How NCBI is using tech to reach people with sight loss

8 Jul 2022

Kyran O’Mahoney, NCBI. Image: Andres Poveda Photography

NCBI’s CTO created a 20-strong team to leverage the power of technology and wants to help other charity organisations do the same.

Kyran O’Mahoney is the group chief technology officer at the National Council for the Blind of Ireland (NCBI). He has been working in the Irish technology sector for more than 20 years in a wide variety of companies, from AIB and Ryanair to Dunnes Stores and Granahan McCourt.

“This has given me great exposure to all types of technology in many industries. I was exposed to companies that see technology as a cost centre as well as to those that see it as a primary revenue generator,” he told

NCBI is an organisation close to O’Mahoney’s heart as he was born with congenital nystagmus, a visual impairment that means he has about 17pc of typical vision.

“When I was offered the job in NCBI, I was very close to not accepting, until I heard that less than 20pc of people in Ireland with a vision impairment are employed. Technology has always been a way for me to overcome any obstacle of my visual impairment and using technology allowed me to become senior and progress in my career like anyone else,” he said. “I took the role with one objective: to embed that as a mantra within NCBI.”

‘We are now building our own apps and technologies to enable greater reach to people with sight loss’

O’Mahoney’s current role did not exist in NCBI before he joined, and he said that such a role is not common within the Irish charity sector. This made him determined to move beyond what was typical in the sector and avoid becoming some version of an IT manager.

“I told the CEO if he ever rings me to reset his password, I am leaving – thankfully he hasn’t yet! So, my first quarter working in NCBI was focused on building NCBI’s first technology strategy,” he said.

“I spent time meeting all the leadership team of NCBI and reviewing NCBI’s internal systems and IT policies. I knew any spend in the charity sector had to be thought through carefully and a strong business case built. So, my first few months were spent listening, documenting, analysing and negotiating.”

This led to O’Mahoney developing a strategy that focused on rebuilding NCBI’s internal systems to make them as efficient and cost effective as possible, giving staff the technology hardware and tools they needed, and consolidating technology staff regionally under a single technology team focused supporting the people of Ireland with sight loss.

“This strategy really proved itself as we had just completed NCBI’s first phase of digital transformation right before the first Covid-19 lockdowns. NCBI was in the unique position to be able to switch to a fully virtual service delivery model overnight as most charities closed their doors.”

‘My job is how can I apply technology to overcome the obstacles for people with sight loss and allow them to live their lives independently’

What are some of the biggest challenges you’re facing in the current IT landscape?

NCBI Labs, the technology team in NCBI, now sits at a team of just under 20 and is structured more like a typical technology or product team than a charity team. We are now building our own apps and technologies to enable greater reach to people with sight loss.

We are using our website, which was rebuilt to be completely accessible, as a self-service portal into our services by embedding tools such as AWS Cognito and OAuth Zero for user management. This means we have a single point of entry into all technology services online.

myNCBI Smart Hub was recently launched and it is the largest ever voice application built by a charity, which enables direct access to NCBI services and information on sight loss. It’s a very powerful resource for people with sight loss, their families and friends.

NCBI has completed its first phase of digital transformation and restructure, and we have so much more to do. With each phase, we increase our reach as a service provider in the disability sector. This means we need to innovative. Innovation is expensive and charity funds are limited.

Finding funding is always going to be our biggest challenge. Especially when a typical funding model for charities does not embrace technology as an enabler in service delivery.

Thankfully this is evolving slowly, however the technology sector moves quickly so I don’t see this challenge going away.

What are your thoughts on digital transformation?

Digital transformation is at the core of my strategy for NCBI. Covid-19 really emphasised the importance of investing in technology and its value in the charity sector. Technology should ultimately enable service delivery to people with disabilities to be as cost efficient as possible.

NCBI is one of the few charities in Ireland that has gone through a digital transformation, so a core ambition of mine is to support other charities in Ireland and globally on their own journeys and offer the support to them.

The myNCBI Smart Hub, for example, I designed to be completely white-labelled and can be deployed to other charities around the world at minimal cost. I intend to continue this approach with app development and showcase new avenues technology can enable in service delivery.

What big tech trends do you believe are changing the world?

I have seen many technology trends come and go over the years. The fact that I am getting older is the only constant. What tends to be most important is building innovation and using technology as an enabler. How you apply technology to a given situation to fix a challenge, make something more efficient, or create a better product, that to me is key. On the teams I manage, I strongly encourage ideas and giving people the opportunity to develop them.

I have been in too many meetings in a previous company that were, ‘we need to be on blockchain’ or ‘let’s do social’, with no actual understanding of the problem that technology would solve or how we would apply it or create a great product.

In my role as CTO of the NCBI, my job is how can I apply technology to overcome the obstacles for people with sight loss and allow them to live their lives independently.

That is what keeps me excited and looking forward to work each day. That and coffee.

How can we address the security challenges currently facing your industry?

The charity and public sector we know are key target for cyberattacks. Obviously with high-profile cases in the HSE, we see very publicly the implications of a cyberattack. This probably keeps me awake most at night.

NCBI has taken numerous steps to secure and lockdown our systems as you would expect. The most important step to take is continuous education of our staff and service users on how to avoid various types of attacks. Being vigilant with education around cybersecurity is critical.

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