1. FixMyStreet: Why do some areas report more than others?

    I’m just a few weeks into my position of Research Associate at mySociety and one of the things I’m really enjoying is the really, really interesting datasets I get to play with.

    Take FixMyStreet, the site that allows you to report street issues anywhere in the UK. Councils themselves will only hold data for the issues reported within their own boundaries, but FixMyStreet covers all local authorities, so we’ve ended up with probably the most comprehensive database in the country. We have 20,000 reports about dog poop alone.

    Now if you’re me, what to do with all that data? Obviously, you’d want to do something with the dog poop data. But you’d try something a bit more worthy first: that way people won’t ask too many questions about your fascination there. Misdirection.

    How does it compare?

    So, starting with worthy uses for that massive pile of data, I’ve tried to see how the number of reports in an area compares against other statistics we know about the UK. Grouping reports into ONS-defined areas of around 1,500 people, we can match the number of reports within an area each year against other datasets.

    To start with I’m just looking at English data (Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have slightly different sets of official statistics that can’t be combined) for the years 2011-2015. I used population density information, how many companies registered in the area, if there’s a railway station, OFCOM stats on broadband and mobile-internet speeds, and components from the indices of multiple deprivation (various measures of how ‘deprived’ an area is, such as poor health, poor education prospects, poor air quality, etc) to try and build a model that predicts how many reports an area will get.

    The good news: statistically we can definitely say that some of those things have an effect! Some measures of deprivation make reports go up, others make it go down. Broadband and mobile access makes them go up! Population density and health deprivation makes them go down.

    The bad news: my model only explains 10% of the actual reports we received, and most of this isn’t explained by the social factors above but aspects of the platform itself. Just telling the model that the platform has got more successful over time, which councils use FixMyStreet for Councils for their official reporting platform (and so gather more reports) and where our most active users are (who submit a disproportionate amount of the total reports) accounts for 7-8% of what the model explains.

    What that means is that most reasons people are and aren’t making reports is unexplained by those factors. So for the moment this model is useful for building a theory, but is far from a comprehensive account of why people report problems.

    Here’s my rough model for understanding what drives areas to submit a significantly higher number of reports to FixMyStreet:

    • An area must have a problem

    Measures of deprivation like the ‘wider barriers to housing deprivation’ metric (this includes indicators on overcrowding and homelessness) as well as crime are associated with an increase in the number of reports. The more problems there are, the more likely a report is — so deprivation indicators we’d imagine would go alongside other problems are a good proxy for this.

    • A citizen must be willing or able to report the problem

    Areas with worse levels of health deprivation and adult skills deprivation are correlated with lower levels of reports. These indicators might suggest citizens less able to engage with official structures, hence fewer reports in these areas.

    People also need to be aware of a problem. The number of companies in an area, or the presence of a railway station both increase the number of reports. I use these as a proxy for foot-traffic – where more people might encounter a problem and report it.

    Population density is correlated with decreased reports which might suggest a “someone else’s problem” effect – a slightly decreased willingness to report in built-up areas where you think someone else might well make a report.

    • A citizen must be able to use the website

    As an online platform, FixMyStreet requires people to have access to the website before they can make a report. The less friction in this experience makes it more likely a report will be made.

    This is consistent with the fact that an increased number of slow and fast home broadband connections (and fast more than slow ones) increases reports. This is also consistent with the fact that increased 3G signal in premises is correlated with increased requests.

    Reporting problems on mobile will sometimes be easier than turning on the computer, and we’d expect areas where people more habitually use mobiles for internet access to have a higher number of reports than broadband access alone would suggest. If it’s slightly easier, we’d expect slightly more – which is what this weak correlation suggests.

    Other factors

    Not all variables my model includes are significant or fit neatly into this model. These are likely working as proxy indicators for currently unaccounted for, but related factors.

    I struggle, for instance, to come up with a good theory why measures of education deprivation for young people are associated with an increase in reports. I looked to see if there was a connection between an area having a school and having more reports on the basis of foot-traffic and parents feeling protective over an area – but I didn’t find an effect for schools like I did for registered companies.

    So at the moment, these results are a mix of “a-hah, that makes sense” and “hmm, that doesn’t”. But given that we started with a dataset of people reporting dog poop, that’s not a terrible ratio at this point. Expanding the analysis into Scotland and Wales, analysing larger areas, or focusing on specific categories of reports might produce models that explain a bit more about what’s going on when people report what’s going wrong.

    I’ll let you know how that goes.

    Image: Dave_S (CC-by/2.0)

  2. Something in the middle: how Bristol connects

    This year, Bristol Council did something unusual and admirable. As far as we’re aware, they’re the first UK council to have taken such a step.

