International Women’s Day HackIT 2020

One of the great things about working in HackIT is having opportunities to promote inclusion and empowerment. To celebrate International Women’s Day, colleagues* came together to ‘Sing it, Loud and Proud’. Our focus was on celebrating the achievements of women across all our HackIT teams.

We recorded 30 achievements and ambitions of women from different backgrounds and at different stages of their careers. These were matched by over 25 pledges of encouragement or support. There is a lot of interest in learning developer skills and increasing confidence levels when public speaking. It was great to talk openly about our dreams and offer each other a helping hand in accomplishing them.

This was definitely one of the highlights of this year so far. Listening to colleagues proudly talk about themselves and overhearing the nudges of encouragement like e “didn’t you help save the organisation £97K”. It is a telling reminder that we don’t always recognise our individual acts and acknowledge the wider beneficial impact these have on our services – let alone talk about them!  

Following a great turn out and inspiring conversations, we are keen to maintain momentum. We plan to give those who missed the celebrations an opportunity to get involved by adding more goals and pledges to our list. We will do some strategic matchmaking and have a follow-up session in a few months time to see how our seeds of ambition are taking root and bearing fruit.  

‘Sing it, Loud and Proud’

Happy International Women’s Day HACKIT 2020!

*Women and men

Reducing the Web’s carbon footprint

We’ve switched to hybrid cars, LEDs and meatless burgers, now it’s time to turn our attention towards the less-trodden path of the Internet’s carbon footprint. What can we do as individuals, as developers and as customers to give the Web a greener hue?

On an individual basis, we should remember that pretty much anything that extends battery time will reduce the power needs of the device. And actions that extend battery time can probably be mirrored on a laptop, so much of the following can be applied to both: 

  • Reduce the brightness of your screen – your eyes will thank you
  • Set the screen to ‘dark’ mode
  • Reduce the screen lock time so it goes to sleep more often 
  • Turn off vibration mode if you don’t need it
  • Close apps or windows when you’ve finished with them
  • Turn off Bluetooth when not needed
  • Use low power mode whenever you can

A quick glance at my iPhone shows that, even though I swipe Apps up and off on a weekly basis, there are still currently 54 sucking up power. And I’ve never closed a single tab on Chrome so it has 51 open. Not any more! 

When we build websites, developers and designers should also be mindful of their responsibility to reduce the carbon footprint of their products. A handy rule of thumb is anything that reduces page weight and load time will lower power requirements. And, oh happy coincidence, we’re generally aiming for that anyway because we want users to have a fast and premium experience. Let’s:

  • Write lean, clean code. There’s pride to be had in how few lines it takes to write a function so a healthy sense of competition can help here. 
  • Reduce the number of fonts that need loading to render a page. Designers, take note. 
  • Optimise images or videos so they are compressed without loss of quality. And consider if we need them at all.
  • Load images at the correct scale rather than resizing via CSS.
  • Reduce Javascript as it adds weight to the page.
  • Set targets for page weights and keep to them.
  • Remove any unused plugins on WordPress or similar.
  • Block bots and other unnecessary trawlers.

Search Engine Optimisation also lowers energy needs as a fortunate byproduct. SEO helps users get to the information they want quickly by ranking the most relevant results first. Hence, we avoid burning energy by trawling around the Internet on a wild goose chase. The algorithm that Google uses for ranking results is a constantly changing industrial secret but we know that copy plays a large part in how it decides what a website is about, and whether it meets the search query. Government websites tend to score well naturally in SEO as (a) we’re the only organisation providing that service and don’t have competitors to outrank and (b) our sites tend to be text-heavy as we are in the business of providing information. Still, we should make sure that, when we write copy, we use words and phrases that the chosen audience would use and not industry (or departmental) jargon. ‘Bulky waste’ anyone? 

Broadening our perspective even further, infrastructure also has a role to play in reducing the Internet’s carbon footprint. If we host on servers located in energy-efficient buildings that use minimal energy for cooling then emissions will be lower. Deserts in California or Nevada might not be the best option after all. We would also be wise to choose data centres near sources of renewable energy. There’s a reason why Iceland, with its cool climate and 100% renewable geothermal and hydropower, is a hotspot for data centres. All this needs weighing up, however, with how close your website visitors are to your data centre. 93.75% of Hackney’s are in the UK so it is likely inefficient for our servers to be based in the US, however cheap the hosting and however renewable the energy. 

