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Phone Links Digital Development: Our Journey ☎️

At Oxford Hub we are really excited to be participating in the Digital Development Programme as part of the Catalyst and The National Lottery Community Fund COVID-19 Digital Response fund. This blog records 10 weeks of digital development support from Oxford Code Lab to develop a new platform to manage our Phone Links programme.

May 2021 update. This digital development project has now come to an end. If you are interested in the outputs of the work, you can watch some demo videos on Loom — part 1, part 2. You can get in touch if you are interested in using the platform for your own programme, or find the code via this link.

Phone Links was set up a year ago at the start of the pandemic to offer friendship to those affected by Covid-19, having to self-isolate, or just generally finding lockdown hard in any way. We wanted to set up a scheme that would promote mutual relationships and avoid the more ‘institutional’ feel of traditional befriending schemes. The focus is to offer friendship and connection, because we know that we need each other to lead meaningful and happy lives — and that’s the focus of our work at Oxford Hub.

Read our manifesto to find out more about our work

Over the last year, hundreds of people have taken part in the Phone Links programme, building links over their love of custard, cats or Coronation Street. Some pairs are now meeting up in person, for a walk or a chat. Through our storytelling project, we found that Phone Links had provided people with a real sense of community and purpose, both for those calling and those being called.

The team at Oxford Code Lab are helping us to develop a system that can be used to scale up the programme, enabling more people to make and receive calls, and building more meaningful relationships in their communities.

An important part of the digital development process is to work in the open, enabling others to follow our journey. This is a way of sharing learning and insight across the sector, so that everyone can improve their work. We have been particularly impressed by the resources available through the programme to work in the open, which can be found on their blog. As an organisation, we had been considering doing Week Notes, but hadn’t committed to doing so — the resources provided by the Catalyst Open Working Line-up was the motivation we needed to get started!

We have started Week Notes focused on our Digital Development Project — you can find them below, and we will be updating this publication on a weekly basis with all the details.

WEEK NOTES — Brought together by Vicky at Oxford Code Lab 👩‍💻

Week 1: 25th — 29th Jan

We officially kicked off the project on Friday with a meeting for all stakeholders. During this meeting, we discussed and finalised an implementation plan and also selected three CAST programme indicators to work towards.

We also decided to set up a Digital Development Group (snappier name suggestions welcome!). This group of Phone Links volunteers (pod leaders and callers) will help us throughout the project to finalise requirements, perform user testing, give feedback and champion the new software.

Week 2: 1st — 5th Feb

First full week of the project!

Our implementation plan splits the project into three main phases, each phase focusing on a different end-user; admins, pod leaders and callers. Through discussions during the application process, we already have a good understanding of the admin requirements for Phone Links so we started development work on the admin platform this week.

We also kicked off the Digital Development Group (looks like the name stuck) with a 30-minute info session on Wednesday open to all volunteers. Seven people joined (pretty much what we were expecting) and we went through some details and the time commitment. Interested volunteers signed up for 30 minutes (1–1) requirement gathering sessions using calendly. This is the first time we’ve set up an official testing group before we’ve emailed pre-selected individuals directly. We like the new approach, it gets the word out to all end users about the project and gives people the opportunity to ask questions. We did have to send a further email out to pod leaders to get more signups.

The goal of the requirement gathering sessions is to understand pod leaders’ and callers’ workflows and their requirements for a new platform. Some interesting things we’ve learnt so far:

  • Every pod is run differently, some pod leaders check-in with their callers fortnightly without fail, for others it’s more sporadic.
  • Callers seem very enthusiastic about a new platform. The unique selling point for these users is going to be an easier-to-fill-out form. Everyone wants pre-populated fields and dropdowns!

Weekly Statistics

  • Sessions with callers: 3
  • Sessions with pod leaders: 3

Week 3: 8th — 12th Feb

Monday was our first weekly catch up between Oxford Hub and Oxford Code Lab. We demo-ed the admin interface we’ve been working on and got some feedback. We’re always keen on getting the client using something ASAP so we’re planning to set Oxford Hub up with logins by next Monday.

