Category Archives: News

The Europas 2017

June 13th was The Europas; a conference and awards ceremony for the European start up scene. Having watched the event from afar for a few years we decided to take the plunge and sponsor this year. We’ve been deeply involved in the start up community right from our inception; from attending the first Future of Web Apps back in 2005, through to helping some of our start up customers achieve successful funding rounds and eventual sale, and even setting up and one or two of our own (like Forkd). All in all it felt like the right kind of event for us to get involved in.

It was my first visit to the Olympic Park. My first thoughts were of how vast it is. I got off the train at Stratford International on a beautiful morning and decided to walk to Here East, which I could see in the distance…

Yeah. Perhaps I should have taken the shuttle bus that was on offer. Or taken the tube to Hackney Wick as recommended. Still, it was good to explore the park, even if I did arrive a little later than planned.

Sadly I wasn’t alone in arriving a little late. Because The Europas caters to a pan-European audience and the main event was in the evening many attendees had chosen to travel on the day, meaning that the morning sessions were a little under-attended. This was a real shame because the stand out talk of the day for those that saw it was Azeem Azhar’s “Will ubiquitous AI lead to artisanal cheese for all?” The title might have been a mouthful (ahem) but the talk was fascinating and wonderfully delivered.

Following on from Azeem on the main stage was an equally positive session with Bess Mayhew of More United; her take on UK politics and how we might best affect it (and how she already is) was genuinely uplifting.

This was the first talk that touched on a theme that would run throughout the rest of the day: #fakenews. Clearly anyone involved in politics is going to be worrying about the fake news phenomenon, and while Bess touched on the subject during her session the next panel was all about it. I’m going to say more on the topic in another post, so I’ll leave this one there, except to say that we – the tech community – currently seem bereft of ideas as to how to address it.

While Azeem’s session was the highlight of the talks the event had two non-talk stand outs. Straight after the excellent lunch (and a brief aside – the way lunch was delivered was very unusual and extremely efficient, a real plus for a conference) was Richard Browning the Rocket Man.

By now the venue had pretty much filled up, so a huge crowd watched him – with earplugs in – circle the courtyard outside the venue. It’s hard to describe how impressive it is to someone who hasn’t seen it up close with the heat and noise of the jets almost knocking you over. Quite how on earth he actually manages to fly the thing I don’t know.

Doug’s breakout session with Roberta Lucca was straight after The Rocket Man’s flight, and we were obviously worried that no one would turn up given the excitement of what was going on outside, but we had a good audience for an intimate and lively chat (and disagreement) about how to best get the most out of your development team, and when and whether to build your own team or outsource. More on that topic to come in both blog post and podcast form…

For us the afternoon ended with Gabrielle Aplin who gave a great talk about how artists are the new start ups (reflecting what we used to say a decade ago, that start ups are the new artists; what goes around comes around, of course) before giving a performance to a slightly bemused crowd.

For me the highlights of the day were Azeem’s talk on AI, the rocket man, and a great breakout panel on privacy, but there were very few dud moments in a packed day.

I left via the canal and Hackney Wick. Far more picturesque, and a much shorter walk!

We can’t thank Mike, Petra and Dianne enough for setting the thing up and running it so smoothly, and for giving us the opportunity to sponsor. We’ll see you there again next year.

We’re on the Government G-Cloud 9 Marketplace

Good news, everyone! Isotoma are pleased to announce that our services are now available to public sector bodies for procurement via the G-Cloud 9 portal.

This means that you can find Isotoma’s services on the Digital Marketplace including cloud hosting, software and support. The Digital Marketplace is the new online platform that all public sector organisations can use to find and buy UK government approved cloud-based services.

We already deliver our services to organisations around the world. With this new accreditation, Isotoma is ready to deliver our best-in-industry services to even more public sector bodies.

Here’s an outline of the Isotoma services available on the G-Cloud 9 Digital Marketplace. Don’t hesitate to get in touch if we can provide more info.

