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Sooraj Shah

Contributing Editor

Sooraj Shah is Contributing Editor of New Statesman Tech with a focus on C-level IT leader interviews. He is also a freelance technology journalist.

IT Leaders: The Prince’s Trust CIO David Ivell on using AI to help save lives

The Prince’s Trust is an ambitious youth charity that aims to help young people aged between 13 and 30 to get a job, get into education and training, and to start a business.

Over the last 40 years it has supported some 875,000 young people, and its aim is to reach an additional one million people over the next decade. That means it has to do more in the next decade than it has in its entire history.

“In essence we have to double the size of the reach of the organisation within the next three years, supporting over 100,000 young people every year – my role is to see how we can use technology to do that,” The Prince’s Trust’s CIO David Ivell explains to NS Tech.

While the organisation has a reputation for helping young people, it is looking to expand the way it engages with them, and open up avenues for those that it hasn’t been able to help as much. This includes people from disadvantaged backgrounds, and youngsters suffering from abuse.

In order to engage with these people, the Trust had to look into why it hadn’t yet been able to start a conversation with them. Location was one of the reasons; if the programme was too far away from a young person, they might struggle to attend, while time was another mitigating factor – particularly as many young people are carers for siblings, parents or children. Then there are those that are socially isolated, and who may be suffering from issues such as anxiety.

Part of the problem with many of these youngsters, was the Trust’s ability to remain engaged; it can suggest that there is a job available for a young person to start within six weeks – but within that time frame, the person could have to live on the streets or be persecuted in a number of ways.

“We lose too many on the journey and we think for a lot of these groups there is an opportunity for online programmes to enable us to capture them,” says Ivell.

In September last year, Ivell and his team got the board’s approval to tackle this using a rapid prototype methodology which is essentially about testing, learning and adapting very quickly – and then scaling up as required.

“In our industry it is often termed as ‘fail fast’, but we can’t fail because we’d be failing young people, so we’re learning fast,” says Ivell.

Initially, the charity took some off-the-shelf IT products and incorporated them into the business. However, it did this without the usual procurement method.

“Rather than ask [the vendors] to evaluate the products, we asked them how they would adapt to our business processes. There are a lot of good technology solutions out there, but a big challenge is the transformation, not the tech per se – it’s how you adapt to the organisation,” he says.

Using its methodology, the Prince’s Trust could pilot different apps, end-to-end customer journeys and processes before going live with its online platform in March.

The demand from young people on launch swept the Trust away.

“We were expecting a big response but this was huge,” says Ivell, adding that it showed that the organisation had to grow faster than it had initially thought.

Specialised tech

Some of the technology that the Trust is using is common across other industries, such as its job board application. The trust works with young people to build a profile of themselves, and then it matches their skill set with specific jobs. The young person is then alerted via their mobile about the matching job, and a specialist mentor from The Prince’s Trust can take them through the application process.

But the charity has also been using technology that isn’t as commonplace – particularly for safeguarding. Ivell explains that on his first week at the Trust, a young person sent an email to their mentor at 10pm at night, suggesting that they wanted to commit suicide but that it wasn’t picked up until 9am the next morning, which was too late.

“What we have in place are behavioural management tools that can pick up electronically in conversations the words and phrases meaning we can take action within 20 seconds, and this enables us to call emergency services or deal with the conversation in another way,” says Ivell.

This is being taken up a step further with an AI engine which doesn’t just look for words but also patterns in conversation.

“Some young people may not say it’s suicide but there may be a pattern in the conversation and we can then inform the mentor and say that although the young person hasn’t specifically mentioned this, we have learnt from previous conversations that there is a risk of this,” Ivell states.

“It is an extraordinary technology and it will actually save the lives of our young people,” he adds.

The trust will be hoping that by using a combination of new processes, technologies and scaling them up, they’re able to inspire and improve the lives of many more young people for years to come.