Bridging the Opportunity Divide

The Game-Changing Way to Access Social Services

November 23, 2015
by
Menu
The Game-Changing Way to Access Social Services
Erine Gray, founder and CEO of Aunt Bertha. Photo by Shadi Dunkin @ AKS Photography
Finding help when you need it shouldn't be difficult. This digital tool puts assistance at your fingertips.

If you’re looking for a restaurant recommendation, you log onto Yelp. Need a ride? Request an Uber or Lyft. Want the highest-rated doctor in your health insurance network? Try Zocdoc.

It’s undeniable that technology has changed the way we identify and select services. But which app connects you with legal aid to fight an eviction notice, helps you locate someone to assist signing up your kid for preschool, or directs you to a food pantry that’s open late?

Founded in 2010 in Austin, Texas, the startup Aunt Bertha is an online database of human services, connecting governments, charities and churches with the 75 million Americans in all 50 states who need their services, says founder Erine Gray. Thus far, his company has helped more than 177,000 people.

“In the United States, we spend a lot of money attempting to fix social problems — poverty, housing, food, health and job training — the effectiveness of which can be argued. When you look at the 1.4 million nonprofits in the U.S., how do you know which ones are good and which ones are not?” asks Gray. “Most people are not professional social workers. For somebody in need, it’s very difficult to find out what’s available to you.”

The software company’s name refers to no one’s relative in particular — the domain name for Aunt Sue was taken, and Aunt Bertha sounded like an eccentric, matronly figure in contrast to Uncle Sam — but the idea for the company did come from Gray’s personal struggles. After his mother suffered from a stroke, he encountered difficulties locating adequate assistance (she had lost brain functionality and required around-the-clock care). Even though she qualified for help, Gray’s mother was rejected by more than 20 nursing homes, often with a baffling, one-sentence letter that said, “We are not able to meet your mother’s needs” and no other explanation.

“There are nonprofits that offer home healthcare visits if you have income that’s low enough, but I didn’t know about those services when I was navigating my mom’s care. People come up to me after talks and say, ‘My son had autism and I didn’t have anybody to talk to about it until I found a support group,’ or ‘I lost my job and didn’t know about worker re-entry programs,’” Gray says. “As a caretaker for someone who was disabled, in my experience, nobody is trained for when life throws you a curveball.”

That trying experience led Gray to ditch his career as a software developer (he says he wasn’t a very good programmer anyway), go back to school for a master’s degree and eventually take a lead role at the Texas Health and Human Services Commission. Making software and operational fixes, he streamlined the application process for services, saving the agency $5 million annually. Soon after, he took those lessons and founded his own company.

Through a partnership with the Robin Hood Foundation and Single Stop USA, kiosks have been placed in New York Public Libraries to allow citizens to easily find social services in their neighborhood.Courtesy of Aunt Bertha

With Aunt Bertha, a person in Gray’s situation should have an easier time determining if their dependent is eligible for a given program. Searches can be narrowed based on multiple categories, such as age group, citizen or immigrant, housed or homeless and how urgent the problem is.

“What we wanted was a simple way for a seeker — the term we use for a person in need or their relative or champion — to essentially raise their hand and let an agency know electronically they need help,” Gray, a GLG fellow, explains. “Part of the vision is being able to find and apply for services in seconds.”

Eventually, as more users enroll in programs, Aunt Bertha will be able to track whether the charity met the person’s needs. As soon as a seeker submits an application for rental assistance or hearing aids, say, through the online portal, the service will clock the nonprofit’s response time and follow up with a satisfaction survey, creating a granular picture that’s more detailed than what can be found on GuideStar or Charity Navigator. The assessment will direct users to sign up for more effective programs.

On a grand scale, the program is already helping governments and nonprofits (like the Robin Hood Foundation) assess needs and measure the results of their funding. “We can tell you what people are searching for, what they’re finding and also what they’re not,” says Gray. For instance, if the number of searches for soup kitchens in Lubbock, Texas, suddenly spikes, it could encourage city lawmakers to look at large-scale solutions.

“If we’re successful, the entire nation will be able to visualize, in real time, where the pain is in the United States and see the suffering in the underbelly that doesn’t really show. Policymakers and data scientists will be able to see hotspots far earlier than any set of economic forecasts,” Gray says. “To be able to unlock that data and get it in the right hands, would be an amazing experience. We’d be able, in real time, to alleviate that suffering.”

Comments