The Canadian Down Syndrome Society (CDSS) presented us with a fact that is incredibly positive, but also posed an incredible challenge: people with Down syndrome are living longer today. As recently as 1983, the average lifespan of a person with Down syndrome was 25 years; today that average has risen to 60, which means this will be the first generation to outlive their parents. For most, this means outliving their primary support system.
However, young adults in the Down syndrome community are capable of living independently with the right support. To achieve self-sufficiency, they require more reminders, structure, and routine – unique needs they normally rely on caregivers for, but which could be aided by voice technology. Access to voice assistants could offer life-changing independence for an entire community.
At FCB, we’ve always put in a lot of effort into building creative partnerships with all major tech companies and platforms. Partnerships that aren’t based on ad spend but focus on solving the real business or societal challenges our clients face. Most tech companies are focused on developing technology that improves our lives, but blind spots do exist.
With 8 billion voice assistants globally by 2023, the future will be voice-first, but that future doesn’t include people with Down syndrome. By looking at the latest data on voice recognition performance, we realized that the AI powering voice technology only understands one in every three words of those with atypical speech, leaving them behind in the voice revolution. For voice technology to be more inclusive, we had to think big.
The search for the perfect partner
As a small Canadian charity, we did not have the funds or the manpower to solve this problem, we needed to find a partner in the voice AI space to help us solve the life-altering challenge in front of us. We reached out to several tech companies, including Google, and while the reception was overwhelmingly positive, no one was quite sure how to address the issue. When faced with a daunting challenge there is a rule we follow at FCB Canada: leap and the net will appear. We took this to heart and continued searching for a solution.
After several months of trying to find a voice technology partner, a breakthrough came when our global Chief Innovation Officer reached out to a Googler whom he had met during a Google offsite. The Googler noted that she had raised concerns with the Google AI product teams about the issues she had when using Google’s voice technology; it wasn’t effectively understanding her stutter. She was keen to find out how the technology could be improved, not only for her, but for the 78 million people around the world with atypical speech.
Project Understood takes shape
When we mentioned our mission to solve the voice technology dilemma for those in the Down syndrome community, and our attempts to connect with several different voice technology companies, she put us in touch with Google’s AI research team, the people who were responsible for the algorithm that powers their voice technology. Google’s voice assistant has the most market share in Canada, which made Google the ideal partner for CDSS as they would have the greatest impact on the Down syndrome community in Canada. Through perseverance and significant outreach, our efforts were rewarded by a connection that led us to the one team that could best address our issue.
Working with Google’s AI team, we identified the problem: since voice technology requires millions of data points (human voices) to perform optimally, the small size of the Down syndrome community means these AI systems are lacking the data they need to reliably understand them. Google had the technology and we had access to the one million voice samples that Google required to make a positive impact on their voice AI. Project Understood was beginning to become reality, but we had our work cut out for us.
Mobilising the community to become teachers
We knew that recruitment would be a challenge. We had to find a way to motivate the community to participate. Project Understood partnered with Google – a technology that usually teaches us – and empowered people with Down syndrome to become its teachers. Allowing the Down syndrome community to have an impact not only on voice technology, but on their futures.
The campaign launched during Canadian Down Syndrome Week (November 1-7, 2019), with two social videos shedding light on the inaccessibility of voice technology for people with Down syndrome and the impact that the tech would have on their lives not only today, but for the future. The videos served as a recruitment tool, mobilizing the community to donate their voices to train Google.
To recruit this niche audience with only $1,000 in media, we targeted the tight-knit Down syndrome community organically, knowing the more they engaged, the more the video would be seen by this niche audience. And, for the first time, we harnessed Down syndrome community groups across North America through email and organic social; this in turn led to engagement from more international groups.
All media drove to Projectunderstood.ca, built to be inviting and informative for people living with Down syndrome and their caregivers. Qualified participants received a login to enter Chit Chat, a hub for raw data collection and machine learning required to train Google’s AI and voice assistant technology, where participants were served thousands of pre-determined phrases guided by speech pathologists and Google AI scientists. Participants had the flexibility to record phrases over multiple sessions, at their convenience. Simplicity was the cornerstone of the user experience.
Beyond Project Understood
Creating meaningful change at Google was a massive stride in making voice AI more inclusive, but we couldn’t stop there. Google and CDSS presented their research at the UN on March 20th, 2020, calling on all technology companies to make voice technology more accessible.
And in November 2021, Google announced Project Relate, a new Android app that aims to help all people with atypical speech communicate more easily with others, interact with Google Assistant, and ensuring people with Down syndrome will be able to use this tool in their quest for greater independence.
The full impact of this campaign will be seen in years to come. Project Understood is helping future-proof a vulnerable community.
An abridged version of this article appears in the WARC Creative report, Insights from the 2022 Creative Effectiveness Lions winners.