July, 2012

  • Technology Comes to Toronto Wildlife Centre’s Rescue

    Toronto Wildlife Centre has been a leader in wildlife rescue, veterinary care, rehabilitation, and education efforts in Southern Ontario since 1993. The Centre’s expert staff of more than 20 along with hundreds of dedicated volunteers come to the aid of sick, injured, and orphaned animals and care for them until they can be returned to the wild. Easy and fast access to information often dictates how many animals they can save.

    Like so many nonprofits, budgets are small, and stretching dollars is essential to the Centre’s survival. As a result, the Centre’s basic technology — which included a mishmash of 14 donated computers with whatever operating systems and software they arrived with — was sorely out of date. “Our network and computers resembled Frankenstein’s laboratory,” says the Centre’s IT coordinator, Scott Wight. “Keeping it all running was an exercise in extreme DIY and creativity.” Even the simplest tasks, such as emailing files and data entry, proved challenging.

    “We saw a lot of the infamous hourglass,” remembers Wight. “Our database was slow and glitchy, and we would frequently lose information when things froze up.” Rather than helping the Centre achieve its mission, technology had become a source of frustration — especially when it came to responding to the Wildlife Hotline, which allows the public to report a wildlife concern. Staff was not always able to respond quickly to urgent calls, sometimes meaning the difference between life and death for an injured or sick animals.

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    As with this young coyote, mink and owl, the Toronto Wildlife Centre comes to the aid of sick, injured, and orphaned animals and cares for them until they can be returned to the wild. Easy and fast access to information often dictates how many animals they can save.

    This was Wight’s impetus to register with TechSoup Canada for Microsoft software donations and upgrade the entire office to Windows XP and Microsoft Office 2003. “Right from the get go, our operations were more efficient,” he says. “The new Microsoft technology has enabled us to help more wildlife while giving a serious boost to morale.” With everyone equipped with the same tools, staff and volunteers expressed a newfound satisfaction. Workflow, communication, and collaboration improved exponentially. Stabilizing our existing Access database with up to date software made recordkeeping more reliable.

    Wight saw the most measurable improvement in triage: the new technology increased staff’s ability to prioritize and quickly respond to the Wildlife Hotline calls, which lies at the core of the organization’s work. “It’s our number one outward-facing program,” he says. More than 65,000 wild animals representing over 270 different species have received care as a result.

    “It is truly unbelievable the difference these donations have made to Toronto Wildlife Centre,” Wight says. He is now eager to upgrade the Centre to Windows 7 and Office 2010 to help keep the organization running as smoothly and efficiently as ever.

  • Employee Philanthropist Spotlight: Peli de Halleux & Chris Mitchell

    As part of our celebrations for the 30th anniversary of the Microsoft employee giving campaign which takes place in October, we’re sharing some stories of how Microsoft employees are giving back and what volunteering or giving means to them. Recently, we featured Erin and her work with Global Give Back Circle. Now, we’d like you to meet Peli de Halleux and Chris Mitchell, and the program they volunteer for, Technology Education and Literacy in Schools (TEALs).

    TEALs is an employee volunteer program that aims to address the issue of how to ensure students have access to computer science in high school. TEALS recruits, mentors, and places technology professionals who are passionate about digital literacy and computer science education into high school classes as part-time teachers. Microsoft employees volunteer in a team teaching model in which the school district is unable to meet their students' computer science needs on its own. Started by Kevin Wang, the ultimate goal of TEALS is to provide every school that needs one with a computer science teacher. The program started with an introductory computer science course and next year, with the addition of an advanced computer science course, students who enroll will receive college credit. TEALS has expanded from humble beginnings at just three schools to 13 partner schools in 4 school districts throughout Washington State, reaching more than 800 students. de Halleux and Mitchell both teach at Rainier Beach High School in Seattle, Wash.

    de Halleux, a senior research software development engineer in Microsoft Research, joined Microsoft in October 2004. He thinks utilizing Microsoft employees’ core competency of technology expertise can greatly benefit the community. He’s lives near Rainier Beach and wanted to give back to his community.

    “We’re with students five hours a week. It’s amazing to experience being a high school teacher while working for Microsoft,” said de Halleux. “TEALs has created a system where we can make a change in the classroom by doing something natural to our job. In other volunteering opportunities, you might not be used at your full potential.”

