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City seeks grants, partnerships to implement tech solutions for homeless

Tuesday, November 20, 2018 by Chad Swiatecki

The city’s Innovation Office has applied for a $400,000 grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, with the goal of directing the money toward implementing a suite of blockchain technology solutions to help the city’s homeless population.

The grant application is the next biggest hope for continued progress for the apps and digital platforms created through the spring and summer in a series of hackathons the city hosted to get local coders and technology executives involved in addressing the homelessness issue.

The hackathons were part of the city’s attempt to compete in the Bloomberg Philanthropies’ 2018 Mayor’s Challenge. Austin’s bid failed to receive a $1 million grant in the competition (though a solar power plant entry from Georgetown was selected), meaning at least four blockchain projects are in varying states of limbo. Kerry O’Connor, Austin’s chief innovation officer, said the grant money could pay for staff time and other resources needed to develop uniform standards for technologies that allow vital information, records and medical data to be stored in blockchain ledgers, making it easier for the homeless to access health care, housing and other services.

The grant winners are expected to be named later this month.

O’Connor said the city remains interested in helping the various technology solutions move forward, though most need access to local care networks and community organizations rather than financial help. She said the biggest role the city can play is creating a standard format for the technologies so they comply with federal health care and privacy laws, such as the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), and can easily integrate into larger systems.

“Having a standard in place and helping with user testing is important because any health care provider like Central Health or Dell (Medical School) will be reticent to put that health info on a platform unless they know already that it is HIPAA compliant,” she said. “The city could have a role, because if we set the standard we show others and encourage them to move forward.”

O’Connor said if the Johnson Foundation doesn’t award the city any grant money, her office will explore public/private partnerships, with IBM and Amazon Web Services showing interest in the blockchain-focused products created through the hackathons.

“At that point it becomes a hustle, and if we reach out to companies then public/private partnerships come into play,” she said. “The interesting thing is, with all of these we don’t really have a finished product yet, so there’s a question about how we would go about pursing that.”

Among the possible technology innovations was one created by a team led by the e-commerce company Digital City that used QR code products, so a homeless person could digitally store information without losing documents or other media. Other technologies sought to make a person’s unique biometric data the key to accessing their private information, and help users know what services they qualify for by combining their information with local organizations’ offerings and build “smart contracts” to enable enrollment.

Frank Robles, vice president of operations for Digital City, said his company will begin rolling out a pilot program of its ID cards by the end of the year – the company is in talks with other cities to do test projects next year – and hopes the city will stay involved with the hackathon teams to help them move forward.

“I’ve had lots of follow-up conversations and they seem to get really busy … what’s difficult about this is there’s so many business processes in place already and any solution needs to be able to fit in and navigate around other things that are already working,” he said. “The city is the connector in this. They were key in getting people into the room and then getting the community involved.”

Photo by JD Hancock made available through a Creative Commons license.

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