Five years of Dovetail

In June 2014, I set off on a solo journey with Dovetail. It didn’t really stay solo for long – from its inception I’d coined the line of “a collaborative hub of changemakers”, and that’s how it quickly evolved. I’m genuinely honoured to have worked with so many people as collaborators in so many different projects, from rapid literature reviews to long-term research and evaluation projects.

It’s been quite a ride, with a huge amount of satisfaction, and some stress at times, but I’ve been happier working this way than in any other role I’ve had.

As this year’s infographic shows, it’s certainly been a productive five years. There have been lots of highlights, a few of which are

But the biggest highlight has been the privilege of working with people who are passionate about what they do and determined to change the world for the better, whether as clients or collaborators.

Dovetail 5-year report.JPG

For a clearer and printable version, you can also download a pdf here.

In the interests of scientific investigation (and a berry crumble)

Back in June I bought the new company vehicle – an eZee Forza e-bike with a gutsy 34Ah battery, which I was assured by Electric Bike Team in Auckland that it would take me far and wide.

Since I got the bike I’ve used it a lot, and significantly reduced my around-town car travel, especially during the week. It’s made travel from Grey Lynn to my office in the Viaduct completely door to door, there inside 15 minutes and literally no sweat. The latter has meant that I’m also able to visit many clients without feeling the need to take a shower.

e-bike view6.jpg

The Forza is not a thing of beauty, it’s heavy and solid and designed to be a good workhorse; a friend calls it the Landcruiser of e-bikes, built to last not to dazzle. And the battery is a beast – it weighs six kilograms on its own.

The battery has lasted well, I can go a week at a time without charging it, but I’d never really put it to the test, until today.

Last weekend I planted a couple of trees out at the family section at Karekare, and after a warm and dry week they were due a watering. And with a still, warm morning to wake up to, it was the ideal time to head out across the Waitakere Ranges and test the range and strength of the power pack under my seat.

I figured Westie hoons wouldn’t be up before 8 and on the road before 9, so with a 7am start I thought I’d get a couple of hours grace before I was at significant safety risk. So just before 7, wearing my most fluorescent of bike tops, I set off.

To start with, I was careful with the power settings, I wanted to be able to get there and back without having to pedal unassisted. But once I got to New Lynn and beginning the climb up to Titirangi, it was time to hit maximum power setting.

There are generally two types of e-bike motors, cadence and torque. Cadence will simply chug along at whatever power level it’s set to, regardless of how much effort you put in on the pedals. The lightest of touches will send the bike off at its power setting. Torque motors, which my Forza has, gives back proportional to the energy that you put in, as well as the power level that it’s set at. It’s a more natural way of riding, and requires you to put in some effort. It is also easier to go slow with, which when you’re on shared paths with pedestrians, is really helpful.

So if the cadence is like having cheerful minions pushing you along while you enjoy the scenery, the torque is more like a permanent tailwind to boost your effort.

With the torque tailwind I ascended to Titirangi easily, and still locking around 25kmh up the hill. From there it was on to Scenic Drive where the views are spectacular. The battery was doing fine, not even 10% used by that point.

Looking out towards Huia from Scenic Drive in Titirangi

Looking out towards Huia from Scenic Drive in Titirangi

The thing about riding in the Waitakere Ranges is that you don’t get to the top and go down the other side. You go up to the top of something, then down, then back up, then down, and so on until suddenly you’re going constantly down to sea level.

Anytime there was up involved, I was at full power, and the battery laughed in the face of everything it was presented with. And the disc brakes, god how I love disc brakes, were a joy down the narrow and steep decline of Lone Kauri Rd to Karekare.

Descent to Karekare

Descent to Karekare

I arrived at Karekare after about an hour and 45 minutes. I stayed there long enough to water the trees and brew a quick cup of tea, then hit the road again for the steepest incline. Karekare Rd is a tough one, a really steep and narrow road that only just lets two cars get past each other. The bike (and I) had to work hard here, never going above more than about 10kmh, but that’s about 5kmh more than I would manage on a road bike (not that I have ever tried). And there were no cars. None.



Piha cafe.jpg

From the top of Karekare Rd is the long and glorious descent to Piha, the farthest point of the journey at about the 48km mark. There I had a coffee at the Piha Café, and rewarded myself with their apple and berry crumble. It’s a crumble that deserves some effort to get to (apologies, I forgot to take a photo of that piece of evidence!).

The return journey covered the inevitable steep incline and rolling hilltops along Piha Rd, and then descended to Henderson, before joining the northwestern cycleway near Lincoln Rd, where I was back again at sea level. It was a fairly uneventful trip, the Westies were well behaved except one going just too close and way too fast near the Scenic Dv intersection with Piha Rd.

