Throughout our lives, we often need to find information about services in our local area on everything from childcare to support services. However, this need for clear, findable information is usually met by confusing online directories with inaccurate, or even incomplete, data. For councils, these directories often come at an extra cost and are supported by legacy systems that are clunky and difficult to manage.
The Childcare Act 2006 introduced a need for councils to share service information online. This saw the rapid creation of new tools at an extra cost to local authorities that stifle innovation, increase vendor lock-in and limit the value of content and data.
After working on many different kinds of service directories, we created Scout and Outpost; a new kind of service directory built for flexibility, loosely joined by a powerful, open API.
Building on our experience as West Sussex County Council’s Local Offer partner, and previous service directory projects with Hackney and Buckinghamshire Adults Services, we wanted to make sure any new service directory approach complied with the OpenReferral UK data standard.
We developed the new system in a way that separates the user-facing tool from the admin interface, creating the potential to reuse data about available services across multiple products, helping serve a community.
The directory that residents see is called Scout. It works alongside a tool for council staff and community record maintainers to collectively steward data, which is what we call Outpost. Both platforms have really valuable features:
built from the ground up for the modern web, meeting WCAG AA standards for accessibility
data isn't locked in big legacy systems, helping establish a single source of truth for information that can easily be shared across multiple websites and systems
usable independently of each other, though Outpost is capable of powering a whole ecosystem of products
Benefits for local communities include a location-aware search, making it easy for residents to find things in their local area. Residents can narrow down search results by category, so those with individual requirements such as children with special educational needs or people with disabilities can easily find activities they'll benefit from the most.
Residents can also help keep the information up to date by suggesting updates, safely enabling community upkeep.
To make sure as many citizens as possible benefit from this new directory, we built a feature that allows residents to save services for later and print or email the list to someone else. This is a particularly useful feature to support families or carers who want to work together to find the best services for their needs.
This new type of directory is a scalable platform that can be built on over time, adding new resident-facing services that consume data from the API and use it in different ways.
A crucial part of the work has been connecting these new tools to Ofsted's data feed of registered childcare providers. This is how councils get up-to-date information about who is allowed to provide childcare in an area. There’s only a small number of providers who are Ofsted approved to work with this feed, so there's been little space for innovation in this market. We’re proud to now be an approved Ofsted supplier and challenge the status quo with an open-source, modern application.
This new kind of directory is an innovative tool that’s challenging the sector to think about product development and data in a much more scalable, flexible and transparent way. Scout and Outpost put communities at the heart of local services, with adaptability at the centre of design; it's ready for local and national changes in our societies.