How innovation in small steps makes a great difference 

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Startup team

A semi-automated SMS reminder system is probably not what comes to mind when you hear the word ‘innovation’, but a new app developed for Victoria Legal Aid demonstrates the value of such incremental technological improvements.

Each person at legal aid who deals with clients used to have to send out individual reminders for upcoming appointments.

Through its fellowship program, Code for Victoria created an app that partially automates the process of texting clients, pulling information from various calendars to populate pre-determined messages on an interface where admin staff can see all the appointments for a day and send all the messages at once, instead of individually.

It’s estimated to have led to an 83% decrease in time spent texting clients.

“People who were waiting to get legal aid help can potentially get legal aid help quicker. Lawyers can focus on working with clients,” explains Code for Australia co-founder and managing director Alvaro Maz.

The Code for Victoria fellowship program, a collaboration between the Victorian government and Code for Australia to pair up technology experts with public purpose organisations, is also working on an app with Victoria Legal Aid to direct people to the right place before they make contact.

Many people who contact VLA do so through the phone — but around 12-15% of those have problems outside VLA’s purview and have to be referred elsewhere.

The app will act as a triage service, asking users questions about what they need help with and providing them with the contact details for the right organisation.

The project also demonstrates the importance of governments building open source software.

The code was repurposed from an earlier piece of work done by the Government Digital Service in the UK.

“If it already exists we don’t need to code it,” Maz points out.

Again, this kind of innovation doesn’t feature lasers or robots, but will free up resources that can be put to use elsewhere in this notoriously under-funded sector.

Another app, developed with the New South Wales (NSW) Department of Education’s Centre for Education (DoE) Statistics and Evaluation, allows parents to enter their address and find out which public school catchments they sit in.

Through Code for Australia’s fellowship program, information technology specialist Peter Welte was placed in the NSW DoE to engage with the community and develop the technological capability that eventually resulted in the app.

Through community engagement and consultation with the department, Welte identified that there was a lack of services available for parents selecting public schools for children.

Prior to the development of the NSW Public School Finder app, parents had to contact all the local schools to see if they were in the catchment area.

To make it easier for parents to choose the best school for their children, Welte developed an app including a wide range of specialist programs and provisions to support students with disability or difficulties in learning and behaviour.

Code for Victoria has recently completed two other projects.

Working with the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning, they’ve updated the old, “clunky” Victorian Biodiversity Atlas, which allows academics, community groups and ecology amateurs to access and submit information in the space of about 40 seconds, instead of four minutes.

They also created the Victorian Construction Contracts Register for the Department of Treasury and Finance, improving transparency in government infrastructure tenders past, current and future.

“The DTF data was already there, we’re just displaying it in a cool, user-centred way,” Maz explains.

When he speaks to clients sometimes they have lots of big shiny ideas, says Maz, but often simple solutions are the most worthwhile.

“Let’s just have a look at how we do our processes generally first,” he suggests.

“When we’re talking about digital transformation it’s not big crazy things, it’s something making their work easier.

“It’s super small things that ultimately have a big difference.”

This article was originally published on The Mandarin

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David Donaldson is a journalist at The Mandarin based in Melbourne. He's previously written for The Guardian and Crikey and holds a masters in international relations.
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