PlanningAlerts – going back to basics

image by Adam Foster (CC by-nc-nd)

Back in December of last year, we launched PlanningAlerts. It was a massive rush getting the site up and running. We had only seven weeks to build the site, including the scrapers, the bits of software that get all the planning data from the local council websites. We had applied to the Government 2.0 Taskforce for funding for the project and only received notice of go-ahead towards the end of November. Now, for some reason, which to this day still doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me, they wanted every single project associated with the Taskforce wrapped up by the end of the year. So, that’s how the short deadline happened.

So, I did whatever any self-respecting developer does. I borrowed as much code as I could from elsewhere. In this case, the UK version of PlanningAlerts which was licensed as an open-source project under the GNU Public License (GPL).

That approach, similar to the way OpenAustralia was built, worked quite well. It gave me a clear target for the data that I needed to get from the local council websites through the scrapers.

The website itself did need some changing. In the UK, postcodes are really specific. They narrow things down to just a few houses on a street. This makes postcodes perfect as a quick way of specifying a location without having to give a full long-winded street address. So, the UK PlanningAlerts site uses postcodes to locate a place you want to receive planning alerts for.

Australian postcodes aren’t as specific as the UK ones. The areas of postcodes can be quite large and strangely shaped. So, postcodes are really not that great of a solution for locating a specific smallish area in Australia.

So, that meant I had to update things so that the user would enter a street address instead of a postcode. Luckily that turned out to be fairly straightforward. If my memory serves me correctly that took a little over a day to change.

So, we launched the site at the end of December to a short burst of interest. However, this time of year, towards Christmas and New Year must be about the worst possible time you could imagine to launch a new website. Everyone has other things on their mind: People to see, parties to go to, barbies to light, presents to buy…

No worries.

Fast forward a month to the end of January. We have a couple of hundred people signed up for email alerts but almost no visibility on the wider web. Relatively few people have mentioned PlanningAlerts on blogs and the like.

Time to go back to basics. What’s the point of building a service like PlanningAlerts if only a relatively small number of people use it? How can we get the message out?

The point of PlanningAlerts is to get emails of planning applications near you. Stuff comes to you in your inbox. After all, who really checks their local council website regularly for new and interesting development applications? Well clearly some people, but definitely not the majority.

So, the focus of the site is squarely on getting people to sign up for alerts. But how do you know what you’re signing up for? Well, in its current form, you just don’t.

Definitely time to go back to basics and rethink the whole experience. What came next? I’ll pick that in my next post…

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