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Sort My Sign: mapping road signs for Transport Focus

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.

Keep your eyes on the road

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.

Sort My Sign - screenshot

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.

Don’t report and drive!

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’?

Sign here…and here

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.”

FOI to the rescue

“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”.

Signed, sealed, delivered

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.

Image: Mark Anderson (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Santander bikes parked on a London street. Image by John jackson

Get bikes back to their docks

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

Reporting by numbers with FixMyStreet Pro

If you’re reporting an issue on Buckinghamshire Council’s FixMyStreet installation, you might have seen yellow dots appearing on the map. These represent items such as streetlights, bins or drains, and we blogged about it when we first added the feature.

Streetlights plotted on FixMyStreet

When it comes to assets like streetlights, it can save the council considerable time and effort if your report tells them precisely which light needs fixing: it’s far quicker to find an identified light than it is to follow well-meaning but perhaps vague descriptions like ‘opposite the school’!

But even when the assets are marked on a map, it’s not always easy for a user to identify exactly which one they want to report, especially if they’ve gone home to make the report and they’re no longer standing right in front of it.

After the system had been in place for a few weeks, the team at Buckinghamshire told us that users often weren’t pinpointing quite the right streetlight. So we thought a bit more about what could be done to encourage more accurate reports.

As you might have noticed, streetlights are usually branded with an ID number, like this:

Buckinghamshire, as you’d expect, holds these ID numbers as data, which means that we were able to add it to FixMyStreet. Now when you click on one of the dots, you’ll see the number displayed, like this: An identified streetlight on FixMyStreet

The same functionality works for signs, Belisha beacons, bollards and traffic signals, as well as streetlights. Each of them has their own unique identifier.

So, if you’re in Bucks and you want to make a report about any of these things, note down the ID number and compare it when you click on the asset. This means the correct information is sent through the first time — which, in turn, makes for a quicker fix. Win/win!

This type of functionality is available to any council using FixMyStreet Pro: just explore this website to find out more.

Header image: Luca Florio

FixMyStreet Pro says ‘Hi’ to Oxfordshire’s HIAMS


Our client councils continue to test our integration mettle with the many and varied internal systems they use.

One nice thing about FixMyStreet Pro, from the council point of view, is that it can play nicely with any internal council system, passing reports wherever they are needed and feeding updates back to the report-maker and onto the live site. What keeps life interesting is that there’s a huge variety of differing set-ups across every council, so there’s always something new to learn.

Oxfordshire County Council are a case in point. They’ve been a client of ours since 2013, and back in May they asked if we could work with them to integrate their new highways asset maintenance system HIAMS, supplied by WDM, and make sure the whole kaboodle could work with FixMyStreet Pro as well.

At the same time, they needed an update to their co-branded version of FixMyStreet to match a new design across the council website. FixMyStreet can take on any template so that it fits seamlessly into the rest of the site.

Oxfordshire County Council's installation of FixMyStreet

As FixMyStreet was well embedded and citizens were already using it, it was vital to ensure that the disruption was kept to a minimum, both for report-makers and members of staff dealing with enquiries.

We worked closely with WDM and Oxfordshire County Council to create a connector that would pass information the user entered on Oxfordshire’s FixMyStreet installation or the national FixMyStreet website into the new WDM system, with the correct categories and details already completed.

Once we saw data going into the system successfully, the next task was to get updates back out. One single report could take a long journey, being passed from WDM onto another system and then back through to WDM before an update came to the user. We didn’t want to leave the report-maker wondering what was happening, so it was crucial to ensure that updates came back to them as smoothly and quickly as possible.

The integration between FixMyStreet and WDM is now live and working. Users will receive an update whenever their report’s status is changed within the WDM system, meaning there’s no need for them to follow up with a phone call or email — a win for both citizens and councils.

It all went smoothly from our point of view, but let’s hear from Anna Fitzgerald, Oxfordshire’s Infrastructure Information Management Principal Officer:

“We’ve been using FixMyStreet Pro since 2013 as it’s a system which is easy to integrate and our customers love it.

“From an IT support side; integrating the new system to FixMyStreet Pro was seamless. The team at mySociety have been a pleasure to work with, are extremely helpful, knowledgeable and organised. They make you feel like you are their top priority at all times, nothing was ever an issue.

“Now that we have full integration with the new system, the process of updating our customers happens instantaneously. FixMyStreet Pro has also given us flexibility to change how we communicate with our customers, how often we communicate; and all in real time.

