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Team post: Two days at Open Data Camp

At SocietyWorks we believe in transparency. One of the ways we live this value is by working in the open, and giving our team members space on our blog to write about what they’re working on, something they’re interested in or even perhaps a mistake or challenge they’ve learned from.

In this blog post our Head of Development, Matthew Somerville, writes about his experience attending the Open Data Camp 9 unconference in Manchester on 6 and 7 July 2024.

Last weekend, I went to the Open Data Camp 9 unconference in Manchester. I hadn’t been to an Open Data Camp before; it was very well organised, with good food, lots of volunteers, a creche, people from Drawnalism making lovely pictorial summaries of many of the sessions (see the website link above, and I’ll embed some from the sessions I went to below so you can see how amazing they are), they organised accommodation (if you needed it), and more.

For those who might not know what is meant by “open data”, there was a session about that – there’s a really good summary in the session notes at Open Data 101: Open Day for Newbies (2024 edition). The definition given there is: “Open data is data that can be freely used, reused and redistributed by anyone, subject at most only to the requirement to attribute and share alike.”

Here at mySociety and SocietyWorks, we use, reuse, and publish a lot of open data. For example, MapIt is based on open data, as is FixMyStreet and FixMyStreet Pro. TheyWorkForYou is repurposing open data into a slightly better format and WhatDoTheyKnow also includes a lot of open data.

A photo of a green lego map of the UK with multicoloured lego bricks placed in various locations to show where people had come from to the event
A lego board at the event showed where attendees had come from

The venue was the Engineering building of the University of Manchester, which was round the corner from where I went to school (more on that later), and perfectly designed for an unconference, with four separate rooms all coming off a central hub room for food/ drinks/ chats. They had a Lego board to show where people had come from, and a pile of old out-of-copyright Manchester maps.

At this unconference, the pitches were ideas that people wanted to talk about and discuss as a group with interested others – I was happy just to see what came up and hopefully have some interesting conversations.

Day one

A drawing summary of the pitches on day 1 at Open Data Camp by Drawnalism
A drawing summary of the pitches on day 1 at Open Data Camp by Drawnalism

In the morning, I first went to a talk about deleting data and having too much data, which was a broad look at the costs of maintenance and APIs vs datasets. I raised the idea of it being much easier to maintain/look after if the open data is embedded within the processes of that data (e.g. your street light asset management system leading directly to the publication of that street light data, not requiring a special export to a special open data platform that could be subject to the vagaries of the current postholders). Following this I attended a discussion about the digital/data priorities of the first 100 days of the new Labour government.

A drawing summary of a session on open data and the new Labour government by Drawnalism

In the afternoon, I went to a session about data on elected officials / elections by Open Data Manchester, who had made e.g. a poster of deprivation vs representation, and were looking at doing more with councillor information and data. I contributed some info on how TheyWorkForYou and WriteToThem works, our combined IMD dataset, and the popolo standard for representative data.

Then it was over to Owen Boswarva’s session on the campaign/case for open addresses. This has always been a topic dear and core to us; WriteToThem and TheyWorkForYou cannot provide accurate answers for every single postcode due to the lack of open address data. I/we were well-known by everyone there, and it was a look at the current situation and what could be done to push this forward. The new government is of course one possibility, and the new Business & Trade Minister (in charge of Royal Mail, if not Ordnance Survey) has met with people on this exact topic.

A drawing summary of a session on open addresses by Drawnalism

The last session I went to on the first day was about web scraping, open data, and ethics. Lot of self-awareness at this, looking at my and our history with TheyWorkForYou, Mapumental, traintimes, Theatricalia, someone else’s project on scraping Warm Spaces locations, and what differences are there in terms of ethicalness and behaviour.

Day two

A drawing summary of the pitches on day 2 of Open Data Camp by Drawnalism

Day two, after catching the same bus I used to catch as a kid to school (ever so slightly more expensive now), I went to a session by two people from Raileasy, wanting to talk about open data success stories in public transport. Lots of good chat about train data, bus data and the pros and cons of decentralisation.

