This brings some substantial improvements to the code. The update is available to anyone running a site on the FixMyStreet platform, which includes our own fixmystreet.com; the installations we provide for councils and authorities; and the FixMyStreet instances run by others, in places from Australia to Uruguay.
Meanwhile, here’s a rundown of the new front-end features you might notice if you’re a user of FixMyStreet.
Run the site as an app
FixMyStreet can now be added to phones (and desktops for that matter) as a ‘progressive app’. Here’s what to look for when you visit fixmystreet.com:
On Chrome for Android:
Access from the bar at the bottom of the screen.
Click the share icon at the foot of the screen.
Then select ‘add to home screen’.
On Firefox for Android:
Look for the pop up notification or tap the home icon with a plus sign in it in the URL bar.
Any of these methods will install a version of FixMyStreet that will behave like an app, placing an icon on your desktop, browser start page or home screen.
This way there is no need to download or update from the app store, and changes to the main website (which are invariably released sooner than on the app) will be immediately available to you.
Cobrands (for example the councils that use FixMyStreet as part of their own websites, and people running FixMyStreet in their own countries) can provide their own logo and colourscheme as well.
Mobile browser improvements
Whether you install the progressive web app or just visit fixmystreet.com on your mobile browser, you may notice some nice new features.
If you use the geolocation function (‘use my location’), your position will be displayed on the map:
When viewing an area, you can access the filters to narrow the reports displayed down by their status (fixed/open etc) and category:
If you’re about to report something that looks like a duplicate, you’ll not only be shown the report/s that have already been made, but you’ll also see a small inline map without having to scroll back to the main map to check where they are.
The site recognises that when you’re on a mobile, the message about uploading a photo shouldn’t invite you to ‘drag and drop’, but rather to either take a new one or select a photo from your phone.
If you’ve placed the pin incorrectly, the ‘try again’ process is clearer.
If a picture paints a thousand words, then your Twitter character count just went stratospheric. Now, when you share a report on places like Twitter or Facebook, if there’s a photo included in the report, that will also be pulled through.
Previously, the ‘open graph image’ that was shown by default was the same for every report — which could get a bit boring in aggregate, and certainly missed some of the impact that people might want to share when they’re posting about their own, or others’ reports.
Social media isn’t the only place that FixMyStreet reports can be piped to, though — the site also has several RSS capabilities that have been baked in since its early days.
For those not totally up to speed with RSS and what it can do, we’re now no longer displaying them as raw XML but as a nice simple web page that explains its purpose.
To see this in action, click ‘Local Alerts’ in the top menu of any page. Here’s a before and after:
NDI offer the FixMyStreet codebase as one of their DemTools, installing it in countries around the world as an innovation which empowers citizens to keep their neighbourhoods clean and safe.
Thanks to this partnership, NDI funded the addition of new features which they had identified as desirable — and which, thanks to the open codebase, will benefit users of every FixMyStreet site worldwide.
The arrival of COVID-19 means moving very quickly to working in challenging and unfamiliar circumstances. At GDS, we used a remote-first version of our monthly user research workshop to think about how we could adapt as a community. One main aim of the meeting was to start building a list of remote working tools and useful links. This is intended as a resource for the wider user research community, and we’d like to crowdsource other ideas and tools. So please do share any resources you’ve found helpful, and we’ll add them into the spreadsheet.
Every stage of user research—from planning with our teams to recruitment to communicating our findings—involves other people. We used our workshop to ask how we might change our working practices to take into account some of the consequences of COVID-19, such as self-isolation and social distancing.
Firstly, we realised that we need to address more than just remote research methods. Exploring new ways to work with our teams is just as important to consider. We looked at how we might run remote sessions to capture the team’s research questions, or turn research walls into virtual walls. We found there were a variety of methods we’d used in previous projects that were well suited to remote-first practices – and other things we’d need to adopt given the current situation. Some of the things we discussed were:
Recruiting using local networks
Thinking carefully about who good proxy participants might be in the event it’s hard to reach the right groups
Falling back on techniques like telephone interviews, or asking participants to talk through what they can see and do on a screen
Creating a living deck to replace research walls
Building a spreadsheet of tools and tips
Looking at the different stages of the research cycle, we discussed ideas about which tools might be useful for each of those stages, and created this spreadsheet as a starting point. Our discussion also highlighted a range of other links and resources, which we added to the spreadsheet in the tab titled useful links.
We’re keen to make this spreadsheet a comprehensive toolkit for user researchers working remotely. Following the GDS workshop, we circulated this to user research teams in other government departments, asking them to add any other tools they felt were useful. And if there are other remote working tools or resources you think would be helpful to user researchers, please do share them with us.
Choosing the right tools
We also thought specifically about the logistics around conducting remote research. There are lots of different tools that can be used for remote research. It’s not always easy to choose. Some things to consider:
What technology does your participant have access to? It might only be access to a mobile or landline.
How can your research be as inclusive as possible? How can you make sure you can accommodate people with different access needs?
What do you want to learn? Remote tools often do one or two things really well, for example card sorting or remote unmoderated usability testing
Do you need to share a screen? What happens if you cannot?
What environment and context will your participant be in? Will they be dealing with children or have caring responsibilities? What does this mean for confidentiality?
Tips for finding the right tool:
Have a couple of options and ask your participants what they can use
Check what you have access to in your organisation
Make sure the tool you’re using is cleared for collecting participant data—check where the data is stored and if the tool has had a DPIA (data protection impact assessment) if necessary
Think about how you can include your team. Some software allows you to invite observers or you might be able to play back recorded videos after the session
Other things to be aware of
We also had questions about how we support our teams, how we cope with having to change direction at pace, and how we manage home working and the demands of families being around and needing looking after. These things are complex and the solutions can be particular to a person’s circumstances. We did not come to any definite conclusions, but the opportunity to have open conversations felt like a step in the right direction. Also, give yourself a break—it’s important to take care of yourself and have some energy for the people you’re looking after too.
