Activity feeds for planning applications software
As someone interested in a planning application, I want to be able to see a chronological feed of significant changes or events for that application so that I can track its progress. Optionally, I might want to subscribe to notifications of these changes at various levels of detail in various formats (browser push notifications, email, RSS, iCalendar etc) so that I can get this information without having to visit the website proactively to find it.
It would also be useful to provide feeds through a structured API so that this information can easily be consumed by third party systems for analysis or so that professional users can view an integrated dashboard of activity for multiple applications across multiple authorities, each of which may be running separate/different software.
Traditionally, planning software shows a page or collection of pages of information about each application. Nearly all of this information changes or has the potential to change throughout the lifecycle of the application.
People interested in the progress of an application often find themselves repeatedly going back to the detail pages on planning systems to see if there have been any significant changes. This requires a lot of work and attention to detail, especially if you’re interested in more than one application. Would you be likely to spot if a consultation has been extended by a few days simply because the closing date has been updated?
Scanning for changes also requires the user to have an understanding of how the planning system works so that they know what kinds of changes to look for and what the implications of those changes might be. Some of these are obvious, some less so.
There are two formal parties to every planning application, along with various third parties who may be taking an interest. The planning authority (represented day-to-day by the case officer) and the agent (or the applicant where they’re dealing with the case directly) generally have good visibility of the application and update each other directly. Even these people could benefit from being able to read a structured chronological log of changes to an application at an appropriate level of detail.
But the requirement for activity feeds is more crucial for third parties such as ward councillors and local residents who aren’t in the loop between the case officer and the agent. Such people will often have less planning experience and therefore less idea of knowing where and what to look for.
What kinds of changes?
- the application has been validated or declared invalid
- the application has been decided - granted, refused or other decision
- new documents have been submitted, such as amended plans, or responses from internal or external consultees
- there are new representations from the public (support, object or comment)
- a public consultation has opened, closed or been extended – and consider that authorities will re-open consultations on applications with significant amendments
- a site notice has been displayed
- neighbours have been notified
- the application has been assigned to a new case officer
- the case officer has published their report and recommendation (to grant/refuse) to the committee (link to it)
- the application has been de-delegated for a committee decision or re-delegated back to officers for a decision
- a date has been set for a committee or full council hearing (who will generally decide the application, but may defer leading to subsequent hearings) (link to an iCalendar event)
- the applicant has appealed against a decision to refuse permission, or against conditions
- an appeal is decided
- the application is called in for a decision by the Mayor of London or the secretary of state
- someone takes the case to judicial review
Too much information?
Users must be able to choose and change the level of detail in their activity feeds. Feeds should be available for individual applications. Signed-in users should be able to view a combined feed for all the applications they’re tracking.
Level of detail options might be:
- decisions only
- decisions and consultation/committee dates
- plus document changes
- plus representations from the public (compressed to no more than one notification per day per application as some applications get dozens or hundreds of comments)
- literally everything
Providing activity feeds will help to ensure that interested people don’t miss important changes and can respond to them accordingly. It will also help to educate people about how the planning system works through them being able to see the detailed progress of an application rather than just a static point-in-time presentation of what is mostly dynamic information.
Activity feeds should be carefully designed and worded so that they’re intelligible for planning novices as well as experienced/professional users. For example, many users will need an explanation of what validation or de-delegation is, not just a notification that those things have happened.
Feeds should also use the active voice to make clear who is performing each action where relevant, for example:
- the applicant has submitted amended plans (specify/link to the relevant documents)
- Transport for London (an official consultee) has sent a consultation response
- planning officers/the planning committee/full council have granted/refused permission for the application (although it should be made clear that it is the authority’s decision not that of the individual decision maker(s))
- Councillor Joan Smith (Central ward) has requested that this application is decided by the planning committee rather than by planning officers (de-delegation)
- the applicant has appealed against the council’s decision to refuse permission