Across the globe, extreme poverty has been reduced by the advent and ubiquity of a simple tool: cell phones. As USAID says, mobile phones “fundamentally transform the way people in the developing world interact with one another and their governments, and access basic health, education, business and financial services.”
Could the same technology that is alleviating extreme poverty around the world also be used to help solve America’s homeless problem?
In an intriguing paper by the America Enterprise Institute, Kevin C. Corinth proposes giving the homeless smartphones as part of a “tech revolution for the homeless.” “I propose equipping homeless individuals with free smartphones and service plans in exchange for providing daily information on themselves through a specialized app—including their sleeping locations, use of services, and personal outcomes,” says Corinth. “The possibilities could transform how we understand and confront homelessness.”
The idea may seem unusual, but it’s not as bizarre as you might imagine. For instance, a significant number of the homeless already have access to cell phones. However, few have reliable internet access and as Corinth notes, service disruptions due to an inability to pay are common.
Providing smartphones with reliable connectivity would allow researchers to better understand the problem at an individual level and track where the homeless sleep and what health problems they may have. The phones could even be used to experiment with providing benefits and services. For example, when the weather turns dangerously cold, the phones could be used to send Uber drivers to pick up the homeless and take them to a shelter.
Smartphones alone won’t solve the homeless problem, of course. But collecting better data on the problem can help us to discover and implement practical solutions to help alleviate the suffering of these vulnerable members of our community. “If quality data collection really is possible,” says Corinth, “a revolution in homeless services could very well follow.”