Being that it’s a phrase we use often here at SocietyWorks when talking about what we help local authorities with, I couldn’t not go to a session called “Closing the feedback loop” by someone from Open Data Scotland discussing how do/can producers of open data be made aware of how their data is used; e.g. in the government case, generally so they know they shouldn’t just turn it off (though turning it off does bring people out of the woodwork, certainly!). Other possibilities discussed included asking for an email as ‘payment’ for getting the data, and in order to get notified of updates or deletions; or having a place to show/link to examples of how that specific data is used.

After lunch, the organisers ran a “go outside and explore” session to try and notice things you might not normally notice, with an animal avatar. I wanted to go back and see my old school, so I co-opted the octopus group to do this, and we had a nice walk around the area (which again, is quite changed from the 1990s and the Crescents), finding a wildflower meadow while we discussed open data.

Lastly, I went to data horror and data joy stories, where you can probably imagine some of the things talked about – one thing I mentioned was the opening up of Bank Holiday data in an official GOV.UK JSON file, which meant I could submit a Pull Request on GitHub when there was a mistake, and from there find out that Scotland had forgotten to create a Bank Holiday in 2010 and 2011

Other sessions I didn’t go to, but would have liked to…

And probably more – do take a quick look through their blog.

That’s it! Thanks for having me, Open Data Camp!


Musings on a Local Government Digital Service

At SocietyWorks we believe in transparency. One of the ways we live this value is by working in the open, and giving our team members space on our blog to write about what they’re working on, something they’re interested in or even perhaps a mistake or challenge they’ve learned from. 

This blog post has been written by Bekki Leaver, our Head of Product, who shares her thoughts on the potential creation of a Local Government Digital Service. 

There’s been some chatter around what a ‘Local Government Digital Service’ might look like, what it could offer, how it might contribute to digital services for local authorities and how it could be staffed. As a Government Digital Service (GDS) alumna and current digital service provider for local government, I have opinions on where there could be value here and what is likely to ruffle some feathers.

GDS have had considerable success at delivering tools to support central government (and local government, come to think of it) in building better services. They’ve centralised resource heavy processes others can simply tap into, such as GOV.UK Pay, Notify and the future One Login, to make complicated features easy to add. 

The design system and service communities have gone a long way to helping create accessible, consistent services. But now every department has its own iteration of the design system, because there isn’t a one-size-fits-all compendium of components and patterns, which highlights very well the problem with an alliance of local authorities working on digital services.

Even when authorities share a common goal and have the same internal systems, their approach and configurations can be wildly different

As an example, take FixMyStreet Pro and its integrated street reporting, our flagship product at SocietyWorks. While it could be said we “built it once” and can then ship that product out to whoever might want it, what actually happens is we do considerable customisation and configuration to our product so it can fit within the processes and ways of working within an authority. 

The experiences I’ve had at SocietyWorks clearly exemplify that even when authorities share a common goal and have the same internal systems, their approach and configurations can be wildly different, influenced by service level agreements, other systems or applications, or staff delivering a service.

The institution and its services need to reflect the people whom it serves. What works in a metropolitan city environment won’t work in a rural one

I think it would also be fair to say there’s a sense of personality and identity embedded in local authorities, a sense of pride for the place you live, and even a bit of competition with the neighbours. It’s not the faceless behemoth central government can be perceived as; it needs to be local and relevant to residents. The thought of imposing generic service provision onto these entities feels almost cruel. The institution and its services need to reflect the people whom it serves. What works in a metropolitan city environment won’t work in a rural one.

We all want to achieve the same goals, and regularly come across the same problems, but to solve them in the best way isn’t going to be some great overseer. It’s going to be collaboration on the ground at the most appropriate time. I see this in the partnerships throughout the UK of authorities banding together to solve their problems in smaller, more local ways, and in SocietyWorks’ own User Groups, bringing together those who use our services to learn from each other within a specific remit.

