No, no … don’t duplicate!

Following the publication today of a story on the BBC News website technology section that includes a quote from yours truly, I was asked a question via Twitter which I said I would clarify here on my blog for interested parties to learn a little more about my line of thinking.

There's much more to potholes than a hole in the road!

There's much more to potholes than a hole in the road!

The questioner (Mash the State) sought clarification over a subsequent Tweet I made that councils should make their own equivalent e-service applications to FixMyStreet or the (sadly now defunct) planningalerts.com, etc., as good as the independent sites.

Another (Kev Campbell-Wright) asked me: “Why does every council need their own fault reporting when FixMyStreet works from everywhere?”

So, to clarify where I was coming from with the original comment and an attempt at clarification in the limited 140 character space available to me on Twitter, here’s my take on the whole thing, starting with the original quote from the BBC News story:

“It’s a short-sighted council that is a bit sniffy about these services,” said John Fox, who helps to monitor the use of websites and social media for Socitm – the professional body for local government IT managers.

“They can see these services as a bit of a pain in the neck rather than embracing them,” he said.

He added that those behind some of the follow-on services should consider the impact of what they were doing on local councils.

“One of the big issues for putting the services on the website is what happens to that information after it has been entered by you, me or a citizen,” said Mr Fox.

For instance, he said, when it came to street repairs some councils had created a streamlined system that, once a pothole is reported, routes information electronically so that the only human intervention is a man pouring tar into the offending chasm.

By contrast, he said, in some councils a report filed via FixMyStreet may have to be forwarded via e-mail several times before it reaches the right department.

Despite this, he said, more and more councils were opening up. Kent County Council has set up the “Pic and Mix” website that allows anyone to take some of its data and play around with it.

Some maintained a presence on social sites, such as Facebook, to reach their citizens.

Salford, he said, regularly ran an online element to its annual debate about budgets to ensure people are involved with how their council tax is spent.

What I said to Mark Ward (BBC correspondent) was that those councils that are a bit sniffy about sites like FixMyStreet are missing a bit of a trick. Many may not have sufficient resources to develop their own integrated online services inhouse, so FixMyStreet provides a zero-cost way of providing online services via an intermediary service and can help to make the council’s own website appear (to the citizen) to offer more transactional capabilities. Good news all round basically.

But, where a council has already developed e-services in house, either bespoke or using a proprietary application with a web plug-in (as I write this I can’t for the life of me recall the name of the highways reporting system that is used at Salford), then a considerable investment has already been made by that council in providing online services and it would not be politic to simply ditch that application and switch to the FixMyStreet model.  Instead, effort should be put into making sure that the internal e-service is simple and straightforward for both citizen and council to use as possible, to drive take-up whilst reducing overall transactional costs for the authority.

So there’s two models. But there’s a third. So let’s assume the council has its own e-service for citizens to report a highway problem, eg a pothole. Just how well used is that e-service? Is take-up e-service good, poor, or non-existent?  Maybe the usability is questionable? Maybe it simply takes too long to complete the task? Or maybe the council isn’t marketing its availability effectively enough and citizens are finding FixMyStreet instead?

It is highly probable that using FixMyStreet: a) takes less time, b) works every time, and c) has additional customer-oriented functionality for the end user to check out.

So if FixMyStreet works better for the citizen than the council’s own e-service equivalent, which isn’t being well used, the council should perhaps be putting effort into getting the internal investment recouped, shouldn’t it?

One could argue that in the final analysis, its all about the citizen – provided the citizen ultimately gets the service they’ve requested (ie to have a pothole repaired) it doesn’t really matter, does it, whether the enabler was the council’s internal system or FixMyStreet?

Well, actually (sticking my neck out), yes I think it does matter!

The council’s internal system will hopefully have been set up to automate as far as possible the internal process, from initial citizen report, to entering the problem report into the highways system and a log number being generated.  Then a work order is generated at the highways depot and a man goes out in his little van and fills the pothole in.  Meanwhile the citizen gets an automatically generated email thanking him for reporting the pothole, providing a log number and further information on who to contact if he wishes to follow up at a later date.

If the system works really well additional customer facilities will be enabled, like informing the customer that the hole has been filled in, or providing details on the website of his problem statement and the subsequent fix. As an aside, in my capacity as a Better connected reviewer, I’d be especially delighted if I received an acknowledgement email that informed me about other online service offerings from that council that I might like to try out sometime.

