VA, HUD and Jon Bon Jovi kick off app challenge to address veterans' homelessness

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A new, cross-agency developer challenge called Project REACH addresses the Obama administration goal of ending homelessness among veterans by 2015.

Project REACH, which stands for Real-time Electronic Access for Caregivers and Homeless, contest details were unveiled on a March 19 press call with officials from the departments of Housing and Urban Development, Veterans Affairs, and Jon Bon Jovi.

Project REACH challenges application developers to create mashups from HUD and VA data that will help homeless veterans and others in need find a place to sleep at night, medical facilities, or even a long-term home. While most of the homeless population lacks access to a smartphone or web-enabled device, the contest will help community volunteers and everyday Americans access information in real time. This will allow them to better assist homeless veterans, said officials on the call.

"Ladies and gentlemen who've fallen down the socio-economic ladder [come to shelters and soup kitchens and] just don't know how to access these social services. And there are people like me who want to help, but don't know in real time whether there are beds available," said Bon Jovi during the press call.

"When you come across a homeless person, this puts the power in anyone's hands to help them get the care they need," said Shaun Donovan, secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Ideally, the applications will mine data from the Homeless Management Information Systems. The system sets a standard language for shelters to input data on bed availability, for example. Until recently HMIS has been managed by HUD, with data collected at the community level, but going forward it will incorporate more VA data as well, said Donovan.

"We've brought real hard data to this challenge," said Donovan. "All of that data is tied to our HMIS system including, now, we are jointly using that HMIS standard to how we track and evaluate veterans' homelessness."

The department has collected data through HMIS for more than a decade, said Donovan, and the system has informed many programs that address homelessness. But developers won't currently find HMIS data at HUD.gov/open or at Data.gov--at least FierceGovernment's searches yielded no results. HMIS data is currently accessible at the regional level, "[for people working] at these local continuums of care," said Donovan.

The fact that the contest will open the dataset to more developers is "a major step forward for us toward a national platform and accessing this [HMIS] data in real-time way," said Donovan.

The challenge begins March 22. The first five developer entries that meet the challenge specifications will be announced Aug. 24 and will receive a $10,000 prize. Those five finalists will then enter a 2-month, beta test stage, where the apps will be piloted at shelters in Monmouth County, N.J., including Bon Jovi's JBJ Soul Kitchen. The winner will receive a $25,000 prize, and VA and HUD will work to scale the application to services across the country.

Deputy Secretary of VA W. Scott Gould said the department will spend a total of $1.1 billion this year in its effort to rescue homeless veterans, and much of that money goes to partnership community programs.

For more:
- visit the challenge page

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