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At a time when technology is disrupting so many aspects of our lives, from the way we communicate to the way we get around, our approaches to homelessness remain stubbornly resistant to change. Indeed, in San Francisco — home to some of the most forward-looking innovators in the world — a disturbing number of people still sleep on the streets.
This resistance to change has taken a major human toll, but fortunately, there is a cheap tool that could turn the tide: the smartphone.
The human beings who experience homelessness have a complex set of needs, and they often require individualized and high-quality assistance. Too often, they are failed by blunt policies from bureaucrats and ineffective services from nonprofit organizations.
Smartphones offer a way to bridge the gap between the needs of the homeless and the services that are available to them. In fact, many organizations are already working to help connect the homeless with phones if they don’t already have them. But true disruption will not come simply from increased connectivity.
The smartphone’s greatest power lies in revolutionizing how we understand and serve the homeless. Imagine if every homeless person had a smartphone, and he or she provided daily data on his or her health, happiness, income, family connections, use of services, and where he or she slept each night. And now imagine that a team of researchers, data scientists, and formerly homeless people had real-time access to that data.
These researchers could try delivering all sorts of interventions to individuals via their smartphones — for example, cash deposits in online bank accounts for taking positive actions, or referrals to particular service providers. The team could then track the results in real time using the data they receive. And as they learned what interventions work best for which people, they could be charged with actually implementing and refining them as people’s situations change and as they tested even more innovative ideas.
In a new report, I describe how such a world could be made possible. I propose beginning with a small-scale pilot project in a single city, with the mission of figuring out how to get homeless individuals to provide reliable data via smartphones. I suggest offering free, basic smartphones and maintaining full service plans for individuals as long as they provide reliable, daily data. If the continued service plan isn’t enough of an incentive, I suggest experimenting with additional small cash deposits or e-gift cards in return for data. If reliable data can be collected, the possibilities could transform our response to homelessness.
First, we could learn the answers to all kinds of important questions by conducting randomized controlled trials — comparing the outcomes of a randomly selected group that receives an intervention with a group that does not. Does giving cash to homeless people help or harm them? Does providing food and sleeping bags keep people healthy, or does it prevent them from accessing shelters? Can cash incentives for staying off the street keep people housed and improve their wellbeing? With the combined assistance of real-time data and tools like online banking, couriers, and GPS, such trials can help us test new ideas and quickly learn which interventions actually help transform people’s lives.
We could also use smartphones to evaluate existing actions. For example, when officials clear out homeless encampments, do displaced individuals move into shelters, or do they move out of town and become more destabilized? How effective are specific nonprofit organizations in actually helping the homeless? Cities and organizations could be held accountable for how they serve homeless individuals in their communities using data collected from the homeless themselves.
And ultimately, turning over the data and authority to implement interventions to a team of researchers, data scientists, and formerly homeless people would transform policy. Learning what works and doing what works would no longer be separate exercises. The result would be large-scale, rapid innovation for the complex and worthy human beings who sleep on our streets.
Society has been transformed in major ways as a result of technology and innovation. It’s time to bring those same disruptive tools to our brothers and sisters who need it the most. It’s time for a tech revolution for the homeless.
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Poverty in America—and What to Do About It
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