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.

  • 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

  • Microsoft Keeps Dougy Center Staff Connected Following Devastating Fire

    “There’s no one right way to grieve,” says The Dougy Center’s executive director, Donna Schuurman.

    That’s why this organization in Portland, Oregon, provides children, teens, and young adults with a safe place to process the loss of a close friend or family member. The Center allows participants to openly and honestly talk about how they feel about death, one of our culture’s most taboo subjects. Staff offers peer support groups and a variety of interactive activities — from art and music to exercise in the high-energy “volcano” room.

    With several locations — including an administrative building, a training center, and two satellite offices — six program coordinators, a dozen full-time employees, and more than 50 ongoing peer groups, remarkable organization and clear communication have always been paramount to the center’s success.

    But on the night of Father’s Day 2009, the efficiently run organization was dealt a heavy blow: an arson fire burned its 5,000 square foot administrative office to the ground. “It was a huge tragedy and the building was beyond repair,” says Schuurman of the converted 1920s wooden home. “Our lives changed overnight.”

    Staff members salvaged what they could and quickly set up shop in what had been the primary training center. They recovered the Center’s servers, which had luckily been housed in the basement, while satellite offices in West and South Portland took on more trainings to compensate for the missing building.

    “Scheduling meetings and sharing information can be a challenge for any organization, but after the fire, it became a nightmare for us,” says Schuurman. The question of who was where, when, became a constant hurdle. The situation was amplified by Schuurman’s busy travel schedule, who frequently leads offsite trainings around the globe.

    But with challenges come opportunities. Staff recognized that upgrading the organization’s Microsoft Office Suite from 2003 to 2010 could help keep the Center running smoothly during the uncertainty of the fire’s aftermath. With the help of TechSoup, they made a donation request and planned for the software’s implementation and staff trainings.

    “The new version of Office has made tracking the comings and goings of staff and coordinating meetings so much more manageable,” says Schuurman. “And the new, user-friendly features in Word and PowerPoint have made a huge difference in the creation of our fundraising presentations and training manuals.” Schuurman calls being able to outline these often-dense texts with a table of contents “nothing short of miraculous.”

     

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    The Dougy Center’s new administrative office broke ground in April 2012.

    After a year of back and forth with insurance companies, the organization broke ground on its new 11,000-square-foot facility on April 18, 2012. The administrative offices will be upstairs, while the bulk of programming and training will happen on the first floor. Schuurman hopes staff will be able to move in by the end of the year.

    “Our Microsoft donations will continue to help us as we transition into our new space,” says Schuurman. “We have minimal technology needs, but having the right tools in place means being able to deliver even more programming to youth and their families in need — now and well in the future.”

  • 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.

  • Relief organizations to share real-time needs during disaster response through Microsoft’s “Notes From The Ground”

    By Microsoft Disaster Response Team

    On the heels of Microsoft’s Local Impact Map announcement, we are pleased to share that we are now also able to provide relief organizations with the ability to broadcast stories and highlight needs during times of disaster through a tool called Notes from the Ground. Hosted within Local Impact Map, Notes from the Ground will deliver eye-witness responder stories via photos, videos, and messages, to provide real-time access to information on relief needs in a disaster-stricken area.

    Our partnership with Aidmatrix, a longtime Microsoft Disaster Relief partner, helped bring this vision to life. Aidmatrix works to provide support during humanitarian crises through the use of technology and partnerships to get the right aid to people when and where they need it most.

    Aidmatrix and other nonprofits will be able to use Notes From the Ground to share their relief stories during disasters to increase awareness for the conditions on the ground and the need for community support. These stories will then be channeled through the Microsoft network of web-based communication vehicles such as MSN.com, MSNBC.com, Bing, Microsoft.com, Windows Live, and Microsoft’s social media outlets.

    “Disasters are emotional, high-stress and fast-acting situations that leave people wanting to know more, specifically how they can help,” said Keith Thode, COO & CTO of Aidmatrix. “Knowing that Microsoft has this tool readily available within 24 hours of a disaster will allow us to connect with our network of partners and enable them to tell their stories, highlight the work they are doing and connect targeted donations to where they are needed most.”

    In addition to exposing the good work being done by the relief community, we hope that Notes from the Ground will increase visibility into donation and volunteer opportunities, as well as expose critical needs during a disaster so the public can be more informed in their giving. For those looking for ways to support relief efforts, Notes from the Ground will include a list of specific needs posted by vetted nonprofits responding to a disaster so that the public can make donations based on these exact requests.

    “By telling the stories directly from the ground and tying them to the very specific need from a relief organization, this tool enables the community to make an emotional connection and actually see their donations being put to good use,” said Thode. “From a donor perspective, they are very interested in transparency and they want to know how their resources are being used. Notes from The Ground helps tell that story.”

    The Microsoft Disaster Response program is aimed at improving response capabilities during times of disaster and we see Notes from the Ground as an exciting tool to support these efforts. We look forward to sharing more about this tool as Aidmatrix and others begin to implement it into their relief work.

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