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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.

A number 3 hanging from a wire

What you’ll notice on FixMyStreet 3.0

We recently released version 3.0 of the open source software which FixMyStreet runs on.

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.

Run the site as an app

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:

On Chrome for Android:

Installing FixMyStreet on Chrome on Android

Access from the bar at the bottom of the screen.

On iOS:

 

Share button on iOs

Click the share icon at the foot of the screen.

Add to homescreen

Then select ‘add to home screen’.

On Firefox for Android:

Installing FixMyStreet on Firefox for Android

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.

Mobile browser improvements

Whether you install the progressive web app or just visit fixmystreet.com on your mobile browser, you may notice some nice new features.

  • If you use the geolocation function (‘use my location’), your position will be displayed on the map:Marker showing user's location on FixMyStreet when viewed on a mobile browser
  • When viewing an area, you can access the filters to narrow the reports displayed down by their status (fixed/open etc) and category:Filter options on FixMyStreet's mobile browser interface
  • If you’re about to report something that looks like a duplicate, you’ll not only be shown the report/s that have already been made, but you’ll also see a small inline map without having to scroll back to the main map to check where they are.
  • The site recognises that when you’re on a mobile, the message about uploading a photo shouldn’t invite you to ‘drag and drop’, but rather to either take a new one or select a photo from your phone.Prompt to add a photo on FMS app
  • If you’ve placed the pin incorrectly, the ‘try again’ process is clearer.

Sharing reports

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.

Tweet showing a picture pulled through from a FixMyStreet report

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:

FixMyStreet RSS feeds before and after a design refresh

What benefits one, benefits all

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

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)

FixMyStreet for TfL — now live

Back in November, we announced our new partnership with Transport for London. We’re now pleased to say that the new Street Care service is live.

FixMyStreet interface for TfL

If you’re a seasoned user of FixMyStreet, there’s no learning curve required: you can proceed exactly as normal. If you prefer, you can carry on making reports through the national website at FixMyStreet.com or via the FixMyStreet app.

The only difference is that now, if the issue is the responsibility of TfL, that’s where your report will be routed, and that’s where updates will come from to let you know when the fix is in progress or completed.

The new service covers potholes, roadworks, bus shelters and traffic lights on the capital’s busiest roads — the ‘red routes’, which make up only 5% of the city’s highways, but account for a whopping 30% of traffic. Users can also report graffiti and flyposting, problems with hoardings, scaffolding and mobile cranes, street lights and damaged trees.

As ever, the underlying FixMyStreet platform means that you don’t need to think about who is responsible for your issue. If a problem is reported and it’s nothing to do with TfL, it’ll be automatically routed to the relevant borough or authority.

Glynn Barton, TfL’s Director of Network Management, said: “The TfL Street Care service will give people more information about the work we are doing on London’s road network and at bus stops and reassure Londoners that we really care about getting things fixed.”

It’s one more bit of joined-up thinking for the capital, that will make reporting easier for residents, commuters, and visitors, while also bringing increased efficiency at every stage of the process. We’re delighted to see it up and running.

See TfL’s press release here.

Image: Giammarco Boscaro

A FixMyStreet Pro heatmap

The heat is on

As part of FixMyStreet Pro’s ongoing development programme we’re pleased to announce that the heatmap feature, created with Bromley Borough Council, is now available to all clients on the Avenue tier.

Bromley wanted to see at a glance which issues are most prevalent, and where in the borough they are being reported. The heatmaps we developed in response to this need can be accessed through the staff dashboard.

These can be used in conjunction with the category dropdowns to display the report patterns for just one or any number of categories at a time.

If you’re a subscriber to our Avenue plan, the heatmap is now available to use. Just log in as a staff user, then click Admin > Stats > Heatmap. Let us know if you need any extra support, or if you have feedback about this feature.

Winkle_Street,_Calbourne,_Isle_of_Wight,_UK

Making things right on the Isle of Wight

FixMyStreet Pro has crossed the Solent, with Isle of Wight the latest council to install it as their official report-making interface.

Street issues on England’s largest island are handled by the company Island Roads, who keep things in order for residents and tourist alike, with responsibility for highways maintenance; road, pavement and cycleway improvements; street lights, street cleansing, winter gritting, bridges, drainage, street furniture and car parks.

As with all FixMyStreet Pro integrations, islanders can take their pick between making reports through the Island Roads website or on FixMyStreet.com; either way the issue will display on both sites, and drop directly into the case management system, Confirm.

What was different about this installation?

Island Roads requested a feature that we hadn’t previously developed for any of our other council clients, but which we suspect that some may be interested in now they know it’s available.

When a report is submitted, it drops into a special triage area where operatives can analyse it in more detail, ensure that it is categorised correctly, and check that it contains all the relevant information that the inspectors need in order to locate the fault and fix it.

Island Roads have also made use of another new piece of functionality: emergency categories.

If a user indicates the report might require immediate attention — say, in the case of a fallen tree on the road or a hazardous pothole — the form submission is disabled.

