Late last November, amid a deluge of bad news emerging from the world of technology – fake news, social media addiction, gender inequality, startup bro-culture – a modest event unfolded at Communitech that, looking back, could rightfully be described as the opening trumpet flourish for one of the most heartwarming little tech stories of the year.
The event was the launch of a mobile and web app for a local organization called Shore Centre.
Shore Centre (formerly Planned Parenthood) isn’t a traditional tech company, by any means. In fact, it’s not a tech company at all. It’s a non-profit, a charity, that exists to help women with pregnancy and health issues, additionally helping guide women through the often frightening, emotionally charged process of acquiring an abortion.
Shore Centre’s new app, built here in Kitchener by a company called Zeitspace, is flat out noteworthy, and is for a whole lot of reasons.
The app has, in the span of one month since its launch, “completely transformed” the way Shore Centre connects with its clients, generating a 50-per-cent increase in women served, while doing so with greater ease, expediency and privacy.
It has additionally set a modern, tech-savvy standard of service for non-profits, one that may well become the template for Shore Centre’s affiliates across the country, improving the lives of Canadian women from coast to coast.
And, finally, the app and its genesis serves as an example of get-it-done co-operation and goodwill among various elements of the local tech ecosystem, including Communitech, the net benefit being a more livable, and kinder, community.
“It is,” says Shore Centre Executive Director Lyndsey Butcher, “remarkable.”
The app’s creation began more than a year ago with Communitech board member and former Sandvine CEO Dave Caputo. Caputo’s wife, Lina, sits on the board of Social Venture Partners Waterloo, a local agency that helps fund several charities, including Shore Centre.
Butcher was explaining to Dave Caputo some of the problems she faced, including a shrinking and aging donor list, lack of funds, a clunky website, and difficulty helping women overcome the often antiquated processes standing between them and getting pregnancy related help.
“Dave asked me what makes [our] donors stand out,” recalled Butcher. “I said, ‘They’re fierce. These are fierce women who, before birth control was legal and abortion was legal, were standing on the street to fight for our rights.’
“The word fierce really resonated with him. He said, ‘I know a group of women just like that I can introduce you to.’”
In short order, Butcher found herself enrolled, early last year, in the Fierce Founders Bootcamp, a six-day Communitech program that helps women entrepreneurs improve their companies and get funding. The program had never before welcomed a social agency into one of its cohorts, but did so in this case because, to paraphrase former program manager Danielle Graham at the time, it just seemed to be the right thing to do.
The bootcamp membership proved to be the gateway to a bevy of connections and solutions that would transform the Shore Centre organization. Butcher was paired with an advisor, Brian Zubert, director of the Thomson Reuters lab at Communitech, and through him, members of the Thomson Reuters team. They helped her improve her website, her messaging, and her pitch abilities.
From there, she connected with Mark Connolly, partner at local software firm Zeitspace, and explained to him the problems women had when they attempted to access services related to pregnancy. First and foremost, there was no one-stop shop where women could go online and get answers.
Moreover, women were telling Butcher and her staff, repeatedly, that they didn’t want to use the telephone, where they would often be passed from one care provider to the next, where they would additionally often be “judged and shamed” at each step in the abortion process.
An app was the obvious solution. One that would guide a user through questions, opening up options specific to the user’s situation, and provide referrals to doctors and hospitals, complete with information as detailed and relevant as the price it would cost to park in the hospital parking lot. All available 24/7/365.
The problem was funding the app and doing the necessary code work. Initial inquiries resulted in quotes ranging from $15,000 to $80,000, and Shore Centre’s government grants wouldn’t permit spending on IT or tech. Moreover, “it was really difficult for our funders to wrap their heads around the idea that our clients wouldn’t be sitting down face-to-face with someone,” said Butcher.
To make a long story short, Zeitspace simply stepped up and designed the app pro bono.
The net result? In December, the first full month of its use, the app generated 126 client referrals, whereas previously, using the telephone, Shore Centre would normally make 80. So, an increase north of 50 per cent, and it took place even though Shore Centre was shut down for several days during the Christmas break.
“It’s a massive change,” says Butcher.
The app has not only generated more, and smoother, referrals, it has allowed Shore Centre to reallocate personnel and make better use of its resources, because technology now handles what the telephone used to. Shore Centre’s clients, meantime, are happier – they have greater independence and anonymity and can get answers and service even on a weekend, or when Shore Centre is closed.
It’s been so successful, so quickly, that like-minded organizations in other cities, as well as the national Planned Parenthood body, Action Canada for Sexual Health and Rights, have taken notice and expressed an interest in what’s unfolding here.
“I knew I needed tech involved in my charity, but I didn’t know how to start that conversation,” said Butcher. “Communitech was able to bridge that gap for me.”
The co-operation and continued engagement that she has found from members of the local tech community, including her fellow Fierce Founders cohort members, have left her, she says, gobsmacked.
“The whole tech community has helped us transform us into a modern charity. I cannot say enough about the impact it’s going to have.”
It’s relevant particularly because of the aforementioned deluge of bad-news stories that have emerged recently. Communitech is working to launch, this May, a conference called True North Waterloo, a gathering devoted to addressing those very shortcomings – to reset the compass, as it were. Stories like Shore Centre’s, and the help it found in this ecosystem, are proof that good tech news not only exists, but that good deeds by tech companies can make a meaningful impact.
“If you think of a 17-year-old girl finding out on a Saturday night she’s pregnant, not knowing who she can talk to, to [now] be able to go online and get the answer she needs and to know someone is there for her, will make all the difference in her experience,” said Butcher.
“It’s a game changer for the work that we do and the women we serve.”