Where FixMyStreet falls down (in comparison to the council’s own e-service) is that the pothole report is sent in an automatically generated email from the owners of FixMyStreet to a nominal contact in the council. For a council that gets a lot of FixMyStreet reports, that’s potentially an awful lot of reports being sent to a single individual. It’s usually one contact per council, they’ll receive not just potholes but also street lights, dead animals, etc., so they’ll have to farm out the reports to the relevant part of the council for action. I know of one council where the contact is the council’s single press officer, he’s a busy man and the potential for messages to get held up, unactioned, in his inbox is not inconsiderable.

These factors inevitably impact upon transactional costs because extended time and human interventions are involved in passing the FixMyStreet report to the right department, then it has to be keyed and the work request generated before the highway man pops out with his bucket of tarmac.

Essentially, then, the general thrust of my assertion is that the council’s own e-service  is likely (if well designed) to reduce overall transaction costs, whereas the FixMyStreet method might work well for the citizen but it doesn’t work terribly well for the council because there’s no back office integration for the problem reporting, and therefore transaction costs will be higher.

And so yes there is, I believe, a real benefit in making sure that the council’s own e-services where available work effectively, and where they aren’t available, then promote the FixMyStreets of this world and get your internal processes attuned to handling the enquiries you’ll doubtless generate as a result of doing so!

Advertisements

27 thoughts on “No, no … don’t duplicate!

  1. Sadly Google’s reverse Geocoder doesn’t use the NSG, so we still can’t automatically turn a lat&lng into something that can be entered into the typical council pothole report form. We get the District/Ward/Parish name from Census data, and this helps, and we could indeed get street names from Google. But you still need a human being in between our reports and the councils’ systems in most cases.

  2. Sorry I’ve been away, or I would have been here sooner. But I see lots of things I would have said have already been said 🙂

    Just to clear up a few things. Firstly, factual inaccuracy – FixMyStreet can send to different email addresses per council, not just one. I don’t know for which council we’re apparently emailing their press officer, but every email we send has a footer asking the recipient to get in touch if we’re not using the most appropriate address, and that press officer has never done so as far as I am aware.

    On the overall point, and as some of the comments have said precisely how I would have said it, if a council has their own services, I would love to talk to them to get FixMyStreet working directly with that service (as we did and do with East Hampshire, for example).

    @iamadonut: Thanks for the publicity 🙂

    @Anthony Cartmell: Thankfully, we can and do reverse geocode reports to the councils, which I know some do use. You could try Google’s reverse geocoder perhaps?

    @Dane Wright: We do our best to try and filter out non-LA problems through user text etc., and have e.g. updated our FAQ only recently on this issue. We have a few other ideas to improve this further, which we’ll hopefully have time to implement at some point. I don’t understand why you need equalities monitoring data when submitting a pothole report, though?

    @Julian: Obviously the public RSS has less information than what is provided to councils, but do get in touch to discuss things 🙂

    ATB,
    Matthew, FixMyStreet

  3. There are a few issues in the FMS debate that have not been mentioned so far –

    1. LAs often need more information than FMS provides such as additional categories and equalities monitoring data. This one reason why LA street problem reporting systems are more complex than FMS.

    2. FMS sends everything to the LA regardless of whether or not the problem is for local government to resolve. This creates additional work for LAs that should preferably be filtered out at source.

    3. LAs have limited funds and have to prioritise what work is carried out. This is one reason why the work request cannot be sent directly to an external contractor.

    4. LAs are likely to have different back office systems for different street related services so a single API is unlikely and not all suppliers provide suitable APIs for data entry to their products.

  4. At http://www.fillthathole.org.uk we have a similar problem, although as we only handle potholes and other road hazards it’s a little less complex. A major stumbling block is that our map-based form generates accurate lat&long coordinates, whereas most council systems need a street name and house number to locate things. Fine in towns, but not much use on a long country lane!

    If we could have access to the National Streets Gazetteer we could at least reverse-geocode our accurate location to get the official street name, but that appears to be prevented by licensing problems (we as an organisation don’t actually dig the roads up, we just want to help keep them in good condition) 😦

    I have come across one council who feed the lat&long directly to their pothole teams on the road, but most rely on call centre staff (who often don’t even have access to the WWW to look at maps) to enter into street-name-driven forms.

