How will future cities deal with our growing transport challenges, and the security and privacy of our data? MIT professor Carlo Ratti explored these challenges at this year’s Future Cities Conference in Cambridge, England. Alison van Diggelen, host of Fresh Dialogues reports for the BBC World Service.
Photo caption: MIT Professor, Carlo Ratti in conversation with Alison van Diggelen at the Future Cities Conference, Jesus College, Cambridge on July 18, 2017.
On Monday, I joined the BBC’s Roger Hearing and Delhi journalist Madhavan Narayanan to discuss future cities and the role of technology in making them more efficient and sustainable. Listen to the podcast at the BBC’s Business Matters (Future Cities segment starts at 26:34)
Or listen to the audio clip below:
Here’s a transcript of our conversation (edited for length and clarity):
BBC Host, Roger Hearing: Alison, you’ve been having an interesting time recently. You’ve been looking at the concept of Future Cities, in fact you’ve been over in Europe I believe? Give me a picture of what you’ve been doing and what you’ve been hearing.
Alison van Diggelen: I was back at Cambridge University, in England last week, exploring the role of technology in shaping our future cities. The Cambridge Future Cities Conference assembled experts from academia, policy making and business to explore the challenges and opportunities facing cities. I interviewed Professor Carlo Ratti. He’s Director of the “Senseable City” Lab at MIT. “Senseable” as in sensors. He and his team are adding sensors to everything from trash to taxis to discover patterns, inefficiencies and opportunities to reinvent future cities, and make them greener and more sustainable. His team collaborated with Uber to test the feasibility of car-sharing and the Uberpool in New York. They found that in theory, everyone could travel on demand with just one-fifth (20%) of the number of cars in use today. He calls it the future mobility web.
Prof. Carlo Ratti: If you think about the future you can imagine something that we started calling a mobility web. A mobility web means the potential to know in real-time all the potential for transportation in the city both for people and parcels. Think about what happens today, you need to open one app, then another app…Imagine if all of them were combined… Then you can do something similar to what you do today with Kayak or Expedia, you can scan all your options – it’s like a mobile web that can radically change the way we look at mobility both for people and for goods.
Roger Hearing: Madhavan, you’re in Delhi. Can you imagine that kind of thing working in a city like Delhi? Would you be able to take transport to the point where you could be aware where every car or bus or lorry is at any given moment?
Madhavan Narayanan: Let me take a cynical view of what these guys at Stanford etc. do…I call them the Marie Antoinettes of our time. “Let them have high tech” is the new “let them eat cake.” Tech innovations have to be much more culturally sensitive and pragmatic for things to come on fast. People are not trying to reduce the carbon footprint here…people are trying to save money. High techies need to hire more sociologists and anthropologists and instead of talking to each other in an echo chamber of technologists. It will catch on in a zig-zag way…We do not need California idealism, we need Asian pragmatism.
Roger Hearing: Do you take that point on board Alison?
Alison van Diggelen: Absolutely. One of the refrains people heard at the conference was: let’s get out of our silos here: use this multi-disciplinary approach. We need collaboration, we need to think about different cultures and communities. In America 42 hours a year are lost due to traffic congestion(per commuter) and I imagine it’s even worse in Delhi. There’s a huge holy grail shining out there…we can drive towards that; there are huge gains to be made. The technology is there, we just need to implement it.
Roger Hearing: California has adopted new things very easily and quickly. Is it a place where people are already beginning to put in place the things you were talking about in Cambridge?
Alison van Diggelen: Yes, it’s definitely being experimented with. There is a project with driverless cars coming to the city of San Jose. They’re talking with ten different driverless car companies. These demo projects, these pilot projects are really important to understand how future cities can be more efficient and more sustainable.
Roger Hearing: At the back of everyones’ minds, when they think about integrated public transport systems, future cities, smart cities is: What happens if someone hacks in? At this event, you did tackle the issue of security?
Alison van Diggelen: We did indeed. The answer is layers of security. The technologists need to outsmart these hackers who have nefarious aims. I spoke to Professor Ratti about this and he framed the importance of security in memorable and stark terms…
Prof. Carlo Ratti: With some of these technologies we can really have cities that are more sustainable, they’re more sociable as well, but we need to look at at least two issues – one is the possibility of hacking. We all know what happens if a virus crashes our computer, but usually nobody dies. But what if that was a driverless car? So how to make sure our cities cannot be crashed? The other is what happens to the data that is generated by the Internet of Things. We’re making a digital copy of our physical space, our physical cities – then it’s very important who has access to the data, what for, and that’s one of the big conversations of our time.
Continue listening to hear our discussion:
What is Mark Kleinman at the Greater London Authority (GLA) doing to accelerate the adoption of technology in London?
Why does Madhavan Narayanan think we need a SWOT approach to privacy and security in future cities?
