Care in the computer: The evolution of Platforms for Good

 |   Microsoft New Zealand News Centre

Citizens of Aotearoa are lucky to have a host of social support and agencies dedicated to providing help – but often we don’t get to choose how it’s delivered, who we engage with, or where we go. Whether it’s home-based care for people with disabilities and older New Zealanders, coaching to stay in long-term employment or mental health support for teenagers and young adults, innovative app developer Platforms for Good is dedicated to providing better access and choice. Using the power of Microsoft Azure cloud, it’s created a range of platforms that are helping thousands find just the help they want, when, where and how they want it, connecting carers and Kiwis in a nationwide digital community. And global expansion is already underway.

Every day, thousands of New Zealanders receive care from support workers at home, particularly older people and Kiwis with disabilities needing a hand with their housework or help getting showered and dressed. However, many rely on a rotating roster of support workers who are assigned clients from day to day, meaning continuity of care can be lost. A host of strangers coming into your home – and helping with the most intimate of tasks – can be unsettling at the best of times. For those with dementia, it can be particularly frightening.

Platforms for Good was established in 2015 (originally under the Mycare brand) to address just that issue. Built in Microsoft Azure cloud, the Mycare app is a self-service tool that allows people to choose the support workers they want, enabling them to establish and build a real relationship with their carers.

“It’s akin to an Airbnb marketplace, but clients can choose who their “host” or carer is,” explains Chief Platform Officer, Dave Audley. “It’s about giving preference to people, using technology to remove barriers to equity and help people manage their care themselves or by loved ones.”

The Mycare app manages both sides of the care relationship, from conducting ID checks and verifying carers’ credentials to managing insurance and tax payment. That was one of Mycare’s other standout innovations.

“If you’re a contractor, you have to manage your own tax, and for workers on low incomes, this can be a daunting prospect. So we worked with Inland Revenue (IRD) to enable our system to put cash aside for tax with each payment. IRD loves it because they don’t have to chase people for their taxes, and workers love it because they don’t have a big bill to worry about at the end of the tax year,” Dave says.

“We also believe in fair wages and have processes in place within the app to ensure everyone is paid a minimum rate. This is set above the regulated minimum wages and is generally above market rates.”

In just six years, the app has signed more than 14,000 workers and has gained interest from wider global markets, including North America. Platforms for Good has built an incredible wealth of knowledge, which has been documented into a help centre. The platform can be deployed quickly overseas using Microsoft Azure Cloud and then localised, allowing partners to quickly go to market with support and expert knowledge wrapped around them, using powerful and interactive insights.

Chief Executive, Matt Owen says: “We have spent around six years iterating a digital platform that specialises in homecare, continually implementing improvements to make the life of clients and home care workers simpler. It’s the little details that matter!”

And it’s that constant drive to do more, solve more, help more people that has fuelled the company’s evolution.

Envisioning the future together – Te Heke Mai

Te Heke Mai was the start of Mycare’s evolution into Platforms for Good. The team brainstormed another app that could help those transitioning away from benefits to enter long-term employment.

“Research shows that those who are employed for 12-13 months are less likely to return to benefits, but other factors such as family commitments, health problems or their home environment can affect their ability to stay in work. We wanted to create a tool that allowed people to focus on their goals, identifying the barriers, then matching them with coaches to support their ongoing employment,” says Dave.

The team approached the Ministry of Social Development (MSD) to sound officials out on a pilot scheme. That’s where their decision to build in Azure really paid off.

As with all government departments, MSD has strict rules and requirements around data privacy and security. Azure’s built-in security and compliance capabilities made the task of designing a platform that met everyone’s needs much easier. Microsoft also supported the Platforms for Good team with training in cloud architecture and solutions to ensure everyone’s skills and capabilities were up to date.

“But Azure cloud is such a self-service technology, we were able to design the platforms for ourselves,” Dave says.

A pilot for the new app, called Te Heke Mai (“The Future Together”) was launched in Auckland in early 2019. Because of the platform’s ability to guide and support people remotely at any time, bringing together multiple forms of communication such as voice, text and in app messaging, participants can take part at a time, place and style that suits them.