These are just some of the ways in which we can all help the Web get greener. Probably the simplest option for us to reduce the Web’s carbon footprint is to just stop looking at it for an hour and go for a walk instead. With more and more sites geared towards ‘engagement’ whose aim is to suck us into endless scrolling, streaming and clicking, we should make resistance a point of pride. Stroll not Scroll may be my new motto!

Take action

See how green your host is with the Green Web Foundation.

Calculate your site’s carbon impact with this Website Carbon Calculator.

Our experience of experience mapping

In this blog post, I describe our experience using experience mapping, whilst collaborating with four other councils on a user research discovery funded by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG).

Croydon Council previously blogged about how we started working together and our delivery lead Naintara Land recently wrote about understanding the needs of people doing user research in local government. 

The aim of our collaboration is to explore whether one council can use research from another council to improve the same statutory service. One of our central challenges was agreeing a common approach across five councils, so that we could compare findings and see whether similar themes were emerging

We picked adult social care as our service area after getting agreement from all the councils involved. We wanted to understand the journey people go through when they ask for help with social care. To achieve this, we decided to experiment with experience mapping during our research with residents and adult social care colleagues. 

Learning the process together

This was a new methodology for most of the team. We were excited to try a new technique and one which might help us compare findings. To begin with, we practiced in groups of three. Taking it in turns to be the interviewer, note taker and participant. 

The interviewer asks the participant to describe a recent challenging experience from start to finish. Such as a time their commute didn’t go according to plan. As the participant talks through what happened, the interviewer maps out each step of their journey on post-it notes. The note taker uses different coloured post-it notes to capture what the participant said and did, their feelings and any difficulties they experienced at each stage. 

We found it helps if the interviewer then plays back the steps to the participant. Presenting back the map enables the participant to check the accuracy of what’s been recorded and to see if they’ve missed anything from their journey. We also learnt how important and challenging the role of the note taker can be in capturing the details. It was useful to remind ourselves of the anatomy of a good sticky note blog post here, and to practise in groups so that you switch roles and get a different perspective.

Next, it was time to pilot test this approach with adult social care colleagues.

The importance of piloting

Earlier in the project we ran a workshop at Hackney where we brainstormed the topics we needed to cover in research sessions. We explored best practice for getting participant consent and reviewed our existing council consent forms too. As a result, we produced shared discussion guides and consent forms. These are now available for other councils to reuse on our User Research Library. 

I piloted experience mapping with some social workers. This provided an opportunity to validate our methodology, whilst trialling our staff discussion guide and consent form before other councils started using them. Each social worker talked me through two of their recent cases. I then asked follow up questions on their typical workload. It was a lot to cover and their case studies seemed to be things that went well or cases they were proud of. 

We wanted to hear about the challenging cases too. I amended our discussion guide so that participants focused on describing a recent complex case, which they’ve taken from start to finish. Some of the cases I heard about were still in progress and I wanted to understand the details of their end to end journey. Other improvements included adding timings to the discussion guide to help structure the sessions and simplifying wording in our consent form to make it easier to read.  

The whole process helped us realise the importance of piloting user research. So when it came to starting experience mapping with residents who’ve asked for help with adult social care, we ran a pilot for that too.

Sharing experiences and best practice

I also played back my initial staff experience maps to the user researchers in the collaboration at one of our meet-ups. The idea was to help others learn from my experience before trying it for the first time. Mirabai from Croydon Council then did the same with a resident experience map she created after trialling our shared resident discussion guide and consent form

Staggering the research across the five councils resulted in us regularly checking in on how things were progressing. We shared our experiences and best practices with each other, iterating our approach along the way.

We made sure we prepared for our research with residents by considering safeguarding issues, speaking to subject matter experts and being ready to direct participants to places where they can find more information and support if they needed it.

We had some challenges using the experience mapping technique, especially when carrying out research with vulnerable adults in their home. When explaining what happened, participants had a tendency to switch between different parts of their story or go off topic. You need to bring them back to concentrating on what happened next, so that you can go through it step-by-step and use probing questions to ensure you get enough detail at each stage. 

Julie from Essex County Council gave us a great tip for experience mapping during home visits. Instead of mapping out the experience on a large sheet of paper, just bring along a notebook and place each post-it note step on a page. You can then read back each page in the journey to the resident like you’re telling a story. 

