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www.birmingham.gov.uk Alpha project - Thinking a bit further ahead

simon gray 2013-11-28, 17:05:14
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Back in late September 2012, as part of my work at Birmingham City Council, I instigated and led on a programme of incremental improvements to the council's website, blogging about the ideas and progress along the way, taking inspiration from Shropshire Council's Project WIP and the Government Digital Service work on www.gov.uk. The site on which I blogged has been taken down now, but I thought it worth reposting the more broad-reaching content from it here.

Our primary focus for this project is on delivering an improved website in 2014 which will meet the needs of users and ourselves for the next few years, and which will be scalable and extensible for the few years again beyond that.

Whilst the world of the internet is still a fast-moving world, there’s no denying that the world of the local government internet is…

…a little slower! When dealing with technological changes, in most organisations which are relatively small or on which the organisation’s whole business model is predicated on the technology for service delivery it’s relatively easy for them to quickly embrace change and innovation and incorporate it into the business. But in local government, whilst its easy for webteams who live and breath internet technology as part of their working days to get excited about emerging technologies, inevitably the transport planners, the road safety officers, the social workers, the swimming pool lifeguards, the bin collectors, and the parks attendants who deliver the overwhelming majority of council services will by and large take a bit longer to get excited. Technological change is easy – culture change not so easy.

But nonetheless, it’s part of the role of webteams to keep an eye on the emerging technologies, to evaluate their potential relevances to the wider council, and promote take-up accordingly. As Tom Steinberg, founder of mySociety, once said –

“There will come a time when for some councils, they won’t have a council website – for most of their service delivery, the website will be the council”.

So with an eye on that future, there are few things which are emerging or gaining traction in the wider digital world – some of which are starting to gain some emergence in local government too – which whilst we wouldn’t expect to deliver as part of this project next year would do well to keep an eye on to see how we might incorporate them into our own services in later years:

Data / open data

When the term Web 2.0 was coined, most people in the marketing world took it to mean blogs and other social media – ie, the addition of interactivity and the ability for people to add their own comments to web pages. This was a fundamental misinterpretation of the term, because if truth be told the inclusion of user generated content such as guestbooks, forums, and polls arrived on the web fairly quickly – what it actually meant was the ability to share online components from site to site, usually by means of embedding content from one site to another, eg embedding a Google map in a site, or more stylishly by using Google maps or Open Street Map to make your own map (of eg neighbourhood offices, grit bins, or cycle stands, etc) to embed on a page.

The Next Big Thing in Web 2.0 is Open Data – this is not just about the council putting its expenditure over £500 online so the engaged citizen can see how much was spent on a new carpet, it’s about the publishing of datasets in formats which can be interrogated programmatically, so for example an external agency can produce a graph showing trends, or so they can build an online tool which can do something useful with the data; we’ve already discussed the idea of presenting the website as xml so that external agencies can make their own customised versions of the website for niche audiences, another idea could be one whereby an agency could take housing data (empty properties, number of bedrooms, location, rate of churn, etc) and schools data (number of free places in each year, location, etc) and make an online tool for people to select housing locations based on school availability for their children – eg, people affected by the spare room subsidy needing to downsize and looking for mutual exchange.


Up to now mobile has just been seen as delivering cut-down content for the benefit of people with small phone screens. We need to ensure we’re thinking beyond that when it comes to researching and delivering the added value benefits of mobile take-up – we need to recognise the different facets of what defines mobile (using your phone on the bus, using your phone in bed when you’ve just woken up and want to check something whilst it occurs to you, using your phone in a location to gain extra information about the location or carry out an activity at the location, using your tablet on the sofa rather than walking over to where your home computer is, etc), anticipate them, and stimulate demand and innovation.

In terms of mobile tasks, we need to accept some tasks can’t be completed on a mobile device, but they can at least be started – so for example a citizen sees a planning application notice on a shop window, they log it in their phone, but the fact of them having logged it in their phone persists so when they get to their proper computer it’s there ready for them to pick up and read the details of. And, of course, we need to learn how to make mobile apps ourselves rather than rely on suppliers.

‘The Internet of Things’

This is something which is being talked about a lot by Tim Berners-Lee. Since he’s the chap who invented the world wide web, he should know what he’s talking about. What TIoT is is the idea that ‘things’ have web addresses, and report their statuses or allow people to interact with them – so in the council context, street lamps, parking ticket machines, traffic lights, street signs, park benches, bins, etc have their own individual urls, so when we ask people to report a faulty street lamp they can see the url for that lamp, enter it into their phone (whether by our friend the outdated QR code or not…), and that gets logged directly into the system for repair. Or planning / licensing applications have their own urls which are displayed on the poster, so people can go straight to them to find out what the plans are. Lichfield District Council  started to do some work in this area.

Responsive Design

The term responsive design originally comes from architecture, and refers to the ability of something to react to the environment around it – the way the lights in modern buildings turn on and off by themselves are examples of responsive design in architecture, or rotating blinds on windows which automatically open and close according to whether the sun is shining directly on them. Responsive Design on the web up to now has just been taken to mean the way a website automatically changes its layout in reaction to the screen size, principally according to whether or not the user is accessing it with a phone, a tablet, or a computer; so far as screen size responsiveness is concerned is designers defining a default screen size, and changing the design as the user’s screen gets smaller. Our main site has had an implementation of this kind of responsive design for a few years now, and the layout of the Birmingham Alpha site was built using a responsive framework called Skeleton, so we can take for granted we shall continue to work in that direction.

