I write this blog a day after the launch of Elevate Me. As the O2 project lead it was quite a momentous occasion, and I’d like to share a little of the exciting journey that has brought us here.
Led by Reading Borough Council in partnership with O2, Elevate Me is a free tool to help young people get their foot onto the career ladder by bringing together the best advice available in the engaging format of a personalised virtual town web app.
A winning idea
In the beginning Reading Borough Council had a programme called ‘Productive Pathways’ that aimed to reduce the number of NEETs (16-24 year olds who were Not in Education Employment or Training) in their community. The project team saw that that technology would be a good way of reaching young people, especially via mobile phones, but they had no budget to fund any development.
Charging to the rescue came the O2 Local Government Future Fund (renamed the Local Government Digital Fund for 2014). O2 offered three prizes totalling £250,000 to help Local Councils develop innovative ideas. Reading put an exciting proposal together and won the first prize of £125,000 in December 2012. The project started very well: The Lab at O2 ran a session with two groups of young people and produced an interactive mock-up of what a suitable app could look like. We also engaged one of our WAYRA start-ups, Taskhub, to help us with the technology to develop the app. To ensure the local touch two design students from Reading University designed a name, a logo, and some graphics themed around “the roots of the city”.
Early attempts at the logo
One step back 2 steps forward
The primary focus of the app design at that time was to match opportunities in Reading with opportunity seekers, working alongside a simple information web site. This is what the young people had asked for, but the more we worked on it, the more I realised that we were laboriously re-creating a standard job app. I took a look and there were already 2,667 job apps in the Apple UK app store alone, some of which had millions spent on them!
So I pushed the reset button. In my experience of managing multiple innovative developments over three decades (yes, I am that old) this is a very common occurrence about a third of the way through any given project. If it was obvious what to do, it wouldn’t be innovative! We decided that we couldn’t cure all the ills of the UK recruitment industry, and instead should use something pre-existing to host new opportunities. For paid employment opportunities we went with Universal Jobmatch. For unpaid opportunities such as volunteering and work experience we used GoThinkBig, another O2 initiative.
We looked for areas where we could create something helpful that was not already easily available. We came up with two:
1) Helping navigate the maze of agencies and processes
2) Giving motivational feedback to NEETs with each step they take towards finding employment
Concept & design
We invited a number of organisations to participate in a collective brainstorm and design exercise. We generated a number of mock-ups that tried to be both informational and motivational, including a full-on video game, and showed these to several groups of young people for feedback. Interestingly, whilst they wanted it to be fun, they also wanted it to be serious, because “looking for work is a serious business.”
The winning concept was first called “skill city” proposed by creative design and marketing studio Waters Creative, who eventually went on to build the web app. Inspired by SimCity, each building represented a relevant topic, and you could add floors to the building by learning about the topic and by taking actions to help yourself.
Now, some financial reality started to bite. The original plan had been to create a ‘true’ mobile app, but we did a survey of NEETs and discovered that they had a very diverse range of phones, with no one operating system being owned by more than 20% of the group. So we would have had to create at least four different apps to achieve reasonable coverage. What was worse, 41% didn’t have a full-screen smartphone at all, but they did almost all have access to a PC somewhere. In the end we had to compromise on a web site that would adapt to a full range of screen sizes. Everyone has heard of the student who knocked up an app in their bedroom for nothing and made millions (see HSBC and ‘Sticky Weasel’ as a fictional example), but trust me, in the real world a good app costs tens or, more often, hundreds of thousands.
So anyway, after months of design, content writing, and development, with reviews by groups of young people at several stages, here we are. I hope it will be a big help to young people in Reading. The next step is to figure out how to roll it out across the rest of Berkshire with appropriate amounts of localisation for the agencies and opportunities in each city.
To find out more about O2’s partnerships in local government visit our web site.