Amanda has stopped her weekly postings, but you can still read her stories here ...
Kristy is one of the Digital Developers within the Digital Team. She has been with the Councils for 2½ years after her previous role working within Adur Homes. She's had a variety of previous experience since graduating from her History degree; ranging from Data Analytics, Marketing and system training at Microsoft.
She has three cats, which she's been told makes her a 'crazy cat lady', and also has an obsession with all things America and fitness.
You can read Kristy's archived blog posts on this page below:
There's now two months to go until my wedding day. It's beginning to feel very real as we start to submit our final music, flowers, decorations and table plans.
I cannot wait for some time away in the sun for our honeymoon, but I will definitely miss my three cats! Luckily I have started to make my house as much of a smart home as I can. I recently bought a security camera, which will allow me to watch the cats from wherever I am in the world ...
Although it might seem a bit lame or funny watching what my cats get up to during the day, it serves another great purpose - protecting my home when the house is empty. Although we are now able to protect our homes in some fairly easy and fun ways, unfortunately protecting our computer privacy and security is not as easy.
I recently went on a cyber security session run at the Councils.
It was really interesting and got me thinking about my online security, not just at work but at home as well. Here are my key take-outs:
- Always remember to back your data up - this stops hackers forcing you to pay to get your data back.
- If you work in a large organisation, try to keep your data in a secure location like a fireproof safe or at another site.
Make your passwords secure ...
- It is important to make your password as secure as possible, using 12+ characters, with a mixture of capitals, numbers, letters and special characters. This will make the password incredibly hard to crack.
- You do not need to change your password regularly if your password is secure.
- Make sure your email password is different from your other passwords to ensure you can regain control of your locked out accounts.
WiFi wisdom ...
- WiFi hubs can be purchased online for a very small fee. People can set them up as hot spots in a public place and name them 'Guest WiFi'. What people don't know is that this isn't your hotel's or office's WiFi - it belongs to a hacker. By connecting, you are giving hackers full access to everything you're doing online.
- If you access public WiFi, make sure you use a VPN and try to avoid logging with your passwords on any sites through that connection. If you can, use your own 4G network.
Emails, emails, emails ...
- This is an increasingly popular route for hackers. Ensure you can trust the email before you click on any links or provide any information.
- Most companies and banks will not ask for any personal data to be sent via email as this is not secure.
- Make sure you click on the sender information in an email. It may say it's from HSBC, but the email address is the key - hackers tend to use random addresses but have started to get clever with how they word their addresses so don't be fooled.
- Avoid opening any ZIP files or excel spreadsheets that have macros (do not enable these).
Be cyber secure!
My blog last week explored the possibility of Adur & Worthing Councils becoming a 'Smart Council'. This week's blog carries on from that, with an exploration into 'Smart Learning'.
Smart Learning is about technology's ability to learn through its experiences. It includes technological advances such as Machine Learning and Artificial Intelligence (as discussed last week). Using these advances to make us into a Smart Council, however, could come with some major difficulties.
Machine Learning is already all around us and we use it on a daily basis even without realising. Do you ever choose a movie because Netflix has recommended it? Netflix has learnt, based on what you watch, what types of movies and actors you enjoy watching, by learning and evolving its recommendations every time you watch something.
This type of Machine Learning is rapidly evolving and becoming incredibly advanced, such as the self-drive Google car, which is starting to learn and understand how other cars move around and interact with each other.
However amazing this type of technology may be, the picture isn't always that rosy ...
- Machine Learning utilises a lot of personal data to be able to learn from your behaviour. The worry for some people is that machines may have the ability to imitate you to be able to access your accounts or money. This is because they have the ability to learn the way you speak and behave, along with facial recognition, fingerprints and passwords.
- You can also teach machines how to behave if the machine comes into contact with the same type of person who has very strong views on something. When this happens, the machine may begin to follow these behaviours as it believes this is the norm. This happened recently when Chinese Chatbots proved to have a strong opinion on the Chinese Communist Party.
Aside from the issues I have just covered, there are also incredible benefits in using Machine Learning, especially for organisations like the Councils:
- Machine Learning can resolve the tireless job of entering data manually. It can help with automating the process of entering data and ensuring that there aren't any inaccuracies or duplications.