The meeting also generated some interesting ideas for the contact form. After each call, a caller fills out a form summarising their phone call which is then reviewed by a pod leader in case there’s any additional support required. As you can imagine, despite being short, these forms are still a pain to fill out. We’re considering breaking up a single “Summarise the call” question into multiple choice questions, e.g. “How do think the call went?”, with the answers being emojis; :) or :| or :(.

This should make the form easier to fill out and also allow Oxford Hub to answer some interesting questions about the impact of the program.


In order for Oxford Hub to test the admin interface, we imported some real data from the existing system (aka several google spreadsheets). What we thought was going to be a relaxing Friday afternoon ended by being a good 4 hours of data wrangling.

It’s not that the google spreadsheets are set up badly, more that the data and program has changed over time resulting in inconsistent formats. Through a mixture of automation and manual effort (and several glasses of wine), we managed to extract the data we needed.

Coming up…

Consolidating user stories for pod leaders and starting work on the pod leader’s area of the platform. We’re looking forward to this, tackling something new is always fun.

Week 4: 15th — 19th Feb

We haven’t had a lot of time to write notes from this week so instead we’re sharing screenshots of our progress on the Phone Links Platform. A picture is worth a thousand words after all!

All the names and data shown in these screenshots are fake.

And finally, a sneak peak of the caller’s homepage.

Week 5: 22th — 26th Feb

This week’s notes are brought to you by Sara & Miriam at Oxford Hub. This week we have been thinking a lot about Partnership Pods. This is when there is a specific Phone Links group of callers and callees who are managed in partnership with a local charity.

So far, we have had two main partnerships as part of the programme, and they have worked slightly differently. One of our partners is particularly pleased with the approach, so wants to grow their Phone Links support three-fold to reach more of their clients through phone friendships.

While we were working with Oxford Code Lab on the digital system, we realised that the role of our partners in partnership pods wasn’t sufficiently codified, for it to be translated online. We were very keen to fix this, so that the digital system worked well, but also so that future partnership pods were clearly defined. This is essential so that we can explain the value of Phone Links to new partners too.

We have come up with a first idea for a solution we will be testing with partners and potential partners. It’s based on mirroring our usual structure:

  • Our default Phone Links set up. A ‘pod leader’ takes care of a group of 12–15 callers and their respective callees.
  • Our Partnership Phone Links Set Up. Where there is a partner organisation involved, a member of staff (or organisation’s volunteer) at the organisation acts as the pod leader, taking care of their callers and callees.

There are some things that we still need to work out with our Phone Links partners and our digital partners at Oxford Code Lab, including:

  • What is our approach to data sharing and what sort of data sharing agreements do we need as a result?
  • How do we set out very clear safeguarding processes for partnership pods?
  • How would partners use the aggregated data arising from their pod, and what may they want to see?

Overall, this week we have realised that the most important thing is to focus on where our strengths lie at Oxford Hub (volunteer recruitment, supporting volunteers, giving a really positive volunteer experience, having efficient processes) and how do we best make use of our economies of scale to add value to partners who may be more focused on supporting their clients (rather than focusing on the volunteer experience).

More next week!

Week 6: 1st — 5th March

I can’t believe we’re already into March. This week we were busy preparing to launch the pod leader’s platform to our team of testers. Here are a few of the areas we’ve been focusing on:

Making the site look inviting and easy to use:

  • This is a really important aspect for any part of the site that’s being used by volunteers who are giving up their time to help. We’re starting to incorporate Oxford Hub’s branding (“OH green”) and ensuring the site is responsive so works well on different screen sizes including phones.
  • We’re also thinking a lot about the user experience; what are the most common user stories and how can we minimise the number of clicks to achieve these flows. It’s interesting stuff.


  • Perhaps less interesting, but equally if not more important. Pod leader’s shouldn’t have access to the admin area, or personal information for pods that they’re not leading. We’ve built the concept of “roles”’ into the platform, a person’s role (“caller”, “pod leader” or “admin”) determines the area of the platform they have access to. This approach also handles people with multiple roles (e.g. a pod leader who is also a caller).
  • We’re planning to have an external company perform a penetration test in April (basically they try to hack into the platform to identify any weaknesses!).

