Prince's Trust CIO David Ivell had led the development of a digital platform that is bringing better services than ever to vulnerable young people wherever they live.
The Prince's Trust helps around 70,000 18-30-year-olds every year to find a job or start a business, but that number is just a fraction of the people who seek the charity's support. Ivell's brief is to double it in three years.
"It's an ambitious target, but we're on target to do that, and it's going really quite splendidly," he tells CIO UK.
The Trust was founded by Prince Charles in 1976. The UK was struggling with high unemployment and spiralling inflation at the time, and the charity launched 21 pilot projects aimed at young people it hoped would help.
The programmes it provides today serve a similar purpose. They cover education for those at risk of underachievement in school, training and work experience across specific industries, personal development to gain key workplace skills and confidence, and support to start new businesses. Last year they filled all of these programmes with just 12% of their enquiries.
The plan is to reach the remaining 88% by using an approach called rapid prototype methodology to develop an online platform that offers a new way to access services.
"We take components off the shelf and we put them into the business," explains Ivell.
The Trust adopted this approach to developing the new platform after the three-year growth plan was set out in September 2016. They built the first prototype in December of that year and tested it the following January. In March 2017 they brought the first 100 young people into the service.
The platform they developed is Prince's Trust Online, a portal that allows young people to benefit from the programmes even if they can't attend in person.
In June 2017 they launched a national campaign with a keynote address at London Tech Week.
"We turned on our marketing on day one, and then turned it off again on day four because we were completely swamped by the number of young people who came to us," says Ivell.
Prince's Trust Online
Prince's Trust Online is designed to help four groups of people: those who live too far from the Trust's physical locations, those who don't have the time due to other commitments, the "socially excluded" on the margins of society and those they lose along the way.
The platform takes the approach of what the Trust is good at face-to-face.
It finds a job for eight out of 10 18-30-year-olds who have had trouble getting employment. It also helps 75% of young people who have an idea for a business turn it into a flourishing operation within three years, compared to a UK average of just 25%.
"The reason we're good is that we create a trusted relationship between a young person and somebody else," says Ivell.
"Often it's the first time they've had trust from anybody, even their parents. We've now had to create that trusted relationship online, and we've done that through an in-depth mentoring programme.
"It's about the online content that we create, but much more so it's about the relationship that the young people get with an online mentor to enable them to take them through the programme, to believe in them, to motivate them, to do that pastoral care."
The platform also helps The Prince's Trust deliver specialist skills wherever a user is based. In the past this was a struggle as a local mentor could end up as a competitor.
The Trust can also now offer assistance from specialists based abroad, on anything from web optimisation to international law.
"That means that we can create the best business network in the UK and make it available to the smallest business anywhere," says Ivell.
This network could help a jobseeker interested in telecommunications build their CV and practice and interview across video with an employability mentor, before a mentor from Vodafone comes in to help them demonstrate they have the right skills for the job.
Safeguarding the vulnerable
Ivell is also using tech to safeguard young people at risk of harm.
He joined the trust the day after a young person had sent an email to a mentor saying they were going to commit suicide. They opened the email the next morning, but by then it was too late.
Suicides are sadly not uncommon among the people the Trust tries to help, but technology could save some of their lives.
The Trust has developed behavioural management tools that use natural language processing to automatically pick up words in conversations related to suicide and then alert staff of the risk.
"Even though it's impossible to predict what would have happened if we hadn't done this with technology, we're pretty sure that there's quite a large number of young people who were able to sit down with their parents at Christmas last year because we got the technology right," says Ivell.
"We still lose young people. There are times when we do lose them, and when it happens, it hits hard because we're working really hard to avoid that."
Even if they don't say the words clearly the Trust could soon still spot the risk. The charity is using AI to spot patterns in conversations that suggest the danger of self-harm or abuse and propose intervention measures.
A mentor could be trained to deal with the situation, or the Trust could insert someone into the conversation to prevent an imminent disaster.
Facebook has rolled out a similar system that detects suicidal thoughts in posts and is offering some assistance to the Trust.
The social network giant is one of a number of external organisations collaborating with the charity. Others include L'Oréal, which is creating self-confidence video content, Deloitte and Accenture, which are providing technical architecture support, and JP Morgan, which has created a business planning tool that sits within the online programmes.
The underlying platform
Everything is accessed through a central portal developed with edtech company Fuse Universal.
"We've been using quite a component-based architecture," says Ivell.
"We're doing that quite deliberately because the speeds that young people are moving in terms of fashion and how they utilise social media are really quite scary, so we have to be able to change components really quite quickly."
They recently integrated an online job support system that helps people pull out skill sets from their previous experiences.
If they had worked on a checkout at Tesco for example, it would help them identify that they had developed customer service, cash handling and technology skills. These could then be added straight to a job board that the Trust is developing with a host of suppliers.
"The underlying technology is the same technology that is being used by Department of Work and Pensions, so slightly further down the line, we will work with them so they can automatically put their young people who are unemployed through to us, and we will be able to confirm that they're actively working or job hunting," says Ivell.
Another way in which the Trust targets the habits of its users is through an e-mentor scheme based on a messaging service similar to WhatsApp.
Corporate sponsors like it because they can provide support without leaving their desks, which helps the Trust reach its target to recruit 15,000 e-mentors each year.
The concept is to develop small conversations into big ones and thereby build a relationship.
"It enables us to start that conversation in a fairly non-intrusive way," says Ivell. "We worked out fairly quickly that if you bring video or audio conversations into the conversation too quickly, it spooks the young people.
"We can get a really good relationship with live chat technology, and then at the right time, we move into audio or video conferencing. We know that does strengthen it, but yet you have to get the timing absolutely right for that, because too soon and you do spook the young person, and if it's too late, you've missed an opportunity."
To ensure that new ideas keep coming that create a better service, the Trust has implemented an innovation platform designed by Wazoku.
The platform crowdsources ideas from staff that then go through a business case submission before testing through methods such as hackathons.
Once they have decided which ideas will bring the best return on investment, an innovation fund provides the funding to create a prototype.
"We're going for rapid innovation where we're looking to double the reach of our organisation within three years," says Ivell. "That is why we have to put in this type of rapid innovation."
A recent product of this approach is an online programme called Future Steps, a fundraising event that helps supporters get fit and raise money.
Participants are sponsored for the steps they run, cycle or swim. These are counted on mobile devices and accelerometers.
"We're having to move with lots of different components and build something," says Ivell. "I've been doing technology for a long time, and this is probably the most extraordinary thing that I've seen. We're making a real difference to thousands of young people."
The project needs the expertise and support of a host of other organisations, for whom Ivell has a simple pitch:
"If you're going to innovate, if you're going to use AI and all that stuff, why not use it for a really good purpose?"