Learning from Devon School Closure Information

During the extreme weather in early 2010 The county council’s website struggled to keep up with the demands and high volume traffic and essentially deliver timely up to date information relating to school and route closures.

This consequently led to a review of a number of things including the performance of our website, the supporting processes and the wider business continuity plans.

A few meetings occurred which I was fortunate to be involved in and we considered a range of options about how we could respond and deal with this scenario in the future.

An example of the options we considered included:

  • SMS Solution Providers
  • Twitter
  • Facebook
  • Google Docs (spreadsheets and forms)
  • WordPress

The Approach:

The approach we settled for was to focus on improving and automating the information collection and ensuring that this was in a consistent and reusable format. Once collected the information could then be republished automatically either to the DCC site, a local school site or even to the local media

The web team in our Children and Young People’s Service (CYPS) currently host and maintain approx 50% of school websites in Devon and would be able to implement a solution without too many issues.

On review it was considered that the most suitable and low-cost option would be to use Google – Total cost of development came to £240.

By using google it was possible to deliver an embedded form (which fed into a google spreadsheet) into a static HTML page with an iframe which could collate all the responses – this form would be password protected. Google also allows the content once collected to be emailed, published as a webpage or even reused via an RSS feed.

By implementing a simple PHP script the CYPS web team we were able to publish the appropriate content onto the DCC website and also to the school website without the need for a member of staff to re-enter any content.

The site is live and available at www.devonschoolclosures.info.

The process now essentially allows a Head Teacher or School Admin officer to access the form via their own website and to submit the details relating to the schools status. Once submitted the information is republished to the councils website and relevant DCC officers notified via email, all without any further manual intervention.


It was essential to ensure that the focus was always on the business issues and problems and not on the technologies themselves. To allow the techno logy to drive the solution could lead to greater risks and unforeseen issues further down the line.

By ensuring we focused on data collection and automating the process we were able to understand where new technologies could add value to the process and how they were able to facilitate a greater reuse of the data.

Location, Location, Location

I’m fascinated by the increased conversation about Location based Social Networks as i personally find them really interesting.  Back in January this year i predicted they would be big in 2010 (albeit my rationale was deeply flawed and influenced by a particular phone!!).

However they do seem to be growing in value and more and more people are seeing business opportunities and benefits from working with them. It is also interesting to see Google and Facebook both supporting Location based features of varying levels that if they see value then i guess we won’t actually get much choice. Location will just be another feature of our interaction with our friends and colleagues.

I was thinking the other day – what would happen if all of the content from TripAdvisor (ratings, feedback, pricing etc) was integrated with a location-based network like Foursquare or Gowalla. In fact there is almost a duplication of content happening at some level anyway. The power of that information is already influencing people’s decision – but if you could see that someone who actually said they liked the place had “checked in” say 10-15 times, would you believe them more than someone who checked in only once?

This is where these tools are starting to move, if businesses are savvy, and want to manage their brand they will need to understand this stuff. I say understand as it is still early days and most of the benefits and new features are becoming useful because the companies themselves are adding value by linking with other sites or companies.

But there is a dark side – isn’t there always!

Privacy is something that a lot of people care about, most people were vocal about Facebook’s dealings of privacy – so we can assume that it is an important thing to get right – it is also an important thing an individual needs to get right so that it doesn’t back fire.

An example of how weird and creepy it can get can be found on Shea Sylvia’s blog. It is the type of story that people will use to say that these sites don’t offer value and that they will only lead to bad things – well i don’t agree with that….Shea’s situation and experience is not something i’d like to go through – i’m glad she shared the story, but it does offer us all a valuable lesson and one which made me think about how all this stuff fits together.

In Facebook i have quite tight privacy controls and only (as a rule) except friends who i have actually met in person – Facebook is a place where i share photos of my family and more personal events. So i’m happy to share this with people i consider to be friends in one form or another.

On twitter, i have a public profile (i don’t protect my tweets) but i generally use this as a professional tool and only occasionally use this in a personal capacity – i do however consider a good proportion of people i follow on twitter (those i have met and some i haven’t) as friends also.

Foursquare and Gowalla – These tools don’t really do privacy that well in my opinion or at least create an illusion on privacy, yes you can accept friends but when you check in somewhere it will share that with anyone who visits that location. I can see the value in this, but why can’t you restrict you check in information to only those people you accept as friends?

My point being that when you decide to share something, it should be based on your own understanding of how you have set your privacy settings – it can’t create loop holes for your information to leak out to anyone.

I will personally be revisiting all of my privacy settings and how they interact with each other so that i can be sure who has access to the information i post to the web.

What are people doing to save costs in ICT

I suspect many authorities are looking at how they can cut back on the costs of delivering ICT and i suspect that solutions like Google Apps, Open Office and Alfresco are likely to be quite high up on some peoples lists as viable alternatives.

The challenge however is to actually demonstrate that over the lifetime of the solution the costs are lower than your existing solution or upgrade path.

It isn’t as straight forward as simply saying we can reduce our costs by moving from Microsoft and MS Office to Google Apps, and others as we still have legacy systems that require a Microsoft environment or an element of the wider Microsoft suite to operate.

In local government we have some critical business applications that would fit into this bucket and we could only really start to make an impact on the suppliers if along with other local authorities we started to approach them collectively about developing an integration module for Open Office or Google Apps or whatever was required to allow a greater freedom and increased flexibility within our wider infrastructure. Over time of course we need to start buying software that truly adheres to open standards and are compliant with eGIF. (eGovernment Interoperability Framework). But that is a journey and will not happen over night.

