Working in partnership with suppliers

We hosted a small, open breakfast event for suppliers as part of the Hackney fringe for London Tech Week to discover how we can make HackIT a great place to do business. Hackney Council has a clear commitment to in-sourcing and it’s important we get value for money from commercial organisations and have clear accountability in contracts. So why the breakfast?

We can make things better for residents if we do the best possible work in the most efficient way. We’ve put a strong emphasis on partnering with small businesses to help us learn new skills and adopt new ways of working. Working with a range of businesses gives us access to the best talent and a diversity of experiences and skills. Many of these businesses are local and we can use procurement to encourage them to provide job and training opportunities for our local residents. If we make it more costly to do business in Hackney, then ultimately that cost will be passed on to residents.

Today’s breakfast was targeted at businesses we’ve not yet worked with, or not worked with as often. We want to ensure that the best people want to work with us and show that working with Hackney Council could be rewarding. But we also wanted to test our thinking so that we avoid unintentionally excluding some suppliers from our procurements. Sometimes it can be more efficient to have a standard way of doing things but if you are too specific, you increase the barriers to working with new suppliers which narrows the advice you receive.

We focused the discussion on two topics: How we buy things, and How we create opportunities. It was reassuring to hear that attendees felt that we are right to use the government’s Digital Marketplace by default. It is cheap for suppliers to participate and the marketplace is refreshed frequently.

Our standards

We had a useful discussion about how we see Service Standard assessments. It’s a key frame of reference for the ability of the supplier and event in our project lifecycle. We could do more to show that we’re aligning to the government Service Standard and that they aren’t conducted as a confrontational gateway but as an honest assessment of what’s been done and what needs to be done next.

We’ll consider how we can provide reassurance to suppliers about how and why we conduct Service Standard Assessments. We’ll also explore how we might engage our supplier community more broadly in assessments

Skills

We discussed the balance between user research and service design, and development. Our experience has been that an agency tends to be better at one than the other but both are key enablers of delivering the right solution for residents. But we’re also interested in how behavioural science, ethnography, data science and devops can add new disciplines and perspectives on our challenges.

We’ll consider how we can reflect when we believe a team needs a blend of skills or when a task is better-suited to a stronger design or development skillset.

Focus

We had feedback from a couple of agencies that had worked with us that we face challenges ensuring that our own staff are sufficiently focused on the project. We know this is an important issue for the team, too. We explored how agencies manage these tensions – and we could learn more still rom software suppliers who manage bugs and incidents alongside software improvements.

We’ll explore how we can ensure we’re providing the right team with sufficient time to make projects successful.

Early thinking

We then explored how we create opportunities, shared our current approach and discussed what more we could do. We built our projects pipeline in the open in response to a previous supplier event so we wanted to know whether we’d made progress. The reassuring news was that nobody else was doing it better. But it was evident that we could be more open in order to learn more from suppliers. We explored whether an ideas wall would help suppliers spot forthcoming plans and whether service mapping would help suppliers tell us about components that might accelerate our plans.

We’ll experiment with different ways to share early-stage ideas so that suppliers can plan for forthcoming procurements and share what they know.

The breakfast was a sufficiently useful event that it re-doubled our commitment to holding these more frequently. We’ve got bold aspirations and sometimes we’ll fall short, so it’s important to be challenged by suppliers in a non-competitive environment. We’ve made some good progress, and helped demonstrate that Hackney is a rewarding place to do business. But there’s more to be done.

Recruitment open evening – 12 June

We are inviting you to our HackIT offices on Mare Street for an opportunity to meet some of the people that work in the Delivery, Development, Digital, Data and Insight and Infrastructure teams.

There will be good chats, tasty nibbles and lots of excitement to take away. If you’d like to learn more about working with us, are thinking about a switch to the public sector or just want a faster commute, pop along next Wednesday. 

We will host 3 separate kickoff times, though you are welcome to hangout for as long as you want. The first will be at 4pm then 5pm and 6pm.

If you would like a more informal chat we will be heading to The Old Ship on Mare Street from 7pm and it would be great to see you there.

Register on Eventbrite

Please contact nicholas.teeman@hackney.gov.uk if you have any questions.

Half way through the GDS Data Science Accelerator programme

Back in March, Liz Harrison wrote about our successful application to the GDS’ Data Science Accelerator Programme and what we were hoping to achieve. I am now over half way through the 12 week programme, and next week I’ll be giving a show and tell to the rest of my cohort. So now seems a good time for an update.

As a quick reminder, I am developing a unified view of the Hackney property market, focusing on rental properties. I am using the Python programming language for the majority of the analysis. This will be delivered via an interactive interface for easy access to those who need it within Hackney Council. We hope that this will help answer questions about houses in multiple occupation (HMOs), rental prices and property condition.

Have I kept to the project brief?

