TiHS Episode 26: Omar Yaqub – building a better intake system


Welcome to episode 26 of the Technology in Human Services podcast. In this episode, I’m chatting with Omar Yaqub of the Islamic Family & Social Services Association in Edmonton.

Omar and his team are re-envisioning a modern intake system for the social services sector that leverages technology, including machine learning and predictive analysis. You know, the promise of tech – prompting you with questions or suggestions as you use technology. On the surface it looks like a tech project, but it is much more than that. As you’ll near Omar explain, it’s also about change. Not just organizational, but also systems change. Looking at why we do social services work, honouring the people we serve, centering them in our work and, as a result, making the work done by social service workers more meaningful and impactful.

The system he’s working on is a work in progress. It’s one I think you should definitely know about, as we all search for technology solutions that will complement and humanize our work, rather than bowing to the tech bros and their pre-conceived machines…

Read more about their plans and current status:

“Our new intake system needs to…

  1. Move from interrogation → conversation.
  2. Prioritize mental health and holistic assessment. We need to recognize the assets clients come with, not just deficiencies and demographics. We need to identify tailored referrals based on the client’s specific circumstances. eg. skills, primary language, neighbourhood, number of kids, socialization, etc.
  3. Use a peer-reviewed approach; a systematic line of questioning to identify the goals that will have the highest impact. The LifeWorks Self-Sufficiency Matrix is something we want to build upon.
  4. Facilitate more disciplined practice of ongoing conversations with clients, including follow-ups on goals, referrals, etc. ​eg. Every visit to the food bank should be an opportunity to discuss progress, work on roadblocks, and move towards accomplishing goals. Goals may be as small as increasing positive socialization, a simple budget, getting employment ready, or finding affordable housing.
  5. Automate referrals to clients, and push new opportunities to clients when appropriate. ​
    eg. Pre-register a client for when a new language skills class is starting for women who speak Arabic and English at level ≤ 5 with 3+ dependents, and no prior EI claims. ​
    eg. Automatically inform clients when an application for HeadStart opens
  6. Build solutions based on the proliferation of smartphones — the new system should allow an intake to happen anywhere someone can use their smartphone.
  7. Securely transmit client data between organizations and reduce the need for clients to repeat their story again and again.
  8. Incrementally improve, and adapt to changing circumstances nimbly.”

Machine-Generated Transcript

What follows is an AI-generated transcript of our conversation using Otter.ai. The transcript has not been edited. It may contain errors and odd sentence breaks and is not a substitute for listening to the audio.

Marco Campana 0:00
Welcome to Episode 26 of the technology and Human Services podcast. In this episode, I’m chatting with Omar Yaqoob of the Islamic family and Social Services Association in Edmonton. Well, marnus team are re envisioning a modern intake system for the social services sector that leverages technology, including machine learning and predictive analysis. You know, the promise of tech prompting you with questions or suggestions as you use the tech. On the surface, it looks just like a tech project. But it is much more than that, as you’ll hear Omar explain, it’s also about change, not just organizational change, but also systems change. Looking at why we do social services work the way we do it, honoring the people we serve, centering them in our work, and as a result, making the work done by social service workers more meaningful and impactful. The system he’s working on is a work in progress. It’s one I think you should definitely know about, as we all search for technology solutions that will compliment and humanize our work rather than bowing to the tech bros and their preconceived machines. I hope you enjoy our conversation.

