9th January 2013

Innovating with Community Payback Visibility


In this update, Jason Davies of Staffordshire and West Midlands Probation Trust, winners of our ‘How can we transform neighbourhoods in Britain together?’ GeoVation Challenge explains how they’ve been developing and innovating with their app for Community Payback Visibility.

Designing the Service

If you had asked me a year ago what service design was, I would have struggled to guess the answer. In my ignorance, I photo of service design workshopthink I would have been quite sceptical. As we pitched our app idea at the GeoVation Challenge, we were introduced to the concept of service design and began to understand the benefits it would bring.

Wikipedia describes service design as “the activity of planning and organizing (sic) people, infrastructure, communication and material components of a service in order to improve its quality and the interaction between service provider and customers.”

In other words, if you are planning to provide a service for people, make it relevant, make it useful, make it responsive, and make it friendly. And don’t think you can do all that without speaking to anyone. You don’t know it all and you will not have thought of everything. Test it, prototype it, talk to users, listen carefully to the feedback. All the time, you will be informing the design.

The principles sound obvious but it’s incredibly easy to find examples of appallingly badly designed services – where the very people expected to use the service are tearing their hair out at how difficult it is to use, how user-unfriendly it is. We want our app to be used and the experience to be positive, so people will use it again and recommend it. So we asked service designers, Sean and David of Nonon (who facilitated at GeoVation Camp) to help.

After an initial meeting with the project team, Sean and David put together the prototyping  camp – a day spent with the staff who will be expected to respond to the nominations – working through the principles of service design and how to prototype a service.

We focussed on those elements of the project that we (as a group) thought were the most important to test. We began to put together a blueprint, mapping the user journey, identifying the touch points and highlighting the priority areas for prototyping.

You may think you know how everyone would want to engage. How can you be certain that the customer experience will be positive?  So be smart and involve the users – front and back – in the design, right from the very beginning and make use of the experts. Or just ignore service design… at your peril

Technology Choices

Having won the GeoVation Challenge we were faced with the, very welcome, problem of “Where do we go from here?” from a technology viewpoint.  As a Probation Trust, although developing on mobile devices is a new area, we do know about data and that’s pretty much the place to start: at the back end.

Databases – where does stuff go?  In the sphere of databases there are a few clear trends but as we use the eXist Open Source XML database at work, with a built-in XQuery language, there is no reason not to keep using that: it fits the problem and we have experience.

Search – set the data free.  This isn’t a closed project; not only our code, but as far as possible our data is Open. What we want from the solution is a system that allows anyone to include the project data in a web-site, mash-up, application or whatever. We don’t really want to construct a whole Search API ourselves, if we can use someone else’s to do the job so that leads us to Apache SOLR. SOLR is a very fast search engine with good scalability, a well written REST api, good geo-search, and can spit out results in XML, JSON and a few other formats at will.

Getting the message out. The last piece of the puzzle we need is how to keep app users up to date with project changes. That’s where pub/sub comes in.

So, this is where we are at the moment, an application in three bits, a database, a search engine, a status messenger – all working together. Once we’ve built it, we’ll probably tweak it quite a bit. But, hopefully, the ideas of loose coupling, quick development and leveraging our strengths will prove themselves in the real world.

If you would like more detail on how the app is being developed visit the Community Payback Visibility blog.

You can find out more about prototyping for services on the GeoVation blog.