Overall, I’m really impressed with the things I see from these smaller partnerships and alliances, and I’m not convinced a LGDS is needed. Smaller partnerships definitely feel more approachable than a centralised organisation when, as part of an SME, I want to get involved. 

We need to properly establish the problem(s) and context we’re working in. We have regional specific groups, problem specific groups, and publications, communities, and awards to highlight the great work coming out of them. Do we need more channels to come together? I’m not convinced, but I’d absolutely volunteer to get involved in establishing the why, what and how!

If you’d like to chat to Bekki about anything in her blog post, you can connect with her on LinkedIn.

Image: charlesdeluvio


Team post: Forecasting and decision making in uncertainty

At SocietyWorks we believe in transparency. One of the ways we live this value is by working in the open, and giving our team members space on our blog to write about what they’re working on, something they’re interested in or even perhaps a mistake or challenge they’ve learned from. 

This blog post has been written by Angela Dixon, our Managing Director, who shares her thoughts on financial forecasting and decision making in uncertainty.

As well as being Managing Director of SocietyWorks, I am also an accountant.

This is not a confession about my number crunching roots, but rather a reflection on how leadership’s approach to utilising financial information for decision making can either enable or inhibit teams. Our approach can either carve out pathways through difficult budget and resource constrained terrains, or reinforce walls that stop our teams from even glimpsing the potential of the land beyond.

I have been a chartered accountant for twenty years and served in a number of financial leadership positions across industry and the third sector. This experience has provided me with a unique lens through which to assess decision making at the most senior levels of organisations. 

At SocietyWorks, we are fast approaching our financial year end and have recently presented our analysis of the year-that-was alongside our plans and forecasts for the year-to-come to our board for accountability and scrutiny. 

While I am incredibly fortunate to work with a mission driven board that recognises the important financial and non-financial variables that matter for effective evaluation and decision making, ‘year-end’ has also got me thinking about the scale and complexity of the financial and bureaucratic challenges in the local authorities we serve. 

What follows are some humble reflections on year-end through a financial leadership lens, shared in full recognition that every organisation will have their own particular localised concerns, pressures, and complexities to navigate.

Reflections for public sector decision makers and financial leaders

When we operate in conditions of scarce resources, whether people or budgets, every decision counts. The bigger, more strategic, decisions we make in an organisation are the ones that have the most inherent uncertainties.

Uncertainty should not stop decisions being made, but rather challenge us to be more alert to the variables

All decision makers need to face up to the uncertainty in the environments we operate in. This should force us into meaningful collaborative dialogue about risk, proportionate mitigation strategies that may be available, and acceptance or non acceptance of risk that remains. 

Uncertainty should not stop decisions being made, but rather challenge us to be more alert to the variables in our internal and external operating environments, known and unknown. We should train ourselves and our teams to be alert to signals of potential risks materialising, and symptoms of those that may already have materialised, and be ready to respond swiftly through collaborative dialogue, problem definition and appropriate problem solving measures. 

Well presented financial modelling and indicators highlighting business critical variables can support the visualisation of potential future scenarios. This will support better quality decision making in uncertainty. While none of us has a crystal ball to predict the future, quality and iterative forecasting can help with futurecasting and the framing and defining of options. 

Monthly, quarterly, and year end financial accounts and analysis of historic reporting periods are useful for the recognition and evaluation of where we have been, but it is important to remember that none of us has the power to influence and change the past. We may think it is worth investing time and energy to change the overarching narratives that tell the stories of the past, but all that energy investment reduces that which could be spent on collaborating for more quality decision making to carve out a better future. 

Regular and iterative financial forecasting which highlights assumptions known and unknown, certainty and uncertainty, is more crucial to provide the critical information to inform decisions that will impact our future pathways. Quality financial analysis will support the revisiting of previously forecast futures and prompt collaborative reflection as to whether slight directional change, more substantial pivot, hold-our-nerve, pause or halt is the best response.