“What’s more, our Members and management team love it as it has greatly reduced the amount of calls to our customer services desk, which saves a lot of money for the council.”

As always, we’re delighted to hear such positive feedback. If you’re from a council and would like to explore the benefits FixMyStreet Pro could bring you, please do get in touch.

Image: Suad Kamardeen

We’ll be at Highways UK

Highways UK is a massive annual expo for those working on the UK’s road infrastructure — from local authorities to contractors and regional transport bodies.

This year, for the first time, we’ll be heading to the NEC in Birmingham to demonstrate the benefits of our FixMyStreet Pro street fault reporting service for councils and other organisations.

If you’re one of the thousands of industry folk who’ll also be attending this two-day highways extravaganza on 7-8 November, do make sure you drop by our stand to meet us and learn more about how FixMyStreet Pro is saving councils money and transforming their services. We’ll be at stand D02, near the entrance.

Who’ll be there

Come and have a chat with one of these friendly mySociety team members:

Mark Cridge, Chief Exec Leading mySociety’s many activities, Mark is the one to ask about how FixMyStreet Pro sits within the current shift towards smart, digital solutions for councils. He’s also been instrumental in bringing councils in on the planning phase of our products — if you’re interested in contributing to that sort of input, do come and have a word.

 

Louise Howells of mySociety Louise Howells, Delivery Manager Louise handles much of the liaison between our client councils and FixMyStreet’s developers, making sure that everyone’s happy on both sides. She’s the best person to talk about the practicalities of implementation, ongoing support and the roadmap for future innovations on FixMyStreet.
 

David Eaton of mySociety David Eaton, Sales Director David can answer all your questions about integration, features and benefits — and because he’s talked to councils up and down the country, he’s very well-placed to discuss how other authorities are tackling their street reporting issues.
 
 

Events and presentations

We’ll be happy to show you a demo version of FixMyStreet — you can even have a play with it to see how all the different features work, both for the report-maker, and for various levels of admin staff. Just drop by the stand at any time during the two days. We’ve got plenty of reading material for you to take away, too.

But we’ll also have a couple of special presentations at our stand that you might want to put into your calendars:

Integrating FixMyStreet Pro with your asset management system

Wednesday 7th November 2.30pm Anna Fitzgerald (Principal Officer – Infrastructure Information Management Asset and Data Systems) from Oxfordshire County Council will be sharing the council’s experience of integrating FixMyStreet with their back end systems. Presentation followed by a Q&A session.

How FixMyStreet Pro transformed the customer service experience

Thursday 8th November 2.30pmTracy Eaton (Customer Experience Account Manager – Digital Team) from Buckinghamshire County Council will be exploring the impact adopting FixMyStreet has made to their highways related fault-handling. Presentation followed by a live Q&A.


Highways UK is a new venture for us, and we’re really looking forward to chatting face to face with people who share our interests. We’ll happily talk all day about effective digital solutions to the many challenges of roads maintenance! Hope to see you there.

Image: N-allen (CC BY-SA 4.0), from Wikimedia Commons

When there’s no need to report: FixMyStreet and Roadworks.org

Seen a pothole or a broken paving stone? Great, the council will want to know about that… well, usually.

Buckinghamshire County Council’s version of FixMyStreet now shows where there are pending roadworks — alerting citizens to the fact that they may not need to make a report, because it’s already in hand.

When reports are a waste of time

In general, councils appreciate FixMyStreet reports from residents: inspectors can’t be everywhere, and often they won’t be aware of a problem until it’s reported.

But there are some reports that won’t be quite so welcome.

If the council is already aware of an issue, and in fact has already scheduled a repair, then sad to say but that citizen’s report will be nothing more than a time-waster all round.

Enter Roadworks.org

Screenshot from Roadworks.org
Screenshot from Roadworks.org

Fortunately, there’s already a comprehensive service which collates and displays information on roadworks, road closures and diversions, traffic incidents and other disruptions affecting the UK road network, from a variety of sources — it’s called Roadworks.org.

Just like FixMyStreet, Roadworks.org generates map-based data, so it correlates well with FixMyStreet.

But we don’t want to clutter things up too much, so users will only be alerted to pending roadworks when they go to make a report near where maintenance is already scheduled.

At that point, they’ll see a message above the input form to tell them that their report may not be necessary:

Buckinghamshire FixMyStreet roadworks alert
Buckinghamshire FixMyStreet roadworks alert

Of course, they can still go ahead and make their report if the roadworks have no bearing on it.

