HUD, Veterans Affairs and Jon Bon Jovi’s foundation launch app challenge for homeless veterans

To paraphrase President Kennedy: Ask not what your country can code for you — ask what you can code to help your country. If you’re a developer, consider empowering your fellow citizens help the homeless veterans in your community. The Departments of Housing and Urban Development, Health and Human Services, and the Jon Bon Jovi Soul Foundation have collaborated to back a new challenge to developers to create a better way to help the homeless veterans using the Internet and mobile devices.

“Last year’s 12 percent drop in Veterans homelessness shows the results of President Obama’s and the whole administration’s commitment to ending Veterans homelessness,” said Secretary of House and Urban Development Shaun Donovan, in a prepared statement. “I want to thank Jon Bon Jovi for being a part of that effort and for using competition and innovation to advance the cause of ending homelessness.”

The idea here is relatively straightforward: use the open innovation approach that the White House has successfully applied elsewhere federal government to tap into the distributed creativity of the technology community all over the country.

“This contest taps the talent and deep compassion of the Nation’s developer community,” said Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric K. Shinseki, in a prepared statement. “We are asking them to make a free, easy-to-use Web and smartphone app that provides current information about housing, health clinics and food banks.”

While “Project REACH” stands for “Real-time Electronic Access for Caregivers and the Homeless (REACH),” it actually aspires to do something more meaningful: give mobile citizens and caregivers the information they need to help a homeless veteran where and when it’s needed.

This app “will better connect our nation’s homeless to resources that are already available to them in a manner that reaches them where they are,” said Aneesh Chopra, the first US CTO, in a conference call today with reporters. Chopra, who left the administration earlier this year, later clarified that he was serving as a volunteer and judge for the challenge.

To say that improving the current state of affairs with homeless veterans is needed would be a gross understatement. “Homelessness for anyone is a national tragedy,” said Sean Donovan, secretary of HUD, in today’s call. “It’s never worse than for our nation’s veterans.”

The “Obama administation believes that no one who has fought for our country should ever be invisible to the American people,” said Donovan, who noted that while HUD has housed 28,000 veterans and has gotten nearly “nearly 1 in 5 homeless veterans off our nation’s streets,” more effort is needed.

He’s right. Here’s your jarring statistic of the day: One out of every six men and women in the United States’ homeless shelters are veterans. Veterans are 50 percent, according to the VA, are more likely to fall into homelessness compared to other Americans

The Project REACH challenge asks developers to create a mobile or Web application that will connect service providers to real-time information about resources for the homeless and others in need. “What if we had the ability, in real-time, drawing on local data, to help the homeless vet?” asked Donovan today. He wants to see information that can help them find a place to sleep, find services or work put in the palms of the hands of anyone, giving ordinary citizens the ability to help homeless veterans.

Instead of offering spare change, in other words, a citizen could try to help connect a homeless veteran with services and providers.

The first five entries to meet the requirements will receive a $10,000 cash prize and the opportunity to test their app at the JBJ Soul Kitchen. The winner will receive a $25,000 prize.

“At the Soul Kitchen we’ve seen the need for a simple, user-friendly, comprehensive application that connects those in need to resources in their community,” said Jon Bon Jovi, legendary rock musician, chairman of the JBJ Soul Foundation and White House Council Member, in a prepared statement. “As we sought out a solution to resolve the disconnect, we found the VA, HUD and HHS to be of like mind. Together we can provide the information about existing services – now we need the bright minds in the developer community to create a platform to tie it all together.”

Empowering people to help one another through mobile technology when they want to do so is more about the right-time Web than real-time. And yes, that should sound familiar.

Community groups and service providers sometime lack the right tools, too, explained W. Scott Gould, deputy secretary of veterans affairs, on the call today. The contest launched today will use Internet and smartphones to help them. The app should use tech to show which community provider has a bed or find an employer with openings, he said.

“It’s a high tech, high compassion, low cost solution,” said Gould, that “puts the power in the hands of anyone” to use data to help veterans get the help that they need. He wrote more about using technology to help homeless veterans at the White House blog:

Project REACH (Real-Time Electronic Access for Caregivers and the Homeless) challenges applicants to make a free, easy-to-use, and broadly accessible web- and Smartphone app to provide current and up-to-date information about housing and shelter, health clinics, food banks, and other services available to the homeless. It is designed to tap the enormous talent and deep compassion of the nation’s developer community to help us deliver vital information to the people who care for the homeless.

People caring for homeless veterans will be able to use this app to look up the location and availability of shelters, free clinics, and other social services – and instantaneously be able to share this critical information with those in need.

Bon Jovi, when asked about whether homeless veterans have smartphones on today’s call, told a story about a man at the Soul Kitchen who stayed late into the evening. The staff realized that he didn’t have a place to go and turned to the Internet to try to find a place for him. Although they found that it was easy to find local shelters, said Bon Joivthe websites didn’t inform them of hours and bed availability.

“People like me, who want to help, sometimes just don’t know, real-time, if there are beds available,” he said. “Think about the guys like me that have a computer, in the Soul Kitchen, that want to help.”

