A great way to build software

Many posts on this blog are about products Digital First creates from scratch. We find out new user needs, and often conclude that it’s easier, cheaper and better to build for ourselves.

I wanted to write about an example where we haven’t done that, and why it’s still a great fit for us.

Brighton & Hove City Council manages about 1800 volunteers across different services. They help with digital literacy, conserve the city’s precious parks and a lot more besides.

The way the council manages volunteers varies from service to service. We wanted to make it easier to become a volunteer, and improve day to day support. Plus, with new data protection regulations coming into force in May this year, it was time for a spring clean.

My colleagues Sam, Rich and Annie looked at many options. They ultimately settled on an off the shelf service called Volunteer Plus. It ticked most of the boxes from a features point of view, and the price was competitive. The biggest single factor in our decision was their commitment to work in an agile way.

We bang on about agile a lot here. It’s really important. When we find a genuine user need, we should respond to it quickly. The ideal is shipping something that day, or that week. Let’s make something right now that responds to the need we’ve seen, and ask real users to try it. Rather than theorising about the best solution, we’ll know for sure what works and doesn’t.

The creator of Volunteer Plus, Luke Pipe and his company Pipe Media, love this approach. We share a Trello board where I describe and prioritise needs I hear about. Luke and I discuss ideas, and sometimes Skype to sketch and work out the best solution.

We’ve done three releases of Volunteer Plus this way, covering onboarding of volunteers, a new simplified sign up form and bulk actions for admins (such as send an email to a group, or mark hours worked, or expenses claimed).

Managing a volunteer using our new Volunteer Plus software

We’ve started thinking about major future releases, including rostering of volunteers, and an app they can carry. Like every other part of this project, we’ll start simple and build from there.

I think this is the right way to build complex software that truly responds to users. Do you have a project that works this way? I’d love to hear about it in the comments.

Delivering for a Digital City

Hi, my name’s Jim and I am the Delivery Manager at Digital First. It’s my job to ensure that the Digital First ship sails smoothly so we can deliver a wide-reaching, diverse range of digital services to Brighton and Hove residents.

When I joined the Digital First team in December 2017 I was surprised to find the team had grown from 4 members in January to 27 members at the end of the same year. That’s a whopping 575% increase. The ship that I was hired to help sail had grown from a dinghy to an ocean liner.

Increased size means increased complexity in our processes, interactions and tools, all of which throw up their own interesting challenges. What struck me most about the rapid team growth though was that it shows a commitment by the council to transform the Brighton & Hove digital services landscape. It shows a commitment to offer residents responsive new digital channels into council services so they don’t have to spend time on the phone or queueing at council offices.

The strategic decision to build these new digital services on a ‘low-code’ platform means that we can develop new applications rapidly without the overheads associated with more traditional programming environments. Developing rapidly means we can prototype, test and deliver ideas in shorter cycles, and ultimately deliver more.

Already we have delivered online services for rubbish collection and schools admissions this year. There is much more in the pipeline, not least a revamp of the entire council website which you’ll see across lots of different services this coming year. We are constantly looking to deliver the greatest value in what we build. That value could be in terms of efficiency, or cost savings, or developing applications for wide-reaching, high-transaction services that add value to as many residents as possible.

We also have a keen eye on how we can innovate for the benefit of our residents, an example being our Internet of Things (IoT) project: placing bespoke digital devices into sheltered housing that can detect changes in the environment.  We plan to use these devices to check for signs of residents struggling to heat their home, and to automatically alert someone to check in with them.

The digital world doesn’t stand still. We are excited to be moving with it, all the time looking for opportunities to deliver great digital services across Brighton and Hove.

JimAtBoard

On stage, under the spotlight

Last Tuesday, Khalid, our Mendix lead, and I stepped out of our comfort zone and on to the stage for a question and answer session at a Mendix event in London.

Mendix is the low code platform that we are using to develop our digital services. We have been building up our in-house skills gradually under Khalid’s watchful eye. Khalid has previously worked with Mendix in the financial services sector.

The team at Mendix invited us to the event to talk about our experience at Brighton & Hove City Council – warts and all.  We were on stage with John from Knowsley Council who also use the same platform.

John, Khalid nor I, would normally seek out the limelight, so this was very much a case of doing something that makes us uncomfortable, to challenge ourselves.

Before we went up, and in typical tech style, we both looked at the heart rate monitors on our watches. Interestingly, my heart rate was 64 and Khalid’s was 113, perhaps I was born for the big stage after all!

image (1)

We answered questions about Digital First’s successes so far, like Report a Problem, and how we user test in the library. We also talked about building an academy to train staff and increase the number of Mendix developers in the UK.

All in all, we coped well with the questions and audience feedback was good.

The day ended with a dinner discussion around digital transformation, where there were guests from many public and not for profit organisations. There was also a lively discussion about the way forward, which has been covered in the Nimbus Ninety blog.

Without the spotlight on us, we were most definitely back in our comfort zone.