How are our beta testers doing?

Discussing a planning application - note how the location of the site has been drawn out

About three weeks ago we opened up Cyclescape to a test group, Cambridge. Their Committee have been using the system instead of the e-mail list they used to use.

On the right, you can see a planning application being discussed, with the location of the site marked out, and a list of the discussions.

In this three-week period there have been:

  • 78 issues (problem reports and things to work on)
  • 108 discussion threads (discussions connected to the issues)
  • 789 messages (individual replies within the threads)
  • 61 user locations (areas that people have set to be informed about changes in)
  • 22 campaigning deadlines and dates
  • 34 library items
  • 151 pieces of feedback about the system, some of which are about tiny fixes, others about more substantial issues (most of which we know about)

Although there are unfinished areas (which have caused some user confusion) and some missing features, the testing has given us plenty of useful feedback, which we’re working through before we open up the system for wider use.

Organising a group ride

How are people using the system?

"The use of maps at the centre of Cyclescape illustrates the point that if a picture is worth a thousand words, so is a map.  The maps really facilitate sharing issues and solutions to them. They also mean that you can easily filter which topics are relevant to where you work or live.

Cyclescape is also a big advance on email lists in the way in which threads can be followed and documents stored for future use in an easy to find location."

- John

We’ve seen discussions on, for instance:

  • Various local planning applications – on which it’s been useful to see the location on the map
  • Smaller issues around a city
  • The Times “Cities Fit For Cycling” campaign
  • Administrative discussions (organising day-to-day things)
  • Organisation of a cycle ride – which again the geographical location provides useful context
  • Addition of some items to the resource ‘library’ which will be useful for future discussions

Items from the library (here 20mph guidance) have been automatically matched, and a user has added some to the discussion

There are signs that the ability for people to subscribe only to things they’re interested in, based on geographical location(s), should work well – so that people can be involved in things they care about – but not overwhelmed with issues.

We’ve seen some confusion over the difference between ‘issues’ (problems) and ‘threads’ (discussions of those issues), which further interface work will address.

Key themes

Some of the key themes, on things we need to fix, are:

  • The need to reorganise the various listings screens, which are currently not in their final positions. This is an area we knew would need quite a bit of iteration work.
  • Making sure that maps are viewable in a few places where they’re currently omitted.
  • Reducing the ‘friction’ between issues and threads. We want to encourage people to locate issues geographically when possible. To some extent this will be improved naturally as the listing screens get reorganised and as we fix up parts of the design that were not finished when we went live.

    

  • Various layout fixes to add some more polish and improve usability.

Some of the areas are quite Cambridge-specific, partly dealing with the unusually heavy level of correspondence and involvement that the Cambridge group has. Others, as shown above are more generic.

  • Further work on e-mail integration. Many areas work, but some kinds of notifications can’t be replied to by e-mail yet, and it’s not yet possible to start a thread by e-mail.
  • Very active campaigners have asked for an ‘opt-in to everything by default’ setting, so that they get told about everything, and can opt-out when not interested (rather than merely getting told about something new in their area). This would save them having to subscribe to each issue or discussion thread as it comes in.
  • How to deal best with city-wide issues, and the question of a neighbouring Local Authority (South Cambs) whose issues also particularly affect the area in terms of different planning policy.
  • There have also been some compatibility problems with a certain web browser... Internet Explorer!

An example problem that we need to fix - city-wide issues are overlapping and obscuring others, so a fundamentally different approach for city-wide issues might be needed, e.g. a separate listing screen or maybe a button to show these:

Usability testing

We’ve also done some individual usability testing, which has thrown up 35 actionable issues. Around half of these were things known about and planned to be fixed, but the others provided useful insight.

Next steps

We’re busy working on fixes for the above, as well as creating more guidance on installing the system for coders who want to get involved. Technical people can watch progress in our Github repository.

