1. Patent Oppositions: re-igniting a campaign for fairer access to drugs

    Last year, we blogged about the work we did for Médecins Sans Frontiers, suggesting improvements for their Patents Oppositions Database.

    Need a quick recap? Two things you should know:

    1. When medicines are re-patented, it prevents the development of generic versions. One company retains the monopoly, and costs remain high, where otherwise the generics would have provided a cheaper option.
    2. Médecins Sans Frontiers support those who challenge patents in court by providing resources, such as arguments which have previously succeeded in similar cases, via their Patents Oppositions Database site.

    As we explained in our last post, it was clear to MSF that while the idea of the Patents Opposition Database was sound, it relied on active take-up from community members — members who were often too busy to engage in a site that was anything less than simple and inviting.

    That’s when they came to us, first for consultation, and then to put our suggestions into action. It’s exactly the sort of work we enjoy: it potentially changes lives, and it involves using good design and coding to do so.

    Getting to the bottom of things

    MSF had a good idea of why their site wasn’t enjoying the kind of take-up they’d hoped for, and in that initial phase we were able to confirm this through research.

    As we talked directly to a number of the site’s users, and gave the site a rigorous analysis ourselves, we found some recurring frustrations:

    • It was difficult to find content
    • While there was patent information from a variety of sources, linking it together was a chore
    • People weren’t contributing to the site because it took too long to do so
    • There was no feeling of community, so users didn’t feel a strong compulsion to help one another

    And that pretty much brings you up to speed with where we were last time we blogged this project. Since then, we’ve been beavering away on making improvements.

    How do you encourage community?

    People tend to look at community as a nebulous concept: all the more so with online communities, where success is often seen as a coincidental factor rather than one that you can foster.

    But for this project, it was clear what to do. And the site has the odds stacked in its favour: visitors have a very strong motivation to contribute, so we just needed to make that as simple as possible.

    We worked on two broad areas: the site’s design, and some new core functionality.

    New design that removes barriers

    • The first thing to do was to ensure the site met modern standards, breaking down any impediments to participation. It’s now responsive (ie it displays well on any size of screen), clear, and accessible.
    • Then we made sure that, when visiting the homepage, it was obvious what to do next. This was achieved with a prominent search function, and some clearly signposted ‘next steps’.
    Patent Oppositions Database homepage: before (left) and after (right)

    Homepage: before (left) and after (right)

    • We wanted to reward people and organisations for playing an active part, so we created profile pages which highlight their activity.
    • Documents are the mainstay of the site, so they’re now highlighted as the main resource on any pages where they’re relevant. We also tidied up the way they were being stored, so they’re consistent across the board.
    • We tackled that user frustration and made sure that patent data from sources such as WIPO and EPO were cross-referenced and brought together.

    New functionality that fosters participation

    • Users can now view and mark up documents right on the site, and then share what they’ve discovered with other users, thanks to the ‘add an annotation’ function.
    What an annotation looks like on the Patent Oppositions Database

    Making annotations is really simple

    • We created an email alerts service, drawing on our experience running TheyWorkForYou, which sends out thousands of alerts to people tracking topics in Parliament. This kind of alerting system is great for bringing people back to the site at their own convenience. So now, when there’s a new case concerning a specific drug, anyone with an interest in that drug will receive an email. If someone leaves a note on one of your annotations, you’ll know about it too.
    • Search is absolutely crucial to the site, so we implemented a powerful new search facility which can look through not just the site’s own pages, but the documents it hosts, too. We added filtering tools to give the user more control over what they see.
    Patents Opposition Database search before and after

    Search, before (left) and after (right)

    • Advanced users can also obtain search results in a standardised csv format for download, so they can be used for their own reporting, or even as a data source for other sites.
    • We created a new ‘call for help’ service, so users can ask the community to contribute to a patent opposition. These become touchpoints across the site, where users are urged to help if they can.
    A call for help on the Patent Opposition Database

    Need some help? Put the call out.

     

    What’s next?

    Our improvements were presented at the AIPPI (International Association for the Protection of Intellectual Property) World Congress, and the new site is now live at www.patentoppositions.org.

    Of course, we’ll be keeping an eye on its performance, and until April we’ll be refining and tweaking until we know that the much-needed community is up and running happily.

