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Image by chris Montgomery: a mug next to a laptop showing a Zoom call

Working from home? Don’t worry, that doesn’t change what we can do for you

Lockdown has changed the way we are all working. During the last few months, the UK has been asked to work from home where possible, and even as some restrictions are eased, we’re expecting to see this arrangement continue for those who are shielding themselves or family members. 

Some workplaces have realised that a remote set-up brings benefits to staff and to the organisation as a whole, and may never go back to ‘normal’.

As you may be aware, SocietyWorks and our parent organisation mySociety have been remote from their very beginnings: staff members are located all around the UK, all working from home and communicating online.

Pre-covid, we’d often visit councils face to face, perhaps to offer advice or make a pitch while they were considering the purchase of FixMyStreet Pro; and then sometimes again during set-up to speak with the IT department and make sure everyone was confident about how our systems would integrate. 

But such visits aren’t actually a necessity, as we proved during Lincolnshire’s implementation. This was managed 100% remotely, and so smoothly that Andrea Bowes, Lincolnshire’s ICT Data and Information Systems Architect, told us that they hadn’t even noticed that we’d never been in the same room together!

There’s no need at all for either us or your staff to be in the office at any stage of implementation: as a cloud-based service, FixMyStreet can be set up from anywhere. And  thanks to our own way of working, SocietyWorks are so used to video calls, email and shared documentation that it’s just as simple for us to conduct any staff training virtually. Don’t worry if you’re not used to that sort of thing (though we suspect that most people have had to become experts pretty quickly over the last few weeks!); we’ll handle all the logistics.

Looking to the future, if you are looking at having your customer service staff working at home on an ongoing basis, we’ll be happy to offer as much support and advice as you need  — about FixMyStreet Pro, or more widely. Of course, all our staff tools can be accessed from anywhere, so there are no issues from that point of view. But we’d be happy to go a step further and give any advice you might need on home working, based on our many years of experience.

As a first step into seeing what the experience of working virtually with SocietyWorks is, why not join us for a webinar, when we’ll take you through FixMyStreet Pro’s main features and answer any questions you may have. You can book a slot here or drop us a line if you don’t see a date that suits you.

Image: Chris Montgomery

Peterborough

Spreadsheets begone! FixMyStreet Pro for Peterborough

We know that in many cases, when we install FixMyStreet Pro for a new council, we’re bringing not only a smooth reporting interface for residents, but also a better day-to-day experience for staff. In the case of Peterborough City Council, that was very much the case.

A very manual process

Peterborough had been using a stopgap solution for street reports, after the service they had been using ceased to exist. So, for some time, residents had been asked to make their reports through basic online forms. Not too onerous, but clunky enough.

The real pain point was mostly experienced, however, by council personnel. Customer services staff had the job of manually transferring the details from a spreadsheet and into the council’s Confirm CRM, where highways inspectors could pick up the reports and act upon them.

Then, once an issue had been resolved, inspectors manually updated another spreadsheet to let the customer service centre know of the status change, in case the report-maker called for an update.

There was no automated means by which a user could be updated with progress on reports, or told when it had been fixed.

So in short, FixMyStreet Pro will be making life easier all round, for staff and for residents. Plus the easier internal workflow should save a substantial amount of time and money, while keeping citizens engaged and informed every step of the way.

Improved efficiency

Councillor Farooq Mohammed said, “The introduction of FixMyStreet has brought in significant improvements to the services PCC provide to its residents. FixMyStreet not only brings efficiencies to various service departments, it is very user friendly and easy to use for our residents. This improves the response time to our residents.”

And Peterborough’s ICT Project Manager Jason Dalby added, “mySociety fully understood the challenges we face as a local authority and very quickly turned our requirements into an automated fault reporting system with integration into our Highways back office Confirm system, improving our efficiency by eliminating manual data entry.

“We are proud to be partners with mySociety and continue to work closely with them to improve FixMyStreet for our mutual benefit”.

We’ll continue working with the council over the next few months on their other service areas too, so watch this space.

If you’re a council and there’s potential for efficiencies in your reporting system (whether large or small), do get in touch.

