Building and scaling our data science skills

We’re really excited that next month, one of our Data & Insight Analysts, Anna Gibson, will be joining the next cohort on GDS’ Data Accelerator Programme. We’ve heard great things about the programme from previous participants – from Bharath’s blog and from Tom Foster at Warwickshire County Council who shared his experience which was a great help in reminding us to focus down our topic of interest for our application.

From early April, Anna will be spending one day a week at GDS’ offices in Whitechapel working with an experienced data scientist who will mentor her as she works on a project to provide a unified view of the property market in Hackney. The Council has many repositories of data about housing, and a further wealth of data about rented accommodation in the borough is available online. However, we don’t have access to a single, comprehensive view of private renting in the borough.

Anna’s work, both at GDS and back in Hackney day to day, will be focussed on working to create a profile of the rental market in the borough, combining some of our internal Council resources with external data sources – we want to try to use web scraping, image processing and text processing to try and learn more from private rental advertising sites (such as SpareRoom) and from Google Street View, for example.

As well as building Anna’s data science skills directly (and scaling this to the wider team as she shares this work with her Data Analytics team colleagues), we think this work will be a great resource to help us identify Council properties which are being illegally sub-let or to detect properties which should be subject to a House of Multiple Occupation licence and also help us better understand social inclusion in Hackney as we get a better view of transience of residents in certain areas.

The programme runs for 3 months until July 2019 and Anna will be sharing her experience for others to benefit from, as the work develops.

A vision for digital connectivity in Hackney

In our manifesto in May 2018 we set out a vision for the Council and the administration which committed us to:

Push the market to provide Hackney with fast, consistent internet connectivity, including using the borough’s assets to encourage suppliers to invest in improved connectivity across the borough including free Wi-Fi in Hackney’s town centres and public buildings.

I want this to be much more than a ‘tech’ or ‘digital’ thing and I worry about focusing on or seeking out ‘smart city’ headlines without being clear about how this will make a positive difference for the people who live and work in Hackney. Done right I am confident that extending digital connectivity in the borough will be an important factor in growing employment opportunities, addressing social isolation and creating a more inclusive economy. Getting this right is not just important for our growing businesses or for attracting more investment, it is a social justice issue and critical to reducing the digital divide, part of our continuing journey to ensure Hackney remains a place for everyone.

I want to see a thriving and competitive market for digital connectivity in the borough that will meet residents’ and businesses’ needs now and in the future, recognising how important connectivity is to supporting business growth and the way that people live in the digital age. The Council has a significant role in this, working as a partner to providers and as an advocate for our residents.

I am delighted that Hackney’s Cabinet have approved the vision that we have set out for improving digital connectivity across Hackney. The vision builds upon our manifesto commitment and provides a starting point for the conversations we want to have with Hackney residents and businesses, partners in the public and voluntary sectors and with telecommunications operators so that we can work together to shape the way that we move this important agenda forward.

Areas that we have identified for focus are:

  • Looking at how we might use the Council’s assets (including our extensive private fibre cabling network) to improve connectivity in areas that are currently without fast internet access.
  • Reviewing our regulatory role to make sure that we are facilitating improvements in provision.
  • Improving access for social housing residents, so that everyone is able to benefit from access to digital services.
  • Exploring how the Council can support business growth across the borough by using our assets to encourage providers to improve connectivity for businesses.

You can read our vision document here:

The vision we have set out is just the start. We need to ensure that we work with Hackney’s residents and businesses to reflect their needs and our next step will be engaging with you to hear your thoughts and use these to shape the plans that we will then take forward. I’m looking forward to being part of this conversation and making sure that access to high quality and affordable digital services is at the heart of what we do over the next three years.

Philip Glanville, Mayor of Hackney

How we’re iterating towards our API competition

Today, we launched a competition for people to build services using our APIs. You can enter our API competition here. The competition is a chance for us to:

  1. Find out if our APIs are sufficiently well-engineered and clearly documented that third parties can access the API without needing help
  2. Identify new APIs that would help us develop our services further
  3. Generate new ideas for online services
  4. Identify new partners we can work with

But some of the details are still to be sorted out. Here’s why.

It seemed like a good idea to find out whether our APIs were so good that people could use them first time, unaided (as per the Service Standard). That meant working with people who haven’t been involved in their creation.

But we didn’t know:

  • Whether anyone would want to enter,
  • What prize / incentives we should offer
  • Whether people would want to develop a simple prototype or build a whole service
  • We wanted to protect the privacy of the data behind the APIs but ensure that it was a genuine test of the APIs that had been built

We began by posting the idea to Twitter in a Google Doc for people to share and discuss. The Twitter activity reached over 15,000 people, which was a good indication that there would be some interest in the competition. Lots of people that we don’t know talked about it – although we probably haven’t yet reached enough local people. People suggested a range of prizes, which meant that we didn’t have to dictate how developed the prototype needed to be.

Then on Friday, I spoke at a UK Authority roundtable following their report: ‘APIs for the Public Good’, sponsored by Cognizant. It was a great opportunity to talk about the competition and to get advice from the other panellists on its design.

Today we’ve launched the competition in two phases, beginning with a call for ideas. Depending on the entries, we’ll then explore the opportunities and timeframes. This may be dependent on our ability to ensure the APIs meet the needs of the best ideas, the way in which we’ll provide secure access to the APIs and the feasibility of the services. But we’ll determine these once we’ve seen the range of ideas.