    Image: Taiyo Fujii (CC)

     

  2. Well what do you know? It’s a new look for WhatDoTheyKnow

    Our FOI site WhatDoTheyKnow has a fancy new frontage.

    Coming hot on the heels of TheyWorkforYou’s new homepage, the fresh look is part of our rolling process of design improvements. Out goes the rather sober grey and burgundy colour scheme, and in comes a fetching cobalt blue paired with banana yellow.

    As you might have guessed, though, there’s more to this than a new palette. Yes, in the fast-changing world of web design, fashions change and dated sites can run the risk of looking irrelevant—but we are also keen to ensure that any new design works for its keep.

    Not just a pretty face

    It’s important, when we invest time and resources into a redesign, that there are tangible improvements. So, like almost everything we do these days, the changes will be subjected to scrutiny from our Research team.

    They’ll be checking that we’ve:

    • Improved the site’s usability, making it more obvious how to browse or file FOI requests;
    • Encouraged users to take the step of making an FOI request, even if the concept is a new one for them;
    • Enabled people to understand what the FOI Act is, and what rights it confers.

    That’s a lot to expect from a simple redesign, so let’s take a look at how we hope to achieve it.

    The title

    Of course, the first thing visitors see is the title text. It may seem pretty simple, but, as anyone who writes will know, the shorter the sentence, the harder it is to get right.

    Take it from us, this deceptively simple piece of copy represents quite a bit of anguished brainstorming:

    title

    It tries to distill a complex idea into something that absolutely everyone can understand, even if they’ve never heard of FOI before. Meanwhile, the subtitle highlights your legal right to information.

    The count

    Alaveteli, the software this and many other FOI sites around the world are built on, has always included two figures on its sites’ homepages: the number of requests that have been made through the site, and how many public authorities it has contact details for. The image below displays WhatDoTheyKnow’s stats at the time of writing:

    count

    It’s a nice way of showing that the site is both useful and used, but there’s something else, too: when users see that other people have taken an action online, they’re more likely to take the plunge themselves. It’s the same thinking that informed our byline on WriteToThem: “Over 200,000 messages sent last year.”

    How it works

    The homepage now includes a simple graphic to show the path you can expect to take if you go ahead and file an FOI request on the site:

    howitworks with link

    Breaking the process down into just three steps makes it look manageable, and there’s a link deeper into our help pages for people who want to understand the FOI Act better.

    For those who prefer to browse

    Some content remains the same. We’ve still included links to the latest successful requests—albeit lower down the page, so as not to distract from the page’s main message, that you can make a request. These show, more graphically than any piece of copy could, that you can get results:

    successfulrequests

    They’re also a great way into the site for people who just want to browse: they are a random assortment of requests that have recently been marked as successful, and can often throw up some surprising and interesting subject matter.

    Sharing the benefits

    Provided that we discover that the design has been effective in the areas mentioned above, we hope to roll it out as an option on the wider Alaveteli codebase, so it can be implemented by anyone running an Alaveteli site.

    Meanwhile, the open source code can be accessed on Github by anyone who would like to use it.

  3. Design Thinking and Freedom of Information in Liberia

     

    cropped FOI Bong County

     

    Last year Dave Whiteland wrote about our first experience of using design thinking in creating the specification for a Freedom of Information Project in South Africa.

    For those of you unfamiliar with the design thinking approach, it is worth me providing a little context (borrowing heavily from Dave’s text).

    The design thinking way

    Traditionally mySociety has built international digital projects by working closely with our local partner to define a specification.  We then build to this specification and seek to continually improve it . We perform usability tests, we apply A/B testing, and we think hard about what our analytics tell us. The problem is that much of this is reactive, iterative design: it’s being applied after the core product has already been built.

    Design thinking challenges this approach by suggesting that the user on which initial designs are often based is purely imaginary. As a result, the site inevitably includes the assumptions and prejudices of its creators. This won’t necessarily lead to a bad design — especially if the creators are benign and experienced — but it must fail, by definition, to account for the unexpected things that may motivate or concern actual users. The design thinking process attempts to change this by approaching the initial problem in a prescribed way and following a process that isolates genuine, existing requirements. This includes, in design thinking terms, processing the initial interviews into empathy maps from which requirements emerge, and which themselves become features that are rapidly prototyped in isolation from other parts of the system.

