Sunday, 22 November 2015

How we created our winter updates

It's that time of year again, when council highways staff can be out all hours, keeping us safe by treating and clearing the roads from the effects of the winter. Where I work we've offered alerts on what's happening for a while and I thought it might be useful for other councils to let you know how this works.

To start I'll explain the restrictions we work with. We couldn't have a comms officer on call 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, for the whole of the winter, just to let people know about gritting. Also, a number of highways officers deal with treating and clearing the roads on a rota, and it wouldn't be cost effective to train them all up in how to update our website, Twitter and so on.

The challenge was to make this work with no additional operational resource or skills.

So how did we make this happen?

During the winter at least once a day, a highways officer makes a professional judgement as to whether and what type of treatment the roads in our area need and they record this in an IT system. We spoke to MeteoGroup, the suppliers and asked them to build something that was triggered every time an officer saves an update.

The content management system (CMS) we use has an application programming interface (API) which lets other IT systems talk to it, so we created a web service that MeteoGroup could call which stores all the right information in the right places in our CMS, to update our website.

We then created a new template to pull out this information and display links to other useful stuff, like a map of where we were gritting or clearing, which is already stored in our mapping system. You can see the winter service update page here.

Once the information is in our CMS we can use it in lots of ways. So there's an alert on our home page that during the winter is there even if we're not doing anything. One of the things I learned during past snowy periods is that it's important to tell people some of the stuff we're not doing or we don't know, to keep them informed, as it really cuts down calls to a call centre.

We also offer an RSS feed of the same information which means anyone can take it and put it on their own website, or create their own alerts. It also enables us, through Twitterfeed to update a Twitter account dedicated to roads.

So there we go, updates and alerts on our website, Twitter and RSS and with no additional operational resource needed. That's Government as a Platform in action years before the term became widely fashionable.

The most amusing element of this work? Because highways officers kept using the acronym RST, we wrote a line of a line of code that saves this text as "road surface temperatures" in our CMS and therefore wherever it's used online.

Do let me know if you'd like any help and advice getting this up and running at your council. In the spirit of LocalGov Digital, work and other time permitting, I'm always happy, to think, do and share.

Image By Editor5807 (Own work) CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Sunday, 15 November 2015

A common tech platform for local government?

I talk to lots of people working in lots of councils about collaboration every week, and on Monday I received an email that really highlighted the barriers to working together with a common tech platform across Local Government.

Here's the two most pertinent paragraphs, with a few bits redacted for obvious reasons:

We are migrating from [IT SYSTEM] to [IT SYSTEM]. We are a very small team without the same large infrastructure of most authorities. We do not have a Comms team or Comms Manager. No webmaster or any extras.
What we are doing here is creating a common platform centred around [IT PLATFORM]. Only one more migration to perform and that is to replace [IT SYSTEM] with [IT SYSTEM].  

Anyone who thinks rolling out a common tech platform across the whole of Local Government would be easy, needs to have a think about the issues this highlights.

The council in question are on their own timeline, as are all other councils. It's probably going to be three or four years before they look at this again. Rightly or wrongly, some councils will be locked into contracts that last longer than this, particularly those that have outsourced their IT capability.

Asking the council in question to abandon this programme and start another to roll out common elements that do the same thing would be costly. They probably won't have the resource to retrace the same steps to deliver a solution that does the same thing as they've just delivered, with different tech.

I know some councils that are digging into their reserves to fund digital transformation programmes. It's a one off spend-to-save and once the funds are gone, they're gone, but the programme will help the council stay financially afloat by delivering better cheaper services to their citizens.

For a digital transformation programme to a common platform to happen across local government at the same time, someone needs to fund this, 400+ times over. In short it would costs billions, it might save billions too, but it needs capital funding from a central source to work.

A common tech platform across the whole of local government wouldn't be impossible, but it's far from easy or cheap, as I have seen some suggest.

Tuesday, 10 November 2015

Superfast highways

You may have seen this slide I put together to help explain digital transformation

This week we launched a new beta service to report speeding traffic. It looks fairly simple but to give you an idea of what's happening in the background I thought it might be useful to show you the before and after.

So here's the before

and as you can see it's completely a manual process. Stuff might be recorded electronically but it takes someone to do something seven time to make the process work and send it to the parish or the district.

Here's the after

What this doesn't tell you is that it's basing whether the request is for the parish or district on three questions. It's also doing a spatial look up to find the parish and returning the parish clerk details using the Modern.Gov API.

Because these are already part of our platform this is data that we currently maintain, so there's no additional work to keep this up to date and we've reduced the human interaction down to one step where we ask the user the details of the problem.

Give this a go yourself, you can find the beta service at here and there's an option to just test it out.

Sunday, 1 November 2015

Increasingly meaningless

I should start this piece by saying I understand that the English language evolves and no doubt have also used terms incorrectly myself in the past. So consider this as a disclaimer that I know things change, and that there's also a touch of hypocrisy in me writing this.

I saw a few things this week that prompted me to write this piece, and one was this tweet

which neatly highlights the problem.

Another was watching a presentation from a well respected thought leader around government digital in which he said that "digital platforms aren't tech". I beg to differ. Take away the tech and see how far a digital platform gets you. See how these new ideas and service designs work without ones and zeroes.

I'm reminded of this spoof of "Utah Saints Unplugged"

Whilst digital platforms certainly aren't all about tech, and tech should be an enabler rather than a driver, we are redesigning things around what tech now allows us to do, so tech shouldn't be forgotten or downplayed.

Mind you, the speaker also said that re-designing government around digital was a "once in a lifetime opportunity" which fundamentally misunderstands that digital design isn't a one off, it's an iterative process that evolves as both user needs and the tech that could be used to meet them does too. When I see people questioning that the Government Digital Service (GDS) are looking at rebuilding bits of GOV.UK
I say good on GDS. Three years is a long time in tech and they're a different organisation to the one that originally built GOV.UK. They should be looking at their core offering and considering how they could do it better, every organisation should.

The tipping point this week was when I saw someone write that "Open source is not really about the tech". Yes it is. The term was coined to describe making the source code of something open and usable by everyone.

So why's this happening?

Well at best it's a misunderstanding of the terms being used and at worst an attempt by some to jump on the digital bandwagon to sell their wares. Think "technical sales" in IT. A generalisation I know, but these are often people with a little bit of tech knowledge and a slick line in sales patter trotting out buzzwords to flog something.

So what's the problem with this, surely no one owns these terms and they can be used as seen fit? Yes that's true, and as I said at the start language evolves, but terms like "digital platform" and "open source" are now being used to define an increasingly different array of concepts and products so much so that they're becoming meaningless.

Ultimately this harms the process of producing better, cheaper, user centred services because no one knows what anyone talking about any more, and we're starting to see the same old stuff being re-sold with a shiny new "digital" badge.

So next time you hear "digital platform" or "open source" think about what it's being used to describe and the motives of the person using it. Are they doing so to promote better, cheaper, user centred services through the use of tech, or to flog a product or their own services which just offer a passing nod to enabling tech to meet user needs.

Thanks for reading; my book and speaking tour on enabling digital transformation by engaging communities with open source thinking will be available soon. ;-)
This blog is written by Phil Rumens, Vice-Chair of LocalGov Digital, lead for LGMakers and who manages the digital services team at a local authority in England.

The opinions expressed in this weblog are my own personal views and in no way represent any organisation I may have worked for, currently work for, might be thinking of working for, might not be thinking of working for or have never worked for. In fact having said that they, might not even be my views any more as I might have changed my mind so I wouldn't take any of it too seriously.