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White House holds homeless app competition, triviality announced winner

The Department of Veterans Affairs and the White House are holding an app competition for mobile applications that connect unhoused persons to social programs. The competition has announced the top five finalists, including the demeaningly named Sherlock Homeless, but triviality has already stolen the show.

The premise of the app competition was flawed from the outset, and is emblematic of a chronic syndrome in the social sector. We are too easily swayed by the trends of the corporate world, time and again believing that if we just copy what those in the corporate sector do we will enjoy success.

In the mid to late 2000s the craze was hiring MBAs into the social sector. If only non-profits were more like businesses! The economic collapse at the hands of MBAs cooled that trend, but alas the app craze filled our empty panacea cup.

As Silicon Valley blazes trails like it did in the 1990s, the social sector has started wondering why there is an app for sharing photos with friends, but there is no app for ending poverty. Well, photo sharing is trivial, ending poverty is not.

But, we can make trivial applications about poverty. That must count for something right?


And yet the White House itself is pushing the misnomer that technology can solve social problems. It cannot. If connecting people to homeless services was simple enough that a part-time developer could solve this problem, Google would have done so a long time ago. Google indexes pretty much every website on the Internet, so why does Google search fail to effectively connect people to services?

Social service agencies do not always have a web-presence, and when they do, they do not adequately maintain their sites with sufficient information to make referrals. That is why 211, and my own company, employ people to manually maintain our resource databases. The problem of maintaining resource data is not a technological one, it is logistical, and there is no app for that.

I am not arguing that there is no place for technology in the social sector. As a firm that uses technology in its work with social sector organizations, obviously I believe there is a place for technical innovation in our work. But slick, shiny apps with ridiculous names and soon to be outdated databases are not what anyone needs.

There is a reason that in the app economy apps sells for a dollar. They are easy to make, and easy to forget. We don’t need apps, we need real solutions.

  • Ontario 211

    That being said , we are working on developing a GEO-based app here in Ontario for 211.

  • Carey Fuller

    I agree with you David. It’s not apps we need but real time solutions but then, unless homelessness is a gold mine, ending poverty will always be last on everybody’s to-do list.

    Thanks for you insights as always!

  • David Lynn

    But if we gave every homeless person an ipad, they wouldn’t be homeless any more, right? (sarcasm)
    Thanks for the post.  We are working on very similar info exchanges with our local 211 and others.  Tech can make it easier, and open data is great, but very much a process/logistics problem, as you said.

  • Jen Padgett

     I agree with pretty much every aspect of this article: Apps won’t solve homelessness. 
    Policy will.  This is what the app calls for:

    “Project REACH challenges the nation’s developers to create a convenient
    mobile application so that local resources are available to those who
    need them most – our homeless veterans. The ultimate goal is to create a
    national platform that allows for identifying available services such
    as health clinics, food kitchens, housing services, and shelters at any
    location around the country.”

    A lofty goal to go national.  It is good to test an idea in a small arena first.  But the contest misses the mark:  even if all of these connections were made, will it 

    Fight Veteran Homelessness? 

    NO.  If it had asked for an app that will help eliminate some of the  barriers to accessing information: that is what this does, so the Feds messaging is off.  But it doesn’t mean there will be more shelter, or more services, or that we know that getting them to those services is actually the right thing for solving the issue. 

    Until we solve homelessness, I think responsible apps that incorporate databases that are unlikely to go away, and/or have a national standard are valuable: lack of information or no access to information is a barrier that we should try to overcome in the interim. 

    I see the point here too where creating a bunch of apps (we don’t need another app!) that have partial, misinformation, outdated information could be counter productive: they direct people away from a great tool, or build lack of trust that any source will be accurate.  Information overload at it’s worst!!!

    Being in the data, technology, and the homeless world, we are asked to create technological solutions to this social problem.    Apps should support the solution, not BE the solution!

    I think that is the intention of this contest is to better support the exchange of information. Perhaps the messaging needs to change.

    For the sake of getting someone more quickly to an open shelter bed, or a service they  need, I’m rooting for it.  I hope the solution that is chosen pays attention to national standards/best practices in resource information exchange.  I also hope that encourages enhancement of existing tools like 211, and does not aim to create something totally new.