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Latest news from the SocietyWorks team and all things FixMyStreet

Image of a pothole on a road

National Pothole Day: 2020 was a bumper year for pothole reports

More pothole reports were made through FixMyStreet in 2020 than ever before.

We all know that 2020 was a bit of a bumpy year (OK, it was a lot of a bumpy year), but one thing that those of us at SocietyWorks had been expecting to be a bit less bumpy was the impact of pothole reports on UK councils.

With people traveling less frequently due to lockdown putting roads under less pressure (which, incidentally,  would also create the perfect conditions for pre-existing potholes to be fixed by councils), we had thought that pothole reporting rates on our FixMyStreet service, which sends reports directly to the council that can deal with them, would have been lower than usual.

But we were wrong.

 

Pothole reports in 2020

While we did see a considerable drop in reports when the first lockdown hit, and again towards the end of the year when renewed restrictions saw winter pothole reports rise less sharply than in previous years, 2020 still had the highest ever number of potholes reported through FixMyStreet and our council versions of FixMyStreet Pro (not including TFL’s installation), with over 111,000 reports about potholes made throughout the year.

 

Graph showing pothole reports made through FixMyStreet in 2020

 

As the above graph shows, the year started off with a clear trend towards many more potholes being reported through FixMyStreet than usual. When the first lockdown began in March, reporting rates dramatically reduced, but they quickly started to pick back up again as restrictions were loosened and cold weather re-emerged.

Towards the very end of year, when we would usually expect to see a sharp hike in report numbers like in previous years, Tier 4 restrictions and lockdown saw pothole reporting rates increase much slower. 

Taking these reporting trends into consideration, it looks as though, had there been no lockdown, pothole report numbers would have been even higher in 2020. 

 

Helping councils to navigate pothole reports smoothly

As we know, the pandemic has put an added strain onto councils recently, meaning that potholes are just one of many, many things needing to be dealt with.

For councils already using FixMyStreet Pro to manage their streets and highways reports, any increase in pothole reports is much easier to handle when the cost per report has been made up to 98.69% cheaper.

Looking ahead, given that budgets are tight and key workers are currently making up the majority of the people using our roads, should 2021 prove to be another pothole-heavy year, it’s never been more important to make the process of reporting such problems as easy for citizens and as cost-effective for councils as possible.

If you’re a council and you’d like to discover how FixMyStreet Pro can help you smooth out the process of dealing with streets and highways reports like potholes, you can find out more here.

 

Image: Kenneth Allen (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Pothole on a road

Things that go bump! How to smooth out the process of dealing with pothole reports

Whether you’re a council or a citizen, potholes are an all-round pain in the bum(per), aren’t they? 

When it comes to citizen reports made on our FixMyStreet service, potholes are always up there among the most frequently reported problems. In fact, in 2020, despite lockdowns and less frequent travel, more potholes were reported through FixMyStreet than ever before

For councils, dealing with pothole reports has never been a bigger challenge. Aside from being expensive to fix (and no sooner have you fixed one than another appears), staff shortages caused by COVID-19 as workers are required to isolate have made coordinating pothole fixes a much longer, more complicated process. 

Be that as it may, at a time when most road travel is being carried out by key workers, it’s more important than ever to make the process of reporting potholes and responding to such reports as easy and as fast as possible.

This being the case, we thought we’d highlight all the ways in which FixMyStreet Pro can and does make dealing with pothole reports easier, cheaper and much less bumpy for councils and their residents. 

  • Cut the cost of your pothole reports

Now more than ever, councils need to save money wherever they can. Investing in a channel shift to FixMyStreet Pro for the management of your streets and highways reports could help you save up to 98.69% per report, just like it did for Buckinghamshire Council

  • Reduce duplicate reports 

As well as needing to save money, councils and their customer service teams also need to save time – especially time wasted on dealing with duplicate reports. FixMyStreet’s transparent approach to reporting helps to dissuade duplicate reports by allowing citizens to view reports that have already been made nearby and subscribe to updates from the council as the issue is resolved. 

