For college students, Saturday mornings are typically a time to catch up on sleep or homework. However, this past weekend approximately 40 Catholic University of America (CUA) students from a variety of disciplines spent the day trying to solve the homelessness problem. The students were eager participants in the university’s first Homeless Hackathon, which was sponsored by the CUA School of Engineering. I had the honor of serving as a panelist to kick off the morning’s festivities. Unlike other homeless hackathons that focus on general problems, the challenge in this case was very specific and timely: to improve operational intelligence around homeless street outreach – especially during emergency cold alerts. This is especially critical this year because of the recent spate of frigid temperatures.
Because Washington is a shelter city, the DC Department of Human Services tracks homeless activity manually through several “catchment areas” as well as through a network of volunteers and non-profit providers. The challenge is to improve this outreach four ways:
- data visualization
- real-time tracking
- enhanced system integration
Six teams had less than five hours to work on the challenge and then present to the team of judges comprising representatives from the DC Department of Human Services; the District of Columbia Ward Five, and Rocket Software, among others. Entries were judged on creativity, feasibility, user-centric design, and focus on the problem.
The presentations were incredibly polished, with solutions ranging from a Waze-like heat map of those experiencing homelessness to a drone that helps identify homeless encampments in areas such as Rock Creek Park, where cellular coverage is spotty. The winning entry focused on all aspects of the challenge, including a chatbot to collect simple data on locations and color-coded real-time tracking to help identify and prioritize the severity of requests. Shout out to Vy Bui, on the winning team, who served as a Rocket Software intern in 2014 (note – I wasn’t at Rocket then and didn’t learn this until I introduced myself to the team following the awards ceremony). One of the simpler entries focused on using Facebook Messenger to enhance crowdsourcing based on the inherent challenge of getting anyone to download and use an app consistently.
Carter Hewgley, the senior advisor the DC Department of Human Services, remarked that social workers typically think in big complex models. The beauty of many of these solutions from the students is that they’ve broken them down into more smaller, more approachable problems and then applied creative and design-based thinking to solve them.
In fact, several of the representatives of various constituents mentioned that they would love to combine elements of all the solutions into a single, updated solution.
I look forward to staying in touch with my fellow panelists and tracking next steps. I’m newly energized and inspired by once again seeing the power of engineering and crowdsourcing to solve complex problems – and have fun doing it!
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