Aug. 17, 2021

Using Tech for Good at Guide Dogs

Using Tech for Good at Guide Dogs

Gerard McGovern, CIO of the Guide Dogs for the Blind Association, discusses hybrid workplace design, digital adoption, iOS accessibility, and more.


  • Guide Dogs' approach to hybrid work & redesigning the workplace for collaboration and innovation
  • Gerard's experience working in IT for Getty Images, including during the FIFA World Cup in South Africa
  • How the mindset shift to using video conferencing has made accessing services easier at Guide Dogs
  • Gerard's work on data strategy and organizing around a single source of truth
  • Accessibility features in iOS
  • Guide Dogs' Tech for All program -- Providing every visually impaired child in the UK with iPhone or iPad
  • Windows 11 first impressions

Meet Our Guest
Gerard McGovern is a highly experienced and commercially astute Chief Information Officer/Chief Technology Officer, with over 20 years of managing technology, information governance, digital and transformation in international business. Passionate, innovative and committed to delivering solutions that are always centred on people not technology. Highly experienced in creating, implementing and delivering strategies across a wide range of industries and sectors.

Connect with Gerard on LinkedIn:

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Ryan Purvis 0:00
Hello, and welcome to the digital workspace works podcast. I'm Ryan Purvis, your host supported by producer Heather Bicknell. In this series, you'll hear stories and opinions from experts in the field story from the frontlines, the problems they face and how they solve them. The years they're focused on from technology, people and processes to the approaches they took, they will help you to get to grips with the digital workspace inner workings.

Gerard McGovern 0:30
So welcome Gerard, onto the digital workspace books podcast. Can you introduce yourself, please?

Sure, thank you for having me. I am Gerard McGovern. I'm the Chief Information Officer at Guide Dogs for the Blind

glove. And we're talking about some of the good bits that you wanted to keep sort of people in the epidemic. And I know we got into post pandemic, you have some examples of what you want to keep and what you don't want to keep.

So I think we all want to get back to physically seeing people. I think we all know that the shown us that human contact is really important. And we like being with people. But I think it's also showing us that to do really effective work, we don't have to always be together. And I think for companies that have had people across multiple locations, they've known that already, the idea that everyone has to be in the same room to work together, I don't think has been true for a number of years. So what we want to get to is the idea, and especially for guide dogs, where we guide dogs, we're not Google, we're not going to become a fully remote organization. But what we do want to do is keep all the benefits of having that flexibility of working from anywhere. But also making sure that when we do come into our offices, they aren't just there for people to come and sit at a desk, that they are designed for collaboration. They create fantastic meeting spaces, they create fantastic places where people can come together and work together. We're not going to go back to everyone coming into the office five days a week just to sit at a desk, but nor are we going for the remote. The future is a balance between the two.

Yeah, I think it's spot on there. I remember I moved to the UK having to be in the office five days a week. And I'd be in office five days a week. But I'm on the phone, four days of the five days as people in the same building. But no one was meeting face to face Anyway, there was just this med, you have to be here because it's doctoring from the top.

I think it's good that we as you say we found a medium that says you can do deep work at home. And you can come into the office for workshops, a collaboration, I think it's about making sure that you're always focused on what the outcome of the work is not where it's taking place. And there will be some people so we look at neurodiversity. There are some people who really thrive in being in an office every day. And there's absolutely no way we're going to say no, sorry, you can't come in if people want to come in every day, they can come in every day. But there are some people who thrive when they've got that separation, that space, that ability to juggle their personal life more intensely. And I think as long as we have a person centered approach, and always make sure that it works for the organization, your team, and you as an individual, I don't think you can go wrong. If you've read the book, people where I have not

read a book, probably from the 70s, or the 80s. And they talk a lot about all these concepts around, for example, open plan offices or bed. What you want to have is small offices with you know, three or four people in them. So they can collaborate if they're working on a project or something. But then they're not distracted by everyone else around them, which is what I've finally planned to do as well is that it becomes just noisy and distracting in the sort of spaces. There's a couple of times though, so that that that works as well. It doesn't mean I remember we did a project in Brussels. And these guys had never seen people wear headphones at their desks. Because they had little cubicles. And they got they found a quiet novel that they had to walk up and, and sort of tackle desk to knock on the door to talk to you put it further into the chat. You know, that's pretty much every floor has. Everyone has a nap because that's what it is. Yeah, interesting.

