Bob's your uncle and Bertha's your aunt
November 26, 2014 8:00 AM   Subscribe

Aunt Bertha is a web-based platform that connects Americans in need to locally available government programs, non-profit organizations, and community-based resources that offer free or low-cost assistance with health and dental care, job placement, emergency and long-term shelter, clothing and household goods, child and elder care, legal aid, assistance with navigating the social safety net, and much more. All programs are searchable and sortable by ZIP code, city, or eligibility. Find food, health, housing, job training programs and more, anywhere.

Bonus reading material:
  • Healthdata.gov: How Aunt Bertha Inc. Uses Public Data to Connect People and Programs
  • TED Blog: Need help? Aunt Bertha helps people in need find social services in their area
  • From the Aunt Bertha blog: Why I Started Aunt Bertha (Part I) and Progress is Personal: Aunt Bertha's Roots (Part II)
  • SMC-Connect, a platform similar to Aunt Bertha but specific to San Mateo County, California, built with Ohana API
  • FastCoLabs: What I Learned From Building An App For Low-Income Americans

    Do you know about a social services program or community resource that isn't listed with Aunt Bertha? Submit suggestions for programs to add here.
  • posted by divined by radio (28 comments total) 79 users marked this as a favorite
     
    Speaking as someone who has been living on the edge of homelessness and hunger for months now, there isn't a lot in my area listed here that I haven't come across before but it's definitely nice to have a user-friendly guide where it's all in one place.
    posted by item at 8:11 AM on November 26, 2014 [2 favorites]


    Thank you for this. I've been looking for somewhere to contribute several large boxes of clothing and shoes. I prefer to give as directly as possible to the people that will use them as opposed to a charity that will sell the items and use revenue for their charitable causes.
    It's harder to do than one would think. I've found a few good shelters and organizations, but this list makes it much easier to allocate based on need.
    posted by newpotato at 8:39 AM on November 26, 2014 [1 favorite]


    if anyone cares, Aunt Bertha appears to be a for-profit corporation, albeit a "B Corporation"... if that makes you feel better. if "using the power of business to solve social and environmental problems" seems like snake oil to you then...
    posted by ennui.bz at 8:58 AM on November 26, 2014


    First two things I looked for locally were not at all local, perhaps the "curation" needs more venture capital?
    posted by sammyo at 8:59 AM on November 26, 2014 [2 favorites]


    There is so much kvetching (including on this very weblog) about how techies only write apps that help themselves, I think it's refreshing to see something targeted at a different community. Even if they want to get paid for it.
    posted by sparklemotion at 9:12 AM on November 26, 2014 [2 favorites]


    Looking at it, it's not clear to me how they are monetizing this -- do they charge users or agencies?

    And as others have noted, a local search turned up mostly things from literally across the country, so I think there is some more work needed. I wonder if agencies are saying that they operate nationally even when they do not, or if their search is just broken.
    posted by Dip Flash at 9:30 AM on November 26, 2014 [1 favorite]


    Yeah, they don't have the local knowledge for my zip code -- not even the information that Google Maps turns up. I like the idea and I hope they get some more humans involved.
    posted by The corpse in the library at 9:42 AM on November 26, 2014


    It's a great idea but I'm torn between waiting to see if it gets better/if we find out it's somehow sketchy and sending them information about all the local programs I've heard about. My guess is that right now the system is mostly populated with groups that have a web presence. Most of the local searches for me weren't great, but the one search that did turn up the most location specific stuff for me was Mental Health- which makes sense, doctors offices are going to have websites. The neighborhood food pantry or the church clothing closet don't show up- but people mostly find them through word of mouth.
    posted by Secretariat at 9:44 AM on November 26, 2014 [1 favorite]


    They list the nearest emergency housing place as 350 miles from me. Hmmm.
    posted by rtha at 9:50 AM on November 26, 2014 [1 favorite]


    > I wonder if agencies are saying that they operate nationally even when they do not

    It isn't just that -- it's not showing up places that do exist. It's suggesting a preschool 3,000 miles away but doesn't list the preschools that are actually here, not even the ones that are run by the school district. Under "transportation" it lists national flights for cancer patients, but not the local bus system for people with disabilities.

    It feels like a link farm, as it is, or a rough draft. Again, I think it's a great idea and I hope it takes off -- but it's not ready yet.
    posted by The corpse in the library at 9:52 AM on November 26, 2014 [4 favorites]


    Still, it seems a lot less evil than Uber.
    posted by oneswellfoop at 11:04 AM on November 26, 2014


    I think the local United Way lists of service providers (ex. Dallas) would be a better place to start grabbing data from in order to create such a comprehensive list. Why reinvent the wheel when a national non-profit organization has already local branches with local connections?

