When your developer skills can make a difference to someone’s life

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In June 2015, REA Group Senior Developer Daniel Heath came across an internal ad outlining a secondment opportunity: ‘Need food, shelter and a software developer – please help.’ The role was looking for a passionate software developer to help work on a national initiative with a real social impact. He decided to throw his hat in the ring and was the successful applicant for the role.

The initiative was Ask Izzy, a free, location-based online directory of more than 350,000 services that helps people in Australia who are homeless to find food, shelter, health and other critical services. It was made possible thanks to a unique collaboration between News Corp, Google, Infoxchange and REA Group, with the mobile website launching on Friday 29 January in Melbourne.

Daniel started his secondment at Infoxchange in July 2015 and when he joined the team, the number of Developers working on the mobile website doubled. We caught up with Daniel to find out more about his secondment and what he’s been up to.

What sort of things have you been working on for Ask Izzy?
“I’ve been involved with many aspects of the Ask Izzy development, from meeting with the design agency who mocked up the prototype, to the research on how people perceive themselves in relation to their need for homelessness services – not everyone who needs the services thinks of themselves as homeless.”

What’s interesting about it from a tech perspective?
“We’re using some very recent developments for the web front end – including a series of tools Facebook has written and open sourced, including Babel, Flow and React, which is a Javascript framework. It’s been really positive using that set of tools and it has really helped how we build Ask Izzy – in particular it has let us develop a very responsive user experience which feels really quick. It’s meant that we can essentially write using the latest technologies and have the tools take care of making sure it works on all supported browsers.”

What are the key insights you’ve gained and challenges you’ve experienced on your secondment so far?
“It’s been a while since I looked into building front-end tooling and it’s good to see how far it has come. It’s much easier to build things now than it was a few years ago. The biggest challenge has been working with the data that we have and the search technology that we’ve got – so we can return the most relevant searches for people using Ask Izzy. The search aspect has definitely been the most challenging part.

“We are also putting a lot of focus on making it easier for services who support people who are homeless, to keep their details up to date. This mobile website needs to have a comprehensive database of homeless support services in order for it to be truly helpful for people using it, so the easier it is for services to keep their details up to date – the better quality of data we’ll have for our users.

“There’s also been a lot of work going in to tuning the search and looking at different ways of querying the data we have for different scenarios, with an eye to figuring out what’s going to get the best result. It can be pretty time consuming, as every individual has a unique set of information they’re after and we need to make sure the search results return the most accurate information for their situation – every time.“

What’s the highlight been so far?
“Definitely the user testing. Seeing the service providers who work with homeless people use Ask Izzy and talk about how having access to something like this could really transform their work and how it could enable them to help more people, felt really great.

“It helped bring the tangible impact of what I’ve been working on to life and people just felt so happy because it was built with care and thought for the experience of the people using it. So much stuff that’s built isn’t necessarily built with the end user in mind first, but Ask Izzy was. It’s been a really pleasant experience working on something where the end user experience is really, really important and we’ve been able to focus on making it really great – seeing people use it and their reaction has been really rewarding.”

How are you feeling about the launch?
“Like all tech projects, they ship by getting closer and closer and closer, then cutting a bit of scope out and launching. We had to cut some categories in order to be able to give them more personalised results. There’s certainly more we’d like to do, but having good results for the things we have kept in will make a big difference to a lot of people.

“In six months’ time – I think the app will have an even more comprehensive coverage of services out there. The difference between 90% and 100% is massive – if you’ve got everything, you know people can rely on you. Currently we have just shy of 350,000 services but we know there are other services out there – my hope is that those services will see the value of being included after the launch this Friday and arrange to get their services listed. On a personal note, I’ve found it tremendously rewarding. This is making a difference to people’s lives and I really look forward to going to work every day.”160126_AskIzzy_Media Infographic NATIONAL