Freelance journalist Rosario Blue takes a look at some emerging technologies - and explores how charities can make best use of them
Charities are an integral part of society, fighting the good fight for those who require support. With the working landscape changing and individuals and businesses moving towards a more digital and tech-heavy way of working, charities must ensure they are prepared to meet those demands and grow with those changes.
New technologies are emerging all the time which can also be used to improve an organisation’s services. Which of these can charities use to achieve more of their aims and provide better support for their service users?
In this blog, we take a look at a few of the key ones.
Important things to note
Because there are so many kinds of charities, each with different service needs, resources, tools and tech, not all of the technologies listed here will be usable by all.
But there are certainly technologies that can be used across the board, like financial platforms that can improve the way money is managed and received.
Edge computing is not a new approach, but is still very much emerging as more and more companies and organisations make use of it.
It is a move from centralized cloud computing, placing your computing infrastructure close to the source of data – the “edge”.
It can be a more reliable method since it works even when your devices are not connected to a cloud server. It is also arguably more secure because it does not necessarily process or store sensitive data on the cloud, and this can aid charities in complying with data protection regulations. It is also highly responsive, and works in real-time.
In an article on All Things Distributed, Amazon CTO Werner Vogels explains the different ways organisations can use edge computing and the Internet of Things (IoT) to connect globally and act locally,
Increasingly, developers are discovering the benefits to doing some compute and analytics closer to the end user, and even right on devices. By moving data processing closer to the end user, you can reduce latency for critical applications. You can also help manage the massive deluge of data generated by the billions of devices, and deliver fast, intelligent, near real-time responsiveness.
Edge devices, like gateways or cameras, can act locally on the data they generate, while still using the cloud for management, analytics, durable storage, and more.
Currently Amazon Web Services, Microsoft Azure and Google Cloud are the leading edge computing platforms. Charities can use edge computing to keep workers up-to-date, and manage sensitive data well. It would also be useful for working in teams, providing safe access to information when needed.
Most, if not all, charities would benefit from using edge computing in their operations, particularly for protecting user privacy in targeted advertising and fundraising campaigns; or using wearable healthcare devices that can be used to alert care providers when a patient or service user requires help.
A blockchain is a digital ledger which allows you to manage digital funds. It can track purchases, payments, production and accounts.
It’s secure, reliable and intrinsically trustworthy. A great way for charities to account for where funds go, and how they are used. It can foster trust among donors, who are able to see where their money is going, and funds can go directly to the recipient.
It is very efficient and can reduce admin costs, allowing charities to put the funds saved to better use.
Linking blocks via cryptography makes it very secure and only accessible by its intended end recipient. You can only add data to blockchains; you can’t change anything, which draws a clear map of what and where everything is going.
The UN’s World Food Programme uses blockchain to send money to refugees in war-torn countries, providing effective food assistance, while making speedy cash transfers cheaper and more secure.
While all of this is great, blockchain is a polarising technology. The naysayers believe it is not as safe as it purports to be. There have been major bitcoin exchanges hacked, for example. In cases where investors’ money is lost or stolen, the anonymity that cryptocurrency offers becomes a curse and not a blessing. There is also the potential uses for criminal activity, the effects of which are what many charities work tirelessly to fight and protect against.
Then there is asymmetric encryption. Blockchain data is encrypted and accessed through a public and private key pair. If for any reason you lose your private key, your blockchain data and access to it are lost.
Another issue for blockchain is the sheer amount of storage it requires. Your blockchain registry will require near 200GB of hard disc space in order to support your bitcoin. Blockchain sizes are almost certain to grow, meaning even more space will be necessary to support it.
Then there are those who are for blockchain. They are of the mind that blockchain is stable, and reliable because you can track transactions and there is a bigger incentive for all involved in collecting data to do so, and do so correctly, hence making it a trust-based system. Blockchain is helpful in preventing fraud because it is end-to-end encrypted and records can’t be easily falsified. This not only makes it secure, but also stable. Paperwork and human error is considerably reduced because of the way blockchain stores records, speeding up the process and efficiency of your production and transactions.
