This is the third in a series of four striking examples of #TechforGood, and part of our video campaign (watch here) where we called for people to nominate inspiring initiatives of tech being used for wider social impact.
Julia Burkhead is deputy director at the Community Technology Alliance (CTA), an organization fighting poverty and homelessness using big data. Based in San Jose, California, the CTA has been using that Silicon Valley tech spirit to make a tangible difference to the lives of the most vulnerable across the USA.
Florence Broderick quizzed Julia this week to find out just how much of an impact this non-profit is making.
How exactly does the CTA use big data to fight homelessness?
Across the USA there are niche market homelessness management information systems (HMIS) that create a lot of data. Every community has to have one but not all of them use them well which means that big opportunities are being missed. The information created is rich telling us what is and isn’t working. Our goal is to make that data much more accessible because until now these HMISs have been black holes: you put a lot of information in, but don’t get a lot out. Data about humans is complicated so it takes a lot of skill to be able to make strategic decisions with it – this is where we come in.
Which specific problems are the CTA solving?
By using data mining tools, we can identify the root causes of poverty and homelessness and work out the best solutions to end those issues, not just manage them. We only have a limited amount of resources to help people and we want to make sure that they are allocated correctly.
A partner of ours analyzed our data, which helped us to determine and identify the characteristics of the people who would be best served by our services. As an example, we were finding that fully subsidized apartments were being given to people that didn’t necessarily need them and could have just been given mid-range services. We are working hard to solve this problem.
How important is tech as a catalyst for social good?
So many of our biggest issues cannot be fought with dollars. And in our case, without tech we’re just a few people handing out blankets and soup. Our passion is not just data, it’s shared data. One agency on its own can collect information on an Excel spreadsheet, but to make a difference we have to measure as a collective to know how to really solve the big problems.
What led you to a career in the non-profit sector?
I grew up in the Bay Area and never really understood the meaning of jobs in Silicon Valley – I was always questioning how I could change things. The Valley often revolves around money and I didn’t know where I would fit in. I’d always said I wanted to volunteer for a living and was lucky to find this niche overlap between tech and charity so that I could work to create meaning – not just money.
Which of your projects would you highlight as being particularly successful?
Over the past 4 years, we’ve been one of many organizations working on the 100,000 homes campaign. It was a nationwide effort to help communities find permanent housing for 100,000 medically vulnerable and chronically homeless Americans in four years without using significant new tax money. The data we extract has played an important part in this and we’re proud to say that we have reached our collective goal of housing more than 100,000 people, including more than 30,000 veterans, saving the American taxpayer $1.3 billion in the process.