What we've what we've tried to do with Guide Dogs is create effectively zones or neighborhoods that have different types of space and different ways of working because there's some people who do enjoy an open plan environment. There's some people who want to work within the enclosed office and all the bits in between. I think we as long as we recognize that, that everyone is different And there isn't a a standard way of doing things, then provided we we have enough space and enough flexibility. I think that works for the worst for the employee and the employer.

Yeah, nothing is right. But how big is how big is this random number of people? But I mean, how many sites do you guys have

across the UK. So we have 28, across the UK, we they vary in size. And they are predominantly canine based. So it's a really interesting change. For us, we were planning on embarking on a very big capital expenditures program to expand our space because we needed more space for for more dogs, because we want to reduce our waiting lists. And the way of doing that is getting more dogs through the system. What we've come to the conclusion is that if we make better use of our space, so if we take advantage of the fact that people do want that flexibility in their autonomy, to work from places other than their nominated office, we can still provide that extra canine space, but without need to buy new buildings or extend buildings. It's a bit of a challenge, because obviously, being a charity, we've got to make sure that every penny counts, and having 28 sites, again, is also a bit of a challenge. It takes a bit of time to to whiz through. But we're in this fortunate position. Now, I think you always had companies like Google, who are sort of the shining beacon of this is how office space should look. Actually now companies like Google are saying, well, you can you can work from home. And we can now provide that same level of office effective space, because we can let people work from home, we can make it so that people are equipped to work from anywhere. So it's a real step change for us,

have you incentivize incentivize staff with with sort of word, giving them money to sit there in office or buy the right desk, rather by their own chair, or their house, people to serve that set themselves up.

So it's a balance. So we have people who are on home based contracts. So they, they are the fancy creatures, that is their place of work. What we then have is a balance for everyone else where it's, it's a hybrid, so they have a nominated office. And I think the we don't have an expectation that people come in a set number of days each week. But we do have an expectation that we will see people in the office, because there's there's certain things that I think as we've shown with a pandemic, some things have been really great. Other bits, it's so much easier and quicker when you're face to face. So it's, it's it's not an expectation, but it's a we want to see you we know it's a great place to be and we know it's good to see people. Yeah.

We're talking also that you worked on the Soccer World Cup, here in South Africa. How do you how has that changed in the last 10 years from what you've done, and then to what you've seen now the euros and that sort of thing.

So it's really interesting. So I was very fortunate, I spent eight years working at Getty Images and UEFA. The evolution of events has been has been fascinating. So when I started, the standard way of sending photos was you bought an ISDN line from the organizers, you plugged into your laptop, and we sent photos very slowly, and in a progressive evolution in technology. So if we look at the Beijing Olympics, we got together with our colleagues at AP Reuters and the other big international news agencies. And we bought leased lines between all the venues. And we put our own switches and our own networking equipment within each venue. And then you move on to something like South Africa where the organising committee did it for us. And then 2012 it was more of a hybrid where we were using some of the organizing committees equipment, some of our own equipment. But we now look at Tokyo. It's now in the Olympic Games host city contract that this network has to be provided for the international press agencies to to send imagery so the journey has been absolutely fascinating. And I think the biggest challenge has always been How do you plan so far ahead and make a guess on what technology is going to be? So we started planning, London 2012 just after Twitter was first launched. So how do you Even like a guest, knowing that what technology is going to look like six years down the line, it's, it's a very, it's a very interesting call to make. Yeah,

I can imagine. I mean, you know, when you say those things are old what it is, it's not, it's not even 12 years old or 10 years older than me. 2006 is when it came out. Okay, it's a 15 years old give or take. So that's crazy. Yeah, cuz I mean, my, my wife worked on soccer. And she worked on London Olympics. And she found very different in the two different approaches. So So FIFA had obviously its way of doing things in the Olympics, and they were doing things. And those those different approaches, creating different gaps in in getting things ready. And I mean, one of the keys struggled with was getting the town councils to all agree on the operational stuff, like, there was a certain point in between Merton Wimbledon, and somewhere else was basically a square meter wasn't part of any other councils. So no one would take ownership for the square meter. And they needed to put a placard on that square meter, and you couldn't get anyone to agree that there was a board. And so it was funny how those sort of little things slow things down drastically.