We had some things come up that we’d like to think through some more—like what else you might do when you’d normally go to an event to make first contact with potential participants. We also want to think very carefully about the ethics around doing research with people in very stressful situations and how we make sure our research design and consent process takes this on board.
What we learnt from running a remote-first workshop
As well as generating a list of tools and tips, the workshop taught us some things about running a remote-first workshop.
Have a code of conduct that outlines things like how to indicate that you want to speak and how to let everyone know you’re back after a break
Let people know what tools you’ll be using in the session and make sure they have access to them before the session starts
Run the session with two people, one to do the talking and one to do the logistics
Consider background music if you’re doing a quiet task as a group (e.g. all contributing to a Trello or shared document)
Think about how to get a response from the people in the workshop—speaking into a vacuum of 20 people can feel strange.
We encourage all user researchers to reflect on their practice, and continue to pay attention to the COVID-19 guidance on GOV.UKas it evolves over the coming months. If there are any tools or resources you’d recommend, please fill in this short survey to share them with us or email the UCD Community team. If you want to share your experiences of remote user research then please comment below.
Coronavirus has challenged every assumption we have about how we live, how we care for our kids, how we look out for each other, how we behave as consumers, and how we work.
by Ben Capper
We’re nowhere near through Coronavirus. We’re maybe (possibly, hopefully) approaching the end of the beginning. But we’re in this for the long haul.
It won’t always be like this. It’ll probably get worse for a while, and then it’ll get a bit better.
And then life will return to normal.
But will it? And what will “normal” even look like after the worst has passed?
For the comms world at least, life is likely to look very different, whenever that day comes.
I asked the good people of the UK comms community for their hopes of how things will have changed, when something approaching normal life returns:
Hope Number 1: We’ll be trusted to deliver
Comms teams have been absolutely pulling up trees during this crisis. We’ve been creative, empathetic, authoritative and a great comfort to a worried and anxious public.
We’ve long argued that our leaders should trust our professionalism and ability to deliver.
The crisis has necessitated quick, resourceful decisions to be made, and executed in real time. We simply haven’t had the luxury (or the indulgence) of long-winded sign-off processes.
And guess what? It has worked out fine. Councils, NHS orgs, and charities have been getting information out to the public that is timely, inspired and impactful – and all without every piece of comms having to go “via an Exec for comment”. It has shown that when we’re trusted to deliver, we deliver, and then some.
There is absolutely no reason why this way of working shouldn’t be the normal.
Or as some members of our community put it:
Trust – Comms is pretty well respected in our organisation anyway but being given the ability to get on with the job and be trusted to do the right thing a lot more now as we have to act quickly
Sarah Yates @haribohats
For those orgs who hadn’t clicked, it’s shown why comms needs a seat at the top table. Also shown orgs need to understand outside environment when communicating (those who don’t have sent those crass emails with no value). And boy its sped up uptake of remote tech and working.
Lorna Branton @LornaBranton
Acceptance that engagement is part of the Comms discipline and should be led by Comms.
Mandy Pearse @MandyPearse
The speed that info needs to be transmitted has now been cemented with this crisis. I reckon that being the case, the bureaucratic nature with which some crisis comms plans have been set would have to be significantly changed.
Hope Number 2: Organisations will *finally* get over the fear of remote working
Right now, there are very few of us sat at desks in draughty 1960s office buildings 8 hours a day, using computers still running Windows Vista that take 15 minutes to boot up, uncomfortably observing a “professional” dress-code.
And we’re producing much better work for it.
I really hope that organisations will finally realise that the outcomes of our work are far more important than the physical location we do it in.
Many big businesses talk a good game when it comes to remote working, but it’s very seldom backed up with the right tools to do the job. The current crisis has shown this up for the short-sighted approach that it is.
We need a proper IT infrastructure. We need proper flexible working arrangements. We need to trust each other. This crisis has proven that it is possible to do all of this, with great results.
Our community agrees:
Physical communications teams or agencies will be a thing of the past; this has proven that teams can work just as efficiently, if not more so remotely – rolling out crisis comms, mobilising new campaigns and maintaining business as usual from the comfort of their sofas!
Seoana Leigh @seoanaleigh
Comms teams by their very nature have been a step ahead in terms of mobility, digital resilience & readiness to be able to work from anywhere. I think this crisis has given comms teams the opportunity to be leaders in their organisations, helping them adapt to new ways of working .
I also think it’s ripped up (hopefully permanently) the traditional seat at the table scenario. There’s been no table for nearly 3 weeks. Again, the shift to a digital landscape has played to the strengths of comms teams who have been comfortable working that way for longer.
Mark Roberts @Markie_Roberts
Hope Number 3: We’ll start treating children and young people with the respect they deserve.
What has “engaging with young people” traditionally looked like in your organisation?
Let me guess, at various points, various middle-aged managers have asked you to do at least one of these things:
Let’s do a snazzy poster
Let’s do a game
Let’s do a trendy app
Let’s do a viral video WITH CATS! LOL!
You could do one or all of those things. Or…you could actually listen to what is important to said children and young people, and engage with them in a way that is empathetic without being patronising…
Whether you’re a large corporate organisation, a small independent business or a charity led by volunteers, every customer, colleague or child matters.
Nicola Capper @nordicnotes
Hope Number 4: “Digital inclusion” stops being a nice-to-have
This crisis has shown how important real-time information is to saving lives.