- Customer predictions. Machine learning can determine past customer behaviours and interests, helping them to predict what customers may be interesting in seeing. This will help with marketing campaigns and communications with council customers.
- Detecting spam. This is one of the most important types of machine learning that we all use. This is incredibly important for staff working at the Councils, helping to protect us and our systems from cyber crime and loss of data.
- We could also use Machine Learning to help with the maintenance of our properties. By getting a machine to understand patterns of failure, we can avoid any future issues with our properties by predicting what is likely to fail or be replaced in certain properties and at a particular time.
- An incredible possibility for the Councils could be to use this technology to predict financial behaviours. Learning how tenants make payments can help our tenants avoid going into debt. It will also help the Councils to keep track of any possible changes in a tenant's financial situation so that we can prevent it.
All of these are possible uses for Machine Learning within the Councils. However, before we can start to use this type of technology we need to protect ourselves against data misuse and ensure appropriate language, empathy and behaviours are used by our machines.
With the advancement in our technologies and many of our cities becoming 'Smart Cities', it makes me wonder whether we can achieve the 'Smart Council' title by ourselves without the help of 'off-the-shelf' technologies.
'GovTech' is about empowering government services and local councils to become more technologically advanced. It is full of entrepreneurs that are looking to create something that communities around the UK can use to improve the government services they receive. They say that it is important to use digital:
“to deliver new and better ways to enable citizens to engage in their communities and receive the public services they need.”
With GovTech, companies are producing more and more smart applications that aim to collect data from citizens more easily. These enable residents to self-serve much faster than contacting the Councils direct. However, a lot of these applications are 'off-the-shelf', meaning they cost us money. Every time we buy a new application that is ready to go, but is created and implemented by an external company, it means that the Councils have more and more subscriptions, implementation costs, and user licenses. Most importantly, it means that we have more applications that don't communicate with each other - one team will use one application while another team uses something completely different. Having differing and duplicated data on applications that do not communicate with each other is not ideal.
At Adur & Worthing Councils we are trying to steer away from off-the-shelf applications, whilst still working towards becoming a Smart Council, by building apps ourselves. Recently I went to a meeting to discuss an Asbestos application which would be used by many teams including Adur Homes, Estates and Tech Services. We discussed an off-the-shelf application which would be ideal to get us started with collecting and sharing property asbestos information to the relevant teams. However, this came with a cost and as great as it looked, we knew that up in Digital we could replicate this without having the cost of buying it.
I took on the task of building an asbestos app that does exactly what the off-the-shelf app does. Aside from the cost savings, the best part about being able to do this in-house is that we can build it to fit exactly what our teams need. It will sit on the same platform as all of our other internal Council apps - meaning that everyone is using and sharing the same data between teams. Cutting down the use of bought apps, high costs, duplicated and out of date data and going towards apps that communicate to be able to share and use the same unduplicated data, low costs and less staff training.
The next stage of becoming a Smart Council is to incorporate some type of smart learning, like the use of Artificial Intelligence, or 'Machine Learning'. Machine Learning is the ability to allow a machine to use its collected data to learn by itself and improve from experience. I'll go into these options more in my next blog ...
Working in a role that requires you to be using some type of digital screen can make you aware of the strain that screens put on your eyes. For me, concentrating on building applications can cause me to blink less and spend more time at my screen.
Seeing many people on my social media talking about spending less time on their digital devices as part of their new year's resolutions got me thinking about how much time I spend staring at my screens each day. It has made me become more aware of the implications LED screens can have, not only your eyes but on other aspects of your health too.
But what are the issues too much screen time can cause?
Firstly, it's said that when people concentrate on the work that they are doing, they blink nearly half as less than they would normally. This can leave your eyes feeling dry. Dry eyes are one symptom of Computer Vision Syndrome, along with eye strain, headaches, blurred vision and itchy eyes, caused by too much exposure to digital screens. Along with this it can cause you to get closer to your screen which in turn can lead to neck and back pain.
It is commonly known that your screen should be a certain distance away from you and at a certain degree to avoid you looking up or down. It is also important not to twist your body when you look at your screens, although this can be hard if you have lots of computer screens to work from.
Your eye retina can be highly damaged by the blue light that is produced by LED screens. Certain blue lights can produce wavelengths that can have a long-term effect on your ability to see items close by. Blue lights can reach further through your eye than UV lights, which makes LED screens very dangerous for your eyes' health.
