Open Singularity – Civil Service Innovation Challenge

This morning I came across this Civil Service Innovation Challenge that offers the opportunity to win a trip to California to undertake the Singularity University ‘Executive Program’.

Singularity University is a slightly odd Silicon Valley corporate learning start-up with some big name corporate backers and some high profile founders. I’m not sure it would usually be my thing but it is based at a NASA research campus and if nothing else it gave me something to blog about 🙂

There are 3 questions with a 300 word limit and if shortlisted there is some kind of ‘battle royale’ at Civil Service Live in October (well presentation and vote I guess!). So anyway me being me here are the answers I might give if I do decide to go for it. I’ve taken a little liberty by referring to the Alpha/Beta as one project throughout and given the deadline isn’t until mid August I’m talking like the Beta is out in the world – it will be (very) soon.


Outline the digital or technological innovation you have harnessed for public benefit. You should explain why it is innovative and how you have used it:

In building the new ONS website we embraced two key principles – the first was that the new site would be truly user focused and the second was that ONS will build a site that was truly data driven. It is the second where we believe we have been taking an innovative approach (for Government at least.)

Inspired by a prototype built on our behalf by the Open Data Institute that demonstrated the power of ONS data if it was provided in more usable formats we built a bespoke statistical publishing system that was optimised to transform multiple data sources into JSON and then provide that via a series of APIs to the user interface of the website. This allows us to provide interactive charting and visualisations with up to the minute data that can be customised by users as well as feed through the entire site to update information with minimal manual intervention. The same data from these APIs used to generate the ONS website is also made available publicly. We follow the mantra of the ‘website is our API’ initially introduced by the BBC and by appending /data to any URL on the website it will provide the underlying data to that page and some simple logic in the URL allows for the APIs to be queried in a RESTful manner. Everything published to the site – including analysis and commentary as well as data – is done so in a structured, machine readable format that not only allows us to provide an attractive, accessible and user optimised interface but also makes it straightforward for others to build on our APIs – whether that means building third party applications or simply adding data feeds to spreadsheets used on a regular basis.

What were the measurable benefits that the team achieved and/or state the impact this had beyond the immediate team, business area or department:

The current ONS website was once called a ‘national embarrassment’ in the Financial Times and as such a significant amount of the impact of this project has been the success in changing the view of ONS capacity to deliver technology projects. Previously high profile critics have become supportive advocates of the projects as they appreciated the combination of an open, user focused approached and an innovative approach to the technology challenges.

Internally the project has become an exemplar within the Digital, Technology & Methodology directorate as our approach is being adopted widely. Influenced by the Government Digital Service and by more generally by things like agile development and the ‘Learn Startup’ movement we built a small, co-located, multi-disciplinary team that has been truly user focused since day one. While we are proud of the technological strides we have made in the project they are always directly tied to identified user needs – albeit with the very real knowledge that those needs will evolve so we need to build in a manner that is flexible in the future. ONS is now setting up ‘squads’ following our template to work on other high profile technology projects and discussions are ongoing as to how our work can fit in to the wider ‘Government as a Platform’ strategy as espoused by GDS in recent months.

More widely any improvements to the publication and findability of ONS statistics will be of great benefit to colleagues throughout the Civil Service. ONS data is utilised by almost every Department to some extent so we have taken every opportunity to ensure that our work will assist those users and that we do not make technology decisions that prevent colleagues in central or local government from getting the best out of our systems.

Explain how winning the prize will benefit you, your team, your project and the public:

The scope for innovation at ONS is enormous. As an organisation there are few better placed to embrace the opportunities and challenges provided by the modern data deluge (whether that data be open, big, admin or personal) and the digital possibilities that data provides. With huge, citizen facing projects like the next Census already being planned for I believe that this kind of opportunity to gain insights about the best innovation practises will benefit not only my team and project but the wider organisation and eventually the public.

The challenges facing ONS are not unique even if our motivations are different than many of the internet age companies facing them at the moment. There is a great deal that we could learn about embracing risk, experimentation, failing fast and creating the right environment for innovation from the kind of organisations that support Singularity University.

I particularly think that given the 10 year Census cycle a greater understanding of how to “predict and evaluate how emerging technologies will disrupt and transform industries” will help the organisation plan for the future and give us the tools to be agile enough to meet user expectations when the time comes.

As a team we have always followed the 10th design principle closely. ‘Make things open.’ The ONS Digital Transformation team would proactively share any learnings from this opportunity via blogs, social media, talks and unconferences.

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