  • Simplify how all of your existing systems connect with each other

We know how annoying, nevermind expensive, it can be when your backend IT systems aren’t quite getting along the way you’d like them to. With FixMyStreet Pro, we promise to integrate into whichever systems you’re using to facilitate a smooth user workflow for everyone. See how this worked for Oxfordshire County Council, who, by switching to FixMyStreet Pro, were able to make immediate workflow improvements and savings by removing layers of legacy software.

  • Customise your reporting forms

No one council is the same as another; you have different needs, different priorities and different ways of doing things. We take all of this into account when we’re setting up your version of FixMyStreet Pro, building it around yours and your residents’ needs. As an example, when it came to potentially hazardous reports (such as dangerous potholes), Island Roads, the company that handles highway maintenance on the Isle of Wight, requested to implement emergency categories to their version of FixMyStreet Pro to help safeguard against accidents and allow them to deal with problems faster.

Want to get started making your pothole reports easier to navigate? Get in touch with us.

 

Image: Editor5807 (CC BY 3.0)

User groups: how we’re involving clients in new feature planning

When it comes to drawing up plans for future features to add to the FixMyStreet Pro roadmap, it’s really important to us that we consult with the people who will actually be using them before we commit to anything.

That’s why we like to run user groups – events to which we invite clients to join us for a couple of hours to learn about what we’ve been working on and get involved in exploring any features which would be of benefit to them if we were to design them next.

 

Digital collaboration

Not wanting to let the pandemic get in our way of hosting these sessions in 2020, we moved them online, using Zoom to meet up and Miro to collaboratively share ideas.

Our most recent user group ran earlier this month as a perfect way to round off the year and influence our 2021 plans.

As part of the session, we broke off into small groups in order to answer this question: What’s the one thing you wished FixMyStreet Pro did that it doesn’t currently do?

Using Miro, each group was given 15 minutes to bounce ideas around for new features they would like to see on the FixMyStreet Pro service by pinning a digital post-it note to a board. Each idea was then discussed to determine what the feature is, what problem it solves and who would benefit from it. 

Before reconvening, the groups selected their favourite idea to be presented to everyone. The top ideas from each group were then voted upon to determine which was best, using a very snazzy feature of Miro’s platform.

 

Screenshot of the SocietyWorks user group Miro session
Our Designer Martin discusses the top ideas from the group sessions using Miro

 

Fast reactions

On this occasion, the winning new feature suggestion was to introduce the functionality to quickly create a report on a mobile device from a photo. Alex Brown from Island Roads, whose idea this was, explained more:

“If you’re familiar with iPhones and Android, you’ll know that there’s a share function which gives you a shortlist of things you can do with your photos.

“For example, you can open up a photo, press the share button, select your messages app and it takes you straight into the app where you can send the photo to one of your contacts.

“We’d like something similar to that [for FixMyStreetPro], where you can take a photo with your camera, open it, share it, hit FixMyStreet and it takes you straight into the app so you can log your report.”

As our Designer Martin said at the time: “Brilliant!”

A simple, yet smart idea that would make it even easier for citizens to act when they spot a problem within their local area. Plus, as we uncovered recently, reports with photos are around 15% more likely to be recorded as fixed than reports without a photo, so anything we can do to encourage the use of photos within reports can only be a good thing.

And here lies the beauty of running these user groups: not only is it the perfect opportunity for local authorities to discuss and share solutions to problems they’re facing, but it’s also the ideal environment to nurture brilliant ideas that we hadn’t thought of before. 

Going forward, we’re taking Alex’s idea, along with a few other suggestions from the day, into some discovery sessions in order to determine whether and when we can add them to our roadmap.

So, watch this space!

If you would like to come along to one of our future user groups, or you’d like to discuss any ideas of your own, do drop us a message.

Image: Dstudio Bcn on Unsplash

SocietyWorks annual report

A look back at a year like no other

Well, it’s been quite a year, hasn’t it?

2020 certainly won’t be one SocietyWorks will ever forget, not least because we didn’t exist as you know us until April!

Expanding our horizons

At the start of 2020, it was all about FixMyStreet Pro. And while our beloved FixMyStreet Pro is very much still the jewel in our crown, we’ve been busy this year exploring how else we can improve local government services for everyone, under the new brand, SocietyWorks.

