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Latest news from the team behind FixMyStreet Pro

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

Image by Alexandre Godreau - a shop sign saying 'Open'

The FixMyStreet Pro staff manual is now online

You’ll now find the staff manual for FixMyStreet Pro online and easy to access. Do take a look!

When we were putting the design for this manual together, we thought we’d have a quick google round for other council SAAS documentation, to see if anyone was doing it particularly well.

We didn’t get very far, though— it seems there’s a culture of corporate secrecy amongst other suppliers, and a fear of publishing such materials in case of imitation.

So our decision to publish our entire manual online, along with a handy print version, freely available with no password, is perhaps a little unusual.

Why so open?

We’ve gone our own way on this one for a few reasons.

First, because it helps you. We know that it’s far easier for customers to look online for materials than it is to remember where they’ve put a physical handbook.

We know we could have put it behind a password, but that just adds an impediment for our customers, and for anyone hoping to understand the service a little better before making a purchasing decision. Plus, who remembers passwords for something they might only be accessing a couple of times a year? It’s just extra faff.

You only need bookmark the documentation page, and you’ll always be able to find the most up to date version of our staff manual.

There’s another reason as well, though. Most mySociety codebases — including FixMyStreet — are Open Source, meaning that anyone who wants to can inspect or use the code for their own purposes. If anyone really wanted to know our ‘secrets’… well, they’re already out in the public domain.

We reckon there’s more to gain by publishing our instruction manual than there is to lose. Sure, competitors might see what features we offer, and they might even copy them. We’re confident, though, that our customer service, company culture, and our insistence on making our products as user friendly as possible, all give us an advantage that imitators are unlikely to be able to match.

So, please do go ahead and read the manual. We hope you’ll find it useful, and that you’ll get in touch if there’s anything you think is missing.

 

Image: Alexandre Godreau (Unsplash)

Seeing spots with FixMyStreet Pro

If you visit FixMyStreet and suddenly start seeing spots, don’t rush to your optician: it’s just another feature to help you, and the council, when you make a report.

In our last two blog posts we announced Buckinghamshire and Bath & NE Somerset councils’ adoption of FixMyStreet Pro, and looked at how this integrated with existing council software. It’s the latter which has brought on this sudden rash.

At the moment, you’ll only see such dots in areas where the council has adopted FixMyStreet Pro, and gone for the ‘asset locations’ option: take a look at the Bath & NE Somerset installation to see them in action.

What is an asset?

mySociety developer Struan explains all.

Councils refer to ‘assets’; in layman’s language these are things like roads, streetlights, grit bins, dog poo bins and trees. These assets are normally stored in an asset management system that tracks problems, and once hooked up, FixMyStreet Pro can deposit users’ reports directly into that system.

Most asset management systems will have an entry for each asset and probably some location data for them too. This means that we can plot them on a map, and we can also include details about the asset.

When you make a report, for example a broken streetlight, you’ll be able to quickly and easily specify that precise light on the map, making things a faster for you. And there’s no need for the average citizen to ever know this, but we can then include the council’s internal ID for the streetlight in the report, which then also speeds things up for the council.

Map layers

So, how do we get these assets on to the map? Here’s the technical part:

The council will either have a map server with a set of asset layers on it that we can use, or they’ll provide us with files containing details of the assets and we’ll host them on our own map server.

The map server then lets you ask for all the streetlights in an area and sends back some XML with a location for each streetlight and any associated data, such as the lamppost number. Each collection of objects is called a layer, mostly because that’s how mapping software uses them. It has a layer for the map and then adds any other features on top of this in layers.

Will these dots clutter up the map for users who are trying to make a report about something else?

Not at all.

With a bit of configuration in FixMyStreet, we associate report categories with asset layers so we only show the assets on the map when the relevant category is selected.

We can also snap problem reports to any nearby asset which is handy for things like street lights as it doesn’t make sense to send a report about a broken street light with no associated light.

Watch this space

And what’s coming up?

We’re working to add data from roadworks.org, so that when a user clicks on a road we’ll be able to tell them if roadworks are happening in the near future, which might have a bearing on whether they want to report the problem — for example there’s no point in reporting a pothole if the whole road is due to be resurfaced the next week.

Then we’ll also be looking at roads overseen by TfL. The issue with these is that while they are always within a council area, the council doesn’t have the responsibility of maintaining them, so we want to change where the report is going rather than just adding in more data. There’s also the added complication of things like “what if the issue is being reported on a council-maintained bridge that goes over a TFL road”.