Omar Yaqub 0:58
My name is Omar Yaqub, I get to serve the the team at EFSA Islamic family and Social Services Association Islamic family that’s super short. We’re an imagine Canada accredited charity, the gold standard for charities in Canada. And the past few months, we’ve been recognized fewer different ways. We’ve been recognized by the government of Alberta with the inspiration award for combating domestic violence. And the Canadian Mental Health Association professional care awards. Were also profiled in dim, edify magazine is one of the inaugural modifiers for the city of Edmonton, and so been really, really exciting to see the organization grow in a relatively short period of time, we now serve more people in one month than we didn’t all of 2015 it’s about 5000 individuals come to us monthly for a range of supports around safety, security and growth. So includes basic food support, with domestic violence, navigating government, refugee related issues, and preventative youth programming. And it’s a it’s been wonderful seeing the organization grow my background is I did my my MBA and computing degree way, way, way back when I did some global development work in Tanzania and Nigeria came back help start the social enterprise fund was employee number two, their help start sustainable worked because the Eco retrofit Co Op did a stint with quality government organization and an Economic Development Corporation. And did did corporate consulting for a number of years where I focused on engagement based research and values based communication for a range of clients. And, you know, through a long period, more than a decade, I was on the board of EFSA, and was really passionate about the organization, the the driver bits, volunteers, the work you did, and got to see that organization scale. That’s great. I mean, what a background you bring to the to the work, it’s really it must be really interesting, having so many different perspectives. As you approach the tasks that you have like that diversity of experience sounds like it’d be really valuable. It really helps. You know, one of the things I’m really fortunate is because I’ve sat at different seats, I can empathize, right? I remember working at a social enterprise fund, and trying to get money out, right. And most people don’t think about like the struggle for grantors to get money out and how how sometimes can be very, very difficult. Sometimes you might spoon feed someone like, hey, I need you to see this, can you do like, just do things so that can get you the money? And sometimes people just don’t do it, why not? And so, you know, I learned I learned a great deal. And that experience is like how do we empathize with the needs of different parties, right? I think when you’re doing marketing, communication work, it’s all about empathy, right? Like, how do you speak to people about their needs? And then how do you know what your needs in mind, but with the needs of the user? I think that’s one of the things I really appreciate about good design is it’s not made for the designer, it’s made for the person who’s going to be using the product. And what I find often the social services sectors, we don’t spend that time designing for the end user, or even designing for frontline workers. Oftentimes, we’re designing for a funder, and we’re like, oh, let’s get like, let’s get as much information from this person as possible, even though we don’t need it. Right? Or, let’s measure these things which sound impressive, even if in our heart, we know they aren’t the right thing to measure, even if we know they’re not meaningful, you know, let’s measure outputs, rather than our outcomes, you know, The classic example we talked about with social enterprise funders. So really common to hear organizations talk about we had 300 people come through our door. Right? I just did it two minutes ago. Right. But you know, that doesn’t tell you what changes happen their life, you know, how many of those people were? Were there previously? Right? How many of those people have you helped alleviate, from poverty, that would be meaningful right? Now, instead of saying 300 people came to our doors, it’d be really powerful to say 30% of the people who come to one of our workshops, improve their income by 10% or more. Now, that tells you something, but the impact right now, you know, the challenge with that is everyone will agree with it. But implementing it is challenging, implementing it is super, super difficult.

Omar Yaqub 5:54
But that’s kind of what led us to what we’re here to talk about right transform, which is our approach to thinking about intake and assessment. And if we take one more step back, where it really started was, you know, when I came into this staff role with the organization after having been away for a year, one of the things we did was we we looked at our mission statement, and you know, most organizations have mission statements, and they’re not memorable, right? Like, you know, it’s questionable whether the executive director or board can recite it from memory, right, if they can’t remember what to expect. And so what we did was we went from a mission statement to a mission question. And, you know, the nice thing about a question is, as soon as, as you asked me a question, I’m thinking about how do I respond to? Right? Or I’m internalize it, because it’s like, it’s provoking. Right? And so our mission question is, you know, how do we support the whole person flourish in our community? Right, really simple question doesn’t matter if you’re a bookkeeper, or working on the front line, you’re, we’re all thinking about how to support the whole person flourish in our community, it could be our co workers could be clients could be community members, we really want to see them change in a dramatic way for the better. And so if we think about programs like the food bank, can we measure it against our mission question? Well, then we’re falling short. And if we’re being honest with ourselves, we should say, this isn’t doing what we set up to do, and we have to really rethink it. So that comes back to how do we measure? How do we measure what matters? And yeah, that can be very difficult and very challenging when we think about it. Because if you have people who are coming to you for a food hamper program, or domestic violence, or what have you, what’s a meaningful metric for all of them? And what’s a way to scale that up, so that, you know, you’re not bogging your frontline workers down with, you know, doing a 30 minute survey with every client, and then having to compute all of those results? And know at the end of the day, did you actually measure something that was really important to the client, what they cared about. And so, you know, normally when we kind of get into the nuances of measurement, there’s a period where we succumb to the complexity, and go back to like, hey, let’s just measure with ease. But what was really, really wonderful is, as we were doing our research, and we were looking at what other organizations we’re doing, we we stumbled upon Bissell, which is another social service organization doing some incredible work. And they were using the lifeworks self sufficiency matrix. And for me, that was mind blowing. It was just like, wow, this is it. This is like, this is the promised land is like a wonderful systematic approach, where you’re shifting the focus to being what are the goals clients are coming with? And what’s the right way to calibrate goals? Right? So if we think about housing security, for instance, right, now, let’s put it on a spectrum of one to five, and, you know, ask some basic questions and figure out where people are in terms of housing security, right, 31 out of five, how do we move them to a two to five? Right, you can start to think about Oh, yeah, I can see how you can develop a systematic approach based on that, you know, if they’re at a one, I need to think about asking them these questions and figuring out if these are the right goals. And that’s what’s going to move them to to and now I have something that I can measure and track quantify, and something that’s driven by the person I’m serving, right? Because I’m asking them questions about, Hey, how are you doing? How’s it what’s important to you right now? Is this a goal you care about? Once you’ve identified that goal, then you can start to identify the referrals and the support team offer. And then instead of like, you know, treating, you know, like the adage, like, when you have a hammer, every problem is a nail, right? So instead of saying, Our solution to every problem the client comes to us with is a food hamper. Now we can start to say, hey, maybe what they need is actually some time from our workers, right to help them navigate a system and help them navigate a roadblock any mental health supports. And that’s what’s going to move them from a one to a two, or a two to a three, in whatever domain that they choose to focus on. So if it’s housing security, if it’s safety in the home, if it’s employment, there’s a methodology now, and they’re the ones who get to drive it. Right. And, you know, it starts to shift what we care about then, right? Because now, you know, it’s interesting when we think about some of the

