Coronavirus pandemic accelerates financial vulnerability support tool development

Coronavirus pandemic accelerates financial vulnerability support tool development
Coronavirus pandemic accelerates financial vulnerability support tool development

Researchers from The Edinburgh Futures Institute are working with experts from European leader in digital transformation, Sopra Steria, to develop a new data-driven tool to help people financially impacted by the coronavirus pandemic find and access the right support, now and in the future.

UK employers have furloughed close to nine million people – one in four workers – under the UK Government’s Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme, which pays employees 80% of their monthly salary up to £2,500 since it launched in April. Meanwhile, more than three million people have applied for Universal Credit since the beginning of the pandemic. Nonetheless, its full economic impact is still to come. HM treasury’s latest forecasts suggest the country’s GDP growth will fall by more than nine per cent in 2020, which is likely to lead to a surge in unemployment when the furlough scheme closes in October.

The devolved governments of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have also launched an unprecedented raft of support, alongside charities and banks, to help people through the crisis. Hundreds of thousands overwhelmed by the assistance available have inundated advice services and financial institutions with requests for help.

An innovation to navigate support

Based on an ethical triage approach, which asks users critical questions to identify their financial vulnerability, the Support Finder chatbot will guide people to appropriate support for their individual circumstances. Developed by Professor Tina Harrison, Dr Galina Andreeva, Dr Benjamin Bach, Dr Skarleth Carrales and digital experts from Sopra Steria, the tool will offer users alternatives to potentially unsustainable borrowing, by signposting the benefits, grants and payment holidays to which they are entitled. The team plans to finish building and testing the Support Finder in summer 2020 and is currently looking for partners, such as consumer advice services and financial institutions, to offer the free online tool to clients through their websites.

Impact beyond the immediate crisis

Project leader and Professor of Financial Services Marketing and Consumption, Tina Harrison believes the tool will have a long-lasting impact. “Beyond its devastating health effects, the coronavirus pandemic has exposed a significant number of people to financial vulnerability for the first time. The response from government, charities and the private sector has been unprecedented. But it can be very easy for people to become overwhelmed by the deluge of information out there and make choices which could harm their long term financial wellbeing”, Tina explains. “The providers of support are also under enormous pressure to respond to the extraordinary demand, and the situation is likely to become worse once borrowing holidays and furlough come to an end and employers are forced to make difficult decisions. With the Support Finder, we want to offer organisations a tool their customers can use for free to self-identify their needs and access the right support, not only during the pandemic but through the challenges to come once we feel its real impact on the economy.”

Partially funded by the Data-Driven Innovation initiative as part of a plan to boost recovery after the pandemic, the project is the latest collaboration between EFI researchers and Sopra Steria. Both organisations are part of the Fintech Scotland community of partners such as The Scottish Government, The Financial Conduct Authority, Lloyds Banking Group and Barclays, dedicated to the development of Scotland’s fintech industry. The collaboration is also part of Chemistry, Sopra Steria’s ecosystem of consumer organisations, charities, academics, digital ethics experts and developers committed to finding innovative solutions to help financial institutions identify and tackle economic vulnerability and exclusion among customers.

Identifying the early warning signs of financial vulnerability

Head of Chemistry at Sopra Steria, Kerry Nicolaides anticipates a wide variety of future applications for the Support Finder tool. “Together with partners across the Chemistry ecosystem, Sopra Steria has been developing data-driven solutions to identify and address financial vulnerability for some time. The coronavirus pandemic has just made us more determined and accelerated our work in this vitally-important area”, Kerry notes. “Using publicly available information on support from government and financial institutions to guide people to the help they need is just the beginning. In time, we plan to use the insights from the tool to identify the early warning signs of financial vulnerability to help employers, product providers and support organisations spot them among their employees and clients, and help these people before they experience difficulties. It is through this approach we can drive a positive change, and support people to avoid falling into a spiral of bad debt and poor financial wellbeing.”

For more information about the Support Finder and partnership opportunities, contact:

Tina.Harrison@ed.ac.uk or Kerry.Nicolaides@soprasteria.com

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