A panoramic photograph of Malham Cove in North Yorkshire.

Skype for climate.

Tom Forth,

Leeds City Council frequently run innovation days at The Open Data Institute Leeds, where I am Head of Data. Usually either me or my colleague Dan work as one of three developers on the day.

The format is simple. A service or group of services within the council release some open data and have a challenge that they want to use it to fix. We split into three groups, with one developer in each group, and spend the morning talking about what we might usefully build. Then in the afternoon the developers build a prototype.

Succesful and award-winning products like Leeds Bins, Careview, and The Leeds Social Housing Picker have come out of the process and even though it's tiring it's always fun. As all of their managers agree, the people delivering services are much closer than them to the users of those services. And so they are usually much better placed to improve the services that the council provides.

Like everything, the process has some downsides. As with much co-production there is a tendency to design products in detail that are not deliverable. But the short format of the day reduces that problem. My favourite part is that often, just by listening, I get ideas for things to build that I wouldn't have come up with on my own.

Last week was like that.

Measuring the impact of online meetings.

Leeds City Council has declared a climate emergency. I am sceptical of that in theory, but increasingly supportive in practice. "Climate emergency" is letting every part of the city government justify doing things that will makes jobs better and improve services. The added bonus is that these improvement almost always help reduce emissions or increase resilience to climate change too.

One such policy is to reduce the amount of travel that Leeds City Council staff do as part of their jobs. Where the amount of travel cannot be reduced the goal is to use more sustainable modes of travel, such as walking, cycling, public transport, or electric vehicles.

To try and achieve this goal there are the usual corporate methods; a policy document, some guidance, and lots of ways to help people avoid travel or pick better modes of travel.

On the day all three groups agreed that making these documents and guidance more easily available and open for everyone to see on the web was probably the biggest win possible. Working the open is good!

Our group had a lot of people working in the social care department and I was pleasantly surprised to hear that they have embraced Skype for Business for their meetings. But I learned that while cycling instead of driving is correctly rewarded as a positive change within the current system, switching an in person meeting to an online meeting is not. I think we can fix that.

Skype meetings don't currently tell you how much time, money, and emissions you saved. We could build that.

We designed a plug-in for Skype for Business that would, after every call, share how much time and carbon emmissions had been saved versus holding that meeting in person.

There are lots of extra details like a dashboard for individual users to track their achievements, and a dashboard for managers to see where take-up is low so that they can provide training and better equipment. But the core of the idea, and by far the hardest bit to get right, is extremely simple. So simple that I'm surprised that I couldn't easily find a product that already does this.

Building products is much harder than talking about designing them. In the three hours I had to try and build something I learned that Skype for Business is being phased out by Microsoft in favour of Microsoft Teams. I learned that add-ins and plug-ins are going out of fashion and Bots are the new trend for adding functionality. I created a Bot for Microsoft Teams in C#, but I couldn't get it to install and I still don't know why (this is typical when developing software). And then I ran out of time.

Building bots for Microsoft Teams is quite hard. But I'm sure it'll get easier as the product matures.

I think this is a really good idea, and over the next year I'm going to try and build what we designed. I'll start on 29 November at ODILeeds at our Planet Data event, which you're really welcome to join in with. I'd love it if someone has already built this, or if someone reads this blog post and does it themselves. Let me know what's out there and how you get on!

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