Potholes are a major problem for councils – and road users often don’t find out about them until it’s too late.

Herefordshire Council’s opened up how it deals with this headache. It’s started displaying reported potholes on a map, with details of whether or not they’ve been fixed by the council.

“We had a huge pothole problem,” explains Herefordshire Council’s head of web and communications, Ben Proctor.

“There’d been a bit of underinvestment. Then we had a bad winter, then floods – we ended up with a huge number of potholes and big problems for citizens.

“We thought about how people experience it – ‘are you going to fix this?’, ‘do I have to report it 15 times?’ – and wondered if there was a better way of doing it.

“We’d just started a new roads contract, with a new system, so we wanted to make it nice and easy for people to get answers. Putting the data on a map seemed a sensible way of doing it.”

After looking at other systems, the Herefordshire team decided to build a map themselves using open source components, so it could be used by other organisations.

Geographically-aware data

Making the council’s data both open and geographically-aware is key for Herefordshire. Just 12 months ago, it didn’t have any data on maps on its website.

“Even though it’s geographically-aware, it doesn’t have to be on a map,” Proctor says. “We have data about bin collections – which bin gets collected on which week – but that isn’t displayed on a map.

“We have to think about people who can’t see maps, or for whom maps don’t make sense. We’ve a close relationship with the Royal National College for the Blind in Hereford, so we’ve a good handle on accessibility.

“Although as well as 17-year-olds whose Apple kit can talk to them, about other generations.

“But where we are now is better –we’ve had good feedback, but it’s not finished yet,” Proctor says, adding that he wants to use the map to make it easier for people to report problems to the council.

Herefordshire’s approach to its website has been influenced by the Government Digital Service.

“It’s about the user need. We’ve been using the GDS design manual, not because we thought we had to, but when we looked at it, we ended up in a very similar place to them,” Proctor explains.

Planning applications map

Herefordshire also now displays planning applications using a map on its website. Again, though, it’s the geographical data that’s important.

“Our planning applications search page had very high traffic – the second-most visited after our home page – but there were also very high levels of dissatisfaction,” he recalls.

“We had to fix what was wrong, so we completely rebuilt it.”

Now if you search for recent planning decisions, or recent applications, as well as seeing a list you’ll also see each application plotted on a map.

But getting critical feedback from users was crucial to getting the map right.

“It was in beta for 12 weeks,” explains Proctor. “We have a development blog and people there were very rude about it. A whole set of regular users hated what we’d done.

“But as it was built on a web service, it was very easy to make significant changes to the front end very quickly. Responding to user feedback makes things better.”

And using geographically-aware data means Herefordshire can move beyond maps and supply dedicated RSS feeds for parishes and council wards, and email residents information that’s relevant to their neighbourhood.

“Now it’s time to see how it can work for bigger departments, such as social care,” Proctor says.

Pothole by _chrisUK used under CC-BY-NC-ND-2.0.