If experience has taught me anything it’s to experiment and take risks at scales that are acceptable within your own financial and organisational context and risk appetite

A financial year end is just a date. It is a line drawn in the sand. It is not tangible in the sense of a physical gate we pass through at a particular time. If a financial year end is treated as more than just a date when one reporting period ends and another begins, where an activity happening or budget spent on one day is so much more important than on the very next day, it will create perverse incentives that drive behaviours that will hinder effective prioritisation or distribution of resources. 

Days follow days and our planning, delivery, and evaluation cycles should be more fluid and responsive to our emerging operating environments. If they are not, then we will certainly waste time and resources and focus scarce energy on building narratives and past storylines that do not help solve our ongoing and future challenges.

Final thoughts  

I believe in failing fast and learning faster. If experience has taught me anything it’s to experiment and take risks at scales that are acceptable within your own financial and organisational context and risk appetite, and be happy to revisit past assumptions, decisions, and iterate or pivot when appropriate. 

At SocietyWorks our conversations are had transparently and in the open with our board which provides essential accountability and governance for a mission driven business. We speak about potential risks before they materialise and operate on a no-surprises basis. This has built open and trusting relationships between the board and executive team. We encourage critical challenge which is received with a spirit of openness, and responded to with collaborative dialogue and shared ownership for resolution. 

In this post, I have shared a handful of thoughts which I hope may be useful to prompt some reflection on the processes behind decision making in organisations. With leaders role modelling focus on the right things, we may open up the potential of our teams for better seeing the systems we operate within, and the different levers and variables that interact and influence our potential futures. This may in turn open up the space and creativity to work through pressing priorities in spite of challenging and difficult resource and budget constraints.

If you’d like to chat to Angela about anything in her blog post, you can connect with her on LinkedIn.

Image: Jordan Ladikos


How we’re prioritising the admin user experience of our products

While we pride ourselves on building digital solutions that make it easier for citizens to interact with local authorities, we also want our products to be just as easy to use for the staff members at those authorities. In this blog post, Bekki Leaver, our Head of Product, talks about how we’re currently working on enhancing the admin user experience of SocietyWorks’ digital solutions.

An often neglected facet of designing digital services and the tools that enable them is the experience of the staff user. In SocietyWorks’ case, staff users of our products would be the council staff and sometimes external contractors who use both the administration interface and the front end of our solutions. 

Giving equal priority to the admin user experience alongside that of the end user is something I’ve got a keen interest in, because during the course of my professional career I have seen the remarkable benefits to organisations that well thought out staff interfaces and tools can have.

Why is the staff admin user experience important?

When you’re on the phone to a contact centre and they’re apologising for their slow or unresponsive system, that’s poor customer and staff user experience. When an employee is having to copy and paste fields from a spreadsheet into another tool, that’s poor staff user experience. When you have to know the foibles of a piece of software on top of your area of expertise, that’s poor staff user experience.

For many years the expectations staff have of the tools and software they are required to use in their roles have been low. Using archaic HR platforms to request leave was just something you put up with, but as the workforce changes, and staff become more digitally literate, doing complex, previously unachievable things online every day, their expectations are higher and their tolerance for bad experiences is lower.

The value of good staff user experience parallels that of good customer experience; lower barriers to entry, higher satisfaction, improved relationship. There are also the benefits of better efficiency where intuitive, easy to use interfaces speed up interactions while also involving less training.

What we’re doing

Improving the user experience for a product is never a finished task, with expectations changing all the time. Here at SocietyWorks, there’s a lot we would like to do to enhance the staff user experience of our products, which have advanced at a fast rate over the last few years.

Take FixMyStreet Pro for example, which now provides staff users with greater access to more controls and options through its administration interface.

As we continue to grow and expand the administration features and functionality of our products, we are keen to make sure that any improvements we make for the benefit of staff users are guided by those users themselves.

