Council Spotlight: Connected Places, a community directory of services
This issue of our Council Spotlight series tells the story of Connected Places — a co-designed directory of services that connects people to services, information and their local communities.
This open source platform was developed by a collaborative team from Kingston, Hounslow and Sutton councils with Ayup Digital, and has been made available for other councils to adopt and reuse.
Identifying the need for a social prescribing and community directory of services platform
Social prescribing (also known as community referral) is a process that helps individuals to make positive changes in their lives and within their communities by linking them to activities, voluntary and community groups and public services in their local area.
In 2018, Kingston Council was facing an unprecedented increase in demand for services combined with a lack of resources to meet this demand. Discovery work conducted by the Council revealed a lack of viable social prescribing platforms on the market, with many options based on off-the-shelf platforms and designed with no adoption strategy.
They were looking for a platform that would enable social prescribing in a way that:
- connects users to both small community groups and large council services
- brings together disparate service databases and websites in an inclusive way
- integrates with other digital tools and services
- builds interest and enthusiasm among the people who use it
Meanwhile, the London Borough of Hounslow Council had also found that service offering in their local area was fragmented, with gaps in provision, which in turn contributed to inefficiencies in managing demand. Their research revealed a lack of consistency in information and signposting, resulting in residents getting different information from different places.
Over at London Borough of Sutton Council, their key objective was to enable residents to make informed choices on local services. Council officers undertook a review of how information and advice were provided to residents, which revealed a need for a more joined-up online offer to improve access to local services, information, and advice for residents and professionals. The Council’s ambition was to develop a new online solution that brings together a range of existing online offers and addresses gaps in the current provision.
These three projects were tied together by a common theme: building a single source of truth for signposting to community services by utilising modern web technologies and embracing common standards to create interoperable data and flexible service models.
Developing an open source platform
Following their in-depth market review in 2018, which highlighted a lack of existing products that met local requirements, Kingston decided to commission the co-design and development of a digital platform that helps facilitate social prescribing in the borough.
Having recently signed the Local Digital Declaration, Kingston wanted to make sure that the project aligned with its principles — as well as those of the Government Service Standard — by developing the code under an open source licence.
Following a competitive tendering process they appointed Ayup Digital, who subsequently forged a close relationship with Kingston’s Public Health, Digital and IT teams, and Kingston Voluntary Action. The project team went on to engage a wide range of stakeholders during an in-depth discovery phase, followed by a co-design and agile development phase that built on actual user needs identified during discovery.
The result of this initial piece of work was Connected Kingston which has a vital component of the social prescribing and early signposting offer in the borough. The code written for the platform effectively became version 1.0 of the platform, now known as Connected Places. It was released under an AGPLv3 licence and made available so that other local authorities and like-minded organisations could reuse it and benefit from Kingston’s investment.
Collaboration and co-creation with more councils
The project was a success, and the good news spread to nearby boroughs that were looking to solve similar problems.
Throughout 2021 and 2022, Hounslow Council and Sutton Council both identified the platform as a potential fit for their own projects, which shared the same principles as social prescribing, in connecting people to local services and activities that would help them holistically, including their health and wellbeing. In order to meet their local objectives and ensure product fit, they commissioned Ayup to conduct further discovery and co-design work with local stakeholders to develop the Sutton Information Hub and Hounslow Connect, built on Kingston’s open-source code.
More recently, we (the project team) have been bringing all the features and developments into one code base so it can be more easily deployed at other local authorities. Holding fast to the original principles, we’re ensuring that the new version (version 2.0) is released open source so that other councils can reuse the platform in the future.
How the platform is impacting councils and residents
While it’s too early to measure the impact in Hounslow and Sutton, since it launched in Kingston in late 2019 the platform has:
- added more than 850 local services
- added more than 350 organisations
- had more than 400 local administrators using the platform to edit their organisations and services
- received over 60,000 visits and over 47,000 keyword searches
Iona Lidington, Director of Public Health at Kingston Council commented:
“Connected Kingston has been a wonderful asset for local residents to discover the opportunities in Kingston that will help keep them happy, healthy and connected to other people. The platform has been a vital component in delivering Kingston’s social prescribing agenda in the face of unparalleled demand on Council and NHS services, supporting local people to make positive changes within their community. As prevention continues to be a top priority in Kingston, we are excited to grow our platform with new offers and features that will help people to take greater control of their health.”
The platform is enabling residents across the boroughs to make informed choices, providing a more integrated information and advice offer for all residents — irrespective of community or circumstances — and making it easier for them to access information on local services.
Charlotte Perry, Commissioning Manager (Prevention, Health and Wellbeing), Sutton Council, told us:
“The Sutton Information Hub is enabling Sutton Council to overcome long-standing challenges it has faced to bring together the information it provides with the support offered by local groups and organisations. Already, the hub is making it easier for residents and professionals to see a wider range of information and support available in Sutton, and as we bring more content onto the website these benefits will be seen by more residents. We are also very excited to see what other functionality we can add to the hub and our open source approach will empower us to make these changes based on the needs of Sutton’s residents.”
Operationally at the councils, the platform is helping to:
- reduce the resources needed to provide information and advice for residents with low levels of need
- reduce the number of websites that councils and partners have to update
- ensure councils are meeting their statutory information and advice obligations
Matt Maher, Assistant Director, Community Solutions, Hounslow Council adds:
“Hounslow identified a need to better connect its communities, empowering them with information and guidance on local activities, events and services (in particular following the impact of Covid). This needed to be innovative, dynamic, and with a user-friendly design, features and content.
We worked with Ayup and their Connected Places platform to create Hounslow Connect. This has had a huge impact on the residents being informed and inspired to get involved in their local area, as well as find out about early help and preventative activities, which is at the heart of our Community Solutions approach. It serves our diverse residents base well, including through the translate function. We will be using Hounslow Connect as part of our rollout of locality-based working and Community Hubs over the next few months so that residents can get the information they need and interact both online and in-person.”
What we’ve learned
As a project team, we’ve learned that this is as much a ‘people problem’ as it is a ‘tech problem’. Producing the right technology is really important, but bringing people with you on the journey is equally important for successful adoption. Our process is geared around stakeholder engagement, co-design and working with communities on understanding user needs and how best to embed services and transform the local digital offering.
We’ve also learned that adopting an open-source approach to development has produced real, tangible benefits for all stakeholders. The initial investment by Kingston Council has benefitted all the future localities by having a great open-source platform on which to continue developing for their own requirements. In turn, further investment by the other localities has meant that the platform has continued to be built-upon and developed, with code sharing, collaboration and achieving cost savings between councils.
What’s next for Connected Places
The current focus for the platform is around preparing version 2.0 ready for release onto GitHub as open-source and for free, so other councils can deploy it themselves.
Looking forward, the focus is centred on four major strands:
- Continuing to develop the open-source platform
- Exploring further interoperability opportunities with other platforms via the standards-compliant open APIs
- Continuing to build the community to learn and identify areas for shared development
- Bringing new localities onboard — we are currently working with Bexley to co-design and localise an instance of Connected Places
Find out more
We’re holding regular community meetings (both virtually and in-person), which are open to adopters of the platform and anyone interested in using it. If you’re interested in being part of the community or just would like some more information on the work we’ve been doing, please get in touch via ConnectedPlaces.org.