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Patrick Coggins

Cofounder and Chief Technologist, AskMyBuddy

En español | As soon as I saw Amazon’s Alexa virtual assistant in 2015, I knew this new voice-activated technology could allow seniors and others to easily request help from friends, relatives or caregivers. All they have to do with AskMyBuddy is tell the device to contact someone, which many prefer doing for minor emergencies than dialing 911. We currently serve more than 126,000 people, sending thousands of “send help” alerts each month.

The problem I am trying to solve

People who live by themselves or who are ill worry about everything from not being able to get off a couch or out of a bathtub to falling or having a serious medical emergency. Meanwhile, across town or across the globe, their children are anxious about not being with them. AskMyBuddy soothes everyone, by letting the user simply ask Alexa, Google Home or Microsoft Cortana to send help. These devices can pick up voice commands even if you’re in a different room. The service then blasts email, text and/or phone-call alerts to up to five contacts pre-arranged in the user’s network, in any of seven languages. One elderly user told us our service has placated her son enough that he no longer threatens to remove her from her home.

Some people also use the service to “check in,” periodically telling someone remotely that they are fine. (To use our system, you simply register and enter your contacts at AskMyBuddy.net, then click on the link to enable it on the AskMyBuddy page on Amazon or in the Google app store.)

My personal experience helped me see the need

I have been in the software industry more than two decades. I’ve been a programmer for companies and government subcontractors, and I created a GPS tracking company for small businesses. I’m always looking for ways new technology can make life better. Soon after I glimpsed the voice-controlled Alexa, I realized this was the perfect vehicle for requesting help. This need was something my wife Sheryl and I knew well, since Sheryl’s mom once had a pinched nerve that caused her to keep falling, and my dad has severe heart problems. As I was developing this, we figured if just our parents used it that would be a win. Remarkably, as I was creating the code, I had my own emergency: I got up to use the bathroom one night when I wasn’t feeling well, and promptly collapsed on the floor. I had a minute to call out to Sheryl before going unconscious. If she hadn’t been there to hear me and called an ambulance for what turned out to be internal bleeding, I could have died. That further lit my spark to finish AskMyBuddy and get it out there.

Advice to others hoping to create something

You can’t let worries stop you from creating the product you envision. As soon as I had this idea, it dawned on me we could have liability problems: What if someone asks to send an alert and our service somehow doesn’t? But I knew it would be so useful, so I didn’t let it stop me. Of course, we tell users if they have a true emergency they should be calling 911, and we tell their contact if they are unable to reach the user after getting an alert, they should do the same. 

Uses beyond our expectations

It’s been gratifying to hear from the people our service has helped, from a disabled woman living alone who called for her daughter after she sliced her foot on broken glass, to a paraplegic who calls his aids in the critical moments his breathing machine stops working, to someone with multiple sclerosis who calls to Alexa when she needs her kids as they’re taking a walk outside. We have more than 600 reviews on Amazon, with nearly five stars.

We’ve also been surprised that young parents are using our service so their babysitter can easily reach them, and college kids in dorms are checking in with their folks. We even helped a large Florida retirement community tie the service to their security office, so residents can call for assistance from on-site staff.

It’s not about the money

When we first released it in 2015, we created a pay-what-you-can model, but users didn’t like that. I consider this a public service rather than a business (my wife and I have other work that pays the bills), so I decided to offer it for free. We ask only the heaviest users sending 400 messages a month (they get 10 contacts instead of five) to pay $60 a year. This compares to those “I’ve fallen,” press-a-button alert systems that cost $40 or more each month. Because we are sending out bulk texts and voice calls, sometimes internationally, it costs us money. Last year my wife and I spent about $10,000; as our service grows, so will the costs. We’re hoping to get grants or sponsors or to create affiliate relationships with home-safety companies, so we can keep offering this valuable service no matter how big it grows. 

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