by Erine Gray, Founder & CEO of Aunt Bertha

In the fall of 2010, I started Aunt Bertha. Like many founders, I was Chief Cook and Bottle Washer. I was the only programmer, and the very first data entry person.

When auntbertha.com first went live, it only served the greater Austin area. Many late nights, I would sit alone in the tiny office I rented near my house and enter relevant programs I found into an Excel spreadsheet. Once I had a list that was big enough to get started, I wrote a basic Python script that could read a file once it was uploaded into a web form, and then I would run another script that put the data into our back-end database.

Erine Gray, Founder & CEO of Aunt Bertha, Photo Credit: Bella Kirchner

In the early days I added those programs myself, and since then every program added to our database was added by a real life human being.

More than eight years later, our company boasts a nationwide user base of over 1.6 million people, 150 customers, and 60 employees. We touch every Zip Code in the US with no fewer than 700 programs in a given county—we treat large cities, small towns, and rural areas equally.

That’s a Lot of Programs!

You’re correct, that is a lot! And we’re proud of the hard work it took to get here. We’re also proud of the fact that we did not cut corners. All of our programs have been entered by real humans, not bots. Some have thought: “My gosh, there’s no way you entered all of those programs, that’s a lot!” Is it really impossible? Let’s do a little math.

There are 260 workdays in a year. If an organization can add, say, 100 new programs in a day, that means that in one year it can add 26,000 programs. In just one year! Aunt Bertha’s been around for 8+ years. Now let’s magnify that a little—we currently have a Data Operations team of 20 people who are constantly entering programs. As you can see, the numbers add up pretty quickly.

Building a Team and a Culture

Once we started to grow our customer base we knew we wanted to grow our Austin-based Data Operations team. We were able to significantly invest in this team since 2016, and we now have around 20 folks who are all based in our Austin office. They’re a smart, fun, diverse group—and they’re the future leaders of our company. This team makes up the largest department in the company and is dedicated to researching information, entering new programs, and responding to changes. They shape the user experience through the programs they vet, the information they distill, and the logical organization of services they tag.

Photo Credit: Bella Kirchner

It would be far easier and cheaper for us to only rely on technology like some of our competitors are doing. But we’ve taken the harder path to build a team made of humans—not robots. We do this for a couple reasons: the quality is far superior, and these entry-level positions provide for us a way to find the next generation of talent to join other parts of our organization.

Growth Opportunities

When we decided to grow our Data Operations team, we wanted to have a way to:

  • Build and maintain a comprehensive, nationwide database of CBOs;
  • Provide a flexible work environment for people in Austin; and
  • Provide growth opportunities for rising stars in other areas of the company.

After several years, we’ve seen entry-level Data Quality Specialists learn the operation and grow to help other teams. Graduates of our Data Operations team are now Software Developers, Reporting Specialists, Business Analysts, and Community Engagement Managers.

A challenge of growing any organization is finding great people. What an excellent way to get to know each other—both for the employees—and the hiring managers. To sum this up, it just makes good business sense to design the organization this way.

Things to Consider

You’re likely reading this blog post because you’re interested in the work we’re doing, and odds are your mission is similar to ours. I share some of our history so you can see how our model and approach are fundamentally different from any software provider in our space. If you’re just beginning to evaluate search and referral platforms for your organization, we can provide some guideposts for you. We know it’s a process that can be mind boggling. There’s a lot of buzz out there right now—and some vendors have an incentive to make it sound more complex than it actually is.

Whether or not you do business with Aunt Bertha, I hope that our learnings from more than eight years of doing this work properly informs your decision in finding the right technology partner for your organization.

Who’s the audience?

One thing to look closely for in a Social Determinants of Health (SDoH) software vendor is whether end users, the people in need of social supports, seem to be their most important audience. This is usually not apparent by what the vendor says, but how they run their business. Decisions they’ve made in regards to their product, pricing model, privacy controls, and what they’re investing resources into can be extremely telling.

