Texting Alerts from HopeOneSource Serves Homeless in Washington, D.C.

Grant from the IEEE Humanitarian Activities Committee funds improvements

11 May 2017

For those experiencing homelessness, finding a job or an empty bed at a shelter on a cold night can be daunting. To help address such problems, IEEE Member Anthony Glynn helped create HopeOneSource, a texting platform that lets career and social service providers send messages to cellphones.

Those who want to receive the messages can register with HopeOneSource from a computer or a mobile device. If they don’t have a phone, the Lifeline government assistance program will give them one for free, and with unlimited text messaging. Libraries and shelters are helping to sign people up, and HopeOneSource has helped nearly 600 people since its launch in September 2015, according to Glynn.

More than 70 social service providers and businesses in the Washington, D.C., area use the platform, including health clinics, job placement agencies, and legal aid organizations.

The IEEE Humanitarian Activities Committee in 2016 gave HopeOneSource a grant of US $20,000 to improve the platform so that text messages could be delivered faster.

QUICK RESPONSE

Glynn, a senior analyst at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, helped develop HopeOneSource using Drupal, an open-source platform for building websites and apps. He was introduced to the founder of HopeOneSource, Tim Underwood, and the two worked together on this side project, bringing in several more volunteers to help with development and marketing.

Service providers can send messages on the site of up to 150 characters, targeted to groups based on, say, age, gender, and geographic location. Users who report they have children, for example, receive alerts about nearby child-care services and community programs that serve families.

When people sign up to receive messages through the HopeOneSource website, they’re asked to pinpoint their location. They can type in an address or position a red marker on a map featured on the sign-up page. Those who register select the types of services they want to be notified about, such as educational programs, food banks, and mental health counseling, as well as the availability of beds in shelters.

Glynn used most of the IEEE Humanitarian Activities grant money to improve the delivery of text messages so they arrive faster and do not get stuck in spam filters.

Timing for some alerts can be crucial. Hypothermia is no joke for people who sleep outdoors in the cold. So when a snowstorm is approaching, an alert is sent about emergency shelters and transportation. “The alert is like a little angel,” Glynn says.

During such emergency situations, the large number of messages being sent at the same time prompts some network providers to filter them as spam. Glynn created a queuing system so that each message would be sent one at a time, but messages still were not getting through efficiently.

To fix the problem, the development team used $15,000 from the grant to purchase a short code. Short codes are commonly used for sending mass messages at high volume to mobile phones, past spam filters.

Short codes can be programmed to respond to text messages as well. For example, texting the word stop to HopeOneSource’s short code number allows an individual to opt out of receiving text messages. People also have the ability to text other commands that update their profile information, such as their location.

HopeOneSource has applied for the next round of IEEE HAC funding to cover the platform’s operational costs for next year. Meanwhile, the development team has begun enhancing the site, adding a data dashboard that displays information about those who are registered, as well as a function that allows service providers to schedule their messages ahead of time.

IT TAKES A COMMUNITY

The texting platform is starting to be used by local businesses that want to help. For example, a Washington pizzeria provided free slices to the first 200 people who responded to its alert.

Glynn and Underwood, an Air Force Reserve captain who works at the Department of Veterans Affairs, say they see the platform as a way to help the homeless get back on their feet—alerting them about the availability of job assistance, educational programs, counseling, and permanent housing.

Glynn and Underwood said they plan to offer HopeOneSource this year to the greater Washington metro area, and expand to other major U.S. cities next year. But they can’t do it alone. Accordingly, the team is looking for individuals and organizations to volunteer. Positions include Web developers as well as “ambassadors” who encourage social service providers and the homeless to sign up. Visit the website to learn how to get involved.

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