Full circle

I haven’t blogged for a while because it’s been a busy few months, during which I’ve left Diabetes UK after many years, moving to a dream role as the digital lead at Maggie’s Centres.

It was sad to leave but I’ve wanted to work for Maggie’s for such a long time. I’ve supported them for years, first learning about them when I studied Architecture and volunteered at the RIBA. I’ve followed their progress ever since, seeing them open a centre a year for the last 20+ years, providing amazing emotional and practical support for people affected by cancer.

Their brilliance was thrown into sharper relief for me when we lost my Dad to cancer but unfortunately there was no Maggie’s centre in the area – I felt their worth through their absence.

Ask my friends in the charity digital world and most of them knew I wanted to work for Maggie’s someday. So it feels like I have come full circle, with my foundation in modern architecture and my career in digital health and charities, and my family’s personal experience of cancer. Maggie’s is the perfect next step. I’ll be blogging about my early experiences there soon.

Meanwhile, for World Diabetes Day it seems like a good time to say goodbye for now to Diabetes UK and reflect on what I learned there.

“The most important thing I’ve learned in the past twenty years of my career as a scientist is also the greatest discovery of modern ecology. It’s the simple yet fundamental idea that life is the expression of relationships within a network; it is not a series of separate goals pursued by distinct individuals. This is as true of ants, giraffes and wolves as it is of humans. It’s through my interactions with all the pioneers of human ecology that I have been lucky enough to express my own creativity and contribute to the community. I am extremely grateful for that.”

– Dr David Servan-Schreiber,  Not the last goodbye


Milton Keynes (and Modernism) and Me

I’ve just watched Richard Macer’s documentary ‘Milton Keynes and Me’ on BBC iPlayer and I really enjoyed it. He and the city both turn 50 this year and that was the starting point for the film, which is available on catch-up till mid-Sept.

Macer left MK at 18 and hadn’t returned for a significant amount of time until staying with his parents while filming.

I also grew up in Milton Keynes. My parents moved there in the mid 70s when the city was less than a decade old. We left (because of a new job elsewhere for my Dad) as the city turned 25 and I turned 16, so at a similar point in my life to the filmmaker, though my whole family left whereas his parents still live in their family home today.

I empathised with his memories of cringing whenever having to answer the question “Where are you from?”. (He found people from elsewhere only knew about the roundabouts, whereas for me it was always the Concrete Cows.)  I don’t think I appreciated MK while I lived there but in the past seven years I’ve re-evaluated that view, learning more about its development and understanding better when set against the experience of living in London all my adult life and visiting other parts of the UK and other world cities such as Sydney, Paris, Amsterdam and New York.

Macer interviews his older sister, who also fled the city at the earliest opportunity, noticing now how small she found the family garden, how soulless the family home and how lacking in community the city as a whole. For that perceived lack of community she reflected it might be because pretty much the whole city at that time were newcomers. I’m not sure I remember it the same way – while it did lack history (apart from a few older parts that the new town incorporated when built in the space between three existing old towns) I never felt it lacked community within neighbourhoods or school districts.

Macer highlighted some of the early MK estates, or grid squares (stemming from MK’s grid-like plan of 1km squares) where fledgling architects were able to contribute whole master plans, the most notable of which was Beanhill by Norman Foster, now of course the world famous architect, Lord Foster.

Looking back it feels like the earlier estates were more experimental and Modernist, whereas those built from the 80s to the 90s were more a product of those times – the more bland, identikit Barratt-home style designs rather than the crisper more experimental Modernism of its earlier designs. My first home there had a more unusual design, a big one-plane pitched roof and a pale gold brick, whereas the second, designed and built about a dozen years later, leaned more towards the identikit red-brick modern home with ‘traditional’ stylings.

Central Milton Keynes was the shopping and business district at the heart of the new town and while it contained two of the most memorable structures (for me), in the shopping centre and city library, at the time it felt less appealing than other parts of the city – more diffuse and following the most rigid orthogonal street layout.

I think that consciously or otherwise, growing up in Milton Keynes influenced my decision to study architecture and my continuing interest in it even when I chose not to pursue it as a career. My particular interest in Modernism must have started there too, enhanced by my Mum being a kind of unwitting Modernist herself – always eschewing the pre-20th Century homes like the relatively run-down Victorian terrace of her youth for the new, big, bright, clean and modern.

