We were recently invited to discuss the benefits and challenges of using data and digital twins at a roundtable event hosted by the Chartered Institute of Highways & Transportation (CIHT) and Ringway. The roundtable focused on the data rich delivery of highway maintenance specifically, but the experiences and advice we shared during the event are applicable on a broader scale, so we have detailed them in this blog post.
If our many years of experience providing citizen-centred digital solutions to the public sector have taught us anything it’s that being able to collect and share up-to-date data ultimately helps you to deliver a better service – and by association, nurture a more engaged population.
As Alessandro Fornaroli and Daniel Gatica-Perez write in the introduction to their research article published in the July 2023 edition of the Digital Government: Research and Practice report: “Data availability is paramount to the functioning of a city, and therefore platforms allowing to collect data generated by people represent a key element in the transition towards more citizen-centric cities.”
Whether it’s being able to display accurate asset information on a map or communicating that a certain road is due to be resurfaced on a certain date, we have always strived to help local authorities enrich their digital services with data through integration.
Among its many benefits, when used effectively, we’ve seen how data can help to reduce failure demand, increase accuracy and eliminate duplication or avoidable contact.
For example, where Buckinghamshire Council has been using integrated asset layers within its FixMyStreet Pro service, duplicate reports have dropped by 99.5%. The Council also uses asset layers to triage reports to parish and town councils based on the latest information available relating to speed limits, which has created anticipated savings of over £50,000 just for grass and hedge cutting reports alone.
Or take the way FixMyStreet Pro is used in London as another example, where the borough council users of the solution benefit from automatic diversion of reports not only between each other, but also between other public bodies operating in the capital, such as Transport for London (TfL) and the Peabody Housing Association.
In Bexley and Greenwich, for example, reports are triaged between the two borough councils, TfL and Peabody in the Thamesmead area, which straddles the border between the two boroughs. To help users visualise where certain issues are the responsibility of TfL or Peabody, we display polygons and what we call ‘red routes’ on the in-report maps.
Any issue within a certain category reported on a ‘red route’ is automatically sent directly to TfL, while the polygons represent areas in which issues are the responsibility of Peabody. Equally, if a resident tries to report a problem to Peabody or TfL which is actually the responsibility of Bexley or Greenwich, the report will be diverted.
The same can be done for triaging problems to National Highways elsewhere in the UK.
Other examples include the use of QR codes to make it quicker to report problems with assets like street lights or bins, special map pins to represent issues you’re already aware of or live updates pulled from in-cab systems to inform of why a bin collection is delayed.
As digital transformation accelerates at a faster and more competitive pace, and the sector and its suppliers begin to explore increasingly innovative uses of data, including the use of AI, there are challenges and unintended consequences that need to be considered.
Take this as an example: if residents can see at the click of a button a digital twin of each of your assets which tells them exactly how many streetlights are broken or gullies are blocked, you need to communicate what you’re doing about that – and if you’re not doing anything, why?
Resident-facing, front-end solutions which enable closed feedback loops are vital here, otherwise you risk creating more pressure on customer services or on other service areas not equipped to cope with an unintended increase in contact.
Similarly, if your use of data is intended to enable you to create more cohesion across council service areas, provisions need to be put in place to ensure everyone can provide the same level of service to avoid inconsistency and failure demand.
For example, when we implemented an asset layer for Buckinghamshire Council’s FixMyStreet Pro to enable the automatic triaging of reports to parish and town councils, we also delivered some functionality for those parishes to be able to update the status of reports even though they do not have case management systems of their own.
Crucially, consideration needs to be given to how the use of data could affect the accessibility of a service. This includes permanent or temporary physical and situational impairments which may cause people to be unable to, for example, use QR codes, operate digital maps or start reports from photos. Alternative steps need to be built into user journeys to ensure no one is locked out or left behind.
The landscape of public sector digital services is ever-changing, and we’re proud to be a part of it, working in partnership with a growing number of forward-thinking local authorities and other public bodies like Ringway, who sparked the idea for this blog post through their roundtable.
If you’d like to talk more about data rich citizen solutions to help you provide better services, please get in touch.
Image: Eric Weber on Unsplash
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.
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.
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
Mobile users of FixMyStreet and individual branded versions of FixMyStreet Pro can now make reports using a new crosshairs feature.
The crosshairs should make it even easier for report-makers to position the pin accurately on the map when using touchscreens, particularly those on smaller mobile devices.
