1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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…

  4. Mozilla and Ubuntu have an opportunity (and a duty) to unlock the cognitive surplus

    There’s been a lot written recently about the cognitive surplus, a phrase coined by Clay Shirky to describe the amount of human energy that can be deployed to create things if only barriers are lowered and incentives sharpened.

    mySociety has recently been fortunate enough to see a little of this phenomenon through the explosion of volunteering activity which grew up around our TheyWorkForYou video timestamping ‘game’. For those of you not familiar, we needed video clips of politician’s speaking matched with the text of their speeches, and in just a couple of months a gang of volunteers new and old have done almost all of the video in the archive. Other, much larger examples include reCAPTCHA and the ESP game.

    Reflecting on this, my friend Tom Lynn suggested that there was a gap in the market for a service that would draw together different crowdsourcing games, ensure that their usability standards and social benefit were high, and which then syndicate them out in little widgets, recaptcha style, to anyone who wanted to include one on a web page.

    This is where Mozilla and Ubuntu come in. Anyone who uses Firefox knows what the home page is like, essentially the Google homepage with some Firefox branding. Ubuntu’s default browser homepage, post patch upgrade especially, is similarly minimalist and focused on telling you what’s changed.

    Therein lies the opportunity – using pieces of these default home pages (maintained by organisations that claim to have a social purpose, remember) for more good than simply repeatedly reminding users about the the brand of the product. Traditionally that would mean asking people to donate or become volunteers, but the new universe of ultra-easy crowdsourcing games are challenging that assumption.

    Here’s a scenario. One time in ten when I load Firefox, the homepage contains a widget right under the search box that contains an almost entirely self explanatory task that contributed to the public good in some way. This could be spotting an object on a fragment of satellite photo after a disaster, typing in a word that’s difficult to OCR, timestamping a video clip, or adding tags to an image or a paragraph of text. The widgets would be syndicated from the central repository of Cognitive Surplus Foundation ‘games’, and would help groups like Mozilla and Ubuntu to show themselves to millions of tech-disinterested users to be the true 21st century social enterprises that they want to be.

  5. The HM Revenue and Customs Website is Laughably Incompetent

    Warning, this is a personal view and I’m sure doesn’t reflect the views of the trustees or directors of yadayadayada. Actually, it probably does, but I’ve not checked because they’ve got grown up day jobs and stuff.

    Today is the 31st January 2008. That means all around the UK millions of people will be trying to pay their tax – it’s the last day before you start having to pay the government interest.

    Where do you go if you want to pay your tax then? How about the HM Revenue and Customs Website?

    Brilliant, there it is. Right…. now, erm…. hang on. How do I actually pay my tax? There’s no obvious button! In fact, the link to help you pay is below the fold on my browser, is in about 3 point text, being link number 8 in one of no fewer than 5 lists of links on the homepage. Once you click through the experience becomes even more unforgivably awful. In fact, I can’t actually bring myself to write it up.

    Hilariously, there IS a great big homepage link to apply for online tax returns “In time to do it”, even though it’s now too late to apply. Genius – why not warn your users with menaces only to show your own ineptitude in the process: that way they’ll love you more!

    This sort of incompetence isn’t as high profile as the loss of those two famous CDs, but it drives people away from the more efficient online services towards more costly phone and paper based transactions, and inconveniences millions of people at the same time.

    I’m concious I’ve probably just blown any chance of mySociety now ever doing any usability improvements for HMRC, but some things just have to be said. It’s a bit like the former NHS home page that had over 100 links, none of which was “I’m sick – what should I do?”, but at least they’ve improved that a bit…

    The total cost of the HMRC IT systems of which this is part is apparently about £8bn over 10 years. That makes it about as expensive to run per year as Google’s general running costs (exc R&D) in 2006.

  6. mySociety Away Weekend

    A couple of weekends ago when it was still sunny, a group of 20 or so mySociety developers, trustees, and volunteers went away together to a farmhouse in Warwickshire (thanks to everyone especially Tim Morley and Tom Loosemore for their help). This was not only an opportunity for people like me to finally meet all those I’ve been emailing for months if not years, but also to discuss various things about mySociety.

    It was an excellent weekend – we learnt lots of new things, like how UKCOD and mySociety have developed over the last 10 years(!), Rob’s excellent NZ TheyWorkForYou, and Richard’s PlanningAlerts.com. We also discussed what mySociety’s core aims and principles should be – here are some thoughts:


    1) Build sites that build civic value, using the internet natively as a medium and that scale elegantly
    2) Build sites that are easy to use for those without experience
    3) Build sites that are focused on meeting one simple need
    4) mySociety should become self-sustaining, financially and staff-wise

    Principles for developing mySociety services and products

    1) Build things that meet people’s needs, and that they can’t express yet
    2) Do one thing really, really, really well (brand on one thing)
    3) Treat the entire world as a creative canvas (plug-ins, widgets, etc.)
    4) Do not attempt to do everything yourself; use other people’s content
    5) Back success, get rid of failure
    6) The web is a conversation; join in
    7) Any website is only as good as its worst page
    8) Make sure your content can be linked to forever
    9) Your granny will never use Second Life
    10) Maximize roots to content; optimize your site to run high on Google
    11) One size does not fit all – users should know they’re on your site
    12) Accessibility is not an optional extra
    13) Let people paste their content on their own sites
    14) Link to discussions on the web, not necessarily host them
    15) Personalization should be unobtrusive and coherent

    And some more thoughts:

    1) Only use html and CSS
    2) Ensure accessibility
    3) Ensure usability
    4) Make it work across the spectrum – screen readers to mobile phones
    5) Build things that don’t require key “stick in the muds?? to do anything
    6) Don’t ever build anything that might become an empty cupboard, or if you do, make it very easy for people to fill that cupboard.
    7) Don’t rely on network effect, but do seek out network effect
    8) Engineer serendipity
    9) Help users connect with other users
    10) Set the bar high for privacy

    However, we still have some challenges ahead: we need to think about how to make the most of our existing sites, and had a very good session on how to improve PledgeBank’s outreach; we also need to engage better with both our current and potential volunteers; and, of course, move towards becoming financially self-sustaining to keep up our good work without always relying on grants.

