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LoveCleanStreets is an application for UK citizens that aims to completely close that feedback loop and keep the users informed about what is happening – both the good news and the bad and it does it in a very public way. The local authority runs the application because it recognises the local citizens are the eyes and ears of the community the authority serves and they have a vested interest in living on “clean streets”. There is no fire-and-forget private relationship between the complainant and the local authority. Everything is transparent to the whole community – in fact to the whole world. As a resident, or even a casual visitor to the application, you can not only monitor the progress of your complaint, you can monitor what is happening with everybody else’s too. And everybody else can monitor yours. It’s a great way to bring the accountability of a local authority in to the direct view of the public they serve. It’s a public forum for how well the authority serves the community.
As a citizen, you can report graffiti, potholes, fly-tipping, indeed anything which makes the streets anything other than clean. You can either make the report at the very instant you find it – using your phone, or you can wait till you get to a computer to make the report. You can take photos of the extent of the problem. This obviously gives the local authority more information and helps them to prioritise the serious cases over the more trivial ones. But the question is, how do you get citizens engaged with a process like this in the first place? According to BBit’s Ian Blackburn, the architect of the solution, it’s by making the experience rewarding and engaging. It embodies a cloud computing platform, Windows Azure, support for mobile devices and integration with public cloud services such as Bing Maps.
“Rewarding and engaging” tends to conjure up an internal dialogue in most of us concerning a beautiful and functional user-interface. But it’s not really about that. As Ian points out – “I may know how to get dressed, but it doesn’t mean I’m going to look good”… It’s about the entire solution giving a sense of achievement to the user – “I did something there to help my community out”, along with a process that makes them want to complete the report, to evangelise the system to their friends and family and to create more reports in the future. This has more to do with the emotional journey the user takes. But a beautiful and functional UI on its own does nothing for that journey. It’s the notions of making the local authority accountable, making their actions or inactivity public, engaging directly with them, fostering the sense of teamwork and community – as well as a beautiful and functional UI.
This is why I think LoveCleanStreets is interesting. It has been architected from the ground up with the central tenets of making it rewarding and engaging to use as much from the process of engagement as with the actual machinery of engagement itself, such as a beautiful UI.
There are over 380 local authorities in the UK. If you think about how much community crime is committed across the entire population of 60 million people and over that many authorities the numbers can become quite overwhelming quite fast. But at the start, the authorities and BBits had no idea whether it would be a raging success or something which the public took no interest in. However with the aim of making the solution rewarding and engaging, the very worst experience a user could have would be with an under-resourced application – where not enough compute horsepower was given to the application.
This is where those business profiles of the cloud really come to the fore: On/Off, Predictable Bursting, Unpredictable Bursting and Growing Fast.
Growing Fast is the one that applies in this case. They had no idea if the application would grow fast, how fast it would grow or indeed if it would bomb. If it was going to fail, they needed it to fail-fast and fail-cheap. These are ideas that are discussed in a whitepaper on business agility and the cloud -
The selection of Windows Azure as the platform meant they could always tie the cost of operating the solution with the benefit it produced. It allowed them to suck-it-and-see. Without the cloud as a platform, the only option would have been to have scaled the application for the largest expected load (plus 10%, it’s always plus 10%!). That’s not just lots of servers, it’s datacentre space, cooling, electricity, staff and so on. And if the application bombed – if nobody was interested, it would have been a very expensive experiment.
What Windows Azure has done in this case is removed almost all the risk. Because Windows Azure operates a pay-as-you-go and only-pay-for-what-you-use model it means if the application is lightly used, the monthly bills are small. To give an example, to run the application on 2 “small” server instances would cost 24 cents/hour. If it turned out to be massively successful, it could be scaled out to say 20 servers with a linear increase in operational costs. Interestingly, this scaling can be carried out on a minute-by-minute basis which can further tune the cost to more accurately reflect the benefit as each hour of the day goes by. For example it’s unlikely that many reports would be made after say 9pm and before say 9am. At these times the service can be scaled back. Any individual user who visits the service whether in the dead of night or the middle of the busiest day of the week, need not experience any difference in performance and need never suffer a hang or lockout related to performance.
Windows Azure was chosen because it offers a Platform-as-a-Service (PaaS) model for cloud computing as opposed to Infrastructure-as-a-Service (IaaS). There is one thing that has no inherent value to an application: managing the platform it runs on. It’s of course a necessary evil in most private data-centres. In this case, it simply reduces the cost of operation, delivering even further value back to the citizens (who are paying for this via taxation).
So cloud computing and Windows Azure are fundamental to the stated aim of making LoveCleanStreets rewarding and engaging to use. Of course a great phone experience helps massively because the phone is so immediate. That’s the point at which you have the highest chance of a citizen making a report: right at the point they discover the community-crime.
Ian talks about the creation of LoveCleanStreets, both phone and cloud on this video.
Planky – GBR-257