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Neil McKechnie

iCarol is your help line software company that is here to make your job easier as Executive Director or leader of a non-profit contact center. Whether you have a crisis, help or 211 referral line, we are here to help you help more people in your community. Read more…

Tech Talk: What is an API and why should I care?

Increasingly our clients are seeking ways to share data both internally with other tools they use, as well as externally with one or more partners.

An example of connecting internal tools would be a client of ours connect their phone system with iCarol both to facilitate “screen pops” when a call is routed to a particular phone worker and iCarol appears prepopulated with information about that caller, as they answer the phone; as well as to combine the data collected by both systems to answer operational questions like “what is our average handling time for calls related to different help seeker needs?”.

And an example of sharing data externally would be giving access to your resource database so a third party can build a mobile app or a website targeted at a certain sub-population in your area, like immigrants or job seekers.

Enabling these data sharing relationships, whether internally or externally, is where API’s come to the rescue.

An Application Programming Interface (API) allows electronic systems to interact with each other without the need for the direct human intervention. That is, with an API no person needs to direct data traffic between two systems, say via a website or other screen – the systems just talk directly to each other behind the scenes. In this way, the data that resides in the main system can be searched, retrieved and even modified by other authorized computer systems connecting to it.

To do this, a software vendor writes an API and makes it available securely on the internet, and also publishes documentation about how other developers can use it. They can be one-way APIs, also known as “read only” because the software consuming the data from the API cannot modify it. Or they can be two-way APIs, where the consumer software can make modifications, like creating new records, or modifying or deleting existing ones.

At iCarol, we’ve had an API for a number of years now and are actively expanding its capabilities – it is used by quite a number of our clients to enable real-time data transfers both internally and externally. And we also consume quite a few API’s published by other software systems. Some of them enhance iCarol’s capabilities, like Google Maps or tools that let us send and receive SMS messages within iCarol. Others let us push client data to their partners, for example client or call data that needs to transfer into a partner’s electronic medical record systems.

APIs have been around for a long time in the software world, and will only grow in importance in the years to come. We continue to be excited about their possibilities and will certainly be expanding our use of them.

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iCarol response to WannaCry Ransomware attack

On Friday May 12, 2017 we were notified by Infrastructure Engineers that a massive global attack was underway which had already infected hundreds of thousands of computers and servers worldwide. This attack was known as the WannaCry virus and it targeted a vulnerability in Windows-based operating systems by encrypting the contents of a hard drive and any shared drive that computer was provided access. To decrypt the contents and return the hard drive back to a normal state, users were presented with a message demanding a ransom payment in Bitcoins, a virtual online currency that is difficult to trace.

Microsoft had recently released a patch to secure this vulnerability, which we had scheduled to deploy with our next patching cycle on June 11, 2017 after validation in our labs. However with news of this attack and following the recommendation from Microsoft Support and our Infrastructure Engineers, we acted swiftly and began the patching process of our external perimeter servers, considered to be at the highest risk of being targeted. By the end of the day Saturday May 13th, our exterior perimeter was secured in our production environments. We continued the process Sunday May 14th to secure our Disaster Recovery sites and by the end of the day Monday May 15th we completed the securing of our desktops, internal application and database servers. Following these actions, we can confidently say that all servers have now been secured in the iCarol infrastructure against the WannaCry virus.

Guidance for our users

We advise all of our users to be sure you stay up-to-date on browser and operating system updates on your machines. If you are running a Windows-based operating system please be sure to run the latest updates (Control Panel > Windows Update > Check for Updates) to make sure you pick up the latest patches and protect yourself from WannaCry and other viruses.

We take our role as stewards of your data, including sensitive information about the people you serve and the important work you do, very seriously. Should you have any questions about system security in the wake of the WannaCry Ransomware attack, please do not hesitate to reach out to our Support Team.

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iCarol to attend the 2-1-1 Leadership Summit and United Way Community Leaders Conference

I’m excited to be attending the upcoming United Way CEO 2-1-1 Summit and Community Leadership Conferences next week in Orlando! Of the many big ideas and opportunities we can advance collectively, some of my favorites are those that contribute to 2-1-1’s operating as a coordinated national network, and that increase our relevance in key areas like social determinants of health. I’m looking forward to formal presentations and “hallway talks” about:

  • Deeper engagements with medical and behavioral health entities
  • Technology standards to harmonize the distribution of social and human services data to trusted partners
  • Coordination of the National Texting Platform
  • Greater use of “syndromic survellience” (love that term) to alert our leaders to emerging crises and issues

If these topics are of interest to you too, please let’s make sure we connect in a session or during a break to explore how we can advance 2-1-1’s overall, and your 2-1-1 network in particular, in the near term.

