The census is a lot more than a population count on a Wikipedia page. The demographic and population data derived from the once-a-decade count helps determine federal funding for social and health services, allocating infrastructure reforms, and representation in the U.S. Congress.
The 2020 census will be the first to be completed largely online. After running the most expensive census ever in 2010, the Census Bureau has decided to scale back expensive in-person canvassing in favor of a new technology push.
But digitizing the census creates new challenges as well — namely, the risk of garnering an even more lackluster response than usual from underserved, historically undercounted populations of low-income individuals, minorities and immigrants.
Take the fluctuating homeless population in a city like Atlanta, for example. A 2018 report shows over 3,000 homeless individuals in the city, the majority (80 percent) of whom are black. Missing these individuals on the census could skew demographic data significantly.
The for-profit social enterprise uses technology to help homeless and underserved individuals access personal records — vital documents like birth certificates, social security numbers and more — that they need to obtain basic services.
“For these high-risk populations, if they don’t get the services they need, like food stamps or healthcare, their life can fall apart really quickly,” Hayes tells Hypepotamus.
The startup helps individuals in two ways: the first, a wearable wristband that allows users to request and secure identification documents, generate employment forms, store their records, etc.
Through pilots with The Salvation Army and others, the startup has deployed 500 wristbands in Atlanta.
Their second service is a tablet, placed in homeless and transitional shelters, that allows shelter residents to access these same services, plus even more.
“Homeless citizens can check on status of their IDs, set up a secure pin to access their account, check for nearby food resources and medical providers,” Hayes says. “We can even offer a way for you to book shelter beds based on how you self-identify your gender.”
“These are all these things that are really really important to people to make them feel safe and make them feel like their needs are being addressed,” she says.
The tablet system was deployed this year in a pilot with Atlanta’s Covenant House, a youth shelter for homeless and transitional young people. Mini City’s results were promising: the system shortened the average time for residents to obtain most of their records from three months to four days.
“We feel like stopping this at the start, before they get to chronic homelessness, really has an interventionist effect and can prevent a lot of long-term homelessness from happening,” says Hayes.
Now the startup will use this same technology platform as an official partner of the 2020 census, focusing on collecting data from homeless individuals.
“We will track the current location of those citizens and ethically transfer it to the Census2020. We also have a range of commitments we will engage in to spread awareness and education on the Census2020 as well as the importance of having a legal form of identification,” says Hayes.
Of course, this information is all highly sensitive. Hayes and Jha, an engineering PhD whose research has been funded by the Air Force, the National Science Foundation, Apple, Google and others, have been intentional around security and privacy concerns.
“We’re proud of our triple-check system,” says Hayes. “If [a user ] forgets their pin, the security questions are based on information you’ve already given us. If someone steals a wristband and tries to use it, it has a lock-out feature; if someone reads the NFC ID and tries to re-write it, it locks out as well.”
“As they should be, people are really hesitant about any new technologies that interact with IDs.”
As the team prepares for the census, Hayes is hopeful that they will continue working with some of the organizations they have helped already, as well as working toward several new contracts with shelters, healthcare facilities, and non-profits.
Their services will always remain free to homeless individuals, she says. They make money by charging the shelters and organizations on a per-person subscription basis. The organizations also gain access to some of the data Mini City collects, which can help them when applying for funding and grants.
Refining their model and technology has been the focus of their time in the Center for Civic Innovation’s Fellowship program. Hayes cites CCI and Goodie Nation, the social impact pre-accelerator where the Mini City concept was born, as “incredibly valuable.”
Unfortunately, Hayes says the team has not yet felt the same level of support from City of Atlanta entities or private investors.
“There’s a level of tolerance for homelessness that’s pretty high, so it’s not really a priority,” she says. And though Atlanta’s venture capital scene is picking up in general, the impact sector is not one that has historically generated a lot of interest.
“Until you show them that this goes beyond just being a good person, that this is a for-profit business, I think we’ll get ignored by those investors.”
Moreover, Mini City’s team faces the same funding challenge that affects entrepreneurs of color around the country — a higher barrier to securing it.
“Though we reflect the residents that we’re helping, sometimes that doesn’t look like who the people in power are giving funding to,” says Hayes.
“We know it’s going to take time.”