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Weeknotes 1

23 March 2014

Those following along closely will be aware that I started working at the Government Digital Service a little over a month ago. My current task is to improve the site search on GOV.UK. One of the great things about working here is the openness; wherever possible, we publically document what's going on. A nice example of this is my colleague Jordan who writes regular weekly notes which I found very useful reading both before and after I began. Copying is the best form of flattery, so I'm going to try writing such notes myself.

This week started with my first deploy of some code to production; we don't allow people to access production machines until they've been around a while, and I'm still learning the set-up so was being supervised by a colleague, but it was quite exciting to deploy changes to such a high volume site. The changes were aimed at making sure that the documents covering the budget on Wednesday would come up at the top of appropriate searches.

I also finished a piece of work to get a dashboard up on a screen in our office giving an overview of how well search has been working. It currently shows some statistics about the outcome of searches, and automatically identifies searches where the ranking looks poor (based on click through rates). I'm rather pleased to have got this done, since it will allow us to start making substantial changes to the search on GOV.UK with some confidence that we're improving things.

On Tuesday morning I attended a lab in Shoreditch to observe some user research targeted at Environment Agency content. It was fascinating to get some direct feedback on some changes we're planning to make to search, and to see ways in which interfaces that I'd expected to work really well were completely misunderstood by users. It's great to be able to get this sort of feedback before we spend lots of effort building something.

On Wednesday and Thursday I started building a new interface for our search engine app "rummager" to provide search results to the frontend of the site. We're doing this so that we can start providing a much simpler list of results for searches, but with additional ways suggested to refine searches further, and so that we can experiment which changing the rankings of results without breaking the existing search frontend.

I also spent a lot of time on Wednesday rebuilding the virtual machine I develop in on my laptop; this should normally be an easy task, but due to some changes in the way Oracle provides downloads of the Java JDK, the script which does this broke, causing a lot of knock-on problems; hopefully I won't have to rebuild it again for a while.

On Friday, I attended ScaleSummit. This was a one day conference attended by lots of people who work on building large scale web systems. I attended some very interesting sessions about web analytics, running open source projects and about elasticsearch. I also gave a lightning talk about the search dashboard work I've been doing which seemed to go down well.

It's taken a little while, but our search improvement work seems to be getting some momentum behind it. Looking forward to keeping that going this week.