The first things you see when you walk into Nigel Tyrell’s office are the big press clippings for the app he created, and the shelves full of coding books. Then you spot the big photograph of a Lewisham Council dustcart and remember he’s not a full-time programmer – but the head of the London borough’s environmental services.
Tyrell’s app is Love Lewisham, which launched on Valentine’s Day 2005. Users can take photos of flytipping, graffiti, or other street problems and they’re sent to the council to fix.
It quickly grew beyond the borders of Lewisham – Tyrell’s team found itself dealing with reports from around the world. It’s available nationwide as Love Clean Streets, while bespoke versions for individual councils include Tidy Oldham, Report It Derry, One Clean Leicester and Smarter York. It’s also used in the Jamaican capital, Kingston.
While it fulfils a similar function to mySociety’s FixMyStreet, which came onto the scene a little later, the motivation behind it was different. Tyrell came up with Love Lewisham as a way of getting his staff to report street problems.
“Back in 1998 or 1999, I created a web app, Lewisham Visible Difference,” he recalls. “We challenged residents to post their problems, then our task was to deal with them. There was a very simple database behind it, and that worked nicely.”
Five years later, Tyrell was walking home from work when the idea for Love Lewisham struck him.
“I’d bought one of those pocket PCs, and I was thinking ‘how can we use this?’,” he says. “I saw a fly-tip and I thought, ‘wouldn’t it be much better if I could just stick this online and carry on walking?’
“Then one of my people could assign it and get something done. So I thought, ‘how could I push stuff into this database’?”
Tyrell got himself trained to build an app, and an early version was up and running in 2004 – aimed mainly at staff from the council and other organisations. “Making it public was a secondary aspect,” he says.
'I'm not going to search for a web form'
A decade on, Tyrell still thinks councils still have work to do in using technology to keep their streets clean.
“If I step out of the house and I see a mattress, I’m not going back indoors to search for the council’s web form,” he says.
“I might use the app to report it, but the most suitable response for a council is that if their people are driving past it, then they should be dealing with it so I don’t need to. That’s where I’d like to get to.
“If we’ve got refuse crews visiting each street twice a week, we shouldn’t need to be told by too many people that things are wrong.
“Over the past five years or so we’ve saved in the region of half a million pounds in cutting traffic to our contact centre. But the prize is to properly exploit the technology for what it could do. I don’t think we’re as anywhere near that point as we could be, because everyone’s focused on ‘hey, we’ve got an app for that’.”
One issue he highlights is refuse staff not being included in council email systems – so they’re left feeling distant from the council that employs or contracts them.
It’s something he contrasts with his son’s recent induction into a part-time supermarket job. “He feels part of that organisation. You go to the shop with him and he’s straightening up boxes. Somehow, we’ve got to get back making people feel part of the organisation.”
To combat this, the Lewisham team maintains a blog. Keeping staff well-equipped, involved and up-to-date is key, Tyrell argues.
“Lots of people do the code and social networking, but very few do the service integration,” he says.
“If you can bring those things together, there’s some exciting stuff to do, because you’re working directly with the providers. Then you can ask, what else can these guys do for us? Could they be monitoring people who are vulnerable? There’s all kinds of stuff that goes beyond that core code.”
'Residents don't care how it's done'
Getting the public to use the app has had benefits beyond saving money. Each use of Love Lewisham costs the council £1.10, compared to £5.10 by phone. Using photos - taken before and after the problem is fixed - is vital.
“It’s much easier to focus on dealing with an issue,” he explains. “On the phone or a web form, people tend to exaggerate – ‘oh yeah, there’s a load of stuff and it’s been there five weeks’.
“So you’ve got to send someone out to look at it, and then work out what kind of resource you need to deal with it. But here it’s, let’s just respond to the issue. Then they’ll get on with their life and we’ll get on with ours, and not get bogged down.”
With Love Lewisham’s success spread out across the country, Tyrell sees no reason why councils can’t pool their web resources to save money. “Why do London’s 32 boroughs have separate web applications?,” he asks.
“Residents don’t care how it’s done. But they’ll come up with a million and one reasons why it couldn’t work and bamboozle politicians, so they move onto something they can understand, like the number of blokes on a refuse truck.”
Tyrell’s original idea was for Love Lewisham to be run by the community. It’s something that still appeals to him, because it would allow people to launch campaigns to get long-running problems fixed – including those with third parties such as utilities.
“At the moment, people report it on Love Lewisham, we assign it to the utility and nothing happens. We can’t go slagging them off, but the public should be in a position to say, ‘we’ve reported it, you’ve done nothing about it,’ and have a proper exchange of views,” he says.
“I reckon people would generally respond positively, and we’d take some flak occasionally.”