Image: Dun.can (CC by/2.0)

FixMyStreet Pro for Westminster

London’s best known and most-visited neighbourhood is now covered by FixMyStreet Pro. If a user is living, working or sightseeing in the borough of Westminster, their reports will drop directly into the council’s own MSDynamics365 system. 

In this first phase, the following categories are covered, with potholes, street signs and lights to follow soon:

  • Bins
  • Drains
  • Fly tipping
  • Graffiti
  • Flyposting
  • Street cleaning
  • Vehicles

Users can make a report either via fixmystreet.com or on the Westminster website, and in either case they’ll go directly into the council systems to be dealt with. There’s also the option to use the council’s My Westminster portal.

Why Westminster chose Pro

The council was satisfied with its internal systems for report handling, but both senior staff and councillors agreed that they wanted to offer something more user-friendly for their website visitors. 

mySociety’s knowledge and experience helped us deliver this project smoothly to further improve the efficiency and transparency of our City Management teams

FixMyStreet Pro is the ideal solution in this situation: we’ve worked for years on making the interface resolutely simple for all to use, and it can connect seamlessly with any existing internal set-up.

Councillor Paul Swaddle, Cabinet Member for Customer Services and Digital, Westminster City Council, says: “mySociety have been professional, from the point of contracting all the way through to deployment of our new ‘Report it’ application.

“Their team worked in partnership with council staff to integrate FixMyStreet into our systems including CRM against challenging timescales. They also supported us in delivering several successful resident engagement sessions, and quickly reflecting user feedback in the WCC branded version of the site.

“mySociety’s knowledge and experience helped us deliver this project smoothly to further improve the efficiency and transparency of our City Management teams.”

Especially for Westminster

As with all FixMyStreet Pro installs, this one has its own distinct features. It’s been a very collaborative project with the council, in which they’ve provided a specialised adapter that allows FixMyStreet to connect with their CRM, and we managed the configuration and a single sign-in functionality.

This involved integration with the council’s own My Westminster log-in, a pre-existing service where users can keep track of their reports, planning applications and so on. 

As well as the normal interfaces, you can now make a report through a My Westminster account, and this means that only a single log-in is required: ideal for the local resident who may be completing several community-based tasks in short order. We’ll be writing more about this in a forthcoming post.

Talking to the back end

Westminster use Microsoft Dynamics 365 for their CRM, so FixMyStreet Pro needed to be able to pass reports into it and retrieve status updates back from it, all with no interruption to users or staff. This was achieved with an adapter, specially created by Westminster’s IT department, and the Open311 protocol which allows for a standard report output.

Report with no name

This installation also features something we haven’t implemented before: anonymous reporting. For a really frictionless experience, users can log an issue without providing contact details or even a name. Of course, if this option is chosen, they won’t get any updates to the report’s status, but it certainly makes things quick and easy.

Testing with the people that matter

Westminster have been a shining example of best practice when it comes to implementing a new service. They did something that ideally all authorities would do when introducing a new online system, inviting potential users in to have a go, and feed back their thoughts.

 

 

Once they had had a chance to enjoy that amazing view from the council offices, local residents tried out the report making interface. mySociety designer Martin was there to take notes, and users’ feedback was added directly into our development roadmap.

We hope that they, and all residents of Westminster, will be happy with their new service.

If you would like to explore the installation  of FixMyStreet Pro for your own council, please do drop us a line and we’ll be happy to talk.

Top image: Dean Molyneaux (CC by-sa 2.0)

Hounslow Central Underground station, Greater London © Copyright Nigel Thompson and licensed for reuse under the Creative Commons Licence.

Speedy integration for Hounslow

Hounslow is the latest borough to adopt FixMyStreet Pro, adding to the ever-growing share of Greater London councils who have chosen the service as their main street reporting interface.

As with other Pro integrations, citizens can now make reports via the Hounslow website or on FixMyStreet.com; either way they’ll display on both sites, and will drop directly into the council’s case management system — in this case, Confirm.

It’s part of a dual contract with contractors Ringway that operates the highways contract on behalf of the London Borough of Hounslow: watch this space for the other council implementation going live soon on the Isle of Wight.