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A special message from Neil and Jackie

santa claus st nicholas sack bag gifts present

As 2016 winds down, we’d like to reflect on the year that was both at iCarol and in the industry we serve, and look ahead to exciting things on the horizon for our clients and partner organizations.

We continue to take advantage of the fluid nature of web-based software by regularly enhancing iCarol. In 2015, we were proud to have released over 1,600 coding changes and enhancements to your iCarol systems. But for 2016, we’re on track to more than double that with a release of over 4,000 improvements. This is a reflection of our expanded Technology team at the direction of our new Product Management team. We’re with you on this journey, and this exemplifies our commitment to ongoing innovation and building iCarol to evolve and grow with the needs of your service and your community.

As we add on capabilities and as our user base grows, we know the importance of our infrastructure providing a stable foundation for the work you do in iCarol. Therefore, this summer we installed a state-of-the-art network storage appliance and fine-tuned our code for performance, which resulted in our total system uptime being on track to hit 99.975% for the year, well exceeding our stated target of 99.9% and considered by the industry to be excellent. Nothing is more important to us than helping you help people, and we know that a reliable connection to our software is critical to your mission. We will continue to invest in tools and technologies over the coming year that allow our infrastructure to scale and perform well, as we expect 2017 to be another year of growth for us.

In our travels to conferences and ongoing conversations with helpline industry leaders, we took note of the major trends either emerging or magnifying, including:

  • Identifying and addressing “social determinants of health” so that people in need can be more systematically helped across the spectrum of medical, health, human and social services. We’re seeing partnerships in our client base and directly ourselves with other firms to help contribute to this trend and advance it in the years to come.
  • Greater focus on “outcomes” rather than “outputs” – while this has been in motion for quite a few years, we’re seeing an increased focus on what composes a true “outcome”, as well as the use of much more advanced analytic tools like business intelligence to glean insights about the true outcomes that help seekers experience as a result of being served by you.
  • The continued increased use of channels other than phone to seek help, like live chat, text messaging and social media.

So with 2016 almost in our rearview, what comes next? Looking forward to 2017, we intend to invest heavily in iCarol’s product capabilities in the following areas to stay ahead of the progress we’re seeing:

  • Dramatically improved reporting
  • Support for continuity of care
  • Revised and improved follow-ups and outcome tracking
  • Continued improvements to iCarol’s already robust support for popular channels like chat and text
  • Enabling resource search and initiation of chats from the most popular social media venues
  • Increased accuracy of resource data and search results for help seekers

In closing, we hope that 2016 has been a good year for you personally and also for your agencies. The work you do continues to be a source of inspiration and motivation for us, and we wish you nothing but the best this holiday season. We remain deeply honored to serve you, our clients, and look forward to another year of service and giving in 2017 and beyond.

Warm regards,

Neil and Jacqueline McKechnie
CTO and CEO, Co-founders of iCarol Helpline Software

Neil Jackie McKechnie iCarol founders

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iCarol attends the United Way CEO 2-1-1 Summit

Last week I had the privilege of attending the United Way CEO 2-1-1 summit hosted in Denver, Colorado. It’s important to us that iCarol continue to be involved and at the forefront of developing initiatives and thoughts in this industry, hence our attendance at this summit and the Alliance of Information and Referral Systems conference next month, including our own all-day training just before AIRS which we hope you’ve heard about by now. We’d love to see you at that event, or at our usual User-group open session that we’ll hold at about 2:30pm on May 22nd. For information on all our activities at AIRS next month, check out our web site.

