Sunday, 22 June 2014

@localgovMakers hack day and other big adventures

So I have spent a few days in the UKs second city(thanks +Sarah Lay info on that! ) for my first hack day and unconference (#UKGovCamp).  I set out on my journey with no previous knowledge of a hack day or unconference so i didn't know what to expect but given the names on the attendance sheet then I did know that there was going to be some very serious brain power, probably followed by some reflective time..

We were presented with 3 challenges by +Phil Rumens  which were set out as the following
  • Challenge One: A local public services search engine
  • Challenge Two: Create a place to highlight standards, schemas and pages
  • Challenge Three: Build a good user journey for first time users

I joined the team on the first challenge looking at how we could create a local search engine using a few feeds, some xml sources from a couple of SOLR results and some other data.  The idea formulated from a conversation on Twitter and at the time we thought it would be a good challenge in terms of something that would combine multiple search results into one single resource.  Simply put we broke the task group in two, one half looking at code/tech the other half looking at customer needs.  Essentially as we looked more at the customer needs we came to the conclusion that actually all we were doing was creating another instance of Google. The thing we did discover however was that there are multiple places that information can be scraped and gleaned from including Google Places, meetup, local directories, Facebook etc.  Conclusion to the challenge was that great ideas can come from conversations but setting out the needs can often show that the requirement is'nt what we thought or in this case actually needed! but there is a need to perhaps help Google to get better data from our websites but making sure that they are all tagged correctly and even using the Google API to push data into the places perhaps?

All three challenges were presented at the end of the day and I will post the details of the other blogs when they not doubt appear.

What did i take from my hack day?

Capture and discover, process and prototype! do not concentrate on the tech before you do the first part.  The customer need must define an outcome, then the tech can resolve the process to deliver the expected, efficient service.  Thanks to the team of clever bods who i worked with. Gave me some insight into what I can do when I get back to work but also how I can cascade what I have learnt to others.  Fascinating and inspiring. Thanks to the people that arranged it all.

Unconference blog post to follow

Thursday, 9 January 2014

Ok, i don't blog much.  Just my personal thoughts on a service based on my experiences and perhaps some ideas where things can be improved.

Dominic Campbell's tweet has raised the single site question and Richard Copley has blogged his thoughts on this, as has Simon Wakeman and Carl Haggerty has also added to the conversation.  First off, the idea is great in concept. A single site which can cater for everyone's content and also transactional requirements would be both beneficial to authorities and more importantly to our customers.  It will cut costs, the constant replication of content and code that we are all carrying out would be a thing of the past.  Joining up back office systems to provide that would give greater power to authorities to implement solutions that again work for our customers.

In practical terms if this concept was to become reality what obstacles would need to be addressed?

Centralised content and management
Can all content be truly national? I know a great deal of information that is dealt with at our authority is local based and as such is updated regularly. How would authoring of content in a central place work? would the central team deal with requests from individual authorities based on that.  Does local information simply not have a place in an authorities digital space? location based content could be an answer to this especially with the massive rise in mobile usage.

Third party systems
Would any supplier be in a position to supply a system that could serve a national demand? many suppliers offer district/county level applications and as such architecture for the supply to this demand is extremely complex, if at all possible.

Having introduced single sign on for many of our back office systems shows that this can be done, however each one is carried out on an adhoc basis.  A central system for authentication again would be great and I look forward to seeing the work around this in the near future.  Its one of the biggest frustrations for our customers to be able to access their information online and to be able to overcome the security requirements that are presented by third party or our own developments.  Richard mentioned PSN network as a possible solution for authentication, perhaps this is an avenue for exploration.  My concern around this is the network would only be as good as the weakest point where some authorities will perhaps struggle to retain the ability to cope with the demands of compliance, not my area of expertise but I would be interested in how this could be used as a model.

I cant say for certain but I think local politicians would be keen to retain some semblance of a local feel to their digital presence, this would be a problem if a directive was mandated as a "must have".  Perhaps not.

As with the political issue we have the governance/driver issue, who will drive it? Perhaps we can drive this from inside? LocalGov Digital has made some in-roads into getting people in a room and online to start connecting, sharing information.  This year hopefully we can start sharing code as well.

Its not a comprehensive list of obstacles, sure there will be many others.  That's the negative bit, the positive bit next.  People need to make changes in the future and we have an opportunity to perhaps make some progress whilst the conversation is happening.  Areas for exploration on a national level:

Central repository for standard content
A great deal of content can be held centrally and used now.  Why not audit/peer review the best content out there, throw it into a wiki style repository and make it available to people to use on their sites? access through APIs could also offer the content out further perhaps.  The content could be managed by the collective of authorities, experts adding and editing to ensure 
its uptodate and valid.

Distribution and sharing
Audit what we have now in terms of platforms, share code, share developments with other authorities on similar platforms.  This part of the work that LocalGov Digital is trying to kick off, so everyone can get involved.  Kevin Jump rightly pointed out the benefits calculator, no need to replicate this so how many other "widgets" can be utilised?

Third party systems
We all need to press for much more from third parties, establishing a framework for what we need from them could go a way in getting more in the future.  The markets are getting smaller and so are the margins for companies, if we can persuade the value of providing open  and much more customer focused systems all the better.

Can we share hosting? certainly one area that is essential and perhaps fairly uniform, dependent on platforms etc.  Certainly likewise platforms could be hosted together?  I like Carl's idea of a combination of some councils getting together, perhaps that's something we can do in the South West and prove a concept?

We all have is to do much more with much less, how can we do that in the future, the first thing is that we need to collectively agree a way forward and why not utilise existing groups to do this? Local Government has some clever and innovative people working within it, opportunity to get them all working together.

Okay, I now realise why i don't blog very much, too much inarticulate rambling but just a few thoughts from me!