Ask local non-governmental organisations (NGOs) what they really need and many will mention improved IT systems. Systems for managing volunteers or sharing information can play a big part in increasing effectiveness. Many NGOs believe, however, that such systems are unobtainable, as they require resources they do not have.
Microsoft is changing that. It is helping local NGOs make use of the latest cloud-computing technology to gain cost-effective tools that can improve their productivity. This is part of its wider 'Cloud Unlimited for a Better Hong Kong' campaign, which aims to provide cloud technology to benefit different sectors of society.
'We feel cloud computing will bring an additional value to a lot of users in Hong Kong, including NGOs,' says Winnie Yeung, Microsoft Hong Kong's director of legal and corporate affairs.
Cloud computing lets individuals in different places use the internet to access information stored on a central server, or 'cloud', administered by a third party. This makes cloud computing an ideal solution for NGOs, which usually lack the resources to run IT systems on their own.
'Many NGOs have started to expand their IT departments in recent years,' says Edmond Keung, chief technology officer at the Hong Kong Council of Social Service. 'But the problem is resources. To NGOs, IT systems are still costly.'
One organisation Microsoft has helped is the Hans Andersen Club, which provides services for children. As the organisation has staff working across Hong Kong, it is difficult for employees to co-ordinate with each other.
'We have some centres in remote areas like Tai O or Lamma Island,' says May Wong, executive director at the Hans Anderson Club. 'If we want to organise a staff meeting, transportation and travel time is a headache.'
Microsoft provided the Hans Anderson Club with its Office 365 system at a special charity price. Office 365 lets the club's employees use the internet to access files from anywhere, while providing them with a shared calendar and tools for video conferencing and messaging.
Microsoft has also developed a cloud-based Volunteer Management System (VMS). Many NGOs rely heavily on volunteers and need to keep records of their details to retain them for future work. Many also have the complicated task of matching volunteers with certain skills to people with specific needs.
Most NGOs manage volunteers manually and lack any effective methods for matching volunteers and service recipients. To address this, Microsoft's VMS helps NGOs organise their volunteer resources. The NGOs can record information about volunteers and service recipients in a database and then store this information in the cloud.
Similar to Office 365, as the VMS is cloud-based, a third party takes care of its administration - in this case the Hong Kong Council of Social Service - so NGOs can use it without recurring costs. Microsoft also helps by offering system subscriptions at about a quarter of the commercial price.
'We prepare the solutions for [the NGOs] and they can buy the services at a very low price,' says Yeung. 'We thought this would be a neat solution for NGOs to try out the technology and put it to use to help improve their efficiency.'