“We want to provide people with toolkits, habit shifts and coaching support that sets them up not for a month, or a year, but a lifetime, unleashing the potential that sits in all of us. We help people learn goal setting techniques that support their life and wider ambitions beyond their careers as well,” explains Matt.

There are numerous examples of people like Campbell (not his real name), a young man who had lost his driver’s licence several times due to a history of drug and alcohol abuse. While he was keen to find work, he needed support to overcome his lack of confidence and help him focus on positive habits rather than destructive ones.

Paired with a coach by Te Heke Mai, Campbell learned to recognise and celebrate his achievements, manage his emotions and behaviours with mindfulness and remain accountable for his actions. He has since passed his Class 1 licence and has worked as a contractor on painting, traffic management and landscaping jobs – and his outlook has dramatically improved.

After a host of successes like these, Te Heke Mai was set to go nationwide in 2020 – when of course, Covid-19 struck. Platforms for Good decided it wanted to expand the service to all people impacted by Covid, not just MSD beneficiaries.

The almost infinite scalability of Azure public cloud made that possible without missing a beat. Since then, more than 1,000 workers have been supported via the app, “graduating” after around 12 months of stable employment when coaches are satisfied they have the right tools to succeed on their own.

“Te Heke Mai is a tool that we have implemented internally at Platforms for Good too. We use it as a heartbeat for our people’s wellbeing weekly. It is our central tool for personal development, allowing our people to develop using the correct tools and frameworks, and we now realise the wider opportunity for Te Heke Mai across both government agencies and the private sector,” explains Dave.

Now that Te Heke Mai has been proven, Platforms for Good is extending its services to the education sector, Corrections and NGOs.

“Technology with a human heart” – Gumboot Friday

Its success with Mycare and Te Heke Mai made Platforms for Good the ideal partner for Gumboot Friday, a campaign spearheaded by legendary mental health campaigner Mike King to support young people struggling with depression and anxiety.

Just like Mycare, Platforms for Good’s Mental Health Platform was created to enable people to choose the support workers they want – in this case, qualified counsellors. Microsoft Cognitive Services capabilities let young people search for and message counsellors in their region, with Azure-based automation tools sending follow-ups and reminders to ensure no one got lost in the system. King’s team at charity I am Hope immediately saw its value. The two organisations joined forces, launching the official Gumboot Friday app and online portal in 2020.

With between 120 and 180 young people dying by suicide and an estimated 3,500 attempting to take their own lives in Aotearoa each year, New Zealand’s mental health resources aren’t enough to support the vast numbers of teenagers and young adults who need help. The Gumboot Friday app is a vital lifeline for these people, especially those who live in areas without access to counselling or psychology services.

Around 900 counsellors have already registered across New Zealand, and young people can search for them under ethnicity, language, gender and whether they are available for counselling online or in person. All counselling is paid for by the charity. Nearly 15,000 sessions have been provided over 6,000 young people via the platform since its launch just over a year ago.

The platform has the capability to provide rich, real-time insights that drive action, such as use in certain regions, by gender or by age groups. This accurate data and insight capacity can be used to inform government policy and how funding is deployed. The tool is now enabling young people to directly gain support within a couple of clicks on the I am Hope website, dramatically simplifying the traditional approach of doctors’ waiting rooms and difficult conversations, which can be a barrier to finding or continuing to access crucial support.

“When we talk about the huge social dividends cloud can provide, this is exactly what we mean. Innovative cloud developers like Platforms for Good are changing people’s lives, giving them more control and choice over the services they use, the ability to monitor their progress towards their goals and help finding new communities of support at a scale that’s never been possible before. This is technology with a human heart,” says Patrick Quesnel, Azure Business Group Engineering Lead at Microsoft ANZ.

Building more communities of care

As ever, Platforms for Good isn’t content to rest on its laurels. Matt Owen says: “Our mission is to build an ecosystem of human centred platforms that provide simple, accessible and equitable support to global communities. We want to change the world for the better.”

Matt is also excited about incorporating other Microsoft technologies such as artificial intelligence, voice recognition, accessibility functions and language features for speakers of other languages into the platforms to make them easy to use for all New Zealanders and global partners.

“With the support of Microsoft we are building scalable and modular platforms that are fast to deploy, putting community needs at the heart of what we do, whilst providing advanced analytics. We truly are building platforms for good,” Matt says.

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