It’s not a traditional way of running a competition. But by opening up our thinking, the idea is already getting better.

HackIT Apprenticeships – how’s it going as a line manager?

We’re five months into our first cohort of our digital apprenticeship programme – there are 21 in total, spread over (almost) every team. When we started to plan our apprenticeship programme we knew that getting the right line management support and focus in place would be crucial to its success – and we’ve put high expectations on our line managers to deliver this.

This week we got together as a group to reflect on how it’s going as a manager on the programme: what’s going well, what’s not going so well, what do we think we could do next to improve and iterate our approach?

It’s not often that this group of people gets together to share experiences and reflect as a group so we ran this in a retro format – sharing our thoughts on the wall, then grouping them into themes and encouraging open and honest discussion.

What’s going well?

  • We’re really proud of what our apprentices are doing and learning – and of being a part of that
  • We’re all being asked a lot of questions – and that’s giving the rest of our teams a sense of pride in being able to teach someone what you know
  • There’s a real sense of giving someone an opportunity – our apprentices are all from Hackney or went to a Hackney school, and making a difference for local residents is a big part of our overall goal
  • We’ve noticed a developing sense of camaraderie between the apprentices – working together on projects, supporting each other
  • They’ve hit the ground running – and the speed of learning is impressive
  • It’s made us raise our game – when you have someone learning from you, you’re very aware of demonstrating great professional behaviours and knowledge as a role model
  • The learning goes both ways – we’re getting new ideas, different perspectives, and good questions that make us think

What’s not going so well?

  • Managing the relationship with the training / qualification providers is hard work – and is something we need to keep focussing on so that we’re making sure that our apprentices are getting the right training and support
  • Some of the content of the apprenticeship standard they’re studying doesn’t really fit with how we’re working at Hackney (for instance, there’s a lot of Prince2 content in the L4 Associate Project Manager qualification). Whilst we know that being able to recognise a Gantt chart in the wild is a useful skill, we don’t work that way. And for some there are aspects of their course that aren’t directly related to their role – so they’re having to work on modules that don’t feel very relevant to them. We need to make sure we’re supporting them with this as well
  • Finding time to spend on a one to one basis is a challenge – as is getting open and honest feedback on how it’s going
  • We put a buddying system in place for extra support but we’re not sure it’s really working that well – it’s something for us to look at and improve
  • We didn’t manage to get everyone set up on devices quickly enough – next time we need to plan this better
  • We’re not sure we always recruited the right numbers in the right teams at the right time – the whole programme was part of our overall restructure and for some teams adding apprentices came at the same time as forming a new team. There was honest feedback on how it’s been for teams managing this

So, what are our ideas for improvement?

We’re going to work on some new things:

  • How can we generate more opportunities for apprentices from different teams to work together?
  • Having opportunities for apprentices to work with colleagues in other services on short term assignments has worked very well – how might we create more of these?
  • How can we create space and encouragement for sharing work?
  • How could we redesign our buddying arrangements so that they better meet user needs?
  • How might we form a trailblazer group with other interested people to develop an agile delivery manager apprenticeship?
  • How can we develop our own mentoring skills?

And we will also be continuing to focus on building good relationships with all our providers, setting clear expectations of delivery from them.

Building a pipeline of talent – HackIT digital apprenticeship programme

Our 21 apprentices in our first cohort have been settling in since September – and are already having a really positive impact across our teams. We have apprentices across all our teams- from applications to data, delivery to digital service design, infrastructure, software development and support, on a variety of level 3 and 4 apprenticeships. They’re from a diverse range of backgrounds but they are all either Hackney residents or attended a Hackney school – part of the borough’s commitment to providing opportunities for our residents.

It’s a key part of our workforce strategy – we know that in a market where digital skills are at a premium we need to work hard to attract the right candidates, and that growing our own talent is vital. It’s also a great way of bringing new ideas and diverse experiences into our team.

The right learning in the right way

Since September we’ve been focussed on working with our three apprenticeship providers Ada, Arch and WKCIC to make sure we’re supporting the apprentices with the right learning in the right way. This hasn’t all been plain sailing – working with three separate providers means there  are different approaches to learning, and sometimes a complex set of relationships to navigate. Luckily we’re well supported by the Hackney Works apprenticeship team, and we’ve been able to iterate and improve how we’re doing things as we’ve learnt.

We’ve also been helping the apprentices to build their own professional networks. Amazon hosted a day of learning in December, running a series of skills workshops, idea generation sessions and an opportunity to learn how Amazon innovate. Feedback from the apprentices was hugely positive and enthusiastic – you can read more from Hidayat about the day and what it meant to him.

What’s next?

We’re continuing our work to develop a network of local employers who we can collaborate with to build a pipeline of digital talent in Hackney. As a result of a successful and creative joint workshop with Amazon in December, where we listened to views and generated ideas from learning providers and small businesses we have a host of ideas for how we can move this forwards – on this we’re thinking big, but acting small, and it’ll be exciting to see where that takes us.

Next up for the HackIT apprenticeship programme is strengthening those emerging professional networks. And we’re working with Google, Amazon and other employers to see what other learning opportunities we can create for the whole programme. We’ve got specific events planned for our female apprentices – recognising that women are in the minority in the tech industry and wanting to play our part in changing this. To do that we think we need to make sure we’re consciously supporting them and that that might need different approaches.

There’s a shared mission as well – showing the value that apprenticeships can bring, and supporting our apprentices to feel confident to talk about that themselves.