We perhaps need organisations like Socitm to starting taking a more proactive lead in facilitating Public Sector Agencies to explore and help cost out the transition from one environment to another. I suspect this is a Consulting Service from Socitm, but it almost needs to be more widely available and in partnership across regions or types of council to start to offer value.

So what are you and your organisation doing to reduce costs in ICT?  I am keen to hear about stories and case studies from other organisations (public sector would be great) who have made radical changes in their infrastructure and realised cost savings and had positive feedback from within the business.

The Council Homepage – Search, Signpost or Both

Some interesting developments of recent days and weeks around council homepages has got me thinking as to what might be the best approach for a council homepage. The recent move by a couple of councils in the UK is to mirror the google approach and focus on search.

We had a similar interest when Redbridge Council was the first to deliver a personalised homepage and then Lincolnshire Council was the first to move away from a traditional local government based navigation list. All of these developments are great and along with the influence of social media the role of the local government website, in particular the homepage, is becoming an interesting development area.

I want to start by saying that these councils should be applauded for trying this as it gives the rest of us something to think about in terms of approach – well done to the respective council webteams.

On first viewing i really liked these sites, especially the large adverts found on the Lancashire site, it very much appealed to my visual nature. I also found the search options on Westminster very good, however on reflection i started to think about whether or not this was a good approach. Everything i know seems to point to yes, after all that is how google built an empire and don’t we all just want what we are looking for straight away. But i guess that is the point, do i want another search page on top of google?

But what i struggle with and i have struggled with this for some time is what purpose does a homepage have when google is so good. Don’t most users find the page they want by using google first and essentially bypass the council homepage?

Gerry McGovern has previously stated that we should focus on tasks and search and you’ll make your customers happier. So wouldn’t it be better as Gerry highlights to analyse your data and understand what your customers want and deliver that direct to your homepage so people don’t even have to think about conducting a separate search.

The alternative method which has mainly been the focus for all homepages is signposting – providing relevant content and services directly from the homepage – however Redbridge Council and Lincolnshire Council took this a step further in different ways and provided more alternatives within this model. What i think is right about the signposting method is that i believe it meets the needs of users more. You have the opportunity to provide the most popular services directly on the homepage and therefore allowing your users to conduct their business without the need to delve into the depths of a council website. The search route doesn’t quite do this for me, although Lancashire Council and Westminster Council both offer more than just search for instance A classic view for Lancashire and more content below the search for Westminster, so we are not seeing a truly google style homepage yet.

I also believe that a council  website regardless of whether or not this a right or wrong will inevitably reflect the council itself. The council homepage is at the centre of a wide range of influencing factors that will impact on the local webteam to make particular choices, those factors might include:

  • political pressure
  • resources
  • role of communications in website
  • role of ICT in website
  • role of customer services in website
  • location of webteam in organisation
  • external influences such as Socitm Better Connected, Gerry McGovernp plus many, many others
  • which conferences members of the webteam have attended (web, social media etc)
  • and yes last but not least our customers needs – all the above shouldn’t matter but they do.

What i think is really good is that the local government web community are really starting to raise the bar and we are seeing so much more innovation than we have previously seen over the last few years. Plus what is more interesting is that we are all looking at this from our own perspective, and whilst that may not make sense for the people who grade or classify local government websites, what i think it right is that we all understand how OUR customers interact with us –  After all that is the ONLY measure that should matter, isn’t it?

I guess that my view is that whilst i may not quite get the search based homepage on a council website yet, does that matter, what matters is the residents of those councils find and access the services they want quickly and easily.

I’m not convinced that a universal homepage template can be provided for local government, as what is important are the principles behind it,  i believe all of the above sites mentioned have one thing in common.

  • Enable the customer to find and access services and information quickly and easily.

If they do that then we should encourage the innovation and difference as it will certainly brighten up a market which in the past has been very dull and difficult to engage with.

I’d suggest this for a good homepage – An excellent search engine (google would be good), a set of top tasks either as links of directly provided on the homepage, with some marketing and promotional images to liven it up, access to the rest of the site via a user driven navigation. So essentially a bit of what all these sites have done in one clean homepage.

There is a role for those that like to judge or classify local government websites, in that i think the time has come to stop looking for the best and to start looking and understanding the difference between sites. Why are we all taking a separate view, if we all have the same goals in mind, why haven’t we all developed identical looking sites with just a logo or some colour change as the main difference?

Shouldn’t we all agree to a consistent approach, purpose and some principles for local government websites (including the homepage) that we can at sign up to?

Google Wave – are we “waving” goodbye to the old school

The much talked about Google Wave will be available later this year and the preview demonstrated at Google I/O event has got me thinking and after watching the video (below) there are a number of opportunities for the public sector, here are three areas where i feel we could gain real benefit, with this type of new functionality.

  • Emergency comms – with email, web publishing and IM all interconnected. Communicating to a wide audience goes beyond your “contacts” list and can essentially reach the world in an instant.
  • Community engagement – comments/conversations on blogs or other sites will be sent to me in my inbox and i can reply via my inbox. This would help those people who want to re-use content on various platforms and enable those people to capture all feedback and collate these and pass the conversations from one platform into another to facilitate wider community or network involvement (this coupled with the conversation playback facility will transform collaboration)
  • Integrated access to colleagues / people on mobile devices (mobile and flexible working) this changes the landscape of mobile and flexible working in my opinion.

I for one am really excited by the prospect of seeing how this can allow people to work, collaborate and communicate more effectively……

It won’t solve everything, but it can teach us a new way in sharing and collaborating together.

Well done Google.