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App for Homeless

Many local agencies offer services for those in need, but for the estimated 7,000 homeless people in Santa Clara County, help is often elusive. Now a small group of Santa Clara University students has transformed a simple mobile phone into a vital conduit for assistance.

“Among the homeless in San Jose, 69 percent have cell phones,” said Silvia Figueira, associate professor in the Computer Engineering Department. “That’s a large population that can benefit from technology.”

Tapping into that statistic, 11 students in Figueira’s spring quarter Mobile Projects for Social Benefit course built the framework for an app that hooks up homeless individuals and low-income families with customized community services. They call the project “StreetConnect.” Natalie Linnell, lecturer in mathematics and computer science, also co-advised the project.

The app is text-based, which means even the simplest cell phone can be used to access information. Users specify the type of notifications they want to receive about services that can meet their needs, and information is transmitted via text message.

“I was looking for a small project that four or five students could work on for a pilot course,” explained Figueira. At about the same time, she was approached by representatives of the Community Technology Alliance (CTA), a San Jose-based non-profit group that operates an extensive homeless management information system. And the idea was born. “I like projects that actually solve problems in the field, and this one really took off.”

Expecting four or five students to sign up for the class, which was offered through SCU’s Frugal Innovation Lab (FIL), Figueira said she was surprised when more than twice that number enrolled. One of those students was Nicholas Fong, now a junior majoring in computer science and engineering. “The FIL and what it does for the community and the
world has always intrigued me,” he said. When the class was announced, “I jumped at the opportunity to take it.”

Working with partners from CTA, the advisors and their crew soon discovered a labyrinth of social service agencies offering a wide array of specialized assistance. To effectively manage their project, Figueira and Linnell decided to start small, focusing on one organization—Sacred Heart Community Services—and one client group, people looking for job information.

By the end of the class, said Figueira, the team “had put their computer skills to use for social benefit, coming up with a functional system with a very cool design.” Throughout the summer, Fong continued to work on the app, “improving and adding to all of the hard work that was done in class,” he explained. He also presented the project to other community service providers, documenting their feedback. With all the final touches in place, the students’ StreetConnect app was launched as a pilot at the end of September.

While the class project currently centers on only one agency and one service need, it provides the structure for much more information and a wider audience. To achieve its maximum potential, the app will be turned over to CTA administrators, who will integrate it with the resource material contained in their vast database.

“It’s been a wonderful experience, and hopefully we can continue the course with another meaningful project next spring,” said Figueira.

In the meantime, thanks to one SCU class, community members in need soon will have an easier way of accessing important support services.

“Most people are surprised to learn that so many homeless people have cell phones,” said Figueira. “But, it makes sense; when you don’t have a job or a house, a phone is what connects you to the world.”
 

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