At last weekend’s National Day of Civic Hacking event hosted by Code for Boston at the Microsoft offices in Cambridge, one of the most popular projects was pitched by Josh Levin, the Project Manager for Coordinated Access for the Cambridge Department of Human Service Programs. “I spent the past three weeks turning the prior version of this list of homelessness resources into a 60-page PDF,” Levin said, “and the first thing we did was tear it apart.”
Laughing, Levin acknowledged that while at first, he was apprehensive about the process, ultimately, he’s thrilled with the result. His team – which consisted of around 20 people – worked together to create NeedNow, an interactive resource finder for the homeless in Cambridge. The team took that unwieldy PDF and streamlined it into something people can use and access from anywhere.
The team – who called themselves “Team Lobcuda,” was large for this kind of event, but, as Levin said, “it was inspiring to see such a large group self-organizing around this particular goal.”
Throughout the weekend, the team broke into smaller groups, worked on particular aspects of the problem, and held frequent scrum sessions to update each other on their progress and to communicate about next steps.
“That team was so focused,” said Harlan Weber, Code for Boston Co-Captain, “it was really impressive to watch.”
By the end of the weekend, the team had created a working prototype for an application that allows users to search for food, shelter, or medical care based on their age, gender, or transportation needs.
“In the long term,” Levin explained, “of course we want to change the system and address the real problems of homelessness and need in the continuum of care, but in the short term, we want people to be able to easily find more appropriate, relevant, and targeted resources.”
Since the hackathon, Levin has taking the prototype – which can be found here – to his colleagues at the City of Cambridge. The response has been unanimously positive.
“My supervisor had this idea when I was hired,” said Levin, “so it’s awesome to see it come to fruition.”
Going forward, Levin and his team plan to work closely with Code for Boston to further develop and streamline the application, as well as to populate it with additional resources and information for those in need.
“We have a whole list of things we’d like to see the app have,” said Gile Beye, a developer who worked on the project. “We just have to figure out the best way to get the features in there.”
Currently, the app is streamlined and minimizes the questions it asks so as not to overwhelm the user. It first asks you what resource you’re looking for and gives you the option to choose, shelter, food, or medical care. If you choose shelter, you are asked your age and gender before a list of resources is provided. So at most, a user is asked three questions before being provided with a list of helpful resources, their contact information, address, and, if applicable, public transportation information. “Jessica Cole and her team who worked on design and usability were great at determining the minimum amount of information,” Levin said. “They preserved what was strictly necessary and didn’t add in too much.”
Future integration might combine NeedNow with Code for Boston’s Pantry Pickup food pantry finder or Finda, the dataset mapping platform to provide additional information. Additionally, the team would like to implement a way for each resource to be able to update their own data without it having to go through a central repository to be updated manually. These are usability challenges for sure, but Code for Boston and Team Lobcuda are up for the challenge.
“This is awesome in terms of proof of concept,” Levin said, “but it still lacks some features that are necessary to make it fully usable.”
That is what Team Lobcuda hopes to accomplish as it continues to work with Code for Boston’s designers, researchers, and developers on this project going forward.
“It’s super gratifying for us to have a city see a project like this and go, ‘Yes! Keep working on that!'” said Kristen Weber, Communications Lead for Code for Boston. “It’s great for our relationship with the city, for the resources we’re trying to connect, and for the people we’re trying to help. It’s great all around.”