    Here in Hawaii, some of the faculty in my program have helped to create the Youth Services Directory that provides a more targeted (both in terms of demographics and geography) function.

    I wish I could remember the name of the project, but I could swear that Mission Asset Fund (SF) was involved in an online database tool (maybe not public-facing and only for use with a social services worker) that would pull up all the services (EBT, assisted housing, child welfare support services, etc etc) that you were eligible for once you gave your basic household/income info. It was created to cut down on the running around you typically have to do -- sign up for EBT here, go there to apply for that other program, sit in the waiting room for an hour there, etc etc -- and allow you both know about and then apply for relevant programs. Gah. I have to get on a plane otherwise I'd put more time into looking through my archives/on the internet.
    posted by spamandkimchi at 11:05 AM on November 26, 2014 [1 favorite]


    > Still, it seems a lot less evil than Uber

    That's a pretty low bar. Or high bar, if we're limboing.
    posted by The corpse in the library at 11:27 AM on November 26, 2014


    I don't want to be too negative, as this is always an area that needs improvement, but at least in Wisconsin United Way agencies have cooperated to create a (mostly?) statewide 2-1-1 service for this sort of information. (And apparently as of 2012 over 90% of US landline users have access to a 2-1-1 call center.)

    As to state-administered benefits we also have (despite Scott Walker) a comprehensive online signup site so you don't have to check with myriad agencies about what you might be eligible for.
    posted by dhartung at 11:31 AM on November 26, 2014 [2 favorites]


    Thank you.
    posted by you must supply a verb at 1:37 PM on November 26, 2014


    How is this an improvement over the state 211 programs, as accessed by dialing 211 on your phone or via 211search.org?
    posted by Jacqueline at 2:56 PM on November 26, 2014


    I don't want to be an Eeyore, but I actually just spent all day in the office working on the precise issue this site attempts to solve, so I have been thinking about this sort of thing a lot.

    The information seems low in quality. For the geographic area I'm familiar with, the one "emergency shelter" listed is a foreign aid NGO headquartered across the country. The majority of "transportation" services listed are different Medicaid programs, with no indication as to how you might use those to access transportation; nothing related to our mass transit system or paratransit service is there. Across all categories, more advocacy non-profits are listed than agencies that actually provide direct service. I haven't seen any listing that offers more useful information than a phone number, an email address, and a copy/pasted summary.

    I know dumping on well-intentioned projects is widely considered not to be a good look, but I don't see how this site can be distinguished from a vaguely human services-themed content farm. A shoddy project can cause more harm than good. A person experiencing homelessness who calls a local "emergency shelter" that turns out to be a typhoon relief NGO in another state has wasted time, money, and energy. This kind of half-baked product is irresponsible, IMO. Sometimes, perfect is the enemy of the good. Other times, though, if you can't do a decent job don't release it to the public. It would be understandable if the site had a few errors, but it's mostly a heap of trawled spam with a few accidentally appropriate entries. The fact that it's a for-profit enterprise, b-corp or no, kinda pushes this from naïveté into gall, for me.

    I don't mean to be overly harsh, and I value the sentiment behind posting this, but as for the creators of the tool-- they clearly thought the concept behind the site was novel enough that the execution was immaterial. Well, the reason it hasn't been done successfully yet isn't because nobody's thought of it but because it's difficult to do right, and more responsible actors have declined to put out something that's not ready for primetime in a way that can harm the populations it's claiming to serve.
    posted by threeants at 4:25 PM on November 26, 2014 [8 favorites]


    I mean, let's take someone searching for emergency shelter in Providence, RI. A Google search for providence emergency shelter offers an entire page of, well, emergency shelters in Providence. Aunt Bertha offers...an NGO in Florida. We're literally looking at value-subtracted here.
    posted by threeants at 4:55 PM on November 26, 2014 [1 favorite]


    And yes, thank you for asking, I do find it exceedingly shady that a for-profit website whose monetization strategy is completely opaque lists the same dodgy-looking foreign aid org as a "Homeless Ministry" under the Emergency Shelter category for every single zip code in the US.
    posted by threeants at 4:59 PM on November 26, 2014 [1 favorite]


    As an exercise in contrast: the SMC-Connect resource in the OP is elegant, intuitive, comprehensive while also showing discretion, and while I don't know a thing about San Mateo County, no entries jump out at me as blatantly bizarre, as do the majority on Aunt Bertha. It appears to have been curated, as well as populated by humans rather than scraper bots. It was developed in partnership with the San Mateo County Human Services Agency, rather than...more coders. This is how you do it right when distributing critical information to vulnerable people. You work up to the boundary of the scope that you're able to do justice to, and that's exactly where you stop.