It’s important to build tools for Social Workers, Care Coordinators and others to help people in need. However, it’s also just as important to build software that allows people to help themselves. One question to ask a potential vendor:

Can people use your platform without having to log in?

Sometimes people in need aren’t ready for the world to know they’re having a hard time. We see hundreds of thousands of searches every month and people are looking for help for things that they don’t want others to know about. We take that very seriously, and so should the solution you choose. Another question to ask:

Why do you require people in need to log in?

As mentioned earlier, people want to figure out what’s available before they’re ready to identify themselves. We learned this lesson in our very first year of existence. And ever since 2011, logging in is optional on our platform. What we’ve learned is that people will explore anonymously. And when they’d like to connect, they will create an account when they’re ready.

Given that other systems do not work this way, and what we know about our users, it makes me wonder how much volume they are seeing on their platform. I’d suggest asking them how many users they have—a good amount of users is a great proxy for experience.

You may also find that the company you are evaluating bases their pricing on the number of accounts on their system. Not all of these vendors price this way, but some do.

What about 211?

When we first started, we heard about concerns from some 211 call centers that feared that an easy-to-use online search platform like auntbertha.com was a threat to their call center model. We don’t see it that way.

My view is that if people find what they need on auntbertha.com and can do so in the privacy of their own home—what a great thing. And if self-service search on auntbertha.com drives down the number of calls to a 211 call center, that frees up call center staff to do other things that can help people in more meaningful ways—like getting them enrolled in health insurance.

In some cities, this is happening already as United Ways and other organizations are looking for ways to go deeper. For example, instead of telling a caller where the nearest shelter is, agents can help someone fill out an application for an affordable housing program.

“Pay us and we’ll build it!”

If you ever hear this uttered by a potential vendor, take caution. Building a network of participating resource providers and governments is difficult and takes a long time (we’ve been in it longer than anybody). It requires hundreds of organizations to agree to use a software platform. It also requires a large group of people to keep this information current. You may have received proposals from vendors to include a license fee with add-ons like “Network Builders,” or “Consultants.” Simply put, they’re trying to get you to pay for something they already should have invested in.

To keep it clean, and to keep our mission first and foremost, we don’t charge our customers for our data acquisition process and maintenance.

Scraping is Never Okay

Some of our competitors try and take shortcuts by scraping auntbertha.com. We know this because we evaluate our logs and are able to identify these bots as scrapers (see below for an example).

Searches to Utah program listings on auntbertha.com. We experienced malicious scraping activity of our Utah-based records during the evaluation period for a large healthcare system in the state recently.

Scraping is when a computer program pulls valuable content from a website. Scrapers reproduce the unauthorized content under the pretense that it’s original. When our competitors do this, it tells us a lot about what they’re doing. In the example above, we believe that this activity coincided with an in-person demonstration a competitor had with a large health system last fall.

If you are evaluating a vendor and you’re interested in finding out whether or not they may have scraped auntbertha.com in preparation for your demo, please just reach out. We’re happy to share our logs with you. You may not pick us, which is okay, but you may find it helpful to know that the vendor you select strives towards integrity (and doesn’t scrape).

Meet the Team

As you select a partner for your project, I’d encourage you to ask to meet their Data Operations team if possible. If you’re interested in meeting Aunt Bertha’s Data Operations team, come visit Austin as part of your evaluation process. A quick plane trip may be worth it—and also, just so you know, Austin’s a great place to catch some live music and some great food (we won’t tell your boss).

In Conclusion

One of our leading taglines in the early days was that “Aunt Bertha picks up where Uncle Sam leaves off.” This couldn’t be more true today, quite literally. We’ve seen an uptick in our search volumes as a result of the recent government shutdown.

We’re inspired by the work you do in your community, whether it be treating patients, connecting people in need to social supports, running a local nonprofit, providing social services, helping your clients lead healthy lives, and so much more. You make up the backbone of your community and we’d like to support you in any way that we can.

Here’s our favorite quote—we put it in all of our job postings.

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.

Margaret Mead

We’d be excited to have you join our network, which makes you part of our “small group of committed citizens.”