Hacking the North

Last month, I headed up to Manchester for Hack the North – I love taking part in hackathons, especially if they are dedicated to social good and solving important problems. It’s a fun way to meet and work with new people, co-create and build stuff together. Also, it was my first time in Manchester, so it was good to wander around the city a little.

The challenge

DWP (Department for Work and Pensions) digital wanted to identify where hand-offs between organisations cause difficulty or hardship to individuals, and to explore how support services offered by organisations in and around Manchester could be brought together most effectively for the benefit of people in the region.

Using a variety of data sources, we hoped to generate ideas and co-create solutions which could make a difference to real people’s lives – whilst also helping Manchester thrive both socially and economically. The overarching theme was how to help vulnerable people accessing and using services in Manchester.

Some of the questions to consider and think about were:
* What makes it likely for someone to slip through the gap?
* Where are the gaps in the services around Manchester area?
* How to best link up central government, local authorities and the charity sector.


The first speaker, Amul Batra, (@amul5, @northcoders ) showed some crushing numbers and facts about Greater Manchester, such as 620,000 citizens are living in poverty – 180,000 are children and 1.6 m people will slide into poverty.

Amul showed numbers on investment and money poured into the Manchester areas – and then asked: “Where is that money going?” How can we have these resources available and still have such high numbers in unemployment and poverty? How can we get people out of vulnerable positions and elevate and empower them?

The second speakers were Irene Musker and Tim Haworth, from Job Centre Manchester @JCPinManchester – both of whom are passionate about changing peoples’ lives.

Some topics that were covered:

Discussions with the audience

After the talks, the audience asked clarifying questions to help them understand the scope of the hackathon and main challenges.

We learned that biggest challenge with joining support services together is politics and sharing information between organisations.

Some of the main blockers preventing people from going to Job Centres is a fear caused by the bad reputation and negative press coverage.

One of the speakers also spoke about their son who is diagnosed with autism and their challenges. Simply put, we need to enable a better strategy for accessing services.

The Hack: What we were asked to do

Pitching time!

It was great to see that they had pitch by proxy available and invited everyone to stand up so that the people who were pitching felt more comfortable.

The participants who wanted to share their ideas were asked to pick up a prop that would be an indicator of their team and had 3 minutes to explain it.


1. Big Ben: Adam described his problem and difficulties with the process of claiming DLA (Disability Living Allowance) benefits for his disabled young daughter. How difficult and time-consuming it was to claim for DLA blue badges, a service that was really needed. He had to fill in 40-page paper form, wait 12 weeks for assessment, only to learn that the papers send had been lost. He wasn’t the first one and not the only one in such a stressful and frustrating situation. Adam asked how could we combine information from NHS with Local Council, DWP and DLA to make that process easier without having to fill in the same information over and over again.

2. Cheesecake: Help in managing job centre appointments for vulnerable people using new tech like Alexa and Augmented Reality

3. Reindeer: Automated systems of warnings on how long people were unemployed and giving access to Mental Health help apps like “Calm”, Future Learn, Coursera.

4. Mug: How to improve customer experience where web pages were voice enabled. (Similar to Alexa.) The team went with a different idea of using a chatbot to answer common questions related to public services and stuff on gov.uk

5. Hat:  How to tackle issues with loneliness, mental health issues and depression by building a web app.

6. Umbrella: People want to talk to somebody, lonely, elderly people that mainly want to the phone. How to join up tech used by youngsters such as instant messenger, video with phone conversations.

7. Leaflet: Job Centre app sign on and collaboration with the Council to help people with learning disabilities and pre-populate some of the information.

8. Reindeer headband: Spoke about helping with loneliness for people with mental health problems, especially schizophrenia. The idea here was for a web page where you could log in once a day and get paired with someone else and have a one-minute conversation. Have a text to speech converter available to overcome barriers of not being able to directly talk to someone.

9. A bag: A type of image recognition that would go through scans and an AI to detect early-stage cancer.

Our team

Chris Pugh and I decided to join Adam and the Big Ben team. We formed a group of six people on day one, continuing as a team of four on day two.

