Latest news from the SocietyWorks team and all things FixMyStreet
Austerity left many councils struggling, with some even on the verge of bankruptcy. And then came the pandemic, a new and unexpected drain on resources from many different directions.
There are public information campaigns to run, pavements to widen, vulnerable people to look after, foodbanks to support — and a considerable number of citizens without income to feed into the tax system.
Against this background, splashing out for a new piece of software may be the last thing on your mind. But counterintuitive though it may be, this is one purchase that will save on costs.
Here are five reasons why:
If you’d like to ask more about FixMyStreet Pro and its potential to save authorities money, do join us for a webinar.You can book a slot here or drop us a line if you don’t see a date that suits you.
Image: Adeolu Eletu
Have you considered using FixMyStreet Pro as part of an application to the Emergency Active Travel Fund? The service can easily be adapted to allow citizens make requests for cycle paths and street widening, for example, or to report areas where social distancing is difficult and intervention is needed.
This way, your covid action plan becomes needs led, instigated by the community without the need for expensive surveys or reports.
The pandemic has brought many changes to the way we move around our towns and cities, and authorities are having to adapt to them quickly.
FixMyStreet Pro offers one quick and easy way to reflect the new requirements we have of our environments: the addition of new report categories.
Some authorities are already taking advantage of this and have added categories that enable citizens to request wider pavements or cycle paths, or note where social distancing signage might be useful.
You can also head off the type of report that is better made elsewhere: for example, if a citizen wishes to report a business for poor practice — a report that clearly shouldn’t be public on your website — they can be routed towards the correct channel to do so, perhaps a phone number or a private contact form.
As a FixMyStreet Pro client, you can add, remove, or rename categories as needed; you can also nest subcategories, or place a subcategory under more than one main category to help users find it.
If you’d like to know more about categories, or any other feature, do join us for a webinar, so we can take you through FixMyStreet Pro’s main features and answer any questions you may have. You can book a slot here or drop us a line if you don’t see a date that suits you.
Image: Dan Burton
Lockdown has changed the way we are all working. During the last few months, the UK has been asked to work from home where possible, and even as some restrictions are eased, we’re expecting to see this arrangement continue for those who are shielding themselves or family members.
Some workplaces have realised that a remote set-up brings benefits to staff and to the organisation as a whole, and may never go back to ‘normal’.
As you may be aware, SocietyWorks and our parent organisation mySociety have been remote from their very beginnings: staff members are located all around the UK, all working from home and communicating online.
Pre-covid, we’d often visit councils face to face, perhaps to offer advice or make a pitch while they were considering the purchase of FixMyStreet Pro; and then sometimes again during set-up to speak with the IT department and make sure everyone was confident about how our systems would integrate.
But such visits aren’t actually a necessity, as we proved during Lincolnshire’s implementation. This was managed 100% remotely, and so smoothly that Andrea Bowes, Lincolnshire’s ICT Data and Information Systems Architect, told us that they hadn’t even noticed that we’d never been in the same room together!
There’s no need at all for either us or your staff to be in the office at any stage of implementation: as a cloud-based service, FixMyStreet can be set up from anywhere. And thanks to our own way of working, SocietyWorks are so used to video calls, email and shared documentation that it’s just as simple for us to conduct any staff training virtually. Don’t worry if you’re not used to that sort of thing (though we suspect that most people have had to become experts pretty quickly over the last few weeks!); we’ll handle all the logistics.
Looking to the future, if you are looking at having your customer service staff working at home on an ongoing basis, we’ll be happy to offer as much support and advice as you need — about FixMyStreet Pro, or more widely. Of course, all our staff tools can be accessed from anywhere, so there are no issues from that point of view. But we’d be happy to go a step further and give any advice you might need on home working, based on our many years of experience.
As a first step into seeing what the experience of working virtually with SocietyWorks is, why not join us for a webinar, when we’ll take you through FixMyStreet Pro’s main features and answer any questions you may have. You can book a slot here or drop us a line if you don’t see a date that suits you.
Image: Chris Montgomery
We heard from Transport for London that FixMyStreet has played an unexpectedly valuable part during London’s lockdown.