    Our commitment to the process

    mySociety is dedicated to maximizing the impact of its projects by tailoring solutions to the local context. As part of this, we have committed to only carrying out new large-scale international digital projects where we can follow these design principles.  One challenge with this approach is that, unlike traditional projects, we are unable to provide funders with a clear description of what the project will deliver.  At the start of the process the tools that will be built and the processes and infrastructure that will surround them are unclear.  Furthermore, all this prototyping and piloting adds to the time these projects take to complete.

    In Making All Voices Count we were incredibly fortunate to find a funder who was not only undeterred by these concerns but actively appreciated the value of the approach.  Earlier this year they awarded us a scaling grant to work for a two-year period on a Freedom of Information project in Liberia.

    On the ground in Liberia

    Last week the project team met up in Monrovia to start the design process. Our partners on the project are the iLab Liberia and Public Works at Stanford, an offshoot of the d.school which focuses on applying design thinking to governance in the developing world. The staff working on the project are Luther Jeke, Carter Draper and Teemu Ropponen (Ilab); Jenny Stefanotti  (Stanford); and Paul Lenz, Dave Whiteland and Jen Bramley (mySociety).

    So what does this actually entail? Briefly, it first involves meeting with a large range of different stakeholders, users and potential users and building up an understanding of their current behaviours, their needs, challenges and perspectives.  We interviewed more than 20 people, including the Information Minister, the Independent Information Commissioner, investigative journalists, Public Information Officers, FOI NGOs and community groups.

    Each day we would break down our notes from these interviews into things said, thought, done or felt, and group them by type of stakeholder.  This is a very active and visual process, resulting in sheets of paper being covered in hundreds of Post-It notes.

    2014-07-25 12.20.35

    In working through this process it became clear to us that there were a number of common issues.  Firstly, while the FOI law in Liberia is legally very strong, in practice adherence is pretty poor – partially due to simple process failures, and perhaps sometimes due to willful avoidance.  Secondly, despite significant resources being invested in “sensitising” (educating) citizens about the law, very few FOI requests have ever been made by individual “average” citizens; rather they have been submitted by NGOs, journalists and activist groups.  These two finding might not be hugely surprising, but others were perhaps less obvious.  For example, almost without exception, the Public Information Officers that we met were deeply proud of their work and wished the FOI law was used more; even though the law allows for electronic or phone call requests to be made in reality each request must be hand-delivered, hard copy, and a receipt obtained; finally, even skilled and experienced investigative journalists can end up spending years chasing requests through a Kafkaesque bureaucracy that takes advantage of the requester’s ignorance of the detail of the law.

    The next stage, that we are really only just starting, is to identify some approaches that might address these issues, and then to find a way to attempt to prototype the solutions.  To save time and cost and in order to enable maximum flexibility these prototypes often take a “Wizard of Oz” approach – human intervention in lieu of building a technical platform to trial.  An example would be rather than building an SMS gateway that interfaces with a computer system the prototype relies upon a person simply receiving the SMS on their phone and typing it into a form.

    The week was incredibly intense and rewarding driven by Jenny’s fantastic energy in overseeing the whole process, and the great commitment and engagement from the iLab team – particularly given the developing situation with Ebola while we were there.

    Freedom of Information: really?

    You might ask: given the infrastructure, income and health challenges facing Liberia , does FOI really matter? Is it perhaps a right to be addressed when more essential needs have been met? Are people even worried about being able to request information from their representatives, due to the other factors at play?

    I can make no more compelling case in response than one that was made to me by one of our interviewees:

    “Liberia went to war over the mismanagement of natural resources in our country.  FOI can help hold people to account and stop it happening again”

     

  4. What we’re doing on TheyWorkForYou

    Image by William WarbyLast week we asked what  improvements you’d like to see on TheyWorkForYou. Thanks so much for all the comments on that post (do keep them coming). They’ve all been carefully documented on our development list.

    Our standard way of working on a project like this is in ‘sprints’ – short periods of activity after which we can spend some time reflecting on what went well, and what could have gone better.