    Sorry if this horse is thoroughly dead and beaten, but the carelessness and, well, hubris of the Aunt Bertha project really anger me. It bothers me to think that people in precarious situations might be understandably roped in to wasting finite emotional bandwidth on a tool that does a worse job at what it's supposed to do than Google Search does. ...however, I'm an eternal optimist and am pleased to see that 60 residents and counting of San Mateo County have favorited this post after being exposed to the excellent SMC-Connect resource!
    posted by threeants at 5:39 PM on November 26, 2014 [4 favorites]


    And yes, thank you for asking, I do find it exceedingly shady that a for-profit website whose monetization strategy is completely opaque lists the same dodgy-looking foreign aid org as a "Homeless Ministry" under the Emergency Shelter category for every single zip code in the US.

    Nice pickup! That came up for me when I searched for both free meals and emergency shelter; other search returns were for organizations in Las Vegas, and Atlanta, and other places that are not at all close to San Francisco.

    I poked around in their blog and their history and they've been around for four years, which isn't forever but isn't nothing, either. The most recent entry on their blog is about how programs end up on their site.... and it doesn't make any sense, given the actual sites that showed up in my search. There are programs that fit their criteria much closer to my ZIP code than Los Angeles, and which also show up via a google search. I don't know what they're doing there at Aunt Bertha, but they don't seem to be doing it very well.
    posted by rtha at 6:09 PM on November 26, 2014 [1 favorite]


    If you google Erine Gray, the creator, you'll turn up a whole bevy of feel-good reporting from the Tedosphere, almost exclusively focusing on his story (he's a consultant...a nice consultant who likes to help people!) and his vaguely anti-government, pro-"innovation" spiel (access to services involves too much red tape...somehow my site full of junk content solves that!).

    Funny how, when it comes to their own projects, the same technocratic neoliberals who ceaselessly beat the drum of data! results! evidence! standards! expect the populace to accept warm-and-fuzzies in lieu of demonstrated success. Where are Aunt Bertha's metrics? Gray takes semi-veiled aim at government inefficiency in any number of puff pieces around the web, but no publically-funded human services project this shoddy and counterproductive would ever promote itself so recklessly and brazenly as Aunt Bertha does.
    posted by threeants at 6:34 PM on November 26, 2014 [5 favorites]


    Here's a page explaining how they make money. It's linked under 'For Organizations' on the front page of their website.

    I took some of the concerns of the thread to the contact form on the Aunt Bertha website earlier today, and the founder sent me a personal reply within a couple of hours. He might pop up here later on, but I wanted to post his comments ITT (with his permission) because I think they're helpful:
    • If listings show up - even if they are a long ways away - they are there because they *will* serve you if you reach out to them. So there will definitely be some housing programs that will serve folks who need to travel to Houston for cancer treatment (for example). This is based on a concept called coverage.
    • Yes, we are a B Corporation - trying to build something in a sustainable way. We never charge users and some organizations such as cities and community foundations pay for an advanced version of our search (for example they can put their logo on it). I don't think companies with a sustainable model is a bad thing - it has much more likelihood to succeed.
    • We are very quickly building out the whole country, with deep coverage in Texas, Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, Richmond Virginia, Pennsylvania, New York City and Central Florida. We also have very deep domain programs for cancer survivors for the entire country;
    • Sometimes we do special projects, like our Thanksgiving 2014 page (https://www.auntbertha.com/thanksgiving2014) where we indexed as many free Thanksgiving programs we can find in the US;
    • We're a small, committed team in Austin - we're not Venture Capital funded - and we're trying to do a good job building out a free, comprehensive and easy-to-use search on web and mobile, so we welcome *any* help and feedback.
    Here's their contact form -- if you have questions or concerns with the work they're trying to do, please consider dropping them a line.

    however, I'm an eternal optimist and am pleased to see that 60 residents and counting of San Mateo County have favorited this post after being exposed to the excellent SMC-Connect resource!

    Bless your heart, and happy Thanksgiving.
    posted by divined by radio at 7:14 PM on November 26, 2014


    Very little of that information changes my assessment of the site. I do stand corrected in that their business model is now a bit more clear to me.

    I'm sorry that my criticism of Aunt Bertha upset you, divined by radio. In a similar way, the Aunt Bertha site bothers me; but I certainly don't hold it against you. So I apologize that for whatever reason this seems personal to you, because it isn't.

