Local Digital
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Local Digital

Local Digital Collaboration Manager, Tom Lowndes, in front of a fly-tipping site in the countryside.

Council Spotlight: How the Task Smart App is helping councils to tackle more than 160 common tasks

In this issue of our Council Spotlight, Tom Lowndes (Local Digital Collaboration Manager) shares an update on the progress of the Task Smart App funded project, led by Colchester Borough Council. This beta project is developing a platform that will enable tasks and requests logged online by customers to route directly to council officers working in the field.

As a keen cyclist, enthralled by the beauty of the English countryside, nothing breaks my heart more than colliding with a fresh deposit of domestic and commercial waste dumped on the verge.

As a responsible citizen I am keen to report it, as I know fly-tipping is dangerous to the environment as well as other road users. However, I don’t always know exactly where I am or which local authority I may be in. I could take a picture, but how is that going to help the right local authority service team turn this into a task they can address? And where does the responsibility lie if I’m on the border between local authorities with different street cleaning teams?

Thankfully Colchester, Tendring and Maldon are forward-thinking, neighbouring local authorities that are seeking to address exactly this need through the Task Smart application, with support from the Local Digital Fund.

The Task Smart project is developing a platform to enable tasks and requests logged online by customers to route directly to officers in the field. They are developing a mobile-first task management solution using the Microsoft Power Platform, which will be optimised for use by Neighbourhood Services staff and Councillors.

As well as helping to tackle fly-tipping, the application will also help local authorities to tackle around 160 types of task as diverse as:

  • delivering recycling equipment
  • graffiti removal
  • moving abandoned vehicles
  • ground maintenance
  • dealing with deceased animals
  • play site inspections

This will lead to:

  • the ability to capture data at point of first contact (‘capture once’)
  • more efficient services
  • transparency of service delivery
  • seamless reporting on trends, behaviours and analytical insights that will help improve local services
  • a reduction in the use of paper
A fly-tipping site next to a farm field in the countryside.

Identifying the problem

Colchester developed the first version of this application in 2019. Vaughan Johnson, Technology Solutions Manager at Colchester Borough Council, explains the background to the problem within their council:

“Residents struggled to accurately tell us what and where the problem was, wardens spent wasted time trying to locate the raised task, managers had to manage their finite resources, this impacted on any third party contracts and finally councillors needed to respond to their electorates concerns that issues were not being addressed promptly, often by raising another task ticket.”

Anecdotal evidence indicated a slew of obstacles and barriers to a range of users, but it was only when the team began designing a digital process to replace the paper task management system that the evidence revealed the scale of the problem.

The project settled on a set of challenges to tackle, which were associated with the field service team as well as the service desks and IT.

The team identified six field services to focus on:

  • park maintenance
  • fly-tipping, graffiti and other environmental nuisances
  • recycling and waste collection
  • beach hut inspections
  • tree and other natural resource management
  • fraud and risk inspections

By focusing their efforts on six services, they can ensure that the tool is multifaceted and meets the needs of multiple services.

Moving into private beta with support from the Local Digital Fund

In September 2021 Colchester took the role of the lead authority in successfully applying for £350,000 of funding through the Local Digital Fund to take their first tool, ‘Taskmaster’, into private beta, working alongside neighbouring authorities Tendring and Malden.

The fifth round of the Local Digital Fund aimed to support scalable, reusable digital products, and the project team’s plan to use Microsoft Canvas Apps as the platform to design, test, develop and deploy was key to their funding. This is because low-code solutions represent an opportunity for local authorities to effectively develop cost-efficient tools that exactly meet their needs.

The project’s application also made a unique statement: Tendring and Maldon, the two partner authorities who would share the development of the tool, would create their own centre of excellence. This would ensure best practice in developer training, which would directly feed into building an agile software development team to work on the tool.

How the Task Smart application works

The current version of the tool sees search enquiries to the council’s website directed to an initial location call via Google, which holds the most accurate mapping of the Borough of Colchester.

Once it has confirmed that the request is within the borough, a process of converting the latitude/longitude coordinates is triggered and the user is given the option to choose the nearest street record.

This is an overview of the request process from the back-end:

  1. Google maps out the boundaries for the Borough of Colchester
  2. The App complete an address record check using the local gazetteer
  3. The Local Land Property Gazetteer is exported weekly into Dynamics
  4. Latitude/longitude are converted into Easting/Northern sidings
  5. The nearest street record is returned
  6. If outside the borough, the application advises the customer by returning an error message, as only “in-Borough” addresses are supported
The success message that is shown to the customer once they have submitted a request.

The customer then receives an email confirming that their request has been received, which contains a unique reference number that enables them to get updates on its progress.

Like all boroughs, Colchester has a defined set of Service Level Agreements (SLAs):

  • fly-tipping will be removed within 48 hours of reporting
  • graffiti will be removed within five working days of reporting
  • offensive graffiti will be removed within 24 hours of reporting
  • dirty or hazardous jobs will be handled within 24 hours of reporting
  • abandoned vehicles will be visited with five working days of reporting
  • grounds maintenance response will be within 10 days, with works taking place within 5 days

Due to such time-sensitive SLAs, the task details are pushed to the field worker’s mobile application so that they can confirm the details of what is required as soon as possible. The application also provides the field worker with all of the information required to complete the task.

Getting ready to launch the Minimum Viable Product (MVP)

One of the biggest challenges faced by rural local authorities is internet access. Once the field workers are in topographically-challenging locations, they will often drop out of mast coverage, losing access to digital task management systems.

The Task Smart team is testing a solution to this problem by caching enough data on the device to enable the worker to carry out their task. Once they are back into the coverage area, the app automatically connects to the server and all task records are synced.

Being able to access mobile interfaces in all weather conditions, day or night, was also identified as a must. For this reason the team has developed an interface specifically for use with PPE, glasses and gloves.

The Microsoft Canvas design process has enabled the team to collaboratively design, test and iterate a private beta MVP that will be launched in July 2022.

The team hopes to prove that the Task Smart app will deliver a big improvement to the task management service, making it easier to create tasks in the field, providing more accurate information on the location of the task, and subsequently saving time.

Follow the project’s progress

If your local authority has similar user needs and would like to see if this platform could address your common challenges, get in touch with Colchester via the project website for more information.

The team are just over halfway through their sprint development cycle, with a long list of features to release and test in the coming months. Visit the project website for progress updates, including recordings of Show and Tells, and complete the enquiry form if you’d like to attend future Show and Tells.

You can also follow Local Digital’s Sprint Notes or follow us on Twitter to stay up to date with the launch of the MVP.

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