My Mahi - the Community Work App
Senior Practice Adviser – Department of Corrections
Kate has been with the Department for seven years, starting as a probation officer managing community work sentences. She now works in the Chief Probation Officer’s Team, helping develop and enhance practice within Community Corrections. She is enthusiastic about improving community work support both for staff and people serving community work sentences.
The Department of Corrections has invested in modernising the use of technology over the past few years. This includes investigating how technology can be better used to connect with the people we manage. In 2017, a group of emerging senior leaders were challenged to think creatively about some of the “wicked problems” facing Corrections. The group that developed the “My Mahi” app (mahi meaning to work, do, or accomplish in Māori) started with the initial premise: If we can engage people to take greater ownership of their sentence, they are more likely to complete the sentence and be successful. They chose to apply this concept specifically to people on community work sentences.
In the 2016/17 financial year, nearly 15,000 community work sentences were imposed by the Court. Community work sentences are reparative in nature and require people to complete a number of activities in their communities such as working in a community garden, graffiti removal, and helping local council or Department of Conservation projects. Community Work can be a challenging sentence for people to complete and while most people eventually finish their hours, it can take a lot of effort and follow-up from staff. The app was designed to increase engagement by providing reminders of what people’s obligations are, supporting motivation by tracking the completion of hours, and also providing an avenue for people serving community work sentences to regain some autonomy over their sentence and obligations.
Despite community work being a reparative sentence, the technology increased opportunities to connect people to support services that can reduce the likelihood of further offending. Additional support identified as useful included drug and alcohol and relationship services, as well as other wellbeing interventions.
Developing an app
The initial development of the app was completed by the emerging senior leaders’ team in collaboration with the IT group Optimation. The team was supported through an “agile” design process starting with the “empathise” phase. The team worked with an anthropologist to determine from an end user perspective what someone might need to take greater ownership over their sentence. They also completed a day of community work and engaged with those who best understand the challenges of the sentence – the staff and people on community work sentences themselves. The team noted that people on community work had mobile phones and were active app users. They enjoyed playing games and appeared to organise their lives on their mobile phones. It was also noted that staff were spending a reasonable amount of time each day providing individuals with updates of how many hours they had remaining.
Next, the team undertook a structured brainstorming session, informed by all the information gathered. This confirmed that digital technology was a potential tool that could drive engagement with community work sentences. The concept of the app was developed with two questions in mind: how could we help people take control of their community work sentence and track their progress; and how could we help people connect with services available to them in their community? This is where the basic outline of the app’s features was developed. These features would provide information on:
- Number of hours remaining
- Where I need to be next
- Help myself to access support around my future and my wellbeing.
After this, the team completed the prototyping phase, where the original idea of an app is turned into a product which can be tested and refined multiple times. During this phase, the idea of a “minimum viable product” was introduced. This ensured that the app was delivered with just enough features to ensure quality feedback once it was tested, without over-committing resources in the initial stages of development. Rapid prototyping ensures the development of the product remains closely aligned to the solution for the end customer. The prototyping phase also allows failures to be identified quickly, ensuring changes can be made early to keep development costs low.
During the prototype phase, a demo app was introduced to people serving community work sentences in Wellington. User feedback was positive and confirmed the direction of development that had been taken up until this point. They could see the benefits and were positive about engaging with the app once it was fully developed. Feedback included: “It’ll be good not to have to ask for my hours,” “This is way cooler than I thought it would be,” and “The reminder the day before was good, helped remind me to get there.”
Finally came the test phase, where the app was launched to pilot sites around the country for initial feedback. The app was named “My Mahi”, reflecting both the nature of community work and the personalised information the app contains.
My Mahi – what does it do?
My Mahi is designed to address some of the key frustrations or challenges experienced in community work. The home page displays the number of hours remaining for the person’s sentence. Like a fuel gauge, the dial counts down as the hours are completed; this can motivate people to finish their hours. It also benefits staff by freeing up their time; they no longer have to look up outstanding hours in the system for people. My Mahi provides a calendar which indicates when and where the person next needs to be for their sentence. The calendar displays both community work and court appearances. The app also gives the phone number to contact staff and a map with transport options to support attendance at appointments. Push notifications can be enabled to send a reminder of the upcoming appointment the day before the person is due to report (see Figure 1).
Alongside information about their community work sentence, My Mahi provides links to support services. These links are divided into “my wellbeing” and “my future” sections. The links provide a mix of 0800 phone lines and websites such as the Alcohol and Drug Helpline, It’s Not Okay family violence support, “Are You Okay?” depression and mental health support, budgeting and financial help, local community engagement and advocacy, support to reconnect with iwi and marae and information on how to obtain employment or driver licences. It was important to ensure these links were to national services so that users at all test sites could access support equally.
My Mahi pilot
My Mahi is currently being tested at eight community work sites around the country. The sites are a mixture of urban and rural centres and have been selected to get broad coverage of different locations and community work profiles. The pilot has been running since June 2018. At the time of writing (October 2018), there are 65 users, and 160 people have expressed an interest in the app. The pilot has been extended to allow more people to sign up and benefit from the app and provide more information about what is contributing to the gap between people being interested in the app and then actually downloading it. Early findings show some people are reluctant to provide their cellphone numbers to staff, in order to download My Mahi. Cellphone numbers are required to ensure that the correct personalised information is displayed in the app. This reluctance seems, in part, to come from a fear that the Department can access a phones’ content through the app, which is not possible. Another early finding is that people seem more willing to sign up for the app during their sentence induction, than after they have been on sentence for some time.
The IT group Optimation is continuing to support the development and testing of My Mahi. This includes providing data on app access and usage. This data indicates that most people are accessing the app about once a week, primarily looking at the page that displays the number of hours remaining. It also shows that people are continuing to use the app throughout their sentence, rather than just in the first few weeks after downloading it.
Optimation are also providing information on which support links people are accessing most frequently. This information does not identify individuals, but provides trends and some insights into the interests of app users, which may help Corrections target interventions to this group. For example, the support links for employment and obtaining a driver licence have been accessed significantly more often than the problem gambling and budgeting websites. While it is important for Corrections to continue to offer rehabilitative and educational interventions, this data indicates perhaps we could provide further support with regards to employment and driver licencing.
Feedback from users has been sought throughout the pilot process. This feedback has been consistent across the different sites and indicates that users are enjoying being able to track their own hours and know when they next need to report. Many people on community work have said they would have opted into the app if it had been available earlier in their sentence. It was anticipated that younger people would be quicker to adopt the My Mahi app. This hasn’t been found and we are working on understanding the barriers for this particular group.
It is noted that the development of the app has been a much easier process in the Android operating system. While it is available on Apple phones, it is a more complicated process as the app remains within the Apple test environment. This has presented a barrier for both staff and people on community work and may in part explain the gap between interest and actual usage of the app.
The pilot is still underway, but there are anecdotal reports that the app is driving behaviour change in specific cases. Staff are reporting that fewer people are asking for their hours and believe the app has improved the reporting compliance of some individuals. Extending the pilot will allow further assessments on how the app supports people’s engagement with their sentences.
Following the pilot, feedback from people who have used the app will be reviewed and where appropriate, incorporated into any future enhancements.
Corrections considers the partnership with Optimation to design and develop the app to have been a success. This has encouraged Corrections to investigate other options where mobile applications could support those we work with. There are a number of ideas being considered, or underway, including an app to support people subject to electronically monitored bail.