So what can we do about it?
The Health and Safety Executive suggests that you should have short and frequent breaks, a 5-10 minute break roughly every hour. However, this can certainly be tricky to do under work pressures, so consider varying your work patterns so that you complete tasks that require you to be away from your screen every hour, instead of all in one go. It's also important to try to spend as little time on digital screens after work. You can check your screen time usage on an iPhone or on other applications to help you monitor and reduce the time you spend staring at LED screens.
If you are already experiencing eye strain, neck pain or any of the other symptoms associated with working with digital screens, then there a a few steps that can help. Companies are becoming increasingly aware that having happy and healthy staff has numerous positive benefits in the workplace. Adur & Worthing Councils can provide employees with Display Screen Equipment (DSE) for eye care or on-site Chair Based Massage can help employees with a sore or stiff neck and shoulders. Check in with your employer to see if they offer similar benefits.
To find out more see:
So ... Christmas is over once again.
Many of us start our new year ritual by trying to get our heads out of Christmas mode and back into work mode, struggling to remember all of our passwords and trolling through a thousand emails. All whilst starting new projects and focusing on a 'new you' (which I'm sure comes with a new workout regime).
I try to stay away from new years resolutions. For me, just saying that I'm going to get fitter or stop biting my nails doesn't work - I need a time frame, something to aim for.
Photo: Jazz the cat thinking about getting fit
So every year, I do a special cleansing, whole food diet (Whole30) for the 30 days of January. What is great about it is that you know it has an end date, which makes it easier to stick to.
Although I only plan to eat that strict for 30 days, it starts my year off fresh and helps get my mind ready to carry on eating as clean as possible for the rest of the year, and each year, it works.
I also find the new year a great time to reflect on last year and see how I can make improvements this year. Reviewing my last year's work helps me to think about better ways of carrying out new Digital projects. With 2019 bringing some exciting new projects, I'm looking forward to getting stuck in.
So what will you see from the Digital team this year?
We have some exciting new projects coming: Google for Teams, M3 replacement for Environmental Health, the Revenues & Benefits Service led design and hopefully many more.
Here's a brief overview of each project:
Google for Teams: This project will look at how we can reduce the use of Microsoft Office. Many members of staff still use Office instead of Google, whether out of habit or because a lot of the documents we need to access (on our Intranet for example) require Office to open and edit them. This project will require a huge undertaking of data migration and staff upskilling, which will be a challenge that will hold great future success for the sharing and documenting of information around the Councils. This will be incredibly important, helping to minimise the cost of renewing Microsoft Office and improve data management to reduce GDPR risk.
M3: We will be building a new system for the Public Health & Regulation and Private Sector Housing Teams to enable them to log work, create letters, reports and statistics. This will cover key areas such as: food safety, taxi licensing, premises licensing, animal licensing, private sector housing and many, many more.
Revenues & Benefits Service led design: This project aims to improve the channels our customers can use to contact the service. Reinstating the self-service portal will enable our customers to set up direct debits, use e-billing, introduce e-forms, submit benefit/council tax claims and much more. By improving self-services, we hope it will reduce the strain put on our Customer Services team.
So keep your eyes peeled for what amazing new apps the Digital team will be building this year!
Image: Microsoft Office logos
Image: Mobile devices website mock-up
We might have gone a little bit over the top with the Christmas decorations in the Digital office (see photo below) ... but can you really ever have too many decorations?!
As we all start getting into the festive spirit, eating too many Quality Streets, panic buying gifts whilst fighting off the queues in town and wrapping presents, at the Councils we are wrapping up our Digital Projects and reflecting on what we achieved this last year.
Let's take a look at what 2018 has meant for us ...
The year started off with the Repairs Project. It was the first project we completed using Agile methodologies and was a huge learning curve for us all at the Councils. The project took the efforts of many other teams besides the Digital team, as it was an application that staff use internally for all admin and data keeping to do with our Council Housing and Repairs service.
This project not only created a main dashboard for our Admin team to use, but also created a version for our Contact Centre. A separate dashboard was created for our colleagues over at Building Services, which gave them access to view repairs and assign them to contractors with a time slot. Contractors also had their own view that they could access on their tablets, allowing them to take photos and process the job on the app as they complete it in real time.