There’s always something to keep the FixMyStreet developers busy… we’ll make sure we keep you updated as these new innovations are added.

From a council and interested in knowing more? Get in touch.

Confirming the benefits: how FixMyStreet Pro integrates with the Confirm Asset Management System

We often talk about how FixMyStreet Pro can integrate directly with council’s existing systems, and how doing so can help councils be more efficient — but what exactly does that mean in practice?

Let’s take a look at our two most recent FixMyStreet Pro installations. Both B&NES and Buckinghamshire councils use the same asset management system, Confirm, and it gives us a great example of how FixMyStreet Pro’s ability to ‘communicate’ with such systems will make everything a whole lot easier for residents and for council staff, even with two very different types of local authority.

Saving time and effort

FixMyStreet has always provided the resident with an easy interface through which to file a street report. For many councils, however, such reports arrive in an email inbox and then have to be forwarded to the right location or typed into the council’s CRM, all adding to the sum total of time and effort dedicated to each report.

Now, using the Confirm API, Bucks and B&NES councils can access and work on FixMyStreet reports through Confirm’s standard ‘inspector module’, removing any need for this extra step.

Two-way information

Optionally, the information flow can go both ways, and indeed this is the case for both B&NES and Buckinghamshire councils. What this means is that for example, when an issue has been inspected and council staff change its status (perhaps from ‘report received’ to ‘repair underway’), this status change will be passed back to FixMyStreet, automatically syncing with the site, and notifying the report-maker with the update — again removing another mundane task from customer services staff.

If a highways inspector should come across a new issue while they are out and about on their rounds, they can raise an issue in Confirm just as they always would have. But now, that will also create a report on FixMyStreet which residents can view, keeping everyone up to date and ensuring that reports aren’t made about issues that the council already know about.

Canned responses

FixMyStreet Pro also allows for council administrators to create template responses — an invaluable timesaver when responding to one of the more common situations such as “issue identified and prioritised” or “issue now fixed and closed”. While Confirm also has its own template responses, FixMyStreet Pro offers more flexibility, as the same template can be reused across multiple report categories and status types. Buckinghamshire really saw the benefit of this: they were able to reduce the number of templates in use from around 450 to 46.

Mapping assets

Assets such as streetlights, grit bins and gullies can be pulled through from Confirm and overlaid on the map. This makes it significantly easier for both residents and staff to locate and report issue, speeding up the issue resolution time — we’ll be delving more deeply into this in our next blog post, with a few more technical details for those who are interested.

Image: Highways England (CC by/2.0)

Two new FixMyStreet Pro councils

We’re delighted to welcome two new councils who are now using FixMyStreet Pro for their fault-reporting: Buckinghamshire and Bath & NE Somerset.

Residents in these areas can make reports on the councils’ own websites, where they’ll find FixMyStreet as the street fault interface — or through the main FixMyStreet website and app. Whichever you choose, your reports will be published in all three places.

So far, so convenient for residents — but behind the scenes, there’s lots more going on that improves the efficiency of the whole fault-fixing cycle.

Both councils are users of the Confirm CRM system, with which FixMyStreet Pro can now be fully integrated. What that means in practice is that when you make a report, it drops directly into the council’s existing workflows, with no need for someone in the middle to retype or redirect your report.

Council staff can use the best of both systems’ useful tools for shortlisting, inspecting and updating the status of your issues — and when a report has been progressed to the next stage of the fixing cycle, you’ll be automatically kept up to date both by email, and with messages posted directly to your report page.

In another advance, both councils are now displaying assets such as bins, trees and adopted highways in context-sensitive areas of the report-making journey, so it’s easy to identify exactly which one you’re talking about when you make your report. That saves time for you, and for the council when they go out to fix it .

If you’re interested in the technical details, we’ll have more about both Confirm integration and asset layers in future blog posts.

Image: Kosala Bandara (CC by/2.0)

Where there’s muck there’s brass

We created FixMyStreet Pro to help councils and city governments better manage inbound street reports and issues from their residents.

In the past few months we’ve rolled out the FixMyStreet Pro service to new customers including Bath & North East Somerset, Buckinghamshire and Rutland councils; each of whom are taking the opportunity to get rid of legacy software, simplify their operations and make use of a much simpler and intuitive way for their residents and staff to make and manage reports.

We’re now looking for input from councils to help us guide the next phase of our service development on FixMyStreet Pro.

