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Big Ideas: “A national dataset on social and health needs at your fingertips” with Dr. Alina Turner

As a part of my series about “Big Ideas that Might Change the World in the Next Few Years,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Alina Turner. She serves on the Expert Network for the World Economic Forum on the Future of Cities and Mental Health. She is the co-founder and CEO of HelpSeeker.org — a […]

As a part of my series about “Big Ideas that Might Change the World in the Next Few Years,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Alina Turner. She serves on the Expert Network for the World Economic Forum on the Future of Cities and Mental Health. She is the co-founder and CEO of HelpSeeker.org — a social enterprise that connects people in need to support services and generates real-time analytics for policymakers on social/health trends. She is also a Fellow at the School of Public Policy in Calgary, and Principal of Turner Strategies — a consulting firm specializing in systems planning and integration for human services.


Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I was born and raised in Romania during communism, and immigrated to Canada via Germany after 1989; this personal history, entwined with mass upheaval, set me on my current course for sure. I learned very early on that social forces are malleable: what seems to be pre-determined and certain can be dismantled overnight, for better or worse. I studied Cultural Anthropology with a focus on social movements as a grad student in Canada and moved into the NGO sector afterward. I bounced between academia and policy advocacy work after that, and I became increasingly disillusioned with the charity model which is foundational to much of our efforts to address homelessness, poverty, and health disparities. This eventually brought me into a cross-section of tech innovation combo with social science research and practical systems transformation work across diverse regions: I run a consulting firm (Turner Strategies) and a SaaS B-Corp (HelpSeeker), and hold an academic appointment as Fellow at the School of Public Policy at the University of Calgary.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
That would be the 1989 Revolution and watching the execution of Nicolae Ceausescu as a kid: one day we sang to the man hymns in school, and the next we cheer the gunshots. This showed me early on that social systems are a construct — the same way you build them up, you can dismantle them — for good or evil. That set me up for a career studying cultures and social movements.

The other side of my history that influenced my career comes from having lived in poverty for my entire childhood, and when I came to Canada as a refugee, experiencing some of the same challenges newcomers are still struggling with today. I am particularly puzzled still looking at my path and my little brother’s who have struggled with mental health, addictions, and crime involvement from early on — he never formally finished grade 7 as a result. Looking at me and my life, and looking at him, I can’t help but try to discern what set our paths apart to such an extent coming from the same family and background. And I can’t help but want better for him and better by him. So what are the pieces that I can control or influence to raise that bar?

Can you tell us about your “Big Idea that Might Change the World”?

The ‘big idea’ I am most excited about right now involves leveraging the data we are harvesting through HelpSeeker — which curates information on social and health services across jurisdictions, and on how those seeking are interacting with these in real-time. For the first time in Canada, we will have a national dataset on social and health needs and assets at our fingertips. The power of this is immense: we are already merging datasets to run new regressions and find connections between the types of services in a community, how people access these in real-time, and other macro-indicators: for instance, we have developed a predictive model for suicide rates and homelessness. We plan on pushing this analysis further by analyzing the sources of funding for health and social services, their distribution per capita, and the impact on population health.

Beyond the implications of this work for public policy and the way we invest in NGOs and government series, the platform is churning the data into analytics to support better decision making for funders, philanthropists, and service providers. We are also making the dataset available for free to anyone needing help online and via native apps; this democratizes and demystifies the helping sector in a way that consumers can better navigate. Using the user-behavior data, we are now able to develop our AI component to develop better and better help resource suggestions for help seekers, wading through more than 100,000 listings in Canada alone for the best fit for client needs. The ability of clients to leave service input will further create a feedback loop and continuous improvement for services, bringing standard practice in the service sector to the fingertips of vulnerable populations.

How do you think this will change the world?
Ultimately, the platform will connect anyone looking for help with the right resources instantly, and develop a more effective and efficient way for decision-makers to invest smarter in solutions that work.

Keeping “Black Mirror” and the “Law of Unintended Consequences” in mind, can you see any potential drawbacks about this idea that people should think more deeply about?

Coming from a totalitarian regime, I am so conscious of the deliberate and unintended impacts of population monitoring and control strategies. We don’t have to look far to consider how the loss of privacy amongst vulnerable populations can have catastrophic and anti-democratic effects on all of us. On the one hand, I get why some tech innovators are attracted to jurisdictions where privacy laws and norms are more conducive to experimentations; on the other hand, technology is a means, not an end. For me, HelpSeeker needs to perform the function with the least amount of risk to those seeking assistance: this means we purposely do not track client characteristics — rather, behaviors and interactions in the platform. We get asked all the time why we don’t ask for user accounts and track income, ethnicity — and as a researcher, I can imagine what I could do with that data. Yet, if the point is to connect people to help, do I need to know this information? What’s the least I can do with and still deliver the value proposition? I think the magic will be found in the balance of these ethical challenges, and as long as we are asking the hard questions, we are better off long term.

