Author Archives: Sarah Birtles

Heavens to Betsy! We did a podcast!

Launching our new podcast channel…

while True:
on topic ramblings of a technical agency

Over the past few months we’ve been busy recording the first few episodes of our new podcast that we hope you’ll find fascinating. We’re excited to announce the launch of our channel with 4 episodes ready for you to listen to right now!

In this series we’ll be talking to all the various bits that make up the Isotoma team; from user experience, design, and consultancy, through coding and development, and on to quality assurance and testing. We’re covering a huge range of topics with experts and guests, and of course with our usual mix of technical knowledge and (occasional) humour.

Listen & subscribe to get the new podcast each month!

iTunes // SoundCloud // RSS // Pocket Casts // Stitcher

Transforming a business platform

The-Key-Transform-CMS

As you may have seen in our previous blog post – Evolving The Key: insights from user research – after a year in design and development we recently helped The Key Support relaunch The Key for School Leaders and School Governors. This post looks at the technology selections for the refresh of The Key’s content management platform and why certain elements were chosen.

In the nine years since launching The Key has grown to support almost half of schools in England, with an amazing 75,000 registered school leaders and 17,000 registered governors having access to 5,000 original resources every month. It is now one of the most trusted sources of information in the education sector.

Selecting a platform

The sustained growth of The Key in both size and breadth meant there was a real need to TheKey-Screen1
update the underlying platform.  The new content management system (CMS) needed to be efficient at managing user subscriptions, making the right content available to the right users (The Key has 7 different classes of user), as well as being ready for any future expansion plans.

The platform for the past 9 years has been Plone, an open source enterprise content management system first released 15 years ago. In 2007 – when we built the first version of The Key – Plone was the ideal choice, but as the business requirements have expanded and been refined over the years we felt it was a good time to revisit that selection when we were presented with the opportunity to completely refresh both sites.

As The Key has grown in size so has the variety of content they are displaying on the site. As the breadth and types of this content has developed The Key have struggled with the restrictions created by the traditional template-driven nature of Plone. This prompted us to consider more flexible CMS options.

The solution? A shift from Plone to Wagtail.

The-Key-Wagtail-CMS

We were already pretty impressed with Wagtail, having already used it on a couple of smaller projects. Like Plone it’s an open source CMS written in Python, but Wagtail is built on Django, our preferred web framework, giving us all the advantages that Django brings. We wanted to make sure that the new platform would stand the test of time as well as the previous Plone solution had, so we ran a careful evaluation process between a group of Django based solutions – including Wagtail, Mezzanine, Django CMS and a bespoke pure Django approach – to see which would best meet The Key’s requirements. We’re pleased to say that Wagtail came out the clear winner!

There are a few reasons we were particularly impressed with Wagtail for an application of this size and scale…

  • It is highly extensible, meaning that we could push the user model very hard and accommodate the intricacies of The Key’s user base
  • There’s an extremely high quality ‘out of the box’ admin system, meaning that we could hit the goal of improving the editor experience without huge amounts of bespoke development
  • Wagtail supports the notion of page centric content management (through its StreamFields) which allowed us to build much richer pages than a traditional template driven CMS
  • There are powerful versioning tools built into the framework which would give The Key the level of control they need when managing changes to sensitive content

These features of Wagtail aligned beautifully with The Key’s requirements, allowing us to focus on delivering the features that they really needed.

Wagtail is a new and exciting open source platform which is constantly growing with new features and contributions. We were really looking forward to being involved and contributing some elements of our own.

Making the move…

One of the first tasks to complete as part of the move was to export the data out of Plone and into Wagtail. This involved the careful migration of over 30,000 pages across two websites, complete with full page history, allowing us to preserve all of The Key’s valuable content and metadata.

The goals of this project were manyfold for The Key:

  • Improve the member experience, making it easier to manage a school’s membership
  • Improve members’ ability to self-serve, improving their experience and reducing the workload of the team as the business grows
  • Improve the quality and measurability of online marketing activities
  • Improve the quality and robustness of reporting tools.