    This system is great for ensuring that we don’t get involved in a large piece of work, only to realise that it doesn’t do what was intended, or hasn’t had the desired effect. So, for example, if we’ve added a new feature, we might be asking ourselves, ‘Is anyone using it?’, ‘Have there been any bug reports?’, and ‘Has it fulfilled our original aim?’. We’re striving to be as analytical and methodical as possible about these assessments, so part of the process has also been figuring out which types of metrics to collect, and how.

    That said, what have we already done?

    It’s easier to find a specific representative

    Where previously our pages listing all MPs, all MSPs and all MLAs just contained one very long list of names that you had to search or scroll through, there’s now an A-Z navigation at the top. We also added the ability to find your own MP from this page.
    AZ navigation on TheyWorkForYou

    Why? This is an example of a small usability tweak which should make a difference to a large number of people – not everyone knows how to search a web page with Ctrl+F. It’s also a fix that’s been on our to-do list for two years!

    The addition of the ‘find your MP’ box helps to serve one of our core aims: to make democracy easy to understand for the uninitiated.

    We’ve added ‘like’ and ‘follow’ buttons

    social media buttons on TheyWorkForYouWe thought you might not notice these discreet additions to our page footers – but we’ve certainly seen an upturn on the rate at which people are ‘liking’ our Facebook page. Whereas Twitter – not so much. Maybe TheyWorkForYou users are just more Facebook-inclined?

    Why? In part, this addition is for our own benefit – we welcome the opportunity that social media gives our users to spread the word. As a small organisation with no advertising budget, this kind of grass roots promotion is invaluable. Then, we are hoping that it will help us to understand our users. Clicking that ‘like’ button can be seen as a form of positive affirmation and enagement that it’s very hard to quantify by other means.

    We are still considering the addition of  buttons which would allow you to share specific debates with your social circles.

    We have noted the comments on our last post which made it clear that some of our users do not welcome integration with social media. That’s fine – we’ll never do anything that excludes you from the core activities of the site, whether you use Facebook and Twitter or not – our intention is simply to provide the functionality for those who want it.

    Those comments have been a useful reminder to us that we should continue to consult our users, because we can’t always predict what you might object to!

    You can change your email address

    If you have an account, now you can change your email address yourself.

    Why? This was identified as a common request that often puzzled users, and took up support time on our side.

    MPs’ pages will look better

    You can’t see these yet, because they’re still in progress. Due to some quirks of the code in which the site was originally built, the new design for the MPs’ pages has taken longer to implement than we’d anticipated. But we’re getting there.

    Why?  MPs’ pages contain an awful lot of information, from voting history to recent appearances, and more. The redesign will help us present all this information more clearly, making the page just as easy to read on a mobile device as it is on a desktop, and simply bringing the (frankly, dated) pages a more current look.

    Bullets are bullets

    alert for kittens on TheyWorkForYouThis is almost ridiculous, but we think it was worth attending to. In recent user tests, we noticed some confusion, caused by the fact that our bullet points were in the form of small squares – they were frequently mistaken for check boxes.

    Why? Just to rid the world of that one small piece of frustration that occurs when you try to tick a box that is not, in fact, a checkbox.

    What now?

    As I say, we are still actively collecting and working on your feedback, so please do keep it coming. Comment below this post, or drop us a line on hello@mysociety.org. I’ll be reporting back after our next sprint.

    Photo by William Warby (CC)

  5. Who uses FixMyStreet?

    We hope that’s a question that is hard to answer, since FixMyStreet was built for everyone – or rather, anyone who wants to report a street problem to their council. Computer whizz or internet newbie, one-off reporter or serial council communicator, FixMyStreet is for you.

    All the same, we wanted to chat to someone who uses FixMyStreet regularly, to find out more about how they see the site, and whether it makes a difference. So…

    Meet Steve, from Exeter.

    Steve’s been using FixMyStreet almost since it launched, in March 2007:

    FixMyStreet user Steve LeeI’m not sure how I heard about it – it’s lost in the mists of time, but it was pretty soon after it went public.  I see from your archives that I first reported a problem in July 2007, but I’m sure I knew about it before then.

     

    As a board member for Schoolforge I was always searching for UK open source projects for education, and that’s probably where I came across it initially.