Was there a “tipping point” that led you to this idea? Can you tell us that story?
The tipping point for me on this idea came when I realized that as much as I would advocate for HelpSeeker with decision makers or private sector developers, there was no incentive for them to take it on. Yet, the single most common concern I kept hearing through my research with people living in poverty or homelessness was that they were connected to the internet, but they simultaneously didn’t know how to navigate the maze of services available to get what they needed. The challenge is that for private sector developers, there is no money in helping poor people — and for funders, they didn’t see why understanding client needs in real time and mapping the services would be of value: these were new concepts. In a way, I had to create the language around the need along with the solution. From there, things began to cascade for the platform’s uptake where we can sustain national scaling through data agreements.

What do you need to lead this idea to widespread adoption?
Another year.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
 
1. The most important part of a social enterprise is the enterprise part. While some of us in the NGO sector come with idealism to spare, you can’t build a sustainable innovation with grants from government or donors. I purposely said if this is going to work, it’s because it adds value that can be monetized, rather than donated to.

2. Sometimes we don’t want the feedback. While for some industries the customer is king, I realized soon after launching HelpSeeker that this was not necessarily the case for NGOs and governments services. In fact, our approach to allow for client feedback per program was met with resistance by some organizations who said their clients couldn’t “handle” giving meaningful input, or that the feedback would cause them to lose funding. It was surprising to have this bubble burst for me; though we kept on with the feedback component nonetheless.

3. The service system is the Matrix. I knew in principle that NGO and government services were hard to navigate, but I was shocked at how overwhelming they were. It took us over a year of data mining, curating, and cleaning to make sense of about 100,000 services in Canada alone for a population of 35 million — each with their target groups, eligibility criteria, program models, and referral processes. No wonder people can’t find the help they need.

4. We are spending a lot; are we spending enough on the right stuff? This is a question I still don’t have an answer to. We have been able to generate financial analysis on service spending to understand better what the sources of revenues are and where it’s going. We estimate that about $27 billion per year goes into homelessness related services — is this enough? Clearly not; but is this because the funding in the rest of the social safety net is not preventing people from becoming homeless in the first place? What are other ways of thinking about service delivery? In one city, they were spending $150K/per person for homelessness services — they could buy homes, and each gets a personal staff, and we could still be better off. Clearly, we need to take a deeper look at how we came to the current model and if a better way is possible — Universal Basic Income might be something worth exploring in this conversation further.

5. Human services have more work to do to prepare for technology changes. I am doing a lot thinking right now about the readiness of the sector in light of advancements in machine learning and automation, and while I am optimistic we will figure it out, I think the human services will be among the last to consider how to prepare for these changes. There is a sense that we are immune because we deal with humans, yet I am witnessing considerable shifts that would prove that we too will see mass transformations ahead we may not be willing to ponder … yet.

The future of work is a common theme. What can one do to “future proof” their career?

I was fortunate to benefit from a liberal arts education — the kind everyone (especially your parents) thought would never lead to a ‘real’ job. But it was this background that allowed be bounce across disciplines that has served me well — I learned how to learn, which means I can learn anything. I think we live in a time where the rebirth of the “Renaissance” man/woman/+ is afoot. Creativity is not limited to the arts; innovation is not limited to the tech sector, and profit is not limited to industry. Those who can take risks, hustle/grind, and bend profit/social purpose into something truly transformative will win the day.

Based on the future trends in your industry, if you had a million dollars, what would you invest in?
Ha! I would put into lobbying government to introduce and deliver Open Gov’t/Data — especially when it comes to social/health outcomes and spending. Just this would enable the social tech sector to truly emerge as an ecosystem — right now the long waits, privacy red herrings among other roadblocks are hampering innovation — at least in the jurisdictions, I work in.

Which principles or philosophies have guided your life? Your career?
Academically, I think in Bourdieu-sian terms — understanding ideology, education, culture, and taste in class terms makes sense to me — but working in social policy and tech has further reaffirmed Foucauldian ideas about social control and its subtleties.

At the same time, I am ‘conscious’ entrepreneur — I am in constant discourse with myself and my team on what exactly it means to be socially conscious and profitable. I think as long as we have the battle/tension, we are okay.

Can you share with our readers what you think are the most important “success habits” or “success mindsets”?
You’re never too successful to hustle and grind. And always fear the teenager with a laptop in a garage.

Some very well-known VCs read this column. If you had 60 seconds to make a pitch to a VC, what would you say? 
Don’t invest in HelpSeeker — keeps us lean 🙂 Wait til we’re worth buying out. 
 
How can our readers follow you on social media?
@AlinaITurner 
@HelpSeekerOrg

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