They may not be able to afford them, but homeless people need cellphones too. Those who can afford them tend to be disconnected after a while for not being able to pay their bills – a problem that takes them out of the social services loop. But a recent hackathon from a Silicon Valley non-profit working to keep homeless and low-income people connected has come up with some interesting solutions.
The Hack for the Homeless collaboration between Community Technology Alliance (CTA), a Silicon Valley non-profit group, and Santa Clara University, took in 16 submissions from students looking to fill the connectivity needs of homeless and low-income people in the County of Santa Clara, near San Francisco.
The contest “was designed to find ways in which people, using the phone, will be able to improve communication, the usage of the phone, keep track of the data – anything that can be performed through the phone,” said Allan Baez, Project Manager for Mobile4All at CTA.
The idea was to make the phones easy to use, particularly for those who have never used smartphones before. One of the submissions, called Simply, is an Android interface that does just that.
“Technology can be a great force for social good; and I am happy to be a part of that” – Alexander Choulos
“Simply is an app which … simplifies the Android user experience while providing an easy platform for instructional videos,” said the author of the app, Alexander Choulos, a student at Santa Clara University.
“Instructional videos from a Youtube playlist are pulled down to populate a feed and are then streamed,” he explained. “This allows the good folks at Mobile4All to provide different instructional videos to the homeless remotely through the app.”
Large, easily readable buttons simplify the Android interface so that “even one who is unfamiliar with smartphones can now use it,” said Choulos.
While the app did not win, Baez said it is being “preloaded into the phones and given to the clients,” especially to those not familiar with smartphones.
OpenDoor, a location-based community app, lets homeless users identify nearby services such as rest rooms and shelters. Home for the Homeless offers similar services while also allowing homeless clients to pay their bills directly to non-profits partnering with Mobile4All. And DataTrac helps users keep track of their phone usage and other information.
The phones are free, thanks to a donation of 1,000 Nexus 5 smartphones from Google. But payment still has to be made to the mobile carrier.
“What we did is just negotiate with a carrier that’s called Better World Wireless, located here in San Francisco, to offer … a better rate to our clients,” said Baez.
He said the service fulfills a need for the homeless the same way it does for everybody else.
“How are they supposed to be in touch with their case manager?” he asked. “How are they supposed to keep in touch with a network of friends and relatives that can help them, you know, move toward a path of success to better, to improve their situation?”
Apart from daily communication needs, Baez said people applying for jobs or housing opportunities are typically asked to provide a cell phone number.
“And that cell phone has to be stable,” he said. “I mean, that means that if a person in three months from now, four months from now needs to call you, you still need to be accessible to that phone.”
The service offers a safety net that keeps customers connected for a while if they default on their payments. Even if disconnected, their information remains on record so that they are able to continue using the same number they had before when they come back, without having to go through the paperwork again.
Now, Mobile4All is looking at the feasibility of extending the service into other U.S. states, depending on research and resource availabilities. And Baez is convinced that other countries can also use the power of technology in similar ways to address problems related to homelessness and other social issues.