How Orange Sky scaled its technology to connect with the homeless

In 2014, two young men from Queensland, Nic Marchesi and Lucas Patchett, did something truly inspirational that would dramatically improve the lives of tens of thousands of people around Australia. They started providing free laundry services to people experiencing homelessness. They had an old van, put a couple of washing machines and dryers in the back, and took to the streets.

Three years later, Orange Sky is a nationwide operation, and its mission has evolved from providing clean clothes to positively connecting communities. Orange Sky now employs more than 20 full-time staff, operates 16 laundry vans, three shower vans and one hybrid van, and has more than 1,000 volunteers around Australia. Together, they wash over six tonnes of laundry every week.

Not surprisingly, this exponential growth introduced some significant technological challenges. They could no longer make do with the cheap, “home-made” network they’d been able to get by with previously. They needed a secure, enterprise-grade networking and data storage infrastructure.

They also needed much better communication and collaboration tools. According to co-founder, Lucas Patchett, “We’d tried a number of collaboration and video conferencing tools in the past, but we’ve never found a solution we were happy with. This is mission-critical for us, because the more efficient we are in our office, the more efficient we are out on the road and in the community.”

General internet connectivity also impacts efficiency. “Having slow internet and poor tools for collaboration was hindering our growth, and it was frustrating for everyone,” Patchett said. “For example, all our vans need to be internet enabled, so they can send back shift reports containing the names of all volunteers present, their location, the times they operated, all the people who did their washing or had a shower, and so on. This gives us the information we need to manage the operation and give our volunteers the structure they need to work efficiently.

“We’ve realised that, for people experiencing homelessness, it’s not just about having clean clothes, it’s about being connected…So our mission has changed from simply improving the hygiene standards of the homeless to positively connecting people, and our technology plays a critical role in this. Many of the people who use our service have mobile devices, but they usually don’t have SIM cards. If we can give them reliable WiFi in our vans, they can contact their families, access government websites and help services, and just generally stay in touch with the world,” Patchett added.

To combat these problems, Orange Sky worked with partners such as Cisco to completely transform its technology infrastructure, and has since been outfitted with new routing, switching and wireless at head office, collaboration solutions, IP video surveillance, an enterprise-grade firewall, and fast, reliable public WiFi at their vans. Orange Sky’s head office team now has access to the Cisco Meraki dashboard that allows them to easily monitor their vans and manage their volunteers, and control all on-board devices and appliances.

“Our efficiency within the office is up,” Patchett said. “With our Cisco WebEx Board, we now hold regular video calls with staff and volunteers around Australia, delivering training, chatting about how they’re going, and discussing any challenges they’re facing. Keeping people informed is the most powerful thing you can do, particularly as a volunteer-heavy organisation.”

The new technologies have also enabled additional innovation.

“Our developers are constantly working on new things, like the new volunteer portal we just released,” Patchett explained. “It’s a good feeling, knowing that our IT infrastructure can now keep up with our ambitious plans for growth.”

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