Spotting where we could start

Prioritising what emergency services a product team works on first

Harry Trimble
Feb 15, 2021 · 5 min read

Hot on the heels of Refugee Support & Restoring Family Links creating a list of services, we’ve finished doing the same in the Emergency Response team. It’s taken us two months, dozens of interviews and analysing three years of service data and user research. The collective experience of hundreds of service users, volunteers and staff. All summed up in this drawing👇

Drawing of lines next to each other

View drawing on Miro

The goal of this work is to decide what a new team could do first. An Emergency Response product team.

By ‘product team’, we mean a group who:

  1. Centre their decisions around user needs
  2. Focus on a clear problem or opportunity space
  3. Have software engineers, subject matter experts and designers
  4. Have permission to make the right things for their users
  5. Have time and space to focus to get stuff done
  6. Reduce risk with user-centred design and being agile
  7. Are accountable for what they do and don’t deliver

In making the case for such a team, our director, Matthew, asked us this question:

“What services would the product team work on first?”

Option one — Repair a home after a fire or flood 🛠️

Fires and floods are the emergencies the Red Cross respond to most — 1,925 of them in the last two years. According to Morgan Clark, 578,100 people in 2017 made insurance claims for fire and flood damage.

Flooded hous, Cumbria, 2009 — image source

Despite how common repairing a home after a fire or flood is, we learned in user research, ‘people can experience a lot of stress repairing their home as the process is unfamiliar, uncertain and feels out of their control.’

Opportunity for a product team

The Red Cross can’t literally repair people’s home for them. However, we could provide authoritative, independent, free and open information about the home repair process. This information doesn’t exist openly anywhere, apart from this useful guide by Which? for making a home insurance claim, that is one part of the user journey.

Some frontline teams already give out information about repairing homes, in the form of printed handouts. So we do have this information, but it's trapped in word documents and on busy frontline teams to maintain.

Option two — Learn to run an emergency centre 🕌

Emergency centres are safe spaces for people to evacuate to in an emergency. By law, some statutory agencies, such as councils and the police, open these safe spaces when emergencies happen. These pre-selected spaces are often leisure centres, mosques, community centres, town halls, churches and other civic spaces.

Councils often request the Red Cross support at these official rest centres — 89 requests in two years, representing potentially thousands of people wanting support. For example, Doncaster Council asked for the Red Cross to support it to run a rest centre for people affected by flooding in South Yorkshire in 2019.

Red Cross volunteers at council emergency centre, South Yorkshire, 2019 — view story

Interestingly there is a growing trend for unofficial emergency centres. Such as this mosque that opened its doors at Grenfell and this church in a deprived part of Cumbria affected by flooding. These spaces can be more popular than officially run emergency centres. The Red Cross get invited much less into these unofficial centres.

Running an emergency centre involves more than opening a space. Those responsible need to:

  • Set up the space for privacy and safety
  • Welcome people into the space
  • Listen, give time and show humanity to people
  • Assess people’s needs
  • Distribute food
  • Help people with their next steps
  • Deal with the media
  • Sort through donated goods
  • Manage local people wanting to help

Opportunity for a product team

There is a lot to do and think about to run an emergency centre. Quite often people running these spaces are doing it for the first time and with little to no warning or practice. Which explains an opportunity we’ve seen for the Emergency Response product team.

In speaking to our different frontline teams, we learned many of them already do emergency centre training. Local councils, other charities and community groups regularly ask for this training, without us ever offering this service, let alone marketing it. No single organisation has as much experience of running emergency centres as us and that why people are asking us for training.

If we followed this demand, our hypothesis is not only could we improve how official emergencies centres are run, we could be invited into more unofficial ones, to support people the Red Cross sometimes struggle to reach.

Option three — Prepare for a house fire 🔥

England fires services went to 156,000 fires in 2019/2020. 60.7% of all calls to the Red Cross contact centre come from other organisations wanting support to respond to fires.

Opportunity for a product team

While there are still tens of thousands of fires in the UK, its hard to find content online about how to prevent and prepare for one. Search ‘prepare for a fire’ and the top result is a page about Home Fire Safety by the American Red Cross. It is a space the Red Cross already occupies, just not in the UK.

Central organisations like the Environment Agency provide a nation-wide service to prepare for flooding. There’s no such service for fires. This can partly be explained by the UK having 54 separate fires services. No organisation is responsible for national, public information about fire safety.

Given the Red Cross’ expertise with fires as a national, independent organisation, maybe we are well placed to plug this gap in needed content.

Starting with ‘greenfield’ services

As this will likely be the Red across’ first product team, it’s vitally important they can quickly build momentum and show what’s possible. That’s why we’ve suggested services with unmet demand and crucially little or no existing operations, policy or technology.

We have services with more unmet demand, such as get emergency food and support with living costs. However, starting with these services, we risk the new product team spending its first month's negotiating existing operations, policy and technology. All the while not delivering anything.

We’ve prioritised ‘greenfield’ services first, learning from people who first set up product teams in the UK government 10 years ago. Using the example of building petition.parliament.uk, in this book it explains why a first product team should begin with ‘greenfield’ services over ‘brownfield’ ones.

Focus first on greenfield services to build momentum for brownfield services
Focus first on greenfield services to build momentum for brownfield services

Doing the same at the Red Cross, we stand a better chance of building the credibility and momentum necessary to transform our core services. In the process of creating a living example to set up more product teams. Ultimately delivering more value for our users, faster.

What next?

It’s up to us:

  • Pick 1–2 greenfield services to work on
  • Set up a true product team
  • Under promise, over deliver

Digital and innovation at British Red Cross

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