In a fast-moving, chaotic situation, dealing with an adversary that has never been faced before, comms needs to be constant and up to date.
Public organisations have done incredible work so far in getting essential information out to their communities; and it has been almost entirely digital.
The crisis has therefore shown how vitally important it is to make sure that the digitally excluded are prioritised in all our future plans.
It’s simply not good enough anymore to be told that “not everyone is on the internet, so we need a printed version”(which, let’s face it, is very often code for “Me want poster.”)
Not only that, but this type of unprecedented situation is quite simply not one that will lend itself to printing things out and pinning them to public noticeboards; or waiting for a statement to be read at the next Parish Council meeting. The situation is moving too fast, and too much new information is coming to light on a daily, even hourly basis.
It’s clear that having large swathes of your population “not on the internet” is not a remotely sustainable situation anymore.
Many organisations have a “digital inclusion strategy”. This is absolutely laudable. But there’s often a sense that it’s a project without much in the way of organisational buy-in beyond the occasional anodyne platitude.
The current crisis has shown that it can no longer be seen as a “nice to have”. Public organisations need to be putting much greater emphasis and resource into making this happen.
We have seen in sharp relief that the internet is crucial for families to stay in contact, for reducing isolation and loneliness, and for businesses (like mine) to keep functioning.
Developing digital capacity in communities needs to be in the Top 3 priorities of any government, national or local, after this.
Lives, quite literally, depend on it.
Our community shows how necessary this is:
In Police Comms we’ve never had a crisis everywhere all at once, we normally rush to mutual aid one force so this is unusual. The forces that remained part of their community and kept them on board will be remembered for being human. Digital Comms is king – leaflets just died.
Hilary Hopker @HilaryHopker
I think many businesses have had to rapidly deploy online communication / collaboration platforms that were not a priority before, and may have taken years to implement under normal circumstances. We now have these tools to use going forward.
Matt Hurst @matthurst10
Hope Number 5: The “ASAP” culture comes to an end.
How many of you have been working on a project that was “urgent” and needed “ASAP”, all of a sudden to find out during mid-March 2020, that it wasn’t so “urgent” after all, once the reality and the gravity of our current situation came to light?
Crises happen, and they put other stuff on the back burner. That’s life. That’s comms.
But I really hope this puts things into perspective for the people that commission our work. Every project is dear to its owner. That’s fine. That’s the way it should be. But these projects, in reality, are very rarely as “urgent” as that understandably passionate colleague would have you initially believe.
Treating everything as “urgent” and “ASAP” creates a totally un-necessary atmosphere of panic; which is very rarely a situation that gives rise to good creativity
And the definition of “possible” in “as soon as possible”, looks like being around September 2020 as things currently stand…
So, let’s be stronger on this one. Let’s take people with us and reassure them that we understand their projects are important to them and the organisation, and we’ll make sure we do a proper job on them.
In short: Coronavirus comms = urgent and needed ASAP.
Everything else = less so.
Hope Number 6: Internal comms is given its rightful importance.
In large organisations, it should go without saying that in times of crisis, everyone needs to understand their role, and believe in the approach that’s being taken.
That’s why internal comms is so important in these situations.
But like all of these new habits we’re forming as organisations, this shouldn’t be considered the approach that is only adopted when we’re in crisis mode.
Our colleagues are our brand and are often the first impression that our public has of us.
Their comms needs should be given absolute priority in how we plan our communications, when the worst passes over.
Great point on this:
Internal communications will no longer be second to external – that it must trusted, meaningful, clear; that leaders need to invest personally in internal communication; recognition of internal communications as central to business resilience, workplace safety & public perception
Kate Jarman @KateBurkeNHS
Hope Number 7: National campaigns get a local flavour
During these early days of the crisis, whatever has (or hasn’t) been going on in the heart of government, the messaging put out by local authorities and NHS orgs has been remarkably consistent, and authoritative.
The campaign materials have appeared admirably quickly, and everyone has embraced the messaging.
Let’s be clear. This has been a remarkable effort on the part of comms people right across the country, and a triumph for clarity and adherence to national messaging.
If one thing has been missing a bit in this however, it has been localised versions of the messaging. The inherent problem with adopting national messaging and materials in such a hook, line and sinker fashion, is that local tone of voice can get lost, and it can appear to jar with organisations carefully crafted external personalities.
There is a better way, I feel.
What’s really important here is the shared outcome, and agreed framework for communicating about the situation, throughout its various stages; in order to build trust and contribute the national effort.
What is also important however, is that these messages are delivered in a way that is understandable to people in diverse locations. There are some great examples of this.
Not least this from the Prime Minister of Barbados!
And speaking of nuanced messaging, his is our Prime Minister adjusting the official messaging to local dialect for a more relatable message. Keeping it 💯
Katrina Marshall @kat_isha
This comes back to the trust issue. Let’s get to a point whereby we’re trusted to do what’s important in terms of our shared national outcomes; but given the freedom to express that in ways that build trust in our own communities.
Hope Number 8: Comms strategies will be built to survive contact with the real world
When we’re creating organisational comms strategies, we need to start thinking longer term, and taking into account all situations (including ones like this) where it will need to be applied.
I do a lot of comms strategy work, and it’s what I call “ensuring your comms strategy survives contact with the real world.”
Your comms strategy should be long term and it should be about building a personality, and (that word again) trust.
It should be aspirational, yes. But it should also be realistic.
So, if you have a comms strategy that relies on employing a particular tone of voice or utilising particular channels; it must be stress tested to ensure that in a crisis situation it still works.
