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The RSPCA on how going cloud-first helped it rescue and rehome animals throughout the pandemic

The RSPCA was one of the earliest adopters of Google’s online business productivity suite of tools nearly a decade ago, and the organisation’s assistant director of IT resources reveals how that decision has benefited the charity throughout the pandemic

This article can also be found in the Premium Editorial Download: Computer Weekly: How a cloud-first strategy helped save animals in the pandemic

The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA) was set up nearly 200 years ago to ensure all animals – from household pets to wildlife – are treated with the care and attention they deserve, and go on to live happy, healthy lives.

But while the charity’s core aim has remained the same all these years, how it achieves its goal continues to evolve, as new technologies and ways of working emerge that serve to bolster the RSPCA’s productivity so that it can help even more animals in need.

With this in mind, the charity set off on a cloud-first push nearly a decade ago, which began with a “bold and brave” move to shake up how it provided its staff with access to email.

The organisation previously relied on a Novell GroupWise-based system to run its staff email system, which was hosted on servers housed in the charity’s numerous animal and wildlife rescue centres.

The setup was costly to run and maintain, and – as time went on – the level of functionality it offered started to fall short of what the RSPCA needed, the organisation’s assistant director of IT resources, Nick George, told Computer Weekly.

“It was very limiting and fixed in time from a functionality perspective, because it wasn’t evolving,” he said. “And it had quite a high cost of ownership, just to provide email.”

The setup also made it cost-prohibitive for the charity to provide email access to all of the 1,500 or so staff it employed for cost-saving reasons.

“The previous system incurred significant licence costs, limits to system capacity and maintenance overheads which meant equipping all staff with email was unfortunately not feasible,” the RSPCA stated in a follow-up email to Computer Weekly.

“There were significant capacity and storage issues too. Options for frontline staff were also limited – as integration options on this system were only available with BlackBerry devices, which also had further resource implications.”

The end result was an email setup that “wasn’t very democratic” in terms of who had access to it, said George. “So there was a real aspiration to open the doors to all [employees] so they could all have [access] to the quite basic, modern feature of email,” he added.

Doing this would not only bolster communication and collaboration across the organisation, but would enable the RSPCA to be more responsive to the needs of the animals and the general public who rely on its pet rescue and rehoming services.

Comparing the market

George said the charity embarked on a thorough evaluation of the cloud-based business productivity offerings that were available in the market when the project was in its planning stages from 2011 to 2012, which led to it ruling Microsoft out of the running for several reasons.

“Because we weren’t already a Microsoft house, the leap to Microsoft Exchange and Office 365 would have been quite a large one for us to take,” he said.

“When we looked into it more, there were two areas that we struggled with – we’d have to build quite a complex Microsoft internal infrastructure to link out to the Office 365 solution, and Office 365 felt quite clunky from a collaborative perspective.” 

Instead, the organisation opted to migrate its email systems off-premise to the Google Cloud by becoming a relatively early adopter of its now renamed Google Apps for Business suite of productivity tools.

“We ran through the evaluation of our options, as well as the various costs and benefits, and Google came out top. What we found [at that time] was that Google was a real cloud-native solution, because it was born and built in the cloud, whereas Microsoft wasn’t,” said George.

“Google was our first kind of step into the world of cloud, and it was quite radical, really”
Nick George, RSPCA

Google Apps for Business is now known as Workspace, but it is worth noting that Google was still a relative newcomer to the enterprise market back in 2011, which made the RSPCA’s decision to select it as its preferred cloud productivity software provider a rather bold choice, said George.

“Google was our first step into the world of cloud, and it was quite radical, really. We felt quite brave in 2011/2012 when we started out on the migration,” said George. “We then had to convince our board of trustees that this radical move was going to be the right move, and we were successful in doing that.”

The team pressed ahead with the migration, which would go on to see Workspace and its collaboration capabilities rolled out to all of the RSPCA’s frontline staff, which today includes 270 inspectors and 100 animal rescue officers.

“That was a bit of a game changer because it really connected the organisation and it connected chief inspectors with their teams, who are all remote because they’re dispersed around the country. Just having access to email was a big deal for them,” said George.

Aside from email, migrating to Workspace also gave the RSPCA access to cloud-based file sync, share and storage capabilities, as well as word processing and other business productivity offerings, and access to video calling functionality. This, in turn, resulted in some other big changes emerging in how the RSPCA functions, said George.

“We started digitising case file work using Google Docs, and we were always pushing for more use of videoconferencing through the use of Google Hangouts, or Google Meet as it’s now known,” he said.

“We had a further stage [in the migration] where we picked up the remainder of the workforce, which includes the animal centre workers, so every single member of staff [across the organisation] is now connected and it’s now the norm that they have an account as soon as they join the organisation.

