Dynamics Matters Podcast Ep 57: Introducing the Homes for Ukraine click to place solution

With special guest Keith Whatling, Solution Specialist, HSO

✔ What is Homes for Ukraine Click to Place?

✔ How does it help local authorities place refugees?

✔ How does it work with Foundry?

Transcript

Welcome everyone to episode 57 of the HSO Dynamics matters podcast.

Your regular sonic dive into the world of Microsoft technology related matters and much more besides.

I’m your host Michael Lonnon, and I’m really excited about today’s episode because I sat down with HSO solution specialist Keith Whatling to talk about the new Homes for Ukraine application his team have just developed with Microsoft.

This thing is going to help local authorities simplify and so speed up the process of finding homes for refugees. It’s a game changer.

So, grab a brew, sit back, relax, and enjoy the show.

Michael Lonnon

Buy or build?

Keith Whatling

Build all day long.

Michael Lonnon

Which leads me to the question. So, in conjunction with Microsoft, we’ve developed a new application called Homes for Ukraine click to place, designed to make it easier for local authorities to move Ukrainian refugees through the rehoming application process much faster, whilst also helping those offering to home refugees with the approval process, in one really simple application. I’d rather get your take on it as to what it is actually that we’ve created.

Keith Whatling

As with everything that you see in government, you assume there’s some magic wand that someone waves and all this stuff automatically happens. And we will chastise them in the press but when it comes down to it, someone’s still got to build a system with some 1’s and 0’s that does something. I think what’s quite interesting is that there’s a system that’s in place called Foundry, where all of the data lives and that’s where a person seeking refuge can come and log their request. The interesting bit is that the system has been spun up very, very quickly so, there’s a lot of free text and the data needs to be groomed quite a lot as you have got people coming in where English isn’t their first language, which is a consideration that they’ve taken into account. But it’s things like just identifying people so, in the UK, we take first name and surname for granted, in Ukraine quite often, a surname is a first name and the first name is a surname, so those basics of trying to identify who somebody is, is actually pretty tricky. Then there’s the language divide. There’s a lack of people on the ground to guide people through the process. So, what the government have got, through no fault of their own, is a very complicated, complex data set and there’s some really fundamental things that are difficult to pin down. So, what we did was we sat down with a bunch of local authorities from around the UK who volunteered a bit of time and the heads of their Excel workbooks, so we can see what the data looked like and have some sample data and we tried to pick out what the most common things and themes they were trying to do. Whilst we looked at trying to sanitise what comes out of this Foundry system, we were also told that this thing is changing all the time. So rather than spend our time trying to clean up what’s getting squirted out of this thing every day, which we would still be working on now as it’s changing all the time. So, it needs that iterative care and it’s that bit I think the counsellors are going to have someone somewhere sanitise that data. It turns out, the counsellors just got to do that anyway, because it’s so messy, it requires a human searching the data for stuff and looking for matches and making contact and doing that good, old fashioned thing where people talk to one another. What was missing from their process, and what was being done everywhere, was once those contacts had been made and joined together; once those relationships between families had been made, and a sponsor, that someone who’s offering their accommodation for someone to reside in for a period of time, once those things have been made, it’s managing that process. So, we said, well, we can build something that is concrete around that, because it turns out that all of the local authorities had their own methodology of doing pretty much the same thing with a few table headers or a few column headers that were slightly different. So, we just sanitised it.

Michael Lonnon

So, were they all doing it differently?

Keith Whatling

Everyone was doing it differently. Everyone had a different set of Excel workbooks to manage this thing that they all made up. However, what transpires is that basically they’re all doing pretty much the same thing. Some of them are doing it in a slightly different process. Some of them are doing slightly different way but if you looked at the entities, the data entities, there was the same thing everywhere. There was a guest as someone wanting to stay in the UK for a reason, and what transpires that doesn’t just have to be a Ukrainian refugee, that could be anybody seeking refuge, you take the Ukraine bit off of it and it’s basically a way of marrying people up with social housing, then you’ve got a sponsor, someone offering accommodation, so there’s another table there for accommodation and actual physical location and address in the UK or other. Then the next bit is that when those things happen, there needs to be checks done on the sponsor, on the guest, on the accommodation and when those checks are done, you can group those accommodations together in a thing called a placement. So that’s where you take an accommodation provided by a sponsor, and you place some guests inside that accommodation and that’s now a placement. That placement might be a family with a primary contact that we’ve identified as well. Then inside that placement there might be some additional checks that happened on that placement as well. So it might be that there’s a how are you doing after three months checker, what additional services do you need check that kind of thing. So, we built a very elegant questions and answers engine that we call in checks that they could just go and grab a bunch of data then the admins of the system, the people inside the council, can then specify the types of questions that have been asked in those checks so that they can get information on what needs to be done.

