When Digital.UNISON broke (a small part of) the internet

Last week all major press focused on the NHS pay proposal brokered jointly by UNISON and 11 other unions. The UNISON digital team had been working hard for this moment;

We had prepared a microsite at NHSPay.org to provide as much information to the public in a clear, easy to understand way,

We had produced launch emails to brief our members and direct them to educate themselves on the proposal,

We had developed a pay deal calculator to break down the complexities of the plans as a user would expect it – by pay grade and pay point. We shared the tool with the NHS Confederation to help more people educate themselves on the proposal.

With the details of the proposal changing right up until the last moment, the pressure was on to ensure that we were accurate and concise without avoiding the detail. The communications department and the digital team had worked our socks off to ensure things wouldn’t go wrong, and when the moment came, we were ready to hit go.

As the digital analyst at UNISON, I had prepared myself to monitor traffic levels on the microsite via Google Analytics. But as prepared as I may have been, I was startled with the response:

What happened? In simple terms, we got quite a lot of traffic to the website.

This was a couple of hours after the launch. On day one, the campaign site had received more traffic than UNISON.org received in all of February 2018. Whilst I had never seen a web server fall over due to volume of traffic, if it was ever going to happen, it was now.

All seemed OK, but we began to get reports of the calculator not working for everyone. Here’s where everything started to happen at once. As I attempted to work out what was wrong, I received an email from Klipfolio – the digital dashboard service we use to construct calculators and do all other sorts of other data work.

“Re: Urgent Discussion.”

Uh-oh, I thought, immediately guessing what came next…

It turned out that we had massively exceeded the limits on people viewing the calculator, and in short order caused havoc with Klipfolio’s systems. To protect their systems, they had to take the calculator offline.

We compensated by providing full PDF downloads of the proposal on NHSPay.org in the absence of the calculator, and awaited a fix.

Fortunately we didn’t have long to wait, by 9.30pm the same day, the calculator was back up. We had a viewing limit of 500 simultaneous connections set by Klipfolio, which would allow the majority of visitors to use it. Satisfied that we had done the best we would with our resources and really pleased with the response from Klipfolio, I turned in.

Next day, the first thing I see is a news article from the Evening Standard.

I’m fairly confident this is the first ever news article based on a web pay calculator going offline. A dubious honour, but this is the story of the online world. We are a small team, we have limited resources and time. When you’re working to tight deadlines and dealing with live events, things can and will go wrong. Your successes and your errors are there for the world to see.

Where you fail, you learn fast and change. Where you succeed, you build on your success (often by learning fast and changing).

So where did we succeed? From the 1.4 million page views accrued so far, we know that over 486,000 people have used the calculator to find out how the proposal would impact them directly. We know that 40,000 have gone on to fully explore the impact to their band via the calculators’ built in link.

Within perhaps two weeks of launch, half a million people will have accessed detailed, accurate information on the plans in order to make an informed choice. And if that isn’t a key objective then I don’t know what is.

Where did we fail – to accurately estimate the volume of visits we would receive, assess our technological limitations, and plan accordingly. I could argue that this would be unknowable limit, but one thing’s for sure though, greatness comes to those who push the limits.

And we’re certainly doing that as we prepare to launch our consultative ballot to allow our amazing members to tell us what they think about the proposal.

NHS pay calculator
Check out the pay calculator at NHSpay.org
Check out the pay calculator at NHSpay.org

For ongoing news about the NHS Pay proposal, visit NHSPay.org

One thought on “When Digital.UNISON broke (a small part of) the internet

  1. Nina says:

    Well done, that’s a great achievement

Comments are closed.