Sunday, 22 November 2015

How we created our winter updates

It's that time of year again, when council highways staff can be out all hours, keeping us safe by treating and clearing the roads from the effects of the winter. Where I work we've offered alerts on what's happening for a while and I thought it might be useful for other councils to let you know how this works.

To start I'll explain the restrictions we work with. We couldn't have a comms officer on call 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, for the whole of the winter, just to let people know about gritting. Also, a number of highways officers deal with treating and clearing the roads on a rota, and it wouldn't be cost effective to train them all up in how to update our website, Twitter and so on.

The challenge was to make this work with no additional operational resource or skills.

So how did we make this happen?

During the winter at least once a day, a highways officer makes a professional judgement as to whether and what type of treatment the roads in our area need and they record this in an IT system. We spoke to MeteoGroup, the suppliers and asked them to build something that was triggered every time an officer saves an update.

The content management system (CMS) we use has an application programming interface (API) which lets other IT systems talk to it, so we created a web service that MeteoGroup could call which stores all the right information in the right places in our CMS, to update our website.

We then created a new template to pull out this information and display links to other useful stuff, like a map of where we were gritting or clearing, which is already stored in our mapping system. You can see the winter service update page here.

Once the information is in our CMS we can use it in lots of ways. So there's an alert on our home page that during the winter is there even if we're not doing anything. One of the things I learned during past snowy periods is that it's important to tell people some of the stuff we're not doing or we don't know, to keep them informed, as it really cuts down calls to a call centre.

We also offer an RSS feed of the same information which means anyone can take it and put it on their own website, or create their own alerts. It also enables us, through Twitterfeed to update a Twitter account dedicated to roads.

So there we go, updates and alerts on our website, Twitter and RSS and with no additional operational resource needed. That's Government as a Platform in action years before the term became widely fashionable.

The most amusing element of this work? Because highways officers kept using the acronym RST, we wrote a line of a line of code that saves this text as "road surface temperatures" in our CMS and therefore wherever it's used online.

Do let me know if you'd like any help and advice getting this up and running at your council. In the spirit of LocalGov Digital, work and other time permitting, I'm always happy, to think, do and share.

Image By Editor5807 (Own work) CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.
This blog is written by Phil Rumens, Vice-Chair of LocalGov Digital, lead for LGMakers and who manages the digital services team at a local authority in England.

The opinions expressed in this weblog are my own personal views and in no way represent any organisation I may have worked for, currently work for, might be thinking of working for, might not be thinking of working for or have never worked for. In fact having said that they, might not even be my views any more as I might have changed my mind so I wouldn't take any of it too seriously.