Inspiration

According to clinical research by the National Institutes of Health, social isolation can have profound negative effects on people’s health, especially among senior citizens. It can lead to high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity, a weakened immune system, anxiety, depression, cognitive decline, dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, and even death. Furthermore, disconnection from social networks and lack of interaction with other people is correlated with higher rates of death for senior citizens from all causes.

On the other hand, research also shows that seniors who engage in meaningful, productive activities with others tend to live longer, maintain their well-being, and retain their cognitive function.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reports that about 28 percent of older adults in the United States, or 13.8 million people, live alone. Studies also show that a majority of those seniors have a desire to be socially integrated, but that barriers exist that keep them from doing so. These barriers include a lack of family and friends living nearby, and a loss of mobility (whether from the loss of a driver’s license, of the lack of accessible public transportation).

Unfortunately, the most common strategies used to combat COVID-19 (social distancing, travel bans, lockdowns and quarantines) are exactly the ones that hurt the already fragile social networks of seniors the most. The resulting increase in social isolation, and all of the damaging health effects it brings with it, is a potential catastrophe for some of our society’s most vulnerable members.

For the younger generations, a natural reaction to social distancing might be to video call over Snapchat, or text in a group chat. Senior citizens, however, do not have a virtual infrastructure around their activities. Many have never even joined a video call before. What is worse, social distancing has cut many of those same seniors off from their support network of children or grandchildren, who would have traditionally helped them get started with a new technology.

SeniorSocial.space is designed to allow senior citizens to use a video calling platform without the need for outside assistance. Our goal is to make our social technology accessible to seniors, empowering them to stay socially connected while staying safe.

Features

SeniorSocial.space is an intuitive and easy to use video chat platform meant specifically for senior citizens. While there are other video chat services that already exist, they are meant for either companies, or the more tech-savvy youth. Each platform has its own disadvantages for seniors:

Platform Disadvantages
Google Meetings Only on GSuite Accounts
Google Hangouts Requires a Google Account, something most seniors don't have
Max 10 users on a call
Skype Requires a Microsoft Account, which most seniors don't have
Requires Skype to be installed on all participating devices
Old, and poor quality calls
Max 10 users on a call
Zoom meeting Hard to start
Requires software to be installed
Free tier has time limits on calls over 3 people
Assumes a company IT Department
Facebook Messenger Requires a Facebook account, which some seniors do not have
Facebook Security Issues
Whatsapp Requires downloaded software
Facebook owns Whatsapp, thus, Facebook Security Issues
FaceTime Requires iOS
Discord Not senior-friendly, designed for gamers

To solve these problems, we designed SeniorSocial.space to be easily accessible to seniors, and empower them with a system that is simple to set up and join.

SeniorSocial.space Advantages
Can be used with NO account at all, or with just a phone number
Built-in walkthrough tutorials every step of the way
Maximum of 50 people per call, enough to run a virtual Bingo night
Responsive web app works on all devices
Schedule and send reminders to SMS, Whatsapp, and Email
No bloat designed for business, instead, we can have senior-specific features, like hosting bingo or bridge

Future features

Because the platform is focused on senior citizens, we can also add unique hosted activities that can be partnered with the call. Although we haven’t been able to add them yet because we’ve been working on setting up the Twilio video chat, these would be activities designed to bring communities together.

  • Hosted games such as
    • Bingo
    • Dominos
    • Bridge
    • Poker
    • Pictionary
    • Mahjong
    • Scrabble
    • Trivia games
    • etc.
  • Book clubs with
    • Discussion questions on screen
  • Virtual concerts
  • Sharing photos
    • Family and grandchildren
    • Travel
  • Group Puzzles
    • Crosswords
    • Jigsaw puzzles
  • Virtual tours
  • Group exercise
    • Instructions on screen
  • Virtual karaoke

These features would allow seniors to participate online in many activities that they traditionally gather in person for.

This is especially important during the COVID-19 pandemic, as in-person events are being canceled. Our goal is to have our platform be a toolkit for taking interactive events that don't work as just a livestream and moving them online.

Twilio

In order to make SeniorSocial.space easy to use, it needed to be compatible across all devices that senior citizens would want to use. It also needed to integrate with any platform that seniors were already using. We wanted to maximize the ease of user experience, so we kept it very simple, and didn’t require users to create new separate accounts. This made Twilio the perfect platform for our hack, from the SMS, Whatsapp messaging, and SendGrid’s email API, to Twilio Programmable Video.

We used Twilio and Twilio's SendGrid platforms to send all of our call invites, making them the workhorses of our user interaction. Being able to work with only one API greatly sped up development time, without sacrificing use cases for our users. We were able to cover all the platforms our users need, and made sure everyone could be included, regardless of the technology they have.

Most senior citizens are not used to the idea of a group chat or mass email list, so Twilio’s simple push-button invite notification system is a huge quality of life improvement. We have also enabled these notifications to be scheduled in advance. This allows our users to focus on the events themselves, and not on how to send out reminders the night before.

For the video calling itself, we used the Twilio Programmable Video feature. This gave us a platform-agnostic video call agent that is inexpensive to use in the long term. It is also incredibly feature-rich, with just as many, if not more features than many of the other existing platforms. In addition, the docs provided a great starting point, but because all of the code was visible for us to configure, we were able to streamline the controls for seniors. We were also able to add extra features like help and games that we likely would not have been able to add on another, less open platform. Overall, the customizability, ease of access, inexpensiveness, and rich feature set allowed us to provide a high quality experience for seniors to connect with one another in a very short time frame.

Challenges we ran into

By far, one of the biggest challenges of this project was the sheer scope of what we tried to take on. Many of the different aspects of this project went well beyond what either of us had previous experience with. This project has the largest spread of different cloud services that either of us have used in a single project, including but not limited to:

  • Firebase Authentication
  • Cloud Firestore
  • Google Cloud Storage
  • Firebase Hosting
  • Firebase Serverless functions
  • Twilio text messaging (SMS)
  • Twilio’s WhatsApp integration,
  • SendGrid email delivery
  • And finally, Twilio’s Video Chat Service

With only two of us on the team, and all of the different platforms so tightly integrated, it was hard for one of us to work on something without coming across parts of the project that the other was still working on.

In addition, we were both brand new to large parts of the technology that we were using. Neither of us had any experience using Twilio to begin with. It was a lot of work getting everything started, but the result was well worth it. The functional video chat and messaging services were exactly what we were looking for once we got out feet under us.

Another major challenge was considering how different choices impacted user privacy. On the one hand, we wanted to make this really easy for everyone to use, so that senior citizens could use it without any assistance. On the other hand, as we added more parts of the authentication to the project, we had to be concerned with more different aspects of user privacy, as well as how the different information exposed to different parts of the app interacted with each other. Ultimately, this was our first time using anything more than the basic Firebase email and password, but it was so worth it.

Accomplishments that we're proud of

As with most of our hackathon projects, it was easy to come up with big ideas, but hard to either scale them down into something manageable, or find faster ways to get to where we are going. In this project, however, we were able to achieve all four of our top goals: easy to use video streaming; multi-platform messaging; a robust authentication system; and highly granular help modules so that people of all technology levels can use SeniorSocial.space.

By the end of the project, the video system looks clean and professional, and is really easy to use. The messages are sending correctly to three of the largest social platforms for seniors. Login is working for all levels of information that people feel comfortable sharing (and from any devices seniors may have). Finally, the help module walks users through how to use each part of the app without them ever having to leave.

While there is always more to do, we are really happy with all that just the two of us were able to accomplish in just 36 hours, and we are looking forward to expanding SeniorSocial.space in the future.

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