A new era for Do-it

Photo of Olly Benson
Tuesday 29th November 2011

On Tuesday 15 November at about half-past six, a new version of Do-it went live onto the web. When we say ‘new version’, this wasn’t just a few tweaks and a couple of extra features, this was a complete rebuild of the entire system from the ground up: hardware, software, database and servers.  It was a total re-start that has been in planning and development for over two years.

And yet, if you look on the website you’ll see very little has changed. You may notice that we’ve got prettier URLs, we’ve changed a few colours, and we now allow you to select your own password.  You may even notice that we’ve finally put ‘virtual volunteering’ as a distinct search. But fundamentally the website design and functionality hasn’t changed much.

For our partners, there are more changes: we’ve made improvements to the V-Base Recruiter product that our charity partners use to post their opportunities.  For partners who use our V-Base 2 product, there are fewer significant changes.

Alongside the website and V-Base recruiter services, we’ve also had to redevelop our syndication service (and support the existing service); the V-Base uploader service; our quick search box and the services we provide to particular partners; the administration functionality for all our services and all the other elements that make up Do-it.  It is a pretty complex thing to deliver.

What’s really exciting is what we’ve changed behind the scenes.  We’ve significantly improved how we do proximity searching within the database, meaning that we are now returning results in fractions of the time it used to take.  Our system is far more robust, so we can handle the levels of traffic we are now seeing without needing to be concerned about it affecting site performance.  We’ve also made use of a brand new location search facility, which brings improvements in speed and recognising named locations (the good people of Newcastle will finally be able to find their city without having to suffix it with upon-Tyne). We’re now able to make use of mobile devices because our services can accept latitude and longitude requests.  We’ve also totally changed how we handle opportunities that don’t take place at a specific location: partners can finally enter a single opportunity that can be found anywhere in the UK.

Relaunching a popular service is far more risky than launching a new service. From the minute we go live, nothing can go wrong.  It’s for that reason we delayed the launch until we were totally happy with it. Thanks to the time-stealer that is Google Analytics in real-time, within 30 seconds of us being live we could see there were over 100 people on our site. And that was after office hours when we would expect our traffic to be lower.  Within 24 hours from launch, we’d handled over 130,000 searches and made a third of a million location requests.

So while there have been bugs and teething problems, I’m extremely glad that there hasn’t been anything approaching a showstopper, and that volunteers can quickly and easily find opportunities and apply for them as they always could.  While we tested as much as was reasonably could, we’re extremely grateful for our partners who have had to be patient as bugs get fixed and issues resolved.

What I’m really excited by is that what we have launched isn’t a finished product but the start of a brand new journey.  The new platform now means we can work in a fully Agile way.  Old Do-it was a complex integrated nightmare, so developing standalone services that run on separate environments means we can rapidly deploy updates without our users even noticing. Previously we had to take the whole system down just to make the most basic of changes.

And that’s what we’ve been doing since we went live a fortnight ago.  Bugs fixed and quickly deployed, sometimes within an hour of being reported.  The feedback forms we’ve added on our Recruiter system go straight into our bug tracking system, allowing us to identify issues and quickly implement and deploy a fix. And once these teething troubles are sorted, we’ll be doing that with new features: making constant improvements to the site and deploying quickly and regularly.

The reality check is that we’ve got a very big list of things we want (and need) to do to improve the site, and limited resources to do that with. We’ve also got to respond to the ways the sector is changing around us. But I’m really glad that we’ve now got the technology and infrastructure to do that effectively.

All this wouldn’t be possible without a set of brilliant colleagues, many of whom haven’t seen much outside the four walls of our office over the last few weeks.  The technical team have worked their socks off to help deliver this project, and our partnerships team have been invaluable both in helping with designing the service but communicating to partners and, particularly over the last two weeks, supporting them through the changes.

There are lots of exciting developments planned. Over the next few months you’ll see improvements to the way we send out volunteer applications, how Google indexes our site and V-Base Recruiter navigation.  We’ll make more of skills matching on our services, and we’re now starting to plan a refreshed look to our website.

And I’d welcome your feedback on the changes we are making.

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