We’ve reached out to a group of authorities that use our solutions to participate in some research involving the staff users of the tool(s), exploring their roles, how our technology fits into their responsibilities and how they use the solution(s) on a day-to-day basis. I’ll be talking to them about their daily tasks, what other tools they might use and where things could be made better for them.

The results of that research will then inform our decisions on improving our products, not just in the case of what it can do, but where information and controls are and how staff users can interact with them. We’ll then set about designing new features, experiences and interactions, with regular testing and feedback opportunities before a phased implementation.

I’m expecting some pretty significant design changes, so watch this space!

Image: Will H McMahan on Unsplash


Designing accessible digital services for citizens

Our mission here at SocietyWorks is to help local authorities and other public sector organisations better serve citizens through effective and intuitive digital solutions. That’s a big remit, and a vast user base with a wide range of accessibility requirements. So how do we accommodate everyone? Bekki Leaver, our Head of Product, wrote this blog post to explain. 

Being suppliers of public services we have a responsibility to ensure our tools and solutions are accessible to the broadest audiences possible. This is both a legal and moral obligation, and something we take seriously. 

As Head of Product, it’s my job to ensure our tools are built to meet, if not exceed the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) AA standards. Here’s what this means in practice, and some advice for local authorities and any other public sector bodies who provide public-facing digital services.

What is WCAG?

WCAG is the international standard for web accessibility created by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). Within WCAG there are four principles for web accessibility. Each of these has conditions that need to be met to achieve a particular standard. These very sensible principles are:

  • Perceivable; making sure content is available to all. Any images have alternative text and descriptions, captioning on audio and video. Ensuring content is accessible to assistive technologies.
  • Operable; let people use the thing. Avoiding distracting or flashing animations, let people interact with the website using keys or other technology.
  • Understandable; things should make sense and be readable. Being able to change font sizes or zoom in on content. Allow people to correct their mistakes.
  • Robust; works with the tools a user wants. Browser and device combinations.

The UK Government expects all public services to meet the WCAG 2.1 AA accessibility standard, both for citizens and staff users.

Our process

SocietyWorks is heavily influenced by the GOV.UK Service Manual when it comes to designing or improving our tools and products. If you’re familiar with this, you’ll know that this means everything starts with needs: both user needs and the service needs. 

A Black person with short, thick hair and prescription glasses sits at an organized workstation, using a magnification app to navigate a webpage. Their posture is proper and relaxed. On the desk: a computer, a mouse, a large desk lamp and a small notebook.

We also consider the context of use: where, when and how will the service be accessed? In addition to considering any permanent physical impairments that may impact the way a service needs to be used, we think about situational and temporary impairments too.

For example, making button targets larger for people using a service one handed due to holding a baby, having a broken arm or having bad arthritis, or improving the contrast for use of a service in poor lighting environments or by users suffering with an eye injury or partial blindness.

Our developers use semantic HTML – that’s using HTML elements for their intended purposes to build the front end of our tools. This lets browsers know what the element is and how it should behave, which makes it easier for keyboard navigation and for other assistive technologies to correctly render a website for their users. 

When we’ve got something designed and built, we test it. We use a combination of automated and manual testing to make sure the technology meets the WCAG standards, which includes, for example, checking we can tab through elements and that screen readers behave as expected.

Our biggest challenge

Knowing that no two councils or public authorities are the same, we build our digital solutions to be flexible enough to adapt to each of our clients’ individual needs. This is a great strength, but it can occasionally pose a challenge when those needs have an impact on the accessibility of the solution.

For example, we are sometimes asked to apply brand colours which have a poor contrast ratio or adjust forms to match a third party integration’s workflow in a way that makes them more difficult to use for users with certain needs. 

Advice for councils and other public sector bodies

When these instances occur, we do our best to help mitigate any negative effects on the accessibility of the services we provide. Here are some of the top tips I offer to clients when it comes to accessibility.

Firstly, I would always highly recommend commissioning an accessibility audit with a reputable auditor, such as RNIB, but you can find other providers through the Digital Marketplace. This will give you complete peace of mind that everything is working as it should for everyone who needs to use the service.