In Denver last week, Stacey Stewart, President of United Way, opened the CEO 2-1-1 summit with an emphatic speech about the importance of 2-1-1 to United Way. It seemed clear to me that United Way wishes to continue bolstering 2-1-1 as a national initiative and several thoughts were put forth to support those plans. My additional takeaways and interpretations about United Way’s position on 2-1-1 after listening to the speech include:

That the major focuses for 2-1-1 should be…

  • Self-service options that are intelligent and accurate
  • Providing predictive trending to community and national leaders and decision makers
  • Meeting help-seekers where they are, notably on mobile devices

And that the 2-1-1 Brand promises access to:

  • Information
  • Service
  • Outcomes

A note on Outcomes: there is a growing chorus of support for 2-1-1 ensuring not just that a quality referral is made but that the person actually received the help they needed. This of course means added emphasis on follow-up, surveys, and the like.

In her opening remarks Ms. Stewart also left us with the thought that 2-1-1 should, “Be the barometer of human need in America.” We know this to already be true; 2-1-1’s have long been on the front lines of hearing directly from help-seekers about what is needed, and having first-hand knowledge of the gaps between needs and availability and accessibility of services to fulfill those needs. This is one of the reasons why reporting and other information about the Needs as tracked with the Taxonomy, as well as documentation on Unmet needs and why those needs go unsatisfied, have long been a part of iCarol software.

In her closing speech on Day Two, she clarified an earlier mention of a “National Platform” to make sure people did not think it equated to one specific software ‘platform’. Although software and technology will certainly be a component, by “Platform” they mean an encompassing suite of services and initiatives from UWW that will advance 2-1-1 at the national level. Examples included:

  • Develop marketing materials like commercials, videos, websites, etc. to both provide as turnkey items for local 2-1-1’s as well as execute their own national campaigns
  • Strategy setting
  • Fundraising

We’d be interested in hearing from those of you who also attended to get your thoughts on all of this, and any other takeaways you had from this summit. Leave us a comment below to keep the discussion going. As for us at iCarol, we’ll continue to stand strongly behind our 2-1-1 users, who make up about one-third of all 2-1-1’s in North America, as these initiatives by UWW move forward. We’ll be there to support you with all the latest tools and innovation and strong infrastructure that will help you meet and exceed these big ideas put forth by UWW.

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A special message from our CEO

santa claus st nicholas sack bag gifts present

2015 will be remembered in our minds as iCarol’s best year ever by just about every metric. More non-profit help lines joined than in any previous year, making our adoption rate for crisis lines, information and referral agencies, and topic-specific help lines as high as it’s ever been. Along with several large statewide, multi-state and provincial projects, we’ve helped implement many dozens of new clients.

The industry trend towards offering multiple channels of communication continues to surge. The majority of our existing and new clients are choosing to implement live chat, texting, or both to augment their phone-based services. Fortunately, iCarol handles these channels very well via iCarol Messaging, embedded directly in the platform.

And we continue investing in iCarol’s capabilities, releasing over 1,600 coding changes and enhancements this year to advance and refine its capabilities. Our product roadmap is full of great new ideas driven largely by our clients which means many years of continued improvements to come. With just a month left in the year, our total uptime is 99.955%, which exceeds our annual goal. We’re planning to migrate our Canadian data centers early in 2016 to bring even more performance and stability.

We’ve hired a number of bright experts from the non-profit help line world and our total staff has nearly doubled in size from the end of last year. You can expect to see expanded self-service tools, content and training as next year progresses.

From all of us here at iCarol, thank you so much for traveling this journey with us and best wishes for your new year.

Neil McKechnie
CEO and Co-founder, iCarol

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A Holiday message from our CEO

fireplace fireside chat with mug of hot cider coffee or tea

As one of the people who started iCarol, one of my greatest joys is sitting down with one of our clients to hear about their experiences using our software and how it has helped in the lives of the people they served. I wish it were possible to grab a mug of hot cider this holiday season and sit down by a fireplace with each one of you 45,000 folks, but since it is not, I’ll share my reflections on the year of 2014 and a glimpse into 2015.

Our clients collectively logged over 5 million calls into iCarol this year. Each one of those encounters was a personal contact by phone, chat, text or in person and represented a moment or more where two people connected and a help-seeker was served by a help-giver. Having been a volunteer on our local crisis line myself, I understand the wide range of emotions that can flow during such a session and the glimpse it gave me into the struggles people have on a daily basis. We try fervently to make iCarol a valuable and unobtrusive tool in those conversations – something to help the help-giver and not get in the way. A recent message to our Twitter feed said “Your software is like having magical powers to do good” and, while I’m not sure we can live up to that for every encounter, we are sure delighted when it can for even just some.