Instead, the user will see a message, telling them to call Island Roads directly:

Form changes if the user selects that the problem is urgent

The aim is that this simple safeguard will have a hand in preventing accidents.

Alex Brown, Systems Technician at Island Roads, said: “The focus of this development has been to enable the public to report their highway related issues to us easily, with the necessary information for us to respond appropriately and deal with the issues effectively. The project team at mySociety were excellent to work with and developed a solution which met our specific requirements.”

Image: Mypix [CC BY-SA 4.0]

More control for councils, with context-specific guidance and routing

Image of some graffiti

Making categories work for you

We’ve now made it much easier for councils who have FixMyStreet Pro installed to:

  • add context-specific guidance for users
  • route report-makers off to a different place if desirable
  • edit the names of categories.

The more you can do with your forms, the easier — and maybe even safer — it is for everyone.

For example, when someone picks “highways obstruction”, you might want to tell them that if the obstruction is a potential cause of accidents, they should make their report by phone.

Or when the ‘graffiti’ category is picked, you might want to add a question like, “Is this graffiti offensive?”. If the answer is ‘yes’, you know that you need to act more speedily to get it removed.

Pro users have always had the ability to do this, but we’ve now made it much simpler.

We’ve also added some extra functionality: if desired, when a user selects a particular category, or selects a particular answer to a question the form can be disabled altogether.

Here’s what these options look like in your admin interface:

FixMyStreet Pro additional editing abilities for councils

Just check the box if you’d like submission to be disabled when a specific category is chosen. To add questions, use the ‘add field’ button.

editing categories in FixmyStreet Pro

Once you’ve created your question/s, you can use the interface above to decide what happens when they are answered in specific ways.

Use cases

Why would you want to disable your forms?

Well, thinking again of highways obstructions, you may wish to ensure that any and every such report is reported by phone rather than via the site, so that it can be attended to as a matter of urgency.

As soon as that category is chosen, you can display a message to say ‘Please report all highways obstructions by phone, for rapid attention‘ and give the relevant phone number.

Any user who doesn’t register the message, and continues to try using the form (let’s face it, we all skim text on the internet), will find that they can’t submit it.

Pointing the way

If required, you can also add a link to point the user to a more suitable place to make their report. This means that you may even want to include categories for issues that you don’t actually deal with.

If you already know, for example, that your residents come to FixMyStreet trying to report gas and water leaks, parking issues or antisocial behaviour, you can include these as options, but disable the form submission and provide the correct link to take them to a preferable reporting route.

Finally, just a small thing but one which will save you time and effort: we’ve made it easier to change category titles.

We’ll be adding all these details to the user manual imminently, and hope you enjoy the increased flexibility and control that these features give you.

Image: Toa Heftiba

 

 

Image by Abraham Barrera - several roads converge into one, aerial view

Subcategories in multiple categories

Sometimes the route that’s best for the user isn’t the most obvious one. And sometimes, it takes talking to users to find that out.

When someone goes to make a report on FixMyStreet, they’re asked two things: the location of the issue, and its category.

Categories are set by each individual council and usually reflect their own internal structure — so for example, reports about potholes might be routed to the road maintenance crew, while reports about overflowing bins go to the waste management team.

Some councils have just a few categories (covering all bases with the broad titles of roads, graffiti, fly tipping, parks, pavements, and ‘other’) while many have a very detailed list (potholes, road markings,street signs, road blockages, spillages, and that’s just for starters…).

For a few years now, we’ve grouped subcategories under main headings, to make it easier for users to navigate what can turn into quite long drop-downs. And that seemed to deal with that.

Picking a category and subcategory on FixMyStreet

Until one of our council contacts did a little user research and discovered something that’s actually quite clear once it’s pointed out: users don’t necessarily all think the same way about categories that the council does.

It’s easy to assume that every subcategory of report has its own natural place — so for example, potholes sit under road repairs, while a pile of rubbish at the side of the road would go under fly tipping.

But say you want to report a piece of graffiti in the park loos. Would you look under ‘parks’, ‘public toilets’ or ‘graffiti’? Ideally the user picks the correct category so that the report can be forwarded to the cleaning crew, but we can’t assume they have the required insider knowledge on which is the best choice.

Now, with a bit of clicking round, the chances are that most users will eventually find the most relevant category — but why make them put in the effort? Our contact suggested that we introduce a simple change that should make things easier for everyone: so FixMyStreet Pro client councils can now opt to put any subcategory under one or more headers. If this is something you’d like to explore, drop us a line.

Our developers say: “The techy detail is that this is mostly getting in to FixMyStreet via the standard Open311. We fetch a list of services which contains details like category name, sometimes a description, the code to use for the council’s backend system and, optionally, a group.

“We’re now allowing the group to be a comma separated list of groups rather than a single one. It’s slightly trickier than that as it’s possible you want a comma in your group name so what we’re really doing is allowing the group item to be a single line of CSV which handles things like commas etc. We then parse this and where we stored a single group per category we now store a list of groups.”

If you didn’t follow that, don’t worry: all you need to know is that categories can now go under more than one header, and that life should be slightly easier for your residents as a result.

Image: Abraham Barrera

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