countculture

Open data and all that

Posts Tagged ‘feeds

Online services provided by your council: rewiring LocalDirectGov

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One of the things I’ve had on my ToDo list for OpenlyLocal for a while was providing a a list of links to online services provided by each Local Authority.

Seemed like something that should be on the site, and available as structured data; it also looked like it should be fairly easy to do, as it’s a service that’s sort of provided by central government (LocalDirectGov), though with some shortcomings.

The problem is that from a usability point of view the Local DirectGov interface is a bit clunky. First you choose the service you want the link for, which means using an A-Z (always a bit of a problem). This is the landing page, and as you can see you’re on the A’s.

LocalDirectGov landing page

So let’s say you want Hazardous Waste. Is that under H or W? Actually it’s under W, so click on W, and then on “Waste – Hazardous” and a new window opens (why?). You then need to enter your postcode, town or council in a form and you’ll then be (usually) given a link to click through to get to the council page.

However, depending on what you put in there and what category you want you may be asked to choose a particular council or be told that you council does not provide the service online:

 

LocalDirectGov no service

Frustrating.

Now there is a limited way for external websites to interact with this service, using the ‘white-label’ Local DirectGov application. There’s even a case study. Basically, you download a list of services provided by each type of council, and then build a LocalDirectGov URL, which redirects to the council service.

Terrific. Not hard to do, even for a coder as slow as me. The only problem is that it doesn’t work. For the end user that is.

The thing is, there’s no way of knowing whether the local authority actually provides a given service online, and there’s a fair chance that the URL you’ve just built up will resolve to a bog-standard contact page, or even worse non-existent page resulting in a 404 error. Not great for users, and there appears no way of programmatically finding out if link will work, even though it’s there in Local DirectGov’s database (which is how it says that the service isn’t provided).

So, we’ve tried to fix on OpenlyLocal this and provide a better version. First we’ve collected up the useful data for each authority (i.e. where there’s a specific page to that subject, and not a 404 or generic “contact us” page). Then we’ve put it all on one page, and made it searchable too. It’s clean, simple, and works:

Council Services list

You can also search it from the main council page if you want to in an Ajaxy live-search way (obviously the search also works without javascript, for screenreaders and other text browsers):

Council page with services search

 

Finally, you can access the data through the API as XML or JSON. So far, we’ve done a little over half the local authorities, and should have all the rest done by sometime next week (it’s just a matter of tying the remaining local authorities to their LocalDirectGov IDs, which has to be done manually).

As ever, comments, bug reports and feature requests welcome.

Written by countculture

October 27, 2009 at 4:49 pm

OpenlyLocal info on your website, Part 1: Google Gadgets

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  1. As I promised at the excellent TalkAboutLocal unconference in Stoke, I’ve been working on ways of helping non-techies use the local council data opened up by OpenlyLocal.com . The first of these is a Google Gadget, which can be added to your iGoogle page or your hyperlocal Blogger blog.

UK Councils Google Gadget

Though writing a Google Gadget can be a frustrating business, adding and using it is a doddle. Basically, if OpenlyLocal is extracting the data from your local authority (and we’ve got over 70 councils so far, with more being added every week — see the parsed council list for details), the gadget will show the key info at a glance — basic contact details, updated info, members, committees and forthcoming meetings.

For iGoogle users

  1. Go to iGoogle and click on “Add stuff” in the top right-hand corner of the page.
    iGoogle_add_stuff
  2. Click on “Add feed or gadget” at the bottom of the left column
    iGoogle_add_gadget
  3. In the box that pops up enter (or paste) http://openlylocal.com/tools/gadget.xml and click “Add”. Click OK to the box asking you if you want to add the gadget.
    iGoogle_add_gadget_url
  4. Go back to the iGoogle home page, and the gadget will have appeared and will need you to choose your council. Choose the council, click “save”, and you’re done.
    iGoogle_choose_council

Note you can drag the gadget anywhere you want on the page, and even add more than one copy of the gadget, if you want to have ones for different councils.

You can also share the gadget with friends, neighbours, colleagues etc. Just click on the triangle in the top right of the gadget. This is also where you go if you want to delete the gadget.

iGoogle_share_gadget

For Blogger users

  1. Make sure you’re logged in and go to the Customize area (the link is in the top right hand corner of the screen) where should choose “Layout” and “Page Elements”
    Blogger_page_elements
  2. On the template that you’re presented with there’s a block of boxes representing widgets/sidebars, including “Add a gadget”. Click on this.
    Blogger_add_gadget
  3. You’ll then be given a selection of gadgets, with a menu on the left-hand side. Click the link that says “Add your own”
    Blogger_choose_gadget
  4. A form will appear with a space for the gadget’s URL. Enter (or paste) http://openlylocal.com/tools/gadget.xml and click “Add”.
    Blogger_add_gadget_url
  5. You will be then asked to configure the gadget. Select the council and click the “Save” button.
    Blogger_configure_gadget

We’re planning on introducing more features in the future, but even as it stands, I think it’s a useful tool for your iGoogle page, or if you’re a hyperlocal blogger, a great way to add up-to-date and relevant info to your blog.

By the way, you can see the code behind the gadget at http://openlylocal.com/tools/gadget.xml (it basically makes a single call to an OpenlyLocal API url — http://openlylocal.com/councils/%5Bcouncil_id%5D.json — and then builds the gadget using javascript) and I’ll be creating a github project for it so you can help improve it/report bugs/request features.

The next step in making info more available is a Ning app, as quite a few hyperlocal sites seem to be using Ning as their platform of choice, and there’s someone who’s promised to write a WordPress plugin to provide the same or similar functionality to the gadget.

UPDATE:

As Helen reported in the comments, the gadget wasn’t working in Internet Explorer. Debugging it was not a pleasant process, but I’ve now found and fixed the bug (I believe). Let me know in the comments if the are any probs. It might take an hour or so before Google updates its cache with the latest code, but then should be fine.

Written by countculture

October 9, 2009 at 10:56 am

OpenlyLocal new features: RSS feeds, wards, calendars

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Time for a quick update on OpenlyLocal.com — the website that opens up local government in an accessible and consistent way (a sort of local government TheyWorkForYou). Since the last post announcing the site I’ve added quite a few new features, as well as a fair bit of tweaking to the back-end .

The main ones are:

  • Loads more councils (we have now opened up over 65 councils, with info on more than 4000 councillors and 2300 committees). If you council isn’t there give me a nudge and I’ll see what we can do
  • Keyword filtering of committee minutes and agendas. So if you want to find a council’s minutes and agendas featuring Tesco, for example you can now do that.

    Brighton Council minutes/agendas with keyword 'Tesco'

  • RSS feeds for minutes and agendas, including ones restricted to keywords. Just click on the RSS feed link at the bottom of the page.
  • Even more Calendar feeds. You can now subscribe to a calendar for a whole council, an individual councillor, or a particular council committee.
  • Added Wards to the information we’re extracting from websites.
  • Added RDFa markup, to allow integration with other datasets and become part of the semantic web.
  • Plus tons of backend improvements making it easier for me to add new councils, and loads of bugfixes

There’s still a long way to go, but OpenlyLocal does feel as if it’s moved a little beyond the proof-of-concept stage and is now genuinely useful for local democracy.

Written by countculture

September 1, 2009 at 11:53 am