Simon Clark, CEO of The Aimar Foundation (and Senior Principal at Microsoft) explains how the not-for-profit organisation he has been involved with since 2006 is innovating to support the homeless.
Since 1967, Crisis, the national UK charity for homeless people - has supported the most disadvantaged in society at Christmas, helping get rough sleepers off the streets at a time when the nation is celebrating the festive period with friends and family. It is estimated that approximately 200,000 households are currently homeless in the UK. As the cost-of-living crisis continues to worsen the need for help will only increase.
At Christmas, Crisis sets up day and residential care centres around the country, provides a raft of support services as well as cooking for people. It will make circa 31,000 meals using 200 tons of food. As well as the volunteers who are so vital, technology underpins the Christmas campaign and is fundamental to its success.
Crisis is supported by The Aimar Foundation, a charity founded in 2005 to help other not-for-profit organisations with their IT. Aimar Foundation has been Crisis' primary technology partner for the past 15 years. Simon Clark, CEO at The Aimar Foundation shared details of the technologies employed to support what has become a complex, logistical operation.
"Each year we try to being some innovation to the platform," explains Clark. "Now Crisis are so dependent on technology that they couldn't pull this this event off without it."
Opportunities for Change
The charity moved from providing old, desktop tower PCs and networking equipment which had been refreshed by various financial organisations who were at that point still yet to experience the financial meltdown of 2008, to the use of IGEL OS-powered hardware to provide desktops which were easier to set up, secure and manage. More recently, Aimar has implemented a move from VDI to cloud applications running in Azure, both for desktop applications and back-end systems.
How much of this was brought about by the pandemic?
"What was prompted by COVID was a complete reengineering of the platform because we had the opportunity to do it. Pre-COVID there were 10 temporary locations around London, 350 to 400 endpoints, 4500 guests going through these centres over a 10-day period. The pandemic meant significantly reduced locations, no internet cafes for social distancing reasons."
This gave us an opportunity to move away from VDI which is an expensive solution to data and apps in the cloud. That enabled us to lower costs, but it also allowed us to scale. This year will be the first year that the internet cafes have come back post COVID and we're starting to see numbers closer to pre COVID times."
The pivot of strategy was driven by a pivot from Crisis. The residential centres in schools, colleges and other vacant buildings that were essentially turned into temporary dormitories for guests were no longer an option when strict social distancing was mandated. Crisis started using hotels to accommodate guests and it proved a more effective way of transitioning those guests to proper accommodation once the Crisis at Christmas event ended.
And this year?
"Internet cafes are back. There will be nine locations. Four schools and academies we know well will act as day centres to provide the hot meals, wellbeing services, entertainment, etc. Then there are four hotels which will provide all those services plus the room, and then there's a warehouse facility in Canning Town, which is essentially the nerve centre for the whole operation."
For Crisis volunteers, in addition to the migration to O365 and Teams, a software-based VoIP platform from 3CX hosted by Gradwell Communications being used, too. 3CX is a virtual PBX able to handle the call volumes between volunteers - avoiding the need for them to make expensive mobile phone calls.
Crisis has also updated its primary operational application - C-Log - which underpins the Christmas campaign and records all advisor interactions with guests. This has been migrated from Microsoft Access to Microsoft Dynamics 365 and has been integrated with the 3CX phone system.
The Crisis at Christmas campaign is well known, and from a technical perspective a finely honed process. But Clark points out, in common with any other campaign which appears seamless, the preparation is extensive.
"Most of the engineering work is done throughout the year. To engineer this to make it really seamless takes a a lot of effort. When it comes to going out to the sites and decommissioning them we have a group of volunteers that we use. Whilst we've done a lot of automation, I'm really keen for a volunteer to go to site and unpack something, put it down on a desk and plug it in and do some testing because that makes it real to them."
The priority for Crisis and The Aimar Foundation is of course to help as many people as they can both short term over Christmas and longer term, but it's important to note that sustainability isn't overlooked as a consequence. This year, a partner (Tier1 Asset Management) have provided pre-owned Lenovo mini PCs for the campaign. Previously, thin client devices were shipped from the US which Clark considered suboptimal from both a sustainability and also reliability standpoint. Trying to build a more circular element into the hardware used during the campaign was important.
"Going forward we will not be using new equipment. We borrow it from Tier 1 and continue to partner with IGEL for the OS offering, but the hardware will all be recycled, machines are five to six years old."
Clark is already thinking about how he can improve services for Crisis volunteers and guests in 2023 and beyond.
"We had volunteer feedback last year around having a full fat Microsoft application rather than it being delivered be via a browser so we're going to look into that and that's where something like M365 would be helpful, but a lot depends on getting pricing right."
Clark also applied this spirit of innovation to reimagine how Crisis managed its inventory.
"The warehouse facility which is the nerve centre for the whole operation send out food and other items such as warm clothes for each of the sites. They constantly track what inventory is on site but it was all paper and phone based and that communication is just more error prone. I brought some Microsoft Teams and Power application specialists in to work with the Crisis team to digitise that process. We built an app called Restock, which is a Power app and surfaced within Teams. So a site might have run out of men's XL trousers for example, that gets fed via the app into the warehouse, the warehouse fulfils that order, and it's all tracked and audited through the application. It was a real game changer in terms of reducing human resource efforts for that process."
If you would like to learn more about the Crisis project please click here.
Please click here to donate to the Crisis at Christmas campaign.