“That’s was quite a big breakthrough because it democratised it so every single member of staff now has the same access, and messages come direct to everybody, and within the organisation anyone can chat to anyone. It’s really opened up the organisation at hardly any cost,” he said.

With the organisation comprising 150 branches across England and Wales, plus a further 56 regional and branch animal hospitals, clinics and wildlife centres, this work has helped bring its staff closer together by making it easier for them to collaborate regardless of where they are in the country.

“I was talking to one of our chief inspectors recently, and they were discussing how they work with their team. They said they now have much more regular touchpoints with their team members than they ever had before because they used to have to wait a month and then all drive to their local RSPCA headquarters for a face-to-face meeting,” said George.

“We all like to do face-to-face meetings still, but now they’re able to be in touch with their staff on a weekly or daily basis, or whenever they need to. That’s enabled more of a support network, greater pastoral care and more collaboration to occur among the staff.”

Nick George

 “[The Google Cloud push] really opened up the organisation at hardly any cost”

Nick George, RSPCA

The RSPCA’s move to the cloud has also paved the way for the organisation to reduce the amount of physical IT hardware it has running at its sites, which brings other benefits.

“We now have a secure and robust solution across the whole organisation that is very light touch in terms of maintenance and operation and cost of running, and we don’t have to send engineers out to animal centres to rebuild servers,” said George.

The organisation has also embarked on a laptop refresh by opting to roll out Chromebooks to its staff, which – when paired with Google Workspace – has brought about productivity benefits for its IT department.

“We can deploy client equipment really quickly. Chromebooks have been a great entry point and are really good value, and the configuration is almost zero touch compared to a laptop,” said George.

“From an IT perspective, [the Google partnership] has really enabled us to focus on other areas and not worry so much about the baseline productivity tools that we give people.”

The fact that the RSPCA team was used to working in this way meant the organisation was able to rapidly adapt to the social distancing and remote working mandates that occurred in spring 2020 at the start of the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic.

While the UK may have spent much of 2020 in lockdown, the RSPCA continued its animal rescue and rehoming work largely unabated. According to the organisation’s own data, it fielded a total of 1.2 million calls, investigated more than 140,000 suspected incidents of animal cruelty, and secured more than 1,400 convictions for animal abuse last year.

Over the course of 2020, it also found forever homes for 29,000 animals in its care, despite the social distancing regulations making it harder for it to home-check the properties of potential adoptees, thanks to its use of Google Meet.

“We have been using video conferencing to connect potential rehomers with animals, and we’ve been using it to allow our inspectors to work with vets without having to go there too,” continued George.

In total, the organisation estimates that around 500 video meetings are taking place across the organisation via Google Meet each day, although George predicts this number might start to level off in time.

If there is one positive to come from the pandemic, George said it is the fact that it has made its team member more accepting and willing to engage with newer technologies. It has also cut down the amount of driving its staff do between centres, which is better for the environment, he added.

“Even with social distancing being less stringent, we’re still using those digital methods to be more effective and bring services forward in a more timely manner, without lots of driving. So there’s a sustainability benefit there, because – as an organisation – we do spend a lot of time on the road,” said George.

“We’re probably over-reliant on video conferencing technology now, which I think will balance out in time, but the benefits have been clear. And as more organisations strive towards sustainability as a target, then I think it’s going to feature. Video conferencing is not going away – it’s proven its value.”

A resolutely cloud-first organisation

The pandemic has also served to reinforce the RSPCA’s cloud-first stance, and its decision to rely on Google to assist it with its move off-premise all those years ago.

“One of the reasons we have a cloud-first strategy is because we want to be working with organisations that are innovating, but we can’t afford to invest directly in that innovation. We need to be hanging onto the tailcoat of the innovators, and organisations like Google,” said George.

As an example, he cites the way that rival video-conferencing platform Zoom rose to prominence during the pandemic, and how Google responded to this for the benefit of its customers.

“Last year, everything was about Zoom, and we could see Google very quickly reacting and adding features. That meant we were benefiting without any additional cost of a video platform that was improving all the time,” he said.

And this is one of the reasons why the RSPCA is now in the throes of moving even more of its IT infrastructure into the Google Cloud, as it is currently in the middle of a project designed to reduce the amount of on-premise hardware it has running in its headquarters.

“We still have a variety of physical servers and virtual machine environments on physical blade servers in our HQ and we need to move those out and to the cloud, and the Google Cloud Platform is our preferred approach for progressing that project. Google is very much part of our portfolio and we are looking for that to be the case moving forward,” added George.

Read more about the charity sector’s use of cloud

  • NSPCC CIO Ray Bilsby sets out the work the children's charity is doing to boost the resiliency of its flagship services, with the help of its managed services partners.
  • Barnardo’s has cited an earlier migration to Google’s off-premise portfolio of productivity tools as being critical in its work to support vulnerable children across the UK during the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic.

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