Hack for Change 2013
I came to the first National Civic Day of Hacking, my first hackathon, with no ideas and a willingness to help the community. When we broke off into large groups to brainstorm, one thing that kept coming up was public perception of Saint Louis, both from residents of the city and from the nation. We mentioned things like safety, urban flight, how these things weren’t really as bad as people thought, and how we could inform the public that Saint Louis really is a wonderful place if you actually visit. However, I mentioned the homelessness problem that plagues our city, not because it was a misconception, but because it was an existing problem that gets ignored by politicians and residents alike, except when it’s convenient.
Later, when we split into groups to hack away at our ideas, I championed the idea, “Empower the homeless by using technology to provide information so they can better their lives.” Not the catchiest title, but hopefully a noble goal. I was joined by enough people willing to help that it became a group, and we begun planning exactly what we could do. We thought a great mission would be to help the homeless in three vectors: immediately, in the near future, and over time. Immediately could include helping them find food and shelter for today and tonight; in the near future could include helping them find work and find counseling; and over time could include pointing them to educational resources to broaden their skills and become more valuable in the job market.
About an hour into the planning, a formerly homeless citizen came into the room and served as a wonderful source of information on the homelessness problem from the perspective of the homeless themselves. We began asking him how our goals aligned with the actual problems, and found out that finding a shelter for the night was not as we had previously thought. Instead of being first-come first-serve, in Saint Louis there is a central charity that coordinates the areas’ shelters’ bed reservations. We called them, and after being on hold for 18 minutes without yet talking to a human, realized this is something we could fix in 24 hours that would really make a difference. We spoke to the man on the line, asked what kind of details they collected, and began designing an phone-based application.
Brian, a Python developer, began working on a Django web application that would store shelter information such as the number of beds available, the address, the restrictions the shelter had on who could stay, etc. Henry, a Java developer, began reading and learning the Twilio API. I, a front-end web and UX developer, began laying out the exact steps that a user would be taken through, and mapping that to calls to Twilio and our Django app. We worked through the night (I took a 3-hour nap once I had laid out the process), and by morning we had a working automated phone system that we could demo. Aslam, a developer and consultant, Sweet T, a social entrepreneur, and Suzanne, an associate at Arch Grants, helped us develop our ideas before implementation began, and develop our presentation after the implementation was demonstrable.
The demonstration went swimmingly, and people really seemed to react to the fact that we could take an existing system, automate much of it in such a way that it makes reserving a bed easier for the homeless, tracking beds easier on the shelters, and staffing the phones easier on the central charity. Plus, this system is both scalable and replicable: we could scale it to have a national hotline with shelters across the nation participating, or we could replicate it and let each metropolitan area have their own local version. We ended up winning the Saint Louis National Civic Day of Hacking 2013, which was extremely exciting.
The members of our team, Continuum Group, would love to see others continue our efforts, develop the system fully, and scale or replicate to bring it farther than just Saint Louis, and expand so it can help homeless people find food, find education, find counseling, and find their way out of poverty altogether. This is just the beginning.