Making the move from Plone to Wagtail held so many benefits for The Key we couldn’t write about them all, but have summarised our favourites:

  • Improved user acquisition journey
  • Improved signposting of the huge variety of content on the site
  • It’s a long term solution, Wagtail can expand and grow alongside The Key
  • Flexible modular home page

Another important task was to ensure that any user behaviour tracking was successfully migrated over to Wagtail. The Key harness their large database of users to track and record vital information which is then translated into leading insights, ensuring The Key remain at the forefront of trends and industry changes.

Through our longstanding relationship with The Key we understand how valuable this data is, so we used a custom API to integrate a data warehousing service called Keen.io. This service intelligently stores the data allowing The Key to collate, store and build their own queries and analysis of user behaviour, allowing them to constantly refine and improve their content to better serve their members.

Monitoring performance

To ensure the stability of the complex infrastructure that supports a project of this scale we installed New Relic – a real-time software analytics program. New Relic provides deep performance analysis for every part of TheKey-Screen2The Key’s platform, enabling us to make faster decisions, monitor interactions, quickly pinpoint errors and achieve better business results for The Key.

What we’ve found working with Wagtail is that it’s so flexible, customisable, scalable and user friendly. It’s working wonders for some of our other clients too. If you’re interested to know what moving to Wagtail could do for the performance of your site then get in touch, we won’t try and sell you something you don’t want or need!

Stay tuned

The next blog installment: How has The Key benefited this update a month after deployment?

In our next blog post about The Key we’ll be revisiting the site a month after deployment to find out how their staff members got on with the CMS change and what impact it has had on the business.

If you found this article interesting and are looking for an agency to help you with an upcoming project, please do contact us and find out how we can help you. Alternatively you can read about some more of our work and see how we have helped other companies achieve their goals.

Beating Cancer To The Punch: Isotoma Project Officer Goes Three Rounds For Charity

Fighting back against cancer

Our Project Officer Daniel Merriman took part in his first charity Ultra White Collar Boxing (UWCB) match last weekend to raise money for Cancer Research UK. In the interview below, I ask Daniel what drove him to get into the ring…

1. So, what made you decide to take part in a charity boxing match?
“It was a spur of the moment thing, really! I did some boxing at university over a decade ago, but never had the chance to fight in front of a big crowd. Then earlier this year I saw an article in the local paper about these charity boxing events, and I speculatively sent them a message asking what was involved. Three days later I was in the gym with forty other novice boxers.”

2. How long did you train for, did you discover any difficult areas in training?
“Training was two sessions a week for eight weeks at Chokdee Academy, under the watchful eye of former world thai boxing champion Rich Cadden. It brought back a lot of memories of when I trained at university, but also emphasised just how out of condition I’d become. I’d been doing some running as training for an upcoming 10km race, but the type of fitness involved is on a totally different level. There were plenty of evenings when I came home with bruises and aching joints, but it was also immensely satisfying to see (and feel) the improvement as the weeks passed. In fact, the most frustrating aspect for me was having to miss some sessions because I wasn’t able to get a lift to the gym!”

3. Tell us about the fight night…
“Fight night for me actually started around 1pm with a medical, checking my blood pressure, shining a torch in my eyes and signing the all-important medical consent form. There were then talks from the organiser and the referee, explaining the format for the evening and the rules for the event. Unfortunately it turned out that my bout was slot 21 out of 22, so I
had a long time toDan-Close-Up wait! I spent the next few hours out in the audience with my guests at our VIP table, watching the other bouts and trying to conserve my energy.

Eventually I went backstage to warm up and mentally prepare myself. I don’t remember feeling nervous especially, but by that point in the evening I was just desperate to get in the ring. When the announcer called my name and my music started playing, though, the adrenaline started pumping and I knew it was time to (attempt to…) put into practice everything I’d learned in the previous eight weeks.

The fight itself seemed to fly by. I had sparred against my opponent in training before so I knew he was tough, and so he proved. The first round was relatively even, but he got me with a good shot in the second round, and by the end of the third round I was gasping for air. It’s hard to overestimate just how much the adrenaline of being in the ring saps your stamina, but I had some great supporters cheering me on and they helped me dig deep and get through to the final bell.”