Slotting in

We were able to integrate the Roadworks.org information like this because Buckinghamshire have opted for the fully-featured ‘Avenue‘ version of FixMyStreet Pro. This allows the inclusion of asset layers (we’ve talked before about plotting assets such as trees, streetlights or bins on FixMyStreet) and the Roadworks.org data works in exactly the same way: we can just slot it in.

We’re pleased with this integration: it’s going to save time for both residents and council staff in Buckinghamshire. And if you’re from another council and you would like to do the same, then please do feel free to drop us a line to talk about adopting FixMyStreet Pro.


Header image: Jamie Street

Seeing spots with FixMyStreet Pro

If you visit FixMyStreet and suddenly start seeing spots, don’t rush to your optician: it’s just another feature to help you, and the council, when you make a report.

In our last two blog posts we announced Buckinghamshire and Bath & NE Somerset councils’ adoption of FixMyStreet Pro, and looked at how this integrated with existing council software. It’s the latter which has brought on this sudden rash.

At the moment, you’ll only see such dots in areas where the council has adopted FixMyStreet Pro, and gone for the ‘asset locations’ option: take a look at the Bath & NE Somerset installation to see them in action.

What is an asset?

mySociety developer Struan explains all.

Councils refer to ‘assets’; in layman’s language these are things like roads, streetlights, grit bins, dog poo bins and trees. These assets are normally stored in an asset management system that tracks problems, and once hooked up, FixMyStreet Pro can deposit users’ reports directly into that system.

Most asset management systems will have an entry for each asset and probably some location data for them too. This means that we can plot them on a map, and we can also include details about the asset.

When you make a report, for example a broken streetlight, you’ll be able to quickly and easily specify that precise light on the map, making things a faster for you. And there’s no need for the average citizen to ever know this, but we can then include the council’s internal ID for the streetlight in the report, which then also speeds things up for the council.

Map layers

So, how do we get these assets on to the map? Here’s the technical part:

The council will either have a map server with a set of asset layers on it that we can use, or they’ll provide us with files containing details of the assets and we’ll host them on our own map server.

The map server then lets you ask for all the streetlights in an area and sends back some XML with a location for each streetlight and any associated data, such as the lamppost number. Each collection of objects is called a layer, mostly because that’s how mapping software uses them. It has a layer for the map and then adds any other features on top of this in layers.

Will these dots clutter up the map for users who are trying to make a report about something else?

Not at all.

With a bit of configuration in FixMyStreet, we associate report categories with asset layers so we only show the assets on the map when the relevant category is selected.

We can also snap problem reports to any nearby asset which is handy for things like street lights as it doesn’t make sense to send a report about a broken street light with no associated light.

Watch this space

And what’s coming up?

We’re working to add data from roadworks.org, so that when a user clicks on a road we’ll be able to tell them if roadworks are happening in the near future, which might have a bearing on whether they want to report the problem — for example there’s no point in reporting a pothole if the whole road is due to be resurfaced the next week.

Then we’ll also be looking at roads overseen by TfL. The issue with these is that while they are always within a council area, the council doesn’t have the responsibility of maintaining them, so we want to change where the report is going rather than just adding in more data. There’s also the added complication of things like “what if the issue is being reported on a council-maintained bridge that goes over a TFL road”.

There’s always something to keep the FixMyStreet developers busy… we’ll make sure we keep you updated as these new innovations are added.

From a council and interested in knowing more? Get in touch.

Grit bins displayed on Bristol Council's FixMyStreet Pro installation

Upping the accuracy of reports, with asset layers

Did you know that, as a FixMyStreet Pro council client, you can add your own asset layers to your installation?

If you’ve got data on features such as, for example, trees, bins, streetlights, bridges… or anything else, and they’re in a GIS format, we can slot them in to FixMyStreet.

That means that when your residents make a report, they can click on the precise asset where the issue is. Net result? Your inspectors and contractors don’t waste any time looking for a problem, because they have the data that lets them know precisely where to zero in.

These visuals needn’t clog up the map interface, either: we can set it up so that they only display when the user selects the relevant category. So, choose ‘streetlights’ from the drop-down menu, and as if by magic they’ll appear on the map.

You can see this feature in action on a few FixMyStreet Pro installations, but Bristol is a particularly good example, as they’ve added a lot of different types of asset. Take a look at this reporting page, and select Bridges/Subways, Grit Bins or Gully/Drainage to see how they’re handled.

Asset layers are available to councils who go for the FixMyStreet Pro ‘Avenue’ package. Find out more about pricing here.

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FixMyStreet Pro is the street & environment reporting service that integrates with any council system.

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