What we’ve all been missing so far is what happens as people have bigger screens – or more accurately, wider but shallower screens, as many modern laptops have – we need to change layouts in the expanding direction as well as the shrinking direction. But responsive design shouldn’t just be about screen sizes – there’s a demo of a proof-of-concept somebody did which used the user’s camera function to detect how far away from the screen the user’s head is, and make the text bigger or smaller accordingly as responsive typography. Another example of responsiveness – suggested by Adrian Short in July 2012 –  is the site / home page delivering different content according to the time of day – ‘morning’ related content in the morning, ‘night-time’ related content after 5pm, relevant personalised content if the customer has an online account (eg, it telling them on their bin day to remind them to put their bins out, and afterwards explicitly asking them if their bins were collected). Or delivering different content automatically according to location.


When we did the original pilot of the history of canals in Birmingham, ebook ownership was still quite niche. Now it’s mainstream – sitting on the train in the morning, I see lots of people reading using some form of ereading device, whether that’s one of the varieties of Kindle or an iPad or Android tablet; in fact, I’d say the reading of paper books on the train is not just a minority, it’s a rarity. In June 2011 I wrote an article speculating on the possibilities of using specifically the Kindle’s automatic updating features for online service delivery – it’s an area which is still waiting to be tapped by people who have the time and creativity to do some in depth research.

Crowdsourced content

The ultimate examples of crowdsourced content are Wikipedia and Open Street Map. But as councils we could also crowdsource some of our own content – eg, the people who use the country parks, the leisure centres, the libraries might know more about what’s going on in them than the people who maintain the web pages for them; moderated crowdsourced content would both build reputation and improve engagement, boosting channel shift.

Real time information

Related to both The Internet of Things and Responsive Design, providing actual real time information through the site to enable customers to make decisions – eg, current waiting times at the household recycling centres, or even webcam views of the queue outside the household recycling centres, number of free parking spaces at various car parks, or webcam views from the main arterial routes into the city. Some of this information actually exists and is updated in real time anyway – eg, some car parks already have the signs which say how many free spaces there currently are in the car park, so there shouldn’t be much of a leap to connect that information to the website itself – all that’s required are the APIs to connect them together.

So it would be interesting to see how much of this kind of thing gains traction – on our own website and on other council websites – over the next year or two.

Comments on the original article

  1. Mick Phythian says:

    November 28, 2013 at 8:43 pm

    I seem to spend an awful lot of time looking for stuff on my local Council’s web site which I know I’m not going to find. For example planning applications – just actually finding them & supporting papers is always a nightmare, as is finding any historic committee paperwork like that – and I know I’m not the only one looking for such stuff.

    Just now I was looking for an Equalities Impact Assessment for a current event and there’s bugger all – especially as CoYC rename them as Community Impact Assessments.

    We really need better search engines for all this data, and it needs to include the historic stuff. The example I’m referring to is York – it’s Jadu, which is all fur coat and no knickers…

    For transparency we need the data, and the data needs to be accessible (in all senses). Bugger the flashy technologies – get the basics right!

    Good on you for asking! Mick

    • Simon Gray says:

      November 29, 2013 at 11:20 am

      Those examples you cite there I think are classic cases which the auto-updating feature of the Kindle format could be used for – citizens interested in planning applications, licensing applications, or council meeting minutes and agendas if they had those ebooks on their kindle devices could receive the documents to them automatically, as another option to choose from if they prefer it.

      What would also be good would be if the web CMS could automatically create ebooks from collections of pages; since the .mobi and .epub formats are open formats which are underpinned by html, and since it’s quite easy to programmatically generate .rtf and .pdf files, I assume it will be similarly easy to generate ebook format files.

  2. Scott Riley says:

    November 29, 2013 at 4:25 pm

    Some really awesome ideas in here Simon, especially revolving around Open Data and ‘The Internet of Things’ – both of which I think are massively under–discussed not only in local government but amongst the web as a whole.

    Imagining an API–first approach to city–wide enhancements (street/traffic lights, bin collections, the true day–to–day concerns) opens up, quite literally, a world of possibilities.

    ‘Digital strategy’ goes far beyond what’s installed on our machines and what we see on our devices and browsers. In a time where you can quite literally fly helicopters through JavaScript, the possibilities of where open data and web technologies can take us are truly vast. It’s great that these kinds of discussions and ideas are coming out, especially in local government!

  3. Simon Gray says:

    December 17, 2013 at 2:43 pm

    Updates – Phil Rumens has written more about the Internet of Things idea on The Internet of Broken Things, and CMS vendor Jadu have come up with a proof of concept of CMS-generate eBooks.

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The code behind this site is a bit of an abandoned project; I originally had lofty ambitions of it being the start of a competitor for Twitter and Facebook, allowing other people to also use it turning it into a bit of a social network. Needless to say I got so far with it and thought who did I think I was! Bits of it don't work as well as I'd like it to work - at some point I'm going to return to it and do a complete rebuild according to modern standards.