    And finally, because we like tangible actions, we launched the UKCOD site on Saturday night too.

    So what happens next? Well some of the things have already happened, like Matthew and others transforming FixMyStreet and Francis developing some widgets. We’ll also see what the new PM wants to do with e-petitions (keep it, apparently, which is good), and how the e-democracy landscape is changing. And, soon we hope, we’ll give this site a bit of a facelift.

    But we still have much to do, and the weekend wasn’t long enough to get through everything we wanted. So here are a few more things to chew over.

    • Have you wanted to volunteer for mySociety but found it difficult, e.g. the tasks were too technical, or didn’t really know where to start?
    • Is there something you want to know about mySociety, or our sites, but not been able to find?
    • How can we improve our existing sites?
    • Do you know any nice millionaires with some spare cash burning a hole in their pockets, and they just don’t know what to do with it?

    Let us know why and we’ll try to do something about it.

  7. How should we handle categorisation for petitions?

    So, there are now over 600 petitions in the petitions system, and we’re getting a steady stream of appeals from our users to add categories.

    I’m posting to ask how you all think we should handle this. It seems to me that there are a few options:

    • Ask petition creators to pick one very basic top level category of no more than 10 or so, taken from a hierarchical taxonomy like the one the BBC uses.
    • Ask petition creators to pick the top level and the subsequent sub-levels to be more specific.
    • Go all web 2.0 and simply ask people to tag their petitions with some key words

    More than just thinking about the overall philsophy I’d also appreciate thoughts on design. When you come to the homepage, how should the category system be presented to you? Tricky stuff, and I’d really appreciate your thoughts.

  8. The user is always right (curse them)

    An oft discussed but infrequently implemented feature of good web design is what we call conversion tracking. This is where you randomly offer users one of two or more versions of the same page, and then compare their relative merits at getting the users to do whatever your page is there to help them do.

    A couple of weeks ago we finally started to test our first working version of conversion tracking on the homepage of HearFromYourMP. We provided two versions – the super elegent, minimalist version that had a simple, bold heading and almost nothing else, and a more verbose, text heavy version explaining what the site did.

    As congenital advocate of super-simple sites, I was really hoping the public would go for the less wordy version. Did they? No, of course not – the conversion rate from visitor to subscriber was 16.5% for the simple version, and 23% for the more text filled version. Slightly gallingly, this means we might have forfeited thousands of signers since our launch in November.

    So, as painful as it was, we’ve now abandoned the minimalist version, and we’re comparing two more text heavy versions. You can see the process in action if you go to HearFromYourMP and hit refresh a few times.

    Over time we’ll role this out to all of our sites and a never ending ‘winner stays on’ competition will start between different versions of important pages. Maybe we could even start taking bets? 🙂

  9. Working in Cambridge cafe CB2

    Lots of stuff happening here.

    Earlier in the week, I’ve been getting WriteToThem to update more of its data automaticaly. Two volunteers contributed useful screen scrapers. Richard George’s gathers data from the Welsh assembly, and Jonathan Hogg’s screen scrapes the Scottish Parliament. They both spit out CSV files with representatives, constituencies and contact emails/faxes. I’ve now updated the script that can load in those CSV files, and set it all running once a week on cron. Along with another London Assembly scraper Chris wrote earlier in the year, and some code to get MPs from parlpase.

    Today I’ve been doing other bits, including improving the link from WriteToThem to HearFromYourMP. When somebody has confirmed a message to be sent with WriteToThem, we know their email address is valid. So, why if they follow the link to HearFromYourMP do they have to confirm again? It’s bad user interface, and is probably reducing our signups to HearFromYourMP a bit.

    The fix is to pass a signed email address through from WTT, and check the signature on HFYMP. The magic of hashes and shared secrets does the job.

  10. Authentication

    We’ve been spending the last few days adding a more comprehensive login/authentication system to the PledgeBank code. At the moment, PledgeBank checks your email address every action that you do. In the new system you can still get it to email you if you like, or if you prefer you can set a password. It will also use session cookies to remember that you are logged in. The plan is to use the better login system to let pledge creators do more things, like email signers during the campaign, and upload a photo to go with their pledge.

    This has taken quite a radical overhaul of the codebase, and the database scheme. There’s now a “person” table, which really is an email address. Chris has made a lovely elegant system, where you can just call “person_signon” in some PHP code. Then it goes away, and makes sure they are authenticated. This might be immediate, if they are already logged in. It might require a password, or it might require emailing them. Whichever way, when they come back (possibly via a link in an email), it restores the request and goes back to the page which required authentication.

    In total, this will almost be a net deletion of lines of code, when the existing token systems are fully removed. Meanwhile, I’m testing and debugging it like crazy. And we’ve got to work out how to deploy the code without breaking anyone mid-signing at the moment we upgrade it. Upgrading not just the engine but the transmission as well, while the car is running.