Disrupting poverty: How Signal took the Poverty Stoplight into the UK

Andy Cox, Social Innovator & Director, Transmit Enterprise. North East England.

It was about this time two years ago when I happened, by chance, to meet up with an old colleague who I had not seen for some eight years since we both worked together in Social Enterprise development sector in the NE of England. Only six months prior to our meeting I had left a well-paid job to spend more time mountain biking, spending quality time with the family and to basically rethink my future working life. Whilst having the potential to retire I was not convinced that this was something I was ready for or in fact wanted to, given my levels of energy and a continued desire to keep busy with a real purpose. Knowing my passion for fighting social injustice I was open to seeking out new and exciting challenges, particularly ones which could genuinely inspire — not an easy task?

Bob (Robert) Webb asked what I was up to and wondered if I wanted to grab a coffee so that he could show me something he had recently been working on. He showed me a ‘wacky’ methodology which supported the elimination of poverty in households and explained how he was inspired by a chance meeting with a Martin Burt, its founder, and all-around inspiration character, at an EU conference where they had discussed its relevance to the UK. Following a couple of meetings with Martin and Poverty Stoplight lead Eduardo Gustale Gill, Bob had anglicized the methodology into a UK version.

Robert Webb, Director of Social Enterprise Development, Transmit Enterprise. North East England.

Recalling this meeting Bob asked, “So what do you think”? to which I replied something like “Wow! if it works Bob? then I think we are sitting on something very special. I can see how this could have helped me in a variety of past roles but also how it can help others in their work roles, never mind the amazing impact it could have for households across the UK!”

So, the journey began, we met several times and agreed to beta test Poverty Stoplight with a view to gauging how households and organizations reacted to the methodology. We connected with a Social Enterprise in Byker Newcastle who recycled and sold affordable furniture and white goods, called The Orange Box company. They are an amazing crew and we owe them a lot for supporting this process. We learned a lot from their facilitation which highlighted for us three key pieces of learning;

  1. We needed to rebrand because ‘Poverty Stoplight’ was not the most positive language to engage with people
  2. The methodology was simple and was therefore well received
  3. However, the HP technology was a bit ‘clunky’ and unreliable

We discussed our findings, from this testing, both within our networks and with Martin and Eduardo, and after some thought decided to do two things;

  1. Engaged an external marketing & design company to rebrand but not before our launch,
  2. Agreed with Fundación Paraguaya to work very closely with Eduardo and his team to ‘fast track’ a new platform so that the UK could spearhead a web-based approach in order to ‘do justice’ to the methodology.

On 31 March 2017, we had a successful launch in Newcastle with Martin Burt as our keynote speaker. The day before we launched, we met with leaders and members of VONNE who were fantastic in terms of offering feedback regarding the Pilot, the methodology and its need in the NE of England. This meeting helped us prepare for the launch and several VONNE members who also attended the launch became early adopters, great customers and now ambassadors for SIGNAL.

Martín Burt, Poverty Stoplight CEO, at the official lunch.

In the months following the launch, we spoke to many people, mainly representing the Voluntary Community and Social Enterprise sector in the North East of England. We learned that people tended to respond in one of two ways: 1) they were either enthusiastic and prepared to embrace SIGNAL because they recognized it would help them find out what people in their communities really thought. They were prepared to be ‘disrupted’ so they could find a better way of doing things. They were, in other words, ‘transformationalists’. Or 2) they were uncomfortable about embracing a methodology which might oblige a response outside the parameters of what they saw themselves as funded to provide. These were the ‘transactionalists’ who were under pressure to tick the boxes. We also found that those in the first category far outweighed those in the second. And, of course, we recognized that we too had been disrupted. We too recognized that we were looking at the world in a completely different way and that, if we were going to do this properly, we needed to be prepared to throw ourselves into it and change everything.

It took till about November 2017, before the platform was in a presentable form to ‘pitch’ to potential customers. But, between our launch and November, we acquired social investment and raised SIGNAL’s profile within prospective markets to gain interest with our ‘Coming Soon’ product.

