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City bundling blockchain hacks for homelessness in Bloomberg challenge

Friday, August 3, 2018 by Chad Swiatecki

Austin’s Innovation Office will spend most of the next three weeks compiling and assessing the solutions that teams of area programmers and digital creatives came up with to use blockchain technology to solve the city’s chronic homelessness issues.

A total of 75 participants grouped into seven teams spent last weekend working on the Mayor’s Blockchain Challenge hackathon, designing components of a way for those experiencing homelessness to have ready access to their identification information, relevant documents and other important personal details through blockchain’s protected technology.

The hackathon was put on with the Innovation Office, Mayor Steve Adler and the Dell Medical School at the University of Texas and was the next step in the city’s bid for the Bloomberg Philanthropies Mayors Challenge, which will award grants of $1 million and $5 million to cities with innovative solutions to problems.

Teams each worked on specific components of the blockchain solution such as onboarding and authentication or the creation of a digital wallet that could be stocked with a person’s critical information, which would make it easier for them to access health care, housing and other social services. The compiled work will be submitted to Bloomberg for evaluation on Aug. 20, with organizers planning to find ways to put the hackers’ creations to use regardless of the results of the Bloomberg competition.

“We’re excited to be bringing technology to the homelessness sector, and in doing the work to solve this, you learn that the thing that solves this is also something that we all need,” said Kerry O’Connor, the city’s chief innovation officer. “We had a multitude of service providers to the homeless community and a swath of the tech community here collaborating, and it was so cool to have all those people together to weigh in on the solutions.”

O’Connor said research and conversations with groups such as the Linux Foundation and Blockchain Trust Accelerator have helped her and other city staff in their work to best utilize the hackathon projects in creating a complete technology based around blockchain that can help secure a person’s identity.

Adler helped judge the results of the competition and said the city will make progress in reducing homelessness by finding new ways to make connecting to service programs easier.

“While Austin has successfully ended homelessness for many individuals, including our city’s veterans, we have a lot more work to do,” he said by email.

“The City’s Office of Innovation, in collaboration with community organizations, technology groups, and other partners, are designing solutions such as MyPass digital identification for homeless and underserved populations, who may otherwise be unable to access basic needs including healthcare, housing, and food. Social innovation is a part of our city’s DNA; the world is watching to see how Austin innovates to solve homelessness in our community.”

Andrew Overby, a member of the Compass team that worked on the digital wallet piece during the hackathon, said the briefings ahead of the event with those working to reduce homelessness helped participants learn how problems of loss, theft and document deterioration can make it difficult for the homeless to maintain control of their identification.

Overby, who works in digital product management, learned of the event through his work with the Back on My Feet Austin nonprofit that looks for new approaches to help the homeless.

“When you’re going through the process of trying to replace an ID, something like an incorrect detail on a form can restart the very long process, and it was reiterated throughout how this is a tough struggle that’s not needed and can be solved by technology,” he said. “This is a perfect use case for the technology and the great things blockchain can do beyond financial applications, and how it can have a positive impact.”

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