Hacking Unemployment: How DWP Digital and MongoDB are Working Together to Empower Developers and Tackle Some of the Biggest Challenges in the UK

Joe Drumgoole


Technology and businesses exist to do social good. We all have bills to pay and families to support, but beyond that, it has to be about more than profit. I also believe that developers in particular have a huge influence on what an organisation can achieve, both its social impact and the bottom line. The Department for Work and Pensions’ Digital team (DWP Digital) is the perfect example of a group that understands and embraces the important role developers can play solving major issues. This year we’ve been lucky enough to work with DWP Digital and its developers in the ultimate hope of tackling some of the UK’s biggest challenges.

The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) is the UK’s biggest public service department. It’s responsible for allocating government help to those in need. This includes a range of benefits including the state pension, disability allowances and more. Over 22 million citizens rely on the £168 billion that DWP releases every year.

The DWP Digital team is the group responsible for building and supporting the applications that make this all possible. They operate more than 1,000 applications and estimate that more than 50 million lines of code have been written for these applications. Currently, there’s a major shift happening at DWP Digital, as much of the most important work is coming back in-house and developers are adopting a more agile approach to delivery. The aim is to deliver better, more efficient and more customer-focused services; and they could not do that without an engaged, skilled and creative team of developers.

Hack the North: MongoDB Sponsored DWP Digital’s Manchester base Hackathon

Hack the North

For those who don’t know, a hackathon is an event that gives developers a chance to try out new technologies, solve new problems and experiment with new approaches. Basically, there are three things you want to get out of a hackathon: learn something, have fun and try to do some good. However, before we get into the hackathon, some statistics: In Manchester City and its surrounding areas there are more than 75,000 unemployed people living (Source: DWP’s Churchill application, June 2017) and the overall unemployment rate is above the national average with 5.5% of residents out of work (Source: Nomis, official labour market statistics). Jobs in the science, research, engineering and technology professions make up just 4.69% of the total workforce in Manchester. However, vacancies in that category make up 18% of the total vacancies advertised (Source: City Council Quarterly Economy Dashboard Q1 2016/2017 ).

So when DWP Digital decided to run a hackathon ahead of the opening of its Manchester digital hub in early 2018, the big challenge they’d want to tackle was obvious. Hack the North was a two-day public hackathon focused on finding solutions to help address the unemployment problems in the city. It is usually done off-site in order to take the participants out of the headspace of day-to-day activity. There is normally plenty of food (pizza), beverages and competitive banter.

The project board at Hack the North

As DWP Digital is one of the biggest users of MongoDB in Europe and our developer advocacy team have experience running hackathons, a number of our team went up to support the event along with other sponsors ThoughtWorks and TechHub Manchester. I’ve been at a few hackathons through the years and, I have to say, this was one of the best I’ve been involved in. The quality of ideas, the execution and enthusiasm from all involved was fantastic.

We had more than 70 people onsite who divided into 10 distinct teams, each with a mission to deliver a new working solution in just two days using available data from public sources such as Churchill (DWP’s public data repository – which is also built on MongoDB).

The final solutions were wide-ranging, creative and impressive. We had everything from an engine that helped the onboarding process for the newly unemployed, right through to a platform that gamified CV and aptitude testing. However, the eventual winner was a team called UpSkill. UpSkill built an application using MongoDB Atlas that could match people’s skills to the requirements of employers, and has an API to allow people to access resources to boost their skills. It was a very slick, very well executed final product and first among a great crop of ideas.

Admittedly we haven’t completely solved unemployment in Manchester, but to my eyes, the two-day event was a roaring success with the developers learning a lot and building some powerful proof of concepts. If you do want to see more, check out the #HackTheNorth Twitter moment or this excellent blog post from my fellow judge Dan Tanham, a Deputy Director at DWP Digital.

Learning to teach, teaching to learn

You’ve never truly learnt a lesson until you’ve taught it to someone else. Alongside the hackathon, another way DWP Digital keeps its team on the forefront of development best practices is by presenting at developer conferences. We were delighted to have dozens of the DWP Digital team come along to MongoDB Europe 2017 in London November of last year, but what was really special was to have Rob Thompson, CTO of DWP Digital, deliver one of the morning keynotes.

You can see the full video of his presentation below and you won’t be shocked by its thesis. After giving an overview of DWP Digital, Rob talks about how MongoDB and agile development are key tools to help the UK’s biggest public service department transform its data infrastructure and build a number of flagship digital services across pensions, health, benefits and analytics. Rob believes passionately that developers are the key difference between success and failure in most projects.

In the breakout sessions, Rob’s colleague David Parry got into even more detail on how DWP Digital is using agile development, Java and MongoDB in the cloud to create a microservices architecture. This architecture is making it possible to rapidly iterate from proof of concept to hundreds of services as they are rolled out nationally. Unfortunately, we couldn’t film every session, so if you would like to see this type of presentation you’ll just have to make sure you’re at MongoDB Europe later this year.

It’s been a gratifying few months getting to work so closely with the DWP Digital team. Not only are they using MongoDB in incredibly powerful ways but even more importantly I’ve gotten to see first-hand how developer-centric the organization is. You wouldn’t think of a big government department as a hotbed of developer innovation but thankfully they certainly can be. DWP Digital is proving to be every bit as forward-thinking, agile and end-user focused as the cream of Silicon Valley. And society is the better for it.

Find out more about open positions at DWP Digital on the DWP Digital Jobs Twitter account or go to careers.dwp.gov.uk. And if you’d like to know more about MongoDB’s developer focus and the events we run then follow me @jdrumgoole.