The project brief was extensive, and I was prepared for the fact that some aspects of it would fail. So what has failed? I was interested in looking at Google Street View imagery to see if property features (age, style etc) could be extracted through image processing techniques. It was quickly established that firstly data was not as freely available as it had been and also that the work involved in building a model could probably be an Accelerator project in its own right. This is fine; we can piece together this information from other data sources.

Linking data at the property level

We already hold data that is linked at a property level using the Unique Property Reference Number (UPRN). Through this work we have started to enrich what we currently know about a property by linking in new datasets. For example Energy Performance Certificate data, which can tell us a lot about property condition and size. We will continue to develop this property dataset beyond this project, as other areas of work will benefit, such as improving our understanding of our housing estates.

Identifying unlicensed HMOs

Through parallel work with our Private Sector Housing colleagues, it was always clear that identifying unlicensed HMOs would be a valuable output from this work. Therefore building a predictive model has remained a priority, and I have received excellent guidance from the mentor group.

Topic modelling of free text data

I wanted to undertake text analysis of reports made about housing which could vary from pest control incidents to noise complaints. We hold a lot of free text data within our various council databases, and it felt like there was an opportunity to understand what residents tell us about the most. I’m hopeful that we will be able to visualise this spatially too.

Rental prices

Gaining access to property level rental pricing data has been challenging and the legality of web scraping rental listing sites can be unclear, but aggregated data is available, and so I’ll be making use of this within the model.

A recent piece of work on short term lets in Edinburgh published by the Scottish Parliament Information Centre made use of AirBnB data. This has made us think about the effect of entire properties being let out for the majority of the year on the Hackney rental market.

Developing an interactive interface

We knew from the outset that we would need a way to communicate outputs to users, and therefore a data visualisation would need to be developed. For this to be useful, then as a minimum it would need to be intuitive, interactive and also present data spatially. My mentor has been helping me build such a tool in JavaScript.

Working with others from government

For me, the real strength of the Accelerator programme is the opportunity to work with and receive advice from data scientists from across government, as well as collaborate with peers in similar roles in local government. We all seem to be facing the same challenges.

In addition to help from my colleagues within the Council, I have also received support from the Office for National Statistics and GeoPlace, who have provided access to invaluable data and expertise.

This Accelerator cohort graduates on the 4th July.

Learn more – Collaboration meetup with Camden ICT development team

Introduction

On Monday, myself, @Miguel Saitz, @Rashmi Shetty and @Selwyn Preston visited Camden council. The meeting was part of our agenda of promoting collaboration between local authorities and was focused on understanding how our teams work. We have found many similarities our teams share but also identified opportunities for helping each other learn from our journeys.

Overview of things we discussed

Camden council’s development team manager, Bob Hannaford, kindly welcomed us and answered every question we had. He explained to us how their teams are structured, how they work and what is their technology stack. Bob also took us through their journey of adopting cloud technology so far and gave us an overview of what their plans for the future are. We then took Bob’s team through our way of working and our roadmap, which they were very interested to hear about.

Camden’s structure and way of working

Camden also has adopted an Agile way of working. They have three Scrum teams, each focusing on a particular area. What was very interesting for us is that they do not have a dedicated scrum master, but instead have a rota and each team member gets to fulfill that role for a certain amount of time.

Camden council also has a Quality Assurance team, which is distributed among the three scrum teams. The QA members are responsible for end to end testing. They demonstrated to us a tool that they use, Selenium, and we were particularly impressed with. The tool is very good for testing front-end and specifically, test for expected behavior for a certain application. The QA team leader explained to us that they run their test against production environments daily and that applying this strategy has greatly reduced costs as they are now able to identify bugs quickly. This resulted in their contact center receiving a big reduction in calls regarding potential applications issues.

Furthermore, there are members of the ‘Operations’ team in each of the scrum teams. They are involved in the projects from the early stages and are responsible for deployments and support. This structure is part of them adopting DevOps culture. They have shared that they have a separate ‘Operations’ team that deals with supporting older business applications and currently, none of the ongoing projects are passed onto that team, but instead are supported mainly by the ‘ops’ members in the scrum team and by the developers.

Another thing that interested us is that the majority of their Camden’s scrum teams work remotely, with some members working from India.

Technology stack:

Camden currently uses Java-based technology stack, with GitLab as a source control tool and Selenium, JUnit and SOAPUIi for testing. They do not follow test-driven development but instead write unit, integration and end-to-end tests.

Shared journey Hackney/Camden (Cloud, etc)

One of the aspects we focused the discussion on was on identifying shared journeys with both teams:

We both are currently working in investing resources in the cloud infrastructure. Camden is already using the cloud for some of their services while keeping the backend on their premises they have already started to explore AWS for hosting some frontend services and Azure for collaboration tools and their online suspensions services. Hackney currently is working in hosting most of its backend services in AWS.

Devops is another topic that we have recently started to explore and it was really interesting to see that Camden’s team is already and making use of CI/CD pipeline via Jenkins for automating the build of their applications for the different stages they currently use. We have also been working on CI/CD pipelines since we started adopting AWS and we have a long way ahead for embracing the DevOps culture.