4. Were there any unexpected benefits to the experience?
“Well I’ve dropped two sizes in jeans, so that’s something! I guess the other thing is that I wasn’t sure how I’d feel fighting in front of such a large crowd of people – there were close to 1,000 guests in attendance, and I didn’t know how that would affect me. I’m confident enough with public speaking, having done talks in front of a hundred or so students in my past life as a lecturer, but this was a different world altogether. Once I was in the ring, though, I was able to focus entirely on the man in front of me.”

5. Have you got any plans to continue the sport?
“I’ll probably do another bout towards the end of the year, but for now I’ve got a 10km race to prepare for. A team of us from work have signed up to do the Leeds 10k next month, which will be my first race at that distance, so I need to get the miles in. A few of my friends have signed up for the next boxing event though, so I’m sure I’ll be sparring a few rounds with them over the next couple of months.”

6. Most importantly, how much money have you raised for Cancer Research UK?
“Thanks to the generosity of my supporters, and particularly to Isotoma who sponsored me and matched the amount raised by fight night, I’ve raised £890 so far for Cancer Research UK.”

Dan-Close-Up2

7. What advice would you give anyone who is interested in taking up boxing? 
“One of the great benefits of taking part in this event was the top class training I received at Chokdee Academy. If you have any interest in competing, definitely take your time in finding a good gym. Check if they have fighters there who currently compete at an amateur or professional level, talk to the coaches and see what the atmosphere is like at the club. Ask yourself: do I feel comfortable here? Anyone can run a boxercise class, but it takes knowledge and experience to teach a skill like boxing.

Also, don’t be afraid of being “too unfit”! There were plenty of people who fought at the event who, at the beginning of the eight week training cycle, were struggling to do a single push up. The training you’ll receive in a boxing gym, along with advice and guidance regarding diet, will get you fitter than you ever thought possible.”

Dan undertook 8 weeks of training with the professionals at Chokdee Academy to prepare for the fight. If you’d like more information about taking up the sport then please do get in touch with the team at Chokdee, or your local training centre.

Will the industry heed the Digital Powerhouse Report?

Last month The Digital Powerhouse Report, commissioned by Tech North and published by the RSA was released. It looks at the Northern Powerhouse, the digital industry, the region’s digital economy and future. The report outlined how the northern tech sector could improve its business performance and reach full potential.

As Marketing Manager of a northern technology company, a copy of this report naturally found its way to my desk. I was interested in what the report recommended; it is after all the north’s first major guideline to becoming a ‘Powerhouse’. Anything that aims to improve business infrastructure in the region should be welcomed and, more importantly, acted upon.

What does this report bring to the table?

What’s so striking about the report are the key recommendations for the north to grow. Suggestions such as establishing a digital powerhouse contract portal were – in our eyes – unexpected. Many northern tender portals are in existence already, such as YorTender, Due North and YPO. I believe that instead of reinventing the wheel, we should start turning the wheel that exists already. Yes, these portals haven’t been set up specifically to cater for the digital industry but they do exist and they do work.

Problem-based commissioning, data on KPIs and procurement results are brilliant recommendations and we’d like to see activity of this type in the region. The report also encourages the use of open source software, which is something we have been passionate about since we first opened our doors back in 2004.

There are some solid recommendations within the report which, if undertaken correctly, will certainly bring the north’s tech businesses closer together.

Retaining graduate talent in the north is key

I believe one of the stickiest problems facing the north are the demographic differences we’re seeing between the north and south of the UK. We need to retain our talent and encourage graduates to seek employment within the region.

This is something we at Isotoma are passionate about, investing a lot of resources into our junior onboarding and training work, ensuring that we give graduates the tools they need to thrive in a working environment. This is a long-term investment on our behalf as current apprentice schemes do not apply to individuals with degrees.

When it comes to higher education, the north is well catered for – the region contains 23 universities, 6 of which rank in the top 20 for research excellence on a national scale. However we don’t seem to be utilising the facilities on our doorstep, The Guardian’s Northern Powerhouse article states that “Only three cities in the north – York, Warrington and Leeds – feature in the UK’s top 20 when it comes to the number of workers educated to degree level.“

So it would appear that less people are attending Universities in the north, and can we blame them? We’ve all seen the media coverage about the rise in tuition fees, can students afford the financial setback that getting a degree now brings?

