BLOG: Using tech to improve services in a small charity

Sex workers can be targeted by dangerous offenders due to the quasi-criminalised context in which they are forced to operate and the stigma attached to their work. Utilising technology to share potentially life-saving warnings with them is a core function of our organisation. Our model is based on a simple but effective grassroots response in Victoria, Australia in the early 1980s where sex workers shared amongst themselves hand written descriptions of dangerous perpetrators, nicknamed ‘uglymugs’, who posed a risk to them.

Similar informal local initiatives have existed throughout the world since then but ours is the first time an integrated national approach has been developed which also has formal links to police intelligence systems with a view to catching the perpetrators who target sex workers. We know from our regular evaluations, the most recent of which found that almost half of the sex workers who receive them had avoided an offender as a result, that the warnings work; the challenge is getting them to as many sex workers as possible.

At the point of applying to the CAST Digital Fellowship, a Comic Relief-funded programme for charity leaders, we had recently worked with developers on a technology project that would allow sex workers to share safety information peer-to-peer. This was piloted in Manchester then in London and won the Community Impact Award 2016 at the Tech4Good Awards. From the pilot we learned several helpful insights around how sex workers preferred to use the tech, and challenges such as language barriers, which will inform how we refine it. We are committed to continuing to test and develop the project so that it can enhance our life-saving services.

Working for a small charity, particularly one like NUM which supports some of the most marginalised and stigmatised people in society, can feel like constant firefighting and as the CEO I am forced to engage in what seems like a perpetual battle for my organisation’s survival. This warrior mentality doesn’t always allow the time for reflection and development. Most NGOs are unfamiliar with the language of the tech for good sector and to them ‘lean and agile’ are more likely to refer to personal fitness goals than tech development methodologies. It is no surprise that when conceptualising tech solutions to their problems, third sector organisations are likely to imagine all-encompassing smartphone apps without considering whether an app is necessary or what the minimum viable product would be. This creates a situation where partnerships between the third sector and developers can be imbalanced and a lack of mutual understanding of the expertise that each party brings to the table.

Whilst it would be unrealistic to advise every third sector organisation to avoid embarking on tech projects without having a CAST digital fellow on their team, since there are only a handful of us, a basic understanding of the prevailing methodologies and language of the tech for good sector should be acquired. As well as improving communication with developers, this knowledge will ensure that expectations are managed and would equip NGOs with the understanding to hold tech partners to account in line with their own methodological standards. The language may seem a little corporate and trite to the most cynical, hard-nosed NGO workers but that shouldn’t be a barrier; the theories of tech product development and user involvement are extremely transferable to non-tech projects and I’ve certainly adopted the main principles as part of any process of developing further services at NUM.

I learned a huge amount from the CAST Digital Fellowship and feel passionately that tech could have a transformative impact in delivering social change. Particularly in times of austerity and swingeing cuts to public services, which have brought about both a vast increase in the demand on charities and a reduction in the resources available to fund their work. Since the fellowship, I have been driven to use tech to consistently improve our services and have developed partnerships with Founders & Coders and the Open Lab, Newcastle University’s world-leading research centre in digital civics.

From my experience, the warriors in small charities like NUM are often those delivering the most innovative work, which not only benefits the most marginalised people but could also be significantly enhanced and even revolutionised by tech. Unfortunately funding for tech for good projects is in short supply and often inaccessible to them, and when small committed teams find themselves consumed by ever-increasing demands on their services, the idea that they can set considerable time and resources aside from core (in our case life-saving) work to develop tech partnerships and projects, is unrealistic.

Herein lies the challenge for NGOs, funders and the tech sector in working together in a meaningful way to achieve social change. We each have a lot to learn from each other: the tech sector needs to learn that processes can’t always be automated and our work is often so specialised that people can’t simply be replaced by tech; and we in the third sector need to learn that if we don’t find a way to integrate tech into our services they will cease to be relevant to many of those we exist to help. Funders, for their part, need to incentivise more digital innovation in charities, following the sorts of ‘lean and agile’ principles taught by CAST that ensure it is evidence-driven and manageable in terms of the charity’s time and resources.

Charities and NGOs, or their previous incarnations, have been developing services to bring about social change for as long as humanity has existed and we’re pretty good at it. However, with increasing demands to deliver more for less we must utilise tech to transform the services we deliver. Many services like NUM are already effective but we must fully utilise tech to make them more efficient and reach more beneficiaries.

Alex Feis Bryce is CEO of National Ugly Mugs

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