In the sevenths interview of our "The Leaders of Tech4Good" blog series, we are talking with Marc Sloan, one of the founders of Covid Tech Support. It is a project that helps volunteers and nonprofits or charities find each other to give the latter the chance to move online.
Who is Marc Sloan?
Marc Sloan is one of the leaders of the Tech4Good movement. He is the winner of the Digital Volunteer Award and the founder of Covid Tech Support. Having a technical background and working in the sphere of technology, Marc initiated the creation of the project that has become a platform where volunteers offer their help for charities and nonprofits looking for solutions during the pandemic.
Covid Tech Support is an example of how people can support each other by uniting efforts and promoting community values. Marc Sloan tells our readers about the story behind his project and the results achieved so far.
To start with, could you briefly introduce yourself?
I'm Marc Sloan, one of the founders of Covid Tech Support, which was set up at the beginning of the Covid pandemic earlier this year. It is a community of tech volunteers who got together to help out charities and nonprofits. They are really struggling with technical challenges while dealing with the Covid pandemic.
Thank you! Dwelling upon the Covid situation, how has life in your country changed with the rise of the pandemic? As I know, you are based in London, Great Britain. So what do you think, what category of people have suffered the most?
These are definitely the people at the margins of society that have really suffered. People who are already suffering from isolation, poverty, food deprivation, or mental health issues. People who are already struggling with everyday life. The quarantine came, along with the Covid restrictions, and suddenly those situations became much, much worse.
What we saw was that charities that were supporting those people were completely overwhelmed. They needed the most help, they're the ones who needed us. We also saw that a lot of the ways that charities used to help were no longer an option because of the quarantine restrictions.
A lot of these charities had to figure out, "Well, how do we offer our service remotely? How do we figure out video calls? We need to make sure that security is good and that people can maintain their anonymity sometimes". So there were lots of interesting challenges that they've never had to deal with before and didn't know how to solve those things and had to solve them straight away.
I see. We are facing hard times today. By the way, what role does technology play during the pandemic? Does technology positively affect the situation, and does moving online help people and organizations survive?
I've spoken to a lot of charities that for years have wanted to go digital. They were used to doing things in person, but they knew that at some point, they'd have to go online and offer services remotely. Everybody knew they needed to do this, but no one had because it's such a huge undertaking and investment. And then suddenly, they were forced to because of the pandemic. So in some sense, it's a good thing because a lot of those charities now have gone digital after talking about it for a long time.
But it presents a new problem, too. There's now going to be greater demand from nonprofits and charities for digital helpers, whereas in the past, they've not really needed it. I mean, it's more technologists than a technology that these services need.
An interesting thing is that we have so many people who have machine learning backgrounds and 10 years of experience. However, most of the projects that come to us just need someone who can put together a WordPress website or who can set up something basic. And that will now fulfill most of the requests we get. Even teaching someone how to use Google Docs can make a huge difference.
Most of the projects that come to us just need someone who can put together a WordPress website or who can set up something basic. Even teaching someone how to use Google Docs can make a huge difference.
Let's discuss your project in more detail. What inspired you to create Covid Tech Support? Was there some particular situation after which you realized the need to help others?
What started first was the community right at the beginning of the pandemic. I have a technical background. It means that I have some technical friends. We got together and thought, "Well, there must be something we can do. We've got all these skills. We can make websites and apps and all sorts of things. Let's see if there are other people like this".
Our team got together and thought, "Well, there must be something we can do. We've got all these skills. We can make websites and apps and all sorts of things. Let's see if there are other people like this".
We found a Slack Group, which was called Code4Covid. We thought, "Oh, this is great! We'll find other people to work on projects with". But the next question then was, "What should we work on?" In this community, everyone was coming up with ideas, but none of the ideas sounded like they were solving real problems. So, I realized, "Okay. This is what this community is missing – actual people with real problems who need people like us to help them out".
Thus, I decided to create Covid Tech Support to be a place for people to find us. To begin with, I didn't know if it would work, but we soon were overwhelmed with requests from community groups, charities, volunteer organizations needing all sorts of help. As I just said, requests varied from some things as simple as Google docs to setting up an entire website or an app.