Stay tuned to the blog in the coming month as we talk about the latest changes and showcase the system’s features. We’re working as fast as we can, within the available funds, to get the system ready for wider use!

Feature focus: Issues and threads

Here are some of the designs for three of the main areas of the site: reporting an issue (problem), viewing it, and discussing it.

At present there are two parallel streams of work going on: feature coding (by our coding team of Andy and Andrew), and design work (by the designers we've appointed, Supercool). We’ll be talking more about how this design work is being developed in another blog post soon.

1. Report an issue

We all know that there are many infrastructure problems in the UK that act as barriers to getting more people cycling, or improving the safety and convenience of existing cyclists. Each of these we call an issue. Examples are:

  • Lack of cycle parking at a destination (i.e. a single point location)
  • The absence of a cut-through route that would shorten journeys (which you could draw on a map as a line)
  • A large hostile roundabout that has no cycle provision (basically a whole area!)

Cyclists will be encouraged to use the site to report these problems, locating them on a map.

When adding an issue, you can show it on the map as a single point, a line or an area. You can also add some tags (keywords) that help categorise it. And if you have a photo, you can add that too.

2. The issue page – showing a reported issue

Each reported issue has a page of its own. These issue pages are public. They describe the reported problem, showing its position on the map, as well as other details.

Note how the different types of things – areas, routes and points are shown.

On the right hand side is a list of discussion threads that a group is having about this issue.

3. Threads: individual discussions of a particular issue

As shown above on the issue page, for each issue there may be one or more threads of discussion.

For instance, getting our hostile roundabout fixed will require a lot of discussion. There could be discussions on:

  • alternative routes that could be created;
  • how cycle lanes or cycle tracks could be added;
  • how a similar problem has been solved in another area;
  • potential funding sources that could be tapped into;
  • what the planning office at the Council has been saying about the area; and 
  • a proposed solution that someone has come up with.

These discussions are specific to each cycling group using the system, and can be public or kept private to the group - we know that different groups work in different ways, as results from our survey are clearly showing.

Below, we show the page for one such discussion.

We’ll cover the thread page in more detail in a future blog post, but the key things are that it shows us a clear title, a description of the issue, the location, recommended resources that might be useful to bring into the discussion, replies to the discussion, your prioritisation of the issue, and a list of who is following it.

The button in the top-right lets you subscribe to an issue, so that you only get notified about things you actually care about, rather than every discussion.

If you use e-mail a lot, you can opt to receive updates by e-mail as well - again, another thing that our survey has shown is likely to be needed.

 

 

 

December review

Here's a quick report prior to the downing of tools for the Christmas holiday.

Since our last report two weeks ago, the following items have been implemented:

  • Library notes and document upload implemented.
  • Thread messages can be replied to by e-mail.
  • A user can set the locations and areas they are interested in, such as their home or route to work.
  • Tagging of issues, threads, and library items is possible.
  • Users can submit feedback from the site.
  • Issues can be voted up and down to indicate popularity.
  • Users can prioritise individual threads (each of which is a discussion on an issue, and an issue may have many threads).

Those with technical interests can see the great progress our developers Andy and Andrew are making, in our codebase, which is open source.

Our developers have documented bugs and contributed patches to other open source projects that we use. This includes submitting a crash bug report to the core Ruby language implementors (now fixed), a minor patch accepted by the Phusion Passenger team whose software powers many Rails deployments, and several bugs with fixes for the Chef deployment system.

New design work from Supercool has continued to come in, and we are plugging this into the code as fast as we can - though there's lots of other things to sort out too!

Here's some of the design latest work, though we are continuing to iterate work on the design and its implementation:

 

Design screenshots

These are the latest design templates from Supercool that we’re now busily hooking into the code!

Report an issue page:

 

Thread discussion page:

 

Issue page – each thread of discussion on issue:

 

And an icon set under development for the map markers:

 

Moving into beta

We’re approaching our beta phase now, with testing of a closed early beta starting today by members of one of our stakeholder groups.

