Kara Connect founder, Thorbjorg Helga Vigfusdottir explains why streamlining the service of society’s many administrative systems meant stepping away from politics.
Kara Connect: a quiet but necessary disruption
The young parents standing before me were desperate. Their autistic son was having a hard time with school and not receiving the specialised care he needed to grow. The couple had tried everything else and now, they were having a small breakdown in a city councillor’s office.
They were simply exhausted. I — a city council-member in Reykjavik, Iceland — was their very last resort. No one was treating the child badly but he wasn’t receiving some of the basic help he needed in order to function in the school environment. The parents weren’t asking for fireworks, they just wanted their son to be educated.
This certainly wasn’t the first or last time parents came to me in search of solutions but there was something different about that day. I realised my work on the political and bureaucratic level wasn’t having as much impact as it needed to and that if I wanted to make a difference I would have to employ a new strategy: a private initiative.
In 2014, I resigned as city councillor and began laying the groundwork for what would ultimately become Kara Connect: a software that brings specialists and clients together in a secure and friendly teleconferencing environment.
It all comes down to access
During my time in politics I came to realize that the biggest problem facing many communities wasn’t necessarily a lack of funding but a lack of access and efficiency. This is especially true for rural communities, such as the many remote villages in Iceland. Long distances and other transportation barriers, often paired with chaotic weather, discourage urban specialists from taking on clients and even when they do, the travel costs are often through the roof. The problems cities face — too much traffic, higher turnover and longer waiting lists — are also ultimately about accessibility where it all comes down to how well caregivers manoeuvre through the administrative systems.
Following my resignation from office, I spent weeks researching technology and with help from a Silicon Valley EdTech incubator I started fleshing out a tele-practice office for speech therapists. The project, Trappa, took off when I met speech therapist Tinna Sigurðardóttir. Once a week for three months, she helped four children in Patreksfjörður, Iceland. They were 500 km away from us and yet, through the support of the municipality and the educators involved, everything ran smoothly.
The children got the help they needed, regularly, providing teachers with much needed relief and support. The municipality met with laws and regulations of delivering help. The parents didn’t need to take time off work to travel with their child and the speech therapist had fewer cancellations. Before, children were turned away from student health services if a particular service wasn’t paid for by the municipality which is very common. With Kara the schools were able to provide a setting for the children to receive help irrespective of they payer. Kara, with the therapist, sent the invoice to the right payer, an insurance company, the region or the Health Security system. Bureaucracy was out of the way. Payment was sorted regardless of location. Help was delivered.
Today this amazing virtual speech therapy service supports over 40 locations in Iceland. Five speech therapists work together, some in the office in Reykjavik but others in different locations. Next Trappa will add other school support so the municipalities can hire flexibly depending on how many children need help each year.
The name Trappa means ladder. As the name implies, it provides its users with the necessary boost to reach their goals, be they clients or therapists. Trappa also proved to be a stepping stone for its makers: while the platform’s success was miraculous, we saw no reason to slow our ascent.
I was connected to an amazing technology architect, Hilmar Eidsson, in 2015. His team and ours merged to grow our new idea: Kara Connect. We didn’t want to build a huge empire, our vision was to give all therapists, anywhere and of any specialist profession the tools to build their own companies. Through Kara, everyone, no matter the location would have access to the right kind of help.
When it comes to such personal matters as therapy of any kind, security is off the utmost importance. Our software couldn’t be “just another messaging app” — it had to follow the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulations and ensure the safety of users’ information. It needed to be simple while enabling both clear and safe communication through secure video conferencing, accessible even through the simplest browser run on the crudest of computers.
We also wanted to make the experience seamless for the therapist, to provide a space where all the information on each client could be stored in the same place that included data on their advances and business metrics.
The future requires the different systems that govern our lives to be connected, be it insurance providers, the municipalities, the state or the school districts. They need to be in discourse with each other so that the flow of information can be straight forward for the specialists and accessible for the clients. Kara intends to be the centrepiece of these communications, supporting the connections between the individuals providing the service and the systems that fund it.
No one becomes a therapist to do paperwork. Speech therapists want to help people speak. Psychologists want to help people with mental health challenges. That’s all there is to it when you strip the practices of all their superfluous administrative baggage and look at their essence and goal: the will to help others.
Many therapists run their own, single employee business. With their income completely dependent on hours sold, there’s often little time left for the many tedious tasks that go into running a business such as looking over the financials, booking and scheduling clients and other managerial work. With Kara, the internet becomes the therapist’s virtual office: a secure space in which they can comfortably provide service.
This space includes built-in electronic financials and automated invoicing in order to simplify the financial side of the business. There’s also a web assistant keeping record of when the next session is due, be it in the physical or virtual space. Most importantly, Kara provides a central space through which clients can locate and contact therapists, opening up an enormous range of potential clientele. In short, the physical and financial prerequisites to being an independent therapist have become virtual, electronic, automated and simple.
Hundreds of therapists currently use Kara in their day to day operations, logging thousands of hours of sessions since the platform’s birth, both online and offline. The therapists include psychologists, nutritionists, vocational coaches and more — even physiotherapists! So far, most users are Icelandic but the program has also been picked up by Denmark’s Odense municipality as well as a high school in Sweden which aims to put their student health team into the future of health. To fulfill the original vision behind Kara of helping anyone — anywhere, it needs to grow bigger than the small island nation of Iceland, and reaching Scandinavia is only the beginning.
No more missed opportunities
People often marvel at how quickly Kara found success and yet, I feel like our progress needs to be so much faster. Every day, my husband reminds me to be patient but in my mind, even a single year in the life of a client who’s not getting the help they need is too valuable to waste. A year without help contains so many missed opportunities for a better life, why wait when access to support could be so simple?
The dissolution of physical spaces and distances will allow specialists to choose a more independent mode of employment, abandoning the institutional and bureaucratic façade of current practices in lieu of a more automised, gig-based economy. Services such as Kara are the torchbearers of this aforementioned future, optimising secure telecommunications services in anticipation of the needs of the market. Disruptive, yet familiar — transformative and anticipatory. Connected.
Disruption appears to us in various modes and intensities. Uber’s disruption of the taxi industry came as a loud and surprising turn of events to the economy as a whole — almost nobody saw them coming. Kara’s disruption, however, is a quiet affair; logical to the point of being necessary and yet quite unobtrusive.
It just makes so much sense. Why cling to the obsolete when an objectively better method awaits?