Feds Fight Homelessness With Mobile App Challenge

VA, HUD, HHS, and rocker Jon Bon Jovi launch Project REACH to help homeless veterans connect with medical, housing, and other services.
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Three federal agencies have teamed up with rocker and homeless-person advocate Jon Bon Jovi to challenge developers to use open data to create a mobile app to help homeless veterans find medical, housing, and other resources.

The Departments of Veterans Affairs (VA), Housing and Urban Development (HUD), and Health and Human Services (HHS) and Bon Jovi's JBJ Soul Foundation Monday revealed the Project REACH Mobile App Challenge.

The challenge calls on developers to create a smartphone app to give homeless veterans real-time access to resources--such as employment opportunities and homeless-shelter beds--to help meet the Obama administration's goal to eliminate homelessness among veterans by 2015, said HUD secretary Shaun Donovan on a conference call, held with other federal officials and Bon Jovi, Monday to unveil the challenge.

On the call, Donovan recounted his own personal experience many years ago with a homeless veteran who stood on a corner in Boston "invisible" to passersby until he showed a photo of himself in a military uniform when he was a younger man.

"The Obama administration believes that no one who has fought for our country should ever be invisible to the American people," Donovan said.

[ Feds are looking to mobile to improve IT efficiency. Read more at 5 Keys To U.S. National Mobility Strategy. ]

There were about 636,017 homeless people in the United States last year, 67,495 of whom were veterans. The federal government has helped 12% of those veterans find homes, said Scott Gould, VA deputy secretary, and wants to leverage the reach and scope of mobile technology to help the others.

Project REACH is one of many development contests federal agencies have launched under the Obama administration to spur the public to leverage federal data (accessible through the administration's open-data initiatives) to create new service-oriented mobile apps. The administration created the website as a homepage for these opportunities.

The linchpin of the challenge will be an open-data repository of information called the Homeless Management Information System (HMIS), which stores a multitude of information about homeless veterans and the resources--such as jobs, medical care, and shelter facilities--available to them, Donovan said. Developers can use HMIS to create a mobile application that provides real-time service information.

"We have a very large number of shelters, other service organizations, permanent supportive housing, and broad ranges of solutions to homelessness available already to our data systems through HMIS," he said. "What this is really doing is building onto that to put the power of that information into the hands of the homeless and potential caregivers and even average citizens."

HUD manages HMIS but has worked with the VA to create a single standard to link data relevant to homeless veteran services between their two IT systems. The agencies will make sure the data remains current and up to date to provide accurate information for apps that are developed for the challenge, Donovan said.

Officials Monday said that even if homeless veterans themselves don't have a smartphone, they often go into places--like soup kitchens, homeless shelters, and job centers--where there are people who do. The challenge is designed to motivate people in these places, as well as average people encountering the homeless on the street, to use the technology available to them to help those in need.

"There are people like me who want to help but just don't know, [in] real time, are there beds available," Bon Jovi said. "This project REACH is going to do this."

The VA, HUD, HHS, and Bon Jovi's foundation also plan to use their own resources to promote the winning app to encourage people to use it once it's available.

The contest will award five $10,000 grants on Aug. 24 to the developers who come up with the most innovative apps as chosen by the judges. Those finalists will then participate in a beta-test phase--in which the apps will be piloted at a homeless shelter with real caregivers in New Jersey, the headquarters of Bon Jovi's foundation. The app that receives the highest user satisfaction rating at the shelter will win the challenge's $25,000 grand prize.

As federal agencies embrace devices and apps to meet employee demand, the White House seeks one comprehensive mobile strategy. Also in the new Going Mobile issue of InformationWeek Government: Find out how the National Security Agency is developing technologies to make commercial devices suitable for intelligence work. (Free registration required.)