It's really funny the difference between something like a World Cup and something like the Olympics where I'm trying to think of a suitable analogy, but the the Olympics is a is a very big but a very slow juggernaut comes over a very long period of time has two and a half weeks with a competition every day, pretty much filling the entire day. Whereas football is it has high viewing figures. And it's it's way more intense for a short period of time. But it still takes an awful lot of effort to get that preparation ready. It's a very, it's a very interesting difference. But the I think the biggest thing from working in events that I ever learnt was the idea that you just have to be ready. You can't say to the same boat, sorry, do you mind running the 100 meters again, because our systems are offline, it doesn't. It doesn't work that way. And you have to have a plan A but also a plan B and A plan C. Because if you don't send that photo, you can guarantee your competitor as well. And someone else we use that photo instead of using yours. If you've got the world's best photo, it means nothing, it was sitting on a camera, as we sitting in the hands of people who need to use it.

While I'm going through stuff, which is like we're not even ready for this. And well, people can play tennis today. So you're gonna have to be ready. The rest of all, I know you're not ready. So you know, just carry on. So let's go back to that for a second. So my sister's involved with guide dogs in in Malta. Dude, do you guys do anything with other associations outside of the UK and use technology to try and help with training or anything like that.

So there's a very healthy network of fellow guide dogs, organizations across the, across the world. And we come together at various points. And we try and share data and sort of techniques on on how we train how we how we breed and how we operate. And I was just talking to guide dogs Australia have just appointed a new, a new CIO, and I had a good conversation with them talking through what we're doing, that guy does what we're planning digitally. And I think that's that, for me, sort of extending it further. That's one of the best things about working in the charity sector, the not for profit sector. For guide dogs to win another charity doesn't have to lose the reason why someone would give to guide dogs. And I was very fortunate. I've worked at Great Ormond Street before working with guide dogs. And the people who give to grow on the street will give for very different reasons for giving to guide dogs. And because of that, it's not like Coca Cola versus Pepsi, Nike versus Adidas. So it means that people can come together, and we can share ideas and we can share information because we're not competitors in the truest sense.

Understand that. And then you've always sort of tried to say the altruistic businesses.

You're making, you're making me sound far better than I am saying altruistic. I think it's I've been lucky through my career that I've worked in various different places, some of it through planning some of it through serendipity. And I think I've been very lucky that the two, not for profit companies I've worked for have been two of the best well known charities In the UK, so I'm very lucky in that sense. But equally, I very much enjoy work in the commercial sector as well. So it's nice to have a mix.

I mean, as far as why I joined Harlow was it was much more how we were saving people money, we're saving lives, which is which makes you feel good in the week. ask you, which was when when you guys are doing your your training and stuff, and obviously dealing with people that are blind or will be able to do blind and deaf do do you use anything there to help them from a training point of view. So I'm thinking about, you know, spins of AR, or virtual reality or, or something like that was still coming down the pipe.

So it is coming down the pipe a little bit. We The training is very much it's about creating a partnership between a dog and the and the guide dog owner. So it's, it's very much a hands on almost analog way of doing things. Our responsibility sitting in technology is to make sure that the point where someone is being placed together with a dog, all steps that lead up to that are as efficient as possible. So when you talk does play a important role is and we've seen this because of the pandemic that we can now talk to people over zoom, we can do things like that, whereas before it was very much let's do a face to face consultation. And while sometimes that's better than sometimes it is more appropriate. There are times when it's more convenient for people to go, Okay, let's just do it over zoom, because it's easier for them. I'm sure. So we do work with Microsoft on various products, such as seeing AI soundscape, and they are effectively products that really help those who are visually impaired. But the actual the core, the core mobility side. So creating a guide or partnerships is, is and I think will remain for some time a very analog and traditional process.