We recently ran a couple of user groups for some of the authorities who use FixMyStreet Pro. These had been planned as in-person events, but of course, like everything else these days, had to transition to online.
Nonetheless, they were a good chance for us to present some of FixMyStreet Pro’s new features, and to hear from our client authorities about how they’ve been using the service. Sally Reader’s description of how FixMyStreet has come into its own for TfL while the capital is shut down was particularly thought-provoking — you can watch it here.
We’d all been thinking that lockdown means fewer people on the streets, and therefore less opportunity for damage. But Sally pointed out that faults still happen: trees might fall down, blocking roads; or there might be increased levels of vandalism now that boredom is an issue for many — and there’s still a great need to keep the network safe for the transport workers helping to run it, and of course those who are using it.
At the moment, these passengers are by and large key workers who may be at the end of a long working day on the frontline — as Sally puts it, the last thing they need is to be standing in a smashed up bus shelter as they await their transport home.
Additionally, TfL are using their Streetcare FixMyStreet reports to help alert them to potentially dangerous faults and to provide extra eyes and ears on the network while non-essential on-street works have been halted.
It was a surprise to both us and TfL, but we were pleased to hear that FixMyStreet has been such an asset during these times.
Image: Ben Garratt
This brings some substantial improvements to the code. The update is available to anyone running a site on the FixMyStreet platform, which includes our own fixmystreet.com; the installations we provide for councils and authorities; and the FixMyStreet instances run by others, in places from Australia to Uruguay.
If you run a site on the FixMyStreet platform yourself, or are just interested in the technical details, you can read the release notes here.
Meanwhile, here’s a rundown of the new front-end features you might notice if you’re a user of FixMyStreet.
FixMyStreet can now be added to phones (and desktops for that matter) as a ‘progressive app’. Here’s what to look for when you visit fixmystreet.com:
Access from the bar at the bottom of the screen.
Click the share icon at the foot of the screen.
Then select ‘add to home screen’.
Look for the pop up notification or tap the home icon with a plus sign in it in the URL bar.
Any of these methods will install a version of FixMyStreet that will behave like an app, placing an icon on your desktop, browser start page or home screen.
This way there is no need to download or update from the app store, and changes to the main website (which are invariably released sooner than on the app) will be immediately available to you.
Cobrands (for example the councils that use FixMyStreet as part of their own websites, and people running FixMyStreet in their own countries) can provide their own logo and colourscheme as well.
Whether you install the progressive web app or just visit fixmystreet.com on your mobile browser, you may notice some nice new features.
If a picture paints a thousand words, then your Twitter character count just went stratospheric. Now, when you share a report on places like Twitter or Facebook, if there’s a photo included in the report, that will also be pulled through.
Previously, the ‘open graph image’ that was shown by default was the same for every report — which could get a bit boring in aggregate, and certainly missed some of the impact that people might want to share when they’re posting about their own, or others’ reports.
Social media isn’t the only place that FixMyStreet reports can be piped to, though — the site also has several RSS capabilities that have been baked in since its early days.
For those not totally up to speed with RSS and what it can do, we’re now no longer displaying them as raw XML but as a nice simple web page that explains its purpose.
To see this in action, click ‘Local Alerts’ in the top menu of any page. Here’s a before and after:
Much of this work is thanks to NDI, the National Democratic Institute.
NDI offer the FixMyStreet codebase as one of their DemTools, installing it in countries around the world as an innovation which empowers citizens to keep their neighbourhoods clean and safe.
Thanks to this partnership, NDI funded the addition of new features which they had identified as desirable — and which, thanks to the open codebase, will benefit users of every FixMyStreet site worldwide.
There are some other significant additions in this release, including integration, back end and security improvements, all of which will be of most interest to developers and site admins — so if you’d like to see them, head over to the full write up on the FixMyStreet platform blog.
Image: Max Fuchs
We know that people are out and about much less during the current lockdown, but here’s something to bear in mind for Peterborough residents who pass a tree that needs attention during their daily excursion. And when this is all over, we hope it will be more widely used.
Tree related issues reported by citizens in Peterborough can now be submitted online using FixMyStreet Pro.
Thanks to collaboration with Peterborough’s tree management system provider RA Information systems, reports made on FixMyStreet are now raised as enquiries directly in Peterborough’s Ezytreev tree management system.