Omar Yaqub 10:54
some of the things we inadvertently do. You know, when we think about the way we’re measuring things, so for, like, oh, we’re going to get hampers and I’m going to measure income eligibility, so that people aren’t taking advantage of this. Well, what you’re inadvertently doing is you’re telling your stuff they’re bouncers, right? Again, person? Yeah. Do we want bouncers? Or do we want guides? Right? Is this like this, like some cheesy club? Or is it a space where we’re actually trying to help people? You know, I don’t think anyone directly does this. I think there’s really good intention, right? And we want to verify income and ensure eligibility. But that isn’t our first response. It shouldn’t be right, our first response should be Hey, what can I help you with? Right? Maybe it’s, maybe it’s something else? Yeah. Maybe it’s like identifying, oh, you’re, you’re stuck at this language level. And the reason you’re stuck at this language level is because you haven’t had the support. And so you have these challenges with childcare? I mean, you know, let’s, let’s work on that. Let’s work on identifying those novel solutions, so that we can start to talk about the number of goals and we help people achieve. So that tool from Bissell was transformational and changing just even, I guess, the culture of how you were approaching clients. And you spoke earlier about the idea of outcomes versus outputs, like, it’s not about statistics, it’s about a client defined outcome of what is it they want to get to? what’s important to them in this interaction? And how did how did that start to meander its way towards technology? So as a tool to help achieve some of that in your, in your intake in particular? Yeah, that’s a fantastic question. You know, I think one of the challenges we often see in the sector is, you know, we end up generally paying top dollar for technology, right? We don’t admit it. But I’d say like, you know, when we’re paying for stuff where, you know, we might be getting some corporate discounts. But when we start to factor in staff time, and utilization, were actually fairly expensive when it comes to our technologies. And what we’re getting for our dollar is pretty subpar. Right? I look at how technology is using and generally technology is the foil to most support workers, right? Like technologies, this thing they have to like, navigate painfully after they’ve done all of their stressful work, it’s like, okay, now go and enter it. And, you know, remember to press button a while holding left mouse button and standing on one foot, otherwise the work. And you need to do that. Because if you don’t, we won’t get funding. Yeah, no, I mean, I hear that a lot. I bet the pain but also the legacy systems that are kind of, it’s like a square peg into a hole to fit in the nonprofit setting. Someone has helped choose or create the technology, or say, an off the shelf, it’s got what you need, but you just kind of have to change the way you think about what you’re doing in order to serve the technology. Right? Which is a huge challenge as well. Yeah, yeah. Precisely. You Hit it. Hit it perfectly. Like when we think about let’s use corporate CRM, right, like client relationship management. And in client relationship management, you talked about prospects and leads and customers and let’s just like change the language a little bit so that we can say, No, it doesn’t work that way. Right. It’s a totally different paradigm. You know, I think that the bigger challenge is like, Who are we designing our systems for? Right? You know, when we think about record keeping, why are we doing it? Right? Are we doing it for a funder? Probably, right? We’re doing it because we need to report to a funder or community which is totally justified. Makes sense, right? They’re the ones putting in the investment. So they should get data back. But I think that’s, that’s, that’s also our Achilles heel that’s like why we mess up with our systems, because we’re not designing one round the right thing. If we say, let’s design a round our frontline worker, let’s design a round our client. And as we do that, let’s make sure we’re getting really great data that we can report to our funder and tell them what our impact is. That’s where innovation will happen, right? Because they’re like, Oh, now I see like, I don’t really need to know,

