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Fixing Google Search's Social Services Gap

A service called Aunt Bertha picks up where Google search leaves off, making it easy for providers and people in need to connect in a way that the search engine just isn’t that good at.

If you’re looking for a food pantry in Houston, Google has results galore. But it may not have the result you need.

Erine Gray ran this search when he was working as a consultant for the Texas Health and Human Services Commission. "Of the 221 food pantries in Houston, only two were open on Sunday," he says. Though Gray’s job was to tweak how people apply for social services, he had stumbled into a whole new problem: how people find social services in the first place.

Gray turned back to his programming roots and created a website called Aunt Bertha. At its heart, the site is a social services search. Enter your zip code and you can filter by categories as general as "housing" and as specific as "medical supplies" to find the government agencies and charities that you need. Enter data like family size and income, and it will guide you to the government programs you’re eligible to join.

It sounds simple, but it’s the result of a labor-intensive process of data entry and quality control, making sure that nonprofits and agencies actually exist and do what they appear to. "There are a lot of nonprofit lists out there," says Gray. "They’re just really bad." So far, data has been entered all over Texas, and in Nashville and Louisville, with Richmond and Memphis rolling out soon.

Where Aunt Bertha looks more revolutionary—and where it actually makes money—is in its promises for the social service providers themselves. For those that pay to receive applications through Aunt Bertha, search results go straight to an online form that saves the basic, repeated information—80% of most forms, according to Gray—for future use.

This means less work for the applicant. Bringing up a housing program called the Children’s Home Initiative, Gray says, "If I apply to this program in January and then maybe a health insurance program in March, it’s going to remember how I answered that question." It also has the potential to provide charities with information they’ve never had about what social services people are asking for and where. "We don’t even know the value," says Gray. "But we know being able to see that data is useful to them."

They have only a handful of customers for the service so far, but then again, it was only a few months ago that Gray hired a developer to take on the technical work he had been doing, allowing him to focus on sales full time. "I’m exhausted by six o’clock because I’m talking all day," he says.

A lot will depend on the ability of Gray and his small team to scale up, but right now, he’s optimistic. "We don’t really know where we’re going, but it feels right," he says.