Carina works with Pivotal Act to connect thousands of essential workers with child care providers via free app
The COVID-19 pandemic has devastated communities, with people everywhere just starting to understand the wider impact on economies and the well-being of different social groups. What’s become clear as part of the response is there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to caring for diverse communities. This is particularly evident when looking at the challenges facing care providers, many of whom still find themselves in a desperate situation.
This is where organizations such as Carina play a vital role. A technology nonprofit based in Seattle, Carina helps drive positive social change with solutions for care professionals and families and individuals that need home care and child care. This includes matching verified, licensed care providers with the people who need them, including parents of young children, seniors, and adults and children with physical and developmental disabilities.
Nidhi Mirani, Executive Director at Carina, says that the care sector faced long-term challenges before COVID-19 struck. “A lot of these day care providers are just one- or two-person teams and don’t have access to marketing or non-word-of-mouth referral services. They are a critical part of how care is delivered in communities but don’t have the same visibility as other small businesses or service providers.”
It’s also tough for parents long familiar with how hard it can be to find safe, affordable child care even in the best of times. Parents with the resources can hire an agency to find a nearby child care provider or open daycare. But for many families that’s not an option, so they can spend countless hours tracking down and meeting with potential daycares.
“Perhaps you could post online. You could ask around. But there wasn't really an efficient, safe way to do this at very low or no cost,” says Mirani.
COVID-19 and the cliff edge
Then COVID-19 hit and suddenly in-home daycare operators already operating on shoestring budgets found themselves at a financial cliff edge. At the same time, as schools across the U.S. closed, families desperately needed child care—especially essential workers who were working multiple shifts.
Mirani and her partners at Service Employees International Union (SEIU), the labor union which represents family child care providers, saw the opportunity to help. Carina had already made 4,000 homecare matches and was confident they could apply technology more effectively to match parents with licensed, affordable daycare options. “We wanted to take out all the effort of finding local, reputable providers that could meet parents’ many child care criteria. Ultimately, child care is both physical and emotional—so there are a lot of factors to consider.”
With COVID-19 exerting a greater financial and emotional toll on people every day, speed to launch a new service was a priority. With that in mind, Carina engaged with VMware Pivotal Act, a program offered by VMware Pivotal Labs.
Pivotal Act works with humanitarian organizations and charities, engaging its product managers, designers, and engineers at a discounted rate. They apply the methodology used in other commercial Pivotal Labs engagements, including pair programming, user-centered design, lean product management, and agile development. Aly Blenkin, Associate Director of Pivotal Act, focuses on the two main benefits that the team brings to its clients. “We want to help organizations solve the challenges facing the world. But we also aim to enable their long-term technology capabilities so they can continue to innovate and apply the best practices they’ve learned after the engagement ends.”
Ruthless prioritization (or, how to launch a new service in just four weeks)
With the goal of launching a new offering for child care matching as quickly as possible, the Carina and Pivotal Act teams stayed true to agile and user-centered design methodologies. “We still wrote stories so that we could design a software feature from an end user perspective, and we had designs attached to those stories,” says Mirani.
Kevin Clark, the Pivotal Act Delivery Lead, emphasizes the importance of designing for the needs of a vulnerable demographic. “Building in a design feedback loop is a natural extension of agile incremental development. This enabled us to focus on how we could build trust with our audience and encourage them to make use of the app from Day 1.”
Balanced teamwork also played an important role. “The designer and developer would work together. Our product manager would work closely with the developers. Everything happened at hyperspeed and sometimes it was hard. But knowing that we were going to have this amazing delivery and release kept us focused,” Mirani adds.
After multiple rounds of research and design, the engineers worked with the Carina developers and product manager to cowrite user acceptance testing scripts to further support best practice habits. “We were working together on a lot of the core fundamentals such as retrospective and iteration planning meetings. All of that stayed in place,” says Mirani.
Clark also stresses the importance of process, not least the value of pair programming. “The pandemic really highlighted the strength and value of pair programming and pair rotation. That means one computer, two monitors, two keyboards and two people. In other words, two sets of eyes on every piece of code.”
Another approach that enabled Carina to reduce development costs was the implementation of infrastructure-as-code. Previously, Carina had to spin up and spin down key instances of infrastructure, which led to spikes in demand for cloud services and variable costs that complicated financial planning. Infrastructure is now part of the app pipeline so that instances are spun up and spun down during deployment.
Clark says, “Our work with other not-for-profits means that we understand how to manage and minimize costs for clients in this sector. We were able to bring this experience to bear at Carina by optimizing their demand for cloud services.”
He also underlines the need for “ruthless project prioritization,” an approach that enabled the project team to launch the first iteration of the child care matching app in just 11 days.
By April 10, when the new Carina site first launched to the public, there were already 1,600 registered child care providers offering 8,000 openings. About 12,000 parents used the site within the first week of launch. Soon, Carina expanded to California, where it was endorsed by the governor and the mayor of Los Angeles, in conjunction with a new stipend for child care provided to emergency workers. Carina is now matching families with licensed providers across Washington, California, Illinois, and Connecticut and Massachusetts are planning to come online next.
The importance of enablement
“The lessons we learned from Pivotal Act carried us through to the delivery of the product,” says Mirani. “Things like balanced teams, iteration planning meetings, and agile practices provided the structure and foundation from which we could quickly deliver.”
Rapid feedback loops were also essential. Within two weeks of launching, Carina had thousands of child care providers providing information about what was working and what could be improved upon. The same happened when parents came online. The organization continued to incorporate these points and issue small, usable releases to keep improving app efficiency.
The benefit of working with Pivotal Act engineers goes beyond designing, developing, launching, and iterating a single app. “One of the biggest strengths that Pivotal Act brings to small, mission-driven teams like ours is around enablement. Success isn't just defined by the ability to ship usable code and features that delight people. It’s as much about your team being able to do that after an engagement ends,” says Mirani.
Success isn't just defined by the ability to ship usable code and features that delight people. It’s as much about your team being able to do that after an engagement ends.”Nidhi Mirani, Executive Director, Carina
It also relates to the culture and mindset of the Pivotal Act team. “So much of the engagement is focused on pair programming, workshopping, tools, methods and processes. Their model is quite unique,” says Mirani.
Power and the playing field
There are wider social implications for technology during a time of immense social and economic disruption, which can challenge ideas about how technology can shift resources and information to everyone—not just a few with tremendous resources.
Carina’s new app gives a sense of what can be achieved. “Child care providers don't often have a lot of power, and neither do parents who are stressed and vulnerable. This is an example of how technology supported by Pivotal Act helps level the playing field so that people can find the care they need and communities can better support each other,” she says.