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United Way Blog

United Way’s Most Innovative Minds- Sawyer Baker

With a background in sociology, political science and public administration, Sawyer never foresaw a career leading innovative projects and technology partnerships. As Manager, 211, at United Way Worldwide, Sawyer Baker supports the diverse and expansive 211 network in providing unmatched, critical services to those who need it the most. 211 is a vital service leveraged by millions of people across North America. Every day, clients contact 211 to access free and confidential crisis and emergency counseling, disaster assistance, food and health care assistance, stable housing and utilities payment assistance. As of today, state officials in 31 states designated 211 as the primary source of COVID-19 information and support. Throughout the pandemic, the 211 network has seen an average of 200-300% increase in daily call volume.

Ride United, one of the projects Sawyer leads, is a transportation access initiative that leverages the strengths of United Ways, the 211 network and partners to address unmet transportation needs. On average, 211 receives 230,000 transportation requests annually and 25% of those requests cannot be fulfilled with existing resources. In partnership with Lyft, General Motors, and local donors, select 211s are able to dispatch a free ride to eligible clients to get them to and from medical appointments, job interviews and food banks. Ride United was an innovation in process, providing a direct service instead of a referral through 211. Under Sawyer’s leadership, the program’s implementation and evaluation was streamlined across 24 markets in 2019. Since the 2018 pilot, 211s across the U.S. have provided nearly 30,000 free rides to help people get to and from job interviews, medical appointments, grocery stores, and more. In response to COVID-19, United Way partnered with DoorDash, The Rockefeller Foundation, and Albertson’s to expand Ride United to include delivery of food and essential goods to clients impacted by social distancing measures. Over the past two months, United Ways and 211s have facilitated more than 35,000 free deliveries.

Sawyer also led an engagement with IBM to create CARLA (Cognitive Automated Response Learning Agent), a chatbot that was created to alleviate 211 call volume in Louisiana during a disaster. CARLA uses AI processing and natural language capability to understand and respond to common questions such as “where is the nearest shelter?” and “do I need to evacuate?”.  Sawyer led the development, local engagement, testing and activation strategy hand-in-hand with IBM and Louisiana 211 to make CARLA a reality. She served as the translator between 211s and software developers to decipher unfamiliar technology terms and support chatbot training.

For Sawyer, 211 is not simply a phone number which provides information and referral --no other program has its “finger on the pulse” of America’s greatest needs. She believes that 211 data, if analyzed and brought together correctly, could help better assist individuals and support predictive and proactive capabilities to impact entire communities.

We often champion the person who comes up with the idea. Sawyer believes anyone can have a new idea - but not everyone can operationalize a sustained, iterative process.  She emphasizes the importance of organization and documentation to keep the team moving and understand why and how decisions were made for future iterations and potential new solutions. Sawyer commends the 211 network for constantly pushing the boundaries to meet the articulated and unarticulated needs of our communities.

*This is part of the “United Way Most’s Innovative Minds” List, celebrating individuals who embrace innovative methods to reshape the future of social impact. Learn more here

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