Director of IT Helen Knight on her four-year technology transformation at the Calgary Drop-In Centre

|May 19|magazine29 min read

Helen Wetherley Knight, Director of Information Technology (IT) at the Calgary Drop-In Centre (The DI), has always been excited by computers. “My parents met through computer dating,” she mentions, “so I'm the product of that technology from the early 70's. I started programming when I was nine and I was very interested in technology, however, in high school, I learned that ‘tech was for boys’, so I backed away for a few years. Now, I am a pretty loud advocate for keeping women engaged in technology.” Knight has worked in IT for over 20 years, spending 12 of those years at Suncor Energy while also running her own consulting business, Helen Knight Consulting Inc. During that time, she was also a regular volunteer at the Calgary Drop-In Centre in the city’s downtown.

Serving over 10,000 people a year, the DI provides essential care, health services, employment training and housing support to those in need. In 2018, the DI provided Calgary’s homeless population with over 100,000 pieces of clothing, served over 400,000 meals in its dining hall, and provided 420,000 individual nights of shelter. When, in 2016, the DI began searching for a new IT Director, Knight’s volunteering record put her at the top of the list. “There was a focus on having someone with non-profit experience. I was lucky to be considered because I had been a volunteer.” She explains: “That speaks to one of the opportunities at non-profits: there's so much emphasis placed on non-profit expertise, and there are so few people that have technical backgrounds with non-profit experience, that the technical needs of non-profits have gone underserved for years.”

With the support of the DI Board, Knight is effecting a four-year complete technology transformation at the Calgary Drop-In. She was keen to discuss how her team is approaching organizational change management across one of Calgary’s largest non-profits, her current and future plans to use cutting-edge biometric technology to increase efficiency and security, as well as putting confidential personal data back into the hands of Calgary’s homeless population. In addition, Paul Twigg, VP of Technology at Sierra Systems, an NTT DATA Services company, serves as the centre’s strategic partner and plays a large role in helping Knight implement her ambitious technology transformation.

“I'm lucky that I walked in with years of experience and a Master's Degree in IT strategy, because there was a lot of low hanging fruit,” explains Knight, acknowledging that in the non-profit sector, technology is difficult to invest in without donor support. When she arrived at the DI only 70 of 270 staff had email addresses, so the first task was to roll out Office365 across the organization. She notes, “I made a mistake by just sending out videos on how to use the new tools – it took me about four months to realize that I would be more successful supporting this user group in a room with a human being they liked and trusted.”

Knight admits: “I had a lot to learn about appropriately engaging   this compassionate, service-focused audience with technology.” However, the first steps of her technology transformation quickly yielded fruit. By calculating the opportunity cost of wasted time due to the DI using multiple free and donated tools and databases, Knight was able to prove a return on investment of US$1.5mn per year, and return 20 hours per week per person that could be spent managing relationships. “We went from our volunteer and donor department using five different calendars, answering the phone full-time and carrying the burden of disparate systems, to having a push system where the donors and volunteers engage directly by registering on a website, being onboarded by a system, and signing up for the shifts that they wanted, so the staff were able to focus on relationship building,” she recounts. “There was significant change management and it was a really careful process, but it's a labor of love,” Knight insists, “because I believe that all of these tools will effectively improve the staff's lives.”

Knight stresses that the essence of her technological transformation at the Drop-In is the empowerment of its staff and volunteers. “I'm not here to replace anybody,” she insists. “I'm here to take away busy work and pain. I think technologists get into a lot of trouble when they feel so confident that they reach past their level of expertise and start making policy decisions, or feel that just because they can prove something with data, that it's the right and humane thing to do,” she reflects. “I fully accept that my skill-set ends at the technology, and that the front-line workers are the experts in client care”

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Twigg, who has been working alongside Knight and her team to bring Sierra Systems’ expertise to bear on the challenges of technological transformation at the Drop-In, agrees. “It’s not about cool tech. It’s about giving a person experiencing homelessness a bed, a sandwich, a laundry service and everything else that comes with it,” he emphasizes. “All non-profits require technology. They just haven’t been able to invest in it because the charity funding model makes it difficult to put money into technology even though it will save money down the line.”: Sierra Systems, an NTT DATA Services company, specializes in IT consulting in order to provide its clients with innovative, forward-thinking solutions.

The process of choosing a strategic partner was fairly unconventional. “We spent six months figuring out what the exact problems were that we wanted to solve instead of running to a bunch of vendors and doing multiple demonstrations,” Knight explains. “It's the opposite of how teams engage vendors normally.” This approach helped Knight choose a company that would offer a complete service. “We were really looking at solving the entire problem,” she says. “The finance, the HR, the IT, the client relationship, the client service; the entire problem, instead of discrete solutions.” This is where Sierra Systems, a company already involved in donating and volunteering at the DI, came into play. After identifying Microsoft Dynamics as a customer relationship management system that could cater to the Drop-In’s needs, Knight considered two companies. “One brought me standard pricing, and Sierra, with evidence of being donors and volunteers, brought me their proposal at half price,” says Knight. “I knew they were in it with us. Sierra had the imagination that we needed.”

