The 2016 Hackathon Codapalooza, sponsored by the Tampa Innovation Alliance, took place over the weekend of June 3-5, 2016, where diverse groups of individuals came together for 72 hours to respond to the challenge to design an app to help the region’s homeless population. The University of South Florida’s team (Team USF), composed of students from the College of Engineering and the School of Social Work, represented a unique and wide range of skills sharing one common goal—a desire to use their education and passion to help ease a problem faced daily by those on the streets.
The team (pictured left) began their collaboration with a discussion on the epidemic of homelessness overall. For some engineering students, this was their first time hearing about the realities that the community faces. For these students, hearing the answers only prodded more questions—about topics like federal funding, shelters, and housing vouchers. As the social work students presented case examples of the difficulties accessing resources and the impact of the lack of funding dedicated to help this vulnerable population, it was clear that the engineering students were feeling a variety of emotions. Ultimately, this made them eager to learn more and above all determined to find a worthwhile solution at this event. The social work students were eager to provide information on the current status of the homeless, not only from the factual laws and regulations perspective but also from their view of raw, first hand experience gained from working directly with Tampa’s homeless population. They knew the reality of what was most needed and practical in the community.
The social work students told many stories of homeless people being unable to find an open shelter bed. And, if they did, being tired of waiting in lines all day trying to secure a bed only to find they did not qualify, because shelters often have admission criteria for special subpopulations of homeless people. For example, perhaps he or she is not a veteran, not disabled, not a woman with children, or doesn’t meet any of the other possible prerequisites for a shelter. This is what ultimately led to the app that Team USF created.
This is how the general idea of the app would work. Users would be prompted to answer a series of questions (e.g. gender; age; if accompanied by children, how many and how old; veteran status; disability status, etc.). Once the information was processed, a series of shelters they qualified for would pop up, based on their GPS location, along with the addresses and phone numbers.
The engineering students, as they were developing the app, went step-by-step through the coding process with the social work students. While they possessed so much technical skill, the social work students would remind them about nuances within the homeless community that made designing this app different from any other. For example, the coders assumed after the user downloaded the app that they would create a login, as one would do with most apps and websites. However, the social work students made the engineering students aware that the homeless population is already wary of authority.
The realization of the need to protect personal information infused the conversation as engineers realized the sensitivity of the state of homelessness. The login idea was nixed. After that, the coding students began speaking in highly technical jargon about html, and the social work students eagerly inquired about what specific terms meant—respect and admiration in their voices, an exact replication of the excitement the engineering students had when learning about the needs of the homeless. Both the engineering and social work students wanted, with such fervor, to ensure the app went beyond just the Hackathon, and that it could actually be implemented as a helpful tool for a community desperately in need.
Team USF presented their app at the conclusion of the event. As they showcased their prototype, it was clear that each decision made for the app was a deliberate one and one that was discussed and explained in great detail within the group. From the minute they started, there was a practical and thoughtful reason for every decision made. The decision to make the app for Android phones, for example, was because it was mentioned that a vast majority of the homeless do not have iPhones, and thus it would be less important to make the app Apple-friendly. Every choice being a conscious one was a huge aspect of what made the process so invigorating. The app was clearly tailored to the user and provided access to an important service.
Overall, the Hack for Homelessness event is part of a bigger picture of “Hack For” events that are changing the world. Every team participating created something useful that did not already—but absolutely needs to—exist. This event facilitated integral dialogues between social workers and coders and, most importantly, collaboration in the face of determination. It showed how eager people are to learn about other fields. Social workers and engineers both work to solve big social problems. More opportunities to collaborate like this are needed to do just that.
About the Author: Erin Fowler (pictured right) is a third-year senior at the University of South Florida studying mass communications and interning at Moffitt Cancer Center. In her spare time, she enjoys doing yoga and building her book collection.
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Check out this one written by Kelsey Whittington, UAlbany MSW student and graduate assistant for the National Center for Excellence in Homeless Services.