Can tech help us to help more?

Can tech help us to help more?

5th September 2023

Can tech help us to help more people?

by George Eckton, CAS Director of Advice Services.

This article was first published in The Herald on 2 September 2023.

There’s a great myth about charities: that they’re resistant to change and slow to accept new ways of doing things, especially in technology. In my experience that’s nonsense. Certainly the CAB network in Scotland has always been keen to find new ways to reach people and offer them our support.

Take our advice website. While the face-to-face part of our service will always continue, many people now prefer to access our advice online from home. So how do we make sure our online presence offers the best possible service, using the most up-to-date systems?

We’ve been experimenting with Artificial Intelligence (AI) technologies for the last few years, and I believe there are two clear uses for them in our work.

Firstly, we could automate elements of how we write the content of our website. I’m coming at this from the perspective of supporting our staff rather than replacing them. By automating the initial stages of online advice writing, we could free up our team to focus on the quality of the detailed advice they may give to people later.

Secondly, there’s ‘Cassie’. A friendly little cartoon chatbot who appears on your screen when you open our website and helps you find the support you need. She’s not ‘live’ yet - we’ve been building the prototype as part of a CivTech programme with SIDE Labs, but we’re excited about how she’ll help us serve more clients and reduce the demand on our ‘human’ advisers.

So those are two opportunities. But there are challenges in all this too. For example, data protection. We don’t want the private information a user feeds into our website to be retained by the programme provider and used by them elsewhere. That’s obviously a deal-breaker for us.

Another challenge is the quality of advice. ChatGPT is good, but it’s not yet perfect for us either in terms of the quality and consistency of answers, or – crucially – the sense of human empathy with our clients.

So we’ll need a chatbot that isn’t based on the ‘generative’ model (the G in ChatGPT stands for generative, meaning it can make things up!) For instance, on another of our projects – our national helpline - we’ve used a system designed by PolyAI, which is based on a ‘retrieval’ model rather than a generative one. i.e. the advice provided to a caller is retrieved from our existing bank of approved CAB advice, rather than made up by the programme. Before she goes live, Cassie will need to be a retriever, whilst offering the conversational ability of ChatGPT.

The final challenge for us in all this is an ever-familiar one: Cost. As a charity we have to keep all of our physical premises open, so it can be hard to invest in technical innovation as well.

So, does CAS want to utilise AI to extend our service? Absolutely, but with caveats. We can certainly see the potential for good, and we’re trying to embrace it where we can - but always as an addition to our current service, not a replacement, and always making sure we protect our clients, our staff and our brand.

All of that said, yes. With better and more sustained funding we would certainly use these new systems. They’re the future and that’s where I want our network to be.