What We Say

New form launched using Government Digital Service Design Principles

by Luke Hatfield

Kent has gone live with a new housing pre-assessment form created by us that provides a simple and accessible format for applicants while seamlessly integrating the 13 different policies underpinning the regional scheme.

Kent online form

The online form has been specially designed for Kent Homechoice – a partnership of 13 local authorities and 25 housing associations – using the latest Government Digital Service Design Principles. This means the new form has been built on a foundation of simple single answer questions, many with straightforward yes/no options. Relevant additional details are gathered with expanded questions based on the specific responses that applicants provide. Highlighted instructions help applicants see the choices they can make as they progress through the form.

The form encompasses a pre-assessment and an action plan including housing options advice. It is fully responsive, so applicants can complete the form on mobile phones, tablets and other mobile devices as well as a laptop or PC. The scheme signed off the form following extensive testing by its customers.

“The form looks fantastic and was launched smoothly and without a single hitch,” said Vicky Hodson, the Kent Homechoice Partnership Manager. “We are delighted with what has been achieved and we now look forward to working on the main online application form.”

The Government Digital Service’s Design Principles ... the new Kent form has been created using these 10 design principles set out by the Government Digital Service:

  • 1. Start with user needs
  • 2. Do less
  • 3. Design with data
  • 4. Do the hard work to make it simple
  • 5. Iterate. Then iterate again.
  • 6. This is for everyone
  • 7. Understand context
  • 8. Build digital services, not websites
  • 9. Be consistent, not uniform
  • 10. Make things open: it makes things better

Migration to Microsoft Azure Cloud Services

by Kate Nash

What is Microsoft Cloud? This is Microsofts cloud offering where organisations host their servers is changing from hosting real servers in a data centres to having virtual servers in the cloud.

Where do our servers exist now if not in the cloud? Currently, our servers are real servers hosted in a data centre. Our customers have hired Sector to buy and commission the servers and it’s our responsibility to manage and maintain those servers for our customers. This means that we are responsible for the hardware of those server’s as well as the software running on the servers. Why move to the cloud? The main benefits of switching to virtual servers in the cloud is that we would no longer be responsible for the hardware. This means that we will no longer be vulnerable to hardware failure which was always a possibility before. The cloud also offers a much faster server commissioning time. With real servers we have to order the hardware, wait for it to be delivered, commission the server in the office and then deliver and install the servers in the data centre, which takes days. With virtual servers in the cloud you can spin them up in hours. You can also alter the number of CPUs and the disk drive space substantially faster. With real servers it’s very tricky to change the computing power of a server, you have to buy another server. With virtual servers it’s case of changing the configuration. Similarly with disk space, to increase the disk space on a real server you have to go to the data centre, open up the server and put more physical disks into the server. Which exposes you to risks; one of the few times Sector has experienced a hardware failure was as a consequence of adding more disks. With virtual servers it’s a case of configuring more storage space.

Is Microsoft Cloud the only cloud service? No, there are a number of companies providing cloud space. Some of the big players are Amazon web services, Rackspace hosting, Dimension Data, Google Cloud Platform and many more.

Why choose Microsoft Cloud out of all the other available options? Microsoft’s cloud offering goes a step further than the others do with their Azure Web Apps and Azure SQL databases. Ultimately we would like to use these offerings, so it makes sense to use the Azure virtual machines as a stepping stone to get there. We are predominantly a Microsoft shop, our websites are written in .Net and run on Microsoft’s Internet Information Services (IIS) and our databases are SQL Server databases. This means we should be able to migrate our applications to Azure Web Apps and Azure databases. This would be hugely beneficial for us as it would mean that we would no longer have to manage the windows operating system and Microsoft’s software running on the virtual machines, we would only be managing the software we’ve written which is what we’re best at.

How long has the Microsoft Cloud been running for? It has now been running for six years.

If it has been running for 6 years, why have you decided to make the move to the Microsoft Cloud now? As with all new technology, there is a balance between cutting edge and bleeding edge. We believe that the offering is mature enough now for it to be a viable option.

Will our whole system be upgraded? Eventually yes, however because of the disruption to clients, it may be better to move it slowly rather than all at once. In order to move, we will need to have some down time, so I have to consider whether it would it be easier to move one scheme at a time or move back offices first and databases later. I’m weighing up the cost of the move – both in terms of time and money. I will come up with some proposals which I will take to our clients in terms of how it may disrupt our customers and how much time it will take to move schemes across.

What else do you need to consider before making the move? One of the things I need to investigate more is whether a hybrid solution will work for us. This is where some systems are running in the cloud and some systems are still running on the servers in the data centre. Being able to do this will make the migration process easier and less disruptive but before we can consider this I’ll need to test the effect of this set up on the end users experience. Will the sites become sluggish and unusable? I’ll only be able to answer this by setting up a test environment with this hybrid architecture and then getting users to test and see if they find the response slow. As well as doing some load testing.

What are the cost implications? We have found it particularly difficult establishing what the exact costs will be when we get to using Web Apps and SQL database, it depends on the usages of our sites. The costs involved with using virtual machine, it is clearer. We currently pay the data centre to host our servers and the cost of running virtual machines on the Microsoft Cloud should be the equivalent. This is another thing I need to take into account when thinking about how we move – we don’t want to have all of our data in the data centres as well as in a virtual server because we don’t want to pay for servers twice. These are all things that I will keep in mind when writing a plan for the decision process of how we handle the move. Before making the move, I need to come up with all possible outcomes and how it can affect us so I can plan how we can find ways around them.

Gloucestershire’s Homeseeker Plus to go live in September

by Gary Hatfield

We have won a G Cloud Tender process along with our partners Locata Housing Services for the delivery and management of the systems driving the Gloucestershire Homeseeker housing scheme.

homeseeker

The scheme will change its name and relaunch as Homeseeker Plus on September 7, 2016 with a new partner, responsive website and upgraded housing system.

West Oxfordshire DC has joined the original six partners to create a scheme that will now reach from the borders of Monmouthshire to the outskirts of Oxford. The six local authorities that formed the original scheme are Cheltenham BC, Cotswold DC, Forest of Dean DC, Gloucester City Council, Stroud DC and Tewkesbury BC.

There are small policy differences across the partners that will be managed seamlessly by the new Locata system. Every partner will enjoy upgraded services with West Oxfordshire moving to a digital platform for the first time.

Homeseeker Plus was also particularly keen to take advantage of our Homelessness, Prevention and Advice (HPA) system with its fast and precise P1E report generator.

The G Cloud Tender process allows schemes to choose and buy services covering infrastructure, platform, software and specialist cloud services from companies that have been vetted and approved by the Crown Commercial Service. The process significantly cuts the time, effort and costs incurred by public sector organisations wishing to buy services from the private sector.

Three more schemes go live with Mobile App

by Luke Hatfield

Three more schemes are now live with the Mobile App that helps customers bid for homes.

mobile app

Monmouthshire, First Choice Homes Oldham and Cheshire West & Chester have joined existing users Kent and West London in using a bespoke mobile app that is individually branded to their own standards.

Customers can download the app from Google Play (Android version) and the Apple ITunes App Store. The app allows applicants to bid for available social housing in the area, gives feedback on previous bids and allows contact details to be updated.

The mobile app has already proved very successful. In Kent, where the mobile app has been live for more than two years it is now the most popular form of bidding.