Omar Yaqub 15:36
the person’s the name of every kid, if they’re just coming in for the first visit, sometimes I might just need to give them a label and help provide them some referrals. And that’s probably enough just to start, right. And, you know, if I have further engagement with them, you know, maybe I’ll ask them more questions. And I can slowly build a profile with them, and build trust, right? Even some of the ways that we we think about that design and interaction. Matter, right? Because if we have a cumbersome data requirement gathering piece, now the interaction that might lead to is, you know, my staff member is sitting behind the big monitor, typing a bunch of questions out, and the client is sitting on the other end of the big desk, going back and forth, your stuff. And I’m asking them to share a bunch of like, their personal stories, which they might have had to do for the fifth time. They’re being trumped by that. And, you know, I think what’s likely to happen in that scenario is like, people just give up. Why do I tell my story? Again, this is the fifth time we’ve had to tell it to someone, maybe even in the same organization, right? Right. Where we say, hey, let’s get the minimum amount of information, we need to start helping someone gather more information, you know, that that worker who’s collecting the data, obviously, you’ve taken a huge burden off their shoulders. And you’ve started to build trust, you know, if you start to think about how technology can change that, well, what if you take that big, clunky computer and you say, Hey, your smartphone is enough. So now, instead of like us being two people across the table, in this combative relationship, right? Because like, if you think about gameplay, you’re you’re setting people up as opponents. But if you mentioned like the bouncer the gatekeeper, for example, right? Like you can’t, you have to get past me to get help. Right? Yeah. cisely, right, which is not at all our intention, right. But like, you know, think about putting a phone and we’re sitting, sending out a phone or a tablet looking at together and we’re going through a bunch of like questions that are about your goals. It’s like, hey, let’s, let’s do this assessment. Let’s figure out what’s right for you right now. You know, we answered a few questions about housing. And now it’s asking me if, you know, if we should look at getting on the affordable housing Wait, let’s do you think that’s a good goal? Oh, hey, that’s interesting changes the changes the nature of interaction. So now we’re collaborators, both working together, trying to play this game, right? We’re on a team. And the phone is the tool that we’re, we’re using, like a simple interaction, or one of the ones that I talked about is, you know, what assessment might look like at our organization right now as you come in. And now it’s like how much income is coming to your house? Okay. Duly noted. How many kids are living in your home? Okay. Duly noted. What are the supports are getting k noted? On and on and on? Yeah. And you know, what, if you change it up a little bit, right, so it’s like, how much income is coming your home? How much are you spending on rent? Oh,

Unknown Speaker 18:57
boom, there’s

Omar Yaqub 18:58
a prompt right there. It’s like, you know, the tool is telling me you’re spending more than 30% of your income on rent. Let’s shift our conversation to focus on that. Is that something we should talk more about? Right, like now, that data collection for that frontline worker? Now, you’ve actually empowered them, right? You’ve empowered them that as they do data collection, they’re getting insights. Right? And then the tool itself is prompting them with, with those kinds of things. Yeah, which is stuff that makes total sense, right? It’s like, Oh, yeah. When you’re asking the question is when it should lead to insights. And then like, if you think about both of us asking questions, having a conversation if we’re getting insights in real time. Wow, we’re, we’re motivated now to do data collection. Right? The data is helping us write the data isn’t something that helps someone far down the line because you think about how, how we do data now. It’s like someone’s internalizing or taking a bunch of Questions. And then who knows where it goes? Right? Yeah, go system goes to a thunder. Who cares? minimum analysis? Right? No mining of the depth of the data most times? Yeah. If there is analysis, it’s retroactive. So like, right. Big whoop, right? Like, who cares? Like, why isn’t the data we’re collecting? Helping the client? right then and there and helping the social worker right then and there, right? Like, it’s like, yeah, data, moving from data collection as a chore? To data drives insights. Yeah, what you’re saying makes so much sense. But it seems to fly in the face of how most organizations are doing intake and even assessment. I mean, we hear even with technology mediated program projects, it’s sometimes an hour long interview to get every single piece of information and data about, about that client that can then go into a system that might help tease out some of that stuff. But it’s still a very huge kind of undertaking. And very administrative for the for the worker, it doesn’t have the kind of prompts empower, empowering, like hold on pause, there’s a there’s an income to rent issue here, for example, it’s just like, let’s get everything into the system, and then the system will turn. And then we might figure some stuff out. So what you’re describing is very different. Yeah. And generally, the system doesn’t turn. The system just says now habit. Right, great. Right. And I think that’s, that’s something we really need to think about, right? I think those are the conversations that we want to be having with funders and others, as we know, we’re all in it. For the same reason, we all care about clients getting out of poverty or setting goals and attaining education. Let’s measure that, right? Because everyone agrees, right? Think about some of the other stuff you kind of alluded to, right? Sometimes you might go to one organization, and they’re asking you, okay, how old are you? And you give them an answer, and another organization might ask you a date of birth. And those two systems will talk to each other. Right? If it’s like, substantively the same information, but the way the questions are asked, Are interoperable. And if you have just a bit of intelligence, not even intelligence, right, like just modicum of like good database design, then you’re like, Oh, hey, I’ve collected that information in one place. And now I can spit it out to all these places. So if I’m doing a referral for someone to another organization, and I know they’re asking age rather than date of birth, okay, I’ll spit out the right format for them. And I can send that referral, or I can have that client, unlock that referral at that other agency, and not have to go through the same same rigmarole.

