At the Ed School's hackathon last October, participants were asked to mull over a bunch of questions, including this one: How would you learn if the only thing you had access to was a smartphone?
Farhan Quasem, Ed.M.'15, and Cindy Yang, Ed.M.'15, both students at the time in the Technology, Innovation, and Education Program, took the question one step further: What if you didn't even have a smartphone?
As they tried to answer this question, they started talking about the many homeless people they passed every day in Harvard Square who, they were certain, didn't have smartphones or Internet access. So on the first day of the hackathon, along with classmate Hannah Fidoten, Ed.M.'15, the two walked around the square and asked some of the homeless a twist on their question: What would you do if you did have a smartphone and Internet access?
One woman, a pregnant mother with another child living with a relative, said she'd use it to better manage her appointments, especially with doctors. Another said she'd use it to apply online for jobs. Others talked about being able to locate services like food pantries or reconnect with loved ones.
From this, the nonprofit Mobilizr was born. Quasem and Yang spent the past spring and summer in the Venture Incubation Program at Harvard i-lab creating a plan for Mobilizr to digitally empower the homeless by giving them smartphones, data plans, and ongoing tech support. Their pilot, which was partially funded by an Indiegogo crowdsourcing fundraiser and the Harvard Coop, distributed donated phones and limited data plans for three months to eight people living in transitional housing through a local organization called HomeStart. Initial reports from case managers show that the phones have helped, especially in helping to set up and keep appointments. "We definitely know that task management is one of the ways we can help our clients," Quasem says.
A second pilot with Lazarus House Ministries will include 30 people in nearby Lawrence, Massachusetts, using brand-new Lenovo phones.
"We decided we had to go through organizations that serve the homeless, to target individuals living in some form of transitional housing who are post-detox and on the road to recovery," Quasem says. "A lot of them are really motivated. Their goal is to get out of transitional housing or shelters and into their own homes." The data plan is purposefully limited, he says. "We are holding them accountable. We don't want them to just watch YouTube all day, but to use it to improve their condition." Beyond the practical uses, this includes also being able to reach out to lost family and friends.
For more information: mobilizr.org or @wearemobilizr.