As healthcare blogger Brian Ahier noted this afternoon in sharing his post on Project REACH, this is the sort of opportunity that developers who want to make a major contribution to their communities can be proud to work upon.

Improving the ability of citizens to help homeless veterans is a canonical example of working on stuff that matters.

“We will, through our broad and deep network at HUD, make sure that whoever wins this competition, will make sure that app and tech is available to more than 8,000 providers,” said Donovan.

If that network Bon Jovi’s star power can help draw more attention to the challenge and any eventual services, more of the nation’s civic surplus just might get tapped, as more coders find that’s there’s a new form of public service available to them in the 21st century.

Solving your neighbor’s possum problem in the dark? There’s an app for that.

One of the most common aphorisms heard around the Gov 2.0 world is that “potholes are the gateway drugs to civic engagement.”

After a recent report in Boston, maybe Hub pundits can add a new phrase to the lexicon: “possums are the gateway animal to citizens connecting.

As the indefatigable Adam Gaffin reported at Universal Hub, the wonderful hyperlocal blog in Beantown, the Citizens Connect app has now been deployed as Boston’s high tech possum saver.

According to Gaffin’s post, Susan Landibar of South Boston saw a possum report:

“Possum in my trash can. Can’t tell if it’s dead. Barrel in back of 168 west 9th. How do I get this removed?”

And acted upon it:

Labandibar reports:
11:15PM Walked over to West Ninth Street. It’s about three blocks from my house. Locate trash can behind house. Possum? Check. Living? Yep.

Turned the trash can on its side. Walked home. Good night, sweet possum.

When the city of Boston released the Citizens Connect application, which works on Android phones and iPhones, officials no doubt expected it to help constituents report potholes, graffiti, unplowed snow and trash removal.

And indeed, if you look through the list of reported issues, that’s the bulk of it.

After today, however, the city can add “possum problems” to the list of resolved issues. Crucially, however, it wasn’t the city that fixed it: it was a fellow citizen who saw an issue using the app and then went and took care of it herself.

For good or ill, this example of “do it ourselves” government is a data point that may be increasingly relevant. Plummeting city budgets mean smarter cities will need citizen sensors to detect issues and take civic pride into their own hands. As Gov 2.0 goes local, applications that connect citizens to one another in crises may become as important as technologies that connect citizens to government, like Citizens Connect.

As the role of the Internet as a platform for collective action grows, Clay Shirky may be proven prescient: “We have historically overestimated the value of access to information and underestimated the value of access to one another.”

New iPhone app connects trained citizens to others in cardiac distress

In 2011, there needs to be a better way to empower citizens trained in CPR to receive alerts about nearby cardiac arrest victims with geolocated maps and the location of electronic defribrillators to help them.

Now, there’s an app for that too: firedepartment.mobi. The new new geolocation app connects citizen first responders to heart attack victims in San Ramon. FireDepartment can be downloaded directly from iTunes.

Today the San Ramon Valley Fire Protection District (SRVFPD) in California launched a iPhone app that will dispatch trained citizens to help others in cardiac emergencies. This new application is the latest evolution of the role of citizens as sensors, where resources and information are connected to those who need it most in the moment. This FireDepartment app is also an important example of Gov 2.0, where a forward looking organization created a platform for citizens to help each another in crises and planned to make the underlying code available for civic developers to improve on. Given context and information, trained citizens in San Ramone will now be able to do more than alert authorities and share information: they can act to save lives. Here’s a demo of the app:

iPhone Demo from Fire Department on Vimeo.

Adriel Hampton called FireDepartment the perfect blend of technology, government and volunteers. Can an everyday citizen become a hero? As Joe Hackman observed, “Today it just got a lot easier.”


Open Government and Civic Innovation on Display at Portland’s CivicApps Awards

What does the innovation on display at the Civic Apps contest by developers in Portland, Oregon mean to the city’s mayor?

“It’s bringing to the world knowledge of what exists in the real world but is so often unknown,” said Mayor Sam Adams in an interview at the awards ceremony for the winners of the contest.

“In Portland, like I think most cities, when people are armed with knowledge, they make wiser choices,” he said, pointing to applications like PDX Bus as examples of innovation that actually help citizens to navigate the city better.

Does open data lead to more economic value creation in the private sector and metropolitan areas alike?

“We are seeing folks that are sole proprietorships hire folks to help them build their business, their app business, their online business with our data sets.” he said. “For us, data has always been there, in some cases for decades. Putting it to use for the public and help people make money while they do it – we intend to be the open source capitol of the nation – and this is one contribution we can make, with our data sets.”

What’s next? “What CivicApps is about in part, providing the data, is sparking relationships, relationships which lead to economic opportunities,” he said. “Webtrends, Microsoft meets the local hacker or coder tonight at this event, who knows what will happen. Our job is to provide the data, provide the opportunity for relationships to occur, provide what in comparison is a tiny litte bit of money, a little incentive for people to keep going. And it’s also fun. It make the city more fun to live in, because you know what’s there.”

