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A platform for collaboration - from #ACTMBIDS 2017

On 18th May 2017 the Solomon team landed in Birmingham for the inaugural #ATCMBIDS conference, held by the Association of Town Centre Management. What follows is a long-form version of the presentation we gave to delegates about our experience of collaboration between the public and private sector:

Born from collaboration

Solomon was born from collaboration between our team and a number of organisations and individuals from a variety of worlds. Our journey began in 2013 when we entered into a partnership with Leeds City Council, supported with funding from Innovate UK, DCLG, Nesta, Creative England and the Cabinet Office, with the aim of unlocking local data and promoting a deeper understanding of place. An 18-month long collaborative research project took place, that culminated in production of an open data portal for Leeds (now Data Mill North) and a civic dashboard that made open data — from the Data Mill but also many other sources from across the web — easy to digest and useful to citizens. Due to the open source nature of that project, our collaboration extended far beyond the partnership to include more than 700 web developers, worldwide, who contribute to Ember.js, the framework used to build Solomon. As an aside, Ember.js is used by the likes of Apple and LinkedIn, so we're in good company. 

Unlocking local data and promoting a deeper understanding of place.

As a technology, Solomon is made up of a number of "components" that can be composed in different ways to meet different needs: we often describe it to people as "web Lego". Two examples of projects that have benefited from this approach were delivered with teams at NHS England and Yorkshire Water. Both projects explored how Solomon could be used to share intelligence internally and externally. Unlike the civic dashboard, these projects required deep analysis and required more than just grabbing and presenting data —  they needed complex transformations to take place in between. This led to the formation of a Knowledge Transfer Partnership with University of Bradford and the creation of a Data Science team and a family of applications doing seriously clever stuff in the cloud.

Unsurprisingly, the nature of the projects described above required careful attention to security and data protection; user experience, especially in the context of a civic dashboard with general users of mixed technical ability; scale, with the potential for huge volumes of traffic; and portability, with users demanding access on computers, tablets and smartphones, from anywhere. All of these things required engaging or recruiting specialist skills to join our team, with collaboration being fundamental to our success.

Growing in collaboration with BIDs

In January 2016, we held our first requirements workshop with LeedsBID. We met with Andrew Cooper towards the end of 2015 to discuss Solomon, and the potential value our "web Lego" could offer to LeedsBID. Andrew, though, saw a bigger picture, and an opportunity for us to create value for BIDs right across the UK. In Andrew's experience, BIDs struggled to manage and make sense of the data they gathered and, as a result, struggled to articulate their impact to their members. We were hot off the back of being named as one of the UK's top 50 creative companies, and Andrew challenged our team to:

  1. "Create a 'giant spreadsheet in the cloud' that BID teams can share, and that is aware of changes to the National Non-domestic Rates record, as they occur"
  2. "Use Solomon to create a portal for business users, that lets them see what the BID is doing for them as well as helping them to get more from the BID"
  3. "Create a mobile application that the BID team can use, on any device and from any location, to capture and update data about the BIDs' relationships with their members" 

After an incredibly steep learning curve for the whole team, including understanding the dynamics of NNDR data, and learning to pronounce the word "hereditament", we launched Solomon for BIDs in September 2016. Andrew and his team were, and have remained, an invaluable partner, helping us to understand the intricacies of BIDs at all stages of development and delivery, while also helping us to shape features that deliver value by improving data quality, promoting efficiency and enhancing local knowledge.

At the time of writing, LeedsBID has been joined by Bristol City Centre BID and Liverpool BID Company, along with BIDs in York, Stockton, Shrewsbury, Otley, Keighley and, most recently, Basingstoke, in using Solomon. Each BID is unique and has brought new requirements that continue to shape the software. For example, the team in Bristol asked us if we could help them to track voting intentions, so we added Ballots and Votes to our database. This means BIDs can now track voting intention for any eligible business for any given ballot, and use tools and reporting dashboards to track progress and forecast results. We will be keeping our fingers tightly crossed for Bristol City Centre BID until we hear the outcome of next month's ballot.

A platform for collaboration

While Solomon has been driven by the core team of designers and developers within the Solomon team, the technology would not exist in the way it does today without the influences and contributions of others. Collaboration is central to how we work. Here are a few examples of how it happens:

Gathering Knowledge: we are always working with BIDs to unlock data and consolidate knowledge into their clouds. Sometimes this involves liaising with local authority partners or hunting and gathering data from across the web, and other times it's interacting with third-party data providers to overcome the technical challenges of moving data back and forth securely.

Sharing Knowledge: working with BIDs has been a steep learning curve for our team, but we have risen from this baptism with an intricate understanding of BIDs of all shapes and sizes. We're proactive about sharing that knowledge with early stage BIDs, as well as connecting them with more experienced practitioners we've met along the way. We aim to be a useful resource for BIDs who want to understand and make better use of technology. We are happy to offer our time to help BIDs assess their options — "should I use MailChimp or Campaign Monitor, and why?" — and to assist them with issues related to data protection and security.

Service Design: great software services start with the user and their needs. We run workshops with BID teams and businesses, listening to their evolving requirements and using what we learn to shape the roadmap for Solomon so that it delivers maximum value today and tomorrow.

Innovation: open innovation is in our DNA. We depend on the effort of more than 700 developers around the world who help to make Ember.js better, and we say "thank you" by sharing code, approaches and best practice back to the community. We are about to come to the end of our second Innovate UK funded collaborative research programme. Working with City of Bradford MDC and a group of engineers, we have developed a family of Internet-connected, environmental sensors that feed data back to Solomon in real-time. These promise value to BIDs and their members by boosting local intelligence. 

Integration: we are working with Springboard, The Welcome People, Sentrysis, Meerkat and more, to pull data from existing services and systems together in Solomon, eliminating the need for spreadsheets and making it easier for BIDs to generate reports and share success.

Storytelling: Solomon is a part of the Hebe Works group of companies and our sister company, The City Talking (TCT), is a media company with an award-winning approach to "destination marketing" that is delivered through high-quality storytelling. Like us, the TCT team aim to promote a deeper understanding of place by uncovering fascinating stories about the people who make our towns and cities light up. Examples of their work include a BBC backed documentary, Do You Want To Win?; working in partnership with LeedsBID to deliver the first Leeds International Festival (see video); and The City Talking: Air Quality, a collaboration with the Solomon team, using 48 million rows of open data to illustrate the impact of nitrogen dioxide on all our lives.

Solomon is more than software. It's a platform for collaboration, and a partner, that wants our towns and cities to thrive. At Solomon, we believe we achieve that best by making deep relationships between people and place. That has to start at a local level.