Features: December 21st, 2012

Tom Gray describes how a new kind of public service was brought into local government with affordable technology to connect citizens to their neighbours. He argues that this initiative could provide vital clues to a way out of far too many years of bad system delivery for the public sector.

The Code4Derry programme brought together local industry, University and local government in developing useful services for citizens and community. This has resulted in an innovative free Wi-Fi finder service for Derry City Council, built by a team of Northern Ireland university computer science students for the public’s use and benefit. But not only was it a great opportunity for these students to give something back to the community while developing their potential and experience of real world software delivery, it also could be the harbinger of a totally new way of IT experts and the community working together to help us all.

The scheme, and the ethos of social entrepreneurship it embodies, shows what you can do if you shake off the legacy of far too many years of poor public sector technology delivery and start afresh.

What is Code4Derry? Derry has invested significantly in their wireless infrastructure for citizens and visitors. The application collects data on where Wi-Fi is available and on various hot spot limitations. The volunteer student developer cohort created a database to store that information, plus give the council the ability to update that information itself. And at the end of the project the whole application was handed over to the Derry City Council internal IT department so it could manage it themselves – and make it available to other councils if interested.

The US experience

As with so many things in technology, the example we followed comes from the US. An inspiration for Code4Derry was something called the Code for America initiative, , a way of bringing technology and business into local government to work on building ‘a new kind of public service’ based on affordable technology. The idea is to quickly and cheaply build apps that are a powerful and new way of connecting citizens to local governments and their neighbours.

The way it works is to identify a number of young socially-aware innovators to work with local government organisations in US cities such as Chicago and Boston. Volunteer teams form and act effectively as council employees for a year to build system. The goal is for them to bring new ideas and an appreciation of technology’s potential to these environments. Applications developed include social networks that have made it easy for people to report things like broken street lights to local bad weather warnings and to offer tools to help residents self-organise and take action over an issue of local concern.

Code for America technology is also released under Open Source principles. That means sites have actively shared the projects they have created and allowed other local government entities to take the work and reuse – as is, or extended according to their own particular needs – and then release that version as the next iteration. Some Boston Code for East Coast projects has ended up being adopted in Hawaii, for instance.

The Derry experience

How does this relate to Code4Derry? As background, my company, Kainos, was setting up an office in Londonderry so we wanted to engage more actively with the community. Londonderry is the second largest city of Northern Ireland; it’s also European City of Culture 2013, so we wanted offer something useful for both inhabitants and visitors.

The Derry City Council really bought in to this project. We then spent time working with the students and Council – not to influence the ideas, but to just bring a little delivery realism. We also took responsibility for the organisation and training of the student developer team in Open Source and Agile techniques. These were students that had limited programming experience, and we coached them in the Open Source/sharing approach at the heart of Code for America inspired projects like this.

An Agile approach was crucial because we had a very short time to deliver – eight weeks. Agile also made it easier to run a project where at every stage/iteration you have useful functionality which is always expected to be extended. It also helped direct our volunteers’ efforts plus allowed the Council to change their requirements at relatively short notice. There are many flavours of Agile, but all the benefits of a quintessential Agile methodology – rapid delivery, rapid prototyping, aligning business users to project goals and giving them early access to something that works – were there.

Open Source was also vital for success. The Code4Derry system is available for any other Council to use, anywhere else in the world, to download and use, make their own and extend. We’ve already had an approach from Adelaide council in Australia to find out more on the project and to potentially adopt it there.

It should be clear how Code4Derry takes the ideas of sponsoring local talent – something my company Kainos is actively promoting with initiatives such as our AppCamp scheme and the Code for America ethic of creating socially useful projects built with local government, plus the common commitment to Open Source and then sharing the benefits with the widest audience possible.

Whitehall’s Digital Strategy – in a local government context

It’s important to bring out the pivotal role of central government’s Digital Strategy to reform the way IT is sourced, built and maintained in the civil service. Just like Code4Derry, it also has an emphasis on more efficient and cost-effective delivery of projects, and a shared interest in Agile development approaches and in encouraging Open Source. It could be argued we are effectively taking that strategy and applying it in a local government context.

Code4Derry proves the techniques of Agile and Open Source work in a local government scenario. The first year students delivered a really professional service in just eight weeks – and to go from no practical experience to deliver something truly professional is an outstanding achievement. It also shows the ability and potential of the young, socially-active and tech-savvy for these sorts of projects.

At this point it’s worth pointing out that the goal of the exercise is not to put local suppliers out of a job through promoting the use of a volunteer student workforce, but to help bring new ideas and fresh thinking in to local government, an interest in developing useful online tools for citizens and community plus a receptivity to flexible delivery models offered by the smaller supplier. Done right, there is a bigger pie for everyone.

What though is the connection between Code4Derry and the government’s intention to improve software delivery in the public sector? There’s no stopping the power of the combination of Agile, Open Source, local participation, a willingness to take a risk and a commitment to reasonable costs. I am convinced that we have laid the foundation of something significant here and shown the ‘Code4’ route could work in any part of the country.

There have been considerable issues around the delivery of public sector IT projects in the past, and any suggestion that there’s a quick fix solution available should be resisted. Nonetheless, it’s by tapping the talent in our local communities through such schemes as Code4Derry and Code for America, and providing them with applied skills and a degree of challenge, that we can start building systems for citizens that really work – and really deliver, too.

Now wouldn’t that be a welcome change for the public sector above any mega-projects.

Tom Gray is Chief Technology Officer at Kainos, a Belfast-based world-class technology integration specialist.