User Research

We began with a session of user research and asked questions to better understand Adam’s problem. Next, we mapped out the user journey of applying to DLA for a child and find out the main pain points of the process.

It turned out there are many.

Frustrations and comments from the user (Adam):

Explain the situation 100 times.

No one understands the process.

1000s of forms to fill in to receive support.

Annoying paper forms. Writing the same thing again and again.

Health  Advisor’s advice to people claiming is

Make sure you fill in the details of the worst/most problematic situation when you send it to DLA.

The DLA form has issues, such as:

DWP / DLA decides what level of disability, allowance and mobility you have based on the form and medical proof you send them.

The user had to do a lot of extra research to find out how to fill in the form and acknowledged that quite often, people feel isolated and don’t know how to do it. Also, it’s time-consuming. As Adam mentioned, what if they’re a single parent? They might just give up.

The user journey as described by the user

  1. Testing and diagnosis process – there would be appointments every single week. Would have to go through a lot of tests (lumbar puncture, MRI scans, etc) and waiting for results (2 weeks for MRI scans). There would be countless appointments and it could take years to get an accurate diagnosis. The main touchpoints are visits at GP, hospitals, Health visitor.
  2. “Taking it in” – accepting the diagnosis and working out, “What does this mean for us and our child now and in the future?” The users are overwhelmed with a lot of information at a very emotional time.
  3. Accessing services – filling out countless forms, mainly paper.
    • DLA – to assess mobility level
    • Evidence required: medical letters, assessment and outcomes, physiotherapy reports, child’s psychologists report, speech and language report
    • Council to get Blue badge – a separate service, resubmit similar info
    • Special needs help
    • Education plan
    • Social services support
  4. Chasing up the progress with DLA (by phone, on hold for a long time)
  5. Waiting for assessment: 12 weeks
  6. Receiving Letter of Entitlement – unlocks access to services, blue badge
  7. Re-assessment every few years for a child.

Before Adam left, we asked what part of the process could be prioritised for improvement. Gradually filling in an online form and getting an instant submission confirmation was a number one priority. Number two was to get updates on DLA evaluation progress.

Next, we had a brainstorming session and mapped out potential ways of improving the user journey/process. It wasn’t easy to focus on any smaller part of the journey to improve just yet. As a quick win to reduce users pain point, turning a DLA paper form into something digital seemed like something we could start working on. So we would need to understand what the form is about and where are the duplications and unnecessary questions.

Day 2: The Hack

Reevaluating the problem, our options and prototyping

With a smaller team size, we needed to distribute the tasks. Chris and Hannah began working through the Disability Life Allowance form. After reviewing the content they discovered a lot of multiplications and questions that could be simplified or skipped completely based on the type of answers.

The problem in itself was quite complex, so we had to focus on a smaller part of it. We had a lot of good guidance from our facilitators to help us focus and shape “the thing” better. Chris sketched out initial user flow so that Miruna and I could start to build it.

We decided that we could improve the user journey starting from when the user goes through diagnosis process and enable them to own their data and give them the ability to share parts of it with other public services like DLA, local council, DVLA.

Once the user starts going through the process of diagnosing a disability, they would get signed up to a service that helps them manage the process and digitally send the required information to relevant parties. This is a very stressful and emotional process for the parents and they should receive the necessary guidance and help to access services they need easily and quickly.

As an example of the service, we presented the part where the user receives a link to join the service (email or text message) from a medical practitioner. The user then confirms their account details, sends through NHS records, consents to use the service and chooses their preference of communication (email, text message). After those two steps, the user can access their medical records related to diagnosis, apply for necessary services and read help guides. The service also included an easier way to fill in the ‘Health Diary’ which is requested by DLA.


Sadly we didn’t win, but we did get we got a recognition from the jury 😀 Our Prototype can be found on heroku.

Thanks to the organisers for arranging a great event 🙂