Since then, the relationship has evolved from client-vendor to much more.  In addition to back office initiatives to improve efficiency and foster digital engagement within the DI’s staff, Twigg and his team have worked with Knight to bring one of their more cutting-edge initiatives towards maturity. For 10 years, the Calgary Drop-In has used fingerprint scanners in order to identify and admit its clients. “It took anywhere from about seven to 30 seconds to let an individual in,” says Twigg. “Considering that, since 2 February, it’s been about -30ºF every day here in Calgary, when you've got several hundred people coming and going every day, upgrading the intake systems will make entering the facility much more efficient.” To solve this problem, Knight is turning to more modern forms of biometric technology with higher accuracy rates, reducing admission times to around three seconds.

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In addition, the nature of the DI’s work requires it to keep client records. “One billion people in the world don't have ID, including people who need emergency services, are victims of crime, have been evicted, are human trafficking victims - maybe they're using drugs or have mental health issues. Regardless of the client’s history, we need to know who they are so we can ensure we are meeting their unique needs.” At the heart of the new biometric identification system the DI is trialing is the desire to not only improve the quality of patient care, but also to “put the client in charge of their data”. “There are 43 conflicting legislations and ethical agreements governing client data,” Knight explains. “I'm a co-chair of a collaborative work group trying to improve communication between  homeless-serving agencies in the City of Calgary, and when we tried to create a decision guide to navigate them, there was no way to figure it out; they all conflict and there's no way to prioritize the disparate agreements.” By putting the decision to share personal data back into the hands of Calgary’s homeless population, Twigg and Knight believe that agencies serving vulnerable people across the city can improve communication and build a shared database to better serve their community.  

Ensuring the potential for privacy and control remains in the hands of the client, however, is a top priority for the venture. “There's a lot of personal identifiable information that can't be shared between agencies,” says Twigg, whose team has been collaborating with Knight and the working group on a solution. “We are designing an architecture that implements blockchain to allow a client’s health information to remain encrypted and afford the client the ability to share that information as they move between agencies, or decide what can and can’t be shared.” In addition, the biometric data recorded by the DI’s new systems, Knight explains, is anonymous by design.

Another place where Knight wants to deploy biometrics down the line is in the way clients at the shelter supply personal information, as well as book medical and other appointments. “I'm more comfortable being vulnerable to a system than a person,” she admits. “On 3 January, we put a client self-serve kiosk in the dining hall of the Calgary Drop-In Centre. The feedback from the clients has been very positive. Wedesigned this kiosk with our wood shop, where our clients learn woodworking skills, added a touchscreen monitor, and a donated PC. We built it so that you could use a wheelchair or a chair, so we didn't have to move the screens around to account for height differences.  All it does right now is two things: it plays a video on data sharing, why we want your data, and that it is safe and secure; and it presents a form where you can tell us what your barriers are to finding housing.”

The form asks questions used to identify the client’s barriers to housing: “For example, are you comfortable talking to a landlord?” says Knight. “Some people can be afraid of authority and may not be comfortable speaking to a landlord. If we identify that is a barrier, we'll go with them.” Knight notes that a client’s mistrust for human authority may result in a reluctance to reveal the information that would result in them receiving help – but the kiosk has built in anonymity and lacks a human element. “Through a touchscreen computer, we're reaching a vulnerable clientele and are serving them in a new way,” she says. Knight has now ordered two more kiosks based on this success.  “We are fulfilling an unmet need for some clients and finding new ways to build relationships,” she adds.

Knight and Sierra Systems’ plan to use biometric identification in the DI also extends to the kiosks. “Once we finish a comprehensive privacy impact assessment,” Knight says, “we can put biometrics in the kiosks, so clients can choose to opt in and receive personalized services: book things like laundry and medical appointments, find out when they're meeting a landlord - they would have a portal to their lives.” Clients would also be able to opt out of the biometric customization. “We put in this fabric flap,” she says, “so clients know for a fact that they're not being recorded, and still have access to helpful information, opening hours, times and maps.”

Knight’s plans for the DI are extensive and ambitious, but she and Twigg are eager, excited and optimistic. Knight is working with the University of Calgary and the University of Taiwan to test biometrics with the potential to detect sepsis and necrotic wounds, as well as planning on using the proposed transformation of the DI’s HR system, in conjunction with weather and environmental data, to predict workload.

“Helen's a fantastic advocate, not just for the Calgary Drop-In Centre, but for the homeless community across Canada,” says Twigg. “It would be our dream if Helen was at the Calgary DI for the next 10 years, because we believe we could solve amazing problems together. She understands how to solve big problems, and we believe we can match those ideas with the technology and the thought leaders that we have at Sierra Systems and NTT DATA Services.” Knight makes it clear that the technology transformation she’s bringing to the DI isn’t about giving the DI ‘competitive advantage’ over other agencies in Canada. “Non-profit, especially the homeless-serving sector, is ripe for disruption, transformation and return-on-investment,” she says. “I see nothing but opportunity.”

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