Marco Campana 22:48
So one of the things so you’ve you’ve so getting to Bissell was a huge first step and and kind of changing the way you even just approach this, this notion of how your your your empowering clients are asking clients for information, to move towards outcomes to move towards something that that they’re setting the goals and driving the process. And, and then just looking at your website. And as part of that process, then once you’ve kind of, I mean, I would say a huge culture and change management shift within the organization, then you started looking at technology, perhaps at the same time to create a different intake system that leverages technology. So can you walk me through a little bit about what was that? Was that a parallel process? Or was it sort of, we had our mind blown by Bissell, we started doing a different thing. And then we started thinking, well, how can technology actually support this in a more meaningful way? Or was it sort of parallel at th e same time?

Omar Yaqub 23:40
Yeah, a bunch of parallel conversations. And we co developed our solution with Bissell because they were, they were the leaders, right? And they’ve done amazing work and gone through, you know, a ton of the heavy lifting. So Maria, from Bissell, who’s invested countless number of hours and helping us develop our solution. But it’s been interesting, because you touched on change management, right? And it’s really, really exciting. To to see that shift happen in people, right? Because you start to hear them saying, Well, if we ask that, then how will we know if they’re eligible? Or if we don’t ask them? How do we know if they’re eligible? So we don’t, but we don’t need to know that. Right? Like, what if we’re not measuring whether they need a food hamper? What if we’re measuring? What is it that they need? And if it comes, comes down to them needing a food hamper, then we ask them about, you know what the eligibility is for that, but we don’t start out with that. Right? We don’t start out with the balancer. We start out with that Kate guide is asking you what you need, right? Like think about a concierge. They might just tell you, Hey, this is what the shop has to sort of can help you with. If you need that thing, go over here, but I can make a recommendation or referral for you so that when you get It’ll be easier. You know that that’s like a different service modality. And it’s, it’s interesting just to see like, as you start to frame those questions, people’s perspectives shift about their job and how they work and how they think about what they do. And the way they frame their conversations with people. And so, so tell me a little bit about then, as that change management was happening, how you started to build a system to to, to make that easier, I guess for for both sides to make it less intimidating to to have those kinds of prompts to have the client and the worker sitting side by side. So in designing our system, we we took a co design approach, working through so bringing our frontline staff bringing in the people who had to do some of the data, we’re bringing them all together, right? bringing in people from, from academia, so people who are doing their PhD in related areas. leadership from Bissell, Maria, and we started to say, hey, let’s let’s look at this prompt together. Prior to that, even we spent a year doing Dr. Steve Petty’s predict impact, which was really fantastic learning, because it let us think about the indicators of change we want us to do. Dr. Steve Patty is behind dialogues in action. And that was a great, great curriculum and team activity for us because it let us think about what what do we want to achieve together as a team. And that led us to the inevitable step of like, hey, let’s think about how technology might help us do that. And so we developed a challenge statement, which was like the first efficient website kept incrementing. We took that challenge statement to developers. And we’re really, really fortunate, really lucky that metal add, who are like the Tom Hanks of software development, jumped on board and said they’d be willing to work with us and invested over $150,000 us in helping us develop the UX. And that was over a course of two months, we did design sprints every week where we we worked with the frontline researchers and everyone to think about what could the system look like? Now even thinking about like little simple things like motivating a frontline worker, right? Like just reminding them why they come to work. You think that that’s such a trivial and easy thing to do, but like what system does that what system reminds your support worker that you’ve helped someone achieve this many goals. So we were able to, I think, identify some some really wonderful interaction models with them. And now we’re in the process of just having hired a product manager, the product manager mentor, to help us kind of take this, the next step is start to get it in people’s hands for the summer. To start to just start to pilot or to actually start to implement, pilot, like so. They’re integrated for us, right? Because we’ll be doing real, real pilot seeing what this looks like. It’s interesting, because as we’ve like, been doing the software development, we’ve we’ve thought about our physical presence and our physical presence is changing to align wi th the software.

Marco Campana 28:40
And what does that look like now?

