Atlanta’s entrepreneurial and technology scene has many positives to speak to: the city is home to one of the oldest accelerators in the country, the fourth-largest tech startup hub and the top university for female engineers.
However, it’s important to acknowledge areas where innovation can improve statistics that are not as positive. According to the Center for Civic Innovation, 27 percent of Atlanta residents had an income below the poverty level in 2015.
It was a problem that India Hayes, a tech designer who volunteered extensively abroad and domestically, and Anita Jones, who works full-time at the CDC and has a background in filmmaking, felt compelled to address. Jones saw the effects of homelessness firsthand when she produced an award-winning documentary on the city’s population.
Last year the two women founded Mini City, an idea rooted firmly at the intersection of tech and social good and as unique as its founders. Mini City uses technology to solve one of the biggest barriers for homeless citizens: lack of the necessary legal identification documents that would help them receive resources and help.
“One of the major impediments to reducing long-term homeless is the difficulty that homeless individuals have securing vital records and identification cards,” says Hayes. You need vital records and ID to take advantage of many basic services that empower an individual into sustainable levels of ownership and self-sufficiency. However, there are significant obstacles including costs related to applications and filing fees.
“Securing an ID can be a daunting task for a segment of our society that is often overlooked — a lack of identification starts to become a much larger issue, rendering individuals unseen in society.”
They developed proprietary software that serves as a resource hub to streamline the administration processes for legal identification, vital records, and employment forms. This is paired with a physical wearable device, similar in aesthetics to a Fitbit and other activity trackers, worn by a homeless individual to record and store their information, which is encrypted and monitored on a daily basis.
Mini City then can gather information from users to obtain vital records, like social security cards and birth certificates, and generate resumes and cover letters with stored education and work histories. They also gather basic demographic data like age, race, and location, and narrative-based data like personal goals and accomplishments. This is stored in a secure repository for later analysis.
“We are using the data to place them within job opportunities and their first interviews through relationships with partners like First Step Staffing; and to also show measurable success through completion of each Mini City session,” says Hayes.
Mini City obtained sufficient funding to run a pilot program, which started in May, to secure legal identification and outfit 500 homeless citizens with wearable devices. They work each week with homeless individuals at the Salvation Army and ReStart Atlanta shelters with individuals ranging from 1 to 61 years old.
Hayes says the team, now grown to four, is still determining the exact revenue model of the company to scale this far beyond a few hundred citizens.
“Our pilot is provided at no cost to the shelters we work with, but after providing proof of concept with our pilot program (e.g.: after sharing the findings from our data scientist from the 500 citizens), we will offer Mini City’s software and assistance as a monthly subscription rate. After working directly with the shelters a few months, our role has evolved from mere software provider to social enterprise consultation.”
Hayes says her dream would be to secure enough funding to expand to 5,000 individuals this year. When you crunch the numbers, it makes sense for all parties involved — homelessness costs the city of Atlanta $63 million annually. With a cost of $100 per individual, Mini City’s device and software have the potential to save over $8,000 per person.
If even a third of the homeless population completed the program, that’s savings of $2.2 million. It’s not an easy challenge to tackle, especially when you’re still worried about seeking funding, building a product, and the normal challenges of entrepreneurship.
“Just because you are working on a tech solution rooted in social impact does not mean you are free from addressing the basic needs of a business,” said Hayes. “A social enterprise must be treated like any other startup that you want to flourish — it takes dedication, time, user testing, analytical and strategic thinking, marketing, failing fast and learning faster — all of those things.”
“You need compassion and constant communication when you are working with indigent communities, but you still need business savviness to have a sustainable tech solution. For social enterprises, neither can falter.”
But Hayes firmly believes the city of Atlanta can step up to solve this challenge — and that it’s up to everyone.
“With cities as resilient as our own, this does not have to be the norm. The city is ever-changing, for the better, and rapidly. The need to make the benefits of those changes inclusive is apparent,” said Hayes. “You can see the plight as well as the hope on a daily basis.”
Video by Rahsaan Jones, Mini City videographer.