When a citizen picks ‘trees’ as a category, they’ll be shown the location of every tree in the area on the FixMyStreet map. This ensures that they identify the precise positioning, saving time for surveyors.
They’re then presented with categories ranging from ‘fallen branch’ to ‘problem with fungi’, so council staff know precisely what needs attending to. Photos can be added to reports to help depict the issue.
The joined-up system means that tree admin staff no longer have to manually key in enquiries from the public into Ezytreev, while members of the public are kept informed at every step of the way.
Peterborough Council’s trees team can triage the reported issues immediately, and assign to a tree surveyor in the field who receives the inspection straight to their mobile device through Smart-sync. As the tree enquiry is progressed on the Ezytreev tree management system the citizen is kept informed via updates automatically sent through FixMyStreet Pro.
The system was put to the test during the recent storms, which damaged trees and brought down branches. Everything went smoothly: report-making was easier for citizens and dealing with those reports more efficient for council staff.
The new system also allows citizens to suggest where new trees might be planted.
FixMyStreet Pro Sales Director David Eaton said, ‘We’re always pleased to be able to show FixMyStreet Pro’s flexibility by integrating with a system we haven’t previously worked with. This EzyTreev integration is just the latest example of how FixMyStreet Pro can join up with any existing asset management system. And it’s great to know we’re playing a small part in helping citizens to look after their all-important trees across Peterborough.”
Every road user relies on signs, so keeping them tip-top is in everyone’s interest. Now Transport Focus have launched their Sort My Sign campaign, asking road users to help them do just that.
They’d like everyone to report any signs they spot that are dangerous, dirty, broken, or obscured.
To support this programme digitally, Transport Focus came to mySociety, asking if we could help create a simple and intuitive mapping interface where these issues could be reported.
Specifically, the scheme covers signs on roads managed by Highways England, which means motorways and some A roads.
FixMyStreet was the obvious starting point — we already have a data layer for these roads, which means that your everyday FixMyStreet reports can be routed to Highways England rather than the council if they are the responsible body.
Plus, as we’ve detailed many times before, the FixMyStreet platform can be repurposed for any project dealing with location-based reports, and has in the past been put to all sorts of uses, from reporting empty homes to helping fight corruption.
Nonetheless, we perceived one potential challenge when it came to setting up sign reporting.
FixMyStreet is generally well-suited for people making reports on the go — in fact, thanks to the ‘use my location’ functionality, it is ideal for reporting issues like potholes or broken pavements on your mobile while out on a walk. But obviously, road signs are a slightly different matter. If you are driving, you certainly mustn’t be fiddling with your mobile phone, so ‘use current location’ is only helpful if you have an amenable passenger to make the report.
That’s fine — you can always make the report later of course: but that means you’ll need to know roughly where you were when you saw the sign, something that’s a bit trickier on a long drive than it might be on a stroll around your neighbourhood. FixMyStreet allows you to find any UK location with the input of a postcode or street name, but these are details you’re unlikely to have to hand if you have simply driven through.
After some thought we realised that, on a motorway, the location identifier most people will find easiest to recall will probably be the junction number.
So that set us a challenge: how could we best enable ‘search by junction number’?
Ideally, we wanted a user to be able to visit the Sort My Sign site and enter the name of a junction, just as they’d enter a postcode or street on the FixMyStreet homepage — and then to be taken to a map centred on that point.
But sourcing a mapping between motorway/junction number and co-ordinates proved surprisingly tricky. mySociety developer Matthew takes over the story.
“I first looked at OpenStreetMap data — its geocoder, Nominatim, worked really well for some junction numbers, but didn’t work at all for others. If a junction has been assigned a name (like J23 on the M6, which is known as ‘Haydock’) it can only be looked up by that name, not by number. But we wanted users to be able to look up junctions by number.
“I could also export all the junction data from OpenStreetMap, but the junction nodes alone aren’t linked to the motorway, so that looked like it would prove tricky to match up.”
“But by a stroke of luck, I then discovered that someone had used another of mySociety’s services, our Freedom of Information site WhatDoTheyKnow, to make a request to Highways England asking for the positions of all the driver location signs (the repeaters every 100m or 500m along the motorways giving the name and distance from start).
