Catching up with The Career Index as it lands a big Veterans Administration contract

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The Career Index’s SARA system helps keep social services clients on track by asking them questions on a regular basis. Photo courtesy of The Career Index.

COEUR D’ALENE — A Coeur d’Alene company that developed software for use by state agencies and nonprofits to remind social service clients of necessary tasks has landed a big contract with the federal Veterans Administration.

“It’s a national contract for vocational rehabilitation and employment, starting off with injured vets who need assistance getting back to work,” said Cody Dixon, director of operations for The Career Index Corp. (TCI).

The contract, which went into effect on May 1, will cover 1,200 counselors and 110,000 veterans nationwide. The first phase will be implemented by 2021.

Dixon couldn’t reveal the exact amount of the contract, but said it was a six-figure-a-year, five-year contract.

“The thing we’re most excited about is taking technology to help enhance the services our veterans are receiving,” he said.

TCI’s product is called SARA, or Semi Autonomous Research Assistant, a virtual assistant that combines artificial intelligence and natural language processing. It uses two-way electronic mail and text messaging to follow up with people on their status with items such as training, health care and job search. If the system runs into a problem, it can refer the client to a case manager for individual attention.

SARA is currently being used in 44 government agencies across the country, Dixon said.

“We don’t have a marketing department, or sales,” he said. “They come to us, we show them a demonstration, they connect the dots, then they find the funding to make it happen. We have leads we haven’t even followed up on. Our primary focus is to make sure we’re delivering the service we’re promising.”

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Cody Dixon. Photo by Sharon Fisher.

The product is expected to help both parties in the system. Counselors are overwhelmed and have large caseloads, Dixon said, but the SARA system will help them with data entry and documentation, freeing up their time for direct client engagement.

“These are folks who have been trained, with masters’ degrees, and they’re stuck doing paperwork,” he said.

At the same time, the technology will also help the veterans by giving them a way to link back to their counselors and find additional resources, Dixon said.

The software will be used to create appointments and appointment reminders, send out notifications and reminders and relay all that back to the case manager. “From a reporting standpoint, we’ll be providing reports to administrators,” he said. “It’ll be change management across the board.”

Part of the process will be taking SARA and hosting it in Amazon Web Services GovCloud, a cloud-based system with security, compliance and reliability features that government agencies require.

“We’re taking everything we do now and replicating that over into a completely different environment,” Dixon said. “It’s double the maintenance and double the work.”

But what could be even more work is teaching the counselors and veterans how to do something in a different way, Dixon said.

“People hate change, but they’ve been clamoring for change,” he said.

The software is now in its third release. The most recent version came out in September with additional counselor calendar functionality, different icons and buttons and a restructured database, Dixon said.

With the new contract, The Career Index has added four support staff locally, and is partnering with developers and a consulting company to help provide training.

“We’ll be using a ‘train the trainer’ model,” Dixon said. “We’ll train 150 of their trainers, who will train the rest of the field.”

The company has also leased a new office in the Innovation Den in downtown Coeur d’Alene.


Where TCI might go after this, Dixon isn’t sure.

“We’re starting to realize that SARA, and the impact it can have, is greater than the size of the company we are now,” he said. “We’re having those conversations internally now: How to get this resource, that could be of social impact, into areas we don’t have the resources to touch right now.”

Coeur d’Alene firm develops virtual assistant for agencies

screenshot of sara
SARA helps keep social services clients on track by asking them questions on a regular basis. Photo courtesy of Career Index.

A Coeur d’Alene company has developed software for use by state agencies and nonprofits to help remind social service clients of tasks they need to do, freeing employees for more individualized interactions.

The Career Index Corp. has developed SARA, or Semi Autonomous Research Assistant, a virtual assistant that combines artificial intelligence and natural language processing, said KD Nyegaard, executive director of the company. Using two-way electronic mail and text messaging, this “allows her to know who to engage, when to engage them, and engage in two-way conversation by interpreting responses and acting accordingly,” he said.

KD Nyegaard

For example, if working with someone using a state job training agency to learn welding, the SARA system follows up with the person to check whether they’re attending all their classes, and what is limiting them. When they graduate, the system puts them into job search and follows up on that if they are having trouble finding a job. Once the person finds a job, the system checks on their employer, their salary, and their benefits. If the system runs into a problem, it refers the client to a case manager. Clients can also exchange documents with case managers by taking pictures of them with their phone.

“It takes the customer to successful closure without staff having to do anything, if everything goes well,” Nyegaard said. “It’s like having a bunch of coordinated assistants who act perfectly as they’ve been told, and they keep getting smarter and better, but never ask for a raise,” he said.

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Jeff Conroy

St. Vincent de Paul in Coeur d’Alene is using the software for free in its shelter, said Jeff Conroy, executive director. “It really does hold people we work with accountable,” he said. “It lets the social worker work with them as a person,” on functions such as whether they need work-appropriate clothing or computer repairs, he said. “It’s going to be a game-changer on the way we work in social services.”

After six months with the program, the organization is seeing an average stay of 28 days with the shelter, compared with the 90 days it had been seeing before the program, Conroy said. “When one case manager is seeing 30 people, it’s hard to see them more than twice a week,” he said. “Now they’re getting contact every day. For the first time in the ten years I’ve been director, everyone in the shelter has a job.”

The software lets case managers focus on counseling and guidance, Nyegaard said. Previously, “70 to 80 percent of their time was spent doing data entry and documentation for compliance with grant funding,” he said. “That’s grunt work. Most of them have masters’ degrees.”

While the company is based in Idaho, most of its 10 employees are in Colorado, New Mexico, California, and sites outside the U.S., Nyegaard said. “I came to Coeur d’Alene ten years ago and fell in love with the place,” he said, adding that he was working in Indiana at the time. “As long as you have a nice internet connection, it doesn’t matter where you are.”

The Career Index has installed its software for 40 users in 10 states. Its only Idaho clients are using the software without charge. SARA is being used in federal, state, and local agencies in Kentucky, Nevada, Alaska, the Department of Education, George Washington University, and San Diego State, Nyegaard said. The other no-charge installation is with Heritage Health, a northern Idaho health provider, which is scheduled to begin in October. Nyegaard said he wanted to give back to the local community.