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The British Red Cross is developing a digital donation platforms as part of wider IT transformation, says CIO Rosie Slater, designed to handle an enormous volume of traffic during crises such as May's Manchester attacks. 

Chief Information Officer Slater, who worked in partnership with WeAreFriday, said that the transformation programme is part of a series of work at the organisation to help keep up with growing user demands.

The British Red Cross, part of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, was founded almost 150 years ago. Its principles of independence, humanity, impartiality and neutrality remain the same, but, naturally, the ways in which people access services have changed dramatically since then. 

Now the charity employs thousands of staff and has many thousands more volunteers, and it also operates digitally and offers free apps for users as well as other online services. 

“It became obvious that our website wasn’t fit for purpose,” Slater said. “There was a risk when we had a lot of users and given that what we do is about preparing for crisis' and emergencies it became a concern.”

A secure platform

Slater admitted that security often keeps her awake at night but insisted it was high on the agenda at BRC.

Across the weekend of the Manchester concert, BRC handled 1.8 million users compared to normally 24,000, generating 820 donations a minute.

It took a significant amount of work to get to that point. The donation project “wasn't quick”, according to Slater: “Some parts of the journey, there was a lot of work with users and quite a lot of iterations of what would make the best. That's what gave us the confidence when the moment came we would be able to scale up.”

Prior to the donation platform going live, Slater and her team understood that a digital service had to be secure, could withstand malicious attacks, and also support a large number of users.

“Before the platform went live we went through a stress test exercise,” Slater explained. “We have penetration testing on every project we do, and regularly looking at wider ways of a possible cyber attack.”

“It is not about doing security once, it is a constant vigilance because donation data is hugely important to the people we help.

“We have somebody in our team whose role is solely IT security and every project has to go through an IT security gateway. Security keeps changing so what we do this week might be different to what we do next month so we can’t ever tick the box of security”.

Future of the organisation

Slater, who joined the humanitarian charity in 2015, said there were challenges in bringing IT to the boardroom at the start of her role. 

“At the beginning, it is about how do you shape and fix some of the basics,” she said. “Becuase it was a new role, a real focus for me is how we give a voice to the people who are in crisis before you can start to deliver an IT transformation.” 

Slater, who was formerly IT Director at The Children's Society, considers her biggest achievement at the British Red Cross so far as the development of its First Aid app. 

First Aid by British Red Cross is available on the Android, iOS and Windows platforms, and provides easy to understand advice on what to do in common emergency first aid scenarios. And in April this year, the organisation build a first aid education skill for the voice-activated Amazon Echo platform. 

“One of the first things we did in 10 weeks was built an Alexa app which teaches people First Aid and has over a million downloads so far,” Slater said. 

“We are also working on something called ‘borrow a wheelchair’ which looks at how people can access our services online, she added. “One of the things we do here is lend people mobility aids and that is something we want to develop further.

Slater said the future of the organisation will focus on delivering its core transformation programme while also keeping up with its growing user demands.

For me, it is less about what the technology does and more about what do users need. I think that is changing in terms of what they expect so that could be wanting to donate online or through mobiles.

What is necessary for us is how we can respond to that and we are here to help people who have affected by crises' and to make donating as easy as possible for them. (Read next: Breast Cancer Care Head of IT on 'improving the customer's journey'.)