Civic Tech in Action: Using AI to Help Build A Radical Health Solution

Civic Hall member Ivelyse Andino had tried everything by the time she met fellow member Jason van Anden. The South Bronx native had tried learning to code, she had tried purchasing a messaging app and building decision trees on top of it, and she had criss-crossed Manhattan going to development shops and getting estimates on minimum viable products (MVPs). It didn’t help that her organization, South Bronx-based Radical Health, which focuses on building face-to-face circles of residents facing common health challenges, was on a shoestring budget. The organization is growing — with around 3,000 participants in its programs currently — and plans to expand in Tacoma, Washington by the end of December. Founder and CEO Ivelyse had also become a Roddenberry Fellow in January of this year, and was recently named to the Mayor’s Commission on Gender Equity (along with another Civic Hall member, Sherry Hakimi of GenEquality). But Ivelyse was sure that this moment of challenge was also an opportunity. She was convinced it was time to add tech support to Radical Health’s peer-to-peer methodology; she just hadn’t figured out how.

Radical Health’s work is so analog and relationship-based that it’s worth asking why it needed an app at all. The organization aims to facilitate health equity for the most historically marginalized communities through meaningful conversations, which it calls “Restorative Health Circles.” It partners with institutions like the New York City Department of Health and the Department of Education to engage participants in these grassroots convenings. The whole idea, Ivelyse said when we sat down recently in Civic Hall’s large board room, is to create space for “people who’ve gone through a certain [health] experience to help the next person and, collectively, make a change in the whole system.” The problem was, Ivelyse continued, “[Radical Health] was having all these great conversations, but didn’t have a way to capture all that qualitative data and share learnings beyond the programs.” Digital technologies, she believed, have a natural value for organizations building scale and seeking more ongoing reach. 

Luckily, Ivelyse was an Organizer-in-Residence at Civic Hall in 2018 and is often back to hang out and meet with friends and collaborators. “This [partnership] was sort of the magic of Civic Hall,” says Jason van Anden, the CEO of the “app-tivist” software development firm Quadrant2. His boutique tech agency has been an organizational member of Civic Hall since June of 2018, and is known for building the first mobile panic button app (the “I’m getting arrested app”) in 2011. Quadrant2 has also worked with clients like the ACLU and United for Respect. “I was going to lunch around the same time Ivelyse was going to lunch and we met in the elevator.” 

If you haven’t been to Civic Hall, a little explanation is in order. The community space is an 8000-square-foot loft on the top floor of 118 22nd St, an old building in New York City’s venerable Flatiron District. And despite some recent renovations to the building’s two elevators, during busy times of day, it can take a while to get from the 12th floor all the way down to street level.

“I’ve gotten comfortable asking people who get on the elevator at the 12th floor, you know, what they’re doing at Civic Hall,” Van Anden said with a smile. “So I asked Ivelyse about what she was doing and then – we were at floor six – and I said, that’s very interesting. We have some technology that might be able to amplify your effectiveness because we have this cool platform. And by the time we actually got off the elevator, Ivelyse said ‘this is exactly what we need’.” RadicalRelay, a mobile app that Radical Health has now started deploying, was the result.

Quadrant2 had initially developed chatbot technology on top of IBM’s Watson for an earlier project, creating a virtual union rep app called Workit, aimed at helping Wal-Mart workers learn about their rights at work. The technology automates the process of answering questions using a database and statistical confidence. If the AI’s confidence level in an answer isn’t high enough, then the chat gets handed over to a human who can input their responses into the database after helping a user with their question. Quadrant2 was able to leverage their past experience with AI chat technology, as well as their code from past projects to quickly spin up a fully functioning product at a price Radical Health could afford. 

“[Civic Hall’s] kind of just the perfect place to meet [other people] committed to justice and equity and good,” Ivelyse said laughing, “It’s like you guys are the best or Tinder.” These kinds of connections are the lifeblood of Civic Hall’s community. “We did a panel together like six months ago,” Jason added,  “and it was funny. Two of the other panelists were also people I bumped into in Civic Hall’s elevator.” There’s magic that happens where social change makers and empathetic tech developers can meet. 

RadicalRelay is still in the early release phase. It’s for pregnant women, and, critically, it’s meant to supplement medical experiences, not replace them. “Right now in New York City, a black woman dies on average eight to one compared to white women in New York City. It’s an epidemic…largely due to racism and bias,” Ivelyse said.  RadicalRelay — billed as “your feisty aunty helping you ask those questions before, during, and after an appointment or ER visit” — aims to help stem the epidemic. And the press and the community already seem grateful: “Every meeting I go into,” Ivelyse said,  “where I show this platform, every single time, it’s like holy shit wow. The tech is amazing and you’re actually creating a solution. You know, like jaw drop.”