Comms strategies that go out of the window when a crisis hits aren’t robust enough. If you abandon your tone of voice and way of doing things when something bad happens, it feeds confusion and chaos, and makes you look like you’re not in control.
So, let’s make sure we create comms strategies that we’re confident in – and we can stick to even when things get difficult.
Hope Number 9: Comms isn’t just prioritised for the bad times.
With every crisis, there is an opportunity.
Right now, our organisations and communities need us more than ever.
We’re a lifeline to people and our colleagues.
The whole thing would be falling apart without us.
Everyone, all of a sudden, values comms, and is recognising the strengths we bring to the table.
Let’s not let our leaders forget this moment.
Let’s push for more, not less, investment in our skills and people.
Let’s fight to stop being in the front of the queue when the next round of cuts come along.
Once things are better, let’s make sure everyone remembers how important we were during this crisis. I know everyone sees how important we are right now. But something tells me that unless we’re proactive about this, old habits will soon creep back in.
Long-winded sign-offs will be back. Requests to “commsify” badly written emails will be back. We’ll be getting told to do things against our better judgement, rather than being brought into the conversation early on to ask for our input.
Let’s not let this happen. On an organisational level, let’s stay strong and remind our leaders of this moment; but at an industry level, let’s club together more effectively to raise the profile of what we do, and to lobby for the support we need to do our jobs properly.
We all share the fear of “business as usual”:
My worry is that we fail to take the opportunity that this emergency offers. We need to have an industry strategy to ensure the new approach is embedded in the culture of our organisations, in our leadership skills and in the quality of new entrants
Paul Masterman @InterimBoy
My hope is that people we work with will embrace software more so we can cut down on emails, with an awareness of how inefficient they are for creating content and sign-off. Process is something people neglect, but its a game-changer.
Emily Jones @KindleKitchen
…so let’s make sure this change is permanent.
Hope Number 10: Better and genuine partnership working
We simply cannot go on working in silos.
The public are expecting all of us to get together to help our communities get through this.
Organisations have longed talked about “service integration” and “partnership working”. This crisis has shown how dependent organisations in the public sphere are on each other.
Cuts to social care equal more people in A&E. More people in A&E means more people at risk of infection.
It’s easy to say, but difficult to implement. But us comms people can lead the way.
Different messages coming out at the same time, about the same issue, are inherently confusing for people.
We absolutely have to start coordinating across organisational boundaries much more effectively. Egos need to be left at the door. Competition needs to end.
We need to remind ourselves that we are our communities’ voices and advocates in our organisations, and we need to remind our leaders (and ourselves) that their needs come before ours.
That means better partnership working. It means doing what we’re doing now, but permanently.
And that is probably the take home message from all comms people to our organisations: let’s do what we’re doing now, but permanently. That means:
More remote working
More long-term thinking
More partnership working.
We’ve shown it’s possible. Now let’s make it happen as business as usual; whenever “usual” ever happens.
Stay safe out there.
Thanks so much for everyone that contributed their thoughts to this. The response was overwhelming. I’m sorry I couldn’t include everyone’s tweets. But please follow the original thread on Twitter to see everyone’s invaluable contributions.
For as long as there have been professional software developers, there’s been code review. Whether it’s a formal process, or a cursory glance by a colleague before pushing the code to production, for many teams, code review is an essential part of the development process.
This is a common practice in other fields too. I trained as a journalist in my early days, and a subeditor would look over my work before my articles would get published. In academia too, you’d do a thorough peer review process before publishing a paper.
But, like with automated testing, we often go into autopilot with code reviews, without stopping and asking ourselves why we do them.
At dxw, we’re trying to standardise our approach to code review. With this in mind, I thought it might be useful to sketch out some of the reasons why teams review code and how some of those reasons can come into conflict with one another.
Reasons for doing code reviews
1. Safety and reliability
Is this code safe? Does this code have a security hole, or is there a less known exploit that the developer hasn’t thought about? Are there any situations where the code may break? Could we rewrite this feature to make this code more reliable?
Is this code likely to suffer from performance problems when it goes into production? Could a few tweaks here and there improve the performance of the code?
This is particularly true if the author is more junior than the reviewer, or is less familiar with the language/framework being used. Is there a feature in the language/framework that makes what the author is trying to do easier or more expressive? The reverse is also true – code reviews can be a great opportunity for developers at any level to learn by seeing how a colleague has solved a problem.
Did anything in this feature make the reviewer stop and think, “What’s going on here?” A quick, “Can you explain what you did here?” can be a nice forcing function for the author to go over their work again and tweak the code so it better expresses the intent of the code.
We use Standard.rb to lint our code, which saves bikeshedding about code style. There can still be times where new code may not be consistent with other code, or may not match the idioms used in a particular framework. This can cause problems with maintaining the code in future, especially when handing it over to new teams, and makes for a messier codebase in general.
6. Showing working
Does the format of the pull request clearly spell out how it has been implemented? Does each commit clearly spell out what’s been done, together with a narrative of why it’s been done in a particular way to help out future devs? Is there a need for documentation, either in the comments, in the Readme, or in the form of Architectural Decision Records?
The conflicts that can exist in code reviews
These factors fall into 2 distinct approaches to code review. The first (which covers things like style, safety, and performance) suggest a systematic approach to code review, reviewing each line of code, and looking for any potential issues. The second approach brings a more holistic view to the codebase, thinking about not only the code being reviewed, but also the impact on other aspects of the project, both code related and non-code related.
However, depending on where you work, how you work and who’s in your team, these 2 approaches may come into conflict with each other.
Consider a team in a large corporation who are trying to move on from “big bang” release processes to a more agile, incremental release process. They are risk averse, so may see code review as a quality assurance process, where other developers “rubber stamp” code before it gets released. They may see the “softer” factors, such as using code review as a learning tool, to be unnecessary distractions from shipping the code.