Aside from all this, we also created a new Self Service portal for external customers to use and raise repairs, which has been a great success.
Next we completed some smaller projects including: Estates and RFI (Freedom of Information). Our Estates project got us creating a new app that stores all of our properties and their key information. This is a simple but very useful app that is now being used to interact with many of our other apps like Compliance, allowing us to use and share the data between them.
Our RFI app is a small application that was one of our first to be built on MatsSoft, allowing staff to monitor and track incoming Freedom of Information Requests, helping us assign them to other members of staff around the Councils. This year it needed a bit of an upgrade.
The Digital team doesn't just build applications on MatsSoft. We are always undertaking system upgrades, and providing support and maintenance for different systems and apps. We also undertook a mobile phone refresh a few months back, bringing back all old work phones and setting up and replacing them with new handsets.
We have also been dealing with huge changes in how we gather, use and store data within the new GDP guidelines. It has been great to bring in new GDPR experts into our team to help us and the teams around the Councils implement the required changes.
Next, our Waste app was a great success. It finally allows customers to report a missed bin online, report graffiti, and book clinical and bulky waste collections. This helps to give our customers peace of mind that they can quickly and simply resolve an issue without having to call our contact centre. It also helps our internal staff to keep track of bookings and anything that has been reported so that we can deal with these incidents as quickly as possible.
And finally, an update on our Compliance app. This project has been steaming through and is close to being finished. Once we are happy that the application is able to process and monitor any required compliance repairs and tests such as mandatory boiler and fire alarm checks, we will release the app to our staff to use. Our staff are currently using a variety of spreadsheets so this new app will make everything a lot easier.
Overall, our 2018 has been a productive and successful year. I can't wait to see what 2019 brings for the Digital Team!
Photo: The Digital Team on an evening out to celebrate Christmas
Last weekend I was babysitting a four year old. He interacted with technology, using smart TVs, iPads and mobile phones without any issues. It was intriguing to see how the younger generation use this type of technology seamlessly.
With most of our applications now transferred over to our MatsSoft platform, our recent mobile phone change-over completed and our new hardware refresh coming in the new year, I've been thinking about the difficulties organisations can experience when adapting to new and changing technologies. Is it really a generational thing, or is it just an unwillingness to change?
Photo: Adapting to new technologies - Is it really a generational thing?
According to a report form La Salle University Student, there are four different generations working within our organisation: the “Baby Boomers” (1946-1964), Generation X (1960-1980), Generation Y (1975-2000) and Millennials (1995–2009).
It's been suggested that Baby boomers and Generation X work best in open discussions and classroom settings, and can do well with new technologies but need to be given the ability to learn in smaller chunks. Generation Y deal very well with technological changes and tend to look for new solutions. And Millennials are very versatile, being the most technologically advanced generation.
Of course, each individual has their own personal experiences and influences, which may mean they are more or less likely to accept technological changes than others in their generational category.
It can be hard for older generations to break away from completing a task in a way that they are used to and comfortable with after many years. Having to learn new ways of doing a task and using new technologies can be a big change for people who haven't been part of changing technological trends.
So, I have found a few ways that can help tackle the fear for those who are more reluctant for change, and can help teams which are trying to implement technological changes.
- The key is to start way before the new technology gets agreed - it's important to keep yourself and those around you up-to-date with technologies. You can build your IT skills through internal or external training, or even just in your personal time. There is plenty of help out there - for instance the Councils carry out an IT Junction, which gives you free access and help with computers: https://www.adur-worthing.gov.uk/it-junction/
- Accept that technologies need to move on. When they do there might be a few hiccups on the way, but eventually they will make your work and life much easier, increasing your confidence and giving you more time to tackle more important tasks. Try to see the benefits of the new technology, and invest in time to show your team how it will help.
- When new technologies are being released, they need to be done in small steps. Don't overwhelm yourself or your team by trying to learn everything all in one go. Tech champions are a good idea to get a few non-tech savvy employees to learn the technology, so they can help others and explain how to use things in a simpler way.
- Never to give up on yourself or your team. Have continuing mentoring and 'Lunch and Learn' sessions, until you or your team are fully confident and comfortable with the new technology.