Secondly, consider your brand colours. Colour is a regular issue with accessibility, usually caused by text and background colours not having a high enough contrast. 

Lastly, ensure the language you’re using is appropriate. Whether you’re writing form field labels or creating explanatory text, use language your users will understand. For example, avoid using system-related terminology that residents may not understand, but do consider using the local names for things. You can check the readability of your content using online tools like readable.com.

Final thoughts

Creating and maintaining an accessible and inclusive service is an ongoing task. Criteria and expectations change. Keeping these goals in mind from the beginning certainly helps, as does remembering that designing services to be inclusive makes them better for everyone.

If you’re interested in learning more, check out these resources:

Or, if you have any questions about making digital services accessible to everyone, get in touch with us here.

Images

Featured image – Daniel Ali on Unsplash

Illustration – Sherm for Disabled And Here


We’re making some improvements to our infrastructure platform

One of our main priorities for this year has been to make some significant investments in our infrastructure platform to bring about some key improvements. 

After completing a review, a project is currently underway to make some upgrades to the platform and expand our presence into additional locations, which will enable us to provide more flexible capacity and geographical redundancy for services.

This is a significant update to our platform and is intended to underpin the growth and availability of our services over the next three years. 

Currently, we are engaging with suppliers to bring this capability online and will be focussing on applying this to our core services over the rest of 2021. 

In the interim, we have also completed a number of smaller actions to further strengthen our infrastructure.

  • We have redistributed services across our back-end tier to ensure better capacity management and limit the impact of sudden spikes in activity. This is an ongoing activity and we will continue to make adjustments as necessary.
  • We are updating our emergency response procedures to ensure that a clear process is in place for managing spikes in connections that run the risk of overwhelming the back-end.
  • We have already expanded our monitoring to better capture some aspects of the back-end system and make these available to our engineering staff for real-time troubleshooting. This is already helping us find some areas for potential improvement in resource and connection pool management and we are actively working at adding further capabilities.

We are always reviewing our planning and decision making, and have contingency plans in place as we make improvements.

Image: Zeynep Sümer


Green garden waste service

What does the front-end of a green garden waste service need to do?

That’s a question our design team has been asking recently as part of our work on phase two of Bromley Council’s new citizen-centred waste product, which involves incorporating green garden waste subscriptions into the service.

“Subscriptions like green garden waste collections can involve multiple council systems and departments, so our task is to make sure that process feels natural and intuitive to residents,” explains SocietyWorks designer Zarino.

“In this project, we used prototypes to help us identify and confirm user needs—for both residents and council staff—pinning down exactly what the green garden waste service needs to do, and how the interface should work, to allow residents to create and manage their subscriptions in a way that suits them.”

The prototypes for the green garden waste front-end have now been completed and accepted by the Council, so we thought we’d lift the lid and let you take a look at how the front-end is shaping up.

So what does a green garden waste front-end need to do?

It needs to display green garden waste collections. The citizen needs to be able to identify their property and view all collection information related to it: whether a subscription is active, what are the previous and upcoming collections, the number of containers being collected and when the subscription renews.

It needs to provide self-service subscriptions to green garden waste collections. If no collections are set up for the property, the citizen needs to be able to complete a form providing relevant information for the council to create a subscription – collection address (from UPRN), contact information, whether new containers are required and payment details for the collection. The citizen should be encouraged to check their details are correct before submitting, and needs to agree to the terms and conditions. Once the payment has been processed and the citizen has been sent a confirmation email, a confirmation page reiterating that their subscription has now been set up should be displayed.

It needs to take requests for more or fewer green garden waste containers. On occasions when the citizen requires more or fewer containers, a multi-page form will help them to complete their request. This should ask how many containers are required, and should redirect the citizen to a cancellation form if they want to reduce containers to zero. Here again, the citizen needs to be able to self-serve all of the relevant information, and a confirmation needs to be available once the request has been submitted.

