms, both created collaboratively with Hackney Council staff.
Prototyping with the GDS toolkit
We decided to go straight from sketches to HTML-based prototypes for this project. We thought that moving in-browser with real interactive elements would make it easier to test out some of the more complicated interactions and conditional workflow of the SAR process in particular.
Prototyping is about quickly testing hypotheses, and not getting bogged down in implementation details. So it was a pleasure to use the GDS frontend toolkit to build our prototypes. Not only did the GOV.UK toolkit help us build something relatively rich in just a few days, but it also meant we benefited from GDS’s previous work on design patterns developed for exactly this kind of context.
Using public information to reduce FOI requests
When submitting a request via WhatDoTheyKnow, users are automatically shown previously submitted requests that might answer their question, and we know that almost 10% of requesters have a look at these suggestions in more detail.
As you can see here, we took this pattern from WhatDoTheyKnow, and enhanced it further in our FOI prototype.
Now, as well as prompting with previous FOI responses from a disclosure log that we’re hoping to build, we also want to include relevant links to other topical or frequently requested information, drawn from other data sources within the council.
If we can get this to work well, we think it could have a number of benefits:
- Helping the person submitting the FOI get their answer more quickly
- Reducing the number of requests that would otherwise have been sent to the council
- Encouraging more proactive, structured publishing of data by the council.
It’s this last point which we’re really interested in, longer term. We think using a common sense technology approach to highlight possible answers to FOI requests before they are made will get people answers more quickly, reduce the burden on responders, and reinforce efforts to proactively release commonly requested data leading to real transparency benefits.
We’ve been doing usability testing of these prototypes over the last few days, and will be looking very closely at whether our assumptions here stand up to scrutiny.
Reducing back and forth around SARs
Given our background, we’re inevitably very interested in the FOI component of this project, but the Subject Access Request component is no less important. And while there’s none of the same opportunity for pre-emptively answering people’s requests, there’s plenty of scope for making the submission process a lot smoother.
A valid FOI is just a written request and some contact details, but the information needed for a SAR to be valid is much greater and more complicated. For example, along with the specifics of the request, a solicitor asking for personal information on behalf of a parent and their 16-year old child would have to provide proof of ID and address for both family members, a letter of consent from the child, and a letter of authority from the parent, confirming that the solicitor is acting for them. Even the most straightforward SAR calls for the handling of personal data and confirmation of the requestor’s identity and address.
Given all this complexity, it’s easy for there to be a lot of back and forth at the start of a SAR: clarifying a request, asking for documents, arranging receipt of documents, and so on.
We’re hoping to build something that makes it much clearer to the person making the request what they’ll need to do, thereby taking some of that responsibility off the shoulders of the team managing the requests.
The sketch above was our first crack at something that could handle (most of) this complexity, and we’ve made a number of changes since then as our understanding of it all has increased.
Recruiting representative users to test SAR submission has proved challenging and wasn’t helped by the Beast from the East rearing its snow-covered head. But we changed tack and successfully ran some guerilla testing in Hackney’s service centre last week, and we’re hoping to do further testing later in the project that has more chance of benefiting from contacts cultivated by individual services.
Changing the conversation
The conversation around information requests often focuses on the burden of responding. And although the number of information requests local authorities receive is unlikely to decrease any time soon, we’re hoping that through our collaboration with Hackney, we can make handling them a whole lot easier.
If we do it well, we think we could eliminate a lot of the process issues created by poorly-designed legacy systems, while baking in a fundamentally more open and transparent way of operating that has the potential to benefit both citizen and state alike.
If you’re responsible for managing FOI requests or data protection in your own public sector body and you’d like to follow this project in more detail—or if you’d like to participate in some of the discovery work—then please get in touch at email@example.com.
Image: Sarah Palmer-Edwards