Here’s an example of how the new crosshairs look within the FixMyStreet reporting workflow, starting with finding the location of the issue you want to report on the map (the crosshairs will automatically display in your location if you select “Use my current location”), placing the pin and then repositioning if needed. Report-makers can pan and zoom in/out of the map as required.
And here’s how the crosshairs look on one of our cobrand FixMyStreet Pro sites (we have used Oxfordshire County Council’s version of FixMyStreet Pro as an example).
The crosshairs have been automatically added to all FixMyStreet Pro sites.
If you are a FixMyStreet Pro client with a question about the crosshairs, please raise a ticket via the helpdesk.
If you are a council or other public body interested in learning more about FixMyStreet Pro, you can get in touch with us here.
SocietyWorks is going to SDinGov again this year, an international community event for anyone involved in designing and commissioning public services.
Taking place in Edinburgh next month, our Head of Product & Service Design Bekki Leaver will be sharing a case study on day 2 of the event, talking about our experience of how we used speculative design to reconsider whether we wanted to branch out into the area of anti-social behaviour reporting.
Over the last decade, we’ve been working with councils to design citizen-centred reporting services for issues in areas such as highways, waste and freedom of information. Anti-social behaviour (ASB) seemed like a natural progression from this, meeting demand from councils to address problems with reporting in this area.
However, by nature, ASB is a complex issue, with disparate definitions depending on who you’re speaking to. Even with years of experience in user-needs focused design and consequence scanning, the complexity of this particular reporting area meant that we risked getting caught up in designing for one group of people, without truly considering the impact on other affected groups.
For those of us designing for the public sector, it’s vital that we’re able to maintain the awareness to know when to pause for reflection, and that you have the design tools required to re-evaluate and decide whether to proceed or not.
Join Bekki to hear about the process we went through to reassess our perspective and how we used co-design future-casting to carve out the way forward.
Speculative design for product decisions in anti-social behaviour reporting takes place on 29 September at 12.15 – 12:45.
Thank you to everyone who joined us on what was an extremely hot afternoon last Thursday for the first in our new series of webinars for local authorities. Scoping out a successful citizen service: how to get started was an exploration of the best way to get started when designing or redesigning an online service for citizens.
Leading the session, our designer and user researcher Martin Wright plotted the route from discovery to successful service uptake, highlighting the importance of carrying out consequence scanning and advising on how best to balance resident requirements with council capacity.
We were also joined by Bromley Council’s Technical Support Team Manager Jonathan Richards, who spoke about Bromley’s recent experience of designing and implementing a brand new online waste service for residents.
If you weren’t able to join us but you’re interested to know what was spoken about, you can watch a recording of the session below, and if you have any questions about anything that was discussed, let us know and we’ll get back to you with an answer!
Stay updated on our upcoming webinars by signing up to our monthly newsletter.
We’re longstanding supporters of LocalGovCamp, the conference where innovators in Local Government come together to share knowledge on how to improve services.
This year we’re both sponsoring it and running a couple of hands-on, interactive sessions. All online, of course, given the way things are these days.
On Tuesday 6 October, join a mySociety-led discussion with Mark and Zarino, on how consistent data standards across councils could open the doors to much better innovation.
We’ll be looking at our own Keep It In The Community project, nodding to our Council Climate Action Plans database, and inviting attendees to join a wider discussion on how we can encourage better joined-up data across councils.
And on Weds 7 October, our designer Martin will be running a mock ‘consequence scanning’ exercise. He’ll take participants through a new and useful way of assessing and mitigating risks in new government services, as conceived by Dot Everyone, recently taken up by Future Cities Catapult, and now used successfully in service design workshops by SocietyWorks.
We hope you’ll come along and enjoy some good discussion and deep dives into local government service improvement: find out more and book your place here.
We’ve now made it much easier for councils who have FixMyStreet Pro installed to:
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:
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.
Once you’ve created your question/s, you can use the interface above to decide what happens when they are answered in specific ways.
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.
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
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.
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
It’s obviously good citizen behaviour to report something that needs fixing to your council, whether it’s a pothole that could cause an accident, or a broken streetlight that has plunged the area into darkness.
But there’s one type of report that isn’t very useful to councils, and in fact brings unnecessary costs and inconvenience: when you tell the council about an issue that’s already been flagged up by someone else.
FixMyStreet has always been helpful in this regard. It was groundbreaking in displaying all reports in public, unlike most council systems when we were first developing it. A user who goes to make a report can see right away if there’s already a pin in that spot, and check whether the existing issue is the same one they were going to add.