Moving away from the existing system:

  • One approach for moving between systems is the so-called “big bang” release; move all users groups onto the new system at the same time. Although this approach has benefits we tend to avoid it, there are too many things that can go wrong. Instead we favour moving user groups one at a time (and only after trialling with a test group), this makes the process easier to control, less risky and allows us to iterate faster

We’ll have more details on how the pod leader’s platform release went next Friday. Stay tuned.

Week 7: 15th — 19th March

This week we have been gathering feedback from Phone Links callers and the team about the contact form that callers fill in when they finish a call. This is a really important aspect of the systems of support both for callers and callees.

To better understand how things are going, we wanted to have something easy and accessible that could also be aggregated, rather than the text boxes we had been using in the past. We didn’t want to use numbers, so we explored different possibilities.

How are callees doing?

Firstly, we wanted a quick temperature check on how people are doing. This helps us pick up on any callee who is consistently having a difficult time and enables us to think about whether there is anything else we can do in terms of providing additional support (through Oxford Hub or connecting them to other opportunities).

We have decided to use emojis, and here’s the first pass (though we want to find a less angry emoji for the first one!)

How are callers doing?

In order to better support those making phone calls, we wanted to understand how the phone call went from their perspective. We are not looking for something particularly ‘scientific’ and we are more interested in the subjective experience of the volunteer once they have finished their phone call.

Sometimes a phone call can be very difficult (for example, if someone is having suicidal thoughts) but a volunteer may feel just fine about that phone call, if they had the skills and the headspace to deal with that. Sometimes a phone call could be seen as ‘easy’ but a caller may feel less positive about that interaction. Maybe they weren’t having a good day themselves or they were worried about something else and didn’t feel that they were able to connect with the person they phone. A negative experience can often arise because of a mismatch between the difficulty of the call and the caller’s experience or skills to manage that.

When we do a match between a caller and callee, we match on interests, but we often don’t know much about the details of the referral or how the relationship will evolve. This question is designed to be subjective on purpose — and to enable us to see at a glance.

This is our ‘dancing thumbs’ (!) colour coded solution:

Next steps:

  • We will be testing these two questions with more users of the system
  • We will be including what these questions are for and how we will use it in our training for Phone Links volunteers
  • We will be thinking about how we use the aggregated information arising from it — e.g. maybe by generating a number associated with each image, and making a ‘targeted support list’ where people below a number are reviewed for extra support

Week 8: 22nd — 26th March

We are coming to the end of this project really soon! We are continuing to make tweaks and changes based on feedback from users, and are planning how to onboard more users onto the new system.

The very exciting output of this week is a programme-wide update. Now that the data has been transferred across to the new system (with some amazing support from Oxford Hub student volunteers) we can display it in an accessible way.

The feedback from the team has been really positive, as it has allowed people to realise how many phone calls have been made — and how close to the 5000 phone call milestone they are! This is exciting and it will provide a great opportunity for celebration with the team, the Phone Links callers and callees and wider partners. We hope there will be cake for all.

More next week, when we’ll be talking about the penetration test plans to make sure the Phone Links system is really secure.

Weeks 9 and 10: Wrapping up the Phone Links Development Programme

We got the report back from the penetration test. There were a couple of minor issues which we’ll fix later this week but otherwise it looked good:

Overall the application has performed well, with no examples of elevated privileges, or sensitive data exposure being observed during this round of testing.

Beyond our work improving security, we have realised that this platform gives us lots of really good real-time information, but we needed better access to it, so we have also spent some time thinking about how to highlight this information.

Firstly, we have created a dashboard to highlight volunteers to have not recently submitted a report. You can see this in the screenshot below (fake data):

We have also invented a ‘support index’ based on our dancing thumbs and smiley faces we told you about in Week 7. This highlights any pairs taking part on the programme who may benefit from staff support. As a result of this data, we will be providing more support and check-ins with callers who are finding things a bit harder. This will help us provide more timely help, and improve everyone’s experience of the programme. A screenshot with fake data is below:

If you want to find out more, you can watch some demo videos on Loom — part 1, part 2.



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