Acknowledging SIGNAL presented itself as a minimum viable product we were keen to capture the right feedback from our ‘early adopter’ customers, so we could analyze and feedback to the Poverty Stoplight Team for continuous improvement to the technology. 2018 was a bit of a roller coaster year with some ‘highs’ and ‘lows’ with the product’s development but with Eduardo and his teams support and our continued faith that the methodology does have a significant role in the UK, we would not be deterred.

The organization which Bob and I operate SIGNAL through is called Transmit Enterprise — a social enterprise development agency. We have refreshed our governance developed a new business model to deploy SIGNAL as our standout product and throughout 2017/18 we continued with some of our consulting work to pay help pay the bills but more importantly enable us to maintain the promotion and profiling of SIGNAL. Attracting social investment helped us with our branding, enabled the development of our website, and aided with a variety of initial marketing initiatives such as employing ambassadors (who are well known representatives within sectors which are new to us e.g. Caroline Gitsham from Housing Sector and Paul Smissen in Education and Learning Sector, who would connect with peers and seek their views and custom — we learn and continue to learn a great deal from their involvement.

We have monetized SIGNAL, our ‘stand-out’ product and deployed SIGNAL with local support agencies in the social economy, housing sector, and employment & regeneration companies supporting their clients back into work. This monetized approach has also ensured our customers receive our dedicated consulting time to induct workforce and supervisors with the methodology, support their on-boarding, help with the process of reading data as well as provide day-to-day support with operational issues. The key for us in 2018 was to:

Seek Partners in the UK to join our Local and International Movement, particularly those who are;

  • experiencing complex social issues within their community
  • needing an evidence-base to inform & then measure transformation
  • seeking a co-production approach, and
  • LOOKING TO PILOT & INNOVATE

What 2018 has highlighted for us is that whilst much is written about Poverty here in the UK (including findings in a report produced by United National Special Rapporteur November). Regrettably, it mostly continues to be viewed and measured in purely economic terms. The rapporteur did unearth, however, what we too have experienced here in the UK which is that Poverty is hidden behind fancy terminology like; social exclusion, troubled families and complex lifestyles. We know these terms mean exactly the same thing as Poverty and therefore in order to get nearer to the multidimensional aspects of Poverty we identify and work alongside those values-based partners who can see the exact same thing as we do plus they can see the value of the methodology for unearthing the hidden through this holistic approach as well as the added value of SIGNAL data to their existing services and client needs.

Here in the UK, Bob and I talk about the fact we are ‘market making’ because there is no natural procurement strand that represents poverty and whilst most organization in the social economy, particularly charities, have been established to alleviate poverty many have very fancy roles in society today and have moved into the new terminology areas e.g. working with people with complexities. We are developing new markets by showcasing the uniqueness and value of SIGNAL to potential partners e.g.:

Methodology to have a greater holistic conversation between households and support agency

  • Co-production of ‘life plan’ and ‘development plan’
  • The measurement of improvement per household over time
  • Accumulation of data for greater organization planning and service design
  • A bottom-up approach to better defining local social challenges and influencing policy.

Whilst our customers can see the above benefits, it is also fair to say the overriding benefit or beauty of SIGNAL happens to be in the eye of the beholder which can be different for each customer.

SIGNAL has some 30+ customers within its sales pipeline ranging from full paying customers through to organizations expressing interest through piloting the methodology and experimenting with its fit.

We held an event in November 2018 and brought several our customers together to celebrate progress, some 18 months after our launch. We were able to celebrate together the following improvements to the platform;

  • A clean speak survey
  • A save and return function
  • An expansion to the socio-economic area
  • The development of data templates and improved infographics
  • A multiple project function
  • An android app to ensure portability and solutions for inadequate signal
  • GDPR compliance

Whilst the event was facilitated by Bob and me it was in effect run by our customers who were able to showcase their use of SIGNAL. We offer some examples below but look forward to updating you during 2019 with further progress and new customer experiences.