In fact, this installation has involved a seamless transfer which minimised the impact on council staff; everything was handled through Ringway, including user testing via their network of volunteer ‘Lay Assessors’.

Thanks to a lot of previous experience with Confirm, it’s all proven very straightforward from our point of view. The whole system was up and running in just two weeks, something of a record for FixMyStreet Pro implementation — and a great illustration of just how quickly councils can get going and start to see real change in their customer interface with FixMyStreet Pro if everything is in place.

Rob Gillespie, Ringway’s Regional Director, agrees: “I have been impressed with the level of engagement and simplicity of this change. The team behind FixMyStreet has supported our team to develop a service that I believe will be a real game-changer for the industry. Our aim was to improve the accessibility of our highway services, and improve the connectivity between customers and our operational teams. This partnership has really delivered on these expectations.”

 

Image: Nigel Thompson (CC by-sa/2.0)

Fish sculpture in Erith

A Symology integration for Bexley

We proudly boast that we can integrate FixMyStreet Pro with any existing council CRM — and that’s the truth, though it’s always interesting to see what challenges each new one will bring.

Thanks to the London Borough of Bexley coming on board as our latest client, we can add Symology to the ever-growing list of systems that are proven to work in harmony with FixMyStreet.

There were two new challenges to solve to ensure a smooth integration here. First, although Symology has an API, which is the easiest way to ask a CRM to provide you with regular feeds of data, we couldn’t find a way to extract updates on reports from it. These updates are what keep our users informed of the progress of their issues, so we needed to find a different way to extract them.

No problem, thanks to Bexley’s obliging and responsive team: to get around this issue, they set up a regular CSV export for us. FixMyStreet Pro can automatically parse this and take in the contents, then publish updates on the site as appropriate.

The other challenge was that Symology has no functionality to perform ‘logic assignations’ — in other words, using the relevant fields of a report in order to send them on to the correct team, assign them the right priority, or apply analysis codes. Fortunately, we were able to integrate all the necessary moving parts into our Open311 adapter functionality, making sure reports will be directed to the right place.

A final belt and braces move is that when a report is identified as high priority, we send it to a dedicated priority email address as well as into the system, to make extra sure that it is seen as quickly as possible.

We enjoyed meeting these challenges for Bexley, who were receptive to all our suggestions and very helpful working with us to get them implemented.

Everything that happened to get this integration up and running need not trouble the residents of Bexley, of course. Reporting their issues will be smooth and simple — and that’s the end result we always strive for.

 


Image: Nigel Cox (CC by-sa/2.0)

New functionality: roles for staff users

We’ve now introduced Roles to FixMyStreet Pro — the ability to create a group of specific permissions which can then be applied to one or more users without having to assign them individually.

For councils, one of the great advantages of FixMyStreet Pro has always been the ability to assign permissions to staff at a very granular level: each staff member can be given a pick and mix range of permissions depending on precisely what they need to be able to do, from moderating a report to updating its status, etc.

However, much as this option can be useful, we also recognise that if you have several staff members who all have precisely the same range of responsibilities, it’s a bit of a hassle to go in and set the permissions for each one — especially when you’re first setting up, and are likely to be adding lots of staff at one time. Now you can have your roles set up, give them names that makes sense to you, and assign as many users to them at once as you like.

Once a role has been created, it’ll always be there so that if staff move on or new people come on board, you can still assign them exactly the same group of permissions. And of course, you can go in and tweak the list of permissions at any time if your organisation’s structure changes, or you just want to refine the set-up a bit.

Let us know how you find this new feature! And of course we are always keen to hear of any other improvements you think would be useful, to any part of FixMyStreet Pro.

Picking which permissions a role can have

 
The role with its permissions listed

Four cardboard jigsaw peuecs fitting together. Image by Rawpixel.

Towards more elegant integration

How FixMyStreet Pro copes with a diverse range of different council systems

Full integration: it’s one of FixMyStreet Pro’s main selling points. When a council signs up as a Pro customer, we hook our systems up to theirs. Citizens’ FixMyStreet reports drop directly into the existing workflows, and the council’s updates are fed back to them. Both sides continue to work exactly as they always have, but now they are communicating with one another.