Our designers, Supercool, have been working hard on the overall design and page templates, which we’re merging into the code this week.

Thanks to the hard work of our developers Andy and Andrew, core functionality is pretty-much all in place now, and it is being hooked into the design work that is now flooding in. (Some of the more ancilliary areas, such as importing of existing Photomap data, haven’t been started yet so we can get testing going more quickly.)

They've also been adding a lot of tests and other deployment infrastructure which ensures that the system is robust and easy to deploy.

Our timescale has slipped about one month, due to the amount of functionality going in and some questions on some of the assumptions we made earlier on (see below), but progress remains good. More technically-minded people can follow our code repository to see changes each day.

What’s in place now?

Lots! Most of the core concepts and functionality is now in place:

  • Logins and user profile
  • Users and group management
  • Issue submission (though not photos yet)
  • Core geographical basis (limitation of issues to specified areas)
  • Issues
  • Listing of threads to issues
  • Point/line/polygon basis of issues
  • Thread discussions
  • Deadlines
  • Multiple message types (e.g. comment/photo/link/deadline/library)
  • Subscription
  • Subscription by e-mail
  • Replies by e-mail (mail-to-web gateway)
  • Resource library (though not all types done)
  • User location management (e.g. ‘my areas’)
  • Dashboard
  • Listing of issues by ‘my areas’, by subscription, by involvement
  • Privacy (public/private) for groups and per-message
  • Tagging
  • Thread discussion context (group-based, ungrouped)
  • System feedback

These will need tweaking during the integration of the design templates and the results of testing.

Innovation: testing assumptions

What the early beta testing programme, and work until Christmas, will deal with, are testing and refining the key areas of innovation.

There have been interesting debates amongst the development team which has challenged some of the assumptions in the spec. Some of the differences have boiled down to how much users want to be involved with campaigning issues. We've resolved this into three general levels of involvement:

  • The light user, who wants to browse discussions, and perhaps is only interested in something that directly affects them
  • The involved user, who perhaps has certain specialist knowledge (about their local area or particular technical knowledge on certain infrastructure themes)
  • The super-campaigner, who is perhaps a Committee member and wants to view and be able to comment on almost everything

For instance, the spec assumed that people would be automatically subscribed to everything in their area, meaning that if their main profile settings enabled e-mail delivery they would get a huge amount of stuff. That would definitely suit the super-campaigner profile, but for the light user that would be information overload. So we are considering more fine-grained, but still user-friendly, ways in which ‘subscription’ as a concept is defined.

The other big area of discussion has been about the group basis and how this conflicts with a user-centric approach. The system has always been intended as a toolkit for campaign groups, not a general UK-wide discussion forum. The social context here is that cycle campaign groups act as a corporate voice for cycling issues in an area, and people working together with a group structure and norms helps the long-term basis of campaigning.

But people are sometimes members of more than one group (as the spec recognises) and different groups want different kinds of privacy in their discussions. By contrast, a user just wants to see things they’re interested in, whichever group is discussing them. So in the coming weeks we’ll be working through exactly how the interface can resolve this tension between user-centric and group-centric perspectives.

The three areas that we’re working through are:

  • What subscription means exactly (just a listing, or actively seeing discussions?)
  • E-mail subscriptions (auto-subscription, receive replies, and how threads get started)
  • Group basis (how this affects the user interface and subdomain URLs, and how people can be sure who they’re talking to).

Thankfully, we’re using Ruby on Rails, which is designed to assist with agile development issues like these!

Design screenshots

Stay tuned for news on design screenshots..

Work in progress: Alpha report

Last week we reached the alpha phase of our project.

An alpha (which comes before a 'beta') is the stage of development where the fundamental concepts and much of the underlying structures of the system are in place, but the interface isn't ready and many features aren't in place or finished.

In the coming weeks as we move to the beta, we'll have screenshots and more details.

