How the ALS managed donations when the Ice Bucket Challenge went viral

Charities have a notoriously difficult role. Not a month goes by where there isn’t a story listing the top ten issues charities will face, from spending priorities and negative press to the ethics of donating to other countries.

What’s overlooked in these articles, however, is an issue that is already affecting a large number of industries: the data explosion. Charity, like any other industry, is not immune to the challenges and opportunities being driven by the data explosion.

As a mobile CRM company, we at mGage provide a gateway service for SMS messages and transactions, routing these from customers to operators and back again. We need to ensure that messages are successfully coordinated, which means typically dealing with 15 million transactions per month, with each message passing through our infrastructure three times.

>See also: Why charities need to adapt data-based engagement strategies in the new digital world

If we aren’t able to deliver against our promise, the losses are far reaching: our customers’ transactions will not be processed and we will be hit with regulatory fees – not to mention the brand implications and, especially when working with charities, the loss of potentially life-saving resources.

This is a huge challenge when huge numbers of donations could be hanging in the balance. Because the number of donations made by SMS can fluctuate depending on a large number of factors, it is vitally important that charities can be sure that the systems managing these donations can process the data and deliver results regardless of demand and the huge data spikes it creates.

Such spikes were witnessed last year with the birth of a charity phenomenon: the ALS Foundation’s Ice Bucket Challenge. Yes, 2014 was the year that pouring buckets of ice cold water over your head became not only acceptable, but encouraged – with the stunt raising money for Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis and its British equivalent, Motor Neurone Disease.

Almost overnight, millions of videos were posted to social media sites, with hundreds of celebrities – from Tim Cook to Chris Pratt – taking part. The charity raised over $100 million dollars over a one-month period – a 3,500% increase over the same period of time in 2013.

This unexpected popularity, driven by social media engagements, spotlights both the new data and infrastructure challenge, and an opportunity for providers and charities alike.

In today’s digitally connected world, those inspired want to instantly participate and providers need to safeguard their customers from potential brand and financial losses should they not be able to cope when a project gains unexpected momentum.

Charities must be ready to deal with viral growth, and in turn providers look to ensure that their customers and they do not fall victim to these spikes in data volume. 

Companies must assess the level and types of demand they experience, and the stumbling blocks they may face, and architect data platforms that will reliably ingest and process the fluctuations in data.

In order for us to handle phenomenally successful campaigns like the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge reliably, a platform was required that could cope with the erratic data volumes without error.

It was clear that existing RDBMS solutions were too costly and lacked the necessary scalability, so we undertook a thorough evaluation of NoSQL data platforms to identify which solution wouldn’t lose speed when data volumes shot up, but could still provide the reliability and scalability to cope with these fluctuating demands.

Reliability and scalability were key priorities for identifying the solution, and after assessing options we selected the Basho Riak KV platform, primarily because it enables us to scale predictably and linearly as data grows. This was perfect for handling the demand generated by the Ice Bucket Challenge, where expectations on flow-through were blown out of the water when the cause captured the public’s imagination.

Once the decision was made, our migration process was pretty straightforward, consisting of setting up an appropriate environment for the platform to run – with one node for testing and another nine ‘live’ nodes in production.

This provided our team with an environment where they could evaluate performance and develop software changes, adapting the solution to customers’ needs as we continued. This need for continuity was pronounced with charities, like many other businesses, unable to afford downtime when processing customers’ payments in real-time.

When the business decided to reduce costs by decreasing the number of data centres, we decided to migrate our live SMS gateway using the RIAK database replication functionality. We replicated the database at our new data centre location, ran our service across both locations to ensure stability, then mothballed and eventually decommissioned the original database. We completed the project simply and in a cost efficient manner, all with zero downtime to our service.

Post-deployment we’ve seen significant benefits, streamlining our IT processes to reduce operational and maintenance costs. We have adopted a seemingly complex distributed database architecture, but have found that we don’t need to worry about managing the IT because it just works.

In the case of the Ice Bucket Challenge, we doubled our available capacity when the volumes spiked, which took around 48 hours in total. As a result we know that we’ll be ready when the next viral phenomenon comes along and brings about another data explosion.

Now, instead of worrying about this eventuality, we can focus on making continuous improvements and spend time growing our business and delivering our brand promise, rather than worrying about core technologies.

>See also: A world of good: JustGiving is transforming the charity sector through 'social giving'

As a provider, understanding your demand is fundamental in ensuring that your customers, whether they are running a talent show or a charity campaign that has gone viral, are successfully catered for.

Providers’ evaluation and assessment of solutions should take into account the precise requirements necessary to make customers’ lives easier, and architecting the appropriate environment in which to run such solutions.

Running a charity is difficult enough without the fear that much-needed donations are at risk of being lost in the ether, so by ensuring that a solution is in place to put these data issues on ice, their focus can remain on helping people.

Avatar photo

Ben Rossi

Ben was Vitesse Media's editorial director, leading content creation and editorial strategy across all Vitesse products, including its market-leading B2B and consumer magazines, websites, research and...

Related Topics