An AI robot developed by a pair of brothers whose mother is shielding has helped a local authority identify hundreds of households needing extra support during the coronavirus lockdown.
Monty and Hector Alexander founded the start-up Yokeru after their grandmother fell over and was left for eight hours unaided, and are now looking at ways to ensure isolated households are not overlooked.
They started the business while Monty, 24, was studying mechanical engineering at Imperial College London, in an attempt to “improve communication between vulnerable people and caregivers”.
An automated voice call system developed by the pair has been piloted at Hammersmith & Fulham Council since May 14 to regularly contact 9,000 residents shielding in the west London borough.
The technology costs around the fifth of a traditional call centre and has seen residents asked every two weeks how they are coping with self-isolation, if they feel at risk, and if they have concerns for their mental or physical safety.
Responses are presented to the council and the appropriate officers make contact with those who need specific help.
Of the 9,000 residents contacted, 927 households with “unmet needs” such as struggles to get food or medication, loneliness, mental health and safeguarding concerns have so far been identified.
Using a human call operator, it would have taken the council 225 hours, or 32 working days, for every day of calls made by Yokeru in order to reach all the shielded households.
The brothers live in White City in west London but have returned to their family home in Worcestershire for the lockdown, where their mother is shielding due to a genetic lung condition.
Hector, 26, told the PA news agency: “Mum had just been receiving post through the door, and the odd text message just checking to make sure she’s OK – two pieces of post and one text message while she was shielded.
“And Dad thought ‘Hold on a second. Why don’t you apply this automated call centre technology into this monitoring of shielded households environment?’
“So we spoke to the local authority about this and they saw a huge amount of value in the concept, because they have found themselves in this position where they had thousands of people who had gone into isolation and therefore were hidden from health services.
“And they realised they had to monitor those individuals somehow, and they had no way of doing it.”
The technology reaches people through a traditional landline or mobile phone line, and therefore does not exclude older people who may not have a smartphone or internet access.
There's many, many applications for this new approach for contacting, at a low cost but with high effectiveness, individuals within the communityMonty Alexander
The brothers believe it could be used in many other settings, as well as if a second wave of Covid-19 forces another lockdown.
Monty said: “We understand that the use case of an automated call service fits very well with supporting shielded individuals, but we also understand that local authorities and care providers reach out and call and have check-in appointments for people who have had a discharge from hospital or people with disabilities, or people with notification benefits.
“And so there’s many, many applications for this new approach for contacting, at a low cost but with high effectiveness, individuals within the community.”
Ben Coleman, Hammersmith & Fulham Council cabinet member for health and social care, said: “This pandemic has demanded ingenious solutions to unforeseen problems, and by working with Yokeru on this we’ve been able to keep thousands of our residents safe.
“Our great staff on Hammersmith & Fulham Shield have helped hundreds of people in most need get the urgent supplies they need, but it was an AI robot born at Imperial College which helped make all this possible.”
Dr Austen El-Osta, director of the Self-Care Academic Research Unit and manager at Imperial College Department of Primary Care and Public Health, said: “The potential gain from leveraging artificial intelligence and information technology to help councils and local authorities identify and support people with unmet needs is a real game-changer.
“By engaging and following up on thousands of residents in the borough who are shielding from coronavirus, Yokeru is helping commissioners bridge the gap between health and social care to address unmet needs at a time of national crisis.”