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Remote internships and developing a disabled parking application

Image of a disabled parking space

Typically we give each intern their own project, assisted by one or two mentors, that they can really get their teeth into during the three months they spend with us. Ideally, they’ll take a project through from concept to some level of delivery – experiencing the real-life challenges that come up day to day.

Their ideas and skills have a huge impact on the team here, and we aim that each intern that spends time with us, leaves having learnt more skills that are valuable to forming a career. A number of our interns have come back to join the team permanently after they finish studying.

COVID-19 has had a huge impact on businesses, resulting in an uncertain post-coronavirus job market. We wanted to offer some stability to the interns we’d recruited before lockdown and continue providing an internship for them over the summer. This year, instead of joining us in our offices in Portishead, we adjusted our internship programme to be remote, hosting drop-in meetings for all the interns so meet each other and the mentors and listen to talks by members of staff about design, testing and business related processes. It’s enabled those who would have had to relocate to join us from home, and provided consistency and valuable experience in what has been an unusual year.

As a team, we have always been fairly flexible with remote working; in more ‘normal’ times, the majority of us work at least one day a week from home. We’ve learnt a lot having to embrace virtual working full time, and onboard new members to the team during this period.

We’ve adapted by introducing a separate slack channel, where the team – including some who have joined us full time since being interns- are available to pick up and answer questions when someone gets stuck on a project. It also serves as a space to go alongside our weekly catch-up calls, where we can all get to know each other as well as possible. That said, we’re looking forward to spending some time in person in the future. We’re enabling all our interns with the right tools and resources, assigning them mentors to assist throughout their journey with us, and encouraging managers to build connections with their interns remotely to replace face-to-face interaction.

Creating an application to locate disabled parking spaces

Our first intern to join this summer was Helen, in April. Having previously worked in education, with a background in psychology, she has spent the last year retraining to become more involved in the tech industry. After completing a masters in Information Management, Helen wanted to take her IT skills to the next level and go back into a career that challenged her. She went on to complete a three-month intense bootcamp funded by the Cyber Skills Immediate Impact Fund followed by a software engineering placement at Raytheon before coming to work with us for her twelve-week internship developing a mobile phone application for disabled drivers.

Data curated from FOI requests identified an information gap: local authorities provide dedicated disabled parking spaces, but drivers don’t always know where to find them. The goal of the project was to create a VueJS application that could locate disabled parking space options in real-time. 

The majority of the data was in CSV format, with some in PDFs and other information in emails. Helen started the project by transforming the unstructured data into a more usable format, that could be…..

The first part of Helen’s project looked at data cleansing using Python. A common part of any data project is getting data from different sources into a common form and using shared terminology. This was particularly challenging on this project as a there are no standards: different local authorities answered FOI requests using a huge variety of file formats, CSV, PDF and sometimes simply answering with text in an email. The amounts of detail and terminology varied wildly so getting to a common data model was particularly challenging, especially when you take into account how many Local Authorities provided this information. We focused on a small geographical area in the South West to begin with in order to write a script that would automate the data cleansing, but as the data was so inconsistent it proved very challenging and we weren’t able to use all of the data we had collected.

For the second part of the project, Helen spent time prototyping an interactive tool for searching and displaying the data she had curated, learning JavaScript and VueJS along the way. Even without having the exact data, knowing what data would be useful to display in the UI is useful, and Helen wrote out a number of user stories to represent what information a user would find valuable in a prosaic format. For example:

I would like to see the closest parking spaces to my current location

I would like to see the closest parking spaces to a specified location

I would like to see directions to a selected parking space

From these, Helen was able to ascertain what functions to build into the UI. Had there been more time in the internship, Helen would have taken these situational examples to a potential user of the app and interviewed them to understand what adjustments and additions would be useful to make.

Written by Gemma Hayhurst in collaboration with Helen Bates