Similarly, a team working at pace on an alpha project might see considerations about reliability and long term usage not to be a concern, as they’re much more focussed on shipping a demonstrator which may well be thrown away at the end of the project.
The makeup of a team is also likely to cause factors to clash. For example, a team mainly made up of junior or mid level developers is more likely to prioritise learning over some of the other factors, whereas this would be less of a concern for a team made up of more experienced developers.
Work out what’s important
Code review, like many parts of a developer’s life, is a complicated business. It’s not just a case of working out all the possible reasons why we review code and then optimising for them all. That’s impossible, and depending on various things, like team makeup, the goals of a project and your own values as a team, it may be that your team will value some factors over others, and some factors may not even be a consideration.
When coming together as a team, it’s important to make sure that you agree on what factors you value, to save time working on things that the team don’t value, and prevent causing possible friction between team members.
With this in mind, the tech team at dxw are starting to reappraise what’s important to us when it comes to code review. We’re going to use these factors to help us think about why we do code reviews, and what we want to get out of them which will help us to get even more out of our code reviews.
At times of crisis, the need for factual information is clear — and Freedom of Information is the lawful mechanism by which we can demand it. And yet, it is becoming increasingly obvious that across the world, rights to information are being eroded, by design or by circumstance, as governments and authorities deal with the effects of COVID-19.
Rather than restrict access to information, at this time bodies should be moving towards proactive release, and any necessary restrictions that are put in place must be temporary and time limited.
Keeping our rights intact
At WhatDoTheyKnow we are, of course, resolute that we must not allow the current situation to cause lost ground in the right to hold our authorities accountable.
Nonetheless, we do of course recognise the difficulties involved for authorities in keeping a service running at a time when the workforce may be depleted, staff may be working from home and not able to access physical files, and resources may be quite rightly being prioritised on the frontline of the fight to keep the population safe.
We call for a common sense approach that balances this new working environment with the enhanced need for public information:
A recognition that not all authorities and not all departments will be equally affected by the current crisis. While it is clear that those which are working in the areas of health, policing, and other frontline activities are likely to be the least able to dedicate resources to FOI, other authorities/departments should do all they can to keep their channels of information open and active.
In the spirit of transparency and public interest, all authorities should commit to the proactive publication of information, without the need for it to be requested. This should especially apply to decisions being made around public health, responses to COVID-19, and changes to rights and freedoms of citizens; and the data informing these decisions. Proactive publication requires fewer resources than responding to individual requests as they arise.
Measures that are put in place to relax the right to information during this fast-moving environment must be recognised as temporary and reassessed at regular frequent intervals. When the health crisis has passed, they must be removed and the right to information must be restored to the same, or better, status as previously enjoyed by citizens.
Information is vital
More than ever, now is the time to ask questions: what plans do our governments have in place to tackle this unprecedented threat? What research is guiding their actions? How are they meeting targets for testing, for vital equipment, for hospital beds?
Or, just as importantly, as Julia Keseru asks in this piece: how are the most vulnerable in society being impacted by the broad stroke decisions being implemented?
Guy’s Hospital, for example, is understandably responding with a plea for people to consider whether their request is really required; while Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole Council are auto-responding: “The Council is not currently in a position to respond to your request. This is as a result of ensuring that all available resources are diverted to support the community and we can continue to deliver essential and priority services during the unprecedented crisis presented by COVID19. Please resubmit your request at a later date and not before 8th June“.
Scotland’s emergency bill, voted through yesterday, massively extended the deadline for responses despite intervention from campaigners and MSPs. As a result, WhatDoTheyKnow’s auto-prompts when an authority has not responded within the mandated timeframe are currently wrong, and we’ll be looking at correcting this as soon as we can.
Information doesn’t just allow us to hold our governments to account over the actions they take during this crisis. As Newspeak House’s Corona Virus Tech Handbook has vividly demonstrated, shared knowledge allows collaboration, in some cases across borders, that may literally save lives.
While the LocalGov Patterns platform goal was intended to start a conversation among local authorities with a focus on transactional services, what the voluntary sector needed was quite different. We wanted to create something that could really speed up the process of digital innovation for charities. We needed to go a step further.
Since January, FutureGov has been working with Catalyst as a remote-first team, to build on our service patterns work and design something similar for the voluntary sector. We believe in the importance of reusing what already exists and building on what works, so it was a natural step to reuse the LocalGov Patterns platform.
Service patterns for the voluntary sector
There are 185,000 registered charities in the UK who need support to work together to identify common services and reuse what already exists and works. With so many organisations to bring together, we needed to narrow the scope of work, aware that every charity, as is within government, is unique but similar.
We decided to focus on services that are currently being delivered in an exceptional way, examples of what’s possible that we can learn from quickly. For each service, we started mapping the organisation offering it, the service proposition, the life event and the service pattern.
For the service ‘Get funeral poverty support’, there are two life events likely happening. ‘Going through bereavement’ and ‘going through a crisis’. The main service pattern is ‘getting specialist support’, which can take place in two ways; browsing information independently or calling someone.
We quickly realised we needed to define a common vocabulary to help us mapping all the services in a consistent way.
A service pattern is a common interaction or task in a service, things like ‘buy something’ or ‘get a reminder’. Learning about someone else’s service pattern or case study is useful if your organisation offers similar services or is interested in doing so soon.
Life events stand for what’s happening to people in their life, the things that are shaping the services they’re interested in accessing, such as ‘looking for a job’ or ‘having a child’. They’re the ‘trigger points or underlying problem that someone is trying to solve. They’re the reason that people interact with or contact your organisation.’