2014 was a year that we significantly improved our game. We hired quite a few people and reorganized into a well-structured team that can continue to grow for years to come. We invested in a more rigorous testing and release schedule, meaning that our enhancements are predictable, visible and higher quality than ever before. We firmed up our support of multiple language interface, opening up iCarol to use by communities whose first language is not English. We instituted a formal product roadmap process, giving us a vision of what iCarol will evolve to be in the coming years.

In 2015, that starts with solidifying iCarol as the best multi-channel platform for non-profit helplines around the world. Our support of live chat and texting is fundamental to the way our clients meet the public through wildly popular electronic channels, and its integration with the same kinds of tools that are needed when serving people by phone sets us apart from generic third-party systems. You’ll hear some exciting news early next year articulating improvements coming to iCarol Messaging.

Later in the year we plan to revamp the way our clients can make their Resource databases searchable from their public website. Our existing tool gets the job done, but we have a vision of bringing the wisdom of professional phone workers, who know how to bridge the gap between a help-seeker expressing a need to a service that can meet the need, to your public websites.

We’ll also seek to do at least a couple of more large projects like these to get you all excited about. And throughout 2015 we will continue to make innumerable smaller enhancements and tweaks to iCarol that will form a chorus of advancement we hope you will notice and enjoy in your daily work.

From all of us here at iCarol, we wholeheartedly thank you for coming on this adventure with us and wish you a safe and rewarding holiday season. Best wishes for your new year.

Neil McKechnie
CEO and Co-founder, iCarol

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Resource sharing initiatives on the horizon

One of the major challenges that the Information and Referral industry is facing, is finding a way to reliably share currently isolated databases with partners in real-time. Often times in the same metropolitan area, you will have numerous human services agencies managing their own listing of community service providers to whom they may refer their clients for specialized services.

Just assembling such a database initially is a rather large undertaking, no matter how many such service providers you might be trying to track. But then keeping those records accurate and up-to-date is an ongoing, labor intensive endeavor.

Now imagine that effort being duplicated by 5, 10 or even 50 agencies, each of whom has an internal need to have such a referral database. The amount of time and resources that are being duplicated is significant.

So the I&R industry is responding with two different initiatives, both of which aim to make it easier for agencies to share their referral databases with each other, electronically and in real-time, without the need for everyone to be running the same software platform. In each case, the vision is that the agency modifies the software they are running to manage their referral database (which of course iCarol does quite well) to accommodate the developing standards. Once done, the software should be able to both make its own referral database available to partners and third parties, as well as receive such information from those entities.

From then on, an agency could reduce or eliminate the need for themselves to curate a referral database and instead could rely solely on their partners to provide such data. This gets even more interesting when you contemplate incorporating specialized referral databases by entities that target specific populations, like cancer patients, suicide prevention and so on. One could assemble, through these electronic partnerships, a network of very rich referral databases all curated by subject matter experts.

Both initiatives are at about the same early stage in their development, where needs are being collected and the specifications are in draft form. Code For America is sponsoring the Open Referral initiative, and the Alliance of Information and Referral Systems (AIRS) is sponsoring what they are initially calling “Linked Data”. It is still unclear exactly how they will be different, but based on the stated goals of each project, a good guess is that Open Referral will be targeting a lightweight, easy to understand and use specification that can be quickly adopted by software developers. The AIRS “Linked Data” project, on the other hand, will likely be a more complex and powerful specification that would meet the needs of their membership organizations, that follow a highly evolved and detailed set of standards.

Indeed, the prospect for the industry is thrilling, and iCarol is at the forefront of these efforts. We have senior representatives actively engaged in conferences, discussions and specification development. We’ll continue updating you on these efforts here on this blog, stay tuned for what promises to be an exciting ride.

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Calculating your resource database’s “complexity”

We mentioned recently that at this year’s AIRS conference a workshop called Resource Database Assembly: The Next Generation provided some inspiration in making a measurement available within iCarol that calculates the complexity of your resource database. We have now added this tool to iCarol.

