The Year That Was - the Jessica version

Profile picture for user jtwentyman By Jessica Twentyman December 20, 2018
At a time when people can seem more divided than ever, there’s still a lot of good in the world. Eight Tech4Good case studies from 2018 provide reasons for positivity.

(1) RNIB tackles homeworker compliance issue with Semafone

With our team consisting of homeworkers, compliance was a big concern which held us back from raising as much as we might. As an organization, we can’t afford to lose donations or supporters, simply because we can’t process payments.

Why? When it comes to taking donations by card payments over the phone, the call centres of UK charities must put in place a range of measures in order to stay compliant with PCI DSS, the Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard. But that’s tricky when your ‘call centre’ is actually a team of 140 fundraisers working from their own homes - as in the case of the Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB). In January, I heard from Catherine Lloyd, the charity’s senior telemarketing manager, how it has deployed technology from Semafone, which enables supporters to input their payment card details using their telephone keypad and sends them directly to payment service providers, completely bypassing the RNIB’s own IT systems. This system now supports some £300,000 (around $430,000) each year in card-based donations.

(2) ZSL puts machine learning to work on studying camera trap data

Our long-term goal is to provide a health check for the planet, and that’s a very big ambition obviously, but as it starts to become possible to perform more of these studies and get the results back more quickly, our view of biodiversity will grow and grow.

Why? For a conservation charity like the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) - which also runs London Zoo - camera traps located in the wild and activated by sensors that detect heat or motion in their vicinity are a valuable way to monitor Sumatran tigers in Indonesia or Liberia’s pygmy hippopotamus community. But trawling through millions of images to create species identification data is clearly not a good use of scientists’ time or expertise. In February, Sophie Maxwell, head of conservation technology at ZSL, explained how the organization has worked with Google to develop machine learning-based models for image recognition, host them in the Google Cloud and open them up to other conservation charities around the world.

(3) How Kiva uses data analytics to lend a hand (and money) to refugees

“The big question at the heart of our data strategy is this: Can we use evidence-based research to look at our lending activities, the types of loans we make and the types of populations that we serve and see from that research what’s actually having the most impact on the lives of borrowers?”

Why? For most financial lending institutions worldwide, refugees are typically considered to be too high risk to make suitable borrowers. US-based microlending platform Kiva, however, has used data analytics from Snowflake Computing and Looker to show that the loans it makes to refugees have similar repayment rates to the loans it makes to non-refugee populations. This summer, I spoke to Kiva CTO Kevin O’Brien about how this tech combo is helping Kiva to slice and dice data in other ways, too - all with the goal of ensuring that money lent on its platform is directed to where it will have most impact.

(4) Be The Match finds quality partner in SQS

We need to be sure that we are delivering quality systems that support the whole organization, from applications that help us match donors to patients, to applications that facilitate the supply chain in terms of getting patients the stem cells they need. There are a lot of quite complex processes happening here and the link between quality software and patient outcomes can never be underestimated.

Why? At the US-based National Marrow Donor Program (NMDP), the process of matching donors, patients and transplant centers for its Be The Match program is a complex one that increasingly happens via digital channels. In September 2018, just ahead of World Bone Marrow Day (15 September), I heard from NMDP quality assurance manager Michelle Nyamushanya about how the organization relies on a steady stream of new software releases and updates to keep its registry and related applications up and running. She explained that this is why it has chosen to work with quality assurance (QA) specialist SQS on making sure the software it develops in-house is up to the challenge.

(5) Harambee recruits Google Cloud in fight to tackle youth unemployment

“In terms of analytics, we’re now taking a lot more opportunities now to study candidates, and to ascertain what makes them successful in a particular role or at a particular place of work. We have an emerging competence for machine learning and it’s really helping us to understand these attributes.”

Why? Youth unemployment is a big problem in South Africa, where 57% of young people aged 15-24 are without work. Non-profit Harambee - the name means “all pull together” in Swahili - is using the Google Cloud to collect and analyse data on young people and match them with employment opportunities, based on their skills, preferences and locations, as the organization’s CIO Evan Jones told me in September.

(6) Parkinson’s UK takes battle for a cure to the cloud with Snowflake Computing

This is about using our data strategically to help the entire global research community to understand the disease better, to target specific treatments and hopefully find a cure. That involves working with pharmaceutical companies, universities, other charities and data-sharing is what will help us all work together to get faster results.

Why? Parkinson’s UK is using a cloud-based data warehouse from Snowflake Computing as the basis for becoming a more data-driven organization. This, according to director of digital transformation Julie Dodd, will not only transform the ways in which it is able to support people with this condition and fine-tune its fundraising, but also help it to share data with other organizations in search of a cure.

(7) American Red Cross equips volunteers with mobile app for disaster relief

We wanted to improve the efficiency of delivering shelter, food and emergency supplies to those affected by disaster. So we brought together a team of Red Cross partners to look at our execution systems to see how we could improve our processes and do it quickly.

Why? During 2017, the American Red Cross was quickly on the scene after several major disasters - in particular, Hurricanes Irma, Maria and Harvey, along with the year’s California wildfires. Dealing with these disasters was the impetus for a mobile app project, based on technology from Oracle, which helps volunteers get relief missions in the field up and running fast. In particular, it enables them to order vital supplies - such as food and blankets - and track the progress of these orders through to fulfillment, as Susan Gorecki, the American Red Cross’s director of information technology told attendees at this year’s Oracle OpenWorld in October.

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

Nobody should have to choose between eating a square meal and catching the bus. For many people, a bicycle represents a freedom and independence that they thought they had lost.

Why? The Bike Project is a London-based charity that reconditions donated bikes and distributes them to refugees free of charge, in order to help them access vital services and navigate new lives in the UK capital. It’s using a combination of Salesforce and Twilio to allow refugees to register their interest online and then alerting them by text message when a suitable bike is available for pick-up - a move that became necessary when the European migrant crisis from 2015 onwards sent demand for its bikes soaring, as founder Jem Stein told me this December.