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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

Arm holding a phone looking down the road at a pothole

Do photos help resolution of FixMyStreet reports?

FixMyStreet allows people to upload images along with a report. This can quickly provide the authority with more details of the issue than might be passed along in the written description, and lead to quicker evaluation and prioritisation of the repair. For problems that are hard to locate geographically by description (or where the pin has been dropped inaccurately), images might also help council staff locate and deal with the problem correctly.

In 2019, 35% of reports included photos. Accounting for several other possible factors,  reports with photos were around 15% more likely to be recorded as fixed than reports without a photo. In absolute terms, reports with photos were fixed at a rate two percentage points higher. This varies by category, with photos having a much stronger effect (highways enquiries and reports made in parks and open space) in some categories, and in other categories photos having a small negative effect in the resolution (reports of pavement issues and rights of way).

In general, these results suggest that attaching photos is not only useful for authorities, but can make it more likely that reporters have their problem resolved. There is a significant reservation that photos are much more useful for some kinds of reports than others. In terms of impacts on the service, when photos can convey useful information that helps lead to a resolution, users should be encouraged to attach them. Where photos are less helpful (such as problems encountered mostly at night), other prompt suggestions or asset selection tools may help lead to more repairs.

You can read more about the research on the mySociety blog.

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