... and finally, enjoy it! Learning new skills is fun!
Photo: IT Junction website snapshot
A few weeks back my laptop died.
Handing over my Windows 7 laptop, and receiving a Windows 10 laptop in its place, got me thinking about our upcoming hardware changes at the Councils.
We are currently looking at our options for a hardware refresh. This means that Windows 10 is soon to be in the hands of all of those working in the Councils. And although Windows 10 is three years old and something that I have already got used to using while I was working at Microsoft, many others haven't made the move yet.
So what's the difference between Windows 7, 8 and 10?
Windows 8 was designed to work with both computers and tablets. However, many felt as though it was meant just for tablets, with the new 'Start Screen' and the use of 'Tiles' for the first time. This new and radical look was not well received by customers, and was deemed by Metro to be “an ugly, useless interface”.
Microsoft's next operating system needed to reverse the failure of Windows 8 - and so Windows 10 was created. (Microsoft claimed that they were skipping number 9 because 10 is to jump much further ahead than 8.)
Visually, Windows 10 is very similar to Windows 7. It has the same desktop layout, and the start bar has gone back to being a bar like Windows 7 (not a Start Screen like Windows 8). However, we still have the ability to use 8's tiles. You are able to pin things to your tiles, such as Microsoft Office, which makes your start bar larger. You also have the ability to change the size of your start bar, by dragging it upwards and sidewards, if you prefer the full screen tile version of Windows 8.
The 'Action Centre' shows you notifications, modes, connections and settings, meaning you can access these important features quicker and more easily. Like previous versions, Windows 10 still allows you to use a split screen, by dragging an open tab to the left and another to the right; however 10 goes one step further, allowing you to use a four-way screen by dragging your tabs into each corner (see image below). You can also create multiple desktops if you are looking to do many tasks at once.
Cortana is the new searching system, which incorporates Microsoft's Cortana AI (Artificial Intelligence) used on their mobiles, like Siri and OK Google. An interesting fact for you: Cortana gets her name from Microsoft's Xbox game Halo, where Cortana is the AI within the Halo story. Cortana allows you to search within your documents for files and search on the internet - however it is not very customisable and only searches in Bing, not Google.
Windows 10 has lots of new and interesting tools, and has the look and feel of Windows 7. It has a good balance between the modern and classic Microsoft feel. It's fast, powerful and has great security protections.
My personal view is that, overall, Windows 10 is quite a change from Windows 8 - but it isn't much different from Windows 7. This is good news considering that we are all used to Windows 7 here at the Councils. It's easy to use and super user-friendly. I look forward to our hardware refresh so that everyone can start giving Windows 10 a go.
So three days to go until the big 25. Yes I know I'm still a baby.
However, I feel I have achieved a fair amount in my 25 years on this planet, especially within this last year. As I come closer to my birthday, the new year and a year of working in the Digital team, I have really started to reflect on what I have achieved.
I first realised that I really enjoyed working with computers during College. I studied Computing at A-Level and, although it was a challenge far from anything I had done before, I loved the ability to be able to design and create my own digital 'something' (in this case, I built a robot game!)
Alongside technology, I also had a passion for history, which I decided to pursue at university. After university I fell straight into a job with Microsoft, training people in both hardware and software, but mainly in Windows 10 and Office, which was soon to land me a position in Data Analytics and then onto Adur Homes with the Councils.
Joining the Councils was an incredibly eye-opening move for me. Being able to work with different teams and help them to make a real difference to the community is so enjoyable and satisfying. I became a part of a huge Repairs Project which used a new way of working on projects, in a more collaborative way, especially with the public. This really sparked my interest in building digital systems for and with the public. I loved the way Digital within the Councils was moving, and I knew it was going to make a huge impact on our customers' service satisfaction.
The Digital team are an incredible bunch of people, all with a variety of backgrounds and knowledge. The fact that we all hold different skills gives us a real edge. We all come at a project from a different angle and perspective, which gives us the ability to create something really special. It has enabled me to learn new systems and skills around designing on a tool called LucidCharts and building apps on MatsSoft, which I had never used before.
Image: MatsSoft system edit and build pages
Already, only working in Digital for nearly a year, I have learnt and achieved so much, being a part of some huge projects, creating some amazing systems that have helped to improve both our internal staff and external customers' experiences. Designing and creating something that helps people achieve something faster and easier in a way that works for them, whilst learning all about each team around the Councils and getting to know our tenants on a personal level, is a real digital and personal achievement.