With research sessions in the office, we found you need to schedule in 30 minutes after each session to put the note taker’s post-it notes in the right place while it’s still fresh in the mind. Another tip is to remember to bring along a large roll of paper as some experiences are very lengthy!

Bringing all the research together

We completed experience mapping with 23 adult social care colleagues and 29 residents in total.

Each council then analysed their outputs using a common approach. We started by creating skeleton maps of each journey. This reminded us of what happened in each session and allowed us to easily compare individual experiences at every stage. We then recorded our key themes from the interviews with colleagues and residents on post-it notes.

Last week we met up to compare our results. We used our skeleton maps to create overall archetypal experience maps for each council which showed the typical process. We worked in pairs which helped massively as you had another researcher who didn’t participate in the research to ask questions and assist you to create an overall experience map. Finally, each council shared the themes from their research so that we could compare our findings. 

Next steps

We’ll be sharing the findings from our collaboration over the next two weeks. This will include the similarities and differences between councils, in order to help understand how one council can use research from another council to improve the same statutory service.

We’ve all said we’ll use experience mapping again during future research within our respective councils. I’d highly recommend it as an approach for understanding complex council services that take place over weeks or months. It gives you a research artefact straight away, which you can use to tell the story of a user to help create empathy and understanding.

Hackney Re-Platforming Weeknotes Week ending: 2020-02-28

Weeknotes are a way for us to keep people informed about progress on the project. Given the technical nature of the re-platforming work we will use them to explain technical choices that we are making, including the benefit and impact of these choices. 

PROJECT GOALS

  • Enable housing officers to use MaT offline when there is poor mobile coverage
  • Enable Hackney to decommission Outsystems, saving £80,000 per year
  • Enable Hackney to support, develop and deploy future improvements to MaT more quickly, at lower cost

GOOD THINGS

Our latest show and tell.

The team had a great combined retrospective and planning session yesterday. Thanks to the reprioritisation of DXW’s time we now have two more weeks of F’s time alongside the addition of George. That, plus help from Ana and Wayne, means we’re in a better place to deliver Tenancy and Household Check before before DXW rolls off in two weeks – as well as ensure that we have team members with the new skills they need to support and improve the work after.

We’re still powering though the non-replatforming defects. Thanks to great work from Bukky we’re starting to run out of ETRA and data-replated issues in the backlog.

We’ve created a backlog of potential future “micro-projects”. These are “epic”-scale pieces of work that bring together sets of feature requests and known issues with our digital infrastructure. This will help management prioritise everyone’s time going forward.

DECISIONS

The team’s focus on getting T&HC over the line is the right thing to do. Once that’s done building future processes with the “data driven front end” should hopefully be a much easier task.

DIFFICULTIES

We’re still not 100% we’ll complete everything we’d like DXW to do before they leave in two weeks. We’re keeping a daily view on this and might have to make some tricky prioritisations.

We’re still not completely sure how the service moves forward. The whole team is due to roll off and the service is planned to move into Support around the end of March. However, there are significant items in the “micro-projects” list, such as implementing Change of Tenancy, that could provide a lot of value. There’s also the ramping-up idea of building on the excellent Benefits and Housing Needs Single View project, alongside the potential re-use of a work-tray component from a previous service to help us re-platform the Manage a Tenancy Hub off OutSystems.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

Thanks to everyone who worked on the project this week – Ana, Bukky, David, Emma, F, Gill, George, Lorraine, Richard and Tuomo.  

WHAT’S NEXT

  1. The team will work out the best way to start upskilling Ana and Wayne on the DDFE while attempting to minimise the impact on F’s time
  2. We’ll have some good conversation about the “micro-projects”
  3. The first workshop for extending “single view” for Housing services such as Manage a Tenancy will take place
  4. We’ll continue to work on bringing MaT into Support

The following people will be working on the project next week – Ana, Bukky, David, Emma, F, Gill, George, Lorraine, Richard, Tuomo and Wayne.

My mini-break in the Town Hall

I’m back from my holiday in the Mayor and Cabinet’s Office! This sojourn into political territory was uncharted for me and I’m pleased to return better informed about the machinations of elected office. I was previously entirely ignorant of the remit of the Office, relying heavily on the West Wing for prep.