Oh, yeah. Like I couldn't expect that to work any other way to go on us. But I was just wondering, what's the question? If someone's struggling with their dog and a 200 miles away? We'd have to come back or you have to send some

of that internal miles. Exactly. And it's, it's bizarre. So obviously, we had that technology before, it's not as if zoom only existed because of the pandemic. But I think it's been a mindset shift that before it was very much Well, we will come out to you. This is a really personalized service. Now actually, talking to someone over a video link is just as personalized, and actually may be better for them. Because is a strange example. But we've I've got two children and parents evening now for us, is done over teams. Now that's the greatest thing in the world, because it means we don't have to rush back from work, we can both attend, because normally we couldn't because of childcare and various things. It's one of those, I don't think we would have had the idea of teams, parents evenings if it hadn't been because of the pandemic. But there was no logical reason why it couldn't happen.

Yeah. And that was one of the moves in the UK, we were building virtual machine and video conferencing on the platform. So we can do work from anywhere, any device any time. But we weren't allowed to users outside of the bank. So I was like, why why build all this stuff, you can use it from home or whatever it is now, fast forward 1010 years, when the pandemic started, I started flicking the switch to work from home today because you can still log into your virtual machine. Somehow, you know, in a sense, and I know a lot of people have died and been negatively impacted by the pandemic. I'm glad that sort of level has raised everyone up to the same place that zoom teams, Cisco teams, whatever it is, are now almost verbs that everyone can use, as opposed to just the techies or or the corporates.

Yes, very much. So it's really it's one of the things thankfully we started before the pandemic, the the idea was we always designed everything to be used from anywhere. Because if you can use it from anywhere, you can definitely use it in the office where it's a lot. A lot of traditional IT systems have always been based around Well, it might that's designed to work in the office, and we'll think about it working outside of the office later. Very rarely does that work?

Have you had to worry about sort of information security as well, being that you've got the 20th sides and you've got people you know, working with animals and personal information.

So thankfully, dogs don't come under GDPR. So that's always helpful. But you're right informations. Garrity is always one of our our big priorities. And we are in the middle of effectively centralizing all of our data, we've created a project called Project one, which is about having that one source of data that one source of the truth. And at the moment we have, we have data sitting all over the place, we have it that it's in, we have two different CRM systems. We have Excel spreadsheets that obviously every organization in the world has. But we have a lot of data that sits in people's heads, which, again, is, is to be expected with an organization that's 90 years old, has developed over time. And what we want to do with with Project one is effectively take the, the implicit information that exists around guide dogs and make it really explicit and really usable. Because once it's all in one place, everyone can start getting insights from it. But also, it makes the idea of information security much easier. But certainly, through the pandemic, we've been reinforcing messages that now you are more away from the office, please make sure that your computer is is either locked when you go away, or you're always aware where it is. I think it's just it's about education, because I think you can you can put all the tools and procedures in place, but nearly all the time where you have information security breaches, it's a human element that's failed. And that's that's the bit you need to reinforce. Yeah,

that's exactly the human. I'm listening to a podcast called the eighth layer. And that's the human layer. And it's all those things. It's preying on people that are weak, or not fair, but the susceptible to con.

getting really good. Yeah, that's the problem. That's as technology gets better, the cons get better. So it's we need to make sure that we've got all the monitoring in place. And it's why security is never just about one thing. It's, as you say, I think that eight layer thing is a good way of describing it, because it it has to be multiple layers.

Yeah, I mean, I recorded yesterday, almost wherever the PayPal thing that came through, and I just bought something on paypal. And it just was the right timing of actually, maybe this maybe I had a failed transaction. And I almost logged in, I was like, hang on, let me just check this. So it can happen to anyone. And I think there's a level of people should talk about it, not because they want to feel inferior. They shouldn't feel fear, because you're caught necessarily because, you know, awards, and also this can happen to anyone. Absolutely. So and so going around with with I mean, do you have to go to 28 sites, or do you do have a use with mobile all the time. And that's that's your new life?

A bit of both. I've been trying to keep travel to a minimum, and we've been trying to make it so the to keep our site safe. Unless someone needs to be there, then we're not actively discouraged. But there needs to be a reason why someone needs to go on site. I think as well. So we we've done things where we now do all staff calls over over teams. And I think the accessibility of people to the rescue organization, I think is now greater because of the pandemic. So, yes, I've met people through going to all the different sides. But I've probably met visually more people through teams, because it's much easier. And we're using just Skype with just audio. And it's it's not the same. It's obviously it's much better if you meet people physically, but the next best thing is to meet them virtually via video conference. Yeah, I

always found the epidemic that it was once you met someone face to face, then you can use many video conferences as you like, because you've already built that build the trust to do without around always feels like you could not acquire connecting. So I think you got to find a bit of bit of a balance there.

