Project Understood

//  11.04.19

Project Understood Teaches Google to Understand People with Down Syndrome

The Canadian Down Syndrome Society partners with Google to make voice technology more accessible to the people who need it most.

The future is voice-first, but not for everyone. Because of their unique speech patterns, voice technology doesn’t always understand people with Down syndrome. By 2023, it is predicted that there will be 8 billion voice-enabled assistants. But what if the people who need them most are being left out?

That is the impetus for the Canadian Down Syndrome Society’s (CDSS) new program “Project Understood,” a partnership with Google to ensure that people with Down syndrome aren’t left behind by the changes reshaping the digital world.

Because people with Down syndrome have different facial skeletal and muscular systems, voice technology doesn’t always understand their speech patterns – according to Google, the error rate is on average one in every three words. This can be frustrating and counterproductive to voice technology’s purpose of providing ease and freedom in daily life. “Project Understood” aims to collect voice data from adults with Down syndrome in order to improve its voice recognition models. Machines learn through data. The more data they get, the more accurate they are.

“For most people, voice technology simply makes life a little easier. For people with Down syndrome, it has the potential for creating greater independence. From daily reminders to keeping in contact with loved ones and accessing directions, voice technology can help facilitate infinite access to tools and learnings that could lead to enriched lives,” says Laura LaChance, Interim Executive Director with CDSS.

“With the help of the Canadian Down Syndrome Society we were able to sample a small group to test whether there were enough patterns in the speech of people with Down syndrome for our algorithm to learn and adapt,” says Julie Cattiau, Product Manager at Google. “It’s exciting to see the success of that test and move into the next phase of collecting voice samples that represent the vocal diversity of the community. The more people who participate, the more likely Google will be able to eventually improve speech recognition for everyone.”

“Project Understood” is running a recruitment drive to encourage more people with Down syndrome to participate. The project is the culmination of a three-month collaboration with Google, and its launch is timed to coincide with Canadian Down Syndrome Week, Nov. 1-7. CDSS worked with FCB Canada to create a series of videos to ask people with Down syndrome to “teach” Google. Though people with Down syndrome are often associated with needing help, the campaign flips the stereotype around and turns them into the helpers.

“Google’s Assistant helps with so many things,” says one participant, speaking directly to the camera. “But…it can’t always understand people with Down syndrome. Google needs our help.”

“That’s right! We’re teaching Google for a change.” says another.

The videos direct viewers to where people with Down syndrome can sign up to donate their voice to the program. By recording words and phrases online, they’ll help Google improve the accuracy of their voice recognition models.

Some sample phrases: The boy ran down the path, Flowers grow in a garden, Strawberry jam is sweet, I owe you a yo-yo today, He said buttercup, buttercup, buttercup, buttercup all day
Some sample words: banter, sadder, banner, heater, eater, ladder

“With our previous campaign “Down Syndrome Answers,” people with Down syndrome became the experts. Now, by sharing their voices with Google, they’re becoming the teachers,” says FCB Chief Creative Officer Nancy Crimi-Lamanna. “They’re not only taking the lead on helping to ensure a more accessible future for people with Down syndrome, but in the process, demonstrating just how capable they are by teaching Google, one of the smartest technologies on earth.”

“Project Understood” is the latest in a series of efforts by the CDSS to ensure that people with Down syndrome are accurately portrayed and supported within society. Previous efforts have included “Down Syndrome Answers,” “Anything but Sorry” and “Endangered Syndrome.”

Campaign Title: Project Understood

Client: Canadian Down Syndrome Society
Chair: Ed Casagrande
Interim Executive Director: Laura LaChance
Marketing & Communications Manager: Kristen Halpen
Board Member: Ben Tarr

Technical Program Manager: Bob MacDonald
Technical Program Manager: Pan-Pan Jiang
Product Manager: Julie Cattiau
Engineer: Jimmy Tobin

Creative Agency: FCB Canada
Chief Creative Officer: Nancy Crimi-Lamanna & Jeff Hilts
President: Bryan Kane
Associate Creative Director: Elma Karabegovic
Associate Creative Director: Michael Morelli
Associate Creative Director: Marty Hoefkes
Copywriter: Shannon McCarroll
Copywriter: Jason Soy
VP, Managing Director: Tracy Little
Group Account Director: Blake Connolly
Account Supervisor: Olivia Selbie
Agency Producer/s: Sarah Michener/Kristine Lippett
VP of Operations: Shandi Horovitch
Project Manager: Cori Pettit
Chief Strategy Officer: Shelley Brown
Director of Strategy: Eryn LeMesurier
Director of Strategy: Shelagh Hartford
Strategy Coordinator: Audrey Zink
Director, Product and Technology Solutions: John Sime
EVP, Head of Global Innovation: Kris Hoet

PR: Shannon Stephaniuk, Glossy

Production Company: Radar
Director: Scott Drucker
Line Producer: Sarah Michener
Director of Photography: Scott Drucker & Chet Tilokani
Camera Operator: Scott Drucker & Chet Tilokani
Audio: Nicolas Field
Hair & Make-Up: Neil Silverman
Photographer: Cassidy Clemmer

Editing House: Outsider Editorial
Editor: John Gallagher/Michael Barker
Editorial Assistant: Scott Edwards
Executive Producer: Kristina Anzlinger
Transfer Facility: Alter Ego
Colourist: Eric Whipp
Online Facility: Alter Ego
VFX Artist: Eric Perrella
Alter Ego Producer: Caitlin Schooley-Groneveldt
Music House: Grayson Matthews
Music Track Director: Mark Dominic
Engineer: Vlad Nikolic
Audio Producer: Kelly McCluskey

Speech Pathologist: Amanda Cotton

Website design: Bliss Interactive
Kris Van Wallendael
Julie Post
Dao Tran

About Canadian Down Syndrome Society:
Founded in 1987, The Canadian Down Syndrome Society (CDSS) is a national non-profit organization providing information, advocacy and education about Down syndrome. CDSS supports self-advocates, their parents, families and communities through all stages of life, as well as educators and medical professionals who work with individuals who have Down syndrome. Visit for more information #SeeTheAbility

About Google:
Google’s mission is to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful. With that mission in mind, the Project Euphonia team—part of our AI for Social Good program—is using AI to improve computers’ abilities to understand diverse speech patterns, such as impaired speech. We work toward optimizing AI based algorithms so that mobile phones and computers can more reliably transcribe words spoken by people with different kinds of speech difficulties.

About FCB:
FCB (Foote, Cone & Belding) is a global, fully integrated marketing communications company with a heritage of creativity and success dating from 1873. Based on a deeply developed understanding of diversified local markets and global cultures, FCB focuses on creating “Never Finished” campaign ideas for clients that reflect a deep understanding of the brand’s past, a respect for the present and an anticipation of the future potential. With more than 8,000 people in 109 operations in 80 countries, the company is part of the Interpublic Group of Companies (NYSE: IPG). With operations in Toronto and Montreal that include FCB Health (healthcare marketing), Fuel Content (content creation), FCB/SIX (CRM) and Segal (licensing). FCB Canada is proud to serve some of the world’s most admired brands, including Air Canada, BMO, Beiersdorf, Clorox, Mondelez International, Ontario Tourism Marketing Partnership Corporation and Ontario Lottery & Gaming. To learn more about FCB Canada, visit or and follow us on Twitter and Instagram: @FCB_Toronto