Michael Lonnon

So, we’ve taken the application process from both the guests of the refugee and the sponsor and put it into effectively one place, then that one place is then managing the check in process in that single place. What is it made of? How’s it built? What have you done it in?

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Keith Whatling

So we built it on Microsoft Dataverse, using Microsoft Power Platform so that the back end is Dataverse database surface through our app, a model driven Power App with some embedded power apps pages, it’s all in one place, there’s only one place to go, we’ve enabled things like activities, and we’d ask that council is thinking about turning on the Outlook integration so that you can have conversations in email around a record, which is really powerful having that context. Your conversations around a record is a massively powerful thing that comes out the box with Dataverse, so it’s a real quick win for managing this complicated process. There’s been some data flows developed by Microsoft to take the data from Foundry and inject it directly into Dataverse. So you don’t have to do any kind of manual upload of the data, but when it is injected, it is in that untidy state, so there’s a secondary group, or a mirror group, of tables where they start pulling the information across into Dataverse so that says, this is the original record and this is me trying to sanitise it, because the data is very stochastic, to say the least.

Michael Lonnon

So, there’s still that manual element to it, even though we have simplified the process of vetting?

Keith Whatling

Exactly. We just looked and said how can we really affect change here, we can’t change that bit because that bit, we just don’t have the technology to deal with it. So yeah, we’ve got all of these wonderful tools, but if the data is rubbish there’s not much you can do about it. The only other option available to you is to make the rest of the process as streamlined and succinct as possible. So that’s what we decided to do because that bit we knew we could throw something at it, and it would stick.

Michael Lonnon

To actually use the system or use the application do you need to be a technical person to get it, to put it into your authority and then use it?

Keith Whatling

Not massively. You would need the help of IT. There’s a Microsoft form you fill out, which will post them the link to this podcast, and that will give you access to a GitHub. Don’t be scared, there’s full instructions on how to spin this thing up but you would need help from IT to spin it up or you could use a power Platform community plan by the developer account to do that, if you know what that is, because it does require someone putting in, it’s not like something you can install it sits in the cloud, it’s on your tenant. So, it sits there and appears like a Microsoft Dynamics first party application. So, yes, you can, if you’ve got a little bit of power platform chops, but you probably want someone in IT to do it. In terms of licencing, if Microsoft aren’t providing any free licencing with this, we had discussions with them as they were going to help us out with homes for Ukraine for the next six months, if you’re doing something with your local authority doing something like this, they were going to help you out for the Ukrainian crisis, like they did with COVID. So very, very good humanitarian credentials there but we envisage it being the per app plan, which is I think, currently under £5, I think it’s about £3.85 per user per month and we foresee it being a very small team of people inside of the council that deal with this kind of thing. In terms of what’s next for it, we know that people have asked us to kind of like look at a portal and have a front end for people to interact with it. We don’t know what’s going to happen with that yet. That’s, a discussion that we need to have but it’s exciting,

Michael Lonnon

I think it’s an amazing initiative. I really do. Because in particular, in this instance, in war, there are no winners, particularly the families that have been, whose lives have been torn apart. So, helping them find some stability in their lives, even if it’s for a short period of time. I think it’s a fantastic initiative.

Keith Whatling

It’s just kindness, isn’t it. How do you conquer aggression, with kindness. And Larry Michaelis and Justin Wilkinson, who are the real arbiters of this behind the scenes. I’ve helped make a few pretty PowerApps pages, but those are the guys who are in the trenches working on it. When we were building this thing, we were treating it like a hackathon, we were having so much fun, honestly, it’s embarrassing how much fun we were having building it. We were getting off the call at like, 11 o’clock in the evening. No one paid attention to how many hours we were working as it was, let’s get this done as quickly as possible and ultimately as high quality as possible. So whilst there may not be some of the features you want in there, what we hope is, what is there is of decent quality and if you do find bugs, please let us know and we’ll work to get them sorted out, it’s brand new so cut us a little bit of slack, but if you do find anything, just let us know, and we’ll be happy to try and address it. It’s something we were all very proud of and the hardest bit in HSO was fending people off of wanting to work with it was like right, it was we want to help with that, and I was like yeah, but we’re going to end up with leading 15 project managers at this rate because everyone’s come charging at it and said please let me work on it. I had to say let’s get the first bit out first and then we can give you a copy of it and you can do whatever you want.

Summary

When it comes to war, there are no winners.

From the outside looking in – seeing the death, destruction, and displacement – it can leave you feeling helpless.

And though we’re not able to influence decisions or outcomes, we can at least help the innocent families impacted by this conflict.

To that end, the Homes for Ukraine click to place solution helps local authorities streamline the application, checking and monitoring process of Ukrainian refugee placement.

It’s flexibility also means that as guidelines and direction changes, authorities can quickly adapt.

Authorities can download the solution today on Github, to which I will provide a link on the podcast page.

I hope you enjoyed today’s episode. Until next time, take of yourselves.

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