We've submitted our Alpha progress report which describes process in more detail. There are a few screenshots, but they should not be taken as in any way indicative of the final system - they just have some basic layout to enable code testing.

Cyclescape Q&A

We presented the Cyclescape project to the Cyclenation/CTC conference in October 2011, to an audience eager to know how it will help their campaigns.

Here’s the presentation we gave, and scroll down for questions and answers.

 [and Text-only version]

Here are some of the questions we were asked, and answers to them.

1. How do I start a group in my area? What if I'm on my own?

Groups will go to a simple webform to apply for a Cyclescape site for their area. They can customise it in various ways.

A person on their own will also be able to create a new group for their area. They can then welcome others who live nearby, to join that group.

It is an explicit goal of the system that we help new campaign groups to spring up and provide them with resources to get them going easily.

2. Can there be more than one group covering a particular area?

Yes. There is no restriction on overlapping groups, as many areas have more than one campaign group.

Groups can, if they want, choose to campaign together. We hope that, over time, the system will help increase co-working between groups so that together they have a stronger voice.

3. How much information can groups share with each other?

Basically as little or as much as they want.

The default is that discussions are not shared, i.e. each group has its own area that is private. It is up to the people running each group to open things up beyond that if they want.

Groups can choose to make their discussions open-access if they wish; they can control who is added as a member of their group; and they can choose to share particular discussion threads if they wish.

The library of best practice will contain national and local examples. The national ones are usually shared. This will mean that a group can publish how they solved a particular campaigning issue, or share best practice photos and documents.

4. In our city we have a problem that the council put in "Pinch Points". They won't listen to us -  how can this system help?

Firstly, the system will help identify who will benefit by its removal, by seeing who cycles through the area, so that you can increase the number of people who can push to make the council change its view. We know this can really make a difference as our campaign in Kingston Street in Cambridge did exactly this (only we had to work out manually who these people were!).

Secondly, the system will automatically suggest examples from elsewhere around the country where the problem has been solved. It will only need one group to create a resource about this.

Thirdly, the system could also provide evidence of where a compromise has been achieved. Our experience in Cambridge, for instance, is that pinch points of 3.1 to 3.9 metres cause the most problems.

The system will basically help you build the best possible case for removing the pinch point, as easily as possible.

5. I'm keen to get involved with Cyclescape but the technology scares me, are you running any tutorials or workshops that can help me get started?

It is a strong aim that the system is self-explanatory and easy to use.

We shall also provide online guides to explain how to get started, and we'll think about organising a workshop, perhaps at another conference where we can demonstrate the system.

6. How does the sharing of best practice work?

Groups can create resources which describe how particular successes have been achieved.

Groups can add photos of good and bad practice. The existing library of over 30,000 photos from CycleStreets will also be available in the system.

Groups will also be encouraged to construct summaries of national/local policy documents, which will be well-categorised (by tagging with key words). This will help other campaigners nationally find out what guidance exists quickly and be able to quote it. This will mean that discussions on, for instance, cycling in pedestrian zones, would automatically pick out the key guidance, show photos and newspaper reports from where it has been achieved, etc.

We want to expand the photographic aspect of the system to create full galleries and downloadable high-quality images of best practice and are seeking funding to expand the system to include this.

7. Is it free?

Yes, groups can create a Cyclescape site for their area completely free of charge.

This is possible thanks to a grant of £27,000 that we obtained from GeoVation. We recognised when applying for this grant that groups all around the country face the same problems, but that few groups have much funding. It therefore made sense to create a campaigning platform that all could use, to avoid the need to reinvent the wheel continually.

8. Will it use the same username / password as cyclestreets.net to login?

We haven’t yet finalised that issue. However, we are hoping so.

9. Will it need further funding in the future?

The system is intended not to require ongoing funding.