Our dream set-up is when a council uses an Open311 interface, which makes this hookup very straightforward — but it’s pretty rare that things are that simple.

mySociety developer Struan explains the Open311 translation setup we’ve put in place, that keeps everything working smoothly and has the added benefit of keeping our code tidier. While his account is pretty easy for any reader to follow, this will definitely be of most interest to coders and council IT folk.

Struan: In FixMyStreet’s early days, all reports were sent to councils by email: this was done with a big script that essentially grabbed a list of any reports that hadn’t been sent, looked up the email address to send them to based on the council and report category, sent the email and marked the report as sent.

This was fine until we started offering proper integration with council systems. Barnet was our first council client, and initially we just added some if Barnet: use other send code bits to the script. But as more councils came on board, this wasn’t really sustainable — you don’t want code full of various exceptions for each council.

Checking out libraries

At that point we rewrote things so that the sending method was stored in the database against the council, and moved the sending code out into a set of libraries with a common interface. This meant that when the sending code got to a report, it could look up how to send it in the database and use the appropriate library to send it. This also means that from our end, changing how a council accepts reports is as easy as selecting a different option in the Send Method drop down in the admin.

One benefit of this setup is that we were able to add a method to pause sending to a council, which is handy if they are doing something like weekend maintenance. Reports get queued in FixMyStreet and we don’t get the many error emails saying can’t send to council X.

This was a fine approach, but as we added more integrations this resulted in more and more code in FixMyStreet which was fundamentally about our commercial operations and not relevant to anyone else installing the open source FixMyStreet codebase for their own country. We needed a way to move this code, and any configuration related to it, out of FixMyStreet.

Speaking Open311

One of the sending libraries that we created sends reports over Open311, which has the advantage that it’s pretty flexible and handles pretty much everything you need to communicate as part of an integration: sending reports, fetching reports, fetching updates, sending updates and fetching report categories. Obviously, it would be lovely if every council could provide us with an Open311 interface, as we could just plug that in directly. Sadly this is not the case.

So, we did the next best thing: we provide our own internal Open311 interface to FixMyStreet which then translates Open311 calls into whatever format the customer’s system requires. This removes the need to add code to FixMyStreet for a new integration, and it also moves lots of the integration specific configuration out of FixMyStreet too.

It works by using the jurisdiction_id that Open311 passes in to load up the correct configuration so most of our council integrations look pretty much the same on the FixMyStreet side.

Inside the Open311 adapter code we do various things to make the actual back end system work like Open311 expects. Some of the calls Open311 makes require multiple calls to an integration to carry out so the adapter does those and aggregates them for the response. We also do things like transforming complicated hierarchies of attributes representing category types into a much simpler list.

The Open311 adapter itself is stateless: it simply translates calls from FixMyStreet and hands back the results. Overall, it makes things much simpler on the FixMyStreet side and moves a load of irrelevant code elsewhere. So far it’s working pretty well with six integrations running through it.

Image: rawpixel

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

New FixMyStreet Pro case studies from client councils



We know there’s no substitute for hearing straight from other customers when you’re considering a big purchase, so you may be glad to hear that we’ve added to our Case Studies section.

You can now read about Lincolnshire County Council, Bath & North East Somerset District Council, and — for the contractor’s point of view — Transport for Buckinghamshire, the banner under which Ringway Jacobs provide services for the council.

We’re glad to be able to include direct quotes from clients, which really give you a taste of how the process was for them. Here are three of our favourites:

“The whole implementation process, from start to finish, has been incredibly smooth.” Andrea Bowes, ICT Data and Information Systems Architect at Lincolnshire County Council

“Feedback from staff across the organisation is almost unanimously positive, in stark contrast to that of the system FixMyStreet replaced.”
James Green, Business Implementation Officer at B&NES Council

My role is to help improve customer satisfaction, and FixMyStreet certainly makes the reporting of defects as easy as it could be, so I’ve no complaints there. Dan Elworthy, Customer Projects Officer for Ringway Jacobs

You’ll find these, and a selection of other case studies, in the menu at the top of this page.

What does backend integration actually mean?

mySociety developer Struan wrote a great update recently, describing everything we do when we integrate FixMyStreet Pro with a council’s system.

