How PagerDuty’s incident response helps global food aid charity Mary’s Meals feed hungry kids

Gary Flood Profile picture for user gflood October 27, 2020
School feeding charity Mary’s Meals says a software problem-paging system helps it deal with whatever the field throws at it

Image of Mary’s Meals logo and some kids on a dirt path
(Image sourced via Mary’s Meals website)

Formerly known as Scottish International Relief (SIR) and headquartered in Dalmally, Argyll, Mary's Meals describes itself as a "no-frills charity with a simple idea that works": by providing one good meal in a place of learning, children can be drawn into a setting where they can receive the education that could one day free them from poverty. At least 93% of all donations get spent directly on charitable activities, it claims - and Incidentally, all it takes to feed a child for a whole school year is just £15.90 or $21.

The majority of the children it helps live in the developing world, and as of October 2020, Mary's Meals claims 1.7m kids are fed by it every school day - though as a result of COVID, it now mainly does this through the provision of take-home rations through community food distributions. Though very much a grassroots movement, with its fundraising base largely being individual supporters from a network of affiliate organisations across the globe, it claims to have seen steady year-on-year growth in support from each of the countries it operates in.

Technology is also central to what it's trying to achieve. As its IT Infrastructure Lead since 2018, Stephen Neil says Mary's Meals is now putting in place central systems to help it grow further, such as global CRM and web content platforms. The charity is also developing field-based digital data collection techniques to replace what has up until now been largely manual reporting on the feeding programmes to accelerate the return of feeding-related data, which will enable it to make better operating decisions, for instance.

But as Neil admits, it still had a problem: better routing of alerts, be they from website or system problems that could impact supporter donations, to network or infrastructure outages which could affect comms with programme teams, to IT or personnel security issues - which Neil sums up as:

We needed a way to get notifications of important system issues quickly to the right people to enable prompt support.

Connectivity challenges

The challenge in doing that was that while Neil and his small IT team are very much committed to working with cloud in developed areas, Mary's Meals feeding programmes need to operate in some of the world's poorest and hardest-to-reach communities that have inherent communication challenges, particularly with Internet connectivity. What was needed, he decided, was a technology that could route problem notifications intelligently and efficiently over multiple available channels (be that voice, SMS, or email and app notifications) directly to the teams or individuals who need to get them.

Essentially, we needed prompt notification of website or other system or infrastructure outages and notifications to take action on important IT security alerts, but also prompts to take action on important personnel or field security alerts.

These could be everything from panic button activations from the charity's vehicle fleet trackers or satphones to prompt dissemination of incident information in situations like disease outbreak, civil unrest or accidents affecting our programmes, he points out.

It's important to be able to route information to the right respondents to take action and keep the right stakeholders informed.

Neil says he's found what he wants with a system called PagerDuty, from a US-headquartered cloud computing company specialising in a SaaS incident response alerts, originally for IT departments, which he'd actually used before in a role at a software company with a globally dispersed technical team, where the team liked how easy it was to integrate with other systems either out of the box or via custom transformers to process events received via email.

But does it work as well in a global non-profit context? Neil says very much so, citing speedy support when needed and the fact that for non-profits the vendor offers 10 free licenses under its social impact scheme. Now, Mary's Meals get notifications when a remote field office network or local websites go offline or one of its drivers activates the panic button alarm system in an aid vehicle, sparking a Priority1 support ticket is raised on the IT Service Desk. In turn, that allows a team member to manually escalate a support ticket.

Defining processes

Some great wins there - but Neil says he's not done yet:

We'd like to add notifications when staff submit field security incident reports that could impact aid programmes for issues like local civil unrest, disease outbreaks, critical accidents, and so on. Using this software to alert our security teams to high priority field incident reports will also be useful during crisis response management, and we're also interested in exploring potential integration with our new ERP system to provide alerts on any critical changes to food stocks.

Neil adds he's also been testing integration of the alert system with events from the CCTV solution protecting warehouses, though this has been paused pending refinement of alerts. He also believes better use of technology to make it easier to route crucial personnel means the organisation could be better placed in future to handle future humanitarian crises, like COVID or when Ebola affected its Liberian programme in 2014-15.

Finally, we asked Neil what surprises (if any) the introduction of this alert software had thrown up for them in terms of key Mary's Meals processes:

Probably that we either didn't have them agreed in some areas, or that operating practices differed. By introducing technology to automate portions of these processes, we had to review and clearly define them; now they have been defined, the software ensures our approach on things like communications and who to notify will now be consistent.

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