Digital within the Councils is growing everyday, and it will only get better as we learn new skills and better ways of making what is important for our customers. We will further learn from all our users and work closely with them - that is what I love about working here and I look forward to everything we will achieve in the future.
Photo: The Digital Team office
I've been seeing a lot on the news and social media recently about our use of plastics, and the affects our recycling habits are having on our ocean.
Government scientists have suggested that the amount of plastic in our ocean is due to treble in the next decade. From birds getting stuck in bottles, to turtles eating plastics bags and plastics getting stuck in coral reefs, plastics are incredibly damaging for our seas and the creatures living in them. They're also bad for our health, too, as microplastics consumed by animals get passed back to us through the food chain.
With this in mind, I've started to reflect on the amount of plastics I am buying and using each day, especially during my working hours at the Councils.
It is so important that we act now. That's why Adur & Worthing Councils have committed to ending single-use plastic and eventually strive towards being a plastic-free Council. With the launch of the new Worthing Refill Scheme and the help from regular beach cleans, we hope to make a real change.
You can help towards this change, too! One small and easy change you can make is to help reduce your plastic footprint by carrying refillable mugs and bottles. According to the WWF:
“Around 2.5bn coffee cups are thrown away every year in the UK alone - that's seven million a day! Less than 1% of these can be recycled, meaning most spend up to 50 years in landfill”.
You can also say no to plastic cutlery by bringing your own, and avoiding plastic straws by using a reusable straw. Find alternatives for cling film ... unlike foil, cling film cannot be recycled.
It's not just our seas that we want to keep clean from rubbish - it's also our streets and community. There are many aspects of Adur & Worthing Councils' waste services that are here to help, such as our clinical waste service, which helps to keep hazardous wastes disposed of correctly. Our missed bin collections service help stop overflowing waste bins. Our graffiti clean up team helps keep our streets clean from inappropriate graffiti. Bulky waste collections are also a great way to remove large items that cannot be binned.
One of our most recently completed projects here in the Digital team has been to build a whole new self-service platform that is now available for residents to use. By using our new self-services you are able to easily request your current or new clinical waste collection, report a missed bin, report graffiti around our community, and book a bulky waste collection.
Along with our new waste system, I have designed and built several animated videos which will be available to the public soon. They are designed to assist residents in understanding waste and our services a bit better, helping to improve our community.
Tomorrow (Tuesday 20th November 2018) the Councils are taking part in 'Our Day', run by the Local Government Association. This aims to give everyone who works or volunteers in local public services the chance to share their stories of how they improve the quality of life of residents. One of the things I am particularly proud of over the last year is making our services easier to understand, by creating animated movies for the public. Keep your eye on our social media channels to find out how the Councils are marking 'Our Day'.
It's a commonly held belief that the Great Pyramid of Giza was an elaborate tomb built for Pharaoh Khufu - but recent studies have shown this to be wrong.
Theorists have tried to understand why the pyramid has no artefacts or detailed art on the walls, why it has a door unlike any other tomb, and why it was made out of limestone, dolomite and granite - materials all known to increase conductivity.
Their conclusion is that the Great Pyramid of Giza could have been used as a power plant, transporting electricity wirelessly throughout Egypt, in the same way Tesla claimed his Wardenclyffe Tower did.
Regardless as to whether this theory holds any ground or not, it got me thinking to a few weeks back at a tech 'Meet Up' group ...
At this group (see photo below - https://twitter.com/WorthingDigital), a well-known futurist shared what he thinks the future will look like. Most of his theories are based around the idea that many people will lose their jobs as technology and artificial intelligence takes over, along with many other interesting ideas like buildings that can change shape and adapt to their surroundings.
If the Pharaoh dynasty was so technically advanced, 5,000 years ago and then it all got lost somewhere in history, is there a chance that our technology will pick up where they left off, and advance more than we can imagine in the years to come?