    For council feedback we have a semi-automated email reading system (that picks out council’s own hazard reference numbers) and the original reporter can mark things as fixed. We are also rolling out permission for trusted people to update hazards too, which is working well in some areas. The League Table, coupled with local media coverage, helps to persuade authorities to keep their reports up-to-date when fixes are done.

  5. Thanks for all the comments today folks. Sorry I’ve not participated in the discussion – I’ve been on the road all day driving from Jedburgh to Southampton. Unfortunately FixMyStreet doesn’t remove accidents on the M1 just yet … 😦

  6. I am wondering (out loud, again) what are the consequences of turning the problem on its head, and cannot say that all my arguments are well thought out.

    I am saying, lets assume for a moment that the transaction follows the “happy path” from the get go.

    The hole is there. The customer reporting it is honest. The guy fixes it.

    I guess I am saying let FSM supply the customer end, and the council logs in to FSM to enable and control a link to postcodes [x,y,z] to the guy with the shovel (ok, a shovel and a smart phone, hey! maybe its a smart-shovel ! 🙂 )

    Under the terms of the contract with the guy the council are notified of incoming reports, and provide contractual hooks in the guy with the shovel, and/or programmatic hooks into the system at FSM (be that an “empowered” or souped up FSM).

    At one end of the spectrum, with sufficient hooks applied the guy with the shovel is allowed to DO NOTHING without the council telling him to go ahead, at the other the “happy path” is allowed to take its course, they guy uses his intuition and experience to drive around filling what seems to be the biggest holes until something goes wrong. Each time he fills one he photos is, tells FSM who tell the council and tell the customer ***.

    The Councils’ role is primarily to oversee and manage the contractor, not manage the expense of a micro-messaging system AND GUI design AND X-browser compatibility AND XSR Forgeries, SQLinjection and the other myriad toxic problems that come with operating a website.

    *** What is there not to like in that for Councils? Eh?

  7. MrG,

    Agreed that while there are 433 installations there are doubtless many fewer distinct systems.

    I’m not sure I agree with your analysis that the aim is to link the customer and the fixer. It depends whether you characterise the customer’s aim as “I want to report this pothole to the responsible authority” or “I want this pothole fixed”.

    The former, while more abstract, more accurately reflects the responsible roles of everyone in the transaction, and by implication, the role of the fixer too. The customer isn’t directing work, they’re notifying an issue to those that are responsible to handle it (including, of course, to leave things as they are).

    You seem to be saying that the most efficient way to complete the work would be to cut out the middleman (the council). You may well be right but my personal concern is more with interface (the customer notifying the council) rather than implementation (how the work is performed). In practice I suspect implementing your idea and mine would amount to the same thing for the first leg of the data journey and the same overall customer experience.

  8. Julian Scarlett :
    If FixMyStreet could set up an xml feed (to agreed schema) of problems for each council rather than emailing then we could get it into our systems more easily and we (yes, I’m a loc gov web mgr) could easily aggregate data for neighbouring councils or sub-regions.
    20Rate This

    PDRTJS_settings_242363_comm_377 = {
    “id” : “242363”,
    “unique_id” : “wp-comment-377”,
    “title” : “If+FixMyStreet+could+set+up+an+xml+feed+%28to+agreed+schema%29+of+problems+for+each+council+rather+than+emailing+then+we+could+get+it+into+our+systems+more+easily+and+we+%28yes%2C+I%27m+a+loc+gov+web+mgr%29+…”,
    “item_id” : “_comm_377”,
    “permalink” : “http%3A%2F%2Fx333xxx.wordpress.com%2F2009%2F10%2F13%2Fclarification%2F%23comment-377”
    }

    FixMyStreet offers RSS of recent reports for every council (and every ward)

    http://www.fixmystreet.com/rss/reports/Haringey/
    http://www.fixmystreet.com/rss/reports/Haringey/Hornsey

  9. Adrian said “There are 433 councils that are implementing their own fault-reporting systems.” – might be true, but more likely the majority are using a relatively small number of what Paul Canning calls “white elephant” systems, expensive CMS add-ins, or Form libraries hacked to simulate work-flow engines.

    But thats beside the point, the point is to follow the data.

    The data starts with a customer and goes through a conduit(s) to the guy with the van and the tar.

    One conduit can be FMS, another conduit can be the council.

    If the customer knew how to contact the guy with the shovel, we wouldn’t need any conduits, each of them mishing and mashing and reformatting the “data”. Anyone who has ever played Chinese Whispers will have a good idea of the potential number of lost reports.