“In response, Highways England had provided that information, so I knew I could use that to at least provide a mapping between location sign and geographic co-ordinates.
“Each sign also had information about what junction it was nearest or between, so by constructing an average of all the location sign co-ordinates associated with a particular junction, I came up with a pretty good estimate for the location of the junction itself.
“I added all the sign and junction data into a small SQLite database (which means it’s portable and doesn’t need to be associated with the main database) and wrote a little bit of code to spot when someone entered a junction name in any of a variety of different formats, then look up the matching location in this database”.
To test this out, Matthew had all his colleagues name their favourite junction… perhaps not to be recommended as a party game, but it did at least prove that his code had cracked the problem.
Something much appreciated by Head of Strategy at Transport Focus, Guy Dangerfield, who says, “mySociety has been excellent in understanding what we needed and finding ways to achieve our objectives.”
You can give the new system a go here — and perhaps bookmark the site so that you know where to report a sign next time you see one that needs fixing.
Once you’re safely off the road, that is.
There’s now a new category on Streetcare, the TfL version of FixMyStreet, for reporting abandoned bicycles.
The Santander Cycle system, allowing Londoners to travel from A to B cheaply and conveniently, is managed by TfL.
You hire a bike from one docking station and responsibly return it to another when you’re finished, so someone else can use it. Unfortunately sometimes bikes are not docked correctly and can end up missing and eventually abandoned.
TfL wanted to give citizens a simple way to report abandoned bikes, so they could arrange for them to be collected and returned to the scheme as soon as possible. TfL asked if we could add a reporting function on Streetcare as an option to report abandoned bikes.
Anyone can make a report quickly and easily on Streetcare, with no need even to provide contact details (unless you want updates on your report). ‘Abandoned Santander cycle’ is one of the category options, and as with any other report, you can add photos and more details, while marking the precise location on a map.
These will be passed to the relevant team so they can go and make the collection — and you can feel like a good citizen, assured that there’s one more bike back in the game and available for use.
Image: John Jackson
Bexley’s installation of FixMyStreet Pro went live in June 2019, and as we noted at the time, it integrated with their existing Symology asset management to process reports of highways issues like potholes, graffiti and abandoned vehicles.
Once the system had been running for a little while, Bexley started examining other ways in which FixMyStreet could improve internal workflows and save the borough time and money.
As a result, they have now also integrated with a further two systems: Confirm for trees, parks and ground maintenance issues, and Uniform for some fly tipping issues.
For the report-maker, this keeps things nice and simple: they only have to visit one place and can report any issue across this range of categories. Meanwhile, the council are benefiting from the ability to collect consistent data, which is then passed on to the most relevant back office system depending on which category the reporter selected.
FixMyStreet Pro’s two way integration across all of these linked systems means that when the council update the relevant issue in any of them, it also updates the website and lets the citizen know that there’s an update on their report, or that it’s been resolved. Both citizen and council save time, with no need for a follow-up call to see how the issue is progressing.
We’re also pleased to hear that the customer service centre have adopted FixMyStreet as their main reporting platform internally, as well. This means that staff don’t have to learn and use three different systems: they can easily create a report on behalf of a citizen within FixMyStreet, and rest assured that it will be sent to the correct department.
Two regional news stories have recently highlighted the use of FixMyStreet by fire services. That’s not something we’d anticipated when we made the site, but we’re really glad that to hear that we’re helping to fight fires!
Firstly, the West Midlands Fire Service have asked the public to report derelict buildings on the site. FixMyStreet reports go to the council, who can take appropriate measures to secure such buildings and reduce the risk of arson.
Meanwhile, Cleveland fire fighters are themselves using FixMyStreet to report incidences of fly tipping, and they say that getting piles of refuse or garden waste cleared up before people are tempted to set fire to them has helped them bring down the number of conflagrations in the county.
As both these brigades have found FixMyStreet useful, we hope that other fire services might follow suit (or maybe citizens could take matters into their own hands and report such things without waiting to be told!).
We’re already aware that lots of police officers also use the site to make reports as they are on the beat: it is, of course, very well suited to any occupation that regularly makes patrols around the local community.
Image: Egor Vikhrev