However, our initial grant does have a shortfall, and we are hoping to add some additional advanced features in the light of feedback during our consultation over the summer. We need around £10-20k for this, so if you know of a potential source of funding that would help fund sharing of best practice, please do let us know.

The system is open source and so we are going to be working to get people involved from the cycling community who can help with the development.

 

What’s the Cyclescape of your city like?

We’re pleased to announce the name of our new cycle campaign group toolkit:

Cyclescape

We had over 70 suggestions (including some humorous ones), many of which were excellent ideas.

It became clear that many of the best ideas started with Cycle, and we liked the idea that the name would be co-branded with CycleStreets, i.e. Cycle-s-something.

We also thought it was particularly important to emphasise the geographical aspect of cycle campaigning. We thought that inventing a new word, Cyclescape would be a catchy and unique brand that emphasises the idea of improving the landscape for cycling across our towns and cities.

Having fixed on a shortlist, we began the process of trying to obtain domain names. This took a surprising amount of work as we wanted to ensure we got all the variants (.com/.net/.org) by way of brand protection.

Unlike three years ago when we bought the name CycleStreets, many Cycle+ names have now been taken and reserved by domain brokers. After approaching some domain holders, it was clear that some of the best names were going to be prohibitively expensive, in the thousands of pounds, which was well beyond an already-tight budget.

In the end we spent more than we wanted to acquiring the name, but we’re very pleased with it. We hope you like the name too!

Cyclescape.net is currently under development and we’ll be setting up a blog there shortly. @Cyclescape will also be the site’s Twitter identity, so do follow that also.

Andy and Andrew, our developers, have been making excellent progress. Many of the core concepts of the site are in place, so we’ll have screenshots of  the system at ‘alpha’ phase in the next few days. If you’re a coder, follow the code work in progress on Github.

Now we need a logo…

Now we need a logo! We like the idea of a curved section of city, with markers on and a bicycle going upwards. Anyone able to help with that?

Cycle campaign toolkit – spec

We're pleased to publish an updated specification for the campaigner toolkit, following consultation with groups and including further changes.

There's been lots of useful feedback submitted by e-mail, twitter, blog replies, and in meetings we've had. These comments were turned into about ten pages of bullet-points (165 points!) for working into the spec.

Many of the points raised were useful points for clarification, or small new features, and a few raised issues relating to group structure. There were no problems raised with the substantive direction and nature of the toolkit.

The Description of the toolkit and what it will do is still available and has not needed to be updated. However, the full detailed functional specification has been updated and is below.

We were delighted to receive various positive comments which very much reflect our hopes for the system. For instance:

"One great advantage I can see is that it'll potentially help balance out the workload within our cycle campaign by allowing the latest status on any particular issue to always be seen on the system. Getting more campaign member involvement will also help with our committee's workload."

"I like the push/pull options of mail list and forum. Can't think of anything you've missed. I'm hopeful that this will encourage common issues to do with rules or conventions to float to the top and be tackled at source."

Things that have been updated or added in the spec, as a result of the consultation are:

  • Clarification of the idea of a 'Library' of best practice
  • Presence of tips to help best practice in campaigning
  • Specification of the polls and petitions components
  • Issues relating to federated/overlapping groups
  • Committee privacy basis
  • Notion of groups having democratically-agreed policy stances that members must adhere to
  • Clarifications about grouping and splitting of threads
  • Ability to involve elected Councillors rather than just officers
  • Tightening of a few areas regarding mail integration
  • Emphasis on outcomes rather than endless discussion
  • Notion of cross-member 'recommended campaign' topics
  • Daily digest
  • Removal of the notion of a compromise objective, which could undermine a group's negotiating position
  • Addition of avoidance of uploading very large volumes of documents, which could create costs
  • And various other minor changes

The latest version of the specification is available. It is now a living document that incorporates updates in the light of implementation as we move into the coding/design phase.

A draft Module structure (work in progress) which describes an implementation of the functional specification, is being finalised. This will form the basis of the developers' work.