Hack to the future – 2030 Vision

Who can spare a couple of hours out the office helping 10 year olds think about their future city?  Yes please said lots of us. Giving back to the community is a core part of what working for Brighton & Hove City Council is about.

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Lovely place for a City Hack

The Digital First team helped out yesterday (Friday 25 May) at the 2030 Vision City Hack organised by Brighton’s MakerClub. Brighton & Hove 2030 Vision is a series of events coordinated by the council and partners looking at how we can prepare for the future.

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Smiley happy Digital First team

Eight primary schools came along to the Amex Stadium at Falmer, where Albion in the Community kindly hosted the session. As it’s out of season, we had the extra special treat of seeing the pitch being relaid, that or beach volleyball is coming to the Amex.

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There were 10 groups of around 8 children from year 5, all offering up their own ideas about how to improve the city in the future. We even had some dressed as superheroes including a Wolverine and most impressive Emmeline Pankhurst.

Mia from MakerClub had created a clever game where the kids earned tokens to spend on tech ideas that would help the city, through ideas like bike sharing schemes, seabins, 3D printed buildings, big belly bins and more.

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Mia and Mo from MakerClub

Over the next 2 hours, the groups explored the pros and cons of each solution, working out whether the benefits outweigh the negative impacts. And then the groups planned where each of their solutions would be placed in Brighton & Hove.

As a finale, each group presented their ideas. Every group demonstrated a real understanding of the issues and a great deal of empathy in how these solutions might affect residents of the city.

All the ideas will be collated and fed back to Brighton & Hove Connected to contribute to the Brighton & Hove 2030 Vision. At the end, everyone had the opportunity to say what they thought about the session, so that future sessions can keep getting better.

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Posting feedback on the wall

It was great to hear all the bright ideas from a children who will be 22 in 2030? Twelve years ago, Facebook was just being opened up to the world and the iPhone hadn’t yet arrived. 12 years is a long time in tech.

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