It's why we still won't be able to come into the offices is why it's so important that you have that physical connection. But you have a 28 sites across the UK and sites all the way from Southampton up to Forfar in Scotland, you're not going to be able to get to every site, it's just not going to happen. The next best thing is, it's about to meet people virtually.

And the dogs are they tracked to using chips, so you know where they are and who they're with.

So they have chips in terms of sound very similar to what a normal pet dog would have. So if a dog was to get lost, they are they are microchips. We don't have chips that track in the same way. Let's say like a GPS tracker. It's something we've looked at before. So there are products that are very similar to fitness trackers that give an idea of what dogs do. But we found that the data they gathered or told us was they run about a bit, there was no, there wasn't enough useful insight. And maybe as the technology improves, and in the same way that you look up version, one of the apple, watch what it could tell you, and you look at version six now, and it does way more, it could be the as time goes on, they're able to produce more, more data. But right now, we pretty much know world dogs are there, they're there with their guide dog owners.

What I was thinking about is, is if you've got a dog with the owner, Lola falls over or something. And you know, this is level one, you'd have the panic button, that would kick off if you're assembling the better you guys as a support framework or all that is that's not what you guys do. But

so So generally, in terms of if that scenario were to happen, so as well as a guide, or being a mobility, one of the biggest step changes for people who are visually impaired is a smartphone. So particularly if you look at Apple, Apple have, it's almost like another operating system that exists within iOS, that is purely for people who are visually impaired. It is it's phenomenal. So it's, it's something I had said before working at guide dogs, I have absolutely no idea about it. But you can see that the time, effort and love that Apple have invested to to really make it so someone who is visually impaired can can fully interact with an iPhone. And the level of mobility a guide dog plus an iPhone, provide someone is fairly unparalleled. So in that scenario, if that were to happen, it is almost certain that whether it's an iPhone or an Android, the guide dog owner would have there would have a device with them.

I have no idea that there was a suit as an accessibility capability within the photos. But I've never really thought of as a whole separate entity,

it's it changes how you use the phone. So if you can imagine that, imagine you've got your your screen of apps on the front page. As you press each app or each button, it audibly tells you what that is. Then for you to activate that application, there's not a single touch it's a double touch. So it changes effectively how iOS works. But there's so much detail put into it so that it could almost be a separate operating system. They've they something that there's a story that it started where someone from Apple was was talking to someone who was visually impaired and that person explained it would be really great if I'm able to use this this handset an apple just absolutely embraced it. And it's it's really fantastic what they do.

Oh, I actually play now I use the I use the black and white contrast. Quite a lot describe the ring sort of triggers using keep checking your photos. But I wouldn't play with all the other stuff now is anything else you want to share any other sort of war stories?

I suppose not war story but related to to Apple. One of the exciting things we're doing right now, which is launching next week is we're doing a program called tech for all orange is we are providing every visually impaired child in the UK with either an iPhone or an iPad. Because the the research shows that it is one of the biggest single leaps in terms of effectively creating that level playing field in the way that children communicate with their peers. Because most children have an iPhone or an iPad. The ability to communicate in the same way that all their peers are and also be able to use for learning is we feel that that will make a massive difference to the visually impaired children. The UK

has been donated, are you guys buying them? How are you doing to devices?

So we are funding that we've done a deal with BTA to supply those. We're also working with Apple in terms of training on how to get the best out of the activities. And we also provide a data plan for that as well. So it's about it's about mobility. It's about having that that level playing field so that visually impaired children can really interact with the rest of the world.

Wow, that's amazing. Have you synced up with Freddie Kwok at all. I have not So he's trying to connect all these things together. So your initiative with any other initiative, etc, it's probably with these groups, I think I can always introduce you if you don't know him. But it's what we've talked about is, so everyone needs to be included. But it's been more than just giving or donating a whole bunch of devices, someone has to sit advises someone else, do the training, sort of make sure those devices will last. And there's all these different initiatives. So the first part is connecting them all together, so join the dots. But then the second part is people that are willing to invest at time to help, but they don't have a way to get involved. So don't do anything. So that's sort of second part of this. So most you could if you get connected, and then see if there's some some overlap to help each other.