Omar Yaqub 28:42
So you know, presently, we have like three locations, two of which are like warehouse depot’s and have 70% of them is warehouse. 30% is for offices. So we’re totally reorienting that right. So now in a new location. It’s 30% warehouse and 70% staff, staff space and the staff spaces is about a community space where we want people to take their shoes, have tea, sit down and talk with someone and feel comfortable doing that, like feel dignified, like oh, yeah, I’m, I’m at a friend’s living room and I’m talking with someone about what’s important to me. I don’t care if it takes like 30 minutes or 40 minutes or an hour because it’s a I’m learning stuff as I do. As I do that, right? Even in the waiting, there is learning, right? Think about Costco, right? You go to Costco, wanting to buy a block of cheese and come up with a couch. Right, right. Yeah. So really, that’s intentional. That’s like that’s fantastic aside even though it can be frustrating and perplexing from a business retail perspective, they’re brilliant. When we think about the social services sector, this is sometimes where we have this like ridiculous idea that Where we want to get people in and out? And why isn’t? Do you want to get people in and out fast? Like, are they cogs? No, right? Like you actually want people coming into your organization to linger, meander, and learn about new things while they’re with you. And that should be an intentional part of your physical environment, right? So if they’re walking in, they’re sitting at a table and they’re practicing English, or they’re watching a video while they’re waiting for something. And you’ve made that a comfortable experience. Well, now you’re waiting as part of your, your theory of change.

Marco Campana 30:32
Part of your service. Yeah, yeah. I mean, I guess I wonder is that partially built on the idea that so many people come to a place because someone said, Oh, that’s the place, you need to go for your food hamper. But they’re not really sure what all of their needs might be. So they come and say, I need a food hamper, they get a food hamper. versus if they come and they just start having a conversation, all of a sudden, maybe there’s a housing issue, maybe there’s a violence issue or other types of things. And so you’ve changed the dynamic to again, making it about them. And then you have this tool that instead of, Okay, come over to my desk. And as you said, here’s the monitor that you’ll sit across and barely see my face. Oh, here’s a phone, let’s sit down and sort of go through some of these questions together, this is going to help guide our conversation. But it’s just sort of here as a tool. what it was, what this is about, is us having this conversation more than anything?

Omar Yaqub 31:20
Yeah, precisely. Right. And, you know, I was talking with Jerry, who’s the executive director of K Mental Health Association, and written really, and he’s come on board recently as a partner. And one of the things he talks about is, you know, as a sector, does our service delivery? Would it live up to the expectations of someone who’s middle class? Would they put up with it? Right? with someone put up with having like to wait the way they have to be treated the way it has to and getting the service they get? I think he’s spot on, he said something very, very challenging for the sector to admit. But I think it’s like something where we really have to think of like, you know, is our service delivery model? One where we’re expecting them to be grateful for whatever we do for them, or one where we’re thinking like, Oh, this is a person who’s coming to me for service, and I want them to feel like they’re at the apple Genius Bar, right, where they’re like, their prize for having chosen our organization. And we want to do whatever we can help them. I think everybody who works in the sector comes with that aspiration. And is working towards that goal. But we’ve we’ve set traps for ourselves.

Marco Campana 32:46
Yeah, and we fall into the same pits of just this is how we’ve always done things, right. So if someone’s listening on the podcast, and I’m going to share the website, where you’ve got a lot more information about the process, and where you’ve gotten to and things like that, and they’re getting excited, right? They’re not in an organization that that that is that is moving in this direction that you’ve described, they’re in a very kind of typical, hierarchical, big intake kind of what’s what’s, and they’re inspired now. But what advice do you have for folks like that to sort of start this journey? Because this is a journey that takes some years and some transformation? for your organization? Right?

Omar Yaqub 33:27
Yeah, that’s, that’s a fantastic question. I think the the answer to that is asking a better question. Right. And by that, I mean, like, you know, ask questions, but what are we measuring? And why are we measuring them? Do we need this?

Omar Yaqub 33:41
Right? And do we need this now? Or do we need this later? Right, some of those questions, but also ask the bigger questions. Like, what do we want to see happen when people come to us? How do we want people to know, what do we want people to know? But also, what do we want people to feel when they come to us? And when we start to ask some of those questions, I think the inevitable result is thinking about what we measure, and changing what we measured radical ways.

Marco Campana 34:16
And when it comes to the technology, you’ve mentioned, interoperability, and ease of use, and the user experience before and so another question that someone I can imagine would have is, okay, well, we’ve got some systems, they’re not that great, but we have some systems, you know, and we’re not that technologically savvy, necessarily, how can we look at the system that you’re building, and figure out how to how to operationalize it where we are eventually and make it interoperable with either existing systems we have, or, you know, how does it feed into a CRM or some sort of data collection process that we can also not just use for our own data, but also obviously report to funders, you know, the typical sort of approach? What can that look like in terms of any I imagine? You’re thinking of This in a more future?

