An autumnal HackIT update

This is the second of our quarterly progress updates that we’re posting in the open (the first is here: https://blogs.hackney.gov.uk/hackit/committing-to-work-in-the-open). I find it extremely useful to take a moment to pause and reflect on the work that we’re delivering and supporting across our team. This highlights the breadth of work we’re covering, shows many very positive signs of progress and also identifies a number of areas where we need to give more focus.

We’re continuing our commitment to the Local Digital Declaration through publishing our roadmap on Pipeline and are now also sharing our user insights through the User Research Library which we have recently launched as part of the shared Local Gov Digital platform. Publishing our API standards and playbook are other important steps forward in delivering on this commitment. We are now working with a number of other councils in joint bids to the MHCLG Local Digital Fund for shared projects.

Within Hackney we are seeing exciting progress across a really varied range of projects. These include supporting the design and delivery of user centric services across the whole range of Council services, including adults social care, housing and public realm.

Underpinning the changes we’re delivering, we are continuing our focus on data – covering data quality; use of analytics to help us design and assess services; developing our ethics framework to make sure that we are always using data responsibly; modelling how we use data across our systems; and training all of our users in their data protection responsibilities.

Internally, we are making strong progress with the introduction of improved technology to help teams across the Council adopt mobile, flexible and collaborative working styles. And we are also continuing our work to update our overall architecture approach to adopt a modern, web-based model.

Our HackIT blog includes regular posts from our teams sharing updates on their work.

This quarter’s report includes analysis of our annual user survey. We’ve been pleased to see continued year-on-year improvement in user satisfaction, but equally important to us are the areas where our users have highlighted areas that we still need to improve. These range from the responsiveness and accessibility of our support services to greater focus on training and advice to help users get the most from the tools we provide. We are building these into our work and the survey results provide a useful yardstick that we can use to make sure that we are continuing to head in the right direction.

Finally, one of the most exciting developments this quarter has been our 21 Digital Apprentices starting their roles with our team. The apprentice posts cover all areas of our service across applications, data, delivery, digital service design, infrastructure, software development and support. I’m really pleased to see the programme launch and am looking forward to seeing what our apprentices achieve during their time with us.

You can read the full report here: http://bit.ly/2PZCYMG.

A Novel Approach to the Service Assessment, HackIT

We used different tools to track our path towards the digital service standard so that we could more widely share it.

In the spirit of transparency and openness, we approached our Service Assessment with the intention of sharing it widely with Hackney and beyond. To this end, we applied a different approach from the document-led method so far employed at HackIT for our Digitising Neighbourhood Contact Centre project.

Instead, we created a website that describes fully our service and process; and an associated Trello board that maps each of the 15 standards to the relevant evidence on the website. Our assessors could prepare for the Big Day in advance by referencing both of these tools. And, during the event, notes and recommendations could be added to each standard on the Trello board directly and contemporaneously.

We also wanted our assessors to have a view of the entire service and not just their specific area of expertise. So we ran the event in-the-round and all the assessors could then learn about all the standards rather than dispersing in clusters to discuss their area of expertise with one member of the team.

We’re aiming to have five service assessments completed by December at HackIT and will be holding a retro to see what works and doesn’t from the different methods we’ve applied so far. One size does not fit all and, even if it does, it’s sometimes good to mix it up a little.

Embedding an ethical approach to underpin our data science projects

We’re lucky in Hackney – in 2018, our Data & Insight function has grown in both number and scope, and we’re one of only a few local authorities to employ a permanent data science resource. Our data scientist works closely with the rest of the team, whose overall focus is on joining and analysing the huge range of data we hold, to help services better meet the needs of our residents. The talent and skills of the team, combined with the vision of our ICT leadership, which challenges us to look at the same problems in radically different ways, offers no small opportunity.

The private sector has led the way in practically employing data science techniques, harnessing vast swathes of information on customers and their spending habits to maximise revenues. For example, we’ve seen companies like Amazon use machine learning to persuade shoppers to part with extra cash at the online checkout by showcasing related products. The public sector has lagged behind, in part because of a lack of investment in the necessary skills but also due to the longstanding central government focus on data being used primarily for retrospective reporting. This has limited our ability to use our knowledge  – about our residents and how they interact with services – more creatively. Shifting the focus to predictive analysis could help us change the way we support people in future, to help us deliver better services at lower cost.

We want to replicate the success of the private sector in leveraging the vast volumes of data we hold as an asset to improve our service provision. These include the opportunity to prevent homelessness; better targeting of resources to assess social care cases that require most urgent attention; improved customer service by channeling users to other services they may interested in as they transact with us; or tackling fraud, to name a few.

While opportunity abounds, we face a unique challenge in meeting the expectations of our residents who hold us to a much higher standard than private companies, when it comes to handling their data. Many local government data teams are starting to work on predictive models but we know system bias is a concern to the public. How can we trust the results of predictive algorithms that have been built on data which may be limited, or only reflect how a long established service has traditionally engaged with specific sections of our community?

If we are to successfully implement forward-looking predictive analytics models, we have to build trust with our citizens: to ensure that they understand our motivations, and can transparently assess how we work with data.

