Sometime around Thanksgiving 2017, Travis Turner opened up a blank document and entitled it HelpSeeker: Business Plan.
It began with three words: Medicine Hat, Calgary, Apps.
Dynamic husband-and-wife team Alina and Travis Turner have never been a couple to sit on an idea for long. Fifteen years ago, fresh out of her master’s degree, Alina was a part of transforming the way Calgary’s homeless-serving sector served Calgary’s most vulnerable by catalyzing collaboration between homeless-serving agencies through Calgary’s Plan to End Homelessness. Since then, she’s earned her Ph. D and launched a consulting outfit focusing on providing expertise in poverty, homelessness, domestic violence and food insecurity across Canada. Travis has spent the greater portion of his life working with at-risk youth and revolutionizing the space between technology and education in Calgary’s school system.
She provides the vision and strategic direction for HelpSeeker, while he’s the boots on the ground. It’s an irresistible combination.
“As a couple in this work, we’ve worked together to build a household and a life, so we know each other’s strengths and weaknesses.” explained Alina.
Wildly successful in Medicine Hat, HelpSeeker is a brand new player in Calgary. With a compelling combination of design and function, it’s a web platform, and soon to be mobile app, that exists to connect people with resources in an instant. Social service agencies and programs can sign-up for free in order to be featured on the location map, which anonymous users can then use to search for the right resources and assistance the instant they need them.
The vetting process to be highlighted on the map is simple: organizations merely need to provide help to those in need.
HelpSeeker is dynamic and updates in real-time. That means that agencies and programs can notify users of anything that is of immediate importance, such as a shelter notifying people when they’re at capacity, or updating the number of spaces or beds available.
The possibilities are endless when it comes to collecting data that can make the system more efficient: “We are committed to keeping end-user data completely anonymous, but we do collect program data. We can see how often a program is searched for and selected” explains Alina. “We’re doing system mapping on the fly – data comes in, already categorized.”
Mappable data is worth its weight in gold in terms of what it can contribute to the identification of local needs and their corresponding responses. A platform that compiles real-time data means that HelpSeeker can track the number of clicks and searches for a particular agency, program or service. This matters because it enables service providers and planners to see where the system is wearing thin, how often programs are at capacity, or shifts in the number of concerns that people demonstrate through their searches.
Working in the sector for over 20 years, the Turners are familiar with system navigation problems – an issue that isn’t new in the social services sector. “There tends to be only a handful of people who know the entire system,” says Travis. “What good are stellar programs when no one knows where to find them?”
Thus, around the dinner table in Fall 2017, the couple chatted about the possibility of using technology as an answer to the decades-old social systems problem. “On Thanksgiving she says to me, ‘you know, we should make an app for that’ and I go: ‘yeah, that sounds cool, let’s do it’” reflects Travis.
They invested their own capital and cleared out a space in the garage while Travis prepared his resignation.
“Hopefully we will recover what we’ve put into it. We’re simply passionate about this and we’ll figure it out along the way. You need someone dedicated to it – this is more than a side gig; it’s a full-time job.” says Travis.
“We know this sector; and even though we’ve started a social enterprise, we think like non-profits and believe that we can contribute something that will make the system work better” replies Alina.
At the micro-level, it’s a targeted, accessible answer to any number of calls for help. At the macrolevel, it’s about understanding agency roles within the service sector to create a system that ultimately connects people with the right resources, when needed. At its root, HelpSeeker is bridging the gap between technology and deep, authentic human connection.
HelpSeeker released its Android and iOS app in early May, 2018. The HelpSeeker website is fully functional for users looking for support and is absolutely free for agencies to sign up. For more information go to: www.helpseeker.org