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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

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

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

Image by Jilbert Ebrahimi - a wheely bin against a sunny concrete wall

Sprint notes: 26 Oct – 6 Nov

Here’s everything SocietyWorks is up to this sprint.

A demo Waste site

As we’ve mentioned previously, we’re working on new functionality around bins and waste as part of the ongoing SocietyWorks brand and product expansion.

This service is coming on apace, and we’re creating a showcase site to demonstrate the new features as they become ready: as yet it’s really just a clickable prototype, but you can have a quick play with it here.

Roadmap progress

We’re moving forward on a couple of the tickets on our public Roadmap:

  • Hint tips that can be customised according  to the category
  • A newsflash banner that clients can add to their own cobrands.

Photos that show it’s all fixed

We’re a step closer to getting completion photos out of Alloy, and will be adding this to one of our client’s staging sites next week for feedback.

Making mobile better

FixMyStreet mobile improvements were demonstrated to everyone at mySociety last Friday — and board members also joined to see what progress has been made. We’re now scheduling in the development work to get these changes live with one of our Developers.

Image: Jilbert Ebrahimi

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.

Image by Matt Brown - letters spelling out 'Hackney' in a bush

Noise sprint notes: 12-23 Sep 2020

Welcome to the first of our sprint notes.

For anyone who’s interested in our work around Noise, or who would just generally like to understand more about how development is managed at SocietyWorks, these regular catch-ups will allow you to follow along as we progress through the various stages of making a new service.

So: here’s what we did last sprint.

  • Our designer Martin ran workshops with our contacts at Hackney, to find out more about their needs around Noise and AntiSocial Behaviour (ASB) reports.
  • He’s written these up, along with our recommendations, and will be sending a report back to Hackney very soon, ready for their feedback.
  • We’ve already made progress on what we’re now calling the Noise extension (in that it will be an add-on to the core FixMyStreet Pro service), and we’re now looking specifically at the more delicate area of ASB reports.
  • We’ve had some feedback from Hackney on this, but this sprint Martin will be chatting a bit more to the Noise Enforcement team, since they are the ones who deal with ASB issues and know best what they need from a piece of software.
  • Once we have that additional feedback, we’ll be looking at how best to incorporate those needs into the ASB development.

Image: Matt Brown (CC by/2.0)

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

Four wheely bins

Waste control

We’re rolling out two new SocietyWorks offerings, to extend the capabilities of FixMyStreet Pro while providing new and much needed services for councils. In this blog post, we’ll be introducing what we’ve been doing around Waste, and in the follow-up, you can find out how we’re approaching Noise

In the past 24 months FixMyStreet Pro has become the street report service of choice for dozens of local authorities. This has given us the investment that we have needed to broaden the range of services we offer to cater to the myriad ways that citizens might want to contact their council.

Working with you

As always, that has meant going back to our clients to ensure that we have a full understanding of what they really need, before looking at how we can transform that into a proposition that helps with efficiencies and cost savings, whilst ensuring easy engagement for citizens.

In this case, we’ve been working closely with the team at the London Borough of Bromley, asking them all sorts of questions: how do citizens order a new bin or container? What do we need to know about collection schedules? And if a bin gets missed, what’s the ideal route to resolving the problem?

We ran workshops with the Bromley team, which helped us fully understand the requirements of a busy council in the handling of complex residential waste offerings. They’ve had full input into the build of the new service, testing and feeding back on our early prototypes and alpha stages. 

“It’s great to be working with our partners at SocietyWorks on developing a new feature for FixMyStreet Pro. 

“There are some unique demands of the Waste Service which make it a little different to how our other services interact with FixMyStreet, as well as being a service that ranks high on the citizen and political agenda.  

“The SocietyWorks team have really taken the time to understand those demands and we’re looking forward to completing the testing and tweaks and going live!”

– Jonathan Richards, Technical Support Team Manager at Bromley

Getting it right

As with any new development, piecing together a really effective online Waste service brought its own set of fiddly issues to work through.

As just one example: we’ve had to understand the windows of time within which a citizen can report a missed bin collection, and how a bank holiday affects those timings — all second nature to those who have been working within those timescales for years, but a definite coding challenge for us! Just to be sure, we’ve conducted in-depth tests to make sure that no missing bin reports fall through the cracks.

“Designing a service that serves the citizen, but also works for the authority is a balancing act. 

“But we’ve found it’s entirely achievable. The first step is to listen to citizens’ needs: that sets you on the right path. 

“Then, that understanding can feed into the workflow, so long as you’re open to working in a responsive and flexible way — which might mean being proven wrong at some points along the line, and changing direction accordingly.”

Martin Wright, mySociety Designer

The plan is to launch the new service in the next four to six weeks, and then we’ll be working on phase two, which will include workflows that allow citizens to take actions such as ordering a bulky waste collection, and making payments. The discovery work for this has already started, and we’ll be sure to post updates about the progress over the next month. 

Need better waste services? Get involved

We’re currently integrating with Bromley’s Veolia system, but as with our street services we already integrate with all of the popular CRM and asset management systems and we’ll  apply the same approach to all of the main Waste management services  – we’d love to hear from councils who might be interested in this. 

If you’d like to chat or find out more details of the new waste product, please contact David through our online form or the details at the foot of this page.

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