    Chris Mitchell, a principal software design engineer for Microsoft Exchange Server, has been with the company 10 years this September. His personal volunteer efforts have always centered on education issues, including serving on a committee for the Pacific Science Center and involvement in the local school districts. When he learned of TEALs, he jumped at the opportunity to get classroom experience.

    “There’s a lot of talk about what’s going wrong in education,” said Mitchell. “This was a good way for people at Microsoft to use their expertise to make a difference for the better.”

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    TEALs volunteers Chris Mitchell and Peli de Halleux teach introductory computer science with teacher Michael Braun at Rainier Beach High School.

    Peli and Chris originally signed up to volunteer two times a week at Rainier Beach High School to provide students instruction in an introduction to web design course. When they began to see the impact they could have on the students, they both quickly decided to volunteer more frequently. Working with teacher Michael Braun, de Halleux and Mitchell began to teach high school students five days a week at 8:00 a.m.

    “I thought we’d split up the assignment,” said Mitchell. “But it’s an engaging thing, so we made the decision to be there every day. It wasn’t like you felt like you had to be there.”

    Mitchell said their initial problem was attracting students to attend school every day and to ensure they were ready, willing and able to learn. He said one student in the course was working 25 hours or more a week at McDonald’s while trying to keep up with his school work.

    “We had a rough first semester. We were teaching web design and there were a number of kids who didn’t want to be there,” said Mitchell. “The students all used cell phones in the classroom, much to our chagrin, and it was a constant distraction problem.”

    Mitchell and de Halleux came back with a unique plan for the second semester and school administrators were thrilled.

    They asked, why not provide students with phones to use in the classroom and learn computer programming skills by developing apps? de Halleux had been working on TouchDevelop, a Windows Phone app that allows users to create apps and games directly on the phone. Thanks to a grant from Microsoft Research Connections to the Seattle Public School District, the school was able to equip each student with Windows Phones and TouchDevelop. That’s when class enrollment nearly doubled.

     

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    Students at Rainier Beach High School utilize TouchDevelop on Windows Phone to learn basics of mobile programming and developing apps.

    To learn what students think of TEALs, read our earlier blog post on the program.

    After introducing phones to the classroom, the course increased its enrollment from 16 students in the first semester to 30 students in the second semester. They also introduced 8th graders from South Shore Middle School to encourage them to build an interest in computer science and the high school as well. The impact of the program on students was easily seen.

    “At mid semester we had a student join us who barely spoke English,” said de Halleux. “He gave up that first semester, but he came back the second semester and said it changed his life. He wants to make computer science his career and will join our advanced course next year.”

    And the positive impact was made not only on the students—both volunteers feel they received more than they gave through TEALs.

    “I definitely feel more connected with my neighborhood, and feel better about me. It’s a great feeling, and hard to describe,” de Halleux said.

    Want to learn more? If you are a technology professional and would like to join TEALs, or if you're a school looking to add computer science to your course offerings, please contact Kevin Wang for more information at Kevin@TEALSK12.org.

  • Big Brothers and Big Sisters of Canada Gains Flexible Access, Consistent Communications with Microsoft Dynamics CRM

    Fast and efficient communication is often the backbone for any large nonprofit. This is especially true for Big Brothers and Big Sisters of Canada (BBBSC), a quickly expanding and diverse organization that spans more than 120 agencies. It is committed to matching mentors with Canada’s youth in 1,000 communities throughout the country.

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    BBBSC believes in the value and values of mentoring.

    As it grew, BBBSC realized that it needed a better way to keep volunteer mentors, participants, and donors in the loop — and to ensure clear communication with staff when they were out in the field. “Microsoft Dynamics CRM clearly met all of our needs, even if they were to shift later in a dramatic fashion,” says BBBSC’s Dynamics CRM system manager Malcolm McAuley. “It’s a very flexible, scalable, and robust system.”

    Because BBBSC functions as a federated model, mapping technology to the organization’s mission is often a complex team effort. “No technology frameworks or requirements are set,” says Jonathan Leard, program manager for the Annapolis Valley and Halifax agencies. “Each agency makes its own decisions according to the specific needs of local demographics. And while some are more progressive and eager to embrace new technology, others don’t have the staff or the funds, or might not be aware of the benefits.”