With that in mind, we rolled out two new offerings around Waste and Noise, while also executing a whole lot of refinements and new features for FixMyStreet and FixMyStreet Pro, including:

 

Friends old and new

New authorities to integrate with FixMyStreet Pro this year are Hackney, Highways England, Transport Focus, Cheshire East and — just this minute — Central Bedfordshire, bringing the total number of Pro bodies to 22.

As well as welcoming new authorities into the SocietyWorks fold, we have also appreciated longtime friends after working together to scope out new services, such as doing some consequence scanning with Hackney Council and helping to create a simple and intuitive mapping interface with Transport Focus

 

Looking ahead

By the end of 2020, more than 500,000 reports will have been made through FixMyStreet this year.

And in a year where we’ve all gained a new appreciation for and desire to protect our local areas, that figure just reminds us of how proud we are to be the home of a service like FixMyStreet.

With any luck, 2021 will be a little less…turbulent, shall we say, than 2020 has been. Whatever happens though, we at SocietyWorks are looking forward to continuing to help bring about improvements through our services for local authorities and citizens alike.

If you would like to, you can read mySociety’s complete annual report here.

A phone with various apps on the screen, including FixMyStreet

Progressive web apps: what are they, and what can they do for us?

As you may have noticed, at mySociety we’ve never been big on apps — we tend to encourage access to our websites via your phone’s mobile browser instead. 

We design all our sites as ‘mobile first’, meaning that they work well on any size of device and automatically resize to fit any screen dimension. That’s good practice anyway, but as a small organisation it also saves us a lot of time and effort. 

But that presents an issue when we’re talking to potential FixMyStreet Pro clients, in authorities and councils, who often see an app as a very desirable part of their offering to citizens.

Now, thanks to the emergence of the ‘progressive web app’ (PWA), we’re exploring a whole new approach that we hope will please everyone, as our Developer Struan explains: 

We’ve been talking about what to do with the FixMyStreet app for a long time.

The app we offer at the moment runs from a separate codebase than the main FixMyStreet site, which means when we update features on FixMyStreet we then have to redo the same work for the app. 

As a result, it sometimes lags behind: for example there are various features — detection of duplicate reports, and display of assets like streetlights or grit bins, for example — that have never made it across.

And in all honesty? We have to admit that apps aren’t really our speciality. Generally speaking, you’d employ dedicated app developers and designers if you wanted to create really excellent app experiences. mySociety is a small organisation without big overheads — can’t complain, that’s what allows us to be nimble and responsive — and so far, we’ve stuck to doing what we do well.

With all that in mind, the FixMyStreet app is beginning to look quite old, and there are various aspects of it that don’t really meet with current expectations of how apps work.

Enter the PWA 

Loosely speaking, PWAs are a collection of technologies that you can add to a website that then give it ‘app like’ qualities. To all intents and purposes, a PWA-ified site looks and acts like an app: our client authorities will be able to add their own logos and colour palettes and tell their residents to ‘download the app’, and for the citizen, that’s just what it will feel like they’re doing.  

In practice, the app is effectively the website being viewed on a mobile screen, just as we sometimes recommend to users. But the PWA tech not only makes it look and feel like an app, it also allows it to be added to app stores and downloaded by users onto their screens via that route. It also adds a more ‘app-like’ navigation and a startup process.

Rather handily, PWAs also permit the addition of offline capability to your website, by downloading a bit of JavaScript (called a service worker) to your device. If you can’t connect to the website then it falls back to the service worker, which can also save reports when you have no connection and then upload them when you do. As a side benefit, all this will work with the standard mobile website too, and is something we’d want to add anyway.

One downside is that only the latest version of iOS supports all the things we need to make this work, although we note that iOS adoption rates are quite high. To make up for this a bit, alongside the PWA work we’ll be adding in some code to make the offline process a bit less jarring for those accessing the website on older versions of iOS.

Meanwhile, as far as we can tell, everything should go smoothly on Android.

So — lots of positives and we hope it will all come together in the near future. We’re continuing to explore this approach and will report back when we can say for certain whether it’s viable.

Image: Saulo Mohana

What is consequence scanning?

At LocalGovCamp, our designer Martin ran an interactive exercise that took attendees through a ‘consequence scanning’ exercise, as a way to predict and mitigate all the outcomes, both positive and negative, of a proposed piece of development.