A few very happy memories from my teenage years involved Modernist icons in London. A visit to the Commonwealth Institute, a copper-clad design recently overhauled as the new home of the Design Museum. An evening at the National Theatre, where our coach from MK got stuck in traffic and we had to jump ship, cut across town on the tube and then run across Waterloo Bridge, seeing the NT hunkered illuminated on the other side, arriving just in time for the performance (Arthur Miller’s ‘The Crucible’). And staying next to the Barbican for an art history field trip, getting to wander in and about there every evening for a week, this beautiful, complex, uplifting and enveloping space, noticing funny little details like how it shared the same exterior floor tiles as my school in Milton Keynes.

This school, Stantonbury Campus, was one I shared with the film maker Richard Macer and his memories of it round out the documentary really well.

Agile – an update

Following my presentation on agile working and service delivery at Diabetes UK for the Third Sector Digital Leaders programme last year, Zoe and Dave kindly invited me back to present to the latest cohort a couple of weeks ago; coincidentally during Diabetes Week.

I focused again on our use of Agile methodology to develop our digital Know Your Risk tool, but took the opportunity to update it with new things I’ve learned, as well as more on how we as a charity have adapted to a new (small ‘a’) agile approach to working since we moved to our new central office in Whitechapel in September 2016.

One of the many good things about our new base, apart from it being less expensive than our previous office, is that we have a big ‘town hall’ space with a kitchen, where it’s easier for the whole charity to gather, as well as making it easier to bump into colleagues and have an interesting chat while getting a cup of coffee.

The wider world of Agile

Just before my latest presentation I bumped into my colleague Richard from the database team who had just been to a useful presentation from Tom Gilb – his key takeaway was to take an approach to requirements definition that kept refining to remove any ambiguity – to really hone each one down to a basic, clear, universally understood definition.

I also followed on Twitter an excellent workshop session on Agile from Econsultancy, serendipitously the day before my own session. One highlight was the use of the term ‘Wagile’ to refer to organisations who end up with a kind of hybrid of Waterfall and Agile project management, which might sound bad to purists but could just reflect the fact that not every organisation can take a textbook Agile approach.

I was interested to see a new JustGiving blog post from Zoe about Agile, sparked by a report into money wasted by ineffective Agile projects possibly turning the tide of opinion against the methodology. Zoe and her contributors really got to the heart of the new and more nuanced approach needed to get the best from Agile, especially if you can’t take a textbook approach – you might never expect to get your whole organisation working in a ‘pure’ Agile way but you can, as I’ve mentioned before, at least cherrypick the best elements and underpin it with a more ‘agile’ mindset.

Zoe also wrote a nice summary of some of the highlights of the latest cohort on her own blog – it was good to see that the people on the programme felt that my experience of introducing ‘agile by stealth’ could be something that could work for them too. As long as everyone appreciates it’s in the ‘subtle’ rather than ‘sneaky’ sense of the word! 🙂



Digital transformation for the charity sector; Manifesto event, 9 March 2017

One of the many good things about the charity digital world is how open people are to sharing their thoughts and experiences, often in the form of free events and presentations. One of the agencies we at Diabetes UK work with, Manifesto, runs events like these from time to time and their most recent one a couple of weeks ago was especially good.

The theme was ‘digital transformation for the charity sector’ and we heard from: Jo Wolfe, Assistant Director, Digital at Breast Cancer Care; Pat Shone, Technology Director at Manifesto; and Julie Dodd, Director of Digital Transformation & Communication at Parkinson’s UK, and author of The New Reality. Here are some of my key takeaways from what they told us.

Jo Wolfe

Maturity index
Have to measure and benchmark in the different areas. RAG not enough. Then set targets in those areas to help set strategy and plans and resources.
MSF blew her away. Team really mature. Poss because same stable team for six years

Pat Shone

– model, four phases of devt
– could look at for review and retirement too
– stat eval, weighting important
Try before you buy?