What was fantastic about that was that I could put this community to work. There was so much experience and talent within the community! It's worth saying the community now is over one and a half thousand people across the world. So we've got pretty much every skill covered anybody can ask for. We get projects every week, so it's still something that's needed.
That's really cool that projects like yours exist today! I have a question here. When I entered the website of your project, I saw that people can either find help there or volunteer their skills for other people who need them. I wanted to ask what kind of skills are needed the most today and what kind of help do people seek during the pandemic?
We always need people with technical skills. Technical skills doesn't necessarily mean 10-15 years of experience in a programming language. It can often be as simple as "I know how to set up a WordPress website", or even "I know how to handle Google Docs". The thing that I bear in mind is that there's a lot of people who ask us for help and have no technical experience. They don't even know where to start, and even having a conversation with someone who's more technically minded for 30 minutes can completely change everything for them.
One of the things we do lack, though, and increasingly get asked for are skills like marketing and branding and design. It's often the case that there's a fantastic charity helping with real issues, and just not enough people know that they exist. So they need a bit of help with putting together some good advertising campaign or a good design.
Okay, thank you! I hope that your team will grow day by day because your project truly expands people's chances for a better life in such challenging times. And as I know, Covid Tech Support is purely remote. Does it mean that anyone reading this article can enter the website and offer or find help?
Absolutely. The skills that can be offered don't have to be purely technical. We have a lot of project managers and business managers, we have accountants, we have lawyers. All of those skills are needed at various points by charities. By the way, I think Covid Tech Support is not the best name for it anymore because it's more like Covid Project Support.
If you have a professional skill that you'd like to donate to a charity, then by all means, please sign up. We will find a project that needs you. If you need help, the only requirement we have is that your organization is a charity or a nonprofit. We deal with projects from all over the world.
One more thing for anyone who's thinking of volunteering their time. Aside from the benefits of helping a charity during these pretty tough times, we've been getting a lot of feedback from our volunteers who note that this is a really great opportunity to upskill, to try new things, to get experience. Especially because a lot of our volunteers are out of work right now and also going into an increasingly competitive job market. So, this is a great way to differentiate yourself and show that you didn't spend your quarantine unemployment just sitting in your home. You were out there helping people and learning things. So I encourage you to sign up and give it a go.
Becoming a volunteer is a great way to differentiate yourself and show that you didn't spend your quarantine unemployment just sitting in your home. You were out there helping people and learning things.
That sounds really inspiring! Maybe you will also tell us about some particular cases more in detail? For instance, about some interesting volunteer projects that you helped with or some examples of your top achievement in Covid Tech Support.
For example, we had a homeless charity in London who contacted us to say they had a warehouse full of goods for homeless people, but they were having trouble with distributing because of the quarantine restrictions. So they asked us, "Could you create a website for us so that people can shop for the goods?" They wanted other charities and shelters to shop for goods that they could give to their local communities. Within a week, we managed to get together a team of people with web development experience and online e-commerce and put that website together and immediately started helping.
Another project I really liked was a charity in London that helps immigrant communities within London find other immigrants and get settled into society. They were a typical example of a charity that did everything in person, and all the fundraising was in person. They had a very real risk that they were going to have to shut down because their funding dried up.
One of our volunteers is a project manager who did an absolutely amazing job pulling a team together and getting this charity back on their feet. We helped them figure out how they could offer a lot of their services remotely. One of the reasons I like it is because they are an example of a service that I believe just wouldn't exist now if Covid Tech Support hadn't been able to help them out.
We've helped 250 projects at this point. But I think there are a lot more stories like that amongst those.
Yes, these are the stories that definitely should be heard! And if it happens that the situation with Covid gets better, will you continue your activity with Covid Tech Support? Or will you transform it somehow?
It's probably been the number one thing we talk about in the last couple of months. We've decided we do want to keep it. As long as there is a community of technical people who want to help, we're going to be around. With that in mind, we've decided we're probably going to rebrand ourselves because we don't want to just be Covid Tech Support.