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

One Pound in Three

Can we talk about this:

Big opportunities for small firms: government set to spend £1 in every £3 with small businesses

When its predecessor (of £1 in 4) was announced in 2010 many of us were sceptical, so it was fantastic news in 2014 when the National Audit Office announced that this target had not only been met, but exceeded. I don’t think anyone doubts that the new £1 in 3 target will be achieved by 2020; a real measure of confidence in the commitment to these plans.

It’s fair to say that it’s genuinely been a great move forward. It’s taken some time – as you might expect – both for this to trickle all the way down to the smaller end of the SME sector and for departments and other bodies to get their procurement processes aligned, but in the last couple of years we’ve have seen many positive and concrete changes to the way the public sector procures services.

We’ve been involved in quite a few of these SME tendering processes in the last year or so and have seen a full range of tenders from the very good through to the very bad. What’s clear is that things are continuing to improve as buyers and their procurement departments learn to navigate the new types of relationships that the public sector has with these smaller suppliers.
So a lot’s changed, but what could still improve?

Procurement workshops and briefing days

Soon after the 2010 announcement and in the midst of a fashion for “hackathons” and the open web these were all the rage; you could hardly go a week without one body or another running an event of this type.

You know the ones. Every Government department and even most local councils run them; non-government public bodies like the BBC, Channel 4 and JISC love them too. The intention is absolutely sound – you want to get us excited about working with you, outline the projects that we might be working on, help shape our proposals, and ultimately make sure we understand that you’re worth the effort of us pitching to.

There’s no doubt that these are great events to attend. But. They’re often marketed as “great opportunities” and there’s frequently a sense that we must attend to ensure that we don’t miss out. But time out of the office costs money, as does getting half way across the country because the “North” briefing is in London (I kid you not, that’s happened to me more than once). On top of that the audience and content of the talks at these events can be scarily similar regardless of location or presenting organisation. There’s nothing more disheartening than arriving at another one of these events to a feeling that only the venue and speakers have changed.

It’s obviously vitally important that you get these messages across, but please try and make sure that the events themselves don’t feel compulsory. SMEs are time poor (particularly the good ones); if it’s clear that I’m not going to miss out if I don’t attend and that all the information I need will be online then I may well choose not to come. It doesn’t mean I’m not engaged, just that new channels like this are things I often need to explore outside the usual working day.
There’s often a sense of “if we make it really explicit what we’re after at the workshop” that you’ll cut down on the number of inappropriate responses to your tenders. Sadly the opposite is often true – once someone has spent a lot of time and money in attending one of the briefing days they will pitch for absolutely everything, because they now feel invested, and they’ve met you. Sunk cost thinking affects us all.

Luckily the number of these apparently mandatory briefing days is reducing, with some organisations doing away with them entirely, replacing them with live web conferences, pre-recorded video presentations and detailed (and high quality) documentation. I’d love to see them done away with entirely, though.

Keeping contracts aligned

It’s a fair assumption that during the briefing days every single speaker will have made at least one reference to Agile. And it’s likely that Agile was the main topic of at least one talk. Because Agile is good. You get that. We get that. Agile makes absolute sense for many of the kinds of projects that the public sector is currently undertaking. Digital Transformation is certainly not easy, it’s definitely not cheap and it’s absolutely not going to be helped by a waterfall, BDUF approach.

But if you’re honestly committed to Agile please please ensure that your contracts reflect that. We’ve recently had to pull out of two tenders where we’d got down to the last round because the contract simply couldn’t accommodate a genuine Agile delivery. We know Agile contracts are hard, but if you’ve spent the entire procurement process actively encouraging people to pitch you an Agile approach you need to present an Agile contract at the end of it. Companies as old and grizzled as Isotoma may feel forced – and be willing – to back away, but for many agencies it’s a trap they unwittingly fall into which ultimately does nothing for either party.

It’s also worth remembering that it’s unlikely any SME you deal with has internal legal advice, so contract reviews are an expensive luxury. If you present a mandatory contract at the start of the tender process most of us will glance over it before ploughing ahead. We certainly aren’t going to pay for a full scale review because we know it’ll cost a fortune and the lawyer is only going to tell us it’s too risky and we shouldn’t pitch anyway. One contract we were presented with by a government department was described by our lawyer as a “witch’s curse”. We still pitched. Didn’t win it. Probably for the best.

