Tech powers The Bike Project’s work in helping refugees navigate new lives

Jessica Twentyman Profile picture for user jtwentyman December 13, 2018
The London-based charity is using CRM and an SMS alerting system in its work of reconditioning second-hand bicycles and donating them to new arrivals to the UK capital.

This week in London, the extent of the ongoing financial crisis at Transport For London (TfL) became clearer, when the public transport authority announced that not only only were plans for long-awaited upgrades to its network being shelved, but also that passengers may face an above-inflation hike in fares from 2021 onwards.

The likely end of the TfL fares freeze, first introduced by London Mayor Sadiq Khan in 2016, is bad news for many Londoners. For refugees living in the UK capital, however, the price of a bus fare is already completely out of reach, according to Jem Stein, founder of charity The Bike Project.

A TfL weekly bus pass costs around £21, Stein explains, but asylum seekers must live on a weekly stipend from the government of £36 and are not permitted to work until they are granted official refugee status - a process that can take years. In the meantime, they are typically provided with accommodation in boroughs located on the very outskirts of London and it can be hard for them to get around, to access vital services: education, healthcare, food banks, legal advice and so on. As Stein puts it:

Nobody should have to choose between eating a square meal and catching the bus.

Introducing The Bike Project

That’s why Stein has spent the last 5 years running The Bike Project, which reconditions donated bikes and distributes them to refugees free of charge from a shop and office in Herne Hill and a workshop in Deptford.

The charity also runs two other initiatives: Bike Buddies, which pairs volunteer mentors with a refugee to show them around the city and help them locate local shops, medical centres and so on; and Pedal Power, a programme that runs cycling classes for women refugees, many who come from cultures where it’s not considered socially acceptable for women to ride a bike.

In the last two years or so, technology has played a huge part in helping The Bike Project tackle a huge spike in demand for its services, triggered by the European migrant crisis, as Stein explains:

For the first two years, we just fixed a lot of bikes during the week and then, on a Thursday evening, refugees could just turn up, no appointment, and generally speaking, there would be enough bikes to give out to the refugees who showed up.

But then the refugee crisis hit, and in a matter of weeks, demand for our bikes went from around 10 or 15 per week to 50 or 60. People were literally queuing around the block and it was chaos, total mayhem. It was incredibly stressful for everyone involved and we knew we needed to change things very quickly.

Waiting list and alerts

The Bike Project was already using Salesforce in order to register beneficiaries and keep in touch with them, so with the help of the charity’s Salesforce consultant, it made sense to build on top of that system to develop a waiting list and alert system, Stein says.

Using Salesforce FormAssembly, the charity built a basic application form, which refugees access online in order to register their interest in a bike and enter their name, contact details and height (vital for identifying the right size bike for them).

Once those details are in the system, they are kept informed of their position on the waiting list via simple SMS text messages to their mobiles and, when an appropriate bike becomes available, they are sent an appointment time with a pin in the text so that they can find The Bike Project on Google Maps. If they miss their appointment, they get an automated SMS to check in with them and ask if they’d like to rebook.

This Salesforce/Twilio combination has been in place for just over two years now, and a more recent integration between the two systems mean that text responses from refugees can be viewed directly in Salesforce. The Bike Project is constantly finding new uses for the combination, adds Stein:

We now use it for Pedal Power, to send out reminders about lessons, and we use it to follow up with refugees after they’ve got a bike from us, to say, ‘Hey! Do you know about these other things we do, like Bike Buddies, Pedal Power or volunteering in our workshop?’

Pedalling away

New developments are underway. First, The Bike Project is looking to create a portal using Salesforce Communities and Twilio to provide a ‘matchmaking’ service between participants in the Bike Buddies mentoring programme:

So we just click a button and a Bike Buddy is matched with a refugee, and then the Twilio platform can provide them with a secure messaging portal through which they can exchange messages without having to give out their phone numbers.

Second, the charity wants to start translating the text contained in SMS messages, to support refugees who might struggle with English. Third, it’s looking to integrate WhatsApp into the system, for situations where refugees have run out of phone credit or simply prefer that method of communication.

To date, The Bike Project has distributed around 4,100 bikes to refugees. Some 230 women, meanwhile, have graduated from its Pedal Power programme. Selling bikes to the general public through its website has become an important revenue stream for the charity, helping to fund its work, and The Bike Project plans to set up operations in Birmingham next Spring.

But the main focus remains on helping refugees living in extremely difficult circumstances to adjust to their new lives through a low-cost, accessible form of transport, says Stein:

For many people, a bicycle represents a freedom and independence that they thought they had lost.

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