New emerging service patterns and life events
We believe in the power of service patterns and life events to change how organisations think about their services and design for them. They help organisations go beyond one specific service, thinking more widely about their whole offer. What if we could structure services and organisation departments based on life events?
Even though with FutureGov we’ve gone through a similar process, this was the first time for us to apply our thinking to the charity sector.
For service patterns, we always focused on transactional services, this time we had to include non-transactional ones.
A non-transactional service is characterised by multiple interactions between citizen and council over time and each interaction doesn’t necessarily close a phase. Non-transactional services can include transactional services (identity confirmation, payment) and are generally more complex to design, as they often rely heavily on personal interaction, usually face to face.
Now more than ever, there’s a need to design for those to make this kind of experience smooth for the end-user and in-depth enough for service staff to get the individual case details they need. How can the non-verbal be picked up when people can’t meet in person?
For life events, we had an evolving list that used the LGA work, but soon realised there are some we never identified that are actually very common for the people using charitable services. Life events like ‘going through a crisis’ or ‘going through an emergency’ are more relevant than ever given what’s happening across the world, and are unfortunately common for people getting in contact with charities.
We’re now working hard to get this service live in the next phase of work in collaboration with Catalyst, Snook and other charities that have case studies to share, as we believe it could empower the voluntary sector to deliver better services.
Even though the emergency we’re living through at the moment is challenging and stressful at times, we believe this is an opportunity to rethink our default setting for service delivery in the long term.
The UK Government’s failure to achieve its target of 25,000 tests per day for Covid-19 provides an excellent case study on the differences and impact of centralised vs. decentralised working and decision making. Whilst accepting there might be a problem with the sourcing of reagent chemicals for the DNA testing, according to a former director of the World Health Organisation we are not making the most of the opportunities currently available to us.
Public Health England (PHE) want to control who can do the tests, and until quite recently only allowed PHE labs to do the testing. Apparently there are 44 molecular virology labs in the UK, none of them working at capacity and few who have been approved for Covid-19 testing. If they were each doing 400 tests a day we would be at the same level of testing as Germany
Centralised control does ensure quality and standards, but surely these can be relaxed in the interests of rapidly ramping up testing. Quality could thereafter measured and controlled by PHE using statistical sampling techniques. There would also be an opportunity for this network of labs to share best practice.
Networks may not deliver a gold standard from day one, but knowledge sharing between them would get them there quickly, and (I would argue) quicker than communication being controlled and managed through a centralised authority. In the mean time, we’ve got thousands of NHS workers not able to work because they haven’t been tested. Time I think for the UK Government to start decentralising their decision making processes in the interest of speeding up critical interventions.
New co-workers – my wife and our sons aged 13, 17, and 20 – getting on with their work while I do mine. Halfway through the week, I moved my improvised office from the dining table, which was rather too much in the middle of everything, to a sunny window with houseplants for company.
On Friday, the boys chopped wood and fired up the pizza oven for the first time this season. I got to take out the week’s frustrations kneading the dough, and we all ended the evening well-fed and stinking of wood smoke.
Remotely peeking into my colleagues’ homes, with fleeting glimpses of young family members, put me in mind of a classic line from the Cluetrain Manifesto: “Somewhere along the line, we confused going to work with building a fort.” Let’s never go back to Fort Business.
The end of discovery show and tell for the Book, Refer and Manage Appointments team. They presented a solid set of user needs, problem definitions and service patterns. When the current crisis is over, I hope we will channel our care and creativity into doing this stuff much, much better across the NHS.
There was also some good work from the team working to untangle the information architecture of the NHS website.
And then I got more deeply involved than I have for quite some time in delivering a brand new public-facing service. Working with the service manual team, over four full-on days including Saturday and Sunday, they built, tested, and went live with something that we hope will help the NHS prepare and respond to coronavirus. More news of that coming soon.
How did I uphold the NHS Constitution?
I made a public plea for people not to cut corners on digital accessibility. I’d been seeing some brilliant, rapidly spun up services to help people through this difficult time. I’ve also seen some new products that are badly let down by a lack of thought for inclusion. Obviously trade-offs have to be made, but we simply don’t have the time to re-work things that have been built without considering users with access needs. The NHS is for everyone, now more than ever.
What connections did I make?
Alongside the work with the service manual team, I spent some time linking across several teams working on services for people with covid-19 symptoms. While moving at pace, it’s really important to make sure these services make sense in their own terms, and link together as a coherent whole.
On Sunday, I took an hour out for a Zoom call with my inspiring Bevan Programme learning set. Although the leadership programme has finished now, we’re keeping in touch and supporting each other. It was humbling to hear from this group, especially those working to prepare local services to deliver direct care in what could be the very challenging circumstances.
What leadership teamwork did I see?
NHS Digital’s senior leaders have worked exceptionally hard to enable the organisation to flip in the space of a few days to almost 100% remote working, while continuing to provide a set of vital live services to the health and care system.
We can only get through when leaders support each other. I’ve noticed how people instinctively know when to support their colleagues. They notice when someone, who may be more senior than them, is struggling and needs time out, or when a team that has kept up a blistering pace needs permission to slow down for a bit.
What do I need to take care of?
A crisis brings out the best and the worst behaviours, in others and in me.
As I got caught up in the rush to deliver, I noticed myself being distracted on a call with one of my team, who was not involved in that piece of work but had equally important things to say. I regretted not giving that person my undivided attention.
I twice put off a scheduled catch-up with someone to make way for urgent meetings. This situation could last for some time. Meanwhile the ordinary work of coaching and mentoring needs to continue, so that people don’t feel ignored or isolated during this time of “social distancing”.