London is growing, is the North shrinking?

According to the official government projections, an explosion of growth in London’s East End boroughs will bring London’s population to nearly 10 million within eight years. Compare that to the shrinking population of the northern boroughs such as Blackpool, Richmondshire and Cumbria predicting the biggest fall in population in England, declining by 4.3% by 2024.

The Guardian newspaper wrote an article 2 days after the Northern Powerhouse report was released with some worrying projections about the north-south working-age and retired population; “Barrow-in-Furness is predicted to lose 4.3% of its population by 2024, while Tower Hamlets in London is expected to grow by 25%“.

So, do we need better transport links?

Commuting from Leeds to Manchester alone is a nightmare, the M62 is one of the worst motorways I’ve had to commute on. The northern rail links are awful. More often than not there’s no chance of working from the train as the mobile signal is non existent most of the time, especially when going over the Pennines. The Government has announced many elaborate plans to improve the transport links in the north, such as the HS3 rail link between Leeds & Manchester, however no deadlines have yet been announced.

What else does the report recommend?

The report has 14 overarching recommendations, most of which we wholeheartedly agree with and are more than happy to pioneer. One such recommendation is to champion the tech cooperative model. This idea has legs, but tech cooperative models are very expensive to form contractually. Model contracts and assistance in making this work would be needed.

Another recommendation from the report is to kickstart new corporate-backed accelerators. I agree, and this is already happening, but the businesses seem to naturally migrate to London and not stay in the north, so is this really going to help?

In summary…

You can find evidence to back up any argument you want to make on the topic of the Northern Powerhouse, but will it be such a hot topic after the next general elections..? I hope so.

Identifying the problems that exist in the north for business is half the battle won. We live in such an exciting era of emerging technology in an ever changing landscape of tech invention… meaning we need to keep our graduates. The onus is on employers to incentivise graduates with great jobs, exciting technology and amazing career opportunities!

Transport links need to improve from city to city, as well as inner city links. York has an excellent brand new Park and Ride scheme which uses electric busses, free Wi-Fi and parking to attract commuters, in comparison the northern rail network between the major cities needs substantial improvement and investment.

Most importantly the recommendations in the Northern Powerhouse report need to be owned, actioned and supported by all of us, those northern tech businesses the report is aiming to help.

User generated content helps to uncover war crimes

Isotoma assist in upgrading Corroborator web application.

Isotoma, a York based technology company are proud to announce they have successfully upgraded Corroborator, a web application which aims to gather evidence currently related to Ukrainian war crimes. The software collates evidence used in war crime disputes – it builds a narrative and sequence of events based on evidence files uploaded by journalists, researchers and civil rights activists.

The Corroborator application

The Corroborator live demonstration site

The upgraded application harnesses the power of user generated content by providing a central hub to which anyone with a login can upload evidence to. A numerical score is given to each piece of data based upon reliability and confidence, and the system then produces an overall score of an incident which helps determine its validity. The web application is managed by world­wide developers and civil rights enthusiasts eQualit.ie who were commissioned for the build by the Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

The software, called Corroborator (due to the nature of its evidence gathering) has been made deployable this week by Isotoma on GitHub, an online project hosting site. Co-founder and Director of Isotoma, Doug Winter commented:

“We are proud to be involved in a project which will make a huge difference to so many people’s lives.  What makes this tool so powerful is that evidence can be uploaded in various formats.  PDF, Word documents, images and video are all supported by the Corroborator upload portal, meaning that once enough evidence is gathered regarding a specific case, it creates a verifiable chronology of events. The flexibility of evidence file types also means that an individual such as a journalist or civil rights activist with a smartphone, can now make a huge difference to the wellbeing of persecuted individuals.”

This new type of evidence and data gathering is crucial when conflicting sides of a dispute question the authenticity of evidence. The application also has scope to help globally, explains Dimitri Vitaliev, Director at eQualit.ie:

“Isotoma has helped to develop a deployment system that means this open source toolkit can be easily adapted by many groups working on human rights documentation the world over.”