The controversial technology, which works in conjunction with Bitfocus’s Clarity Human Services platform, enables users to see homeless encampments in real-time on a map, chart the quality of interactions with persons in an affected area, and see records for individual persons.
"The new functionality streamlines field outreach—improving the engagement experience for both the front-line worker and client while empowering policymakers with a better understanding of what is occurring in the community and where," said Jeff Ugai, Chief Operating Officer at Bitfocus. "We're so excited to get Outreach into the hands of our Clarity Human Services users."
Bitfocus founder and CEO Robert Herdzik said that the mission of Outreach became even more important amid the coronavirus.
"Although the coronavirus presents unprecedented challenges to us all, the pandemic poses a particularly grave threat to our most vulnerable populations," Herdzik said. "Knowing the vital role contact-tracing plays in a comprehensive response, we fast-tracked the release of new location-based street outreach and encampment tools that bring powerful geospatial analytics to homeless service providers."
Since 2003, when, “burdened by a legacy vendor”, the founders of Bitfocus decided to develop their own, the company has been attempting to develop a means to monitor and help homeless individuals.
The company’s stated mission is to “empower communities nationwide who are looking for better ways to use technology, data, and policy to improve their systems of care,” as well as “...using data and technology to transform Human Services and drive positive social change.”
However, such technology has significant privacy implications.
Despite the potential upsides to the program, it requires high levels of personal information that concerned individuals may be unwilling or unable to provide. This information, according to Futurism, “collects data from 15 government agencies and also asks homeless participants to fill out a survey that asks about their daily routines, medical history, and other personal information that could be used to help them get appropriate help.”
Beyond that, the program often does not provide the means for homeless people to get access to what is arguably the most immediately necessary resource − housing. For example, in order to receive shelter through San Francisco’s Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing, applicants must furnish a government identification card and pass a background check that takes 45 days to complete.
Further, Chris Block, the director of coordinated entry for Episcopal Community Services of San Francisco, isn’t confident that the information gathered through Outreach won’t be abused.
“There’s a lot of privacy concerns,” he said. “So far those issues haven’t been significant, but that doesn’t mean they won’t come up in the future.”
Use of this information in ways not originally intended could come in many forms. For one, law enforcement could request the data through a subpoena, court order, or a warrant. And while Bitfocus could take legal measures to stop or delay releasing the data, determining the legality of law enforcement data request cases can be difficult.
"I do think there is a high likelihood that sometime in the next two to four years the Supreme Court will be taking up this issue, and probably sooner than later," said Nathan Freed Wessler, an ACLU staff attorney who argued that police need a warrant to collect an individual’s location data from their cell phone carrier in Atlanta’s 11th Circuit.
The program’s usage has been steadily growing, and several cities have already announced that they will be using Bitfocus products in the future. Of the ten cities with the highest homeless population in the United States, seven use Clarity Human Services.
In late September, Long Beach, California, announced that it will use Clarity Human Services in its effort to decrease homelessness in the area.
"The Long Beach Continuum is pleased to enter a partnership with Bitfocus and use the Clarity HMIS platform. We have seen a strong commitment and partnership from Bitfocus in migrating existing data into their system," said Paul Duncan, the Long Beach Homeless Services Officer.
Additionally, Bitfocus has partnered with Project Roomkey, which aims to provide shelter in vacant hotels to homeless individuals vulnerable to COVID-19.
“We are thrilled to join with the city of Long Beach and its partner agencies and programs in their innovative efforts to end homelessness,” said Herdzik. “Working together, we can build a powerful data system that supports housing stability and self-reliance while promoting equitable, respectful, and safe service delivery."
Outreach’s beta version became available on October 1 at no additional cost to Clarity Human Services users.
About the Author
Elijah Labby is a graduate of the National Journalism Center. He has previously written for Broadband Breakfast, a technology and internet policy website.