Unlike some who thrive in these situations, I know that I don’t enjoy emergencies. My favourite kind of change is steady, sustainable capacity building. I’m proud of the teams we’ve built at NHS Digital, and their ability to rise to this occasion, but I’m also impatient for all this to be over so we can get back into a more thoughtful mode of digital transformation.
How many times did I cycle to work?
0 out of a possible 0. I did get out for a couple of walks round the neighbourhood.
An obvious question was what user research we should be focussing on.
Many of our organisations are making significant and rapid changes to existing guidance and transactions, and even creating and rolling out completely new services.
We all agreed that at this time it’s more important than ever that we work in an evidence based and user centred way. It’s vital that our services work for everyone who needs them, and that we don’t make mistakes that might harm people who are coming to us for help.
Everyone is reviewing their priorities and considering the risks of doing and not doing user research in each case. In some cases that risk will be high, and we have to find a way to continue doing effective research, often very quickly. In other cases the risk will be much lower and we can learn more later.
We also discussed the need to consider the potential burden on hard pressed colleagues, and on participants who’ll have many other more important concerns. Although where changes are clearly important, we’re finding that colleagues and the public do understand the value of our research, and are willing to give their time.
We agreed that we need to continue working closely with colleagues, with clinicians in the NHS, and with social researchers and policy analysts in education. We’re going to have to do some really rapid research. And we need to triangulate data so we can be more confident about our decisions, to make sure what we do is clinically and educationally sound.
As services come under new pressures, we may need to quickly investigate problems in existing services caused by changes in demand, as lots of people switch to accessing a service online for the first time. And where we’ve needed to make rapid changes, we must make sure we can monitor the effectiveness of those changes to see how well they’re working for everyone.
Some organisations may be working with user groups that they’ve had little engagement with before, for example providing teaching advice and resources directly to parents who are educating their children at home. This may become the focus for new research.
Using additional time and space to improve our knowledge and our practices
We also noted that some organisations, like the courts, will have suspended some of their activities. And this may create opportunities to conduct research with colleagues who are normally very busy and difficult to get time with.
In those organisations we may have time to bring colleagues back into the problem space, to reflect more on people’s circumstances and context, and how they might want to experience the service.
We agreed that this can also be a time to focus on knowledge management. Consolidating and sharing things we’ve already learned about different user groups, about their circumstances, needs, common challenges, and barriers. And making sure we have good catalogues of findings from previous work.
We can work to make sure that this knowledge is more visible and accessible, and share it with new staff and with colleagues across our organisations.
There can also be an opportunity to improve our research operations, to improve and document our practices and internal resources.
Many of us are setting up additional video learning and sharing sessions to make sure that our communities continue to develop and connect with each other.
Looking after participants
We discussed ways that we need to take care of our participants.
Many will be experiencing significant emotional and practical stress and strain. Some will be ill, or have family members or housemates who are ill. Some will have been isolated on their own for some time and will just want to chat.
This will impact how we do the research and the results we’ll get. And we’ll need to carefully consider the power dynamics between the researcher and the participants.
More than ever, we need to respect our participants’ time. Is now the right time to be talking to people, especially on a subject that might be a burden for them? What’s the risk of getting this wrong? We don’t want to put someone in a worse position by spending time with us, that they could be spending elsewhere.
There will be additional ethical and safe-guarding challenges to work through. Particularly with participants who lack the privacy they would get from a face to face research session in a separate, neutral space.
We’ll need to check in more with people. To make sure they are really okay to go ahead with the research and don’t feel like they are forced to continue. They might feel they have to, or be more financially driven by getting an incentive than usual.
We’ll need to put more effort into establishing the context of the research. To explain to participants the value of the research we’re doing, even with everything else that’s going on.
And that will take more time. So we’ll need to recalibrate how much we expect to get from research sessions.
We also need to be honest with our participants that there’s a risk the research will be disrupted by problems at our end, with children for example. And that we understand that they may have the same issues.
Looking after ourselves
We will also need to look after ourselves and be kind to ourselves.
Doing remote research is hard for those of us who share homes with several other people, who are also trying to work from home. And is particularly hard for researchers who are balancing child care with remote working – often working ‘shifts’ with a partner.
We need to be honest with participants and colleagues about what’s going on. For example, that we are using some less than perfect equipment or tools, and that the 3 year old might pop in.
We know that some colleagues are feeling the pressure to show that they are ‘present’ and working. We need to let ourselves off the hook.
As managers and leaders, we need to give people permission to take breaks, take exercise, take care of themselves. To show understanding that we aren’t all working in ideal conditions with perfect setups. To accept that we may be less productive than usual.
To help stay in touch, many of us are having more regular catch ups and virtual coffees and lunches for user researchers.
Adapting our practices
We also looked at how we need to adapt our practices when we can’t work with participants or colleagues face to face. When we know that going and seeing the lived reality of peoples’ lives and work is so important.
We all agreed that it’s important not to try to simply replicate what you were doing before, but somehow making it all remote.
We should step back to our objectives, what are we trying to learn with a particular piece of research, what are we trying to achieve in a workshop. Then look for the sequence of activities and the supporting tools that will produce the best result.
And we should set the expectation that things won’t be the same as they have been. Research might take longer, and methods won’t be perfect, and that’s understandable given the circumstances.
We also need to take care when rushing to pick up and use new tools. Especially ones that we and our colleagues are not familiar with. In particular, for user research, what are the data and privacy implications of using the new tool?
Wherever possible, we should adapt existing tools that colleagues know how to use and have already had data privacy impact assessments. For example, using a shared document in Office 365 or Google GSuite for collaborative analysis.