    McAuley consulted with individual agencies to help them assess their needs and illustrate how upgrading their technology could have wide-ranging benefits. Challenges proved not only financial, but also practical. Training and maintenance — having an employee who is skilled at performing upgrades, for example — are important considerations, especially when many agencies serve large territories with limited staff. The Annapolis Valley agency covers 7,000 square km with just four employees. “Having access to the right software, especially on the road, factors largely into an agency’s success,” says Leard, who managed technology upgrades for two agencies.

    Recently, more than 80 of the organization’s agencies adopted Microsoft Dynamics CRM, representing a user base of 745 people. “This solution allows staff to access important case information from their tablets or mobile devices and get what they need on the go,” explains Leard. “This kind of flexible and immediate access is invaluable to our work.”

    Prior to implementing Dynamics CRM, much of the organization’s technology was far from cutting edge. To meet the new system’s basic requirements, a number of agencies were challenged with having to simultaneously upgrade their Microsoft operating system and Office suite software. Many of the agencies turned to TechSoup Canada for help. “TechSoup Canada’s donation program made upgrading our system possible,” says Robin Benedict, the Annapolis Valley agency’s executive director. “We were able to affordably acquire Microsoft Office, Simply Accounting, and Windows 7 and are now prepared for any future CRM upgrades and are fully up-to-date.”

    McAuley is especially excited by the prospect of having more agencies utilize TechSoup Canada. “It frees up time and money so staff can focus on what is most important — finding the right match for the thousands of children and youth across Canada waiting for mentors,” he says. Today, more than 28,000 mentors are building positive relationships with more than 33,400 children and youth in 1,000 Canadian communities.

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    Unlocking a child’s true potential creates a future where anything is possible.

    BBBSC has provided technology support for participating agencies in a variety of ways, including monitoring the new CRM system performance. It also serves as a liaison with Microsoft to ensure the system is reflective of the needs of the organization’s collective mission. Leard heads up a Dynamics CRM committee, which helped establish a core set of organizational standards. He also created a mediated monthly CRM forum where staff can get answers to their questions.

    “Thanks to Microsoft upgrades acquired through TechSoup Canada and Dynamics CRM, all of our information is in one place,” says Leard. This translates to easier access by agency employees, as well as increased security and protection. “We can see in our notes what was said in the last call with a donor or mentor, which makes our customer service that much more effective and consistent.”

    One of BBBSC’s next big CRM-related ventures will be exploring if and how they can apply this technology to its donor management system. “Having important information about our program participants and donors all one place is crucial.” There’s also a lot to explore in terms of HR management. “Technology now plays a key role in our day-to-day operations, and we’ll forever more be reviewing how it can best serves our needs,” he says. Together, Microsoft and TechSoup Canada are committed to supporting BBBSC on its journey, every step of the way.

  • Microsoft Joins Boys & Girls Club, NFL Players to Support AthleTECH camp for DC Youth

    Microsoft was recently honored to join the Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Washington (BGCGW) and National Football League (NFL) players to host AthleTECH, a complimentary two-day football and technology camp for local Washington, D.C. youth. The camp consisted of a technology workshop at Microsoft’s Tyson’s Corner store and an outdoor field sports day at a local recreation center.

    Several National NFL players, collegiate athletes and coaches as well as Microsoft volunteers hosted the camp, which helped local youth increase digital literacy and sportsmanship.  Players from teams such as the Washington Redskins, Baltimore Ravens, Cincinnati Bengals, Tennessee Titans and Atlanta Falcons spent the weekend mentoring youth through a combination of technology skills sessions using Microsoft tools and fitness activities led by the athletes. The camp consisted of mini training sessions, a Moviemaker workshop, an Xbox bus, an obstacle course, plus three Xbox 360 Kinect gaming systems loaded with sports games.

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    Michael Johnson from the Cincinnati Bengals and the BGCGW kids learning how to make a movie using Microsoft Movie Maker.

    As part of Microsoft’s commitment to providing opportunities for youth, AthleTECH was created by employees in the Public Sector MACH (Microsoft Academy of College Hires) program, which is an accelerated career development program designed to recruit and hire top-performing graduates. MACH employees Anthony Egbuniwe, Tinsley Sumrell, Bijan Machen, Jason Johnson, and Bradley Way developed AthleTECH to give local youth the opportunity to play while receiving digital skills training to help prevent summer learning loss. Prior to the camp, local Washington, D.C. youth between the ages of seven and 12 were asked to submit an essay for the chance to win prizes during the two-day camp.  The essay challenged youth to think creatively and exercise critical thinking skills.