Having spoken to dozens of councils we think we can help them save more money by extending FixMyStreet Pro to other areas like waste and environment services and we would like to explore how much development work that might entail.

Not just for streets

As FixMyStreet’s name would suggest our focus so far has been on handling issues related to highways like potholes, lighting and gullies (drains to me and you), but FixMyStreet Pro already handles reports for a whole range of issues beyond streets.

Typically council users of FixMyStreet Pro have around 13 to 15 different self-selected categories that they accept reports on – each of which can be directed to different teams or departments. Tree reports can be sent directly to the parks department, graffiti or abandoned cars can be passed along to the just the right team in street cleansing.

These ‘front end reports’ all have one thing in common: all we need to make the report is a location and description, plus a contact for the reporter, which could be as simple as an email address or phone number.

But once you get deeper into the glamorous world of bins and waste services for individual residents the situation gets a little more complicated.

Missed bin collections, requests for recycling bags, bulky waste collection – these all require the resident to be identified, the particular property to be checked with the UPRN (Unique Property Reference Number), and in some cases payments levied and collected.

FixMyStreet Pro doesn’t currently offer these additional waste services, although it doesn’t require a huge leap of imagination to see how we could add these adjacent features to the service, not least because we already do a lot of the pieces across our other commercial services.

Fortunately there has already been a lot of work done to define common standards, such as the Local Waste Service Standards Project from 2016 and more recent work by individual councils to apply some of this work – we also have a lot of our own research and experience to draw upon with numerous specific feature requests from our current local authority clients.

Let’s talk

To make this happen we’d like to recruit at least two or three friendly councils available for interviews and possibly a workshop or two, to help us determine specific requirements and test out some of our early prototypes and hypotheses. From here we’d aim to develop these features into fully working aspects of FixMyStreet Pro over the summer.

If this is of interest to you, if you’re already grappling with this in your own council, or you’d just like to find out more, please get in touch with enquiries@fixmystreet.com and we can have a chat.

In the meantime you can always find out more about what FixMyStreet Pro can do on one of our regular Friday Webinars.

Image: Smabs Sputzer CC BY 2.0

We’ve upped the security on FixMyStreet

We’ve recently introduced some stronger privacy and security measures on FixMyStreet, to make things safer for everyone. They also have some nice knock-on effects that help you with moderation.

Privacy

If you’re a FixMyStreet Admin, you can now:

  • Make a user anonymous across the site, so even if they’ve made multiple reports, their name won’t show on any of them on the live web pages. Removing users’ names is a frequent request, especially from those who may have strong personal reasons not to be identified online. Users already had the ability to anonymise their reports singly or in bulk themselves, but sometimes it’s easier to do it for them, particularly if they are distressed when making the request.
  • Remove a user’s account details entirely An important point in the forthcoming GDPR regulations is that we all have the right to request the removal of our personal data from databases. In this case, the user’s reports and updates remain, but not only is the name removed from public webpages as per the point above; their email address, phone number and any other personal data are scrubbed from our own servers, too, leaving no record.
  • Hide all a user’s reports/updates from the live site. In the event that you discover a large quantity of, say, abusive reports from the same person, you can now remove them all from the online environment at a single stroke.

Security

Security for users was already very good, but with the following improvements it can now be considered excellent!

  • All passwords are now checked against a list of the 577,000 most common choices, and any that appear in this list are not allowed.
  • Passwords must now also be of a minimum length.
  • If you change your password, you have to input the previous one in order to authorise the change. Those who haven’t previously used a password (since it is possible to make a report without creating an account), will receive a confirmation email to ensure the request has come from the email address given.
  • FixMyStreet passwords are hashed with an algorithm called bcrypt, which has a built in ‘work factor’ that can be increased as computers get faster. We’ve bumped this up.
  • Admins can now log a user out of all their sessions. This could be useful for example in the case of a user who has logged in via a public computer and is concerned that others may be able to access their account; or for staff admin who share devices.

Still got any questions about privacy or security? Drop us a line and we’ll be glad to answer them.


Image: Timothy Muza (Unsplash)

Six low-cost ways to promote your FixMyStreet Pro service

So we’ve pressed the button and your shiny new FixMyStreet Pro installation is now live on your website. Fantastic… now how are you going to make sure your residents know about it?

In these cash-strapped times, huge marketing campaigns are most likely not an option, so here are some ideas for low-cost coverage.