Lion Rock at Piha

Lion Rock at Piha

By this point the battery was half full, and at max power I rattled along the cycleway to Daily Bread café in Pt Chev, for another coffee and their morning cardamom bun. The odometer was saying 85km and the battery still had plenty of juice. So I returned to the cycleway and rode through to the Lightpath in the city, then down to the Viaduct, and the return home.

The Whau river from the Northwestern cycleway

The Whau river from the Northwestern cycleway

e-bike ride.png

All up, it was a 101km ride, with a total ascent of 20km and reaching a highest elevation of 402m. In four hours of actual riding time (i.e. without the tea, coffee and sweet treats), the ride averaged 25kmh, much faster than I would have managed on a road bike.

e-bike map.png

The battery still had at least a 25% charge left, despite not just the distance, but also the inclines it was having to pour its stored energy into.

And me? Well, it felt like a workout, certainly not a 100km road bike workout with 20km of uphill, but a good 60km ride on a gentler landscape.

I feel science was well-served today. As was the berry crumble.

And no, I don’t have shares in Electric Bike Team. But thanks team, I love the bike.

For those who saw a postscript in the last 24 hours regarding Electric Bike Hub withdrawing their eZee range, I have since discovered I was confusing Electric Bike Hub in Nelson with Electric Bike Team in Auckland. The Electric Bike Team have contacted me to say they still love the eZee range and have no intention of dropping the range. Apologies for confusion on my part.

Virtual health – evaluating in a shifting landscape

Earlier this year, Rachael Butler and I completed a series of rapid reviews for Waikato District Health Board, looking at current thinking in virtual health – where advances in technology enable remote forms of healthcare delivery. Some anticipate that it will comprise a substantial proportion, if not the majority, of patient interactions in the future.

What is virtual health?

Discussion about telehealth and telemedicine approaches are often used interchangeably with virtual health. In the work we developed with our partners, virtual health was proposed as an evolutionary step beyond telehealth and digital health approaches, which is patient-centred and engages people as partners with clinicians in maintaining and improving their health.

Reported benefits of virtual health include improved access to healthcare and health and wellness education, increased patient engagement and satisfaction, a reduction in direct and indirect costs, and improved health outcomes. Virtual health programmes have also been linked to positive outcomes for health providers, including improved operational efficiencies, a reduction in costs, alleviation of staff/provider shortages, and access to a pool of clinical resources.

There’s always a 'but'

We found that virtual health initiatives have the potential to deliver patient-centric care, create more collaborative ways of working and make health systems more efficient. But when you’re talking about potential, there’s always a but. And with virtual health, clinical uptake is often a key challenge, along with the readiness of organisations to implement technology, and the suitability of technology for the purposes intended. Furthermore, users of virtual health systems – both clinicians and consumer/patients – should be involved in developing new initiatives, be adequately trained, and feel confident that the technology is safe, offers clear benefits, and is easy to use.

A copy of the synthesised reviews can be accessed here, where the above discussion is dealt with in substantially more detail.

Evaluating virtual health

When we presented on these findings at the 2018 ANZEA Conference, I offered some reflections about evaluating these types of approaches, drawing on the writing of Trisha Greenhalgh, one of the leading thinkers in this space. Trisha Greenhalgh’s 2018 book, How to implement evidence-based healthcare, is an excellent starting point.


The landscape of virtual health technologies is one that is constantly being iterated and refined. Maintaining a stable, unchanging intervention is really challenging in the context of apps that are being updated on our phones on a near-daily basis. So evaluations that are based on a linear assumption of stability and predictability may well be flawed from the outset. Evaluating technological interventions need to be seen in the light of something that is iterative, recursive and a long-term process – a developmental process.


The six worlds

Greenhalgh writes of six ‘worlds’ with significantly different stakeholder perspectives and expectations of technology interventions; each with their own evaluation needs:

  • Political, where technology is a vehicle for delivering policy, improving efficiency and providing measurable benefits to patients
  • Clinical, where technology is a tool to support professional practice and improve quality of care
  • Personal (patient/carer), where technology supports the individual’s personal health and wellbeing
  • Technical, where the focus is on design and as a software development project
  • Commercial, as a way of delivering return on investment
  • Legal/regulatory, in terms of information governance.