Now we’ve taken that concept a step further in some work which was first trialed on Bath & NE Somerset’s implementation of FixMyStreet Pro and is now available to all councils on the Avenue plan.
When a user starts to make a report, the system checks to see if there are any other open reports in the same category within a small radius. If it finds any, you’ll see a prompt, like this:
All similar reports will appear here. If you think one might be identical, but aren’t sure, you can click ‘read more’ to see the full text along with any photos attached to the report:
And if you recognise it as the issue you were about to report, you click the green button and will be given the option to subscribe to it, so you know when it’s being seen to, effectively being kept just as up to date as you would be if you’d made the original report:
If it’s not the same issue, no worries: just click ‘report a new problem’ and you can do just that:
Thank you to Bath & NE Somerset who trialed this feature and provided feedback before we rolled it out to everyone else on the Avenue plan.
We’d been keen to hear from you if you have any feedback or if you’ve seen a reduction in the amount of duplicate reports received.
Image: Kevin Grieve
When something’s not right on your street, and you’ve gone out of your way to report it to the local council, the last thing you want is to get bogged down in a complex log-in procedure.
That’s why FixMyStreet has always put the log-in step after the reporting step, and has always allowed you to report a problem without needing an account or password at all.
But we know we can always do better, and in the 11 years that FixMyStreet has been around, new design patterns have emerged across the web, shifting user expectations around how we prove our identities and manage our data on websites and online services.
Over the years, we’d made small changes, informed by user feedback and A/B testing. But earlier this year, we decided to take a more holistic look at the entire log-in/sign-up process on FixMyStreet, and see whether some more fundamental changes could not only reduce the friction our users were experiencing, but help FixMyStreet actively exceed the average 2018 web user’s expectations and experiences around logging in and signing up to websites.
Previously, FixMyStreet tried to do clever things with multi-purpose forms that could either log you in or create an account or change your password. This was a smart way to reduce the number of pages a user had to load. But now, with the vast majority of our UK users accessing FixMyStreet over high speed internet connections, our unusual combined log-in/sign-up forms simply served to break established web conventions and make parts of FixMyStreet feel strange and unfamiliar.
In 2014 we added dedicated links to a “My account” page, and the “Change your password” form, but it still didn’t prevent a steady trickle of support emails from users understandably confused over whether they needed an account, whether they were already logged in, and how they could sign up.
So this year, we took some of the advice we usually give to our partners and clients: do one thing per screen, and do it well. In early November, we launched dramatically simplified login and signup pages across the entire FixMyStreet network – including all of the sites we run for councils and public authorities who use FixMyStreet Pro.
Along the way, we took careful steps—as we always do—to ensure that assistive devices are treated as first class citizens. That means everything from maintaining a sensible tab order for keyboard users, and following best practices for accessible, semantic markup for visually impaired users, to also making sure our login forms work with all the top password managers.
The simplified log-in page was a great step forward, but we knew the majority of FixMyStreet users never used it. Instead, they would sign up or log in during the process of reporting their problem.
So, we needed to take some of the simplicity of our new log-in pages, and apply it to the reporting form itself.
For a few years now, the FixMyStreet reporting form has been split into two sections – “Public details” about the problem (which are published online for all to see) followed by “Private details” about you, the reporter (which aren’t published, but are sent to the authority along with your report, so they can respond to you). This year, we decided to make the split much clearer, by dividing the form across two screens.
Now the private details section has space to shine. Reorganised, with the email and password inputs next to each other (another convention that’s become solidified over the last five or ten years), and the “privacy level” of the inputs increasing as you proceed further down the page, the form makes much more sense.
But to make sure you don’t feel like your report has been thrown away when it disappears off-screen, we use subtle animation, and a small “summary” of the report title and description near the top of the log-in form, to reassure you of your progress through the reporting process. The summary also acts as a logical place to return to your report’s public details, in case you want to add or amend them before you send.
As I’ve mentioned, because FixMyStreet is an open source project, these improvements will soon be available for other FixMyStreet sites all over the UK and indeed the world. We’ve already updated FixMyStreet.com and our council partners’ sites to benefit from them, and we’ll soon be officially releasing the changes as part of FixMyStreet version 2.5, before the end of the year.
We’re not finished yet though! We’re always working on improving FixMyStreet, and we’ll be keeping a keen eye on user feedback after these changes, so we can inform future improvements to FixMyStreet.com and the FixMyStreet Platform.