Omar Yaqub 35:01
Yeah. So there’s a few answers to that. Our hope is that we make our system broadly available to organizations. It it isn’t that great if it’s just us using it. Right? Our intentionality was, this has to be something that the sector uses. That’s why we ask this to co design with us. So right at the foundational level, we’re looking at two very different organizations, thinking about data and thinking about measurement, right, this all serves a very transient homeless population, we serve, you know, newcomer oriented population, if we can make it work for both of our organizations, it’s probably going to work for others. And so we’re also very open at this stage to bring on additional partners and taking you through some of our some of our assumptions and making sure that they’re validated by other users. I think for organizations for going about this journey, if thinking about their data is important, like, what do they want to get out of it? And what did their funders need? Like having that conversation with their funder? Now? It’s like, Hey, I know you’re asking this. But what if they can use this instead? Wouldn’t that be more meaningful? If thinking through some of the ways that we can clean up datasets? So for instance, like, date of birth versus age, those are the same question. Can we ask those questions in standard ways, and have them move from place to place? So if I’m helping someone with housing referral and helping someone with an Alberta works, thing, like, Okay, I know I can like, just ask this question once and then have the system kind of put in both places in the right format.

Marco Campana 36:57
And that that would require them both places using the same system in order to have that. Okay, so because that’s another question that comes up, right, because you mentioned earlier, like, the fifth time someone’s being asked the same questions, even within the same organization, but certainly, between organizations. So how can how were you working to sort of, I guess, work on that warm referral? Or the data sharing, obviously, with lots of privacy and confidentiality built in?

Omar Yaqub 37:21
Yeah, you know, I think you touched on privacy, and I think we ask them use privacy as, as a barrier in the sector, it’s like, okay, we can’t share data. Hence, we can’t talk Hence, we can’t do things. Right? big, giant, 10 foot bear. I think, you know, maybe if we start conceptualizing data slightly differently, and so we’re not thinking about it as a barrier to organizations talking to each other, but we start thinking about who does the data belong to? The data belongs to the individual, right? data belongs to the community member has come to us. And we want them to be able to take that data, as many places as possible. That’s insensitive, it doesn’t sound like I’m saying anything different. But conceptually,

Omar Yaqub 38:11
sounds fundamentally different. To be honest, you know, I think it is very different. Right? So like, if you if you’re the possessor of the data, and then you go from, you know, if sort of Bissell and Bissell says, Hey, have you done an intake anywhere? No. Again, I did want to, oh, and maybe the person that this whole says, Hey, do you mind unlocking your profile? For me? No, you use your voice to do it, or something like that. Now, the person that Bissell has, has your data, right, to whatever degree you’ve given them ability, right, so you can say, you can see my, my basic details, and you can see my income details, but you can’t see any of the mental health stuff, you give them that level of permission. Now they have something that they can import into their system, right. And maybe they’re using a dynamic system, and you’re using a Salesforce system. But at the end of the day, it’s like just a rudimentary skeleton of data that you can unlock and export from place to place. But you’re the one who owns and authorizes different organizations to access what you deem relevant, right? And so now the data can move from place to place with you, by you just unlocking it for different people.

Marco Campana 39:25
So that for as I hear you speaking, I love the idea. And I feel like there’s a ton that needs to be that would need to be unpacked. So there’s two relationships between the organizations who have made some level of agreement that will will allow each other to have access to this client data. And then there’s the client literacy as well, to understand I mean, it’s such a shift in their ownership. And we exist in a world where people don’t own their data, right? It’s a huge issue with the big tech companies and with social media and all this kind of stuff is like, you don’t get to travel with your data. You don’t tend to own it. So it’s a very different perception to say, Okay, you’ve got it. It’s on your phone now and you control levels of access you control who gets what? It’s, it’s, you know, it’s portable, it goes with you in different places. So I yeah, it just sounds like it’s um, it’s, it’s, it’s where a lot of people have been talking about trying to move in terms of with social data as well. And so I love the direction, I just feel like there’s, there’s a lot to and below the surface that still needs around coordination. And but it’s a different coordination. That’s why I said it sounds fundamentally different. It’s not that we own the data anymore. We now work in a system where the client owns the data, we still need to coordinate, we still need to work together, we still need to figure out that our systems have to be interoperable with this in some meaningful way. But it’s the client who defines what gets shared.

Omar Yaqub 40:44
Yeah, and, you know, we’re spending less time thinking about interagency agreements for data. And we’re spending more time saying this is a client’s data, they’re taking the data from place to place. This is a format that is a common export standard, right? You think about getting a little bit geeky, but you think about CSV files or address book, right, you can take your address book from your Mac to a PC. And because the data is in this kind of commonly understood format, it’s easy to move it from place to place. So giving the client that ability saying someone’s collected the data, right, it doesn’t matter if it’s date of birth or year, not age. It’s kind of understood, it’s in this common standard. And it goes from place to place. I think that’s, that’s really exciting.