That incentive, incidentally, amounted to $1000 for each of the winners of the second round of Civic Apps awards, with another $3000 going to the Best of Show winner, Loqi.me. This afternoon, Skip Newberry, economic development policy advisor to Mayor Adams, congratulated the winners of CivicApps on Twitter.

Congrats to @caseorganic @elsewisemedia @pdxmele @maxogden & John Mosser for their award-winning @civicapps! #opensource #gov20 #teamadamsless than a minute ago via TweetDeck

Most Useful App and Best of Show

Amber Case for Loqi.me

As Mayor Adams mentioned later in the program, this Web app could be useful in a snowstorm in Oregon or, if adapted more broadly, for crisis response around the country or world.

App description: “This application is a resource for citizens, medical teams and governments before, during and after disasters. Loqi.me allows mobile users to send an emergency GPS beacon to a real-time map. Crises responders can view all of the help requests on the webpage, along with hospitals and fire stations, real-time 911 calls related to natural disasters. Ground teams can easily use Loqi.me on their mobile phones to send notices of supplies and terrain reports in real time. Remote helpers can easily see the whole picture on the website’s real-time map, handle help and information requests, and send messages to the network. Loqi.me supports subscription to group messages via SMS, AIM, Jabber and Twitter. No application installation is required. Location beacons can be sent simply by going to http://loqi.me on a mobile phone.”

Most Appealing

Matt Blair for PDX Trees.

App description: “PDX Trees is an app for iPhone and iPod Touch devices that makes it easy to find and and enjoy them. With this app, you can:

  • Search for nearby trees and see them on a map.
  • Tap a pin to see the name and view details for that particular tree.
  • Take and upload a photo of a Heritage Tree you’re visiting.
  • View photos of the tree taken by other tree enthusiasts.
  • Email a friend about the tree (includes tree name and location where available)
  • Read more about a type of tree from Wikipedia, without leaving the app.”

Most Original

Melelani Sax-Barnett for Portland Bike to Transit.

App Description: “This is a simple, handy web map that helps you figure out how to ride your bike to transit. It lets you choose from a variety of base layers, and toggle transit stops, routes, and current bike routes. You can also query transit stops and routes for basic information. I made this for a Web GIS class at PSU and I’m a total beginner (with some code thanks to Professor Percy and OpenLayers).”

Best Use of Data

Max Ogden for Civic Apps Data Previewer

“This helped make our data useful to a lot of other developers and the general public,” said Mayor Adams. “Why take it on?”

“I saw all of this great data at the core when civic apps launched,” said Ogden. “When you get data into the Web format, you get Web developers who are really used to making human interfaces for things make them.”

App Description: “A web application to preview any of the public geo data on CivicApps from your web browser. You can choose a dataset and view that data on a map. Individual objects are clickable and can provide details (metadata).”

Civic Choice

Joseph Mosser for PDXTrian

App Description: “Pdxtrian is a simple utility for riders of Portland’s excellent mass transit system, TriMet.

  • Uses GPS to find nearby transit stops
  • Displays a map of the stop location
  • Displays a list upcoming arrivals
  • Allows you to save stops and look them up anytime”

The livestream of the awards ceremony is embedded below:

USA.gov launches new iPhone app on its 10th Anniversary

This October marks the 10th anniversary of USA.gov, the nation’s search engine for government. And, as it turns out, now there’s an app for that. Nope, it’s not Apps.gov of even Apps.USA.gov. The General Services Administration quietly added a new USA.gov iPhone app to iTunes a few days ago. Why is it important? When American look for government information, they use search engines. While most of them go to Google and Bing, now they have another option when they fire up a smartphone.

The new app integrates access to a useful government dataset for citizens: a product recall database. The same access is available through a Product Recall app online, for Android or on mobile devices at Recalls.gov. That also means that citizens don’t have to have a smartphone to access public data, a issue for accessibility and the digital divide. For those inclined, the app also provides mobile search for local, state and federal websites, including predictive search.

The new USA.gov app is beautifully designed, lightweight and didn’t crash on me after ten minutes of searching and browsing. The integration of a “tap to call” feature with the iPhone on the home screen also preserves a handy “Gov 1.0” feature as well: 1 800 FED INFO.

As the app description in iTunes notes, the app makes public data like birth, marriage and death records freely available to all citizens (provided that they have an iOS device with an Internet connection). Search.USA.gov provides similar access on both mobile and desktop users, for folks who prefer a Web browser to an app. Information about schools, passport and visas, tax codes, government jobs and Social Security benefits is also available.

The addition of the USA.gov to iTunes ends a quiet but important lag in getting a free government app onto the world’s largest mobile application platform. When Apps.USA.gov launched, Apple apps were conspicuously absent. Months later, the legal difficulties between the feds and Cupertino appear to resolved.

As a result, parents can search the FDA database to see which toys have been recalled. While it’s true that analysts can (and no doubt will) point to the USA.gov app as the latest example of “shiny app syndrome,” making a better interface for open data is a win for everyone.