Natasha Gilmour, Head of Operational Support at Citizens Advice Scotland, looks back at the winter 2022 with a shudder. The cost of living crisis meant “we were hit by an avalanche of demand”. Incoming requests more than doubled. The proportion of cases marked ‘very urgent’ jumped from 20% to 83%. Her team was running on empty, overwhelmed by the sheer number of vulnerable customers in difficult circumstances.
She told me : “Late intervention [in cases] has high human costs – significant physical and mental harm to consumers and also to the frontline staff delivering the services”.
Natasha and her team were determined to find a better solution. They created a CivTech challenge asking: ‘How can technology help to quickly identify and prioritise support for people in the most vulnerable situations, starting with those having energy problems?’
In the end, one winner was chosen: My team at HelpFirst.a London-based startupAI opens doors to new possibilities. Large Language Models (LLMs) can grasp human language well enough that we can build a system to delve into cases and pull out information. We will be providing case workers with a powerful assistant, working 24/7 to identify and prioritise the most vulnerable customers.”
HelpFirst has brilliant experts focused on this challenge. Harriet Owen, machine learning engineer at HelpFirst, spent a decade as a caseworker assisting vulnerable individuals. Wanting to create systemic change, Harriet transitioned into AI, to develop systems that better safeguard those most at risk. Her blend of domain expertise and AI skills is a powerful synergy.
Back at Citizens Advice Scotland, there is excitement about how the new technology can improve their processes.
“AI has the potential to revolutionise the care we are offering, so we are very excited to be going on this journey” says Natasha.
The CivTech ethos is to build software once and do it well. CivTech funding explicitly allows other organisations to benefit. Andy says “we are keen to talk to other organisations who deal with vulnerable customers, as we are aiming to build a solution that works across utilities, finance and the public sector”.
Can you spare 30 minutes to help HelpFirst.ai? We’re looking to learn as much as possible from people like you who work with vulnerable customers online. We’ll give £50 to Mind (the mental health charity) for each of the first 10 people who book a meeting with me, Andy Bell, HelpFirst Founder.