With this in mind I've taken a look at a few technologies that Adur & Worthing Councils could introduce to advance our services and technology in the future:
Brighton & Hove City Council have begun a project called the 'Internet of Things' to install sensors inside some of their sheltered flats. These sensors collect information about the temperature and moisture in the room, and send their data to satellites that send the data back to the Council's internal systems to allow for evaluation. This is an incredible idea that can help fix issues with council heating and buildings faster, but also save money by understanding exactly what needs to be fixed.
Companies around the world are beginning to use sentient artificial assistance - i.e. robots that are able to answer customers queries and respond as necessary. If we were able to use these 'digital assistants' to answer some of our more simple customer calls here at the Councils, that would allow us to free up our customer service agents' time for more complex calls. Whether this method of customer service is what customers actually want, to speak to a robot, is another question, but nonetheless, it still something to explore.
Another version of artificial customer service is ChatBots. The same theory applies: artificial intelligence is able to conduct a full conversation with customers in a messaging chat service online, and the bots are able to answer queries that customers have, to save them having to call in. Many retail companies are beginning to use this method of customer service to help customers quickly find answers to 'Frequently asked questions'.
Although these technologies may not make us as advanced as the Pharaohs might have been, it's a start to help us move into the future with better services and customer care.
Creating digital services is about more than just sitting at a computer and writing code. Like any form of design, a lot of thinking has to be done before the doing can take place.
Quite often, this thinking turns to dreaming. Sometimes, it goes beyond that ...
Lucid dreams are where the dreamer is aware that they are dreaming and able to plan, create, design and alter the dreams that they are in. If you've seen the film Inception you'll know what I mean.
I soon realised that I was a lucid dreamer! The more I research into this area, the more I have begun to realise that there are a lot of similarities between lucid dreams, and how I work, plan, design and build in my role.
My day to day work consists of discovery, planning, designing, building and testing. I work mainly on MatsSoft, which is our online platform that allows us to build apps for internal staff or external customers. Using MatsSoft means we can create an app faster than it would take to do if we were using traditional coding.
Council teams often start new projects to improve their services. These projects can sometimes require a new application to be built, such as self service portals, or a tool for processing data. For this, they come to the Digital team.
What I love about starting a new project is that we get the amazing opportunity to carry out discovery. This can either be fairly short, consisting of shadowing other teams around the Councils to see how they work, or it can be quite in-depth, where we interview staff or customers. By doing these types of discoveries, it allows us to know why the app is needed and how exactly it can help.
One of my favourite discoveries has been for our Repairs project. For this project, I shadowed many teams and interviewed groups of tenants, and visited several tenants at their home. Finding out what the true issues were and how the new app can improve those, it was a real eye opener and a great way to learn what matters to tenants.
Next, the planning stage. By gathering a list of tasks we needed to carry out, we started to build a timeline of when each stage of the project and app should be completed. By making a mock-up version, we could plan and design how the app will look and how it will work.
Once we are happy with the plan and design, we can finally move onto the build. This is the main event. We bring all of what we have learnt, planned and designed into one place, MatsSoft. We bring all our ideas to life, building new and innovative apps. Once the app is finished, we will put it through user testing to make sure it works exactly how it should.
Then after all that, I can go home and slip into a lucid dream of my own that includes pink unicorns, and lots of cats ...
Photo: Rhino the kitten, Bear the tabby and Jazz the black and white cat
Working in the Digital team here at the Councils, it can be easy to get fixed to an office chair or tied to a desk. And, as we draw closer to the festive period, I can't help but notice the snack table getting increasingly fuller ...
As much as I love this season of getting into comfy warm clothes and eating lots of chocolates, I also dread the consequences this has on my health.
With the amount of snacks we consume over this period, it's no wonder we put on more weight than we would prefer, and, come January, we kick-start our diets again. This year, I'm aiming to break free from this deadly and, quite frankly, depressing routine.
Last month I made a visit to our Wellbeing team, who run something called a 'Wellness MOT'. This has opened my eyes to the amount of aspects of our health that we need to stay aware of; BMI (Body Mass Index), blood pressure, weight and visceral fats. So what do these actually mean and why do they matter?
Your BMI gives you an approximate of your total body fat. By adding in your age, height and weight it can tell you whether you fall into the healthy over overweight range. It can also provide you with your resting calorie burn rate - try the BMI healthy weight calculator on the NHS website.
