7 Nov 2019

Virtual healthcare assistant for the elderly piques interest

2:39 pm on 7 November 2019

A virtual assistant for seniors' healthcare captured an audience's imagination this week - standing out in a field of 10 creative solutions to gnarly government problems.

Design teams have had three months to come up with new ways to tackle the problems which range from helping the elderly to selecting the best loos for the bush.

This week, the teams pitched their solutions.

One of them was a virtual assistant concept called Sarah, which could one day be helping New Zealand's older people to age well in their own homes.

While still a concept, Sarah would be powered by artificial intelligence, and her creators say getting her into people's homes is now a matter of developing, testing, and - eventually - rolling it out.

Sarah is designed to tackle common problems older people face with their home help, such as carers turning up late or not at all.

The project, called Swell, was backed by the Horowhenua District Council and lines company Electra, which has an offshoot business that supplies home medical alarms called SECURELY.

Llanwyn Smith from Electra says they want to keep developing the assistant, and the next phase is working out how to deploy the tech, alongside healthcare providers, without flummoxing its users.

"There were some real barriers we faced along the way, and understanding that older people - particularly over 75s - have difficulty working with technology," Mr Smith said.

Another of the projects that was presented at Lightning Lab GovTech this week was one to help the Department of Conservation (DOC).

The agency is the country's largest public toilet provider and it wanted to figure out what sort of loos it should be building at its sites throughout the country, while adhering to sustainability principles.

"The Department of Conservation manage many of these taonga, that last year over 5.5 million domestic and international visitors traveled to. And every single one of those people at some point in time on their journey would have needed to poo," the presentation said.

That team - Think Kaka - created a tool called Nature Calls.

Staff would provide the environmental and cultural specifics of a particular site, and it would recommend which parts to use from an approved inventory.

It would also assess how well-suited the existing facilities were for any given location.

Lightning Lab Govtech's programme director Jonnie Haddon said the teams working on the projects had the freedom to pursue the best solution, even if it was not what the agency would have thought to ask for.

He said there was little risk to the agency however, as its costs were set for the three month window.

"Hundreds of thousands of dollars get spent on business cases currently before any money is even issued, and they still don't know if it's funded if it's going to create the [intended] outcome. But in this model, it's less [money] than that and you've got the hard evidence to suggest it will [work]," Mr Haddon said.

Each project cost about $50,000 in funding.

Most of the projects would continue to be developed, and three of the teams would be pitching for money from the Digital Government Partnership Innovation Fund today, Mr Haddon said.