    FixMyStreet can be used to report any street problems to the council – it’s most commonly used for potholes, broken streetlights, fly tipping, etc. But every user has their own concerns. What does Steve tend to report?

    It’s usually road-related, as I used to push /walk the kids to school when they were young, and I cycle around a lot.

     

    So potholes, traffic lights not responding to bikes, broken street lights, bad signage, low hanging vegetation… I think I reported a crop of Japanese knotweed once.

    You did! Here it is. And have the issues been fixed?

    Many have, according to your archive. I reckon that using FixMyStreet helped raise the priority, but you never know – and that’s fine. I like to think that reports come to attention of the relevant people more quickly when you put them online where everyone can see them.

     

    Also, when you see an issue in the neighbourhood, it’s easy to assume that someone else has reported it, but as it’s so easy to ping off a report with FixMyStreet, there’s no excuse not  to play your part as a citizen.

     

    I appreciate that there’s no need to find the relevant council department, website, or whatever. Just point your browser at FixMyStreet, type in a location, click on the map and type in the problem. Sorted.

     

    Plus if others have used it to report the same issue, you’ll see straight away.

    Steve’s noticed an improvement in the way that councils interact with FixMyStreet reports.

    I can’t vouch for how fast they get fixed, but at least I usually get an email response from the council to acknowledge receipt.

     

    These have improved over the years too, indicating that the council have sorted their processes to better incorporate FixMyStreet reports.

    Does Steve ever browse FixMyStreet to see what has been reported in his local area? Or subscribe to email alerts?

    Very rarely, but it is interesting to see what’s been going on. When you report a problem, the process shows you issues that have already been reported in the same area, so you don’t need to browse first as a separate step.

    And some final thoughts…

    It’s well thought out and easy to use. I especially appreciate that I don’t have to create an account as a first step to reporting a problem: more sites should use a lazy login like this. FixMyStreet has slowly improved over the years; the most noticeable thing is the improved maps.

     

    Also, it’s open source and that is important for such civic software. I don’t know if you get much open development with others contributing, but I do suspect that others use the code.

    Yep, they sure do. FixMyStreet Platform is the place to look for that activity, where there’s also a link to our mailing list. The most significant contributions come from people in other countries who are setting up their own version – FixMyStreet in Norway, for example.

    Thanks very much to Steve for telling us about how he uses FixMyStreet. 


    This post is part of a mini-series, in which we’ll be chatting to people who regularly use mySociety’s websites.

  6. How to identify local government services for digital transformation

    Over the last 6 months or so, mySociety has been doing increasing amounts of work with local councils, not only helping them with problem reporting and online petitions, but also advising them on the impact of digital by default and how changing customer expectations are affecting digital service provision. To paraphrase Tom, for an ever-increasing number of customers, “local councils don’t have websites, local councils are websites”.

    More specifically, we’ve been helping councils use user-centred techniques to kick-start the process of digital transformation: taking existing services that cause unnecessary frustration, figuring out how they should work for the customer in an ideal world, identifying the process changes needed, and helping make them happen.

    How do you know where to start?

    Most consultancies in this area will publicise their patented 5-step approach, or shower you in platitudes about talking to users and involving service managers, but I thought it would be more useful to walk through in detail what we actually do on a project like this. In this post, I’m going to describe only the first step (I’ll talk about others in future posts): given all the stuff that councils do, how do you know where to start?

    Clearly, not every council service is susceptible to digital transformation. If you work in children’s services or benefits advice, your service is more likely to rely on cups of tea and conversation than on your website. But there are high volume transactions that involve exchanges of information or of money that do not, or rather *should not*, require any human intervention. Unfortunately, because of mistakes in how websites are structured and processes organised (that often go right back to decisions about management structure and procurement priorities), unnecessary demand is placed on contact centres.

    What are your users trying to do?

