Croydon Council’s crap app – MyCroydon – could be about to crash, as the company which operates it, Sensemble, was facing winding up proceedings in the High Court today over around £100,000 in unpaid tax bills.
The winding up order could also expose Croydon Council as being party to a serious breach of data protection laws involving the personal information of tens of thousands of residents over the past three years.
This is the second time in less than 18 months that the company and its owner, Harwinder, or Harry, Singh, has faced a winding up order, though this time things seem very serious because the legal moves have been brought by lawyers representing Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs.
The company’s staff have been pitching for new jobs in the past week. “To all my recruitment connections, I have just become available for new roles after the project I was working on was abruptly placed on hold and the team was removed off site immediately,” one Sensemble worker posted on social media before the weekend.
Sensemble, which was originally operated out of Singh’s Battersea flat, only became a business in 2013, after an opaque procurement process conducted under the then Tory-controlled council’s cabinet member, Phil Thomas.
Sensemble was handed the council contract to create and operate a smart phone app for reporting fly-tipping and other anti-social conduct in November 2013. There was never any competitive tendering process. Croydon Council did the deal just two weeks after Singh registered his business at Companies House. Singh had no track record in app development.
Why the council thought such an app was even necessary remains a mystery to this day, unexplained by Thomas, his Labour successors at the Town Hall or senior council officials. Other open source, free-of-charge smart phone tools, such as the far superior FixMyStreet, already existed – and without any cost to the Council Tax-payers of the borough.
In its three-year existence, Sensemble Ltd has so far only once filed any (abbreviated) accounts at Companies House, for the trading year to March 2015. These showed that for the previous year, the company was owed more than £91,000.
Given that Croydon appears to be just about the company’s only client, that money may relate to fees owed by the council for work on its app.
One app programmer who undertook some work for Sensemble quickly saw through them, describing the outfit as, “a fake-it-till-you-make-it company”.
They told Inside Croydon: “Working for them was the worst experience of my entire life.”
They said: “In the end, what Croydon has is a poor app, full of bugs, while the company which got the contract is keeping a large slice of the pie as ‘profits’.”
After its first year, the uptake of the app in Croydon had been poor, with just 35,000 downloads among the borough’s population of 370,000.
The 10 most recent reviews of the MyCroydon app among android users are 80 per cent 1-star and 20 per cent 2-star, giving an average of 1.2 stars.
Those that used the app have tended to form a very poor opinion of its functionality, with a an average 2-star rating from 65 iPhone reviewers. “Bugs galore,” one resident wrote. “Crashes again and again… Hope the kids who designed this app on his Commodore 64 wasn’t paid more than a couple of jelly beans.”
And according to the Apple app store, Sensemble’s new business had branched out with a grand total of just one more app – for food hygiene reporting. And nothing since July 2014.
The latest winding up order may expose further flaws in the work conducted by Croydon Council officials over their tech arrangements with Singh’s company.
Although the “developer website” link on the Apple store takes smart phone users to the council website, the ownership of the app has remained resolutely with the private company, creating all sorts of legal problems and data protection risks for the app’s users.
It is understood that Croydon Council has never taken on the ownership of the programming code which Sensemble developed for MyCroydon. According to sources inside the council offices, three years on since hiring Sensemble, no one among Croydon’s tech staff has access to the MyCroydon app code.
And if Hillary Clinton thought she had problems over dodgy email servers in the United States, Croydon Council could yet find itself in its own pile of poo, too, potentially facing tens of thousands of data protection complaints. Because any Croydon residents who register with the MyCroydon app may find that their acknowledgement emails come from an email server in Hartford, Connecticut, in clear breach of 1998 Data Protection Act.
This states, “Personal data shall not be transferred to a country or territory outside the European Economic Area unless that country or territory ensures an adequate level of protection for the rights and freedoms of data subjects in relation to the processing of personal data.”
Our council source suggests that senior council officials have been well aware that their MyCroydon app has been breaking the law in this manner.
This hardly reflects well on a council which boasts publicly and frequently of its bright, new, tech hub future for the borough. Nor of council officials’ level of competence in ensuring best-value or legally watertight agreements with its contractors.
Inside Croydon contacted a senior figure within the now Labour-controlled council to see if they have any contingency plan should Sensemble’s database of thousands of Croydon residents’ personal data become a tradable “asset”, which HMRC might want to sell-on to recover some of the company’s unpaid taxes. But no response had been received by the time of publication.
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