Sustainability hack seeks greener tech solutions

The Department for Work and Pensions recently took a deep dive into how to make its cold weather payment service more sustainable. Opencast was happy to join its hack day to talk about our work on the project – and learn from others.

At Opencast, we’re passionate about using tech and data expertise to tackle real-world challenges. We jumped at the chance to join DWP Digital at its recent sustainability hack, focusing on the carbon footprint of DWP’s cold weather payment service.

As the UK grapples with the dual challenges of climate change and rising energy costs, it’s more crucial than ever to address the environmental impact of essential services like cold weather payment.

Cold weather payments provide help to vulnerable individuals in areas where the average temperature is recorded as, or forecast to be, zero degrees or below over seven consecutive days.

While it provides vital support to vulnerable citizens during very cold weather, like any digital product, the cold weather payments service has an impact in terms of its environmental sustainability. Armed with a collective spirit of innovation, we set out on the DWP Digital hack day to tackle this head on.

Beyond traditional user personas, we embraced ‘Mother Earth’ as a silent persona during the hack, offering us a crucial shift in perspective to consider the entire ecosystem, not just individual needs.

Colour image of man sitting on floor by radiator at home
Cold weather payments help vulnerable people when temperatures drop below zero

Mapping the service for the emissions landscape

We embarked on a ‘detective mission’, securitising the service’s complex process map to identify and quantify emission hotspots. From emails between DWP colleagues to paper letters sent to citizens, we mapped every contributor to the service’s carbon footprint.

Unveiling hidden inefficiencies

Each hack team took a different approach. Some focused on inefficiencies with the daily maintenance of the service, exploring whether there are several teams duplicating the same work. Other teams zoomed out, questioning if overlapping government schemes could deliver a more unified and greener service.

Hypothesis building

Each hack team was asked to formulate a single, bold hypothesis for the most significant source of emissions in the service. Could there be unnecessary manual steps, excessive paper communication or a tangled policy landscape? We all identified prime suspects in the environmental crime scene.

Solutions for a greener future

Once the ‘culprit’ was identified, teams brainstormed and crafted innovative solutions to curb the identified emission source. Ideas blossomed:

  • Streamlining the internal service: reduce digital waste by optimising cold weather identification and payment processes
  • Reimagining communication to citizens: ditch paper letters for greener alternative, while considering access needs
  • Joining up with other energy schemes and benefits: collaborate across government to unify benefits and deliver a green service powerhouse
  • Measuring and tacking sustainability: build a green calculator or real-time emissions tracker to measure the impact, improve transparency and motivate positive change Awareness and embedding sustainability into service standard assessments: boosting knowledge sharing and holding teams accountable for environmental performance.
Colour photo of snowy street scene with houses on a hill
Digital services should meet user needs and protect the environment


Our hackathon's marathon sprint of data crunching and innovative thinking unearthed some crucial insights. One key takeaway? Pinpointing the carbon footprint of digital services is no walk in the park.

Complex calculations and the lack of standardised methodology make it a tricky puzzle. Throw in the added lack of transparency of cloud-hosted services regarding server locations, energy consumption and provider practices and the challenge can seem almost impossible.

Developing an effective standardised methodology requires collaboration between government industry experts, industry experts and academic institutions which is an ongoing process.

The sustainability hackathon yielded not only impactful carbon footprint calculations, but also sparked imaginative solutions for a greener future. One exciting insight resonated throughout the day: eliminating paper-based communication holds important environmental potential. While this might seem like a simple tweak, this shift is entwined with outdated legacy systems.

This highlights the crucial need for Opencast and others to continue our exploration and modernise paper-based processes, unlocking a cascade of environmental benefits.

Eliminating paper often has environmental benefits – but it can also be hard to measure the environmental impact of going digital. And, if you're not inclusive in creating your digital service and leave people outside who still need to be supported, say by call centres, you may not realise the advantage of cutting out paper.

This shows that sustainability is not just about carbon reduction – it’s also about being inclusive.

The DWP Digital hackathon didn't just spark new ideas, it also served as a valuable validation of ongoing work within the cold weather payments team. Many of the proposed solutions have already been implemented by the team. While their primary focus had been on streamlining the user experience and reducing operational costs, it was heartening to discover so many of the solutions also held the key to slashing carbon costs.

This paints a hopeful picture for the future of cold weather payment – a future where serving user needs and protecting the environment goes hand in hand. It is a great reminder to us that solutions for people can often be solutions for the planet as well.

We’re excited to continue to support DWP Digital to implement these greener solution and make cold weather payment a shining example of sustainable service. Stay tuned for updates on our progress – and we’d welcome further thoughts on the challenges and opportunities of greening digital services. So, please do get in touch.


Alice Williams

Content Designer

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