There is also an opportunity here too. We are being forced to think really carefully about what we’re doing, and may come out of this as better researchers.
But we also need to think about how this will look after several weeks when the novelty has worn off and we’re all struggling with continuing lock down.
We all recognised how valuable our service manuals, design systems, prototype kits, and communities of practice have been in helping us to make changes to our services and to our practices at pace.
Doing research remotely
We’ll obviously need to switch almost all our research to happen remotely, and to do that rapidly.
We know that some kinds of research are easier to do remotely than others, for example doing moderated usability testing using a video meeting.
And we know that some organisations are better prepared and more familiar than others for remote research and remote working general. We want to make sure those organisations are not left behind.
Many of us are running remote research training and practice sessions to help upskill people and to give them confidence.
Several people have been working on guidance – see the useful resources at the top of this blog post.
Of particular interest is safeguarding for both the researcher and the participant. For example, what are we showing as a researcher (what’s around us on a video call) and what influence does that have on the research.
And how are we supposed to be interacting with each other? What is polite? If we are doing research with people who are disadvantaged, what do we need to consider?
We also need to be careful with the tools we’re using and issues with privacy and data protection. Yes, we need to respond as quickly as possible, but we need to be thinking about potential longer term problems.
And don’t forget the humble telephone call. We can all get a bit obsessed with trying to get an HD video call to work, when we can get a lot done on a regular phone call.
Keeping research inclusive when we can’t visit or see people face to face
We are all concerned about how we keep our research inclusive when we know that we reach many people through visits and face to face approaches.
How do we keep doing research with people who might not have access to the internet or to an appropriate device. For example, delivering educational content to children through the BBC Sounds app might seem like a good idea, but children might not be able to consume it.
For some things like accessibility testing we may be able to rely more on a combination of expert audits and remote usability testing. But there’s a risk that we focus on the ‘mechanical’ usability of the screens, and less on the wider context of use, which often creates more barriers and is more relevant to the decisions we make.
We discussed different possibilities for continuing research with the help of other people in a household. When we do research we often ask participants if there’s anyone they would like to support them. We can work through the remote equivalent of this. For example, working with carers and local grassroots organisations who are supporting people.
And we may be able to work with proxies, people who have experience of working with people with particular circumstances or needs. It may not be ideal, but may be the best we can do at the moment.
We will have to acknowledge the research debt we may be building up, and make sure we don’t forget to deal with it in future.
For people who are able to use technology, shifting everyday life online has been strange and unexpected, but not exactly a leap in the dark. For the millions of people who can’t, the lockdown means loneliness and social isolation.
And sadly, millions is no exaggeration. There are currently 11.9m people in the UK who lack the essential digital skills for life. That means that one in five people struggle to communicate, search for health information, or access government services online. And social exclusion correlates closely with digital exclusion – of the 4.1 million people who are offline in the UK, 71% have no more than a secondary level education, and nearly half are from low-income households.
The UK’s loneliness problem pre-dated this pandemic: a study by The Co-op and the British Red Cross reveals over 9 million adults in the UK across all ages – more than the population of London – are either always or often lonely. That’s another startling figure, especially considering that loneliness is as bad for your health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
Nonetheless, the health crisis has brought into sharp focus the implications of being digitally excluded.
For me, video calling apps have helped preserve some normality in the current situation. Life is different – there’s no doubt about that – but technology allows me to continue to work from home and to keep in touch with friends and family. But for people who cannot use online communication services, and who rely on face-to-face interaction for social contact, now is a frightening time to be on the wrong side of the digital divide.
And at a time when economic activity grinds to a halt and people are losing their jobs, access to government services – many of which are digital-first – is also essential, particularly for those who are less financially secure.
One myth I am keen to bust is that this is an issue that’s only affecting older people. Take Alex, 24 from Newham: he worked in a restaurant until he was let go by his employer a week ago without any notice. Socially isolated with no help from friends or family, he approached Skills Enterprise, a community organisation in East London, looking for support on how to apply for benefits online.
Unfortunately, the UK lockdown announced on Monday means that we are unable to offer digital skills training through a blend of face-to-face support and online learning – the model that has allowed us at Good Things Foundation to improve the lives of more than 3 million people through digital since 2010 – although many of our community partners continue to support people remotely
When normality resumes, we must remember that digital exclusion will continue to shape the lives of millions of people. The spread of Coronavirus and our reliance on technology has made it clear for all to see that digital inclusion is not a nice-to-have, it’s a need-to-have. When we emerge from this crisis, which we will, the provision of digital skills must be a priority for policymakers.
It’s not just a case of levelling the playing field – there is also a clear economic argument for closing the digital skills gap. Research by CEBR has shown that investing in ensuring everyone in the UK is digitally included will lead to a net present value of £21.9 billion to the UK, with a benefit of almost £15 for every £1 invested in basic digital skills. By upskilling the nation, we will begin to accrue economic benefits through higher employment rates, increased earnings for individuals, more transactions shifting online, savings to the NHS, and much more.
The Government’s pledge of £5bn to roll out gigabit-capable broadband across the country by 2025 is welcome. But even if you build broadband infrastructure, not everyone will be able to use it. What we need alongside this is a commitment to invest so that everyone has the digital skills they need to use, and benefit from, the internet.
Our Blueprint calls on the Government and other partners to commit to a 100% digitally included nation, by promoting the benefits of the internet, and building skills through free essential digital skills support for anyone who needs it.
Loneliness and social isolation are problems without easy answers, but it’s difficult to dispute the power of technology in bringing people together, offering rays of hope in the midst of this crisis. Fixing the skills and inclusion gap is part of the solution – and one we know we can deliver.