In the United States, the 211 network handles more than 11 million calls a year from community members seeking important social services information. The call and text service, run by nonprofits and some government agencies across the country, helps people locate essential needs like housing, financial assistance, food, childcare, transportation, and more—24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Faced with growing pressure on decentralized systems—exacerbated by natural disasters, regional crises, and the arrival of the global COVID-19 outbreak in 2020—the United Way Worldwide 211 team sought ways to help front-line specialists answer more calls, faster.
The 211 team fast-tracked plans to use Twilio to quickly and creatively respond to increases in call volume and duration due to COVID-19.
There are more than 200 211s across the U.S., some of which are centralized by state, and many of which are run at the county level and therefore more decentralized, not necessarily coordinating with each other. Local United Ways operate about half of those agencies, the rest are run by other non-profits or government agencies.
For Rachel Krausman, senior director of 211 for United Way Worldwide, and her dedicated team of four, this presented unique challenges during times of emergency.
Normally when something like a natural disaster might impact one part of the country, her team helped to manually transfer calls from an overloaded 211 system to others from less-impacted areas.
But with a global pandemic like COVID-19, with every 211 under stress, Krausman’s team needed to find a different solution.
“In the context of this current emergency or outbreak, from an operational standpoint, we have increased volume that’s overwhelming 211s across the country,” said Krausman. “And we’re not on the same system, so we can’t load balance or back each other up, or share information very easily. Everybody is overwhelmed, so no one can offer support, and we can’t transfer calls out.”
Krausman and her team saw immediate effects on the 211 network from coronavirus-related impacts. Normally, 211s handle about 35,000 calls nation-wide in a single day—in early 2020, that skyrocketed up to 2-4x the volume, and as high as 6-8x in some areas, up to 75,000 calls daily nationally.
It wasn’t just the infrastructure and the support agents who were stressed. The team realized call times had gone up significantly as well, doubling from an average of 4-6 minutes to 8-12 minutes. In some areas, like the San Francisco bay area, specialists reported calls of 20-30 minutes.
Krausman saw evidence of both the rapidly changing services landscape and increased need for human connection in those numbers.
“People have more complex needs,” she said. “There are fewer services, and it’s harder for us to get an answer and a solution as quickly as we usually can. People are in a heightened state of anxiety and fear, and they need information, but also someone to talk to.”
In a time when many people are food or housing insecure for the first time, or unemployed for the first time, many new callers had no idea where to begin to access services. “It’s all exacerbated,” Krausman said. “It’s really complex and exhausting for our staff.”
To ease the burden on the 211 frontline teams, balance the increased load across the entire 211 network, and enable them to help more people more effectively, Krausman and her team needed to enable 211s to send calls into a centralized location, and then bring on volunteers and leverage technology to answer calls.
They decided to create a test case in Ohio, where there are many 211 agencies covering different counties, and 37 counties did not have 211 service at all—a perfect scenario for improving routing and information sharing to better serve the community.
In three business days and over 16 working hours, the team built a system with Twilio Flex that enables a person in need to call into a single 1-800 number or be transferred by their local 211 to access assistance via the new platform. They are then routed through an AI-assisted interactive voice response (IVR) menu built with Twilio Autopilot, which answers commonly asked questions. The caller could then be further routed to a specialist if they still had questions or wanted to speak to someone.
Said Krausman of the routing, “We have a hybrid approach where depending on where you are and the agency in that area, you could get a live agent within Twilio Flex or even one who isn’t on Twilio Flex yet, but from a caller standpoint it’s really seamless. It meant we could get 211 up across the whole state within a matter of days, which was really cool.”
211 Manager Sawyer Baker on Krausman’s team has helped to continuously evolve the Twilio Autopilot-powered IVR bot.
“It was originally built to be for COVID-19 information from [the World Health Organization] and the [Centers for Disease Control],” she said. “But as more places started shutting down, we needed to make sure the bot had information about food and financial assistance too.” Creating the bot was an all-hands-on-deck effort, including donated developer time from United Way Worldwide friends like IBM.
“We want to make it helpful for the people who are calling in,” Baker added, echoing the increased need for human connection during times of crisis. “There are some things where the bot will give the answer, but then people still want to talk to a live agent. We needed to address that too.”
The United Way Worldwide 211 team will build on the early success of the Ohio pilot to expand the Twilio Flex and Autopilot system to other states, focusing first on those with the highest increase in call volume and also where limited 211 staff may be serving large populations.
Additionally, as the priority shifted to COVID-19 response, United Way Worldwide teams continued to focus on other community efforts. United Way is also running an SMS campaign using the Twilio-powered short-code 211-211 to encourage participation in the 2020 Census. And as natural disasters such as hurricane season continue unabated, the team will apply technology to serve the community through these events as well.
For the Ohio 211 team, early success of the Twilio-powered pilot has meant that their state not only has 100% 211 coverage, but they are also now in conversations with state government to receive more funding for coronavirus response, which wouldn’t have been possible without the new statewide coverage.
Said Krausman of her team’s work, “Our goal isn’t to reduce the call volume—it’s to increase our ability to answer the call volume. We want to be able to talk to everyone who wants to talk to us, and we need centralized, efficient, and seamless technology to do that.”