Resource Complexity is a concept first suggested by several AIRS luminaries. By using approximations, it is used to calculate how complex your resource database is and how many hours per year it would take to manage them using the AIRS standards. For each Agency record, it gets 1 point for every Site record and 2 points for every Program record belonging to it. The Agencies are then grouped by their point score into the following categories:

Simple: 0-10 points
Moderate: 11-20 points
Difficult: 21-40 points
Complex: 41 points and higher

Once grouped and counted, you then assume an average number of hours per year for a trained worker to manage those resources, as follows:

Simple: 1-5 hours (average of 2.5 hours)
Moderate: 5-10 hours (average of 7.5 hours)
Difficult: 10-20 hours (average of 15 hours)
Complex: 20-40 hours (average of 30 hours)

With the total number of hours calculated to manage your entire database, you can then estimate how many Full Time Equivalent employees you may need to manage your database. There are 2,080 hours in a standard work year (40 hours per week for 52 weeks) but the hours available to an employee are usually less than that to account for vacation, sick days, training, meetings and other administrative work that will reduce their hours available to do resource database management.

Resource Complexity

To use this tool, simply navigate to Statistics and click on the Resources tab. The values for the assumptions of Resource Database Complexity described earlier obviously greatly affect the calculations. They have been in use by a major US 211 center since 2009, who claim they very accurately predict workload. Your own results may vary. If you would like this tool to allow you to modify these assumptions, you can contact our Support team using the Case Management tool found in the Help section of your iCarol system.

A large chunk of time spent managing records according to AIRS standards involves keeping those resources up-to-date. When records are regularly checked for accuracy and updated, you know your clients are receiving helpful, good information. This reduces the frustration and feelings of being overwhelmed experienced by those who may already be in crisis or an otherwise difficult situation. Even a database full of records rated as “simple” will take thousands of work hours to manage.

If you check your database’s complexity and feel overwhelmed at the number of hours it may take to keep your database in check, then it’s time to consider iCarol’s Automated Verification tool. With this upgrade you can seek out the resource records that need to be verified using the same search tools as you would to give referrals, with the additional tool of date parameters showing when the records were last verified. Next, automatically send an authorized worker of that agency or program an email asking them to review the information you have on file and make suggestions or updates. They’ll be given a peek at the information as it exists in your live database so they can make those suggestions. Finally, your Resource Manager can review this information and choose to accept what’s been submitted or make some of their own tweaks first, and then apply the update to the resource record. What might have taken weeks of phone tag to accomplish has been squashed down to a fraction of the time. To find out more about Automated Verification and how it can assist you with keeping your resources updated, sign in to your iCarol system and check out the video.

We hope you enjoy this new ability to view the complexity of the resources in your iCarol database and that it helps you analyze your staffing needs pertaining to keeping your Resource Database accurate and up-to-date.

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Digital Security in your Home Office

Digital security is an important component not just for your office but for your home network as well. In the past few months there have been some staggering revelations of security breaches and vulnerabilities, probably greater in magnitude than all of computing history combined before it. Heartbleed, Target credit cards, the NSA just to name a few biggies. It’s getting more dangerous out there… Here are some tips I would suggest you follow on an ongoing basis to protect your digital security at home.

  • Only use WPA2 encryption on your home wifi network. It can also be known as WPA2-Personal or WPA2-PSK. For more information you can check out this website

  • If your access point supports having an unencrypted “guest” network in front of the DMZ, that is fine too. The DMZ keeps unauthorized traffic from your internal, encrypted network.

  • Keep your router’s firmware up to date. Annually is probably sufficient. This makes sure any newly found vulnerabilities, coming both from your internet connection and over your wifi, that have been patched will be in place to protect you.

  • Always keep the operating system on your computer, tablet and mobile phone up to date. You may think it is just cosmetic changes but they almost always have important security updates too.
    OS X: Updating OS X
    Windows Update
    Update an Android
    Update your iPhone, iPad, or iPod touch

  • The most secure major web browser to use today is Google Chrome, partly because it is based on an open-source rendering engine, but also because it gets more frequent updates than some of its competitors

  • Of course, always run antivirus software. My favorite for years is the free version of Avast. They will try gently but repeatedly to get you to buy the paid version but the free version is sufficient for most home offices.

  • Windows Defender protects against spyware/malware (integrated in later versions of Windows)

By following these tips you can better ensure that the activity on your home network is safe and secure.

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