It needs to handle return or replacement requests of green garden waste containers. In this instance, the citizen needs to be able to define within a multi-page form why they need to return or replace a container and what actions they require next, if any. A summary of the information should be provided, and a confirmation that the request was submitted should be shown afterwards.

And it needs to enable subscription renewals or cancellations. The citizen needs to be able renew or cancel their subscription to green garden waste collections. For renewals, the citizen should be able to refine their subscription if needed (for example, request more or fewer containers), while for cancellations, the citizen needs to be shown what cancelling the subscription means and needs to be able to provide information on how many containers are to be returned to the council.

Of course, there are lots of other, more client-specific things the front-end for Bromley Council’s green garden waste service will do in addition to the above, but these are the essentials.

The green garden waste service we’re designing for Bromley Council is part of a broader waste service SocietyWorks will very soon be launching for all UK councils, built with years and years of experience putting citizens at the front and centre of local authority services. Book a demo to see how it works.

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Image: Alexas_Fotos on Pixabay


A phone with various apps on the screen, including FixMyStreet

Progressive web apps: what are they, and what can they do for us?

As you may have noticed, at mySociety we’ve never been big on apps — we tend to encourage access to our websites via your phone’s mobile browser instead. 

We design all our sites as ‘mobile first’, meaning that they work well on any size of device and automatically resize to fit any screen dimension. That’s good practice anyway, but as a small organisation it also saves us a lot of time and effort. 

But that presents an issue when we’re talking to potential FixMyStreet Pro clients, in authorities and councils, who often see an app as a very desirable part of their offering to citizens.

Now, thanks to the emergence of the ‘progressive web app’ (PWA), we’re exploring a whole new approach that we hope will please everyone, as our Developer Struan explains: 

We’ve been talking about what to do with the FixMyStreet app for a long time.

The app we offer at the moment runs from a separate codebase than the main FixMyStreet site, which means when we update features on FixMyStreet we then have to redo the same work for the app. 

As a result, it sometimes lags behind: for example there are various features — detection of duplicate reports, and display of assets like streetlights or grit bins, for example — that have never made it across.

And in all honesty? We have to admit that apps aren’t really our speciality. Generally speaking, you’d employ dedicated app developers and designers if you wanted to create really excellent app experiences. mySociety is a small organisation without big overheads — can’t complain, that’s what allows us to be nimble and responsive — and so far, we’ve stuck to doing what we do well.

With all that in mind, the FixMyStreet app is beginning to look quite old, and there are various aspects of it that don’t really meet with current expectations of how apps work.

Enter the PWA 

Loosely speaking, PWAs are a collection of technologies that you can add to a website that then give it ‘app like’ qualities. To all intents and purposes, a PWA-ified site looks and acts like an app: our client authorities will be able to add their own logos and colour palettes and tell their residents to ‘download the app’, and for the citizen, that’s just what it will feel like they’re doing.  

In practice, the app is effectively the website being viewed on a mobile screen, just as we sometimes recommend to users. But the PWA tech not only makes it look and feel like an app, it also allows it to be added to app stores and downloaded by users onto their screens via that route. It also adds a more ‘app-like’ navigation and a startup process.

Rather handily, PWAs also permit the addition of offline capability to your website, by downloading a bit of JavaScript (called a service worker) to your device. If you can’t connect to the website then it falls back to the service worker, which can also save reports when you have no connection and then upload them when you do. As a side benefit, all this will work with the standard mobile website too, and is something we’d want to add anyway.

One downside is that only the latest version of iOS supports all the things we need to make this work, although we note that iOS adoption rates are quite high. To make up for this a bit, alongside the PWA work we’ll be adding in some code to make the offline process a bit less jarring for those accessing the website on older versions of iOS.

Meanwhile, as far as we can tell, everything should go smoothly on Android.

So — lots of positives and we hope it will all come together in the near future. We’re continuing to explore this approach and will report back when we can say for certain whether it’s viable.

Image: Saulo Mohana


Image by 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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