Thursday, 29 November 2012

Why I'm Not Making Another Google

Over the past couple weeks I’ve been experimenting, creating search functionality based on local public services. 

So far I’ve used data from Elgin, Environment Agency, the Food Standard Agency, Job Centre Plus, NHS Direct, Ofsted and West Berkshire Council to create

The idea is not to create another Google, that's a mistake some make when building new search functionality, but bring put together an easy way to access lots of disparate local data and link back to it. It displays text based results and where there’s geo-data against the record, displays it on a map too. 

Try searching for stuff like “doctors in newbury” or “rivers in pangbourne” and you’ll get some results back. Some of the information you get back, particularly things like live flood warning information isn't the sort of stuff you get in a Google search. 

Because I’ve used national data, it will work for anywhere in the country but there’s a long way before it’s anywhere near that stage. I still need to add much more local data like leisure centres, schools, car parks and so on. The text results need pagination too.

I’d appreciate feedback on whether this is the right direction to go, can think of other datasets to include, or any other thoughts you have on it. You can find me at

Thursday, 8 November 2012

Why smartphone apps aren't always the answer

It's happened for years, it happens in the private as well as the public sector and because of the move to deliver services via digital it's happening more and more.

What is it? Organisations purchasing applications and more lately smartphone apps as a quick fix, rather than a joined-up, strategic move for delivering services online.

I'm going to use fault reporting apps as an example. The type of thing you can use to tell councils about potholes, graffiti, and so on. There's a number of these around now all performing much the same task, many being sold in part as becoming really useful to people when more councils purchase them.

Whilst it seems that councils are doing right in offering more services digitally there's two main problems with this approach:

1) If you travel through the areas different councils look after, then you'll need to install apps for each location. 

There's no joined up approach to the way councils procure stuff like this, so for example if you live in Wiltshire but work in Reading and the three councils that cover the area of your journey have all bought separate apps (they haven't, by the way), then you'll need to install these three separate apps on your phone and remember to use the right one depending on where you are.

This is bound to create a negative view of digital services delivered by councils, when those that purchased them thought they were doing the opposite.

2) They're often not integrated with a Customer Relationship Management (CRM) system.

In some cases all these apps do is send an email. It's a better formatted email, containing geo-data and a sometimes a better quality of information, but it's still an email someone needs to manually type into a CRM. 

Whilst it can make it a easier for the customer, it's actually not delivering any time or efficiency savings for the organisations who purchase them and if you're receiving more reports because you've made it easier for residents to do so, it could actually cost you more.

So that's a lot of moaning about what happens now, but how could it be improved?

Councils should be looking to improve the foundation on which these digital services are built. In the case of the fault reporting app, it's creating something like an Open 311 Service and integrating this with a their CRM. 

Obviously this is a lot more difficult than buying an off the shelf app, it's not a quick win, but providing services like this digitally shouldn't be just a box ticking exercise, councils should be thinking about how residents might actually use them.

Creating a service built to a worldwide standard like Open 311 means any app worth its salt will provide data in a format you can then plug into your CRM and create new cases automatically.  

This means that it doesn't matter which app the customer chooses to use, they can still report faults to you, and it also removes the need for manually entering the data.

When planning for new digital services, providing firm foundations will not only improve customer experience, but help to create efficiency savings for your organisation.

I'm interested to get other's views on this and you find me on Twitter @PhilRumens to discuss it.

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.