As another year closes and a new one begins, we naturally reflect on the accomplishments, celebrations, and important moments of 2019 while anticipating all that lies ahead. Personally, I consider the past year to be one full of progress, both in the industries we serve and here at iCarol.
All year we engage with our customers at industry conferences, forums, and in other capacities so we can be intimately aware of the topics currently affecting them and others on the horizon. This helps us to respond in kind to meet these needs with new, innovative solutions from iCarol. This year was no exception – we have seen movement across all of the industries we serve that open opportunities for our customers that we are actively exploring ways to support using iCarol software.
In the world of Information and Referral, the topics of Social Determinants of Health, Closed-loop referral, and further encouragement to engage in partnerships and collaboration all show promise for many exciting opportunities for our customers. Those working to address sexual and intimate partner violence continue to advocate for education, awareness, prevention, improved response, and justice for all those who experienced a crime. We’re excited to see their advocacy result in new legislation across several states that extend statutes of limitations for crimes, signaling better recognition of the complexities and time involved for survivors to report, and improved allocation of resources towards testing material from forensic exams, improving the chances that survivors will receive justice. In December, the United States Federal Communications Commission unanimously voted to establish a three-digit number to reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline in the next 18 months. This is long sought after acknowledgement that mental health emergencies deserve the same attention and response as the types of emergencies reported to 9-1-1, something suicide prevention advocates have long been pressing for as a way to prevent suicide. Finally, concerns about consent for contact and data privacy continue to loom large across the world. Previous years have given us CASL in Canada and GDPR in the EU, both sweeping and comprehensive sets of regulations. Now we are beginning to see individual states and provinces taking on the task of writing their own legislation to protect consumers from having their data harvested and sold without their knowledge and consent, most notably in California’s Consumer Protection Act. We are doing all we can, and relying on our resources available through Harris Computer, to make sure that we are in full compliance with such laws, and that our customers are aware of how these laws may impact them directly.
These are just a few examples of developments impacting our customers in the year ahead. Of course we will look for any ways iCarol can support our customers through these changes, and help them carry out their life saving work. Look for more from us on our blog and webinars for updates on how we are addressing these topics.
The industries we serve aren’t the only ones experiencing progress – iCarol, too, went through positive changes in 2019. In December we moved to a new infrastructure on which the iCarol web application runs – Microsoft Azure. The migration to this new platform was the culmination of a year’s worth of planning and effort, and was not without its challenges and setbacks, but we are delighted to now be fully operational in the new environment and excited for all it means for our customers. Microsoft Azure will help us provide the most up-to-date, technologically advanced platform available. We can scale and ramp up performance as needed to meet increases in system use, whether it be due to an event, disaster, or the normal periodic demands on the system that occur for monthly exports and reporting. We are delighted not just by the way this move allows us to be more responsive to system demands, but knowing that Azure offers built-in security services that include unparalleled security intelligence. We are very excited to track data over time to show how this new infrastructure improves performance and stability, and supports the future growth in iCarol’s customer base.
I must acknowledge and express deep gratitude for the great support and patience we received from our customers during this transition and in the months prior. Our customers exercised immense trust and patience with us as we developed the plan to make this sweeping change to our infrastructure. Their user testing of the new environment, feedback, and communication with us greatly contributed to the success of this project. I cannot say enough wonderful things about our customers as essential partners with us on this journey.
There is much more to share about what was accomplished in the year behind us, and what’s on our agenda for the year ahead. Later this month we will host a “State of iCarol” webinar for our customers reviewing 2019 progress and our plans for 2020. You can also look to our blogs and email updates, and for customers, our Admin Dashboard, for more exciting information as it develops.
So, as this new year begins, I wish to thank everyone who makes it their life’s work to help others, most especially our customers, on behalf of the entire iCarol Team. Every day we see the positive impact you have on individuals and communities as a whole, and we could not be more honored to play a small part in the amazing work you do. The team at iCarol is excited to see what 2020 holds and hope for continued progress towards a safer, happier, and healthier society thanks to the work you do.
As part of their Annual Conference, Helplines Partnership (HLP) presented awards to helplines in six categories. A panel of independent judges evaluated the nominees and then picked one helpline that achieved excellence in their nominated category. This year’s judges were DI Ben Loose (Kent Police), Karen Ditchfield (HLP Trustee and Operations Director for the WISE Campaign), Georgina Bream (Healthwatch England), Jessica Murphy (Civil Service with a focus on well-being), and Neil Laybourn (Mental Health campaigner).
