Early issues on Cyclescape seeing results

It's very pleasing to see that some of the earliest issues submitted to Cyclescape, and discussed heavily on the site, are now seeing real improvements on the ground as a result.

Several big issues first lodged on the site in around 2011-12, and with hundreds of postings on Cyclescape since to advance the issue, have seen major breakthroughs since.

This blog post features three issues from Cambridge, currently the most active group on Cyclescape.

For instance, there has long been a shortage of cycle parking at Cambridge station, and a new cycle park was proposed. Members have been campaigning and discussing the cycle park, and its design. Construction is about to begin.

Another great example is the problem of cycle parking in Cambridge city centre. Since a user posted this as an issue in February 2012, members have been discussing it using Cyclescape, and this pressure resulted in a project to allocate over 600 spaces in the area.

You can see some more photographs of the results of this successful Cyclescape-backed campaigning on our sister website, CycleStreets.

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Here is one more issue from Cambridge - the need for space for cycling on key roads in Cambridge. Huntingdon Road is one such location, and local campaigning, using Cyclescape to enable the group's members to discuss proposals, is about to see the scheme built.

Obviously, cycle campaigning is a mixture of campaigner pressure, as well as agreement from the authorities. We hope that Cyclescape will increasingly be seen as the solution of choice to help facilitate the first of these.

Have a browse through more of the issues in Cambridge and beyond, and get involved!

Planning applications and their effect on cycling

Over the last few years since our beta went live, the over 1,000 issues logged on Cyclescape, and being discussed by members of the site, contain a wide range of concerns. It's interesting to see the kinds of issues that act as a barrier to greater cycling around the UK.

Common things include lack of cycle parking, dangerous roads, collision-prone junctions, missing links, scrutiny of new cycleway proposals, and new residential/commercial developments that will affect cycling.

The last of these examples - planning applications, are interesting as they often represent both dangers and opportunities for cycling.

For instance, a major new housing development could result in a lot of new traffic on an already congested roads. However, there could also be an opportunity, as councils are able to negotiate "planning gain", known as Section 106 agreements (or Community Infrastructure Levy), where public infrastructure nearby is improved - such as a new cycle route, cycle parking, or traffic calming measures.

However, it is crucial that cycle campaigners know about planning applications as soon as possible, to maximise the chances of pursuading the local council to negotiate Section 106 proposals, and to give more time to look through often lengthy and complex documents for potential problems. Planning application websites are often hard to use, fail to provide a proper map view, and in general are not orientated towards monitoring of cross-cutting concerns like cycling.

Discussing a planning application relies on someone actually knowing about a planning application (that might have effects on cycling) in the first place. Of course, Cyclescape enables people to add planning applications as an issue like any other. 

However, we think there is a better way - having planning applications automatically appear on the map as a potential issue. So we've been working on a way to automate this. Using data from Openly Local, we plan to add a new tab to the overview page, so that any member of the site can 'promote' a planning application that looks like it might be of interest to an issue automatically.

Here are some screenshots of the work in progress:

Listing of planning applications in an area

Accessing any link on this page, gives a button in the corner:

Convert to an issue

This creates a new issue page, but with all the details pre-filled in, so it can be quickly reviewed/adjusted and submitted in the usual way as with any issue:

planningclone

We think that automated listings of planning applications will be a powerful new feature of the site.

The motivation for this has come from Cambridge, which is a considerable growth area, and where the local cycling campaign spends a lot of time scrutinising planning applications. The vast majority of planning applications on the Cyclescape site are indeed from Cambridge. This work for Cambridge has been gratefully funded by Cambridge Sustainable City who awarded a grant for Cambridge Cyclescape.

If you're interested to help develop the code, any contributions would be very welcome, on the 'planning' branch. We now have completed the integration and user interface code, but are awaiting availability of the data, which will come from Openly Local.

Guide for new users

Now that various groups are using Cyclescape, and adding members, we've created a new Guide for new users.

The Guide gives an overview of Cyclescape, getting you set up, and some of the features that we have available.

Over time, we hope the need for the Guide will go away as we improve some of the remaining usability improvements, as programmer time and funding becomes available.

Guide for new users

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Final report to GeoVation

We've submitted our Final report to GeoVation, which describes the work we've been able to undertake with this funding.

It outlines what we've been able to achieve to get Cyclescape as a working site, what remains to be done in advance of our national launch in October, and the challenges that we've faced and overcome.

Stay tuned for news shortly on the latest updates on development. We've been making steady progress with ticking off the remainining areas needing work to finish.

We would like to thank everyone involved in GeoVation for enabling this project to go ahead. We are excited to have been able to deliver it, and are very encouraged by its potential.

A screenshot from Cyclescape, showing the interface for adding an issue

What we’re working to finish

Cyclescape has been used now for three months by Cambridge Cycling Campaign as our test group. We added them even though we knew not everything was in place, as it was important to get good feedback on real campaigning usage, even though that has meant some confusion in the short-term.

Over 180 issues (cycling infrastructure problems) have been posted, over 250 discussion threads on these, containing over 2,000 messages.

We've also had meetings with CTC, Cyclenation, and London Cycling Campaign to show the site as it currently stands and talk through what's done and what's not, to see what they most need:

   
Meetings with London Cycling Campaign and Cyclenation / CTC

A lot of the work going on now is about tidying up and finishing off pieces of functionality, reorganising things a bit, and making things more flexible. The site isn't quite ready for wider usage, but things are falling into place.

