Putting People First: TOPcities Works to Co-Create Solutions to COVID-19 Challenges by Centering Residents and Local Data
April 29, 2021–By Anna Gorman and Katya Abazajian
When the first handwritten “Closed for COVID-19” signs began to appear in the windows of restaurants and retail stores in March 2020, health officials implored—and sometimes ordered—Americans nationwide to “stay at home.” By April 2020, 7.2 million Americans had lost their jobs, the majority of those in low-wage industries. In the midst of an already devastating housing crisis, families at risk of homelessness and eviction skyrocketed. The Aspen Institute estimates 30–40 million Americans are currently at risk of eviction, with many facing the harsh reality that if they are evicted, they have nowhere they can go.
The Beeck Center for Social Impact + Innovation, alongside the Centre for Public Impact, and with support from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and Google.org, launched the TOPcities project in March 2021, partnering with cities to assemble teams to jointly build civic technology that would help residents endure the pandemic, specifically focused on keeping people in their homes. Our pilot effort focuses on two Knight cities that expressed interest in leveraging civic technology to fight COVID, San José, Calif., and St. Paul, Minn. These cities are testing a city-level approach to the federal Opportunity Project model, bringing together neighbors with lived experience, city leadership, and technical support to solve critical problems. In our variation, TOPCities seeks to address the housing crisis, including eviction moratoriums, rental assistance, and resources for people without homes, by building tools based on the perspectives of the people who truly understand their challenges—residents.
TOPcities is a city-level iteration of the federal Opportunity Project, a program by the U.S. Census Bureau that brings the public and private sectors together to harness open data to prototype digital products that solve pressing socioeconomic and environmental problems. By participating in the sprint, public servants, community providers, residents, and technologists will learn more about what it takes to build technology for public good, and be able to apply these skills to future projects. Each team is facilitating a 16-week project “sprint” in which city, community, and tech partners are building a digital tool to address homelessness, eviction, and rental assistance issues exacerbated by COVID-19 using city-level open data.
The San José team is working to improve rental assistance and determine the size of their eviction cliff, or the expected number of residents who will face eviction after current moratoriums are lifted on July 1, 2021. Rent debt continues to grow under the pandemic, with thousands of tenants facing seemingly irrecoverable levels and San José, in the heart of Silicon Valley, has long been one of the country’s more expensive places to live. Because of San José’s current eviction moratorium, many landlords have not been filing eviction notices with the city government, the way in which San José traditionally collects data on how many residents are at risk of eviction. Due to this data gap, the City does not currently have a reliable estimate of the number of residents at risk for eviction, and is preparing for how to best serve these residents when moratoriums are lifted. The TOPCities program allows cities to dedicate time to innovate around this particular issue, and will support San José in its effort to “better help thousands of our most vulnerable families confronting an ‘eviction cliff’ with data-driven solutions that enable us to focus and maximize our resources to put our community on the path to an equitable recovery,” according to Mayor Sam Liccardo. Public servants who may not otherwise have time or technical resources to address these complex challenges can unite with tenants, landlords, community service providers, and technologists to co-create a solution that will serve residents’ needs.
The St. Paul team is working to better connect their residents without homes to support, social and emergency services, and shelter. While service providers can go through their local Continuum of Care or HMIS system to learn about homelessness at a high level, they still have to use informal means like ad hoc spreadsheets to share knowledge with each other and City outreach teams. The City doesn’t currently have a platform that sufficiently tracks available resources like shelter beds, making it difficult to identify critical resources for the St. Paul community. When residents without a place to go seek help, the City is not always immediately able to connect them to the help they need, or they do so in ways that erase the dignity or self-sufficiency of unhoused people. This gap “demands innovative, data-driven solutions … to leverage public data in our ongoing work to connect people experiencing homelessness to support, services, and shelter,” said Mayor Melvin Carter. To prevent vulnerable residents from slipping through the cracks of a system that should help them, the St. Paul team is working collaboratively to co-design and co-create a digital product that bridges this gap.
The TOPcities sprints will conclude in June 2021 with a Demo Day where teams will share their tools and lessons for other cities who would like to replicate their work, and the Beeck Center and Centre for Public Impact will publish a toolkit to support cities in their quest to serve their communities in innovative and impactful ways.
Anna Gorman is a student analyst at the Beeck Center and is studying Science, Technology and International Affairs and Computer Science at Georgetown University.
Katya Abazajian is a Fellow at the Beeck Center, and an open government advocate and researcher working to help cities and states use data for stronger local democracies.