Innovation

Communication in crisis: How organizations are innovating to serve their communities digitally


  • erin reilly
    Erin Reilly, Twilio Chief Social Impact Officer
  • 1 month ago
TLDR

Communication during crisis is challenging in and of itself. COVID-19 has made it even harder. See how non-profits and service organizations are innovating to bridge the gap.

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Communicating with people during a crisis—whether they’re experiencing abuse, a natural disaster, mental health challenges, or otherwise—is never easy.

These communications require incredible empathy and immediate response from the nonprofits, governments, and healthcare agencies providing care.

COVID-19 is making communications in crisis even harder.

Spikes in unemployment, increased anxiety from the pandemic, and shelter-in-place ordinances have driven up demand for many social services. City governments and health care agencies are working to serve unprecedented numbers of people, as are the nonprofits that support with humanitarian services, emergency food distribution, mental health care, sexual abuse recovery, and more.

At the same time these service organizations experience increased demand, they also have had to find a way to shift their operations to remote work wherever possible. When it rains, it pours.

To adapt to the new conditions and serve our communities best, organizations on the front lines are optimizing for agility, accessibility, and scale.

Adapting technology quickly to new environments

Most organizations change technologies on a 6-12 month timeline.

COVID-19 has made that timeline feel like an eternity.

To keep employees and members safe, organizations have adapted their programming to remote environments—with new communication channels—and in a matter of days, not months.

Given how critical their work is to at-risk communities right now, nonprofit and service organizations are leading the way. They are rethinking their processes entirely, eliminating red tape, shortening approval processes, and embracing new technology.

For the City of Pittsburgh’s IT department, changing technologies previously took months of vetting, testing, and procurement. When they received the order to move all IT help desk and 311 call center employees home, they needed to do it immediately to keep city employees safe—many of which are in higher-risk groups.

In one week, they built, tested, and launched a brand new contact center platform that enabled their team to work from home.

“Digital government is no longer a luxury—it’s a necessity,” said Santiago Garces, Director of Technology and Chief Information Officer for the City of Pittsburgh. “I believe the lessons learned during COVID about how government can be agile and move quickly will change the way we work forever moving forward.”

Similar to the City of Pittsburgh, Lifeline Australia, a 24-hour Telephone Crisis Support service, had to make swift changes to support remote call supervision. In one week, they spun up an entirely cloud-based and remote escalation portal. Crisis supporters can escalate urgent cases to supervisors, and debrief each case remotely via webchat.

Ensuring communities can access critical services

Many organizations are working to serve patients, at-risk communities, and constituents that don’t have access to smartphones or reliable Wi-Fi.

According to Pew Research, 29 percent of low income households don’t have access to a smartphone, and 44 percent also don’t have access to reliable internet. This lack of digital access is compounded with soaring unemployment and school closures.

As a result, web pages, mobile applications, and email are not viable options to reach this group. To ensure their services are accessible to everyone who needs them, many organizations are adopting SMS:

  • Stopcovid.co offers an SMS training program to help essential workers, like grocery store clerks and delivery workers, get up to speed on COVID safety.

  • Kinvolved helps school districts and teachers keep parents up to date on their children’s assignments in 80+ languages via SMS.

  • And Plentiful, a technology partner for City Harvest and the United Way, provides an SMS shortcode for New York City residents to text in to schedule a time to pick up meals from a food pantry.

Accessible channels are more important than ever given the increased demands for services. Kinvolved has seen a 200 percent increase in messages per student over the past month, with more and more parent-teacher communications moving digital. Plentiful has seen a 62 percent increase in residents texting in for food appointments due to the financial impact of the COVID crisis. Their SMS platform has empowered food pantries to continue to keep patrons and volunteers at a safe distance.

Scale communications systems to handle increased demand

The number of calls city governments, healthcare providers, and crisis services are fielding is going through the roof. As a result, organizations are moving to new cloud-based systems built for scale, automation, and work from home environments.

“It is an unprecedented time in healthcare as we face caring for increasing numbers of patients affected by the virus with limited capacity. Our vital healthcare resources are constrained in ways never seen before,” said Lisa Romano, MSN, RN, Chief Nursing Officer at CipherHealth, a patient communication platform,.

To manage this increased demand, organizations are conserving limited staff resources for the most difficult cases by offering self-service options for patients and constituents to get answers to common questions.

For questions that can’t be answered with automation, organizations are building systems to route the most urgent and unique cases to doctors, counselors, and trained city staff, ensuring callers are responded to quickly. Many are adopting video conferencing to escalate these difficult cases.

Organizations like CipherHealth are deploying chatbots and intelligent voice response systems to help answer common inquiries and identify symptoms before a provider joins a call.

United Way also built an intelligent voice response system into its 211 hotline, the easy to remember number that helps people identify and access social services they are eligible for. Due to the coronavirus, 211 networks nationwide have been seeing 2-4x call volume, at 75,000 calls per day, and some call durations averaging 20 to 30 minutes, compared to their average 4 to 6.

To scale up their service, the United Way developed a streamlined routing system with interactive voice response (IVR). People can call in to a single 1-800 number or their local 211, where they are testing an artificial intelligence-assisted IVR bot to help answer commonly asked questions about COVID-19 and related services. If the caller still wants to speak to a specialist about their unique situation, they are routed based on their location to a live agent.

We’re here to help

It’s been amazing to witness how nonprofit, public sector, and healthcare organizations across the world are demonstrating an unprecedented level of innovation—not to mention grit—to scale up operations and adapt to remote work with limited resources.

At Twilio, we work with many organizations providing crisis response services. Our customer engagement platform enables organizations to quickly pivot to working from home, reach constituents on common channels, and scale up to handle increased loads.

To support organizations serving the most at-risk populations, Twilio.org launched our Crisis Response and Prevention Initiative last year to support and fund organizations in this space and bring together the best minds in technology to serve people in crisis.

Today, we’re offering a number of programs to help organizations directly responding to the crisis caused by the coronavirus.

  • We’ve expanded eligibility for our Impact Access program, which provides $500 in Twilio product credits plus additional 25% discounts beyond nonprofits to any organization providing direct response efforts benefiting the public around COVID.

  • Twilio Video is now free for three months for healthcare, education, and nonprofit institutions.

  • Twilio Flex, our contact center product, is giving 20,000 free hours per month to organizations helping with direct response through August 31.

  • We’ll soon open a grant round to fund organizations helping at-risk communities recover from COVID. You can sign up for updates here.

  • Our team is standing by if you want to connect about technical advice or building solutions together.

Supporting people in crisis has never been easy, and the coronavirus has challenged us all in ways we could have never anticipated. I’m encouraged by the innovation I’ve seen in the social impact space to adapt to this new environment and emerge stronger together.

To connect with Twilio on how we might be able to collaborate on solutions, reach out to us here.

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erin reilly

Erin Reilly, Twilio Chief Social Impact Officer

Erin Reilly is the Chief Social Impact Officer at Twilio. She is a leader driving the company to use its unique assets—products, people, and funding—to do good. Through her leadership, thousands of social impact organizations using Twilio are helping more than 100 million people each year.