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Case Study Interview

Isolation Plus: One Year Later

Paul Wilson Volunteer Edinburgh Interview

We met up with one of our Isolation Plus users to hear about their feedback on how they have been using Isolation Plus, if it has helped them with their work, and to find out how we could improve our product. 

Paul Wilson is the Chief Executive of Volunteer Edinburgh 

Hi Paul, so you have been using Isolation Plus and Orbis for the best part of 12 months now, how has it been so far? 

I would say, for us, we probably haven’t exploited its full potential at all. That would be due to a variety of reasons. I can see how the data available in it could be very useful to us to “prove a point” when we think we know something like a particular area of the city has a particular issue. The reality of our past two years has been that we have not been in a place where we have been looking at identifying that type of new project, largely because of the demand for current services. We have not been able to look outwards and deliver new services and add value in new areas.  

As soon as we go to a funding body, they will ask us to prove the need and this is where I can really see the value. In reality, we have been saying for 18+ months “can we actually deliver services” while fighting a wildfire of immediate need. We have not had enough time to target new areas. 

This will not go on forever. We are working on new ways of providing volunteering services, but we are still trying to find the best way of delivering these. 

Looking forward, to when things calm down, do you think you will be using Isolation Plus for funding? 

Yeah, 100%. As you know we’ve had conversations with Astrosat about getting others interested, particularly local authority and national bodies, without much success which is a great disappointment because I can see, even more than my own organisation, how the council could use Isolation Plus and Orbis. I have seen reports shared by the council and lots of data where I have asked myself “could this be better represented? Or “is there more to prove the point?” so that is a disappointment, in my opinion. For us looking at all this information has always been a bonus but for Local Authority and national bodies it should be a must. 

Do you personally use the data often? 

Not as often as I would like. Generally, I will log in and load data sets and say to myself “This is really interesting and great” but then I have to go back to my day job. One of the big challenges is that we don’t have enough time to think, all we do is react to the current challenge. We need time to be able to think about a plan of action and identify opportunities. A lot of organisations in our sector public and private are in “panic” mode. 

What is the impact of this “panic” mode on Volunteer Edinburgh? 

It means that in a lot of instances we have to say “no” to partners in the social care sector as it is often not appropriate for us to do the work. There is a great crisis in health and social care with the lack of staffing, probably due to both COVID-19 and Brexit. We don’t know that there would have been such an impact without C19 but for sure the lack of immigration has caused an issue with staffing levels.  

Fifteen years ago, we produced marketing material in Polish and sessions in Spanish for language skills improvement, now this is not the case. We used to be a good first port of call when arriving in Edinburgh as an immigrant, as volunteering ticks a lot of boxes. This won’t happen anymore and we now need to have a “local” volunteer base which is harder and harder to get. 

Would it be important for you to present that case saying “this is why we cannot do more”? 

I don’t want to stray into politics but there is nothing we can do to fix this issue and we all know it. Everybody knows it. All our partners know what is going on. But we cannot do anything about it. We are not self-sustainable in volunteering terms. 1/3 of people in Edinburgh volunteer and that’s been quite static for 10 years. What will enable people to step up and fill the gaps we are starting to see? The data could be useful in actually reinforcing what we know and being able to present it to policymakers. 

We also built “Action for Help” for you, to help you manage volunteers and people who need help. What has been your experience of using this app along with Isolation Plus? 

This might not be what you want to hear but I think this is fascinating; it’s been very useful for me. Pre pandemic, if you had said to me that you could give me an app which could help me match the “willing to the need” in a very fluid and flexible way like a dating app of sorts. I would have bitten your arm off for this. We had a very interesting situation with the pandemic where we have had to do exactly that.  

We built “community task force volunteering” where we onboarded around 500 people, trained and verified etc., which we’ve been deploying throughout the city. They have been deployed more than 7000 times. The big thing we learned is that an app can’t do this. This has been a huge surprise to me, and I really wanted this for years. We thought that we would be able to match the closest volunteer to the person who needed help, as simple as that. We actually found that every single time there was a new registration we had to call the people who needed help as the complexity of the help needed could not fit in one choice. We often found that people have been hidden from statutory services and were in a really desperate situation. These individuals have been telling us they need help with shopping but they actually need much more help than that. 

Can you quantify this for us, what percentage of people reaching out are actually in desperate situations?  

It’s a good healthy percentage; 50% or even more. It’s very complex. We’ve formed great relationships with social care direct (Edinburgh city council point of call for people in need) we are making constant referrals, and it’s hidden. 

What makes these people hidden? 

It’s often old age. We are seeing many single, older males who are in desperate situations but are not reaching out. They are not seeing their GPs who would give them access to statutory provisions, and they are certainly not going to social care direct who would also give them access to these provisions. They reach out only when they are literally falling apart because they are more socially isolated after not asking for help sooner. So, we spend a lot of time referring these people to GPs and Social care direct.  

So you are able through Action for Help to get your “foot in the door” so to speak and find the hidden vulnerability and refer back?  

Yes, 100%. That’s exactly what happens; it’s seeing all the levels of challenges people are facing, which an app cannot deliver for us. 

Do you think that having Action for Help acting as the first step to pull the alarm bell is useful to then enable you to see more as often it’s not “just” about help walking the dog? 

It is.  

Were you aware that the objective of Isolation Plus is to help identify hidden vulnerable communities in Great Britain? 

The challenge we have is then getting to the individuals. That’s the accidental advantage of COVID- we created the community task force and it has allowed us to understand that an app will probably never be able to get into the details of the person’s actual problems. 

What would be the best use of Astrosat to help Volunteer Edinburgh? 

One of the difficulties is the outreach to people, what if you are able to identify the opportunity in an area and being able to “broadcast” it, not so much like dropping an email but sending a message telling communities there is a need for help in an area; how to “mobilise” people in an area to help & volunteer. It would be great to have an area centric analysis which tells you about problems of an area instead of loading many datasets to find out what the problems are. 


Andrew Fournet

Andrew is the Product Development & Innovation Analyst at Astrosat and he works on developing bright ideas and turning them into reality. Half Scottish half French-born and bred in Paris (Parisian - Corsican), Andrew likes riding his motorcycle and drinking wine, usually not at the same time!

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