Timelines

They say it’s the hope that kills you.

Small businesses are, by definition, small. The kind of procurements I’m talking about here are for services, not products, which means that people – our people, our limited number of people – are going to be required for the delivery. If the timeline on the procurement says “award contract on 17th February 2017, go live by end June 2017” we’re going to start trying to plan for what winning might look like. This might well involve subtly changing the shape of other projects that we’ve got in flight. If we’re really confident it might even mean turning away other work.

When we get to the 17th February and there’s no news from you what are we supposed to do? Do we hold the people we’d pencilled in for this work back and live with the fact that they’re unbilled?. And then when 24th February comes and there’s another round of clarification questions, but you commit to giving us an answer by the following week what do we do then? And so on. And so on.

The larger the business you’re dealing with the easier they find absorbing these kind of changes to timelines, but that’s one of the reasons they’re more expensive. SMEs are small, they’re nimble, but they also rely on keeping their utilisation high and their pipeline flowing. Unrealistic procurement timelines combined with fixed delivery dates can make pitching for large tenders very uncomfortable indeed.

To summarise

As I said at the start things have made huge leaps forward over the past couple of years. The commitment to pay 80% of all undisputed invoices within 5 days is a great example of how the public sector is starting to really understand the needs of SMEs, as is removing the PQQ process for smaller contracts, the commitment to dividing contracts into lots and explicitly supporting consortia and subcontracting.

In 2016 we’ve been to sadly uninformative developer days for an organisation that has offered wonderfully equitable Agile contracts and extremely clear and accurate timelines. We’ve pitched for work that was beautifully explained online with no developer day, but that presented a bear trap of a contract, and we’ve pitched for work that was perfect except for the wildly optimistic timelines and that finally awarded the contract 3 months after the date in the tender.

Things are definitely getting better, but a few more little tweaks could make them perfect.
Here’s to £1 in 3, and the continuing good work that everyone is doing across the sector.

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.

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.”

Seeking a Head of QA

Isotoma is looking for someone with solid testing and management experience to come and help us shape and build our QA function. The role will be to take on the formalisation of our quality control systems, from traditional manual testing to automated CI, build and deployment. We’re looking for someone who can run the testing function whilst also getting involved with all 3 teams within the company (dev, devops and ops), helping them improve their processes and approaches upstream.
Read more about it on the main site (Head of Quality Assurance vacancy) and please get in touch.

We’re hiring

We’re looking for developers ASAP, due to a quick burst of new work. If you (or anyone you know) is looking for their second or third programming job and has good Python skills (preferably with some experience of one or more of Turbogears, Django, Twisted, Zope or Plone) and aren’t scared of HTML, CSS and Javascript please get your CV to andy@isotoma.com ASAP. We’ll put a formal job spec up on the main site shortly but the sooner we hear from you the better.

Forkd: big news

Firstly, we’ve rolled out a wide range of new features on our recipe community site forkd.com and removed yet more “coming soons” from the site in the process:

  • Activity panel (my favourite)
  • RSS feeds
  • Change message when changing a forked recipe
  • Blog to WordPress
  • People search
  • Tag brush — our humble attempt to evolve the act of tagging

As usual, the full details are on the Forkd blog.
But more importantly, I am happy to announce that after our 6-month invite-only beta, sorry feta period, we are opening registration on forkd.com! We’re confident that we have a strong enough feature set, and have squashed all really embarrassing bugs, that we’re ready to open it up to all comers. So if you’re not on Forkd yet, why not sign up and give it a go?

New Forkd features

The Forkd kitchen has rolled out a bunch of vital new features for our favourite recipe sharing site:

  • Post to Blogger from Forkd (more blog platforms to follow soon)
  • Upload photos directly to Forkd — you don’t have to use Flickr if you don’t want to
  • A recipe search form at the top of every page
  • A way to browse all users on the site
  • Plenty of bug fixes!

See the Forkd blog entry for more details.

To our beta testers: thanks for all the recipes, and please let the head chefs know what features (or bug fixes) you’d like to see next!