VR and AR
Virtual reality (VR) creates an entirely new world for the client. Augmented reality (AR), in contrast, displays the real world, but with an overlay containing additional information. At present, these are mainly used for games, but they can be used for training, advertising, and the restoration of buildings and properties.
VR can also be cost-efficient when considering the amount of money that charities can spend on training. In some cases, they have to arrange travel and food expenses for staff and new recruits. Using VR provides more flexibility, allowing for training of small or larger groups to be done at a time and place that is suitable.
Virtual reality and augmented reality have been around for some time. But as with many of the technologies on our list, they are growing and evolving.
Some charities already use VR for education and training. It can be a great tool for educating service users or improving skills of staff and volunteers.
It’s a great way to introduce the charity’s work to potential donors, supporters and stockholders in an engaging and exciting way. It can be used to educate the wider public on their service users’ experience and increase understanding of their cause.
For example, Alzheimer’s Research UK, in collaboration with award-winning innovation services company Visyon, created a VR experience to simulate what life is like for someone living with dementia. It is called A Walk Through Dementia and is available via Google Cardboard.
Google Cardboard has recently been discontinued, but it was an affordable, fold-out, VR cardboard viewer. It was used with a smartphone (iPhone and Android) and worked by placing a phone inside it and downloading an app to manage it.
Robotic Process Automation
Robotic Process Automation (RPA) is programmable hardware or software that carries out repetitive tasks that, in some cases, eliminate the use of human labour.
This technology would be well-suited to charities that deal with agriculture, computing, or want to reduce the amount of time spent on manual tasks.
Robo-tech, in collaboration with other technologies like edge computing, is being used more for farming and agriculture, for building houses and other types of physical structures, as well as supporting human workers by reducing their workload.
Being able to plant more crops in less time and maintain them more easily increases production, therefore doing more to help those in need.
There is still a lot more being done in this area of technology, but it is likely that more charities will be incorporating it in some way into their operations.
With RPA, you’re guaranteed 24-hour work: no need to pay anyone for annual leave, and robot workers don’t take sick days - although of course they can break down and require maintenance.
RPA can mechanise monotonous activities, allowing organisations to focus human skills elsewhere.
In an article for financial services firm BDO, entitled An introduction to Robotic Process Automation for Nonprofits, Joe Sremack, Director in BDO’s Data Analytics & Software Robotics practice states:
RPA is well-suited for solving problems encountered by nonprofits since they face many of the same challenges associated with reducing the time employees spend on manual tasks as for-profit organizations. Whether the work involves manually entering accounts receivable and accounts payable data in accounting software, generating compliance reports, or performing outreach campaigns, time is being spent by employees on less valuable work. Employees would agree that they would rather work on mission-specific tasks rather than repetitive tasks, according to “Service Automation: Robots and the Future of Work 2016” by Leslie Willcocks and Mary Lacity.
RPA is not an unmixed blessing. The automation of our economy has led many to worry that there will not be enough work left for humans to do, and we will see increased unemployment.
5G, which stands for “fifth generation”, is the fifth generation of cellular networking standards and boasts extremely large bandwidth and extremely fast connectivity.
5G is still being rolled out nationally and globally. Companies, individuals and organisations are beginning to factor it into their digital strategies and they are right to. 5G is particularly good for those working away from home, or for charities or individual staff that work abroad.
5G connectivity is an inevitability. Soon most next generation technologies, like AR and VR, will require its high speed connectivity.
5G will allow charities to offer a faster service for their service users, staff, volunteers and even donors. Maximising productivity and connectivity is vital to any organisation that wants to be able to do more for its service users and the exigencies of the services it offers.
NLP - Natural language processing
Natural language processing (NLP) is a branch of computer science that deals with analysing, understanding and processing human language. Services like Amazon Alexa and Apple’s Siri, among others, use this technology.
