The world is well aware of the damage and danger of cancer, but those affecting blood and bone are still among the most difficult to treat. Anthony Nolan is a charity dedicated to fighting these diseases by recruiting people to the Anthony Nolan Register: matching potential stem cell donors to people in need. More than 800,000 people have signed up, helping the 2,000 estimated people who need a donor every year.

CIO Danny Attias spoke to Computing‘s Noel Anderson about the charity’s important work, and how technology use is changing in the charity sector. Some of his main points include:

  • The future has been brought forward by at least 5 years
  • The new technology on the block is AI, cloud computing and machine learning – but they are keen to find use cases for immersive tech like VR and AR
  • Is social media good for our wellbeing? On a personal level, Danny has recently deleted Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp
  • A preferred post-Covid vision of the future is a society with more privacy, and more respect for the individual, but where our lives are made easier via tech
  • Our world is in its infancy when it comes to AI – we need to understand how it will be used for good, for bad, and with total transparency.

Watch the video now, or read the transcript below.

Noel Anderson

So, Danny, you don’t get to be CIO of the Year without having a clear vision of the future. What’s yours?

Danny Attias

I suppose my immediate vision of the future is just getting through all of this – all of this pandemic stuff, and how that is shifting expectations on individuals, on technology, on businesses; and I suppose it’s a little bit about where that then takes us [and] what that then accelerates. So, I’m not the only person to say this, I think the future has been brought forwards by at least five years. Lots of trends that were heading in a certain direction with digital transformation, with online retail, with working remotely and so on are all being massively accelerated, and my focus is on, ‘Where’s the benefit?’ Where’s the opportunity, where’s the positive that we can get out of this?

NA

How’s your team coped with the pandemic, and how have you managed to motivate that team in these tough times?

“The future has been brought forwards by at least five years”

DA

The team have coped incredibly well. I don’t want to say, ‘Yeah, it’s been brilliant, and they’ve been amazing’ – we tapped out a lot of adrenaline last year. As soon as the pandemic hit, it was just fireworks, and it was getting people working from home, doing loads of digital changes on systems so the charity could continue to deliver for our beneficiaries really effectively; and then as we got nearer the end of the year that adrenaline started wearing away, and we had to find a new velocity, a new pace.

We’ve opened up this year with a real focus on taking it easy, on having longer lunch breaks, on not over-stretching ourselves; only really targeting what is possible, and making sure, in everything we target, there’s something in there that’s exciting, there’s something in there that we would want to do on an individual basis.

I’m trying to lead from the front in terms of not messaging out of hours, being logged off at a sensible time, really rejecting meetings that we don’t need to have, reducing meeting lengths where the meetings are needed, and just using the various technologies that we can.

Partly, we start this year with something familiar: we’ve been there before, we know what to do, but the difference is we start this year on our knees. Normally you would start a year full of energy, refreshed and raring to go – and at the end of the day, we’re working in a charity, we’re working in technology; when I say ‘on our knees’, that doesn’t even begin to compare to how healthcare workers and our public services are feeling. So, a huge amount of respect for how on earth they keep going and keep motivated. But, still, there’s a real focus on [the fact that] we’re starting from a very different start point of a year. It’s not about what we’re going to achieve this year or what the rest of the year looks like, it’s just about [tackling it] a little bit at a time. I think the most important thing is prioritisation; really deciding what we’ll not do.

NA

You mentioned healthcare there, obviously a key area where you work: is there anything you’ve learned from the healthcare and science community at large that’s been applied into tech in your organisation?

DA

We have our stem cell register and we’re working on the provision of stem cells from people who are prepared to donate them to help someone’s life; and so our customer, if you want to call it that, is the NHS and equivalent health services all over the world. So, we have to work together, hand-in-glove with them, whether it’s dealing with logistics, or working around the huge amount of uncertainty about whether a transplant can go ahead, or whether a donor can come into a clinic, whether it’s safe, or whether someone gets taken ill or tests positive the day before they’re prepared to give a donation. We’re learning from their resilience; we’re learning to adapt with them and working really closely with those health services. Ultimately, our absolute priority and our focus is trying to get hold of the stem cells to get to patients for that life-saving transplant. That’s the key – but we have to be mindful that that has to fit in with the whole of the health service and everything else that’s going on at the same time.

Largely it’s learning about [healthcare’s] resilience, and working together for that relative adaptability as well.

NA

And to get those donations from suitable donors: obviously they need to learn a huge amount about you online, but your user experience, the quality of the work online, is incredible. How do you go about doing that?

DA

I think we’ve got loads still to do on digital services; particularly with the NHS and in various other parts of the organisation. I think the one area where we’ve done really well, and we got there much earlier, is joining the register. Somebody wants to find out a bit about the charity, they want to join the register online and they can do that online, that’s mobile-optimised. The information is there; for the last three years, at least 50 per cent of people would sign up for the register online, which is great.

