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Seattle Enlists Tech Help to Confront Social Ills

Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan established the Innovation Advisory Council, which will bring together tech leaders to explore new approaches to issues like homelessness and mobility.

One of the most tech-concentrated cities in the country is turning to its tech community to help solve persistent urban ills like homelessness and mobility.

Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan established the Innovation Advisory Council last week, which will bring together leaders from companies like Amazon, Microsoft, Expedia and others to explore issues, and then look to technology to help generate solutions.

“We’re a city that knows we have challenges, but we’re also a city that has companies, great companies ... and their employees who want to help meet those challenges,” Durkan said during an Aug. 2, 2018 press conference at the Zillow Group offices in Seattle.

“This new collaboration with Seattle’s technology community will help us surface the data, know where the gaps are, look for technology solutions that can make us a more equitable and vibrant city,” she added. “And we really want to make sure that this technology and data is harnessed in a way that increases equity, rather than hardening inequity.”

Co-chairs for the advisory council will include: Aman Bhutani, president for Brand Expedia Group; Andrew Beers, chief technology officer for Tableau; Trish Millines Dziko, co-founder and executive director of the Technology Access Foundation; and Tonya Peck, senior vice president and general manager for Artefact Group.

“From homelessness to transportation and mobility, the issues are urgent and complex, but we're ready to contribute,” said Peck, in an email. Artefact, a design consultancy, has experience working in health care, transportation, government and other sectors.

Seattle, like many U.S. cities riding a wave of economic prosperity fueled by a robust tech economy, has seen housing prices rise sharply, while urban ills like homelessness have also been increasing. 

“As a city we’re facing many challenges, and I firmly believe that everyone from government to business, to the individual has a role to play in addressing those issues that, as a city, we face,” said Racquel Russell, vice president of government relations and public affairs for the Zillow Group, speaking at the mayor’s press conference.

Median rent prices in Seattle have increased 38 percent since 2013, according to Russell, citing Zillow data.

“The bottom third of income-earners here in Seattle are spending about 51 percent of their incomes on rents,” said Russell.

Consequently, more than 11,600 residents in the Seattle region were homeless in some fashion in January 2017, according to the Seattle/King County Point-in-Time Count, an annual event to track homelessness. This represented a 15 percent increase in two years, according to a report by The Seattle Times.

“I’m excited to see this group coming together and look to rolling up our sleeves, setting aside any differences and getting to work,” said Bhutani, also speaking during the Aug. 2 press conference. “I bring with me my commitment to learning — learning about the unsheltered members of our community.”

Some of the areas where technology could help contribute toward solutions include making it easier for officials who work with homeless populations to locate shelter space. Today, the city’s navigation team goes out into the community and after encountering homeless residents, they call a shelter asking about space availability.

Could the city build an app “so that every social service provider could look on the phone and say, 'look, this shelter has five spots. You can go there,'” said Durkan.

Durkan would also like to make it easier for service providers to put homeless people in touch with services for which they may qualify.

“I think there could be a technology solution for that so that they’re not walking out the door with nothing for them,” Durkin said. “I think there’s a range of things that we’ll be able to use this for.” 

Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Yreka, Calif.