Interviews, insight & analysis on digital media & marketing

Frontline.Live, the digital platform for PPE requests, achieves charity status

A voluntary organisation set up during the Coronavirus pandemic that helps connect frontline staff with personal protective equipment providers has become a charity less than six months after inception. Co-founder Katz Kiely talks NDA through the story so far.

Frontline.Live, one of the first initiatives to be featured in New Digital Age’s Tech for Good series, has now achieved charity status through the Charities Commission.

Digital entrepreneur Katz Kiely will chair the board of trustees, who include Chris Swan, CTO DXC Technology, leading whistleblower lawyer Mary Inman of Constantine Cannon LLP and consultant and BIMA council member Mo Lishomwa.

It is now looking for volunteers to help it engage with front line workers in need of help, particularly as the UK heads into ‘flu season and further expected Covid-19 spikes.

The digital platform launched in April this year after a group of strategists, technologists, data specialists, social media experts and digital storytellers came together to help get medical-grade PPE to those who needed it the most.

Tech for good – a bold bid to help frontline staff feel safe 

It was inspired by news reports, personal accounts and social media pleas for help that doctors, nurses, care workers and support staff were unable to source enough vital PPE, despite Government assurances that the situation was under control.

Kiely, founder of beep and lead volunteer architect, says she was moved to do something about the lack of PPE in the healthcare system after being “horrified” that frontline staff were putting their lives on the line when treating patients.

“We didn’t know whether it was going to work, but we were determined to try,” she says. “There were procurement people telling us ‘we got this’ but from where I was standing, it didn’t look like they did.” In fact, her ambition was that the service was not needed – because “that means there isn’t a problem”.

It was a problem, as the figures attest. Some 1300 requests have been made and fulfilled since April, and though the number of people asking for help has fallen since the peak, she anticipates future surges and believes that the platform they have built will serve future crises where a decentralised rapid response is required.

Rapid response – reimagined

“There will be other spikes and there will be other crises, both environmental and social,” Katz predicts. “There will be a repeated need for crisis management in a more rapid way than the government and public organisations are capable of doing at this moment.

“The other challenge is that we know public organisations can be very good at massaging messages. And it becomes more and more important, I believe, we believe,  that the voice of authenticity from the frontline is heard in this post trust age.

“We can say ‘this is the open data’. Our job is not to judge the government or the NHS, it is to shine a light on the challenge because if we can see the challenge then we can find ways of dealing with it.”

There have been lessons along the way. The open source platform was initially intended to be fuelled by Tweet requests. Those in need were urged to tweet a photo with #FrontlineMap #Workpostcode #PPEneed and the team would put their needs on the map.

However, it soon became apparent that there was a fear factor among NHS workers in putting information out in the public domain. Now, nearly 90% of requests are confidential via a form on the www.Frontline.Live website.

Confronting a culture of fear

“I thought that it couldn’t be true that there was this culture of fear – surely the NHS would encourage the rapid sourcing of much-needed PPE?”

Since April, Katz estimates that at least £500,000 of  man hours and media space has been donated to the programme, with supporters in the digital and media communities including: Fourth Angel, The Fifth, Agile Clarity, Innovation Bubble, The Times, The Sun, Voodooh, Ocean Outdoor, Snapchat, Microsoft, Caregiven, Katz’ own company beep and over 40 expert volunteers.

Frontline is also working with to augment and analyse the data generated in order to understand the culture of fear within healthcare and tell powerful, data-led stories about the pandemic picture. Unite in Health, one of the biggest healthcare unions, has also come on board in order to give a “voice of authenticity” to make sure Frontline Live can reach its members.

Frontline Live built a robust system to check certification to assure that equipment sourced was of medical grade. It was important that any partner provider was not able to profiteer from the PPE crisis, with many charities and community groups donating equipment for free.

The team made sure the platform’s architecture is open source and available as a template to anyone in the world, and has also drawn up a playbook to make sure anyone who picks it up and runs with it can learn from their experience.

A cut-and-paste operating model 

“We spent a lot of time designing an operating model to make it really easy for other people to know how to pull together the right people with the right experience and the right capabilities to hit the ground running,” she adds.

“It has been unbelievably empowering that we have been able to do something in the face of this terrible crisis. I have never seen such good-hearted humanity in my career – it’s like the little ships of Dunkirk on steroids.” 

“The collaboration of the digital community and the goodness of people has just been extraordinary.” says Bo Hellberg, one of the volunteers who has worked with Katz since the beginning.

Katz further believes brands including Burberry, L’Oreal and Brewdog, as well as numerous small gin companies, should be praised for providing PPE and sanitation products rather than suspected of using the crisis as a cynical PR opportunity.

“We should be shouting from the rooftops that entrepreneurs and the private sector stepped forward and bridged the gap, while this huge, slow, bumbling tanker [of a government] turned around to try and deal with the problem. Thank god they did.”

Frontline.Live is now looking for volunteer experts in digital communications and social media, as well as a partnership lead to leverage further opportunities.