    So if you want to know what mistakes you’re making with your online presence, the first place you should look is the volume of calls to your contact centres and what questions the callers are asking. Here’s a complete list of all the places you can look for useful data on what your customers are actually trying to do and what you might be doing wrong:

    • Contact centre logs: the records of what people who call you are actually asking about. This is the best place to look to identify the areas where your web presence is under-performing.
    • Internal site search terms: the things people type in most often in the search box on your website. Generally speaking, use of search on a website is an indicator that your navigation and page structure have failed. Therefore the search terms people use on your site are another very interesting indicator of things you’re not doing well enough.
    • Referring search terms: the most frequently used search terms that drive traffic to your website. What are people looking for and what words have they actually put in to Google (or indeed any other search engine) for to arrive at your website?
    • Popular pages: data on the most frequently visited pages and sections of your website doesn’t tell you what you should improve or how, but it does give you a feel for where the demand is.

    If you look at all of those things, you’ll have a lot of data to go through and make sense of. If you’re short on time, focus on the first one – it’s the juiciest source of insights.

    Talking to service managers

    Another approach we pursue in parallel to this one is to talk to a group of service managers and ask them for their opinions: if the decision on where we should focus our redesign efforts was up to them, what single thing should we start with that would make the biggest difference? How this actually happens in practice is that we get a group of people in a room together and ask them to write down (almost certainly on post-it notes) the top 3 – 5 services that they think are in need of a digital redesign. We then discuss and consolidate all of these before grouping them, trying to identify those that are the most susceptible to automation and where the complexity of the change needed internally is low enough to be approachable.

    Decision time

    The final part of figuring out where to start is to make a decision: which of these areas are you going to start redesigning first? You now have two sources of data on where to start: the results of your analysis of customer behaviour and the views of your employees who are closest to the action. Here we’ll make a recommendation, but leave the final decision to our council client: they know their organisation a lot better than we do.

    With a focal point for the transformation efforts decided on, so begins the daunting-yet-exciting task of researching and designing the changes to be made: the bit where you actually talk to users, make prototypes or mockups of what the service’s digital touchpoints should look like (no specification documents here please) and then figure out together what process changes need to be made for it all to work in practice. Which, of course, are the topics for future blog posts.

  7. How flood warnings should look online

    If you live anywhere in Britain, it won’t have escaped your attention that it’s been raining a bit, recently.

    This has been causing quite a bit of flooding. And when flooding happens, people need to know if it is going to affect them.

    Unfortunately, the Environment Agency flood warning website leaves something to be desired. It is, quite frankly, a usability dogs’ breakfast, with problems including:

    • It doesn’t answer the main question: Most users arriving at this page simply want to know if they might be in danger. The page should be all about answering that question.
    • It is trying to serve national and local needs: Information about flooding across the whole country might be useful to journalists or civil servants, but it shouldn’t be the main element.
    • Clutter, clutter: A massive grid of numbers which don’t really mean anything, plus lots of sidebar links.
    • Confusing graphics: The page contains a national map which doesn’t actually make it clear that the colours relate to the seriousness of flooding, or that it provides links to further content.

    There are also some non-design problems with the postcode lookup, but today we want to stick to just the design issues.

    Not just moaning minnies

    View Mockup

    At mySociety we try to be constructive in our criticism, and so whilst the flood waters are still draining from many people’s homes, we thought that we could do something positive. We want to show that a flood warning page could be an exemplar of clear, user-centered information design. So we made a mockup.

    Some of the improvements we’d like to point out are:

    • A big page title that makes it obvious what this page is, and the fact that it is official information.
    • All the main elements on the page are now focussed on the most likely needs of potential flood victims – journalists can follow a link to a different page for their needs.
    • We’ve removed roughly 90% of the links on the page for clarity.
    • We’ve removed all numerical data because it wasn’t adding value. Nobody can know if ‘5 warnings’ is a lot or a little without some context. As a nod to the overall context we’ve put in a simple graph, similar to a sparkline.
    • It presents a clear button to click on if you’re actually endangered by a flood.
    • It gives you a way to find out if other people near you are talking about local flooding via social media.

    We hope you like this. It’s just the product of a couple of hours’ work, so if you have any suggestions on how it could be better, please let us know.

    And, of course, we’re always happy to do similar work for other people.

  8. PetitionYourCouncil.com: making local council petitioning easier

    PetitionYourCouncil.com from mySociety

    [Note, November 2014: Petition Your Council has now been retired]

    Local petitions can be highly effective, and we think that making them easier to create is in the public interest. Many councils have petitions facilities buried deep within their websites,  most often, very deeply. In fact it brings to mind Douglas Adams’ quote about important council documents being “on display on the bottom of a locked filing cabinet stuck in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying ‘Beware of the Leopard'”.