Clearly now, signing up offline is not practical; normally we’d do that through school events or special fundraising initiatives. But we’ve completed the work to make even that offline process as digital as possible. There’s much less physical contact, it’s now a contactless experience so that, when things start to open up again, we’re ready for that. And we’re in the process of finalising a new website as well, which we hope is going to be a lot easier to navigate, a lot more accessible, as well. Those are the key priorities.

One of our biggest challenges is we’re a charity. We do absolutely want to recruit people to join the stem cell register, but that’s not necessarily the only thing that people can do to support the charity. So, we’ve got to think about our communication and how we present that digitally and on the journeys; because the natural instinct is, ‘Great, I’m prepared to donate my stem cells’ – [but] we only accept people under the age of 30. So, a huge audience there are going to go, ‘Oh, but you don’t want my stem cells’. It costs us a huge amount of money to do the DNA typing and put that through our laboratories and get people on the registers, so we put our energy on the younger potential donors, who are more likely to be selected and are more likely to give a better outcome; and then we need to find ways to engage with people over the age of 30 on how they can volunteer for us, or make a donation, or those kinds of things.

So, there’s loads of work still to be done on the digital messaging, the journeys, volunteering opportunities, and that’s a large projects that we’re working through at the moment.

NA

Do you feel there are any sorts of technologies, such as VR, AR or anything like that, that could be utilised in the future?

DA

I’m really keen to find VR and AR opportunities. I haven’t found any, I don’t think there are any, but I might be wrong. I did have one vision – I haven’t actually discussed this with anyone at work yet – which is, we do some fundraising at private sites, so shopping centres – you remember, there used to be these things with lots of shops in them that people would go and visit? So, shopping centres and railway stations and so on. You know what the experience is like when there’s fundraisers at a shopping centre, it’s not that exciting. How can we combine that with augmented reality, with a bit of a game for the kinds to look at while the parents are signing up that plays on science and research and technology and DNA? I think there are opportunities where we can do that.

In our core function, our core business of what we do, it’s more about machine learning, AI, insight and analytics; that’s our key area. And then cloud computing, rapid scaling – the standard stuff, as it were. But I’m always sitting there going, ‘What purpose have I got to get an Oculus Rift? Why do I need it?’ I haven’t found the opportunity yet, but we know that a lot of these technologies are becoming seriously accessible. That’s the bit that’s super exciting; if you want to do language recognition or image recognition, this stuff is really on tap now.

If it’s a sure thing, you’re not taking risks, which means you’re not innovating hard enough

So, just about taking that idea and trying to create a culture in an organisation that means that when you’ve got that idea, you can spin something up really quickly; just try it out, see if it’s any good. I’m hoping we’re going to get to a point where people can have a crazy idea, try it out, and it fails, or it succeeds. Either outcome is okay. The language about failing and learning from the failure – you know, the language is there [but] the behaviour’s not there yet. The behaviour’s not quite there, we’ll still look at various things we’ve tried and I’ll say, ‘How many of the things we tried failed?’ and the answer is, ‘None of them’, because we tend not to go ahead with something unless we think it’s a really sure thing, which means we’re not innovating hard enough… f it’s a sure thing, you’re not taking risks, which means you’re not innovating hard enough. That’s a direction of travel I’d like to go to, and as we decommission our legacy platforms, we’ve got more accessibility to try things out, [and] plug things in, whereas when you’re working on a monolithic legacy platform, you’re not plugging anything in, and it’s really difficult to try anything out.

I think we’re about 70, 80 per cent of the way there on a really long journey, where pretty much by the end of this year all of our platforms will be modern, they’ll be API-driven and able to interface with everything that we do, and then we can start just trying stuff out, and then we can try AR and VR.

NA

And with AR and VR and other similar things, how can you get yourself in front of a younger audience so that they kind of grow up with you? I guess with remote learning that could be a great opportunity for you to have your name out there so people are familiar with you from a much younger age.

DA

We’ve got a few options there. We recruit people to the stem cell register from age 16 onwards. We have a presence in schools, we have done for years. I’ve got people in my team who joined the register over 20 years ago [because] Anthony Nolan went in and spoke to them when they were still at school. So, we have an opportunity to communicate with our audience. Also, the majority of the people who join the register at the moment are aged 16 to 22, 25. That’s maybe 50- or 60,000 people every year. This is a group of people that we have access to and we can start to have that conversation with.

Other things that we’re doing are getting involved in mentoring opportunities for women in tech, for girls who are doing stem cell subjects. We’re in conversations to do a data hackathon for teens in AI. We’re trying to find all these opportunities to get towards as a diverse a group of people, but also that younger generation, where we can start to generate ideas. Hackathons are a great example of that.

NA

This week we’ve seen the banning of a certain person from Twitter [Editor’s note: This interview was recorded in early January 2021] – it’s potentially going to change the way that social media is used. You’re obviously somebody that can use social media for good – what are the different approaches and tactics that you’d take to use social media, and where do you see that changing in the future?

