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Family charity Action for Children has moved to an MPLS core network service as part of a wider initiative to transform how its staff go about their day-to-day work, and how it interacts with the vulnerable children in its care.
Action for Children is well known in the IT industry for its annual Byte Night sleep-out in aid of youth homelessness. It is one of the largest charities in the UK, with 5,000 staff working with around 300,000 children and teenagers every year.
The service delivery charity runs services – such as adoption and fostering – for local authorities. It also provides one-on-one care for children with disabilities, and runs day centres and parenting classes at 500 sites across the UK, competing with Virgin Care and Capita.
It brings in around £170m per annum, with approximately 85% of this from local authority deals.
According to CIO Alan Crawford – who joined Action for Children in 2013 from a previous role as IT director at AgeUK – the charity’s IT function had grown piecemeal over a number of years. It became inefficient, inflexible and expensive, restricting Action for Children’s ability to serve its users as well as it could.
“Our IT was stable, but well past its sell by date,” he says. “All our desktops were running Microsoft Windows XP, which tended to work, but slowly. The experience was generally poor, so we wanted to move to a better network and high-performance thin clients to speed things up.”
Crawford adds that a lot of Action for Children’s staff are mobile and spend their working days out visiting vulnerable families. Therefore, as well as supporting, the ability to offer mobile services was also very important.
Ultimately, he says, the objective was to adapt to new projects, realise time and cost savings, and free staff and volunteers to focus on their primary care-giving roles.
MPLS works by forwarding most network data packets at the switching level (Layer 2), as opposed to the routing level (Layer 3). Packets are labelled on entry into the network and follow pre-determined paths which can be defined by a service provider to meet specific service level agreements, such as latency or downtime.
This enables the service provider to speed up and shape traffic flowing across the network and deliver a higher quality of service to the user.
Crawford says he was impressed with the speed and competence of the switchover and the competitive bid Claranet put in.
One of the main benefits of moving to an MPLS set-up is that it brings a greater degree of flexibility to the network.
For Action for Children, this was a critical element because it is constantly adding and removing sites as contracts are won and lost, due to the quasi-commercial nature of its business with local authorities.
“Our contracts turn over every three years, so we are constantly adding and decommissioning sites,” says Crawford. “We couldn’t connect 500 sites to Claranet and leave it at that.”
Action for Children recently won a contract in Buckinghamshire that required providing network connectivity into 20 new sites.
“We’ve got it down to quite a well-honed process,” says Crawford. “We provide all the necessary details to help them figure out the best possible connectivity options – these days that increasingly means fibre-to-the-cabinet [FTTC] – and Claranet arranges to install the equipment on site and work with our IT team.”
The final part of the jigsaw was to install Cisco Meraki-based Wi-Fi networks – shared between staffers and the public – at more than half of Action for Children’s sites.
Wi-Fi provision is key to addressing digital exclusion, according to Crawford, as many of the families that the charity works with are unable to afford their own broadband connections.
“We have found the reason people remain offline these days is actually less to do with a lack of digital skills, and more to do with money,” he says. “We see big challenges around low-income families who can’t afford broadband, so Wi-Fi is the part I am most pleased about.”
The addition of Wi-Fi to the charity’s sites has also paid off for staff, who are increasingly using photos and video on smartphones and tablets as part of their work.
Having an easy-to-access wireless facility shared across multiple sites helped to make this process as simple as possible, said Crawford, when supporting social care specialists whose priority is not always IT.
For Paul Andrews, a family support practitioner based in Carmarthenshire in Wales, the service has revolutionised his average working day in the field.
Andrews typically visits three families a day, some up to 30 miles from his base, with each visit generating a lot of data. On an average visit, he will need to record information on the family and service user, take notes, keep track of assessments and scores, and record images and video if needed.
Under the old regime, this entailed a lot of paperwork and driving, as Andrews frequently had to return to the office to type up and file client notes while they were still fresh in his mind.
Now, equipped with a Dell tablet, he is able to save notes to the cloud via a 3G mobile connection, meaning he can spend more time visiting families and less time on the road.
The tablet’s in-built camera facility gives him the option of photographing the interactive art activities he undertakes with the children to add to their case-files, which means the family can save their children’s drawings for posterity.
Andrews also uses the camera to record video and audio with the families, which the local authority clients say they find especially useful.
Besides the cost savings around fuel and efficiency gains realised by caseworkers such as Paul Andrews, the changes at Action for Children are paving the way for a wider digitisation process at the charity, says Crawford.
It is currently in the process of moving its back-office software applications, such as human resources and expense reporting, into the cloud.
“We have developed software to enable us to measure difference over time with our children. When we first meet a child we will benchmark baseline measures – such as physical and emotional wellbeing, hygiene, healthy eating – and track those over time,” says Crawford.
“That data can then be sliced and diced by services or geography to produce insightful datasets.”
The use of more advanced data analytics in Action for Children raises the possibility of moving towards internet of things (IoT) deployments to better monitor vulnerable children. However, Crawford is holding out on this one for now, as it raises some ethical questions for the charity that are yet to be satisfactorily addressed.
“Is the IoT pandering to a parent’s fear of something happening to their child, rather than what is in the child’s best interests?” he says.
For now, the next steps will be to embrace Office 365, and move towards introducing electronic case files for each child.
The charity will also be taking advantage of Claranet’s colocation services, moving into its datacentre. This will deepen the successful relationship between the two and give the IT professionals taking part in 2016’s Byte Night – registrations for which are now open – an opportunity to talk shop while they bed down for the night.
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