The approach we’re taking:

From the outset, we’ve been alert to the need to test and build an ethical approach to our data science work, which is still in its infancy.

Building on examples we’ve seen elsewhere, we’ve developed a Data Ethics Framework which nestles alongside our Privacy Impact Assessment (PIA) process in Hackney, to make sure that for every project we undertake, we’re able to clearly articulate that we’re using a proportionate amount of data to enable us to draw robust conclusions.

At each stage of our 5 step project cycle, we stop to consider:

– Is our data usage proportionate and sufficient to meet user need?

– Are we using data legally, securely and anonymously?

– Are we using data in a robust, transparent and accountable way?

– Are we embedding and communicating responsible data usage?

One of the most important checks and balances on our work will come from an increasing focus on how we embed responsible use of our findings. Applying data science methods to our large volumes of data offers huge opportunities to provide a positive impact for residents, but we know there are risks if outputs are misinterpreted. We’re trying to mitigate against this by developing our team’s skills to communicate our findings in the simplest way possible so that local government officers don’t need to become expert data analysts to responsibly make use of this work. Democratising access to data and providing everyone with the skills or tools they need to make sense of information has to be the right approach.

We’re taking small steps every day to improve our skills and maximise the benefit of the opportunity we have in Hackney. We’re learning from others – notably the gov.uk Data Ethics Workbook which inspired our approach and trying to embed in a simple and proportionate way. The key for us is balance; we’ve tried to streamline this into a simple process with sufficient rigour to build confidence in the ethics of our work without unnecessarily slowing down our ability to experiment. We’re keen to open out the conversation and hear from other public sector organisations who are beginning to unpick this sticky issue.

We also recognise that to truly build trust with our citizens on how and when we use their data, we need to openly engage with people. We’re thinking about how best to start a conversation with residents so we can hear their concerns, discuss the risks and opportunities and agree a way forward, together.

Raising awareness of how well designed technology can help overcome barriers for people with impairments

As part of Hackney Council’s User Research Week, we set up a mini ‘empathy lab’ in the Hackney Service Centre. Our aim was to raise awareness of how certain visual and physical impairments can impact people’s lives. We also wanted to demonstrate how technology built with good accessibility standards can help break down barriers for people with impairments, whether permanent or temporary.

What we did

We had two computer stations, one focussed on simulating partially sighted and reduced manual dexterity. The other focussed on severe visual impairment. Staff members passing by were encouraged to give one or both a try. We also promoted the event to colleagues across the Council by email and with Google+ community posts.

We displayed three personas, adapted from GDS digital inclusion and accessibility user profiles, to help illustrate how the types of impairments we were simulating affect people using technology in real life situations.

Partially sighted and reduced dexterity

At the partially sighted and reduced manual dexterity station, people were able to experience what it might be like if someone finds it difficult to use a mouse and can only use a keyboard. The persona ‘Christopher’ prefers to use a keyboard as he has arthritis in his hands.

To simulate this impairment, buttons were taped tightly over the main knuckles on the back of fingers and latex gloves worn. This restricted the ability to be able to bend fingers and reduced sensation in finger tips.

At this station participants were asked to fill in a form online by using only the keyboard and also its paper equivalent. Once participants had become familiar with navigating using only the keyboard, apart from experiencing reduced dexterity in their hands, they were able to select radio buttons, check boxes, drop downs and enter text. As Google forms are coded by default to meet good accessibility standards, participants found the online form easier than writing on the paper version, where writing with a pen was difficult.

In addition, to demonstrate being partially sighted, safety glasses with a light smearing of vaseline could also be worn. Because of her glaucoma, the persona ‘Claudia’ needs to be able to increase text size to be able to read what’s on a screen. We used built-in functionality in the Chrome browser to do this.

When using the vaseline smeared safety glasses, the participants were able to experience how, for example, a website that allows for text to be resized, can assist people who are partially sighted to interact with an online service. This can benefit people with impairments, such as, cataracts or more generally a deterioration in vision associated with ageing, something likely to affect everyone.

After trying out the activities, a participant commented: “Was really interesting and gave me an appreciation of how difficult it can be for some people accessing digital services. Everyone should go and see what it’s like.”

Severe visual impairment

Our second station covered severe visual impairment. The persona ‘Ashleigh’ uses a screen reader and for this activity we used the Safari browser and VoiceOver, Apple Mac’s built-in screen reader. Participants were able to experience how people can have a web page read out to them. Again, depending on how well the web page meets accessibility standards, the better the screen reader is able to make sense of the page.

Some basic accessibility considerations can make a big difference on a simple web page. For example, having a ‘skip to content’ link enables the screen reader user to avoid having to navigate through repetitive navigation links in headers. Correctly nesting heading styles on a web page also helps screen reader users to understand the structure of a page.

What next?

We’re considering how we can take our empathy lab forward and find a location in the office where we can have a more permanent space for it. This will give the team a chance  to understand what it is like for people with accessibility needs when they use the new services they are building, helping us to become the most user centred team in the country.