Can enterprise-grade, innovative technology — such as no-code automation software, for example — benefit humanity? Or can it only achieve economic benefits for a select few…say, by allowing executives at large enterprises to more effectively cut costs? It’s no secret that many believe automation to be something of an imminent threat, though others are more optimistic. Writing several years ago for Wired, Akimbo’s Adrienne Rochetti insisted that technology like automation “Can be the spark that…extends economic opportunity to marginalized populations desperately in need of it.” In a May, 2019 report titled Tech for Good, meanwhile, analysts at McKinsey and Company state the following:
“The development and adoption of advanced technologies including smart automation and artificial intelligence has the potential not only to raise productivity and GDP growth but also to improve well-being more broadly, including through healthier life and longevity and more leisure. Alongside such benefits, these technologies also have the potential to reduce disruption and the potentially destabilizing effects on society arising from their adoption.”
Of course, “extending economic opportunity” and emboldening all members of society with “a healthier and longer life” are ends we all very much want technology to achieve. But we’d be wise to not to presume this will happen on its own — or that it’s already happening at scale. In fact, technologists should spend more time asking ourselves what exactly this looks like in practice. Business owners, capitalists, and media-types can be quick to claim victory when it comes to determining whether technologies like automation software do good, but it’s incumbent on us — the producers and primary buyers of such tech — to make sure it actually does.
That’s why we’re excited to share the work we’ve been doing with the nonprofit organization, Shopping Angels, which enlists volunteers from all over the country to deliver groceries to folks in their area who cannot or wish not to leave their homes for fear of contracting COVID-19. Shopping Angels was founded in mid-March by Jayde Powell, an undergraduate at the University of Nevada, Reno.
As governors across the country were issuing state-wide shelter-in-place orders to combat the rapacious spread of COVID-19 — and as most Americans were primarily concerned with whether they themselves had enough supplies on hand for an extended stay at home — Jayde was asking herself: what about the people who couldn’t leave their homes at all, even for essential provisions, such as the immunocompromised, the elderly, single parents with young children, or those without means to pay for delivery services? What were they going to do? As the virus bore down and most of the rest tended to our own worries, Jayde decided to do something to help.
That’s when Jayde started Shopping Angels.
And with the help of some prominent news coverage to spread the word, it was a hit right away. Quickly Jayde was able to find volunteers — mostly through her own network — and as more people found out about what she was doing, the more support came in. Jayde started a Go-Fund Me, for example, that as of this writing has raised more than $46,000. Jayde was even featured on CNN and Fox News for the work she and her “growing army,” were doing to help people in need.
With all this attention and growth, however — and as it became clear that there was a need for Shopping Angels’ services not just in Nevada and other states but all over the world — Jayde and her team, which includes co-founder Doug Collins, realized they needed help scaling their coordination efforts. This was tricky. Their process, especially at the beginning, was loose. It was predicated upon multiple technology platforms — Zapier, Trello, Gmail, Slack, none of which were meaningfully integrated with each other — and required lots of manual labor.
Here’s a snapshot of what it looked like. First, prospective clients filled out a form for services. From there, Shopping Angels would get in touch with them via email, and set about trying to connect them with a volunteer who was in the area. This workflow entailed combing through spreadsheets jam-packed with an ever-increasing amount of names, emails, and addresses. To schedule, coordinate, and execute the actual deliveries was even harder. The Shopping Angels team was trying to track scheduled deliveries across a steadily metastasizing amount of Zapier zaps. And any time they ran into an edge case — a volunteer suddenly not responding to messages, say — they’d have to manually come up with a backup plan.
There was also the obvious and ever-growing challenge of managing the sheer volume of requests coming in. “We were getting hundreds of requests every week for certain states like California,” said Collins. “And we had one coordinator for California.”
Eventually, it became too much. “Working through that process was very manually intensive for us as coordinators,” said Indiana State Coordinator Ben Wallace. So they asked themselves: how do we automate this?
That’s when Wallace found Tonkean. He first began using our Adaptive Business Operations platform to automate his personal email correspondence — sending automated “Welcome!” emails to folks who’d written in, for example — a process that, prior to Tonkean, required as many as 50 individual Zapier automations to facilitate. But then he upped his game, and began working with Tonkean’s Solutions team to create scalable, customized, automation-augmented workflows for not only corresponding with clients, but matching them with his volunteers. (One such workflow incorporated a customized zip code matching solution wherein a Shopping Angels team member could enter into Tonkean any zip code in the world, and quickly find the three closest volunteer matches to it.) He also began using Tonkean to better manage, train, and coordinate volunteers on the backend. And because Tonkean seamlessly integrates with all the disparate applications his team members were using — and because Tonkean was designed to adapt and cater to users’ individual and unpredictable needs — he was able to facilitate all this by creating just a handful of Tonkean modules, each of which he could manage and update easily on his own, without encumbering volunteers with lots of change management.
“Finding Tonkean was really helpful for us because we were like, ‘Oh wow, a solution to our main issue,’” said Collins. They even found that they were able to successfully, automatically connect clients with volunteers in states that didn’t have coordinators. “We were able to better make sure that two people do get connected and that we end up actually doing the delivery and getting groceries to the doorstep.”
Tonkean also allowed them greater flexibility in managing edge cases. “With Tonkean, we match those people that are first signing up… and then if they didn’t like each other, you can just match them up again.”
That Tonkean is easy to use, adaptive, and capable of accommodating unique workflow preferences on an individual level, the Shopping Angels leadership is also able to allow their internal teams to work as they see fit and feel most comfortable. This is particularly important for Shopping Angels because of their sprawling and heavily differentiated organizational structure.
“None of us are technologists,” Collins said. “Certainly a few of us understand this workflow, but what if one of our less technical coordinators in another state wants to do things differently? What if they prefer a different template or process for communicating with volunteers in that region? Instead of going into some sort of Python code, we can just click and drag throughout the Tonkean experience. And we can change things in seconds rather than hours. Doing all that work in Tonkean is saving a ton of time for the organization..”
Today, Shopping Angels works with more than 8,000 volunteers across 50 states plus Canada, and Australia, and they plan to keep growing.
“The Coronavirus is not going away,” said Collins. “Even after we get the vaccine, and there are always going to be people who are mobility challenged. In fact we’re just going to see more and more people needing help. We want people to be able to rely on Shopping Angels.”
For our part, we want Shopping Angels to in turn be able to rely on Tonkean.
Look, this is not the only example of how companies can use innovative technology to do good. But we do believe it is an example. Working with Shopping Angels has taught us much about what kind of social utility we want our technology to achieve. Technology in general and automation software in particular must help people like Jayde and her team conduct this kind of important and life-changing work. If it can’t — if a given application or platform’s sole purpose is to help big companies save money — or if it otherwise forces clients to bend over backwards in order to use it, that technology can’t really be said to be impactful or important in the way we need it to be.
This tech — with which we’re building the future — must benefit everyone. It must enhance the capabilities of human employees, as it must improve the lives of everyday people, even society as a whole. In other words, it must prioritize people — not just profits.