One of the primary duties of the Office is to respond to residents’ enquiries. This ‘casework’ arrives via email, letter, Twitter or even directly as the Mayor, Philip Glanville, goes about his day. Each enquiry is logged and forwarded to the relevant service for a response and the Office then replies back to the resident. It sounds simple, however, some residents are turning to the Mayor as a last resort and their queries are complex and multi-faceted. Some queries involve more than one service; some services are faster to respond than others; some queries, indeed, involve external agencies. All of this takes time and the officers really do go beyond the call of duty, and 9 to 5, to meet targets. I was involved in sending out responses and, when someone has a troubling story to tell, you can’t help but feel the weight of responsibility when you are the one pressing SEND on the reply. Still, the Office, led by Ben Bradley and deputy Alison Potter, is a chipper bunch and good spirits are maintained. Sometimes with Skittles. 

Hackney is a campaigning council, and actively participates in government discussions that affect residents. With 34,000 private renters in Hackney and 68% of Londoners supporting some kind of rent control (eg open-ended tenancies, caps on rent rises), I prepared briefing notes for a parliamentary roundtable on the private rental sector. This followed a Labour Policy Group meeting between the Mayor, Cabinet members and services where I learnt about the Capital Letters programme and Homelessness Strategy, as well as alterations to Hackney Central station. 

My shadowing coincided with a central government reshuffle and I researched mini-biogs for the Office about the new Cabinet appointees. We’re primarily interested in subjects pertinent to Hackney and I trawled through interviews, speeches and Hansard to gather their views on our big issues such as housing, fair funding and social care. Many of the newbies have been promoted from the outer reaches of the backbenches – an interesting fact in itself – and details were occasionally scant. It remains to be seen if the new Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, will hold to his earlier conviction that ‘un‑ring‑fenced resources are better and local authorities should be empowered to decide how to prioritise money’; or whether funding will come from the Government with strings attached. 

You can take the girl out of HackIT but… naturally, I took Postits with me. One task was to map out stakeholders around the new strategy for an inclusive economy. It turns out there’s barely a sector unaffected by this and I hope my attempts to redecorate the walls of the office with sticky notes (not too sticky, Facilities) have at least covered most of the bases. I would hate to exclude anyone from the inclusive economy. 

Mayor Philip Glanville filming budget speech in Shoreditch Park

It’s budget time and, every year, the Mayor films a video explaining its ins and outs. I had great fun working with the Mayor, Helen Clarke and the camera crew. Though, I think it’s fair to say my inability to secure coffee on a freezing day means my days as a runner are numbered. Though the Mayor himself barely raised a shiver as an icy chill whipped around Shoreditch Park. I was very impressed by a local kid’s ability to recognise the Mayor, and so ensued half an hour of autographs and questions in the adventure playground next door. No doubt leaving them with a story to tell, memories to hold and a business card to brandish.

I had the pleasure of encountering several councillors during my visit, many in the Cabinet. I was particularly pleased to meet Councillor Williams, Cabinet member for Employment, Skills and Human Resources. When I was considering coming to Hackney, I read a piece by her on the importance of flexibility in the workplace. Having resigned from a job where my request to leave a paltry two hours early on a Friday was ignored not once but three times, it was her words that convinced me to apply to Hackney.

The Mayor and Cabinet Office also incorporates the Speaker. At Hackney, ceremonial duties are enacted by a Speaker who has been nominated by fellow councillors for an annual term. I had the pleasure of accompanying the current incumbent, Councillor Kam Adams, to a local primary school where he’d been invited to speak to the children about the Council and his role. It’s quite the palaver fitting the heavy robes and chain but the end result is suitably pomp. You can view the regalia yourself in the vaults at the Town Hall. The children were rapt during assembly – though I wondered if some of Nursery thought the important man in red was Father Christmas – and asked all manner of questions of the Speaker, including ‘How old are you?’. He took it well.

Having been the delivery manager on the ‘Re-engineering Hackney content’ project, I am well aware of the vast range of services provided by the Council. I cannot imagine how the Mayor manages to keep track of it all whilst also planning long term strategies and considering the wider political context. I now know that he is ably supported by an expert, but really quite small, troupe of personnel in his Office. They are preparing papers, answering enquiries, planning events, organising diaries and generally helping to keep the show on the road. During my brief stay, I was able to share aspects of Agile we use in HackIT that may be beneficial to the team and I hope they are able to put some of the ideas into practice.

They are only over the road. Pop over, say hello, and see if you can spot any Postits.