Julie Dodd

New reality
100+ days of putting theory into practice
Scale of dying out -> embracing
P not halfway to e yet but made big steps by creating her role and directorate
SMT have a WhatsApp group
Good to make people excited and a little uncomfortable
6 areas of focus – tech funding culture?? And…??
Very much both internal and external transformation – not sure I’ve seen as much/equal focus on ext in my own or other charities
Came up with a statement on what DT is for P
Longer and shorter versions
Talk about it over and over
Make it more interesting for diff audiences – diff formats, e.g. Video for trustees.
Bring in external speakers, lunch and learn etc
Digital competencies – 3? Levels – everyone has to be up to level 1 by end of this year.
Make it visible by making visual, e.g. Screen in reception, simple hack to show sessions graph, top search terms and pages visited
Things still move slowly – budget cycles
Less need to focus on digital comms, most have got a grip on that. Look more at supporting new tech, e.g. New apps devices sites – open but with critical eye, need a framework before recommending any
Digital strategy/electricity strategy
Umbrella room – again visual, prompts questions just by being there – really need to get our digital testing room in shape, whiteboard paint? Proper screens, camera and lighting.
ICO clampdown and new regs – see as an opportunity and a good thing. If we can weather the dip then it will force us to think more about our comms with supporters – more based on what they want, where we ask for data because we’ll make good use of it, promise to keep it safe. Better retention strategy. Before, we just lost people to churn.

2016 highlights – autumn – fruitful (but far from mellow. Or misty)

A final post on my highlights from 2016 and it feels like I’ve saved the busiest season till last.

Autumn 2016
– a new (work) home, events, diabetes in the media, brand changes, a VIP visit, and World Diabetes Day

Maybe because it’s fresh in my mind but autumn (and the start of the next winter) seemed especially busy this year.

Still stepping

September (and, for me, the first week or so of October too 😊) was the final month of my 1 Million Step challenge for Diabetes UK. And because I was playing catch-up, it was one of my busiest ever months for walking in my three years of tracking.

This was helped by our office move. We’d outgrown our old home of 12+ years in Camden and been priced out of an increasingly gentrified, relatively central location. The old office was less than 30 minutes’ walk from home so I tended to commute on foot. Our eventual new office in Whitechapel is about two hours’ walk away, so understandably I didn’t plan to keep to my old Tube-free ways. But for the rest of my 1 Million Steps and whenever I can since then, I get off the Tube 25/30 minutes away from the office and walk the rest. It minimises my packed commute and maximises my physical activity … and my step count.

Events – at home and away

So many excellent events at the end of last year.


NFP Tweetup

Google for Non-profits

We Are Social

Third Sector Digital Leaders

Adloox digital ad security seminar

Barcamp NFP

Charity Social CEOs

Together We’re Better – user-centred transformation seminar



2016 highlights – summer – I *did* walk 500 miles

Summer 2016
– the 1 Million Step Challenge

When I was two months in to the three-month 1 Million Step fundraising challenge that my charity, Diabetes UK, launched this summer, I blogged about my progress on the charity’s blog site and shared some tips with my fellow walkers.

I’m proud to say I did complete the challenge, though it took me an extra week or so to do it! And thanks to the generosity of my family and friends, I raised £230 – 115% of my target.

What it was like to take part

I found it interesting that, even though I had already been tracking my steps for nearly three years, and had taken part in other walking challenges in that time, something about this particular challenge really motivated me to reach the overall target of 1 million steps.It was a significant challenge, since the average UK adult is said to walk only 5,000 steps a day, and my average tended to be 7-8,000 a day.

It was a significant challenge, since the average UK adult is said to walk only 5,000 steps a day, and my average tended to be 7-8,000 a day.

Since I started step tracking in November 2013 it has motivated me to walk more than I ever did before. I find myself taking the long way around where possible, and trying to walk rather than hop on a bus or tube – to the extent that 2014 was the last year that I bought an annual season ticket and from 2015 I started walking as much as possible.

Both my Dad and his Mum had Type 2 diabetes and I know that a combination of this family history of the condition, plus our ethnicity (South Asian on that side of my family) as well as my age and gender mean that I’m at increased risk of developing the condition myself. Those are the factors I can’t change. But the factors I do have control over are my weight and waist size, so making walking part of my day seemed like a good way of reducing my risk of Type 2.

Despite all the health benefits, it can still be hard to make sure you walk 10,000 steps a day, and my average tends to be closer to 7,000. So, seeking some extra motivation, I was really happy when we at Diabetes UK launched our new 1 Million Step Challenge this summer. More cause to walk, while also fundraising for a good cause.