Getting comfortable with the complex

Greenhalgh and colleagues are particularly critical of systematic reviews of randomised control trials that overly simplify both the technological interventions and the outcomes they expect, and which often fall back on needing more research to gain a greater effect size. Instead, she argues for greater use of mixed methods and ethnographic research that embrace both context and complexity, to better understand the pathways and processes through which technological interventions fail or succeed, and use real-world experience to make sense of multiple and imperfect data sources.

In short, virtual health approaches are here to stay, and they will continually be refined and adapted to better meet the needs of people – many of which will fail to do so. Understanding technological value and impact needs to embrace the complexity of the different worlds of technology, and work similarly developmentally and iteratively as their real-life experience unfolds.


The review that this post is based on was commissioned by Waikato District Health Board over late 2017 and early 2018. The Smarthealth and Healthtap initiatives were outside the scope of our review.


Dovetail in 2017

Another year goes by and another opportunity for reflection. Thanks again to all who have been part of Dovetail's success - as clients, collaborators, and conversations.

For Dovetail, it was another productive and satisfying year. One of the biggest highlights was being part of the Te Ara Mua Future Streets team which scooped up the Innovation Hub and Supreme Awards at the Bike to the Future Awards.

I was also very pleased to be part of publishing a few journal articles, my first for a while, on evaluation, bikelash and urban form.

Clients kept things busy as always, which is great because the variety of work is constantly engaging, and it gives an opportunity to help people working at the coalface. Some new research and evaluation directions emerged through this, including social procurement, financial capability, social enterprise support, and just at the tail end of the year, a new foray into ocean conservation.

The election blogs provided time for me to geek out to my heart's content, and to keep things on an even keel, I set myself an audacious goal to get to 52 gigs in 52 weeks.

And for me personally, 2017 had some pretty tough moments. I'm incredibly grateful to the friends, family, colleagues and clients who were there to get us through. I can't thank you enough.

Dovetail Annual Report 2017.jpg

For a clearer and printable version, you can also download a pdf here.

Getting more out of business as usual

Every day we see public works taking place – street improvements, parks development, public facilities, and transport improvements. Fundamentally these are about making places better for people to live, work and play.

But what if councils and government agencies could make this happen in a way that delivers additional benefits, or social value, to communities? What if the value that ratepayers receive from public services could deliver some extra social value that can help strengthen the fabric of communities?

What if the way that councils and government agencies purchase services could be used to get these additional benefits?

One area of work that I’ve really enjoyed this year has been social procurement. It’s an emerging practice in New Zealand, particularly in Auckland, and is well-established overseas, especially in the UK and Australia.

It’s about using business as usual purchasing and contracting to get extra social value. The key ingredients are:

  • Policy – to set the conditions for social procurement to occur in practice
  • Contracting – to specify the social value that an organisation is seeking providers to deliver, and to shape the market’s response
  • Market development – to build innovative approaches and new supplier markets
  • Supplier development – to support organisations, such as social enterprises or community organisations, to become fit for purpose players in the market and able to deliver social value

When organisations like Auckland Council spend over $3 billion per annum on procurement, there's a real opportunity to use the procurement level to get more benefits for communities.

Earlier this year, Rachael Butler and I completed an evaluation of a social procurement initiative in Mt Roskill, Auckland. The project, called Te Auaunga, was at one level simply a flood mitigation initiative for a local stream (also called Oakley Creek).

At another level, the initiative offered a range of placemaking opportunities, including park and environmental restoration, and new community facilities.

And at yet another level, Auckland Council and the Puketāpapa Local Board saw opportunities to bring about further social benefits to train and employ local young people, and set up a social enterprise plant nursery.

The employment initiative recruited 17 young people to complete a construction skills certificate course at a local training centre; many of them were then channelled into positions with the works contractor and to the social enterprise.

The social enterprise, Te Whangai Trust, established a native nursery on the grounds of a local school, and in the process created a new community hub, and hands-on learning for school children. The trust’s work focuses on bringing long-term unemployed and people with mental health and/or offending histories into sustained employment through building work and life skills. The nursery brings in 60 people each year to deliver the plants, planting and plant maintenance for Te Auaunga.

As our evaluation showed, the process was not without its challenges, and we understand that retention in the youth employment initiative was a particular challenge. But the project highlighted some real potential for social procurement, and lessons for future activity.

I’m currently working with The Southern Initiative at Auckland Council to document a series of social procurement case studies. The report on this will be coming out in the next few months. In the meantime, our report on Te Auaunga can be accessed here, at Auckland Council's RIMU website.

With a new government committed to regional development and sustainable employment, there may well be a role for social procurement to do more than just deliver capital works over the next few years.

With thanks to Auckland Council for commissioning the evaluation of Te Auaunga.