Cross promotion

What other services do you offer your users online? Whether residents are applying for parking permits or commenting on planning applications, there’s generally a ‘thanks’ or ‘success’ page at the end of the process.

This can be an ideal place to promote new services: after all, your users have pretty much self-identified as local residents, and also as people who like to complete tasks online.

Get some free local coverage

Your local paper will probably be happy to cover the story of your launch, but you can ensure continued regular coverage too, by sending out press releases based on stats.

FixMyStreet Pro’s dashboard allows you to run off statistics and create stories such as how many faults in a specific category are reported — and fixed — monthly; or to compare this year’s results with previous years.

There are many stories just waiting to be told, and local papers always like an easy angle.

Social media

Facebook, Twitter and even Snapchat or Instagram can be great places to make sure people know about your service, and for free.

You might consider running a small contest for retweeting or sharing your message, which would ensure that it reaches people beyond your own followers.  Or ask your staff to get creative and photograph themselves at every stage of a fault report, making a compelling visual journey that allows your residents to see just what happens to their reports once they click ‘submit’.

Find your local champions

Once you’ve been up and running for a few months, check in the admin interface to see whether there are residents who are making more reports than the average user.

These are likely to be the people who will recommend the service to others, especially if they’ve had success with getting their issues fixed.

They’ll often be happy to be interviewed for your newsletter, or photographed for other promotional activity. You could even identify them as a group of ‘super users’ and ask them to mention your service on social media, or to drop leaflets and posters at their habitual haunts such as coffee shops or their place of work.

Unexpected places

Once you start thinking, there are all sorts of places where a service can be promoted:

  • Email signatures: ask any staff who deal with external emails to add a small link to their sign-offs.
  • Postmarks: Some franking machines include the ability to customise your postmark: what a great way to get your message right into residents’ homes.
  • Street furniture: What could be more ideal in terms of positioning than a message on assets such as bins, public benches, bus shelters or streetlights?

Leaflets and posters

A leaflet through every door is a costly exercise, but it’s much cheaper to deliver a stack of posters or flyers to local hubs such as libraries, job centres, gyms, playgroups and schools.

Or get creative and consider the organisations and groups most likely to use FixMyStreet: clean-up volunteers for your waterways or parks; civic societies or local history clubs, whose members tend to care about their surroundings; or perhaps there’s a local Britain in Bloom group or similar, who have a stake in keeping the area clean and tidy.

 

Those are our top ideas for cheap promotion: let us know if you have any more!

Image: Francesco Casalino on Unsplash

How to use the FixMyStreet Pro dashboard to get insights on your service levels

Anyone in Highways Maintenance management will know the importance of tracking their team’s performance. It’s only by looking at the stats that you can clearly understand where improvements can be made.

That’s why client councils get access to a useful dashboard as part of FixMyStreet Pro’s fully-featured admin back-end, showing all reports within your chosen timeframe. These can then be further filtered by ward, status (in progress, fixed, et cetera), and category. You can even check to see how many reports were made through the website, and how many on the app, giving you a good feel of your residents’ uptake of mobile.

As you’d expect, everything can be exported as a .csv file, to add to your own reporting spreadsheets.

You can see how it looks — and have a play around — on our demo site, at https://demo.fixmystreet.com/dashboard. If you have your own installation, you’ll be able to access it if logged in as a staff member with the right permissions, at your own installation URL followed by /dashboard. Then just click on ‘Stats’.

Got questions? Why not drop in to one of our regular Friday webinars?

FixMyStreet Pro and GDPR

GDPR is on everyone’s minds at the moment: the new data protection regulations come into force in May and will give new rights to citizens as regards the storage and use of their personal data.

We’re fortunate at mySociety in that we’ve always adhered to strong principles when it comes to privacy. That said, we’ve not always been great at setting those protocols down in writing, and the arrival of GDPR has been very good for us in that respect.

Over the past few months, we’ve been very busy creating internal documentation and updating the privacy policies which sit on each of our sites, so that we all know we’re on the same page. Staff now have a set of written guidelines that we all adhere to; users can very clearly see how we use and store their personal data, and how to opt out if they wish to.

FixMyStreet Pro, a service we host, but which allows our client councils access to users’ personal information, has required particular thought. The result is our data sharing and security agreement, a document which we hope that you, as a potential or existing client, will examine with care.

Got any questions? Don’t hesitate to drop us a line.


Image: Samuel Zeller (Unsplash)

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FixMyStreet Pro is the street & environment reporting service that integrates with any council system.

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