    Our most recent mini-project is an attempt to make it as easy as possible to find your local council’s e-petitioning site, if they have one. PetitionYourCouncil.com (you’ll notice we stuck to our tried and tested format for site names, there) is a way of finding every council e-petitioning website we know about.

    Our original motivation for building the site was that we, along with other suppliers, have supplied online e-petitioning sites to numerous councils ourselves – it’s one of the ways in which we fund our charitable activities. Having delivered these sites, we later noticed that many of them are left under-used and in some cases, not used at all: only because people don’t know about them. We hate to think of councils spending money on a splendid resource that could be improving democratic processes for their citizens – and those citizens never knowing that they exist. In particular, we owe Dave Briggs thanks for pushing us into action with this blog post.

    And yes, in case you’re wondering, PetitionYourCouncil links to every council petitions site, not just the ones we made.

    The site was built by mySociety developer Edmund von der Burg using Django, jQuery, Google maps and Mapit, and like most mySociety projects, it’s open source. There’s a bit more detail on the About page. Please do try it out, and let us know what you think.

  9. ReportEmptyHomes.com vs. EveryHomeCounts.info

    Last month saw the launch of not one but two websites asking the public to report empty properties to the relevant council. First off the blocks was mySociety’s ReportEmptyHomes.com, commissioned by the Empty Homes Agency, followed shortly afterwards by EveryHomeCounts.info from a group of eight councils in Surrey and Hampshire. Since mySociety claims to want to show the public sector how to use the internet properly, I thought it might be interesting to compare the two sites, at least from a user’s perspective.

    I’m going to imagine I was walking down, say, Fosters Lane in Knaphill, Surrey, and I noticed that the house on the corner next to the chip shop was in a state of disrepair.* I snapped a picture on my mobile phone, and I want to send it to the council to see if they can do something about it.
    [*I ought to just add that this is entirely fictional. I’ve never been to Knaphill, I’ve no idea whether there’s a chippy on Fosters Lane, and even if there is, the house next to it probably belongs to a lovely couple. Please don’t go taking pictures of their house for the council.]

    So, first up: EveryHomeCounts.info. Clicking the big red reporting an empty property REPORTING AN EMPTY PROPERTY button takes me to a page of text telling me why the council might like people to report empty properties, although presumably if I’ve got as far as finding the website and clicking the big red button, I’m already convinced of the case. At the bottom of the text I’m invited to “click here” to report an empty property.

    On the next page I’m asked for… a whole load of personal information. I want to tell you about an empty house; do I really need to declare my title, first name, surname, house name, house number, street, locality, town, county, postcode, country, telephone number, and email address before doing so? Well, as it turns out, no — they only insist on an email address (although the single letter “f” was accepted as a valid email address).

    On to page four, and I’m finally asked for the address of the house. I suppose “house on the corner next to the chippy, Queens Road, Knaphill” would probably be enough for the council to identify it. But then — get this — they want me to tell them which borough council might be responsible for this address, so that the report can be sent to the right place! Unless I happen to live in that street, how would I know? Even if I could have an educated guess, it might be near a boundary, or just over a boundary… Leaving the field blank isn’t allowed, and there’s no option that says “I’m not sure, sorry” — I’m told in red ink that I must specify a council if I want to continue filing my report.

    Finally, I reach a screen that says at the top, “Thank you. You have reached the end of this form. blah blah” The second paragraph says, “What will happen next? The council will process your form. You will receive an email blah blah.” So, I pat myself on the back, turn off the computer and go for a walk. Except that if I’d scrolled down the page, I would have seen “submit” button, along with the “review” and “cancel” buttons. My form hasn’t been submitted, and I’ve wasted half an hour filling in a form that’s been thrown away.

    Now, what would have happened if I’d gone to ReportEmptyHomes.com instead?

    The top of the front page asks me for a postcode, street name or area. I enter “Fosters Lane, Knaphill” and hit enter. This brings up an Ordnance Survey map with Fosters Lane in the middle of it, and I click on the offending property. The text on the page immediately changes and tells me that this problem falls in the area of Woking Borough Council, and I’m asked for a description of the property, a photo if I’ve got one to upload, my name, email and phone number.

