Using computer power to do more than find a good Thai restaurant

Alina Turner, co-founder of HelpSeeker app

ALINA TURNER IS NOT JUST A COMPUTER NERD. She’s a computer nerd who cares about people every bit as much as she cares about the power of algorithms. It’s a combination that lead her to create HelpSeeker, an app to help Canadians succeed in their search for the help they need.

Turner says she did it because she saw a huge failing in how we use high tech to help each other: “With all the technology at our fingertips, I could find the best Thai restaurant within 500 metres of me but, when it came to mental health and domestic violence support, I wouldn’t have a clue where to go.”

300,000 possible connections

HelpSeeker is a platform that connects Canadians in need of social support to over 300,000 services, including housing.

If someone is at risk of being left homeless, the HelpSeeker app can help them find local supportive housing. If someone is the victim of domestic violence, the app can help them connect to essential social services and supports right where they live, all by using their phone—which is no small thing when knowing who to contact for help or even where to begin to look for it can seem insurmountable.

Alina co-founded HelpSeeker with her husband, Travis. The couple has an extremely personal connection to the work they do. They met when Alina was just 16, a recent refugee from Romania and soon homeless. Travis was by her side to help her navigate through the complicated maze of social service help systems.

Personal experience

“Somebody like myself, having come through the refugee system and the homeless serving system and the child intervention system, you understand how interconnected they all are,” says Turner. “And you understand that just knocking on one door and solving this part is not necessarily gonna have the ripple effect of unlocking the rest of it.

Alina went on to have a career in the system she once had to navigate herself, which offered her a unique and solutions-oriented perspective to creating the HelpSeeker app.

“Having worked in it, you also know that just talking about it is not gonna change anything,” says Turner. “You need to have tangible solutions that are gonna make life better today, but that also stack into that systems change longer term.

“So the solutions have to work at different planes simultaneously. You have to apply a bit of a system acupuncture, if you wanna use that analogy. So what parts can you hit simultaneously to unlock some of these fragmented approaches to become more person centered, more equitable and more coordinated earlier

Turner’s aim is to use deep and broad data mining to help policymaking and funding decisions become more preventative, as well as person-centered.

One size can’t fit all

“If we can actually curate these data sets in a way that we can get ahead of it, then we can make some much more nuanced recommendations to policymakers and funders, to not just apply this carte blanche where everybody gets the same amount of money, because not every community has the same level of challenges.”

Turner said that part of the problem is not so much that the resources aren’t there, but a failure to coordinate and match available resources to the people who need them.

Turner scours the Internet for data to “put through the wringer.”

She gathers data from official government agencies like Statistics Canada and Canada Mortgage and Housing, from other online help seeking sites, from Google and Kijiji and even the Toronto Stock Exchange and real estate markets.

“So you put all of that together and then you put it through this machine learning, and you keep shaking until you get those indicators that are most useful in predicting that particular target you have in mind. So, we find out a lot about a lot of what we didn’t know.”

“You need to have lots and lots of bets for innovations to actually really solve the problem,” says Turner. “And that’s something I didn’t know until, you know, I had this interesting merger between tech and social.”

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