HandToHold: Connecting Communities with a New App

In the era of social distancing, the rapid shift to virtual communication may be leaving some gaps in our connections to each other, especially when we are so used to meeting regularly face-to-face. Isolation, though necessary right now, can take a toll on our mental health. To counter loneliness, researchers in MIT CSAIL have come up with a new app called HandToHold that connects people who normally would see each other in person.

Professor Daniel Jackson, a professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science and Associate Director of CSAIL, leads the project with several MIT undergraduate students. The idea came to Prof. Jackson when he noticed people in his local community trying to find ways to check in on each other. People in his community wanted to know how they were going to make sure that people are making phone calls to people who are stuck at home by themselves. The local community started putting lists together and encouraging everyone to sign up in Google sheets. But Prof. Jackson says that this was “tremendously clunky and burdensome.”

“As computer scientists, we thought that rather than saying to someone, ‘Will you commit to making phone calls to these other people,’—which for busy people isn’t that easy—to say instead, well, what if we made a little app that would send you text reminders that said, ‘Hey, so-and-so is feeling bored today. Why don’t you give him a call?’”

The way it works is you set up an existing social circle with HandToHold, enter people’s names and phone numbers (with their permission), and each member of the group is sent a welcome message, then a daily message asking how they’re doing in one word on their phones using SMS messages. Each member will then get another message with the name and number of one other member, encouraging them to connect. The online service randomly chooses who should contact who, and each person makes a call and each person gets one. Ideally, HandToHold is low commitment, taking each person a few seconds to respond to one text message each day, and two short calls. The person you are paired with for that day can respond to a one-word answer the app has asked and the conversations go from there.

“It’s not this idea of randomly connecting people who’ve never met with each other,” says Prof. Jackson. “I was thinking particularly of finding a virtual replacement for groups of people who already know each other. These are your friends and colleagues. Maybe you work with a team and you’d like to be in touch, maybe you have a book club, or a group of dog walkers, or maybe an extended family of people who’d like to talk to each other.”

Prof. Jackson says there may also be an option to let the members of a circle see all the one-word answers from that circle. In terms of data collection, he says, “I’m kind of curious to see what those words will be and if we can track them over time. That will be an interesting little slice of data on how this whole [social distancing] situation is evolving and how we feel.”

HandToHold has undergone a round of tests on both a simplified and full-fledged implementation, and is well on its way to deployment. Jackson says he has enjoyed working on it with the group of undergraduates. “We developed it using conceptual design, and it’s a nice opportunity to experiment with some design ideas.”

While there is no charge to users and the app is designed to keep messages short, running the service is not free, so they welcome contributions of any size. The app is SMS-based because it is an easy medium to use, but sending SMS messages must be done through a service. “The nice thing about it is we could support quite a number of people with a pretty modest grant,” says Prof. Jackson. “We’re at an exchange of ten SMS messages per person per day. So it costs about ten cents per person per day to run this service.”

Check out the FAQ for more information here: HandToHold FAQ's

Contact Professor Daniel Jackson: www.csail.mit.edu/person/daniel-jackson