Through the awards, HLP aims to:
Celebrate the improvements helplines have made to people’s wellbeing either locally or nationally; to individuals or the community as a whole
Highlight the successes of ground-breaking changes in the way helplines are run through the use of technology
Recognize the achievements of those helplines, teams and individuals who have responded most successfully to the demands being placed on them
The six award categories were carefully selected to reflect the range of skills that are essential for any effective helpline.
The award categories were:
Helpline Employee of the Year
Helpline Volunteer of the Year
Best Helpline Sector Contributor
Helpline of the Year
Best Innovative use of Technology
iCarol was proud to sponsor the award in the category of Best Innovative Use of Technology, awarded to deafPLUS. This category was open to all member helplines who demonstrated how they have been creative and effective in the use of technology. This could be through the use of ground breaking technology to deliver the service, or how the helpline has introduced a new suite of communication channels or is trying something really pioneering. A nomination must include evidence of how the helpline operated and the benefits gained from the introduction of technology.
The nomination for deafPLUS explains why they were so deserving of this honor:
“Helplines by their very nature are not accessible to deaf people, and we wanted to change that. In 2015 deafPLUS launched the first ever national British Sign Language (BSL) Video Advice Helpline. It is the only helpline in the UK that enables Deaf BSL users to access information and advice direct in their first language without the need for an interpreter. We help with a range of issues such as money and debt, benefits and housing, civil advice and how to access external services. Deaf people can book an appointment via our website to speak to a specialist adviser who is also a native BSL user, using an online platform they are already familiar with such as Skype or Facetime. While Skype and Facetime are not new, we have used these pre-existing technologies in an innovative way to deliver this unique service for deaf people. Individuals do not have to go through the hassle of downloading a new app, or trying to familiarize themselves with a new video platform. Instead they can use an app they are already comfortable with, reducing stress, and making the advice-seeking process easier for the client. 85% of deaf people we surveyed said they had feared seeking information and advice through fears it would be inaccessible. Since monolingual BSL users will never be able to fully comprehend English, they must have fair access to information and advice in their own language.”
The judges agreed and chose deafPLUS as the honoree saying, “This is a very well thought out initiative using existing technologies in a creative way. It is beneficial to BSL users as it makes the new service easy to use and inclusive. As a project, it’s also cost effective for the helpline; easy to implement and support. Well done!”
Elizabeth Burton-Phillips MBE (right) presenting Julia Pitt, BSL Advice Helpline Manager at deafPLUS. Photo by Christian Trampenau
About their win, deafPLUS adds:
“deafPLUS provides a British Sign Language (BSL) Advice Helpline using popular video platforms such as Facetime, Skype, OoVoO and Whatsapp video. The service provides, mainly, Welfare Rights Advice which means Deaf people from all over the UK can receive professional advice through the comfort of their mobile phones, laptops or tablets without having to travel a long way to a Centre. Many of deafPLUS Centres are Local Authority funded so people who live outside of these areas are unable to receive much needed advice. Currently there are welfare benefit reforms which causes huge distress to Deaf people who find the information and letters complicated and inaccessible. Our BSL Advice Helpline breaks down these barriers and supports them with casework to ensure the best possible outcome. We were delighted to win the Helplines Partnership Award for Best Use of Innovative Technology.”
At iCarol, we deeply believe that technology can improve a helpline’s service delivery and expand their reach so that they can help more people. Clearly, deafPLUS exemplifies not only all that we at iCarol hope helplines can achieve through technology, but they were a clear choice for the Best Use of Innovative Technology award at the Helplines Partnership Conference. Congratulations to deafPLUS and all this year’s award winners!
By now many of you have read about the recently discovered security vulnerabilities named Meltdown and Spectre. We are closely tracking the availability of patches for different systems, and many of our systems in our data centers have already been patched. We’ll continue to monitor this on a daily basis and apply high confidence patches to our systems expeditiously.
We encourage iCarol users to be vigilant in monitoring for patches and updating your own PCs, laptops, mobile phones and other devices, to ensure the highest possible security. This includes paying close attention to available operating system updates (Windows Update, for example) and installing these updates promptly. Browser security is key as well, so be sure to check for and install the latest updates to your browsers of choice. Note also that as new security patches become available more updates may be necessary, and so fully securing your local tools from Spectre and Meltdown could be a multi-stage process.