Possibilities for collaboration

This visit has opened the door for collaboration between both teams, we can expect meeting each other for the future to keep sharing views and work practices. For example, on our Monday’s visit, we had the chance to attend one of the scrum meetings they had planned for the day and future visits would allow us to spend time with their developers for sharing best work and organizational practices.

The Hackney journey for migrating services to AWS has generated quite a lot of knowledge to the team about managing cloud infrastructure and specifically using infrastructure as a code tool like Terraform and Camden’s team was eager to explore this as well once they start managing more services with AWS.

We also shared with Camden’s team the work done with the API Hub and its potential for being expanded integrating API’s from other local authorities. They were excited about the potential of this collaboration and this means that we should keep focusing on improving this application making it ready for being expanded with content from other local authorities.

Conclusions

Camden council is also trying to adopt cloud technologies. Whilst they are at the beginning of their journey, we believe we can help them by sharing our experience and what we have learned so far. It is also a good opportunity for us to collaborate and get challenged on the work we are doing and the decisions we are making. We are hoping that our meeting was just the first step and are excited about the possibility of expanding our collaboration not just with Camden, but with many other innovative local authorities!

The main outcomes of our meeting:

  • Other councils are also looking into innovating their technology and adopting cloud!
  • Collaboration is definitely something that others are interested in but we are all at different levels and we will need each other’s help.
  • Powerful tools like Selenium won’t necessarily aid our backend testing but could definitely help our Application Support teams to automate the manual checks they perform.
  • Adopting DevOps culture can certainly speed up development time as seen by the strategy applied by Camden Council. Adopting good practices does contribute to efficient good teamwork!

GOV.UK Notify in Action

This blog is about our experience using GOV.UK Notify. GOV.UK Notify is a service maintained by the Government Digital Service (GDS) which allows central government, local authorities and the NHS to send emails, text messages and letters to users.


Over the last few months, we have been building a tool which integrates GOV.UK Notify with our Manage Arrears system to communicate with Tenants and Leaseholders who owe the Council money. It has been an interesting experience which has exposed our team to the benefits GOV.UK Notify has to offer as well as how to overcome some of its limitations.


What does GOV.UK Notify do?

  • Send free emails
  • Sends up to 25,000 free SMS
  • Anyone can create for letters, emails and SMS using their templates – a technical expert isn’t required!
  • It sends both individual and bulk SMS, emails and letters
  • The Notify API integrates with web applications or back-office system to send and record communication
  • Organisations can incorporate their own Logo headers into the communications
  • It is a secure and reliable service

What were the challenges we faced?

  • GOV.UK Notify only holds sent SMS, emails and letters for 7 days – we needed to find a way to extract, save and make the data accessible to the service users for a longer period.
  • The letter templates were slightly restrictive – meaning users have to be creative when designing letters
  • GOV.UK Notify only handles addresses in the UK

Overcoming some of these challenges

Our developers found a way to overcome these challenges by using GOV.UK Notify’s precompiled letter feature instead of the standard template facility. This meant that our letters created before they got to GOV.UK Notify instead of within GOV.UK Notify. This allowed us to;
– Format and create letters without restrictions
– Save letters in our own system
– Retrieve letters
Due to the small percentage of International address in our database, we decided to handle these manually and GOV.UK Notify has included it on their roadmap.

Why we like GOV.UK Notify?

  • GOV.UK Notify has allowed our project team to think outside of the box and be the first service in Hackney Council to incorporate the ability for letters to be sent via GOV.UK Notify and to be saved and retrieved safely at any point in time. This is extremely important in arrears management for audit purposes.
  • Using GOV.UK Notify eliminates a lot of manual steps and costs incurred by some teams who manually mail merging 1000s of letters. These costs and steps include; Stationery costs (Paper, Envelopes, Ink), Postage costs Officer time (Going to the printer, waiting for the printer, enveloping and letters)
  • The cost of sending 1 double-sided letter via GOV.UK Notify is only 30p. This includes the 3 points above which the officers no longer need to do or pay. Not including officer time and stationery costs, this is already a saving of 27% (based 2nd class postage)
  • Integrating our Manage Arrears system with GOV.UK Notify has allowed users to send individual and bulk SMS messages. They like this because:

* The action is quick and simple
*The data is up-to-date and relevant
*The integration allows the content to be automatically written back to the Manage arrears system
*There is no cost for up to 25,000 messages

  • GOV.UK Notify records the status of letters, enabling users to track each stage of a letter from the point it is received, to be printed, and posted
  • GOV.UK Notify has a clear dashboard – making it a breeze to obtain statistics
  • Gov Notify’s customer service is Awesome. The team are very quick to respond and very knowledgeable

By sharing our experience I hope this helps you think about how you might also take advantage of this great tool. If you have any questions or would like a demo feel free to contacts me.