Introducing Etic’s Secure Integrated Communications Suite (SICS)

In March, thanks to the Routes to Justice Project and our work in assessing the potential for systemic impact in involving digital technologies in the affordable justice sector, we found ourselves involved in difficult conversations with people trying to navigate the early and then long-term challenges that their organisations and the wider eco-system will face in the post-COVID world.

As we wrote in the conclusion to our interim report:

“In the current crisis, every part of the UK charitable sector is faced with a set of existential challenges, including but not limited to:

  • Extreme limitations on the possibility for face-to-face working
  • A shortage of volunteers available for work on-site or in the community, exacerbated by the fact that the previous volunteering population was composed disproportionately of older citizens, one of the primary risk groups for COVID-19
  • Financial precarity in a time of economic recession

In line with some of the recommendations we made in our report we applied for – and are now delighted to announce we have received – a grant from the UK’s innovation agency, Innovate UK.

For anyone who hasn’t read our more detailed proposals, our idea is to develop a comprehensive secure communications and scheduling platform which meets the requirements of the A2J community. The practicalities of working during the COVID-19 crisis mean that the need for such a facility is both widespread and urgent, whilst the long-term prospects of the sector will also depend upon its ability to support remote service provision.

The low-cost options currently available to the sector are deeply unsatisfactory, for several reasons:

• Privacy and Security: These issues are of paramount concern for a sector which works with vulnerable individuals and deals with sensitive personal data. Platforms such as Zoom have well-documented security weaknesses, whilst organisations such as Google and Facebook have business models based explicitly on collecting data on the individuals who use their platforms. It is simply unacceptable that charities working with debtors, divorcees and abuse survivors should be forced to compromise their client’s privacy.

• Data Ownership: The meta-data produced by an audio-visual communications platform is potentially of great value to organisations attempting to optimise their service provision. Currently, all of that data is the property of the third-party organisations such as Skype, Zoom etc. With a platform designed for the sector, all data produced would be owned by the sector and its clients, who could then use it for their own benefit. For the first time, the sector would have access to system-wide intelligence on its own activities, allowing for effective evaluation, benchmarking and improvement of client management practices.

• Lack of functionality: Off-the-shelf products lack the range of functions required by the sector (detailed below).

• Lack of compatibility: A situation in which multiple organisations are using different proprietary platforms makes communications between them awkward and inefficient.

SICS, if adopted at scale, would address all these problems at a stroke. Not only would it satisfy the immediate need for a secure, accessible video chat facility, the data produced by the platform could help organisations structure their service provision more efficiently and provide insights which inform future strategy for the sector at large. The size of the initial market comprises at least 1,500 advice agencies, many of whom are currently engaged in the process of investigating alternative forms of service delivery.

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A selection of the proposed SICS functionality

Public demand for personal legal advice is higher than ever, and providers need a way to service their clients whilst also protecting the health and wellbeing of their front-line staff. The astonishing uptake currently exhibited by programs like Zoom demonstrates the urgent need for a product which can answer these basic requirements. However, even as they are forced to deploy software like Zoom, providers are well aware that these programs are not the answer and are increasingly concerned by the associated legal and ethical implications. The A2J sector is crying out for a product like SICS, which would comprehensively address these concerns whilst also offering a far greater range of functionality.

SICS would enable charities to modernize their service offering whilst preserving the best elements of the current model by allowing charities to retain the skills and experience of their existing volunteer base, many of whom will be unlikely to be able to return to work in a public-facing context in the near future. Meanwhile, providers will have access to more and better data concerning the rate, duration and general subject of their contacts with clients, providing the sector — for the first time ever — with the capacity to systematically evaluate its working practices at the level of individual organisations and the sector as a whole.

The implementation of SICS would enhance the capacity of the A2J sector to carry out its social mission in the years to come — a public good with benefits extending across the legal system and throughout society. This project is an investment in the UK’s ongoing ability to support a fair, open and accessible justice system. However, the sector is unable to pay for the development of such a product itself — hence the necessity for public funding.

We are now going to spend the Summer bringing this product into being and will be hoping to ring interested parties into the development at certain levels from the beginning of August. We will now be using the R2J website to provide regular updates on the project’s development and please do not hesitate to get in touch if you would like to speak to us about it or get involved in out user testing phases.