Students develop SMS service StreetConnect
THE SANTA CLARA
January 15, 2015
New technology takes advantage of the fact that those without food, water or housing still have one luxury: a cell phone.
Santa Clara students and faculty have designed a cell phone program that allows humanitarian organizations to send direct messages to the Bay Area’s homeless population.
The system, called StreetConnect, enables homeless people to receive text messages about food, shelter, health and other events such as job fairs and weather advisories. Engineering Associate Professor Silvia Figueira and mathematics and computer science Professor Natalie Linnell are overseeing the project.
“Connection is incredibly important for everybody and we can think of the homeless and very poor as different from us,” Linnell said. “But when it comes down to basic human needs those are the same, and connection is a basic human need. Finding ways to seek services is really important.”
In 2013, San Jose social service organization Community Technology Alliance conducted a survey of 498 homeless people living in San Jose, Mountain View, Gilroy, Palo Alto and Sunnyvale, which determined that 68 percent of them had cell phones.
Out of the 68 percent of the people surveyed, 54.4 percent had access to data on their phones, so StreetConnect was designed to be SMS-based.
CTA approached engineering Associate Professor Silvia Figueira in 2013 to develop a phone program that allows social organizations to keep in contact with the local homeless population.
“Many homeless people with cell phones will spend up to 40 percent of income on cell phone plans because it’s so important to them to stay in contact with families,” Linnell said.
The idea for StreetConnect was first conceived in spring 2013 in one of Figueira’s classes, in which students developed the preliminary stages of StreetConnect.
Senior Nicholas Fong became StreetConnect’s sole software developer when the class ended. Graduate student Darshan Shah, who is studying engineering and computer science, is currently developing the system.
According to Figueira, homeless people can enroll in the service by simply sending a text message. Users can also register for the service online. Thus far, Sacred Heart Community Service is the only organization that sends direct updates to subscribers.
“There was a huge storm a week and a half ago, so we sent information about where they could find shelter,” said Allen Baez, special project manager at CTA.
According to Baez, around 100 homeless people are currently using StreetConnect. Google donated 1,000 smartphones to CTA to assist with their Mobile for All Program, which provides cell phones to homeless people. So far, CTA has given out 47 phones, Baez said.
According to Baez, Downtown Streets Team, a San Jose-based company that helps homeless people find housing and employment, is currently being trained on how to send updates on StreetConnect.
At the end of January, Shah will begin developing a smartphone app for StreetConnect.
Students from the Santa Clara School of Engineering will participate in a hackathon from Feb. 28 till March 1 to develop mobile applications for the Mobile for All program.
The applications will be customized to suit the personal needs of the homeless population, such as keep track of financial goals.
Contact Sophie Mattson at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (408) 554-4852.