Your resting calorie burn rate is the amount of calories you burn if you were to do nothing all day. Any movement, steps or exercise on top of that will count towards your active calorie burn. When you add these two together, you get the total amount of calories that you have burnt in that day, showing you how many calories you can consume.
The amount of sugar, fat and salt you consume also play a huge role in your health. If you exceed your daily fat or sugar intake (which I can tell you from personal experience, isn't hard to do at all!) it won't get naturally burnt off and will stay on your body, which in turn can lead to weight gain and all sorts of nasty problems like visceral fats (fats stored around your vital organs), high blood pressure, cancer and heart attacks, which you don't want.
But how do we stay in control of our health over Christmas? Well, I try to cycle to work as often as I can. Cycling means that I can avoid the traffic in the morning, I don't need to go to the gym after work, and also helps me to feel fresh, awake and ready for the day. Cycling burns off sugars and fats I don't want, and it also helps to bring down my blood pressure. The Councils' cycle to work scheme is fantastic, as it allows you to purchase your dream bike without tax and through manageable monthly payments - see the Cycle Scheme website.
I'm not going to deny it - cakes are tempting! But, by bringing fruit and nuts to work, it keeps me distracted from the tasty snacks looking at me from the snack table. You can have cakes but if you can get into the mindset of not consuming more calories than you've burnt then it can help you to maintain a healthy diet without having to crash diet!
As I head back to my day job in the Digital team after taking part in the Wellness MOT, I'm going to try and bear all of this in mind next time my eyes stray away from the screen to the snack table ...
The countdown to my wedding begins ...
As the day draws scarily closer, I'm looking at the very intense Excel spreadsheet I've set up to monitor our wedding budget, guest list and every single detail of the day.
With over 10 sheets of muddled information, I've lost track of what we have done and what we haven't, and find myself looking for different ways to manage the tasks. And before I know it, I am the 'Project Manager' for our wedding.
Surprising as it may seem, and as a Digital Developer at the Councils, I have started to think about the parallels between organising a wedding and the delivery of applications to be used in providing a council service.
In both my day job designing apps and in my personal time planning a wedding, they both have a budget, a delivery date and a long list of tasks that all have their own set of priorities. So I thought, what if I could manage my wedding in the same way as we manage our projects here at the Councils?
So that's what I did; I began planning my wedding using, in my opinion, the world's best project management method - Agile.
The Agile method is a way of delivering projects which makes them feel manageable. It's used by companies all around the world. Companies like Microsoft, Apple and Phillips all use it. According to Price Waterhouse Coopers, Agile-led projects are 28% more successful than traditional projects. No wonder here at the Councils, the Digital team have begun to adopt these methodologies too.
Image: The 'Agile' development loop
The aim of Agile is to develop a product - be it a piece of software or even a wedding - faster, in budget and more collaboratively. A team is built up around the 'Stakeholders', that's the people who have requested the project, and the project team. The project team is everyone else: project managers, designers and developers. In the case of my wedding, my partner and I and our guests are the stakeholders, and the project team are our photographers, venue co-coordinator and florists.
Together, everyone develops 'user stories' based on the needs of all the different groups. These 'user stories' are tasks to be completed and each set of 'user stories' will be completed in a two week 'Sprint' (turnaround). At the end of each sprint the groups will meet to 'Show and Tell' what has been created so far. This ideally leads to tasks being completed on time and in budget as continuous review helps manage risk, time and budget.
Finally, we are left with a product that has been created that fits perfectly to what the users requirements were.
Here at the Councils, we first used this particular version of Agile called 'Scrum' to complete our Housing Repairs App. This allows Adur council house tenants to order their repairs online. It fuelled our interest in Agile, which we then used for our RFI app which allows us to collect and respond to Freedom of Information requests and our new Waste apps which help our customers request Bulky, Clinical and missed bin collections.
Photo: A rugby scrum (in the rain) - 'Scrum' is an 'Agile' term
We are currently now carrying out our Compliance app project in the same way, this project will allow us to maintain and monitor our buildings safety tests such as gas, electrical and fire. The results have been astonishing and so has the feedback for them, for example, 87% satisfaction with the ease of reporting a repair.
The good news is that we will continue to run more projects using Agile, and will continue to produce top of the range software applications ... and weddings, although perhaps just the one!
Photo: Kristy during an Agile planning session
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Worthing Town Hall,