    Imagine the customer end of the data trail formats the report in such a way that it can be shared with many different systems, and imagine the man and shovel end of the data trail understands one of those formats, and that something allows the 2 ends to talk to one another.

    If the council wants full control of the work flow, they tell the man and shovel to adhere to more or less rules

    -to check with them before responding to the call
    -to tell them about all calls

    Surely it is the job of the council to set up the man and shovel end of the data feed, (postcode areas, limit per day, budget per week) delegate, OR ask for notification so that they can send out inspectors who delegate, monitor and control the work – and then GET THEMSELVES OUT OF THE WAY.

  10. Craig,

    That was the kind of thing I had in mind. REST/XML-RPC interfaces are commonly called APIs just as SOAP is.

    But technology isn’t really the issue here unless it’s just to demonstrate that creating an API is actually quite simple. For most councils its necessary to make the case why they should bother at all.

  11. Oh, and if you have managers that waste money and frankly can’t manage, go over their heads!

  12. Julian, Wouldn’t a simple web service or restful service be more appropriate than an API or are you encompassing them all in the term API? The service would be an agreed standard across all local gov, then it’s simple. Just get a superset of all possible data items and populate as available.

  13. A lot of councils have been landed with frankly expensive and less than usable systems, so if they are going to achieve any serious take-up of online services it is foolish not to promote FMS as a channel.

    But IME most councils are loathe to admit that their purchase is essentially a white elephant.

    BCCDIY is a clear indicator that when it comes to online service provision there is another way and it is possible for the old ways to simply be replaced – and practically overnight.

    If I were a white elephant supplier I’d be thinking of moving on to another sector to sell your wares to …

  14. How lovely to have the developer time and IT manager buy-in to deal with FMS!

    We publicise FMS because customers should have as many options as possible. It was my decision as a web content manager in the Comms team – supported by Customer Service, but not IT. Frankly, FMS does a better job than our webforms. It has maps!

    Our Customer Service Centre cuts and pastes from emails. But, that’s not such an issue because the CRM doesn’t talk very well to back office systems in the first place. Also, we’re not exactly overwhelmed with FMS emails: 55 cases.

    Requests are dealt with as per email policy. CSC team update FMS site when the request has been actioned.

  15. Julian,

    Wouldn’t it make more sense for clients such as Fix My Street to send data to your API rather than having to poll them for a feed? Your approach would work if you only wanted to support FMS but wouldn’t scale very well for multiple clients.

    A true API at your end would mean anyone could knock up a web form, a mobile app or even an SMS interface (perhaps just for your council) and send data to you through it and you’d handle it in exactly the same way as data coming from your own forms.

  16. “I know of one council where the contact is the council’s single press officer,..”

    That’s clearly a daft designation by the council itself. FixMyStreet is not a PR function, it’s street-level operational.

    As regards back-end, I have personally witnessed councils installing and using new town hall customer services systems that require the operators to print out every email received, pop it in a file with paper snail-mail letters, print, print print. And then they open the paper ‘post’ file, the next day, and start typing in what’s in there. Again. Their desks are swimming in paper from electronic communications. And they only do this because that is what they have been told they must do. In other words, management seems to create all the downsides of the old system, but with a lot of money having been spent in the interim.

    Perhaps this is a product of the age/education of the decision-makers concerned (though they are often the same age as me or younger!), who do not feel confident in making the right decisions about newer technology (securing electronic information and so on).

  17. Sorry, just have to say that I love a commenting system where you can rate your own post :]

  18. If FixMyStreet could set up an xml feed (to agreed schema) of problems for each council rather than emailing then we could get it into our systems more easily and we (yes, I’m a loc gov web mgr) could easily aggregate data for neighbouring councils or sub-regions.

  19. Pingback: Twitter Trackbacks for No, no … don’t duplicate! « FX & X333XXX [x333xxx.wordpress.com] on Topsy.com

  20. East Hants import Fix My Street service requests straight into their CRM:

    http://www.mysociety.org/2008/11/12/first-council-lets-fixmystreet-post-straight-to-the-crm/

    It’s defintiely something I’m going to be looking at doing once we’ve got our middleware solution up and running. Multiple channels might be a pain for some councils, but it makes life easier for the resident, and isn’t that, after all, what we as public servants should be doing?

  21. I originally raised this issue and I see that others have got here before me and made most of the points I would have made.