DA

That’s timely. I’ve just deleted all of my social media accounts, in the interests of well-being. I’ve deleted my Twitter, Facebook, WhatsApp even – all completely gone.

That’s not to say we’re out of touch here. We still have a presence on Facebook, we have a presence on Twitter, Snapchat and so on. I’m still on LinkedIn, by the way, if you want to find me, it’s the one place I’m still at.

There are a couple of things. With everything going on in the world, with that huge divisiveness, with all the stuff around Cambridge Analytica, The Great Hack on Netflix, all of that coming together, the one thing I’m keen that we really do is we take a lead when it comes to privacy, and when it comes to respecting the individual and respecting their data. Already, as a matter of course, we are hugely responsible when it comes to data privacy. We hold medical information, we hold DNA data, we just have to be – it’s in our nature. It’s about translating that through everything that we do, so one of the key things I’m really enthusiastic about it, how do you continue to engage socially and digitally, with your audience, but respectfully, as much as possible?

We used Facebook extensively for recruitment to the register, the reason being that we need to target a younger audience; we need to target diverse demographics as well, for diversity on the register, and Facebook allows us to do that very honestly and very openly. So, we do that, but it’s a work in progress. The whole world is changing, and we need to find ways we can do that more respectfully.

As it stands, other than that kind of targeted advertising, we don’t have much in the way of full, multi-channel journey management with ‘Contact us’ direct messaging on this platform and that platform. As we start to do it, we have to do that with privacy and respect of the user at front of mind.

NA

The world’s been completely changed with Covid, we’re now on an alternative path to anything we could have imagined last year. Where do you think this might take us, say 10 years out – and is there a preferred vision of the future, using tech, that you would like to see?

DA

I think the preferred vision is what I’ve just discussed around more privacy, more respect for the individual, more accessibility. We want to be making peoples’ lives easier, not harder; as a whole, as an industry, we don’t want to be working in the shadows. We want to be front of mind and putting that control with the individual.

That’s especially important as we move more and more into the AI world. The world is in its absolute infancy when it comes to AI, and if there’s anything you want to keep an eye on over the next 10 years, that’s the thing; and how that’s being used for good, how that’s being used for bad, and how it’s being used with transparency, so you know what it’s doing and how it’s doing it.

Also, in terms of skills: the nature of skills is changing and the mindset towards the emerging workforce, or the transitioning workforce; a lot of people in my department have come from completely different backgrounds and retrained as technologists, so it’s not just about the next generation, it’s also about retraining the existing generation. And just ensuring that they take a really broad approach: they’re not sitting there saying, ‘I want to learn about networking, I want to learn about XYZ’. It’s taking that broad view and really understanding digital skills, data skills, development skills, low-code approaches – and being flexible, because…you can be sure no-one knows what the next 10 years are going to look like.

AI is a big force we need to keep an eye on, and it’s about trust. Global trust is in freefall, and corporates especially, but also charities – charities have had a bad rap over the last few years – need to elevate their trust, their respect for the customer, for individuals, for their beneficiaries, at all stages.

I’m hopeful, I suppose, that the ones that aren’t – although this isn’t being played out in the US at the moment – but my hope is that the people who aren’t respectful of trust go into decline; and that the ones who succeed are the ones that are open and the ones that take risks, but are respectful and go on a journey with their customer base. I just see a general shifting.

NA

So, you’ve just spoken about privacy and trust. How do you see changing behaviours in the corporate landscape in the future?

DA

Over the next 10 years – going back to that timeframe you mentioned earlier – there’s this space in the middle. If you imagine the corporates, traditional corporates are pretty much out there to…deliver a service, make money, make shareholders happy. That’s one side of things. Then you’ve got your charities: they don’t make money, they’re not for profit and they do good things. Both of those sectors are under threat, and what hopefully – I’d love to be proven right on this – what hopefully is happening is that your corporates are becoming more socially responsible. So, if you think about B Corps as a very good example: they’re not just paying lip service to this, they’re realising that their customers expect more of them and their responsibility.

You’ve seen a backlash in the US, where lots of corporations say, ‘I’m not going to be affiliated with these political behaviours’ – that’s opportunistic more than anything else, let’s be honest. Hopefully organisations become a little bit more sustainable, a little bit more honest, a little bit more giving back.

On this side, for charities, the days of relying on philanthropy, and people just giving you money to do stuff, are waning. Again, it’s one of those behaviours that we’ve seen a massive acceleration on, but it was in decline anyway. And you see organisations becoming more social enterprises. So, they’re doing good, but they’re also making money. They’re not there to make money, they’re there to do good, but it’s okay to make a profit while you’re doing that.

Hopefully that space in the middle, [between] where these corporates become more sustainable or more purposeful and socially responsible, and where charities become more commercial and self-sustaining. There’s lovely space in the middle, where we hopefully will just see that starting to fill up and over time, we have that mix happening, rather than these two polarised parts of organisations

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