In this case, the service under discussion was a fictional parking violation reporting app.

 Consequence Scanning

Let’s just repeat that, in case of any angry reactions: fictional!

So, what could possibly go wrong with a piece of tech designed to encourage residents to grass on fellow citizens for their poor parking? You can see how it played out in this video:

 

Now you’ve seen a consequence scanning exercise in action. If you’d like to understand more about the process, read on: this is how Martin explained the whole idea to us here at mySociety, with more detail on the underlying principles:

We’ve been working on a few sensitive projects recently – specifically our work expanding FixMyStreet Pro to cover issues of a more social nature, like noise reporting, antisocial behaviour, that sort of thing.

As experienced as we are with the ‘make a report by sticking a pin in a map’ style of interaction design, we recognise the need for extra care when applying this to issues that are about people, rather than things. There’s an increased risk of building a tool that results in unintended negative consequences; especially where the service concerns an area already prone to controversy.

mySociety Board member Jonathan Flowers put us in touch with Connected Places Catapult, who had been using ‘Consequence Scanning’ for this very thing, and we realised it was just what we needed.

It’s a structured system for drawing out the consequences of a new idea, and giving people a say in what actions are used to mitigate or address them. It originated from the Doteveryone thinktank, and CPC have taken it forward and customised it for their needs.

In Consequence Scanning, consequences are classified as either intended or unintended, with the important distinction that intended consequences aren’t always positive, and unintended consequences aren’t always negative.

The process is delivered in a workshop format and works best with a good mixture of participants with diverse views and backgrounds, directly involved in the service on both sides. This means ideally both service users and service officers should take part and be prepared to be honest about consequences. For this reason it’s important to create a safe space where information can be shared honestly and openly.

 

The process is split into three parts:

Part one: What are the consequences?

Part two: What are the positive consequences we want to focus on?

Part three: What are the unindented consequences we should mitigate?

Part one: What are the consequences?

  1. What are the intended consequences for:
  • Organisation – How might this affect our organisation?
  • Users – How might this affect the users of this service?
  • Community – What are the consequences that could affect the wider community?
  1. What are the unintended consequences? For the kind of work we do, unintended consequences tend to emerge in these areas:
  • Lack of digital understanding:
    • What can happen in a situation where there is a lack of digital skills or access to technology?
  • Unintended uses and users
    • What could be the unintended uses of this service?
    • What could be the unintended users of this service? Eg private companies using public services for profit
  • Weak security/reliability/poor support/monitoring
    • What could happen in situations of technical failure, poorly equipped staff, or lack of budget etc?
  • Changes in norms and behaviours
    • How could this cause changes in societal norms and behaviours?
  • Displacement (what will people do this instead of… )
    • If people use this service instead of others what could result?
  • Impact on environment
    • How might this service result in consequences for the planet or local environment?

Part two: What are the positive consequences we want to focus on?

  1. Sort the list of intended consequences into groups by affinity (affinity sorting)
  2. Add further details or related information

Part three: What are the unintended consequences we want to mitigate?

  1. Sort the list of intended consequences into groups by affinity (affinity sorting)
  2. Use causal mapping to work out the relationships between the consequences and help determine where mitigations could have the greatest impact: eg, solve A before B, solve D and prevent E,F,G
  3. Use grouping and categorisation of consequences to show relationships

This system works best on a new, but defined idea. If it’s done too early in the design process, the consequences end up being very general, or people bring their own assumptions and often focus on the wrong things. It’s best to bring it in once scope has been defined.

The primary function is to identify the consequences and not to “solutionise” the mitigations, but the group should be free to discuss possible mitigations where they feel it’s important.

We’ve been using Consequence Scanning in our work on noise reporting and antisocial behaviour, and it’s also proving useful for our internal anti-racism action group, where we want to understand the potential unintended results of any future development in terms of who our services reach, and who they exclude.

Image: Drew Graham

Image by Gautam Lakum - post-it notes and stationary next to a book about sprints.

Sprint notes: 23 Nov- 4 Dec

Here’s everything the SocietyWorks team has been up to this sprint.