These are the main things left now, not in any particular order, to ensure that the site will be a big step up for campaigners:

1) Settings: "What do I get told about?"

A key aspect of the site is to avoid the 'e-mail list syndrome' where everyone gets absolutely everything, which puts off people who don't have enormous amounts of time. Instead, users can outline places they want to hear about things.

a) Three months' usage of the site has clarified what the various settings should now be. This is now being finalised, as top-priority work. [Done]

b) We need a clearer route through to encourage people to set their preferences.

c) The ability to subscribe automatically to discussions based on keywords (e.g. 20mph zones) rather than purely map-based areas.


Users have found that the settings don't give them quite enough flexibility yet. The key addition about to be added is auto-subscribing, rather than just being notified.

2) User interface

Much functionality is now in place, but users are having trouble finding things. So:

a) The search box will be moved to a more accessible position and cover all types of data (issues, threads, library) [Done]

b) Reorganising the various listing screens.

c) Removing scrolling past previously-read replies. We're aiming to avoid pagination (which people don't like).

d) Tags (categories) just need an auto-complete so that 'cycle parking' comes up as soon as you start typing: p.. a...

e) Getting a more natural (and 'frictionless') connection between an issue (basically the container for discussions) and threads (the actual discussions). In general, starting a discussion on a completely new issue involves a bit too much friction, which we need to address.

f) General little bits of tidying up, improving the labelling and making the site as 'warm' as possible.


This shows three of a number of ways of viewing what's going on. There are more, and we are gaining a better insight into what users need to see to help them campaign.

3) E-mail integration

From the start, it has been a core principle that people can interact with Cyclescape via e-mail as well as the web, much like a Yahoo Group for instance.

a) At present, a discussion thread can't be started by e-mail. A key question is how to ensure this gets grouped with other discussions on a topic.

b) The ability to move an existing thead into a different issue.

c) Finishing off the work on attachments so they can be attached to an incoming e-mail.

4) The Library

The Library is a place for useful resources to be 'tagged' (categorised) so that Cyclescape can automatically suggest them in discussions. For instance, if a 20mph zone is being proposed, it makes sense for the key guidance on this to be handed to people 'on a plate'.

a) Adding to the library isn't a very smooth process at the moment. We intend to enable any reply to be 'promoted' to be a library item retrospectively.

b) More types of library item will make things a bit more flexible and improve how they appear in discussions.

c) Adding the category tags needs to be made more integrated.


The core Library functionality is there - it just needs a bit more development to ensure it's a genuinely useful campaigning resource.

5) Other features

a) A key need in Cambridge, for which we have grant funding from Cambridge Sustainable City: Getting planning applications landing on the map automatically, something we're very excited about. OpenlyLocal have been making good progress with developing the new PlanningAlerts. We've done some initial work to determine how this will work, interface-wise, to avoid lots of roof extension planning applications (etc.) appearing and cluttering things up.

b) There isn't a listing of My priorities, so there's currently no incentive to set this. Currently you can set this but it's not actually then used. [Done]

Stay tuned for news as these each get ticked off!

More features in place

Work is continuing apace with Cyclescape, with more features now in place as we work up to a wider release.

There are still quite a number of unfinished areas, but we're getting there. Andrew and (most recently) Andy have been busy adding more in place for us.

  • Deadline setting
  • Collision data
  • Per-thread attachments
  • Committee-only privacy setting
  • Popular issues

Read about these below:

Deadline setting:

Deadlines (or other dates) can now be set.

Our experience of cycle campaigning is that it's often easy to miss a consultation deadline or some other date, if there's a lot going on. By then, it's too late, and the opportunity to see improvements to cycling are missed.

The set dates are now listed in 'My Cyclescape', the user's main summary area. We'll be developing this interface further.

Collision data:

Collision data is now integrated, using a new data feed from CycleStreets, and linking through to their collision reports.

This feature has been developed for the Cambridge group, pushed forward because of the large number of planning applications in that area, for which collision data can often provide a useful context.

Development of this feature, and various underlying code pre-requisites, has been possible thanks to a grant from Cambridge Sustainable City, whose support has been invaluable.

This screenshot, for instance, shows the site of collisions in Mill Road, an area subject to continuing pressures on cyclists from lorries. Several planning applications in recent years would have benefitted from this data being available.

The finalised interface for collisions isn't quite in place yet - buttons for this will be added to finish it off.

Per-thread attachments:

Attachments can now be added to individual discussion threads. Previously the only way to add an attachment was to add it to the Library, which is always public.

Currently there is a slight limitation that, if e-mailing to the discussion thread (since you can reply to things via e-mail, not just via the website), attachments do not get through. We're working on this!

Committee-only privacy setting:

There are now three privacy options for each discussion thread:

  • Public (publicly visible)
  • Group (i.e. available to all members of the group)
  • Committee (available only to current Committee members)

The latter option means that groups can discuss sensitive matters in privacy if required, e.g. pre-consultation plans from a developer.

There is a setting in the group's area which sets the default (public/group) when their members start a discussion thread.

Cyclescape has a voting system, which now results in a list of popular items, ensuring that key strategic issues can stay floated to the top.

More will be done to expose this feature in due course, as the rest of the interface is improved, but the underlying functionality is now in place.

 

The What's New? link at the end of each page on the site has a log of individual features and bugfixes as they are put in.

Bit by bit, the site's functionality and interface is falling into place!

In our next blog post we'll talk about what we're currently working on, i.e. what's missing and what's not yet finished.

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!