Springboard Training

David Barker, the CEO (a very inspirational and larger than life character) talked primarily about the value of the data to his organization. He explained that Springboard aims to support the development of sustainable communities, where people have the skills they need for work and life. Prior to attending Springboard many of the trainees were ‘NEET’ (not in Employment, Education or Training). David explained that the regulatory body, the Office of Standards in Education (Ofsted) had, in a recent inspection, highlighted that although they were confident that Springboard fulfilled its pastoral care obligations there was no real evidence that the organization had a strategy to understand the needs and priorities of its students.

David and his senior management team recognized that whilst Springboard is good at capturing the hard outputs relating to, for example, course attendance and qualifications achieved, the data provided by SIGNAL identifies ‘soft’ client needs & informs operational response to those needs. SIGNAL provides digital support to front-line delivery (30 frontline staff have been trained up to be surveyors and now use SIGNAL as part of the learner induction process) which results in the efficient recording of data.

David concluded by saying that SIGNAL was transforming the way the front-line staff was able to interact with the learners. At the macro level, the methodology supports governance and accountability for example funders and Ofsted. It enables the organization to measure impact. Crucially, in this era of economic and political uncertainty, it provides evidence to inform business development and partnership building.

David Barker, MBE CEO Springboard, seated presenting.

Newcastle Citizens Advice (NCA)

NCA has been using SIGNAL since May 2017 which is shortly after our official launch. Gayle Purvis is a Financial Capability Advisor and is also the most experienced SIGNAL surveyor in the UK! Gayle has become a passionate advocate for SIGNAL and in her presentation, she explained how the methodology adds enormous value to the NCA’s engagement with their customers because it encourages meaningful conversation that allows both parties to focus on causes and solutions far more quickly and effectively than the more conventional diagnostic questionnaire. She explained how the extra investment of time at the beginning of their engagement pays dividends further down the line because the greater understanding leads to better and more robust solutions to prevent the ‘revolving door’ that puts such pressure on an organization as busy as NCA.

Gayle presented a fabulous case study of an individual who had taken the survey 3 times in the space of 18 months. The first dashboard had 17 reds and 9 yellows. Gayle described how, being new to the methodology, she feared that the experience would be very negative for the client who was at high risk, mentally unwell and technically homeless. But he was ‘green’ on the ‘vaccination’ indicator and this opened a conversation about how he had been vaccinated to enable him to undertake voluntary work in Africa. The story he told was as positive as it was unexpected and for Gayle, it proved the point that you never know until you allow people to tell their story through the methodology, what their assets are and what inspires them. It allowed Gayle to build a relationship, to provide some practical help to sort out his benefits and most importantly focus on the assets in his life and not just the deficits. Gayle asked him to complete a second survey 6 months later and then 6 months after that, he asked to complete the third survey because he felt he was in a much better place and wanted to see how his dashboard had changed. His third survey shows just 1 red (insurance) and 7 yellows

Interestingly, up to now, Gayle has used a paper-based format. She has found that people like the hands-on experience of compiling their dashboard with the stickers and she made a very important point about ‘digital exclusion’ because a significant number of her customers are not confident with or have no daily access to computers or smartphones. NCA has recognized that it can’t afford to miss out on the power of aggregated data and Gayle explained how they would continue to use the paper-based survey where appropriate but that, from now on, they would ensure that all surveys were uploaded onto the platform.

Gayle Purvis, CAB, presenting.

Newcastle Futures

Ian Metcalfe is an Employment Advisor at Newcastle Futures. Like Gayle, he described how SIGNAL had transformed the way he and his colleagues were able to have meaningful conversations with their clients.

He talked about the power of the aggregated data and focussed on one example of how it had enabled his team to explore the correlation between indicators to reveal an underlying cause. Ian had noticed that a significant number of clients in a specific geographical area were showing that they were either yellow or red on the indicators covering ‘communication & social capital’, ‘recreation & entertainment’ and ‘part of group activities’. Ian and his team drew the conclusion that if they could ‘socialize’ their back-to-work programmes by organizing social events, they would achieve better take-up and therefore be more likely to achieve their contractual outputs; and at the same time, they would address these areas of deficit highlighted on the dashboards. However, the social programme they organized had no discernible effect on the numbers attending the courses. So, they looked again at the data and noticed that the same cohort also displayed red on the ‘insurance’ indicator. On re-opening the conversation with those clients, they discovered that not having insurance was the root cause of the reds and yellows against the ‘social’ indicators. People were living in an area where they were vulnerable to burglary and so they didn’t dare leave the house because they would not be able to afford to replace essential items such as microwaves of fridges. Because of this discovery, Newcastle Futures are now negotiating with a major social housing provider to extend affordable insurance.

