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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

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

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

Someone taking a photo of some fly tipping to report on FixMyStreet

Sprint notes: 12-23 October

Here’s everything SocietyWorks is up to this sprint.

New development on FixMyStreet Pro

Photo first

One big area we’re working on this sprint comes from our development roadmap.

We’re referring to it as a ‘photo first’ workflow, and it’d enable users to take a snap of a street fault and upload it as a way of initiating a report. This all keys into a piece of research we’ve done which found that reports with photos attached have around a 16% higher chance of being fixed than those without.

As part of our exploration, Developer Dave’s been training an AI model to automatically scan each image and guess what category it falls into — very cutting edge!

But at the same time, we’re aware that we must keep every type of user’s best interests at the heart of all our development: we don’t want to sacrifice the simplicity that’s always been the key to FixMyStreet’s success, and the reason it has such vocal  advocates amongst its citizen users.

As an example of this: as we assess the available technology to help us work on this functionality, we’re being resolute about basing decisions on what the job needs, not which product has the most bells and whistles.

Geolocation

An avenue we’re also exploring as part of this work is the potential for extracting geolocation metadata from the photograph, which would cut down on the amount of detail the citizen needs to type in. However, here, again there are balances to be struck: we don’t want to increase the potential for errors where a phone’s GPS isn’t accurate enough, or where the data we pass onto councils isn’t as precise as they need it to be.

Mobile design and PWAs

Meanwhile, Designer Martin has been looking into the user experience on mobile, making improvements for what is increasingly the most popular way to report.

Design in progress on FixMyStreet mobile

We’ll soon be making the existing app redundant in favour of Progressive Web Apps (PWAs) — Martin’s work will still be relevant there, though.

PWAs are more flexible, allowing each council to incorporate their own branding and templates at no extra cost, and effectively offer residents what looks and feels just like a dedicated app. We’ve written a bit about these previously.

New development on Waste and Noise

Waste testing

Development continues on our Waste product. We’re integrating with Bromley and Veolia’s Echo system and doing plenty of testing around that — in particular, making sure it picks up on irregular dates such as bank holidays, and that it can handle the 48-hour window for reports of missed bin collections.

Noise and ASB

And, having completed our user research and consequence scanning exercises on the Noise concept, we’ve come to the conclusion that it should incorporate anti-social behaviour reports: Noise and ASB are so intertwined that it makes the most sense to combine them into a single service, albeit one that will divert each type of report to the relevant council department.

Feedback from our test users was all good, so we’ve now reported our findings back to Hackney and are waiting to hear if they’d like us to progress with integrating with their two back-end systems.

Meanwhile, you can see more about consequence scanning in the well-received session Martin led at LocalGovCamp a couple of weeks ago.

Security

Pen testing

We’ll be conducting one of our regular scheduled pen tests to ensure the security of FixMyStreet Pro.

New integrations

Symology and Alloy

We’re setting up a new instance of FixMyStreet Pro for our latest client: this one involved Symology, a system we’ve worked with extensively in the past, so it should be reasonably straightforward.

Hackney’s instance, an Alloy integration, should be going live by the end of this month, so we’re making plans for that.

One exciting feature here is that we’re looking into pulling ‘completion’ photos out of Alloy — that is, photos taken by the maintenance crew to show that the problem has been fixed — so we can display them on the relevant FixMyStreet report, and possibly also include them in an email update to the report-maker.

The sun shining through clouds over the sea. Image by Joshua Earle

Find SocietyWorks on G-Cloud 12

The quickest and easiest way to procure SocietyWorks services is on the G-Cloud digital marketplace.

You can find our street fault reporting system FixMyStreet Pro, and our Freedom of Information service FOI Works on the G-Cloud 12 framework right now.

Also available through this route is our Service Discovery programme, which you’ll find as an option on the FixMyStreet Pro PDF.

Procuring services through this government framework is faster and cheaper than entering into a direct contract: services come pre-approved, so there’s no requirement to go through a long process of tendering. You can see the full specs laid out, download PDFs to share your colleagues, and compare with other services on price and features.

Any questions? Just get in touch and we’ll be happy to help.

Image: Joshua Earle

 

LocalGovCamp logo

Join us at LocalGovCamp

We’re longstanding supporters of LocalGovCamp, the conference where innovators in Local Government come together to share knowledge on how to improve services.

This year we’re both sponsoring it and running a couple of hands-on, interactive sessions. All online, of course, given the way things are these days.

On Tuesday 6 October, join a mySociety-led discussion with Mark and Zarino, on how consistent data standards across councils could open the doors to much better innovation.

We’ll be looking at our own Keep It In The Community project, nodding to our Council Climate Action Plans database, and inviting attendees to join a wider discussion on how we can encourage better joined-up data across councils.

And on Weds 7 October, our designer Martin will be running a mock ‘consequence scanning’ exercise. He’ll take participants through a new and useful way of assessing and mitigating risks in new government services, as conceived by Dot Everyone, recently taken up by Future Cities Catapult, and now used successfully in service design workshops by SocietyWorks.

