• Oxford Together Stories

Believe A Little Bit More

It wasn’t all that obvious, there weren’t any obvious opportunities where I could be like, right, you know, I can get involved with the community using this set of skills. Then Covid happened and it was pretty obvious how we could help.


I’m a software engineer. My husband Tom and I used to live in California. We moved back to Oxford about a year ago, but I continued working for the same company. So I already worked remotely, building websites basically. It was actually through Tom that I connected to the Hub. It was fairly early on lockdown, and he got in touch with Sara, the CEO at Oxford Hub, to see if we could help at all with tech – he’s also a software engineer. So it started off by just building the Oxford Together website, so that the community could figure out where the support was, and how to ask for help. I guess it kind of just escalated from there. They were managing everything within a Google spreadsheet at that point. So Tom set up Asana, which is a task management system, and integrated that with Google so that all the support requests went straight into Asana. From there, we realised it’d be great if we could have a map with all of the information about volunteers. As the need arose, we just built out other pieces of tech to help Oxford Together run more smoothly. Three months down the line, we’re still helping out where we can.

What I hope has happened is that everybody’s been able to be more efficient. Because the data is stored in a better way, it’s more easily accessible. By data, I mean, you know, you can look at a support request and see a bunch of comments associated with that support request. You can see which volunteer has been assigned to help with that request. Because we have all the data in the same place, you can also pull out analytics, so you can look at the number of support requests, the number of different types of support requests as well. And I think that’s been quite useful for the Oxford City Council as well.

I’m supporting Oxford Together still. What we’ve discovered is that the platform that we’ve built for Oxford Together could actually be quite useful for other organisations beyond Covid. The whole idea of what we’ve built for Oxford Together is that it’s a platform to manage volunteers and then run volunteering programmes. So Oxford Together runs the prescription runners program, and then you’ve also got the practical support programme. But Oxford Hub is running a ton of other volunteering programmes. They’ve got gardening and environmental programmes, they’ve got tutoring programmes. So it’s working with Sara and the other employees at Oxford Hub to figure out if we can add some of the other volunteering programmes into the platform so that they can manage everything in the same place. It’s quite a big dream at the moment, but you know, we’ll see what happens in the next few months. I think, if we can build a system where it makes it safe and easy to share data and collaborate on cases, or support requests, that would be really cool. I think that could be really interesting. But we’re a long way off that yet.

I’m not the person who’s calling up households who would like support to say right, we can do this, this and this for you and would you like us to do that as well? Because I’m not doing that I still feel quite removed from it. I would like to do more of that in the future, because I think that would help give me more perspective, and in terms of building out the tech as well it might help just having a little bit more context. You know, we can see the number of support requests and things like that, and the number of food parcels being delivered, but there’s probably a whole other story underneath that: how many food boxes does a delivery driver have to complete every day and are they working nine to nine? There’s probably a lot of stuff that we don’t really understand or hasn’t filtered up to us. And yet we make decisions on various parts of the tech, which probably do impact things. I’m aware that I’m not an expert in how the Council is run or how Oxford Hub is run. So I’m going to defer to Sara and other people on those sorts of decisions, and then just try and make the best tech decisions I can. But it’s a lot of responsibility, I guess.

Until a couple months ago, I didn’t really think I realised the levels of disparity that exists within Oxford. So I guess it’s been a little bit of a shock. And then you also look at Oxford in a slightly less rosy light, less, ‘Oh, there’s this great place with a great university.’ Now I’m thinking, ‘Oh, a lot of people who live here are really struggling.’ Part of what Oxford Together is doing with the City Council is delivering food parcels to people who aren’t in a position to buy food themselves. And I think just the number of food parcels that need to be delivered, it didn’t occur to me that that was the quantity of households who both before and during Covid would need support. And the majority of support requests that come through Oxford Together are for food support. It’s a mixture of really nice stories and then pretty shocking stories.

There are a lot of positives coming out of this, you know, everybody is really willing to help. But you can definitely see that there are gaps, where it would be good if there was more support. What we’ve built is more around supporting and making existing teams more efficient. And I think maybe in order to fill the gaps, you need more schemes, and then the tech can come in, can then be added on top of those new schemes to kind of, you know, make this more efficient. I’m not under any illusions that like what we’ve built is gonna solve everything.

I actually quit my day job so I’m now working on this full-time. I’ve been looking for something new for a while so the fact that Oxford Together came into our lives was great. I’m excited to be working on it and really believe in what they’re doing.

It’s great to be able to work more with the community. That’s something we were kind of looking for but we weren’t really sure how to get involved. Before, I was working remotely, and my husband Tom also worked remotely. We knew some people in Oxford, but not all that many. So this has been an opportunity to meet with more people which has been nice. And people who are not necessarily software engineers, and not necessarily that similar to us, I guess. You know, people with different perspectives. It wasn’t all that obvious, there weren’t any obvious opportunities where I could be like, right, you know, I can get involved with the community using this set of skills. Then Covid happened and it was pretty obvious how we could help. Feeling like you can help people, and help people who are local, has been quite good. I’m able to do what I enjoy doing at the same time as helping people or trying to.


Edited by Sofia Smith-Laing