    And yes, of course if Erine Gray shows up personally in this thread I will find it difficult to continue to harshly, honestly criticize his project-- because I'm a nice person! I don't like fighting with people! And I may have gone overboard in casting aspersions on the project's motives. But none of this changes anything about the project itself. Being affable and responsive to web inquiries is not proof of a high-quality resource that helps people. Having a "small, committed team" is not proof of a high-quality resource people. Being a good person or having a good heart, even, are not proof of a high-quality resource that helps people. The resource we are looking at appears, to me, extremely shoddy, lacking in substance, and most dangerously, takes up oxygen when people could get better information almost anywhere else. Clearly you disagree.

    The index of Thanksgiving dinners looks useful and content-rich.
    posted by threeants at 7:41 PM on November 26, 2014 [1 favorite]


    If listings show up - even if they are a long ways away - they are there because they *will* serve you if you reach out to them

    I don't see how Charity International provides emergency housing in my Seattle suburb, but they're listed as providing services there (their name is so generic it's difficult to look them up, so maybe I'm wrong). Blessings in a Backpack is listed as providing food, but they don't give out food to individuals and if I were hungry I'd be better served by a link to our local food bank -- which isn't listed on the site.

    > The index of Thanksgiving dinners looks useful and content-rich

    According to it there's only one free dinner being served in Seattle today. So, again, a nice intention, but not great results.
    posted by The corpse in the library at 1:59 PM on November 27, 2014 [1 favorite]


    First, I wanted to say that I really appreciate the original post, as well as all the comments. I'm the founder of Aunt Bertha, and welcome any and all feedback - positive and negative. It's the only way we'll continually improve.

    I suppose my biggest takeaway from this thread is that we should be a little more clear about where we have a deep coverage of programs. We started in Austin, TX and have a deep directory of programs in Texas, Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada, Arizona, Central Florida, Parts of Virginia, Georgia, Pennsylvania, and New York City. We're rapidly rolling out new states every month. So if you're seeing a thin amount of listings in your areas, I can understand these insights.

    We were torn - honestly - how the best way to roll out the directory. On one hand, there are several useful programs that serve every zip code in the country. So for very rural areas, it would be nice to know that if you did a search for "Prozac", you would find Eli Lilly's program that will give you prescription drugs if you can't afford it. On the other hand, nobody wants more than me to provide something useful and content-rich to rural America. We made the decision to allow search to be available while we continue to rapidly add programs.

    The corpse in the library, you made a very valid point. Sometimes programs that have a nationwide coverage (like the Homeless Ministry Program by Charity International) slip through. I've just disabled it as it clearly needs more investigation. It is true that some organizations claim they will serve people from other areas - so we try and confirm as best we can. And sometimes we get it wrong. People discover things that change all the time, and it's pretty simple to report a change and let us know and we update them asap.

    As you can imagine, it's a large moving target and a good directory is better than a perfect directory (and we're far from perfect). We have a good directory in lots of areas and are aiming at having a good directory in more and more areas over time.

    Anyway, again, thank you all for the welcome feedback. And feel free to reach out at anytime directly (egray at auntbertha.com).
    posted by erineg1 at 9:36 PM on November 27, 2014


    "Deep" PA coverage doesn't include any actual Community Gardens in that category for Philly. (We have a LOT, some of which do quite robust community outreach for vulnerable populations.)

    Also, I find it odd that Planned Parenthood is not listed as a healthcare provider?

    As mentioned in other comments, there are odd non-local choices sprinkled throughout some categories, and more curation needed for accuracy.
    posted by desuetude at 5:03 PM on November 28, 2014 [4 favorites]


    "Deep" PA coverage doesn't include any actual Community Gardens in that category for Philly. (We have a LOT, some of which do quite robust community outreach for vulnerable populations.)

    Duly noted. We'll work on that. That said, if there's one you know and like it's easy to suggest a program. People do it all the time.

    Also, I find it odd that Planned Parenthood is not listed as a healthcare provider?

    It's listed in other cities, for example New York City. And it meets our guidelines. I just used the suggest a program to make sure it gets into our queue for Philadelphia.

    As mentioned in other comments, there are odd non-local choices sprinkled throughout some categories

    Some programs will serve everybody in the US like virtual cancer support groups for people with a diagnosis that is rare so they are still useful for searchers. Or, in some cases, there are state programs that are administered in the capital for the whole state (and the person seeking services calls a call center). If there's one you don't think should be listed, just click the 'report a change button' on the listing. It definitely happens, and is and will always be a moving target, and we appreciate folks letting us know. That said, we should put a note on those listings that reassures this - this thread is cementing a great point for programs administered at the state and national level.

    and more curation needed for accuracy

    Words to live by. :) [and what keeps us working on a holiday weekend]
    posted by erineg1 at 8:38 AM on November 29, 2014


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