    Working with mySociety on custom Open311 ‘middleware’ while adopting FixMyStreet as their fault-reporting system, they now enjoy full flexibility, no matter what the future holds.

    Thanks to this open approach, Bristol will extract more value from their existing systems and lower operating costs. With integrated, open solutions, and the raised quality of report formatting that Open311 brings, everyone will benefit.

    Improving flexibility

    Councils are increasingly understanding the value of flexibility when it comes to service providers.

    Contracts that lock them into a single provider for many years mean that, often, there’s no opportunity to benefit when technology advances, and disproportionate costs can be charged for implementing the slightest changes.

    This desire for flexibility was a strong factor in Bristol City Council’s decision to adopt FixMyStreet for Councils — and that opened the door for a conversation about Open311.

    We’ve always advocated integration via Open311, to the extent that we offer free hook-up with FixMyStreet to any councils who support it.

    Because Open311 is an open standard, it supports the entire landscape of providers like FixMyStreet. Right now, Bristol can accept street fault reports not just from us, but from a full range of services — in other words, any site or app that cares to connect with them can do so. No-one knows what the future will hold: if a game-changing system emerges in the future, it makes sense that you’d be able to accept its reports.

    All well and good: but when Bristol City Council implemented FixMyStreet as their fault-reporting system, the concept was taken a little bit further. With our collaboration, Bristol created their own Open311 ‘middleware’, sitting between the two systems and talking to both.

    Via this method, their existing CMS, Confirm, can hook up to reports coming through from FixMyStreet. That all works smoothly — but, just as importantly, if Bristol ever decide to replace their CRM provider, they’ll be able to do so with no knock-on effect to FixMyStreet reports. And if they ever decide to replace FixMyStreet with a different provider, or indeed to accept reports from a range of providers, they can do that too.

    Bristol found us via the GCloud procurement system, and are the first metropolitan unitary authority to install FixMyStreet.

    Future plans

    Bristol launched its FixMyStreet service to the public in the summer of 2016.

    This autumn, they added asset-based reporting, meaning that known council properties such as streetlights, grit bins and gullies are all marked on FixMyStreet’s maps. Residents can pinpoint and report the location of faults with these assets far more accurately as a result.

    There’ll be a phased rollout across departments, starting with Highways and moving across departments as Bristol extend their own middleware. We’ll be watching with great interest.

    Find out more about FixMyStreet for Councils.

    Image: Adam Heath (CC by-sa/2.0)

  3. Making a difference in Norbury

    When we talk to the users of our sites, sometimes there’s no remarkable tale to tell — just a day-to-day story of how someone is making a small but persistent positive change in their community.

    Every month, around 7,500 people use FixMyStreet to help improve their neighbourhoods: getting potholes fixed, making dangerous pavements safer, or — as in the case of Van Tri Nguyen from Norbury, requesting the removal of unsightly rubbish and fly-tipping.

    As Mr Nguyen told us, he first heard about FixMyStreet at a local association meeting.

    “In front of my house there is a big park. It’s frequented by a lot of people, and particularly at night a lot of things happen there — and mountains of litter are left behind.

    “Rubbish accumulates, not inside the park but on the road in front of it — just opposite my house! People just dump stuff from their car windows. There are three lime trees which I often find decorated around their base with rubbish, on average once a fortnight, but sometimes as many as three or four times a week.

    “Once fly-tippers came and left an entire truckload of stuff. This road really is just a dumping ground, and while Croydon Council are aware of the problem, no-one has been brave enough to take a grip and get it sorted out.

    “I reported the eyesore, both on FixMyStreet and to Croydon Council. I believe that when reports are published online, the council may feel some kind of pressure and ashamed.

    “The results have been good. Right now, the road is reasonably clean.”

    We’re sure that Mr Nguyen will continue to be the good citizen who takes action and reports rubbish as it reoccurs. He’s telling others, too:

    “I’ve already spread the word to people who seem to care about the environment where they live.”

    Some before shots

    rubbish 515877.0.full 537977.0.full DSCF0400

    And after

    DSCF0473 DSCF0474

    All images: Van Tri Nguyen

  4. A New Future for FixMyStreet for Councils

    Work for a council? Tell us what you need

    We’re making some pretty big improvements to the FixMyStreet for Councils service at the moment: improvements that will save councils both time and money, while giving them flexibility and insights into their fault report handling.

    This has been our core focus over the last six months, working with our customers to design a new category of case management system, for local government, and by local government.

    We’ve been working together with local authority insiders because they’re the people who know best what they require from a piece of software they will use every day.  If you also fall into that category, we’d love to hear from you.

    We’ll be sharing early iterations of the improved service as we make progress. Your feedback will be part of that process, helping shape a service that does everything you need it to do.