It takes me about 10,000 steps to cover five miles. 10,000 x 100 = 1,000,000 steps, which = five miles x 100, which = 500 miles. Hence “I will walk 500 miles” became my earworm for the summer. (Sorry for passing it on to you too.)

I had a combination of different motivations and practical steps to keep me going towards 1 million. See if any of them could work for you.

I found these practical steps helped:

  • Walk for my whole lunchbreak – and schedule these walks into my calendar so that they’re less likely to get sidelined.Combine it with reading if I’m somewhere safe to walk while reading, like a park.
  • Combine it with reading if I’m somewhere safe to walk while reading, like a park.Can also combine it with writing, if inspiration strikes – I wrote some notes for this blog post while walking in the park.
  • Can also combine it with writing, if inspiration strikes – I wrote some notes for this blog post while walking in the park.I love taking photos and Instagramming, so walking gives me more opportunities to do that.
  • I love taking photos and Instagramming, so walking gives me more opportunities to do that.I’m interested in architecture and the city I live in (London) – and there are always new places to discover.
  • I’m interested in architecture and the city I live in (London) – and there are always new places to discover.If your job permits, try having meetings while walking – a Walk-and-Talk, for those who remember The West Wing – though I must admit, I haven’t tried that one myself yet.
  • If your job permits, try having meetings while walking – a Walk-and-Talk, for those who remember The West Wing – though I must admit, I haven’t tried that one myself yet.
  • Make friends with other Fitbit/fitness tracker users – apparently on average Fitbit users walk an extra 1,000 steps a day for every Fitbit friend they have.

And I had various things to motivate me:

  • The challenge itself provided motivation – to complete a big personal goal – especially one that you have shared with lots of people.
  • Staying healthy, for me and for my family – including improving my chances of avoiding Type 2 diabetes.
  • Fundraising in memory of my Dad, for a good cause and a charity which not only employs me but has helped my family and so many others affected by all types of diabetes.
  • It’s a nice little reward when you get a 1m Step Challenge or Fitbit badge for doing a lot of steps in a day or reaching the latest equivalent distance – such as the Great Wall of China – and it helps you push on towards the next milestone.
  • And it spurs you on when you see how well other participants and Fitbit friends are doing, through the 1 Million Step Challenge website, the Fitbit app and social media.

It was so nice seeing people sharing their steps and milestones on social media. How do you motivate yourself or make walking – or any physical activity – part of your day? Please share your suggestions and experiences in the blog comments, on social media with the hashtag #1millionsteps. It would be great to hear from you.

What it was like behind the scenes

Although we don’t have a formal innovation team or group at Diabetes UK, in recent years we have tried to come up with new ways of providing support and services, and new ways of fundraising to make it possible.

Back in 2013 our then Events Fundraising Manager, Mark Fox, came up with Swim 22, a fundraising challenge where participants swim 22 miles – the equivalent to a Channel crossing – across three months in the relative comfort of their local pool.

Swim 22 has been a great success. Taking the Agile approach that I had introduced, we started with a minimum viable product in 2013 on our main website without agency involvement. Building on the success of the first year, in 2014 we worked with our agency Manifesto to build dedicated sign-up forms, a distance tracker and shareable content such as progress badges, all based on the Acquia platform.

For the 1 Million Step challenge, we were able to go from a moment of inspiration early in 2016, for an event that wasn’t even in our original plans for the year, to build and launch for 1 July. This included registration and recording functionality along with progress badges – again all through Agile, taking the decision to launch with a minimum viable product based on the Swim 22 platform and requiring very little adaptation.

It allowed us to launch another effective fundraising product, supporting our prevention and healthy lifestyle message – with minimal budget and with our comms focused online and therefore with relatively low costs. We have been able to tap into the fitness tracking trend of the past few years, provide a mass participation fundraising event with a low barrier to entry than some sporting events – requiring no specialist equipment other than a pedometer and no facilities other than a place to walk.

Despite a fairly low barrier to entry, all along I have been conscious that despite the simplicity of the concept, the step target could be offputting for people who are less able to walk, so as part of our review and plans for development, I will be advocating different levels of target reflecting different levels of ability and achievement – in the hope of starting and encouraging more people to take their first steps to positive behaviour change.