Technology as a catalyst for economic equality – Interview with Helen Wetherley Knight, CIO at The Calgary Drop-In Centre

By Robert Brennan Hart and Kevin Shepheard

As Millennials contemplate being the first generation since the industrial revolution to have a lower standard of living than their parents, Gen-X and late Boomers contemplate being less secure in retirement than the previous generation. The great intergenerational machine of wealth transfer that sustained increasing standards of living in western societies has slowed, and in many cases, reversed. This reversal challenges key tenets of the market economy such as home ownership and wealth generation through investment, secure retirements and robust social programs. Our seniors and youth are increasingly left with neither the prospect of a living wage nor the comfort of a secure social safety net.

As this fundamental realization sinks in and we as a society adjust to a future that is less promising than what could be contemplated as recently as 15 to 20 years ago, there will be deep and lasting changes in patterns of living, ownership and value creation for the vast majority of western civilization. Home ownership and savings are already starkly lower among millennials vs. other generations, and many seniors face the prospect of home and food insecurity in perilous and prolonged retirements. The historical linkage between higher education and high-paying jobs has broken down, except for some specialized disciplines. Previous cycles of self-sustainment based on readily available credit are no longer feasible for an over-leveraged generation.

As western societies grapple with the full impact of the great schism between growth and equality, there will be long-lasting impacts on future generations. Seniors and youth alike will realize that traditional patterns of consumption and traditional definitions of value are unsustainable. The current financial system and institutions will continue to lose even more relevance, and not matter in the lives of a substantial part of our societies. Banks, credit, stock markets, home ownership, nuclear families – all foundational to social organization in the last 70 years, will be replaced by new models of social and economic organization based on the shared economy.

Perhaps no city on the planet has felt the impact of this story greater than the City of Calgary. Even though Calgary is consistently named as one of the “most livable cities on the planet”, there is a noticeable divide between the rich and poor; and a real hunger to drive from the economy from one reliant on non-renewable resources to one reliant on people and digital technology.  And as the head of technology for the Calgary Drop In Centre, the largest drop-in center in North America, Helen Wetherley Knight is driving forward this transformation.

I recently sat down with Helen to discuss the impact of the changing future on the everyday Calgarian; and how she is leveraging technological innovation to fight poverty and create a brighter future for a city in desperate need of socio-economic transformation.

Congratulations on being named as a finalist for CanadianCIO of the Year at the ITAC 2018 Ingenius Awards.  How is your organization leveraging technology to serve the rapidly changing realities of Calgary’s economic climate and the ever-growing gap between the city’s rich and poor?  

Thank you Robert, it really is quite an honor to be named as a finalist, especially in a sector long overlooked as a technical innovator. The Calgary Drop-In Centre is a large emergency shelter with the capacity to sleep 1,000 people per night, and we are transitioning to become the most effective housing-focused shelter in North America. To help vulnerable and marginalized Calgarians find the community and housing support they need, it is critical we have the right systems and technology in place and that our staff are well-trained in these systems. When I started at the DI in October 2016, it was apparent there was a great deal of user pain caused by antiquated technology systems. I interviewed a team member from every role within the facility and quickly identified that there was enormous effort being spent using disparate systems. I calculated the cost of staff time having to enter data into multiple spreadsheets and various access databases and I found that over 2 million dollars a year was being lost through manual processes. By modernizing our infrastructure and transforming our systems into an integrated ecosystem, the Calgary Drop-In Centre will be able to return 10 per cent of our annual operating cost to the bottom line every year, and that money can be used to increase the services provided to the vulnerable Calgarians who come to us for help.

Starting in 2017, phase one focused on developing an integrated donor and volunteer system. When that project went live, it realized a return of 20 hours, per staff member, per week in the engagement department. Hours that had been spent managing multiple calendars and hundreds of phone calls are now invested in relationship management, identifying new volunteer partnerships and increased donor engagement. Phase two focused on the departments that provide functional support to front-line staff: Health & safety, Maintenance, and Information Technology. When that project went live, we streamlined the processes to get help for all staff, so that everyone in the facility had an open view to the work being done, eliminating needless phone calls and emails, and ensuring the staff needs were met, so they could focus on the critical work they came here to do… helping our clients find homes.

The next two phases will focus on Client Relationship Management, Human Resources and Finance. Once all these tools are in place, we will have a seamless ecosystem that will elevate our important work and provide evidence to identify future opportunities to help Calgarians in need. To be the efficient and effective housing-focused shelter the DI has the potential to be; a shelter that empowers individuals experiencing homelessness to regain independence, lift out of poverty, and create a sustainable future; we require the updated and modernized technology that this IT transformation project will bring. Having the systems, the savings and the data driven evidence to advocate for real solutions to alleviate poverty, and prevent people from becoming homeless, will enable the DI to be agile in the face of a rapidly changing landscape.