    As we add these new case management features, we’ve set three core principles:

    • To lower the operating cost of highways, parks and streets management by improving the user experience for all involved, from residents to council staff
    • To change the relationship between local government and providers like Skanska, Veolia et al from direct management and instruction, to one of monitoring and oversight
    • To treat the asset management system as a data repository for asset information, not a case, customer or works management solution

    If you are from a local council and you would like to find out more, or you would like to provide feedback on early prototypes, help with user testing and become a part of our development process, we would love to hear from you.

    Those who want to find out more about obtaining FixMyStreet for Councils can do so by checking out our page on the Digital Marketplace.

    Image: Highways Agency (CC by 2.0)

  5. Photo upload and progressive enhancement for FixMyStreet

    FixMyStreet has been around for nearly nine years, letting people report things and optionally include a photo; the upshot of which is we currently have a 143GB collection of photographs of potholes, graffiti, dog poo, and much more. 🙂

    For almost all that time, attaching a photo has been through HTML’s standard file input form; it works, but that’s about all you can say for it – it’s quite ugly and unfriendly.

    We have always wanted to improve this situation – we have a ticket in our ticketing system, Display thumbnail of photo before submitting it, that says it dates from 2012, and it was probably in our previous system even before that – but it never quite made it above other priorities, or when it was looked at, browser support just made it too tricky to consider.

    Here’s a short animation of FixMyStreet’s new photo upload, which also allows you to upload multiple photos:

    For the user, the only difference from the current interface is that the photo field has been moved higher up the form, so that photos can be uploading while you are filling out the rest of the form.

    Personally, I think this benefit is the largest one, above the ability to add multiple photos at once, or the preview function. Some of our users are on slow connections – looking at the logs I see some uploads taking nearly a minute – so being able to put that process into the background hopefully speeds up the submission and makes the whole thing much nicer to use.

    Progressive enhancement

    When creating a new report, it can sometimes happen that you fill in the form, include a photo, and submit, only for the server to reject your report for some reason not caught client-side. When that happens, the form needs to be shown again, with everything the user has already entered prefilled.

    There are various reasons why this might happen; perhaps your browser doesn’t support the HTML5 required attribute (thanks Safari, though actually we do work around that); perhaps you’ve provided an incorrect password.

    However, browsers don’t remember file inputs, and as we’ve seen, photo upload can take some time. From FixMyStreet’s beginnings, we recognised that re-uploading is a pain, so we’ve always had a mechanism whereby an uploaded photo would be stored server side, even if the form had errors, and only an ID for the photo was passed back to the browser so that the user could hopefully resubmit much more quickly.

    This also helped with reports coming in from external sources like mobile phone apps or Flickr, which might come with a photo already attached but still need other information, such as location.

    Back in 2011, I wrote about how FixMyStreet maps are progressively enhanced, starting with a base of HTML image maps and layering on the normal slippy map experience on top. This has always been the way I have worked, and adding a snazzy JavaScript photo upload was no different.

    mySociety designer Zarino used dropzonejs to supply the “pop”™, and this works in a nicely easy-to-progressively-enhance way, hiding existing file input(s) and providing fallbacks. And with the behaviour the site has had since 2007, adding the server side element of this new photo upload was actually very straightforward – receive a photo and return its ID for a snippet of JavaScript to insert into the hidden form field of photo ID that has always been there in case of form error. No need to worry about how to match up the out-of-band photos with the main form submission, it’s all already taken care of. If the JavaScript doesn’t or can’t work for whatever reason, the old behaviour is still there, using the same mechanisms.

    Of course there were edge cases and things to tidy up along the way, but if the form hadn’t taken into account the user experience of error edge cases from the start, or worse, had assumed all client checks were enough, then nine years down the line my job would have been a lot harder.

    Anyway, long story short, adding photos to your FixMyStreet reports is now a smoother process, and you should try it out.

  6. Report those winter problems with FixMyStreet

    Who needs a calendar? If we want to see the seasons passing, we just check what’s being reported on FixMyStreet.

    In these dark winter days, issues like broken streetlights become a lot more of a concern. There’s an increase in potholes, as frost damage plays its part. And our users are quick to let councils know if road-gritting has been inadequate on icy days.

    It’s enough to make us nostalgic for spring and summer’s reports of overgrown footpaths, smelly bins, and barbecues left smouldering in parks.

    Over the last year, across the seasons, you’ve sent more than 160,000 FixMyStreet reports to councils across the UK. October was responsible for more than 12,000 of them — a 20% rise on the same month last year.

    We hope those numbers will keep rising — after all, each of them is potentially a problem solved. So, if you’ve spotted the beginnings of a pothole, or a streetlight that needs mending, don’t forget to let your council know, on FixMyStreet.

    Image: Phil Holker (CC)