    “The first time I formed a program similar to this I was a student athlete at Georgia Tech, and I immediately felt the programmatic impact for both players and youth participants.” Anthony Egbuniwe, Technical Account Manager at Microsoft continues, “Microsoft truly believes in building communities for a greater future, and with a fantastic team of MACH hires behind me we illustrated that with AthleTECH.”

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    NFL players starting off the AthleTECH camp with a true team huddle.

    Microsoft Vice President for U.S. Public Sector Services, Wes Anderson, participated in the event and encouraged the participants to work hard and believe in themselves. Anderson explained, “I was the first generation in my family to come to attend college and as a college athlete myself, it was great to be a part of an event like this that incorporated both sports and technology to encourage kids to achieve their goals. As a company, Microsoft recognizes the importance of giving back and we are honored to help support events like AthleTECH that empower youth here in D.C. and in communities around the world.”

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    Two of the Boys & Girls Club participants at the Microsoft Store in Tysons Corner learned to make videos with the NFL players and had fun playing Kinect for Xbox 360.

    Boys and Girls Club of Greater Washington President and CEO Pandit F. Wright also participated in the event and applauded efforts like AthleTECH that help prevent summer learning loss.

    “Learning loss can easily occur during the summer break in the academic routine. BGCGW recognizes that the educational process needs to be ongoing, and we are extremely appreciative to have the support of globally admired companies such as Microsoft who work proactively to ensure that our youth need not face that loss,” said Wright. “Rewarding our kids for writing skills in addition to sportsmanship and spirit on the field is a major step in encouraging the priority outcomes we want for the kids and teens we serve.”    

    Photo Credits: Steven E. Purcell

  • Computerworld Honors Microsoft’s Disaster Response Portal

    By Microsoft Disaster Response Team

    Recently our team had the opportunity to attend the Computerworld Honors Program which recognizes organizations that use information technology to promote and advance public welfare, benefit society and change the world for the better. Event attendees came from organizations big and small spanning industries from financial services to transportation and everything in between.

    It was a wonderful opportunity to hear how others are using technology to create change. We were honored to have been invited to participate and receive an award in the collaboration category for Microsoft’s Disaster Response Portal. Used in the 2011 Japan earthquake and tsunami as well as the 2011 Joplin, Missouri tornado, Microsoft’s Disaster Response Portal is a solution designed to give government agencies a single location that fosters information sharing and collaboration among first responders, and is used to disseminate public information to individuals and the news media.

    During the Japanese crisis, food shortages and distribution issues were a significant problem. The shelves in markets were empty as people in the community stocked up in response to the nuclear situation. Additionally, transportation challenges delayed delivery of food to shelters. Second Harvest Japan, Japan’s food banking network, with the help of Aidmatrix, used Microsoft’s Disaster Response Portal to communicate rapid updates to the government agencies, relief organizations, shelters and individuals. In addition, the flexible structure of the portal enabled them to integrate several solutions into a single website making it easy to find a local food bank using Bing maps, make donations of goods and services and volunteer at a Second Harvest Japan food bank.

    Following the Joplin tornado, the portal was, as it always is, hosted on Windows Azure in Microsoft data centers, eliminating the need for first responders to run it on local computer servers. Responders used the portal to identify safe driving routes, integrating a Twitter feed and Bing Maps to track team members and leveraging it to disseminate information to the public. The portal became a one-stop workshop for action plans, site photos and progress reports.

    As the number of natural disasters continues to grow, the Microsoft Disaster Response program views technology as a driving force behind empowering government responders and NGOs to quickly react, delivering critical relief services, bringing families back together and ultimately saving lives. The Microsoft Disaster Response program is aimed at improving the response capabilities of lead response organizations during times of disaster while remaining committed to developing long term solutions, strategies, and relationships that can foster faster recovery and lasting stability.

    As a result of these efforts, Microsoft has been able to turn its technology expertise into solutions, including the Disaster Response Portal that address some of the biggest challenges emergency service organizations face.

    We were honored to be chosen as an award recipient by Computerworld for Microsoft’s Disaster Response Portal. A full list of winners can be found here.

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