Alexa, ask my buddy to send help!
An ingenious, public-spirited alert network turns your Alexa or Google Home assistant into a digital helping hand
The best tip I heard at South By Southwest last week came in the lobby of the Austin Hilton from the head scientist at Amazon’s Alexa machine learning group.
It had been a heady discussion of big challenges and opportunities. But when I chanced on Prasad down in the lobby, I used my few moments with him to ask a much smaller question.
I wanted to know if Alexa could help my parents, who are 87 and 90 years old, alert each other quickly if one of them falls in the kitchen and can’t reach a phone or the wall-mounted intercom.
It turns out Prasad is based at Amazon’s research facility in Cambridge, Mass., less than five miles from where Mom and Dad live. He considered my question with genuine interest and offered this suggestion:
Try Ask My Buddy.
I thanked him as he turned to the next person seeking his attention in the crowded hotel lobby. I wrote the name of the Alexa skill in my pocket notebook, eager to try it when I returned home to Denver.
I doubt I would have stumbled on Ask My Buddy without Prasad’s tip. Developers have created more than 10,000 skills for the Alexa platform. Ask My Buddy is also available at the Google Play store, but since I do not yet own a Google Home device I will focus on the Alexa version.
Here are the two steps you must take before Ask My Buddy and Alexa can help you or someone you love get help:
- Find and enable the Ask My Buddy skill from within your Alexa profile. You can do this with a web browser on your computer or from Alexa’s iOS or Google Play apps on your smartphone.
- Set up a free or premium account — more on that later — at askmybuddy.net. Enter contact information for the people you want Ask My Buddy to alert. The alerts can be delivered by email, voice phone, text, or all three.
Let’s take a look at how this works.
I have Ask My Buddy set up on my Alexa profile, and I have an Amazon Tap on my desk, configured for hands-free operation. Now let’s pretend I have fallen off my chair and need help getting off the floor.
This is very important: If this was a real emergency, I would forget the whole Alexa thing and use a phone to dial 911.
I will now move carefully onto the floor, not fall, for our demonstration. When I get comfortable on the Oriental rug I will tap the stopwatch on my Apple Watch and say, “Alexa, ask my buddy to send help.”
Here is what happened:
Alexa immediately responded, “Got it. Should I send an alert to help?”
“Yes,” I replied.
“OK,” she answered. “I sent an alert to Len.” (For testing, I set myself up as the only contact in my Personal Alert Network.)
Within seconds, my iPhone received a call from a number in West Palm Beach, Florida. When I answered it, I heard this message:
Len Edgerly sent you an alert, via AskMyBuddy.net, on Amazon Alexa. This alert is sent only if this person has asked for help. Please check on Len Edgerly now. Thank you.
I instantly received the same message by text and email.
The first time I got this to work was one of those moments when technology seems like magic. I couldn’t believe how easy it was to use and what a difference it might make.
I was so enthusiastic that I tracked down the co-founder and developer of Ask My Buddy. His name is Pat Coggins, and he lives in Boca Raton, Florida, with the other co-founder, his wife Sheryl.
Pat and I Skyped for about 20 minutes this morning, and you will be able to hear our entire conversation on the next episode of my Kindle Chronicles podcast, scheduled to upload on Friday, March 24, 2016.
Pat told me that nearly 100,000 people have signed up for Ask My Buddy — more than 90 percent on Alexa and the rest on Google Home and Mycroft, an open-source voice assistant platform. I was glad to make a payment of $15 for the premium level, because I knew the developer was incurring significant messaging and phone costs to make the service possible.
If you sign up for Ask My Buddy, I h0pe you will join me in supporting Pat’s work. With the free signup you can enter up to five contacts in your network and initiate 60 alerts a month. The premium level entitles you to have 10 contacts and to send 120 alerts a month.
In its most basic use case, Ask My Buddy is wonderfully simple. Just say, “Alexa, ask my buddy to send help.”
You can customize the service using the extensive help page that will show you how to send alerts to specific people in your network. For example, I could set mine up to alert my daughters and Darlene and could then specify which person I wanted to know I was having a problem.
Alexa, ask my buddy to alert Darlene.
Alexa, ask my buddy to alert Roo.
“Alexa, ask my buddy to send help” will alert everyone I have listed on my Ask My Buddy contacts list — Darlene, Sarah, and Roo — at the same time, by whichever means I have chosen for each of them — phone, text, email or all three.
Personalized Quick Reference cards are an example of how Pat and Sheryl have minded the details of how people will use Ask My Buddy in real life. You can print out the cards to remind a user exactly how to say the commands. It’s a good idea to print these and post them on a refrigerator or other visible place. There is even a choice between printing the cards so they will be personalized for Alexa/Amazon commands or for Google Home.
If you think Ask My Buddy might help someone you love who is already using Alexa, but you live far away, the way I do from my folks for half the year, you don’t have to wait for your next visit in order to get them set up with Ask My Buddy.
For remote setup, you will need your loved one’s Amazon log-in information, which you will enter at alexa.amazon.com for the skill setup. Then you will create an account for them at askmybuddy.net and enter their contacts. Let those on the contacts list know how the service works, and tell them not to ignore calls from an unknown number in West Palm Beach.
Even better, ask each contact to create an Address Book entry for the West Palm Beach phone and text numbers, labeled something like “Ask My Buddy — Mom.” That way caller ID will make it clear what’s up when an alert comes in.
In my case, it turns out Mom and Dad already have a way to alert each other in their house, using a wrist medical alert service.
What they hope Alexa can do some day soon is to act like a real intercom, relaying their own voices in real time from the Echo in the kitchen to a Dot on the third floor where Dad has his desk.
Pat Coggins and I have both read the same reports that Amazon may be working on new Alexa hardware that would make this possible.
Until then, Ask My Buddy is an ingenious, affordable way for Alexa to do a lot more than time an egg, give the weather forecast, or tell you a joke.
I heard a lot of passion in Pat Coggins’s voice this morning as he talked about his creation. Hats off to him for spending the time and money to give thousands of people some extra peace of mind in their homes.