    As Tim Morley says, the easiest and quickest solution is simply to parse incoming emails and dump them into the database. If councils are wasting dozens of hours of admin time handling these emails manually (ie. copy/pasting them into the database) then a couple of hours of developer time to automate that would be money well spent.

    I don’t speak for FMS/MySociety but I understand they are happy to help any council integrate directly with FMS just as they have done with East Hampshire District Council. If you’re a developer you can browse their CVS repository and see exactly how they do it. It’s all open source code.

    I have made the general case for councils to implement open data and APIs for transactional services here. Helen Williams is quite right: There are 433 councils that are implementing their own fault-reporting systems. There is no reason whatsoever that the user interface for reporting a fault has to be tightly coupled with the back-end system for fixing it. With an open API, councils would have the flexibility to choose their reporting interfaces and fault logging systems separately and could easily just delegate the whole front end to FMS or any other third party if they chose.

    Tim Morley asks whether councils encouraging a multiplicity of services like FMS is in the interests of the councils or taxpayers. It most definitely is. If citizens can choose their own tools to interact with government they will presumably gravitate towards the ones they prefer and gain greater satisfaction from using them than by using a “one size fits all” system provided exclusively by their council.

    Frankly this whole discussion smacks of putting the councils’ interests above that of citizens. While any solution obviously needs to work efficiently for councils, I can see no reason why it can’t be win-win. Some technologists have forgotten that the job of IT is to magic away the behind-the-scenes details of how data flows between systems rather than expecting users to suffer a worse experience because technology wasn’t employed with their goals in mind.

  22. Implementing an API would likely be overkill – do the council actually want to encourage a multiplicity of services like FixMyStreet.com? What would be the point? And is it in the interest of the council or its taxpayers?

    A more realistic solution would be for the council to parse FixMyStreet emails and enter them into their existing system automatically. The FAQ at FixMyStreet invites councils to get in touch “to update the [email] address or addresses we use”, so FMS messages could even be sent to a unique address specifically for that purpose.

  23. I believe that there are some councils that have implemented this, and are both auto-processing the e-mails and routing reports from the front page to fixmystreet.com

    Also, of course it would be ponylicious if councils would provide APIs for this stuff. But where’s the beef? MySoc can’t make them do it.

  24. Helen:

    I think it would be ideal if Fix My Street could plug into the council’s internal systems. I don’t think Fix My Street would have objection to doing this, besides possibly lack of resources. So the ideal solution would be for the councils to contract for Fix My Street to be the official source of contact, with good internal integration and guaranteed SLA due to the money going in.

  25. FixMyStreet has the ultimate citizen-friendly trump card of the fact that you don’t have to know which council you need to deal with – and this is particularly helpful if you are a (highly!) civic minded person reporting an issue when you are away from home, in a two-tier council area, or crossing boundaries between districts. So some people will choose to use FixMyStreet however great the council equivalent is.
    It is ironic though that whilst councils are being urged to invest in self-service and gain efficiencies and provide a better service to the citizen by automating the process all the way through, they may incur greater costs again dealing with faults reported via fab services like ‘FixMyStreet’. To handle faults coming in this way presumably even if they can automate the process of it entering their internal systems, it isn’t possible to automate the process of feeding back progress to the FixMyStreet website? Or is it? If it requires investment rather than a quick fix then the council has to ponder the lack of any SLA with FixMyStreet and the fact that it is run by volunteers who could pull the plug at any time for any reason.
    Would be nice to have some sort of common standards wouldn’t it for integrating with this kind of application. Save time for ‘community’ developers and allow councils to justify costs of making everything work to the standards?

  26. If I may be so bold to make a suggestion:

    If there was a published information interchange standard for this type of information, then the FixMyStreets could call a standard web service at each councils web site to transmit the information. The Councils web site backend could then take the standard set of info and transform it to what ever the existing backend systems require. The councils could also return information to the FixMyStreets in a similar, standard fashion. If the message from the FixMyStreets was to include the reporters email address then direct emails from the council to the reporter could be sent. That data interchange standard could easily be agreed at a top level and instigated using XML and web services. All they’d have to agree would be the data items to be sent/received. If the web service was at a standard address for each council, i.e. http://www.mycouncil.gov.uk/problems and the standard published at http://www.mycouncil.gov.uk/prolbems?wsdl then it would help with the current rush for the world to interact with council data.

    Craig (TBC):)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s