  • During the last sprint it was mySociety’s organisation-wide retreat. In one key session, we looked at our strategy for SocietyWorks, including setting some key performance indicators. With colleagues, we participated in a series of workshops to help plan and understand what the next three years could look like for the company.
    One of the methods we used during our workshops was  a ‘lightning decision jam’, which helps get ideas out in the open without judgement or doubt getting in the way; it also helped us prioritise tasks and put the next steps into action.
  • We’ve been working with the team at Central Bedfordshire, putting finishing touches on their FixMyStreet Pro integration: we hope that will be going live in the next week.
  • As part of our progressive web app work, we’ve successfully uploaded a trial version to the Android store and are currently working on the same for the Apple Store (which is proving more complex than we’d originally hoped).
  • We’ve also seen the opportunity to bid for a piece of commercial work, so the whole team has been putting together answers to questions and pulling information from different case studies to show how good FixMyStreet Pro is.
  • We’ve appointed a new Marketing and PR Manager who’ll be joining the team next week.
  • We’re also busy preparing for our Christmas user groups, where we’ll gather clients together online and talk through some new developments, while munching on some mince pies.

Image: Gautam Lakum

Arm holding a phone looking down the road at a pothole

Do photos help resolution of FixMyStreet reports?

FixMyStreet allows people to upload images along with a report. This can quickly provide the authority with more details of the issue than might be passed along in the written description, and lead to quicker evaluation and prioritisation of the repair. For problems that are hard to locate geographically by description (or where the pin has been dropped inaccurately), images might also help council staff locate and deal with the problem correctly.

In 2019, 35% of reports included photos. Accounting for several other possible factors,  reports with photos were around 15% more likely to be recorded as fixed than reports without a photo. In absolute terms, reports with photos were fixed at a rate two percentage points higher. This varies by category, with photos having a much stronger effect (highways enquiries and reports made in parks and open space) in some categories, and in other categories photos having a small negative effect in the resolution (reports of pavement issues and rights of way).

In general, these results suggest that attaching photos is not only useful for authorities, but can make it more likely that reporters have their problem resolved. There is a significant reservation that photos are much more useful for some kinds of reports than others. In terms of impacts on the service, when photos can convey useful information that helps lead to a resolution, users should be encouraged to attach them. Where photos are less helpful (such as problems encountered mostly at night), other prompt suggestions or asset selection tools may help lead to more repairs.

You can read more about the research on the mySociety blog.

Image by Leo Sammarco. Trails of car lights on a motorway at dusk.

Sprint notes: 9 – 20 November

Here’s everything SocietyWorks is up to this sprint.

We prepared for the soft launch of the Bromley Waste service.

The new FixMyStreet Pro features we’ve been working on have taken a little longer than we anticipated, but we’re confident that they should be completed this sprint. We’ll be letting clients know all about them as soon as they’re live.

We’ve been prepping for our user groups and creating an agenda for the day. The challenge here is to make sure it’s not death by PowerPoint. We’re working with mySociety’s Events Manager Gemma to decide how best to shape it, and to explore the various online tools that make online events that bit more dynamic.

Since April 2020 Highways England have been trialing FixMyStreet in their East Midlands area to evaluate the response by users to a new digital channel for reporting highways issues. As of 9 November this trial has been expanded in size and scope to cover the whole of England, running until March 2021.

Image: Leo Sammarco

A woman looking at her mobile phone screen - image by Daria Nepriakhina

Integrating with Notify

Notifications via text: one feature that we’ve not previously explored for FixMyStreet.

And yet, it’s easy to see that this might be a desirable add-on, given the fast pace at which report statuses can change as they pass through the resolution cycle, and everyone’s increasing reliance on their mobile phones to keep on top of things.

Hackney Council gave us the nudge we needed to look at this more deeply: they had a GOV.UK Notify account, and wondered whether we could make it work with their FixMyStreet Pro instance to give their citizens more options for keeping up to date with reports.

So we’re now working with Hackney on a co-funded piece of development that, once completed, will be available to all our Pro customers.

When a new report is made in Hackney, the site will ask the report-maker for their email address or mobile number: once this has been verified, an account will be created.  This work has involved tweaking our SMS authentication functionality and adding the Notify functionality as the new SMS backend provider for the verification step.

Everything’s working well so far, and it’s now with Hackney to test and give us feedback.

Image: Daria Nepriakhina

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