I don't know what we're going to call ourselves yet, but we're going to make it clear that it's about long-term digital project support. We're also now investigating fundraising and becoming a charity ourselves. We've never established ourselves as any kind of legal organization, but I think we're getting to that point now.
Covid Tech Support is about long-term digital project support.
That's great that you are determined to expand your project and help more and more charities around the world. I have one more question that is of particular interest to me. You know, usually, people use technologies for their own good. And while all of us use technology in our everyday routine, not all of us realize that technology can be used for global and long-term goals. How did you come to the idea that technology can be used for the common good?
When the pandemic started, a lot of people realized the world has changed. Suddenly, we lost things that we took for granted, like the ability to go out to the shops and take public transport. I'm someone who is very fortunate, and I don't have any disability or any major problems in my life. And these things were affecting me in a negative way, and it just became very clear, "Wow, if it's affecting me negatively, how must it be affecting vulnerable people and people who are in much worse situations than me?"
I think that was the same for a lot of people realizing that this is a very serious situation and there's gonna be a lot of damage on the back of this. Being awoken to that made me think, "Well, what can I do? I'm not a medical person. There's nothing I can directly help with. I'm not someone who works on the front line, but surely all this technical knowledge and experience I have must be useful for something".
Being awoken to the pandemic problem made me think, "Well, what can I do? I'm not a medical person. There's nothing I can directly help with. I'm not someone who works on the front line, but surely all this technical knowledge and experience I have must be useful for something".
So that's what prompted me then to find the few others and join this community early on. One of the things I'm probably proudest of with Covid Tech Support is learning that there's a huge demand for technical skills. It's just not very publicly known because the people who need it don't know that they need it. I've seen it time and time again with hundreds of projects we've helped. I see how transformational it's been for them to work with our volunteers.
On top of that, it's been transformational for the volunteers as well. The number of stories and people I spoke to said, "I loved working for the charity. I'm still working for them months later because it's such a great project. Beyond the life of the original question request that they came in with, I continue to help them because it's fantastic".
Definitely! Helping others is the key to happiness! I have two more questions for you. What ethical values do you believe are the most important in today's world?
That's a great question. I believe one of the core values for Covid Tech Support is the idea of helping others, giving something. One of the things that this pandemic exposed was how much we depend on one another. When the basic services of society disappear, all you can rely on is your community. That's another value – the power of community.
In the case of Covid Tech Support, bringing together an online community from all over the world is also enormously powerful, along with making that community available to others. But this is only one of the things we spend a lot of time doing. I'd say only about 50% of our work is connecting volunteers to projects. The other 50% is fostering a sense of community within our volunteer group and promoting the work that's being done.
We have the Volunteer of the Month Award, where we pick someone who's worked on multiple projects and delivered a huge amount of good and celebrate them. I make sure everyone is aware that these people exist. We have a newsletter that goes out with a Slack Group where everyone chats. For us, it's about as much about fostering our community and making them aware of each other as it is about making them aware of the projects that we can support.
On top of that, honesty and transparency are important as well. We try to be very upfront with our volunteers. We also make it clear to the projects we help that these aren't employees. These are people giving their time, and they will need some flexibility. But everybody's trying, everybody's working hard, and that's enough.
Thank you for an interesting answer! The last question for you. Do you think society is ready for the Tech4Good movement?
It's a really good question for a number of reasons. In general, society thinks that tech is for bad. Due to fake news and fake media, tech is no longer this geeky thing. I believeTech4Good is a fantastic way of reminding people that tech has enormous, enormous benefits. Yes, tech can be used for bad. But for the most part, tech helps society far more than it damages things. Promoting people's technical efforts is a great way of addressing that as well.
One of the things I've seen as I've been working on Covid Tech Support this year is other organizations doing a similar thing of collecting volunteers and addressing technical problems. For instance, there's a version of Covid Tech Support in Scotland where they're doing similar things. There's one in America. We've all started to talk to each other and start to coordinate our efforts.
On the back of this pandemic, I see a growing Tech4Good community that has started to accumulate projects, accumulate volunteers. That's something that now continues to grow, and I am very proud that Covid Tech Support is a small part of that!
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