The five minute CIO: Vincent Richardson, Concern

30 Jan 2015

Vincent Richardson, CIO of Concern

“IT gives you a tool of real strategic importance,” said Vincent Richardson, CIO of Concern, who masterminds the connectivity of 3,500 development workers in 24 countries and across four continents.

Concern Worldwide is a non-governmental organisation (NGO) that works with the world’s poorest people to transform their lives. For over 40 years, Concern has worked in partnership with local communities in some of the poorest countries in the world to tackle hunger and become better prepared for future crises. The agency has a network of 3,500 employees, with approx. 180 based at its headquarters in Dublin.

“We focus on poorest of the poor, the bottom 40 in the human development index and programmes livelihoods, emergency response, health and education,” Richardson said.

“From an ICT perspective Concern definitely recognises the potential of ICT. Not just to make our working lives easier but to make the lives of our programme participants better.  My motto is quite simple: ‘Concern uses ICT in innovative ways not just to make the working lives of staff easier but for programme participants by using technology in our development programmes.’

“How we make that happen is through our ICT4D initiative – ICT for Development. ‘How you utilise technology in the developing world to make the lives of those who we’re helping better?’

“It’s a challenge, there’s no doubt, but what I would say is we have a huge amount of learning and understanding on how to operate in the most isolated places on the planet. Places that have little or no civil infrastructure, we can get in on the ground and have our people there using technology and being able to either send pictures and stories back that help inform our supporters.  Also operational activities or finance and accounting information, spreadsheets for budgets. Anything and everything that goes on the ground and we can do that broadly anywhere on the planet.”

Can you outline the breadth and scope of the technology roll-out across your organisation and what improvements it will bring to the company?

IT gives you a tool of real strategic importance. We can’t operate without technology. We’re just like any enterprise of our size but the additional step is we would use the tools also to help those that we serve. In terms of the rollout and how it extensive our infrastructure is we have 2,700 computer users based all over the world; Ireland, the UK, the US, Haiti and right through Africa and Asia, including North Korea. We also have teams on the ground in Lebanon and Turkey who supporting our Syrian relief efforts

Can you give a snapshot of how extensive your IT infrastructure is?

Our line of business systems are hosted here in Dublin and we use VMware extensively, EMC for storage and Cisco for compute and networking. Then it’s the Microsoft stack for all systems – including extensive use of Office 365.  We use Citrix XenApp for finance and accounting and our fundraising systems.  We have the usual line of business applications, with SharePoint used for Intranet and Knowledge Management.  We also just implemented a ShoreTel telephony platform and are rolling out Meraki technology globally too. 

We have about 80 sites around the world that have connectivity, mostly via DSL or in some cases a lot of Africa and Asia is fibre but we still use a lot of satellite technology in particularly rural areas.

We are heavy users of VSAT technology which is satellite-based internet.

We also used an advanced form of portable VSAT called a BGAN and that gives you connectivity from anywhere on the planet. These are very much used in an emergencies context.

Most of the 80 offices would have client/server technologies, networking and Wi-Fi and the all connect via a VPN back to Dublin – Juniper is our VPN technology partner.

What are the main points of your company’s IT strategy?

We are at the backend of our existing five-year strategy. I have ownership of two strategies: one is the broad IT strategy and the second is the ICT4D strategy. Under the broader strategy we look at the efficient use of technology, including user desktop, how that is managed and deployed and then we look at supporting Concern.  Another strategic header is user support and people skills to make sure our teams are skilled up to do what needs to be done.

We also share knowledge and way of working with other iNGOs in our sector.  It’s a key objective in fact, spending time collaborating with other organisations.

The other would be our risk and disaster management, governance, that our information is safe and secure and properly managed.

Another broad heading is how we facilitate effective communications in terms of network infrastructure and video conferencing.   Having such a diverse workforce spread around the world means effective communications is essential. 

In terms of managing IT budgets, what are your key thoughts on how CIOs/heads of technology should achieve their goals?