We’re thrilled to announce the addition of Val Kozintsev to our team in the role of Development Team Manager. Val comes to us with 15 years of experience in the industry, having gained a wide breadth of experience and numerous technical skills during that time. He has extensive experience directing teams of engineers through development projects and managing software release cycles. Val previously co-founded and built a Software as a Service (Saas) product and company, the same software delivery model into which iCarol falls. In another of his former positions he dealt heavily with desktop, mobile, and cloud security. He most recently served as Team Lead for a large and well-established non-profit in the healthcare industry. We’re confident that Val’s combination of technical and management skills, along with his practical knowledge of the industry and clients we serve, will be an asset to iCarol and aid in the continued growth of our Technology Team. We’re so excited to have him on board, and hope you’ll join us in welcoming Val to the team!
Microsoft products play a large role in what we do and the innovative service offerings we’re able to pass along to our clients. So, we were delighted to have the recent opportunity for Jackie and Neil to sit down with Andy Pitman, Director of Health and Human Services Solutions at Microsoft, to talk a bit about iCarol and the incredible work of our clients as life-saving social safety nets of their communities. You can check out that interview here. We’ve very excited to announce some additional initiatives between ourselves and Microsoft soon – stay tuned to the blog and your iCarol Dashboard for more information.
At the 2017 Startup in Residence Demo Day held this past month in San Francisco, participating groups were given 5 minutes to present their collaboration’s technological solutions to identified problems. iCarol and skyClutch were delighted to work together with the Our Children Our Families Council (OCOF) as one of the participating groups. skyClutch is an independent company which aims to help their clients with better resource delivery through user-friendly website integration. San Francisco’s Our Children Our Families Council works to make sure the resources of the city of San Francisco are directed toward helping children and families thrive.
The identified problem? Many of our youth and their families have the burden of searching multiple directories and portals for information but none of them are comprehensive. Most online directories provide basic health and human service listings, but do not include out-of-school activities, in-school services, child care openings, affordable housing listings, or information on medical support groups. The Our Children Our Families Council, a collaborative effort with the San Francisco Mayor’s Office and San Francisco Unified School District, seeks to create a comprehensive digital service directory, which would include all publicly-funded and publicly-administered services for children, youth, and their families including San Francisco Recreation and Parks, Department of Children Youth and their Families (DCYF), public safety resources, childcare, housing, health care, legal aid, and more. Currently, service data is decentralized and often inaccessible to the populations most in need. Much of the current service data is locked in proprietary silos maintained by individual organizations in different formats and is inaccessible to other departments, agencies, and stakeholders.
The proposed solution: A digital directory that connects disparate data sets into one holistic portal to increase accessibility and uptake of services to help San Francisco families thrive. Intended users are students, parents, teachers, counselors, youth, community based organizations, and city departments. The site would have front-end (e.g., homepage) that links to multiple search portals, which are unique to a particular data structure, user segment or issue such as transitional aged youth (TAY), child care, or housing. The goal is for the front-end to be user-friendly, translated into multiple languages, and mobile friendly. Users can search the service inventory via text field, location search, category search and bookmark, print, save, and share the resources they’ve identified and plan to access.
Moving forward: The Our Children Our Families Council is focused and committed on building, in partnership with iCarol and skyClutch, a centralized database of all San Francisco’s publicly-funded and publicly-administered services for children, youth, and their families. Through the use of the iCarol Resource API, skyClutch and the operational support from the Mayor’s Office of San Francisco and the San Francisco Unified School District, children and families awareness and ability to access needed resources will increase. The centralized database system will also allow the city to be more cost effective in how it can make residents aware of services and address resident needs. Behind the scenes, it also assists the city in knowing what types of services residents need most and what gaps there may be, ultimately helping the city strategize and improve response. And finally, it reduces frustration and builds trust between residents in need and their local government offices.
We are proud to be the chosen technology platform for OCOF’s service inventory and are very excited for the positive impact this project will have on children and families in San Francisco.
What is the STIR Program?
Local governments are under increasing pressure to meet constituent needs and engage with the public in innovative and cost effective ways. But, spending time and money on innovation is not always easy for city governments already stretched thin and busy with the day-to-day work operations. The Startup in Residence (STIR) initiative began in San Francisco in 2014, with the goal of solving civic challenges and addressing residents’ needs by pairing up government agencies and startups.
The partnered startup and governmental department work together over the course of 16 weeks to address a specific challenge using a co-developed technological solution. While the STIR program originated in San Francisco, it has since expanded to the nearby cities of Oakland, San Leandro and West Sacramento, with plans to go nationwide in 2018. You can learn more about STIR’s origin and history by watching this brief video.
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.
