For my master’s thesis at Berkeley, my team built TIRO, a hotline management system designed to give small NGOs serving vulnerable clients in China better record-keeping and reporting capabilities. We identified this need during a field site research trip in China, where we studied how migrant workers adapt to city life and find reliable and safe work. During the trip we met with labor NGOs, and discovered opportunities to improve the efficiency and sustainability of their services.
Chinese NGOs operate within a challenging political environment. While the country recognizes value in the social services that NGOs provide, it imposes limits on their work in order to maintain what it considers a harmonious society. All things being equal, the key to an NGO’s best chances for sustainability is for it to be able to clearly, compellingly, and forthrightly demonstrate that its work is aligned with the Party’s goals, or else face risk of crackdown when authorities have doubts about the true nature of its activities.
Many NGOs also lack the resources to operate efficiently, or to demonstrate the nature and value of their work. NGOs that operate hotline services still use paper logging and undergo laborious processes for manual data entry. Furthermore, they are unable to aggregate their data to demonstrate impact, which affects their fundraising efforts and their ability to share insights with government stakeholders.
Our approach was to equip Chinese NGOs with better, lower-cost tools for record-keeping and report-making. Specifically, because phone-based consultations remain the most integral part of an NGO’s operations, we developed a mobile phone application to record and manage information that surfaced through their hotlines. Our Android app allows hotline operators to log conversation content and retrieve call details, and an accompanied web application permits NGOs to generate reports featuring demographic, caller relationship, and service provisioning metrics.
For our project, we identified an NGO in China whom we partnered with for purposes of usability testing and a pilot study. We wanted to demonstrate that by using this system, our partner NGO could operate more efficiently and better communicate its work towards sustainability efforts — all while protecting the privacy and security of its clients’ information.
Over the course of this project and especially in the years since its completion in 2015, the climate for Chinese labor NGOs worsened. Local governments and police are applying pressure for them to stop their work through intimidation tactics, and in some cases even violence and arrests. While we believe TIRO can still be a valuable tool for mobile helpline operators around the world, our original mission to strengthen relationships between Chinese labor NGOs and local governments is unfortunately out of touch with the realities of today’s political environment.
Learn more about the project here: https://www.ischool.berkeley.edu/projects/2015/tiro, and go check out my amazing team-members Faye Ip, Jenny Lo, and Sophia Lay.