The main pressure point most CIOs have is the trend to move from a lot of capital based spend to operational spend and maintenance given the move to then Cloud. Moving everything to the cloud sounds fantastic but not always cheaper and that can put a lot of pressure on budgets. 

Do you have a large in-house IT team, or do you look to strategically outsource where possible?

We are a relatively lean department but for an organisation like Concern, but we attract some of the brightest and sharpest minds I’ve ever worked with. The IT capacity we have here is fantastic. We have people here in Dublin and overseas we have three regional IT advisors (two in Africa and one in Asia) who coordinate a lot of the ICT activities in the countries where we work.  There are local IT staff too who are fantastic. They have a high level of support from the team back in HQ.  We are lucky of course that when we can rely on external capacity whether we buy it in, receive pro bono or heavily reduced rates and then from time to time and if the skillset is relevant we will take in volunteers.

What particular challenges have you faced recently whereby IT has proven invaluable?

A large part of what we do is emergency response and being an emergency responder you have to be able to respond as an organisation to some really dreadful things most recently is how how Concern is responding to the Ebola crisis in West Africa.

One particular challenge we were tasked with in Sierra Leone was the management of two cemeteries and the burial of those who succumbed to the disease.  Secret burials and poor burial management was rife and contributing to almost 70pc of the transmission of Ebola.  We partnered with the Glasnevin Trust who run Glasnevin cemetery in Dublin and they provided us with their Cemetery Records Management System to keep track of burials and the use of plots so the system was deployed on and the records helped us provide detailed information on the deceased. It gave us structure and helped us reduce the threat of disease spreading and also afforded those who succumbed to Ebola and their families some dignity.

What are some of the main responsibilities of your own role, and how much of it is spent on deep technical issues compared to the management and business side?

It’s both. Mostly the management and business side. I’ve been in ICT for over 20 years now and I have seen the huge transformation in workplace that ICT has delivered and I started off as that helpdesk guy and evolved to that system admin and IT manager and then senior leader, the CIO, so I’ve come through it all. I always have a massive interest in technology and keep my hand in the technical side and dabble a little bit but spend my time working with corporate partners to ensure getting access to their various technologies in a cost effective way.

I work very closely with counterparts in some of the other large NGOs. We formed our own membership organisation Net Hope to drive costs down even further with the major tech companies but also to use it as a way to lobby for significant discounts or even large donations.

What are the big trends and challenges in your sector, and how do you plan to use IT to address them?

Technology will prove instrumental in helping to lift people out of poverty.  To improve their standards of life, to help educate children and improve mortality rates of newborns.  The simple mobile phone has been very impactful.  Feature phones and now the smartphone is proving to be transformative in the developing world.  Sometimes the simplest of technologies can be the most profound and, even still, SMS technology has proven to be extremely powerful.

The use of mobile money via cheap simple mobile phones and SMS technology is really helping to bank the unbanked. For people with small sums of money to be able to manage their money more effectively via mobile phones and SMS actually has a massive impact on their livelihoods.  For us in the developed world, the internet of things, 5G and ubiquitous connectivity is very exciting, that’s a long way off for those who we serve.  Things have to be as simple as simple can be for them to work.

What metrics or measurement tools do you use to gauge how well IT is performing?

To gauge how well we are performing we have a strong helpdesk system and process that we allows us to measure any indicator, but for me overall customer satisfaction is the most important metric.  Having clear and open communication and feedback with our customer base is absolutely essential.

Are there any areas you’ve identified where IT can improve, and what are they?

Our current strategic term is drawing to a close and this year we will reflect on our progress and get straight in to the development of plans for the next few years.

We have a few very interesting projects for 2015 and 2016, the most interesting one is we are looking to embed Geographical Information Systems capacity into the organisation as the next layer to our digital data gathering processes.  The ability to be able to map and visualise operational information gives us that extra layer of intelligence for Concern’s leadership as well as management in the field to make better decisions.

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years