Marco Campana 41:39
Yeah, absolutely. I mean, it, but it still requires coordination around that common standard for organizations, you still having some sort of, of eating unnecessarily formal agreements, but this idea that we’re all going to buy into this standard or some form of it, in order to to to have the system work in that way. And to just like, the power, dynamic shifting of the client owning the data, I imagine that’s for some organizations, that’s going to be a massive shift in mentality as well. Yeah,

Omar Yaqub 42:08
I agree. You know, there’s been some great examples of organizations that have done it. Mind match work is one that I think has been really forward thinking and how they’ve thought about it. They’re looking at kind of the career space. And what they’ve done, which is really amazing, is put the client in charge of their data. And so I can take my employment related data with me from agency to agency. Right. And so we we’ve tried to emulate what they’re doing with our intake.

Marco Campana 42:41
Nice. Yeah. I mean, that’s useful to know that there’s other models that that people are we’re working on this and other sectors, even in the nonprofit field? Because it just sounds like it makes a lot of sense. It’s great. I’ve taken a ton of your time. But is there anything I haven’t asked you about that you think would be useful for people to know about the what you’re working on and where you’re where you’re heading with it? And how, you know, you’re in Alberta? But But obviously, this is something that is, is geography agnostic. And it’s, in the end? You know, if people were interested to get involved, or find out more about how they could play with something like this, what would that look like?

Omar Yaqub 43:19
Oh, we we’d love to build a coalition. We really open your start with an email conversation, let’s figure out how we can know how we can build common standards and approaches and how can we build the best possible and take an assessment system, right one that’s focused on, you know, focus on clients focus on frontline users. So really, really excited to to build those conversations, really open to conversations with service agencies, but also developers, right? We have some like, UX UI work that’s been done by Metalab. But also really interesting thinking about what does the back end development look like? We have some eight AI partners, machine learning partners. But a really interesting thinking through what might be some of the great ways that we can think about using technology in innovative ways, right? Whether that’s using voiceprints to unmark data for people from service agency, the service agency, you know, what might be other approaches and other novel uses of technology that makes sense here?

Marco Campana 44:24
Yeah, that sounds great. Actually, you raise a quote, I forgot to ask the question, what is your back end? So for example, you mentioned you might go from, you know, Salesforce to to dynamics or something like that, when the front end, as I’ll show people on your website is a really amazing looking app, and websites and looks really user friendly. What’s happening in the backend? Is that something that you guys have had to create from scratch, are you able to plug into an existing system, we’re still in the process of evaluating that back end piece we’re looking at.

Omar Yaqub 44:55
We want to build that as a common standard. So Microsoft Dynamics has Common Data Standards for the nonprofit sector that’s really, really promising. ISS has built out of BC has built on our dynamics platform. And so our general rule of thumb is let’s reinvent things. Let’s see what replicate and build on top of. And so that’s still still a kind of a big question, right? Like, how do we find the right, the right back end? That will put us in the right space for the future, right? Because we want to be thinking about machine learning and predictive analysis. And designing and choosing the right back end now. makes those things possible.

Marco Campana 45:45
Yeah, no, I think that that makes so much sense. Like building again, the game goes back to what you discussed about interoperability, working with systems that are either already exists or are emerging. And I’m familiar with the ISS of BC One. And that’s, that’s becoming something I mean, they’ve built a really comprehensive system. And this would like sit so nicely on top of it, in terms of the the more user friendly sort of aspect of it. So I love I love hearing that you’re having these conversations throughout the sector. It’s so meaningful, and important. I think, Well, listen, thank you so much for this, I really appreciate you walking me through. And I’m really looking forward to following up maybe after your pilot projects. And as you sort of build your coalition, and seeing who also, you know, is interested in this one, stay here about what you’re working on. So please do keep us in the loop. And thank you so much for your time today. Appreciate it. No, thank you. I really appreciate this interview. Really appreciate the work you’re doing. Awesome. Thank you

Omar Yaqub 46:44
If people want to get in contact with me. There’s the website, there’s also my email address, please feel free to share those.

Marco Campana 46:49
Absolutely, yeah, I’ll put it in that in that in the show notes and the posts that I that I share with folks. So thank you again. And you know, best of luck. I’m looking forward to hearing how this continues to evolve.

Omar Yaqub 47:00
Thank you so much.

Marco Campana 47:01
Thanks so much for listening. I hope you found this episode interesting and useful for you and your work. You can find more podcast episodes, wherever you listen to your podcasts are also on my site@markopolos.org I appreciate you listening and if you have any tips, suggestions, ideas or want to be interviewed or know someone who wants to be interviewed, please drop me a line through my website, or marco@markopolos.org Thanks again.

Transcribed by https://otter.ai

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