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Making data exciting: our excursion

 Ofqual, the regulator of qualifications, examinations and assessments in England, launched its first set of interactive visualisations to coincide with the release of A level and GCSE results in August 2017. The three apps, developed using R, allow users to explore variation in GCSE, A level results in schools and interact with data for the new 9 to 1 GCSE grades.

We have received some very positive reviews from our users. An Assistant Headteacher remarked “..it’s great to see such openness and support in helping schools understand how their results fit into the bigger picture. I’ve spent a decent chunk of today playing/exploring the data sets – fascinating.”

Another Headteacher described the apps as “Useful information. Easy UI and a positive UX”.

Ofqual’s tweet about the A level app was ranked fourth amongst the UK government tweets two days after launch.

This has been a multi-team effort with colleagues from Ofqual’s Research, Data, IT and Communications teams working together to launch the apps within 3 months of the concept stage. We’ve had a number of challenges to overcome, primarily because we were developing such interactive analytics for the first time. Some of the lessons we learnt along the way are:

User testing matters

While we in the development team went through different rounds of brainstorming, the product was visibly refined after we rolled it out for testing. Collective brainpower noticed things that we didn’t.

Keep yourself agile

The power of post-it notes and daily stand-ups helped us to quickly identify and resolve issues.

You are as good as your IT team

And we were lucky that our IT team was fully on board. The team explored various hosting options, quickly taught themselves how to configure a server for R apps, helped us with automated testing, and dealt patiently and swiftly with our constantly changing requirements. The bottle of Prosecco that they received after the launch was very well deserved.

Talk to others going through the same journey

We spoke to a few other departments in the Civil Service who were also developing R apps. It turned out that they were facing similar challenges as well. Some of their tips saved us reinventing the wheel. The advice given by the Government Statistical Service also steered us in the right direction.

Motivation + Motivation= (Motivation)2

When every individual is motivated, the team’s performance rises exponentially. We all were equally hungry to make it happen. That helped.

Get the procurement issues sorted as soon as possible

When you hear the word ‘procurement’ in your conversations, you must know that certain procedures and paperwork are involved which need immediate attention. Simply put, you won’t be able to proceed if you haven’t factored in the process of buying or acquiring licence for the software you need.

Get decision makers on board

Keep the leadership team involved. Invite them to agile meetings when possible. This will help them feel part of the initiative and give you sufficient time to react there is a change in business requirements.

We all have different hues

If you don’t have a dedicated designer, each person involved in the project will come up with different recommendations for colour, font and design. Some forcefully push for their choice, some remain agnostic and some relent. Declare compromise when your choice has been accepted. But first, think user, think quality and apply common sense.

No control over deadline is not a bad thing

The deadline in our case was determined by the date of release of GCSE and A levels results. We knew that the deadline can’t be moved. So we moved, quickly.

Go or no-go should be the final question

Our IT team organised quick, 10-minute go/no-go meetings for every app to get a final ‘go’ from all involved based on a number of criteria. It helped resolve any issues outstanding at the last minute and commit ourselves to the launch.

Things can go wrong on the launch day

You do all the testing that you could. You plan for all the scenarios. You hit the button. And when it goes out in the wide, wide world, that one thing that you hadn’t envisaged happens. Fortunately we were able to fix one such issued we faced in real time. Staying calm and acknowledging that we are not faultless cyborgs yet helps.

And don’t forget to celebrate

You took the initiative. You have done the hard work. The final product is out there for users. Now is the time to celebrate, before the next initiative kicks off.

We have since launched another app to explore vocational and technical qualifications landscape. Our interactive visualisations are available at Ofqual Analytics.

Vikas Dhawan, 21 Nov 2017
Senior Manager, Statistics & Analytics (Head of Profession), Ofqual