There is so much more that NLP can be used for. Language translation, for instance, is something many charities could use. Service users come from all over the world. NLP would be especially useful for charities that support refugees.
Voice bots and voice aids would help charities like Refugee Action and Refugee Roots enhance the service they offer to their users. NLP is an ever-growing technology that is predicted to be used by many organisations in 2021 and beyond.
Charities that support people with disabilities might want to take advantage of voice-driven apps and other NLP applications, like speech recognition (speech-to-text) software to connect with some of its service users.
An article by David Talby for dataversity.net, ‘Four predictions for Natural Language Processing in 2021’ states,
Historically, the highest quality NLP software was built for English and then for Mandarin Chinese. Now, companies like Google and Facebook are publishing pre-trained embeddings for 150-plus languages as free and open source. NLP libraries are following suit, too. Take Spark NLP, for example, which now offers models in 46 languages. This level of multilingual support was unheard of just a few years ago, so this is a huge step for inclusion and diversity, putting NLP in the hands of data scientists all over the globe.
Artificial Intelligence and machine learning
The science of machine learning (ML) involves designing algorithms that can use already existing behaviours to predict what is likely to come next. Approaches vary wildly, but it basically means you’re arranging a computer program to learn on its own.
Artificial Intelligence (AI), on the other hand, is the use of computers to imitate human behaviour, which you can see in different forms of robotics, for example.
We already see the use of AI and ML in speech and image recognition, navigation, and ride-sharing apps.
Charities could use these technologies for processing customers via visual recognition software, or take advantage of recommendation software offered by services in the entertainment and travel industries. “Suggested for you” or “because you liked x you might like these” recommendations on video streaming sites use ML for this.
Mental Health charities like Mind or Mental Health UK may also want to utilise the benefits of AI and ML for their service users through AI-driven assessment and treatment applications, as discussed in David D. Luxton’s book 'Artificial Intelligence in Behavioral and Mental Health Care'.
There are many benefits a social media presence can afford charities. Reaching wider audiences, researching analytics, understanding trends and finding more modern ways of attracting new donors: most people today, particularly the millennial generation, are connected in some way to one or all social media platforms.
While it can be used for advertising and fundraising purposes, it can also be used to bridge the gap between individuals and charities. Many people have become disillusioned with charities. Social media might help them reconnect.
The Lonely Whale Organisation is a great example of how utilising social media can not only effect serious change in the world, but also raise awareness of a charity's goals and principles. Their 2017 Go-Strawless campaign used Twitter to get their campaign to over 74million people with the hashtag #StopSucking and garnered over 50,000 pledges. Many companies pledged to no longer use single-use plastics.
Online communication/video conferencing platforms
This is an obvious addition to the list, being used already by many charities, particularly since COVID-19 has forced many organisations to further digitise their services.
Platforms like Zoom, Skype, Google Meet and others are being used to offer 1-2-1 counselling, assessments and other types of support, training, and conferences. They have been a driving force in ensuring organisations meet the changing needs of its service users.
While there is still a digital divide – many cannot afford data costs and computing equipment – there are still many who can access these platforms through their mobile phones, or charities that provide computing equipment.
It is essential that more charities take advantage of the benefits that come with online communication platforms.
In a Barclays Eagle Labs panel discussion (available on YouTube) on The Role of Technology as Charities Emerge from the Pandemic, the NSPCC’s head of digital engagement, James Barker explained that the charity uses tools like Miro and Mural which are virtual whiteboard services that provide workspaces for visual collaboration.
He also stated that they had to use services like Zoom to deliver their therapeutic services and assembly services for young people on behalf of schools who, because of the pandemic, could not run their usual assemblies.
It is important for charities to raise funds and use those funds wisely. A lot of the technologies listed are indeed costly, but it is important for charities to assess what the long term benefits of investing in some of them are. Most of these services can save charities a considerable amount of money and create more efficient services. There will continue to be more innovative technologies that can be used to their advantage; it is important for them to stay abreast of these.