Through a partnership between a few national organizations, seniors in a Baltimore affordable housing community received Amazon Echo devices to foster community connections.
The goal is to reduce social isolation, and it’s also resulted in a new Alexa skill that’s designed to provide information about social assistance programs.
The effort involves a partnership between the AARP Foundation and Austin, Texas-based Aunt Bertha as part of a foundation program called Connect2Affect Connected Communities.
The program started in Baltimore, with 300 seniors who are residents with Northwest Baltimore-based Comprehensive Housing Assistance, Inc. testing the technology. The video below shows how residents at Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Place interacted with Alexa:
After a year of gathering feedback, they set out to create Alexa skills — or voice functions for use with Amazon’s system —that could specifically help the seniors.
One of those skills, which launched last week, was developed by Aunt Bertha. The nine-year-old tech company has a platform designed to provide connections to information about programs that provide food, housing, financial help, health services and more.
“Think of it as a search engine for finding social services,” said founder and CEO Erine Gray. Aunt Bertha counts 2.3 million users of its overall search, including 46,000 in Maryland. It’s used by larger organizations that license the software to provide the connection capabilities for social workers.
In developing the Alexa skill, Aunt Bertha brought voice assistance to those search capabilities. The users can now ask Alexa things like the location of the nearest social activity, or the nearest food pantry.
A particular focus was on programs that help combat social isolation. With many seniors living alone, learning about a community meetup may help provide a connection to society.
Building on the work started by AARP Foundation, Gray called the skill “an opportunity to go deeper in a more conversational tone with this population.”
In building the skill, Gray said Aunt Bertha took specific considerations, such as slowing down Alexa’s voice and accounting for words that might foretell a specific type of program, such as “hungry.”
Gray said Aunt Bertha will also continue to look at data on how the skill is used to make adjustments.
“The goal for us is to study that data to really understand what’s on the hearts and minds and the need that is happening in these communities,” he said.
The partnership shows how developers from beyond the big tech company are playing a role in developing new voice capabilities. Gray said Amazon makes the process of building a skill easy on outside developers, providing videos and all the voice-to-text tools necessary for the capabilities: “Amazon “was such a pleasure to work with because they made it really simple,” he said.
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