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Tech has NGOs on cloud nine

Ask local non-governmental organisations (NGOs) what they really need and many will mention improved IT systems. Systems for managing volunteers or sharing information can play a big part in increasing effectiveness. Many NGOs believe, however, that such systems are unobtainable, as they require resources they do not have.

Microsoft is changing that. It is helping local NGOs make use of the latest cloud-computing technology to gain cost-effective tools that can improve their productivity. This is part of its wider “Cloud Unlimited for a Better Hong Kong” campaign, which aims to provide cloud technology to benefit different sectors of society. Its goals are to enable creativity and innovation, increase business and government productivity, improve local education and create a more inclusive society.

“We feel cloud computing will bring an additional value to a lot of users in Hong Kong, including NGOs,” says Winnie Yeung, Microsoft Hong Kong’s director of legal and corporate affairs.

Cloud computing lets individuals in different places use the internet to access information stored on a central server, or “cloud”, administered by a third party. This makes cloud computing an ideal solution for NGOs, which usually lack the resources to run IT systems on their own.

“Many NGOs have started to expand their IT departments in recent years,” says Edmond Keung, chief technology officer at the Hong Kong Council of Social Service. “But the problem is resources. To NGOs, IT systems are still costly.”

One organisation Microsoft has helped start using cloud-computing technology is the Hans Andersen Club, which provides services for children. As the organisation has staff working across Hong Kong, it is difficult for employees to co-ordinate and collaborate with each other.

“We have some centres in remote areas like Tai O or Lamma Island,” says May Wong, executive director at the Hans Anderson Club. “If we want to organise a staff meeting, transportation and travel time is a headache.”

Microsoft provided the Hans Anderson Club with its Office 365 system at a special charity price. Office 365 lets the club’s employees use the internet to access files from anywhere, while providing them with a shared calendar and tools for video conferencing and messaging.

“There are different functions that enhance the collaboration and work of our staff,” says Wong. “We can have discussions online. We no longer ask staff to come to our offices, so we can save their time.”

She adds that the system offers an alternative route that staff can use to communicate when their telephones are busy. It also provides online storage space so staff can safely transfer sensitive documents, instead of using memory sticks that might get lost.

Alongside offering commercial cloud-computing products to NGOs, Microsoft has also developed a cloud-based Volunteer Management System (VMS). Many NGOs rely heavily on volunteers and managing them is a sizable part of their workload. Many need to keep records of volunteers’ details to retain them for future work and select suitable volunteers for events. Many also have the complicated task of matching volunteers with certain skills to people in a pool of service recipients with specific needs.

“The service recipient might only speak Fukien, or maybe they are handicapped, so the service provider needs to be able to operate a wheelchair,” Keung says.

Most NGOs manage volunteers manually and lack any effective methods for matching volunteers and service recipients. “How they do it now relies on staff at the NGOs. A certain client is served by a certain volunteer. If this volunteer is not available it is a very big problem. They cannot get another one very easily,” Keung says.

To address this, Microsoft’s VMS helps NGOs organise their volunteer resources. The NGOs can record information about volunteers and service recipients in a database and then store this information in the cloud, so it can be accessed from anywhere and shared with other centres.

Keung says the system particularly helps with matching service recipients to suitable volunteers. “The system is very good in this respect,” he says. “NGOs can record the skill set of the volunteers as well as a client’s particular requirements. Through the system they can match them automatically. It really improves their workflow.”

Another benefit of the system, he adds, is that it allows NGOs to gather statistics about service recipients’ requirements and their volunteers, so they can better project their needs.

Similar to Office 365, as the VMS is cloud-based, a third party takes care of its administration – in this case the Hong Kong Council of Social Service – so NGOs can use it without recurring costs. “The council plays a role in managing the cloud. The council will do all the maintenance work for the NGOs, so it saves them manpower,” Keung says. As with Office 365,  Microsoft also helps by making this technology affordable to NGOs by covering the initial development costs and then offering system subscriptions at a charity price of about a quarter of the commercial price.

“We prepare the solutions for [the NGOs] and they can buy the services at a very low price,” says Yeung. “We thought this would be a neat solution for NGOs to try out the technology and put it to use to help improve their efficiency.”