Being a web-based service, we are always aware of how access to our systems effect you. After all, many of our users operate as 24/7 services, entering call report forms and searching for resources ’round the clock. We recognize that there’s never a “good” time for iCarol to be unavailable to you, and this is why we’ve invested so heavily in infrastructure and processes that work hard to minimize outages and make unavoidable ones as brief as possible. We have “fail over” servers that are are set to pick up systems routed to them in the event of connection loss, and members of our technical team receive notifications no matter the time of day or night in the event of detected instability so they can begin working on a solution, often before our users have even detected a problem. In an effort to be completely transparent about iCarol’s uptime and availability, we make status.icarol.com available to you, and advise our users to check this site if they suspect they’re having connection issues to help determine whether the issue is originating with iCarol or something is amiss with their own local network connections. These are all examples of efforts and placement of reliability as our very top priority.
Our service level agreement with our users is 99.9%, which translates to about 10 minutes of allowable downtime, on average, per week to achieve. Of course it’s our goal to go above and beyond that, and consistently we do. iCarol regularly achieves uptimes of 99.95% or 99.97%, and our overall uptime for 2016 was over 99.97%, translating to no more than three minutes of downtime per week on average. This 2016 achievement exceeds industry standards as comparable to some of the top web-based service providers, including Microsoft Dynamics, Salesforce, Amazon, and Netsuite. These companies are, of course, much larger than iCarol in every way, and yet we often meet and exceed the service levels offered by them.
We’re pleased to say that thanks to some of the infrastructure work that’s been done over the last year, our total uptime for the first quarter of 2017 met a “four nines” achievement, which is 99.99% uptime. To give you an idea of how good that is, it means that in a given month a site would be unavailable for just over 4 minutes total, and about 1 minute of downtime weekly.
Occasional, brief slowdowns or short periods of downtime are unfortunately an unavoidable part of the online world in which we live, but making these interruptions a rarity is our top priority. We are scaling our infrastructure and systems as we grow so that we can continue to provide the level of service you’ve come to expect and deserve from us. It is an ongoing item that we’re always monitoring and looking to innovate, but we were particularly happy with the performance following the strides we made and wanted to share that with you.
In case you don’t know him, our CTO Neil loves to code. And he also loves to address social challenges with technology. So when the University of San Francisco’s School of Management announced their one-day Social Entrepreneurship and Innovation Conference and subsequent two-day Tech4Good Hackathon, he immediately signed up to make the short drive down to the event to see how he could help.
About 70 bright individuals arrived for the hackathon’s opening ceremony on Saturday morning and, one-by-one, introduced themselves to the group by announcing their skills, why they were there, and an idea for what problem they would like to see solved in ways that would have social impact.
In the ensuing hour, participants informally coalesced into the teams that would start building their entry into the hackathon’s competition, to be judged the next day by an esteemed panel of five high-tech executives from the Bay Area’s startup scene. By introducing himself as a “CTO, architect and full-stack developer” Neil was in high demand to join numerous of the 10 teams who hoped to have a useful, coded prototype to show about 24 hours later.
As he has a family member who could benefit from it, Neil settled on a team to build a web-based tool that replicates a “real world” tool that helps young learners with phonics, letter identification and word formation in their journey toward reading fluency. Each of his other three team members brought very useful ideas and skills and were amazed at how quickly they organized into a highly functional and productive group.
After more than a few energy drinks, late night coding sessions, and last minute changes, the team submitted their entry for judging on Sunday afternoon. Although Neil’s team didn’t win, he helped other teams throughout the weekend and was impressed with all of the final entries.
Although it was his first hackathon, we’re pretty sure it won’t be his last!
While we are proud of the fact that our total uptime in 2015 of 99.955% exceeded our goal of 99.95%, we understand that any downtime, no matter how brief or infrequent, impacts you and ultimately the people you serve. On February 28th we’ll complete a transition to new, even more powerful infrastructure to support our users. This change will affect our NA0 data center in Toronto upon which most of our clients are hosted, and will occur without impact or downtime to our users.
Once the transition has finished, you’ll enjoy enhanced system response that will improve your workflow. The redundancies included in this upgrade will drastically reduce already infrequent downtimes. This technology investment will also create an even more scalable system; as you build your partnerships and as we continue welcoming new helplines into the iCarol family, you can rest assured iCarol will continue to grow and will be able to more than accommodate your needs for added activity and data storage.
We look forward to continuing to serve you by aggressively investing in the best systems to support your life-saving work. If you have any questions about the upcoming upgrades or reliability, we invite you to open a case with our support team, and we’ll be delighted to assist you.