Now, that sounds great. And it's a really good point that we have very determined on this program. That is not just a case of here's an iPad, of where you go about making sure that people get the absolute most out of that piece of technology, because it is wonderful, like I can think back to. So again, going down memory lane, I remember when I got one of the first iPads, I was in America at the time. And I had people coming up to me just chatting or randomly going, show me what this is. And yeah, it really is. It's been 10 years on from that now. It is now ubiquitous, and it's just seen as as something that everyone has. But not everyone does have it. Not everyone knows how to use it. And it's it's part of I think everyone who doesn't know how to use those devices and has access to them has a responsibility to make sure that the next generation carries on, we don't lose this digital knowledge.

Yeah, now you're spot on. I think some people have multiple devices. And you know, I think I think Apple's approach to design really enables anyone to just pick up intuitively having too much time with Andrew, it's a constant aside there. But you know, we can be female, I'm using a product from Apple with another product that Apple does worse. Which, which is one of the things that I find other vendors don't do well, which makes it very frustrating.

So saying all of that my main laptops on Microsoft Surface, so

we've got to have them unfortunately, I mean, you know, I've got a Windows device next to me, but I don't use it as much. purely because I found it very frustrating, you know, Windows 10, we'd have to beat Microsoft yet. I think the plan is really to provide windows hosted. And you want your own personal device doesn't really matter. Because you're connected to a hosted machine and do your work there.

I must admit I'm, whilst I grew up with Macs, and my first ever computer was a Mac i, this is gonna sound strange, I actually prefer windows to back. So I'm very happy using a surface. But I think that's that's the best thing that was picking me with cloud technologies that as you say, it doesn't really matter. You can everyone can access, the apps are still available. And that the main point, if you go back 15 years ago, Microsoft strategy was we have to lock you in, you have to use all of our software. Now Microsoft don't care, especially with their resort platform that they're going to be making money whether you're using their devices or software.

No, exactly. Exactly. And I think a lot of the pains you get to the windows build, I mean, you want to surface you probably don't have that pain as much. All those variables go away because it's hosted yet we're trying to get every vendor to use the right drivers and like kind of stuff. That's where the pain comes in. But it's interesting, nonetheless. What are your thoughts on Windows? windows 11? Are you excited to upgrade?

So I'm with trepidation I installed the beta. I should hasten to say not on my work machine.

It seems fine is is probably more a Windows 10 Service Pack one type of fare. But it is one of those. He had to whether we like it or not. Microsoft have a massive market share and will be around for a very, very long time. So I think windows 11 is just the natural evolution, although I'm fairly sure they said when windows 10 launch that Windows 10 was going to be the last ever version of Windows but here we are with Windows 11.

Yeah, I think that was someone in the product team but it wasn't really an official statement. So it's almost been backtracked completely. Yeah, I think that was

no complaints on Windows 10 Nope. Plans for Windows 11?

Yeah, I think the I mean, I've always preferred windows seven, I always thought that was probably the best. The best, I guess, I found tend to be quite clunky. But I think they carried on Windows 10 is an evergreen solution. And that actually worked, there probably would have been the last one because it has morphed over time. I think with the pandemic and a few other things, I've had to back it on there to have a new platform, which is really lipstick on a pig, but to me, it works. It works. Well, that's the main thing. I mean, it's going to have the least amount of friction possible for users to do their job, or do whatever they want on the machine. So as you said, it works. It works. So great. Is there anything else you want to cover? Or do you want to start off there? I think that I've been quite fun. Perfect, great. Well, if he was to get ahold of you, what's the best way to get in contact? Great question. Probably on LinkedIn, LinkedIn. LinkedIn is easiest to go over that in the in the show notes, and I'll just share that shout really loudly. Well, thanks so much for coming on. was great chatting with. Awesome, thanks, Ryan.

Ryan Purvis 36:24
Thank you for listening today's episode. Hey, the big news app producer, editor. Thank you, Heather. for your hard work for this episode. Please subscribe to the series and rate us on iTunes or the Google Play Store. Follow us on Twitter at the DW w podcast. The show notes and transcripts will be available on our website, www dot digital workspace that works. Please also visit our website www dot digital workspace that works and subscribe to our newsletter. And lastly, if you found this episode useful, please share with your friends or colleagues.

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