We hope you’ll come along and enjoy some good discussion and deep dives into local government service improvement: find out more and book your place here.

 

Image by Brad Stallcup. Drums and a mixer in a residential room.

Better noise reports

In our last post we explained how we’ve been developing a new Waste service with the London Borough of Bromley. At the same time, we’ve also been working with the team at Hackney Council to develop a simple, efficient path for citizens’ noise reports.

As with our explorations into Waste, the work on noise first required us to learn a lot in a very short period of time. What exact form do noise reports take; and how can a citizen make a useful, actionable report if they’re not sure precisely where the noise is coming from?

We also had to examine the characteristics that would class a report as an anti-social behaviour (ASB) complaint, and whether the report path should differ for these.

We’re now at the stage where we’ve created early prototypes for two workflows — noise-related ASB reports, and standard noise complaints. Next we’ll be thinking about whether the two journeys can be combined into a single tool.

Treading carefully

The handling of ASB reports carries its own potential hazards: we need to consider the possibility of unintended harm, such as the stigmatisation of at-risk individuals and families. 

The team at Hackney are well aware of the risks: and introducing process efficiencies through a new online service could make these issues much more acute if not considered properly. As such we are conducting an extended discovery process to go deeper into these issues upfront.  

During our workshops with Hackney so far, we have been able to look at the positives and negatives from the different viewpoints of council staff, citizens and the wider community, incorporating ‘Consequence Scanning’ into the discovery. 

Noise discovery workshop at Hckney

This exercise was originally developed by Dot Everyone and has more recently been adopted by Future Cities Catapult. It ensures everyone can take a 360 degree view of the possible consequences — both positive and negative — that might arise from a new service design, and consider what additional mitigations might need to be put in place.

Armed with these insights, we’ve created an alpha version of the Noise reporting tool that we’ll be sharing with Hackney shortly so that they can test it and give us feedback for the next phase. 

Our Designer Martin, who ran the workshops, says, “There’s a limit to what you can find out verbally, so we aim to get to the alpha version of a service as quickly as we can. 

“The knowledge and understanding we get from seeing people using a new service for the first time is invaluable and can be immediately fed back into the design process to become improvements or new features.”

Noise discovery workshop at Hckney

Need better noise services?

If you’d like to chat or find out more about how we’re progressing with the development of  our noise services, or any other aspect of the SocietyWorks local government suite, then please contact David through our online form or the details at the foot of this page.

 

Image: Brad Stallcup

Image by Alex Liivet - a cobbled Macclesfield hill

FixMyStreet for Cheshire East

Residents of Nantwich, Crewe, Wilmslow, Macclesfield, and every other part of Cheshire East will benefit from the council’s decision to implement FixMyStreet Pro as their official report-making system for highways issues.

FixMyStreet’s interface should come as a step improvement for both citizens and council staff, making the reporting process much simpler for all. 

FixMyStreet Pro will be integrating with the council’s existing Confirm CRM. Confirm is a popular choice for UK councils and we’ve dealt with it a lot, so the hook-up was very straightforward.

Customer service staff will also continue taking reports over the phone. They’ll input details into the system for inspectors to pick up — and these reports will also be shown on the council’s website (and fixmystreet.com) so the public can see what’s in progress and doesn’t need re-reporting.

A further benefit is that because FixMyStreet can define the information required from the report-maker (precise location, category, etc), the customer services team won’t need to review it as they had been doing previously.

So there are efficiency wins all round for Cheshire East. We welcome them to the growing number of councils who’ve opted for FixMyStreet Pro.

Image: Alex Liivet (CC by/2.0)

Image by Adeolu Eletu - a man looking at charts on a tablet

Councils are more in need of savings than ever. FixMyStreet Pro can help.

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:

  1. FixMyStreet is a proven catalyst to channel shift. Just take a look at Buckinghamshire Council’s experience, where the price of each report dropped from an average of £7.81 to just 9p — a massive 98.69% saving. We’ve said in the past that FixMyStreet Pro brings savings from day one — and we still stand by that.
  2. We reduce duplicate reports. Authorities tell us that responding to and dealing with reports of issues that have already been logged is a substantial expense — and all for nothing. That’s why we’ve introduced a number of features on FixMyStreet that not only dissuade duplicate reports, but allow the citizen to be kept updated as the issue is resolved.
  3. You can ditch legacy software FixMyStreet Pro’s back end offering has gone from strength to strength recently — and it now handles a lot of tasks that you may be paying a variety of other outdated systems to do. Good news: you can sweep them all away and just pay FixMyStreet pro’s very reasonable subscription cost instead.
  4. We don’t do lengthy tie-ins FixMyStreet Pro subscriptions are renewed annually, and there’s no contractual tie-in binding you to years of fees. Just keep us for as long as we’re useful.
  5. Citizens become your eyes and ears With such an easy interface, FixMyStreet Pro is a simple way for citizens to make reports. So even if you don’t have the budget for regular inspections, you’ll still be kept informed when issues arise.

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

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