The planned and purposeful application of emerging technology to economic development, through a true partnership between entrepreneurs, governments and societies, can create new employment opportunities, new pathways to success, and new communities linked through technology into common social and economic pursuits.  This is something you seem to be very passionate about and something that is certainly needed in Calgary in order to ensure the city’s survivability. Can you tell me a little about what is happening in Calgary right now to drive economic transformation and the inevitable evolution to a digitally shared economy?

With around 300 staff, 10,000 volunteers and approximately 100 new clients per month, the DI has grown into a large and complex agency. Within the IT department, I couldn’t have delivered the changes we’ve made without the support of the community. On my second day at the DI I called the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology (SAIT) Information Communications Technology department and asked for help. They answered by sending me 8 skilled and eager practicum students from the Network Technology and the Database Administration programs. Together we worked to understand the scope and scale of opportunity and made a plan to improve technology at the DI. In 2017 when I needed a network refresh, I wrote the SAIT final exam in the style of a Request for Proposal and benefited from having 20 students and 2 SAIT Instructors bring forward a detailed infrastructure recommendation. The students benefited from having real world experience, and the DI benefited from having the support of a team I simply couldn’t afford otherwise. Two years later, the DI IT department has provided practicum opportunities for more than 32 SAIT students, representing more than 8000 labour hours. We’ve been delighted to discover that when the students graduate and join corporate roles, they still remember our work and have advocated to their employers to donate used technical equipment to the DI. Starting in 2017 I also began working with Making Changes Association – Women In Technology Program, where they provide women employment and life skills program, then technical training, then work experience. We have benefited at the DI from having more women in our IT department during these practicums as the diversity increases our collective intelligence, and the students have again gained hands on experience working in a busy IT department delivering meaningful change. We are so proud of the graduates of the first program, and we can’t wait to receive more students from the second successful year. From the University of Calgary, I have found support from Biometric and Computer Engineering, and the Business Technology faculties.

The corporate community has also come to our aid – Suncor Energy has volunteered numerous hours in our donation centre, where they refurbish donated computers that we provide free of charge to marginalized Calgarians struggling with poverty. Suncor IT benefited by having a team building activity, and some friendly competition to see which team could build more PCs, while we benefited by having so many talented volunteers we actually ran out of computers for them to refurbish! Many other corporations have made meaningful donations, kindly donating computers, hardware and services. Shaw donated five years of free Wi-Fi for our staff and clients, and Convergint Technologies volunteers ran 40,000 feet of Cat5 through our main facility to enable us to upgrade our camera infrastructure (to put that in perspective, Mt. Everest is fewer than 30,000 feet!). The way the community has come together to support the DIs IT Transformation shows me that Calgarians have the ability to evolve into the digitally shared economy as a team, lifting those struggling with poverty over the technical divide, ready to benefit from our collective success together.

Is it realistic to think Alberta can transform itself from a resource-based economy to a knowledge-based economy in time to effectively compete in the digital age? Are you optimistic about this transformation and the hopeful improvements it will bring in terms of creating a more equal, resilient and accessible society and economy?

The City of Calgary has been selected as a one of 100 in a global network of cities (100RC) working to address some of the biggest challenges facing cities. Urban Resilience, as defined by 100RC, is the capacity of individuals, communities, institutions, businesses and systems within a city to survive, adapt and grow no matter what kind of chronic stresses and acute shocks they experience. By inviting stakeholders representing diverse groups, including myself in my role as Director of IT at the DI, the city is really working to ensure all voices are heard as we work to transform to a knowledge-based economy. I am absolutely optimistic about our capacity for transformation as a province, and as a nation. Across Canada, there is very little demographic data on homelessness. The total population is unknown, data is difficult to collect, applied differently by region, and inconsistently funded. But there is amazing, ground breaking, and innovative work being done, as a community, to transform the way we have thought about resilience, homelessness, society and economy. I am not worried that we don’t have the answers yet, because it is the willingness to dwell in the mess, dig deep into all the interrelated challenges, where we will together find the solutions to our shared challenges, and emerge with a more equal, resilient and accessible society and economy.


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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada
Robert Brennan Hart
Robert Brennan Hart
Robert Brennan Hart currently serves as the Executive Vice President of Social Impact at the Electronic Recycling Association and has been recognized by the United Nations Foundation as one of the world's Top 70 Digital Leaders and Avenue Magazine as a Top 40 Under 40 digital luminary. As the founder and former CEO of the Canadian Cloud Council and Politik, Robert is a globally recognized advocate for the advancement of a more equitable and enlightened digital society and has participated as a member of the United Nations Global Digital Council, DocuSign global advisory board, and HotTopic’s Meaningful Business steering committee. Previous to joining the ERA, Robert served as the Chief Community Officer at Abaxx Technologies and Executive Producer of the Smarter Markets podcast.

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