Ian Metcalfe presenting.

We held workshops and the event to better understand from customers, ambassadors and other interested parties what key issues we should take forward into 2019:

  1. Establish a Network or North East SIGNAL Movement — to help share good practice and generally communicate good ideas and potential areas for collaboration.
  2. Develop interviewer training — an approach which could add value to how customer workforce delivers SIGNAL at the front line. Utilizing front line expertise with experiences from across the globe from Poverty Stoplight partners.
  3. With members of VONNE — develop an initial ‘white paper’. SIGNAL members to meet VONNE partners to consider how both parties could develop an approach to influence policymakers and funders.
  4. Consider seeking funds for ‘SIGNAL project in its own right’ and which offers the product free to potential new partners etc.
  5. Consider how ‘Digital Exclusion’ negatively affects households.

We were delighted to have Katharina Hammler, Director of Monitoring & Evaluation at Fundación Paraguaya at the event to help us shape the above and are very exciting about the above agenda going into 2019.

We are also excited about our new projects which we will be developing in the new year, and as a snapshot include:

  • Community Renewal — Works across Scotland in small neighborhoods and housing estates to improve the wellbeing of families and communities and increase the employment rate in these communities.
  • An Even Better Arbourthourne with CIVA and partners connected to Arbourthorne Community Primary School and build greater knowledge of local needs and respond accordingly to help lift people out of Poverty towards greater prosperity and well-being.
  • Karbon Homes — one of the north’s biggest social housing providers keen on shaping the places where they build or manage homes and support the communities that live in them.
  • Broadacres Housing Association — a social care provider — who slogan is we are ‘more than just the bricks. They support residents with a range of services which are designed to promote independence and improve quality of life and wellbeing.
  • Monese Banking — a challenger bank with a healthy corporate social responsibility and looking to deploy SIGNAL into a partnership and help migrant customers.
  • We look forward to reporting more during the year with regard to the above exciting opportunities.

Key international opportunities and challenges

We have had the pleasure of connecting with Joanna Ryan from VisionFund International who is based in London and is Global Director of Impact. She has seen SIGNAL and Poverty Stoplight in action and is now piloting Poverty Stoplight within projects in South America and we are hoping that Jon Hartley Chair of VisionFund International is able to pilot SIGNAL in Wellington New Zealand with Murray Edridge. Wellington City Mission may apply to become a HUB for Poverty Stoplight and could be Transmit Enterprise first international collaboration with Fundacion Paraguaya. This is exciting because it continues our learning and another opportunity to widen the movement. Again, more to come in 2019.

We are currently scoping a project with Northumbria University and Tallinn University to develop a prototype SIGNAL platform that can be used in Estonia. Students from both Universities have a productive history of transnational collaboration and there is an opportunity to work with a multidisciplinary team coordinated by Dr. Katri-Liis Reimann from Tallinn University.

With the imminent release of the new Android app and reshaping of web platform we highlight a key challenge which we and other HUBs, special projects and customers will be contemplating, that is — as we recognize the continued value of the technology side to Poverty Stoplight and feedback from customers about its fit with their business models we will all continue to receive valuable feedback — we need to work closely with the Fundacion and other HUB’s to articulate our customers messages and appreciate how these add value to the International Movement.

2019 should be a great year and we look forward to sharing with you all how we progress, and ‘hot off the press’ we are also proud to announce we will be working closely with The Saville Foundation and in particular Gary Shearer and Lara Camaron who have significant experience of international work including the deployment and growth of Poverty Stoplight in South Africa. Together we are aiming to hit 5000 surveys in 2019/20 😊

Here’s to a great 2019 for the Poverty Stoplight Movement!


Written by Andy Cox, Social Innovator & Director of Transmit Enterprise