    Having filled in the information and clicked “submit”, I’m told to go off and check my emails, where I’ll find a confirmation link to click. This finalises the report.

    So, how do the two sites compare? The mySociety site certainly gets the user through the process quicker, and offers maps and photos to boot. It helps the user greatly by taking responsibility for finding the right council, and does so for the whole country too, not just for a couple of counties in the south. On the down side, one could question why it’s so important to verify the user’s email address before filing the report; waiting for a confirmation link by email adds an extra hurdle which will probably trip at least some users, so why do it?

    Also, EveryHomeCounts.info isn’t just for filing reports about empty homes; it contains information on buying, selling, owning and letting them too, providing ways for local people to perhaps make use of empty properties without enlisting the council’s help at all, which can only be a good thing.

    To be fair, the councils concerned should be applauded for taking the initiative to launch this service, and I hope it proves to be a worthwhile use of council tax money. It’s great to see public bodies using the internet in innovative ways to try to make concrete improvements in people’s immediate environment. It appears though that mySociety have shown that it can be done better, and for the whole country, and probably more cheaply to boot.

  10. A4 Insanity: Against the humble ‘One Pager’

    If you’ve ever worked in an office, especially in a large organisation, have you ever been asked, ‘just give me a page on that’? Yes? Often? Yes? Too often? If so, I hope the following observations are of interest.

    From one job to the next, requests to produce a ‘one pager’ have followed me around like a bad smell. A page on a policy idea, a page on why we should buy some bit of kit, a page on a website someone should build, a page outlining the contents of another document consisting of more pages.

    The motivations behind these requests vary, as do their levels of estimableness. At the virtuous end of the spectrum, I can understand the desire to be consise and not to impose too much (often un-remunerated) work on the recipient of the request. However, there are some things that are bad and wrong about the classic ‘one pager’ that I feel a need to share with the rest of the world.

    1. The one pager is inevitibly written as a Word document, and then attached to an email. This means that instead of simply getting the content you want from the mail you’ve just been sent,  you have to click to open the attachment, then wait for Microsoft Word to load. How many seconds a day around the world are being wasted like this? It makes me vaguely queasy when I start to do the sums in my head.

    2. The one pager attachment is in a proprietary data standard which assumes that the person at each end will have paid around £500 somewhere along the line for Microsoft Office. £500? Come on, people! That’s more than most of our computers cost, in this case being deployed for a text editing purpose that could have been achieved equally well on a tiny-brained 80s electric typewriter. I’m not saying Office is a bad piece of software, merely that using it to bang out a few hundred words on an A4 page is like using the Manhatten project to crack a walnut.

    3. The one pager attachment is by definition an attachment and therefore not universally addressable on the internet. It doesn’t have a URL, in short, and public, non-sensitive one pagers can’t be found in Google by default, unless someone goes a long way out of their way to upload them.  And not having URLs make things incredibly easy to lose, and harder to share across commes networks that don’t treat attachment so nicely (text messages, anyone?).

    4. A one pager is by definition a page of paper. It doesn’t move. It might just possible have un-fetching bright blue links in it, but because it’s probably going to be printed out, it won’t normally have much linking embedded. They can’t contain YouTube videos, or widgets. This insistance on an electronic way of sending a paper format message is quite simply a way of saying “please don’t use state of the art presentational methods, they’re just for the little people on the outside of my organisation. We all know paper is really still king and will be until after I’m dead”

    5. There is no discoverable context to a single one pager, except what’s written in it. I can’t find a list of related files. I can’t find how it changed over time. I can’t find who contributed what. I can’t find what people are saying about it in the Netherlands. I can’t reformat it easily to view on my phone, or be read to my via my headset. I can’t hit a key to record a version of me reading it out loud to video, and share that instead. I can’t do anything much except print it out and add to the world’s daily tree massacre.

    Still, why am I complaining about the one pager, rather than any other piece of organisational cruft? Why pick on something so innocent?

    The answer is precisely because it is often those things that look the most innocent that do the most damage. After all, it’s just a little tube of tobacco that makes people get through the day…