MySociety launches FixMyTransport to solve transit problems with microactivism

Over in the United Kingdom, MySociety had launched FixMyTransport, a Web application to help citizens solve persistent public transit issues.

According to Tom Steinberg, FixMyTransport is the biggest project for MySociety since they launched WhatDoTheyKnow in 2008.

“This is a huge accomplishment — a nationwide UK system for individuals to document and report problems with any kind of public transportation system,” wrote CivicCommons executive director Andrew McLaughlin this morning. “MySociety has figured out how to route every kind of report to the responsible agency (or even person) — “the service works everywhere in Great Britain, our database has over 300,000 stops and routes for train, tube, tram, bus, coach and ferry.” Great design and interface. Congratulations, +Tom Steinberg and team!”

“We’ve never before launched a site that took so much work to build, or that contained so much data,” writes Steinberg at the MySociety blog, where he explained more about what it’s for. (The emphasis below is mine.)

FixMyTransport has two goals – one in your face, and the other more subtle.

The first goal, as the site’s name suggests, is to help people get common public transport problems resolved. We’re talking broken ticket machines, gates that should be open and stations without stair-free access. We’ll help by dramatically lowering the barrier to working out who’s responsible, and getting a problem report sent to them – a task that would have been impossible without the help of volunteers who gathered a huge number of operator email addresses for us. Consequently the service works everywhere in Great Britain, our database has over 300,000 stops and routes for train, tube, tram, bus, coach and ferry.

The second goal – the subtle one – is to see if it is possible to use the internet to coax non-activist, non-political people into their first taste of micro-activism. Whilst the site intentionally doesn’t contain any language about campaigning or democracy, we encourage and provide tools to facilitate the gathering of supporters, the emailing of local media, the posting of photos of problems, and the general application of pressure where it is needed. We also make problem reports and correspondence between operators and users public, which we have frequently seen create positive pressure when used on sister sites FixMyStreet and WhatDoTheyKnow.

Steinburg goes much deeper into the thinking and process behind FixMyTransport over at Radar today, where he writes about how to create sustainable open data projects with purpose:

I’m not saying it is impossible to hack brilliant things without piles of VC gold. But if you are going to hack something really, genuinely valuable in just a couple of weeks, and you want it to thrive and survive in the real Internet, you need to have an idea that is as simple as it is brilliant. Matthew Somerville’s accessible Traintimes fits into this category, as does FlyOnTime.us, E.ggtimer.com and doodle.ch. But ideas like this are super rare — they’re so simple and powerful that really polished sites can be built and sustained on volunteer-level time contributions. I salute the geniuses who gave us the four sites I just mentioned. They make me feel small and stupid.

If your civic hack idea is more complicated than this, then you should really go hunting for funding before you set about coding. Because the Internet is a savagely competitive place, and if your site isn’t pretty spanking, nobody is going to come except the robots and spammers.

To be clear — FixMyTransport is not an example of a super-simple genius idea. I wish it were. Rather it’s our response to the questions “What’s missing in the civic web?” and “What’s still too hard to get done online?”

As we say here on the Internet, go read the whole thing. If you’re interested in working on stuff making stuff that matters to citizens and make the world a better place, instead of, say, getting them to click on ads, you’ll be glad you did.

About Alex Howard

Alexander B. Howard is a DC-based a technology writer and editor. Previously, he was the Washington Correspondent at O'Reilly Media, where he covered the voices, technologies and issues that matter in the intersection of government, technology and society. If you're feeling social, you can follow him on Twitter, like him on Facebook or circle him on Google Plus In addition to corresponding for the O’Reilly Radar, he has contributed to the Huffington Post, Govfresh, Mashable, ReadWriteWeb, National Journal, The Atlantic, CBS News and Forbes. He graduated from Colby College with a bachelor's degree in biology and sociology. Currently, he is a resident of the District of Columbia, where he lives with his greyhound, wife, power tools, plants and growing collection of cast iron pans, many of which are frequently used to pursue his passion for good cooking.

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