It was really for his colleagues to read, but it seemed like a shame to keep it only for our own consumption, because it’s a super-clear explanation, even for the less technically-inclined. So we thought we’d publish it here, as well. We hope you find it as useful as we did!

One of the benefits of FixMyStreet Pro’s Boulevard and Avenue plans is that, instead of sending emails to the council, we put reports directly into the council’s back end systems.

‘System’ can mean a lot of things, but for FixMyStreet we’re usually working to integrate with some sort of software that manages assets, often run by the council’s highways team. If you hear someone muttering about Confirm, Exor or WDM then we’re talking about one of these systems.

The most basic thing we can do when connecting FixMyStreet up to one of these systems is to take the information that a report-maker enters on FixMyStreet and put it into the equivalent fields in the council’s system. This is largely automating the process of cutting and pasting from an email that the council staff were probably doing before, and while that’s already a win for the council in terms of saving time and resources, we can usually do much better than this.

For example, we can pull a list of report categories out of the council’s system. This means that category changes don’t need to be made in both the backend system and FixMyStreet; they only need to happen in the backend system, and they’ll be automatically reflected on FixMyStreet without anyone having to remember to make the update on that side too.

This isn’t always practical, often because councils have many categories, not all of which they want to expose to the public. In those cases we still have to update the categories at our end. However, even doing this by hand in an integration allows us to add various bits of metadata to categories which are useful to the council. If we’ve automated this then all the metadata is pulled in as part of the automated process.

Depending on the council’s preferences/set-up, this metadata can include extra information to gather for certain categories, e.g. “how large is the pothole?” or information such as streetlight numbers associated with the category. These can help the council prioritise reports and also reduce the need to go back to the user to ask for further information.

The other thing integrations allow us to do, is both send — and more importantly for the council— fetch updates on reports. Not only does this mean that the council only needs to update the problem in their internal system; it enables better reporting on the current problem state.

While a member of the public can only mark a problem as fixed, a greater range of states are available to councils (Investigating, Work Scheduled and so on) which helps make it a bit clearer what’s happening with a report. Councils often have a fairly complicated internal workflow so another step in the integration can be mapping their internal status codes to those displayed on FixMyStreet.

From a public perspective, this also means that updates to a problem get to the council (we don’t email updates on reports; they’ve historically been presented as a way for FixMyStreet users to discuss an issue rather than to chase an issue or note a change in its status). This is also good for the council as it means if a member of the public isn’t happy with their response then they find out.

The gritty technical details

FixMyStreet’s native way to communicate with outside systems is Open311, an open standard for problem reporting.

Unfortunately, most council systems don’t speak Open311, so we need to write code that sends information in whatever format they use. We used to do this by adding code directly into FixMyStreet, which wasn’t too bad as the problem sending code is pretty modular and supports plug-ins for the actual sending process.

Once we started adding more integrations we wanted to move away from this approach, largely to avoid clogging up the main FixMyStreet codebase. As Open Source code, FixMyStreet has been deployed in many countries around the world, and it is unlikely that people running their own sites abroad would need this part of the code, and certainly not the whole range of different systems we were covering.

So now, most of our integrations communicate through a proxy that accepts Open311 requests, transforms them into requests to the council’s backend system and then transforms the responses back into Open311. The proxy is an evolution of the code our ex-colleague Hakim wrote some time ago for a previous integration.

Open311 is a pretty flexible standard, so there’s lots of room to pass custom information about, and that means we can hide quite a lot of the complexity in the proxy and never have to touch FixMyStreet’s code.

For councils where we can’t automatically fetch the list of categories, all the configuration is included in the proxy, making this invisible to FixMyStreet.

As more and more councils come on board, the process of adding integrations to the proxy will become easier. For example, now that we’ve set up a few Confirm integrations, any new clients using Confirm will require less code-writing and it’ll just be a matter of configuring mappings and categories.

And even if we’re integrating with a system we haven’t come across before, we now have a standard pattern of work, meaning that more of the code is in the specific implementation, and less in the set-up. That makes for a quicker, easier implementation all round.

Want to know more? Drop us a line and we’ll happily answer all your questions.

Image: Randall Bruder

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