In the long economic fallout of the Covid-19 pandemic, public uncertainty about financial support entitlement has inspired a group of University of Edinburgh researchers to develop a tool that makes finding the right support quick and easy.
Since the initial lockdown in March 2020, over 11.5 million jobs have been furloughed in the UK, and the claimant count for unemployment benefit has increased by 1.4 million. A range of financial support schemes have been made available, but with shifting scheme deadlines, entitlement discrepancies and the UK and devolved governments offering different packages, finding the right support can be an overwhelming prospect.
A compass for navigating the tough financial landscape
The public’s confusion around the variety of financial support offerings spurred a cross-disciplinary team of researchers at The University of Edinburgh to get to work. Partnering with experts from European leader in digital transformation, Sopra Steria, the team developed a new data-driven tool to help people financially impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic find and access the support they are entitled to.
Based on an ethical triage approach, which asks users critical questions to identify their level of financial vulnerability, the Breathe Easy chatbot will guide people to appropriate support for their individual circumstances, and offer them alternatives to potentially unsustainable borrowing by signposting the benefits, grants and payment holidays for which they qualify.
Project leader and Professor of Financial Services Marketing and Consumption Tina Harrison believes the tool will provide clarity and reassurance at a time of unprecedented uncertainty. “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 Breathe Easy, 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.
Breathe Easy is the product of cross-pollination from across academic disciplines and between researchers and digital specialists, combining the perspectives and expertise necessary to germinate innovation that benefits society. Partially funded by the Data-Driven Innovation initiative as part of a plan to boost recovery after the pandemic, 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.
The economic fallout of the ongoing pandemic will be felt for some time, but the Breathe Easy team is ready to launch a pilot scheme to help those facing financial uncertainty access the right support for their individual circumstances. Pilot partner Capital Credit Union (CCU), an Edinburgh-based financial co-operative, shares the team’s goal of arming individuals with the tools and clear information they need to take control of their financial health. Richard MacLennan, Director of Operations at CCU, elaborates:
Capital Credit Union has a strong history of promoting financial resilience and improving our members’ financial choices, so the opportunity to partner with the University of Edinburgh and Sopra Steria to provide a tool that supports vulnerable members in a quick, pro-active and practical way was very attractive. Empowering our members through self-help guides and clear signposting to appropriate services helps to compliment the work that CCU provides internally. It is exciting to be piloting this tool, helping to shape development, and see how it can benefit our members and make a positive impact.
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