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.

What’s new in Sprint 8

Hello grapple fans. It’s that time of the sprint where we share the highlights of the past two weeks.

Mobile working in Cityclean

Report A Problem allows citizens across Brighton to tell us about graffiti, fly-tipping and more. We’re on to the final piece in the puzzle now – developing mobile apps our teams on the ground use to communicate with each other and find out about new jobs. George, Luke and Cityclean colleagues have produced and tested a private beta, together with mockups of further improvements.

An early version of the app used by Cityclean mobile workers

Safeguarding your data

The General Data Protection Regulations (GDPR for short) come into force across the UK from May 2018, and colleagues across the council have been working through the implications. Annie has produced great wireframes showing where we’re headed. We’d love to collaborate with other organisations on this, so please drop us a line if you’re interested.

Will in Whitehawk

As well as managing the Digital First programme, I’ve started working as a Product Manager with our Communities team. My first job is to create a map of all community organisations in Whitehawk, and start workshops to help people get listed on Google. There’s a lot we can help with and I’m looking forward to getting stuck in. 

Bristol bound

Last Friday and Saturday I attended LocalGovCamp, hosted by Bristol City Council this year. There are several hundred words I’d like to blog, so stay tuned. For now I wanted to say thanks to all the organisers and volunteers – we had a great venue and excellent sessions. Can’t wait for next year!

Let’s talk…

Whether you’re at Brighton & Hove City Council, another council, or in the local digital sector, we’d really like to strike up a conversation. What would you like to hear about from us? What challenges are you grappling with? Please do get in touch.

What’s new in Sprint 7

At the end of every sprint one of our team posts about the work we’ve completed. This time round, dear reader, that honour falls to me.

A few people were on holiday this sprint, but it was still pretty action packed:

  • We’ve built a private beta for schools admissions and intend to show it to a group of parents next sprint. Right now it allows them to add children and pick 1st, 2nd and 3rd place preference schools. It also shows schools in your catchment area, and the nearest school based on walking distance
  • Our new parking zones map got a few tweaks. In addition to search for a zone by postcode, it’s now possible to see the map of all zones up front and click around the zones to get useful information. These new features will be live very soon
  • Our blog (as in this page you’re reading) got a facelift. It now looks like our new work-in-progress website design, and we’ll keep tweaking based on your feedback
  • Garden waste now has a new suite of reports showing, primarily, new customers and renewals. Our team and Cityclean colleagues are working closely together to get the most out of the numbers we collect. That’s worth a blog post of its own
  • While we’re talking about Cityclean, there’s now a new kanban wall at the Hollingdean depot (see a pic below). It’s part of our plan to co-locate with our services as far as possible. We’re breaking down silos, but adding walls *gets coat*
  • Getting the right working environment is really important to us, and we took a small step forward this sprint. Our digs at Jubilee Library now has more stools to sit on, and a huge whiteboard for collaborative working. We ran our first session around the whiteboard yesterday and it worked really well

That’s all for this sprint, so see you in two weeks. If you’re finding these updates useful or would like us to change anything please post.

Our new wall at Cityclean