Find out more about Future Cities
The Future Cities Conference in Cambridge assembled some of the brightest minds in urbanism and land economy today. Find out more about their research and projects here:
Faculty and Prize winning PhD students at the Department of Land Economy at Cambridge
Alice Charles, World Economic Forum
Paul Swinney, Centre for Cities
Phil McCann, University of Sheffield
Hugh Bullock, Gerald Eve
Kenneth Howse, Oxford Institute of Population Ageing
Lucy Musgrave, Publica
Charles Leadbeater, Author and former advisor to UK PM, Tony Blair
Two court cases; multiple sexual harassment accusations; a 200,000 #DeleteUber campaign; and an exodus of senior executives. To say Uber’s had a bumpy start to the year is an understatement. You’d think the leadership at Uber would be curled up in a fetal position by now, gently whimpering. And yet, as Alison van Diggelen, host of Fresh Dialogues reports for the BBC World Service, the fight for ride-sharing and self-driving car supremacy continues full tilt. This week, Uber confirmed it’s hired a top AI expert tasked with rapidly building a self-driving car team in Toronto, Canada. Alison spoke with Professor Raquel Urtasun (pictured above) yesterday and reported on Uber’s ongoing challenges for the BBC World Service earlier today.
Listen to the BBC Click radio show podcast here
Or to the 5 minute Uber segment below:
Here’s a transcript of my report and conversation with Click’s host Gareth Mitchell (edited for length and clarity):
Gareth Mitchell: Today, more controversy at Uber. Has Uber been taking the regulators for a ride? According to the Reuters News Agency, the U.S. Justice Department has launched a criminal investigation into Uber software that helped evade the city transport officials. The tool, called Greyball was originally designed to foil would-be fraudsters from using Uber services. So protecting your drivers by deterring undesirable passengers, that’s one thing, but now the suspicion is that Uber has also been “Greyballing” city officials investigating unlicensed Uber cars. Portland, Oregon said Uber used Greyball to evade 16 of its transport officials in 2014, before Uber was officially authorized to operate there. I’ve been hearing more from our Silicon Valley reporter, Alison van Diggelen. We started by talking about Uber’s other woes…Uber and Google’s Waymo are not getting on very well…
Alison van Diggelen: No, not at all.
WAYMO VS UBER
Alison van Diggelen: Waymo – Google’s self-driving car spinoff – has accused Uber of stealing 14,000 files – including trade secrets. It concerns blueprints for Lidar, the spinning laser you see on top of self driving cars. At a hearing in San Francisco last week, the judge said Waymo didn’t yet have “a smoking gun” i.e. enough evidence to prove its technology was being used by Uber. We’re still waiting to hear whether the the judge will issue an injunction – that could impact Uber’s ability to use or develop this Lidar technology – and impact its entire self-driving car plans.
Uber’s Anthony Levandowski is accused of stealing Lidar secrets from Google’s Waymo, Photo credit: Quartz/Mike Murphy
There’s also a criminal court case at the early stages investigating the software tool – Greyball – that allowed Uber to evade and deceive regulators in several cities. Software was used to analyze profiles and credit card information of potential Uber users, to avoid it being available to law enforcement officials. All this is piling on uncertainty to Uber’s existing challenges -it puts its long anticipated IPO on hold indefinitely. (Uber may miss a good “window of opportunity” to go public, while the bull market endures. It’s been valued at about $70Bn, that’s $20Bn more than Ford!)
Gareth Mitchell: This Greyballing software. Initially, this was just a way for Uber to protect its drivers from dodgy customers and the allegations go that they’re using it this more evasive way when it comes to regulators.
Alison van Diggelen: That’s exactly right. When regulators tried to use the Uber app in places that it was forbidden at the time – like Portland, Paris, Las Vegas – They’d just get a fake site. It looked to them as though it wasn’t available.
Gareth Mitchell: Uber lawyers have told authorities in Portland, Oregon that the Greyball technology was used exceedingly sparingly….But what other challenges does it face, Alison?
HIGH PROFILE HIRING
Alison van Diggelen: Given the court cases; and a series of sexual harassment accusations and an exodus of executives recently, you’d think Uber would face huge hiring challenges. But yesterday Uber announced it’s hiring a high profile Artificial Intelligence expert – Raquel Urtasun, so a little bit of good news for Uber. She’s a professor at the University of Toronto. She’ll lead the expansion of Uber’s self-driving team in Canada.
I spoke with her yesterday and she told me she thinks the negative stories about Uber are overblown. She plans to build a team of several dozen within a year to develop what she calls the “perception algorithms” for self-driving cars … Basically, they’re building the brain of the car so that it can transform what it “sees” – via sensors and cameras into an explanation of “what” it is seeing.
She acknowledges that competitors (like Waymo) are still ahead – they’ve been working on the technology much longer (since 2009), but she insists that Uber is getting closer every day. But Uber has a long way to go: Recent reports show its self-driving cars travelled on average of 1 mile before a human driver had to take control. Google’s Waymo cars disengaged at a rate of once per 5,000 miles.
Gareth Mitchell: OK. That is Alison van Diggelen, talking to me just before we came on air.
Alison van Diggelen: I also spoke with Anton Wahlman, a Silicon Valley Tech Analyst
He concludes that if Uber’s reported $3 billion loss last year is accurate, the company is operating at negative gross margins – ie subsidizing fares – to drive out competitors. Wahlman anticipates that as soon as prices rise to produce profitability, new competitors will simply enter the market. If Uber were a public company today he says he would short the stock.
There is mounting pressure for CEO Travis Kalanick to resign or step back from his leadership role. Since Uber began, he’s created an aggressive, “bad boy” culture at Uber and it’ll be hard to reboot that culture, but it’s still possible.
After all, replacing a founder (or founders) with a well established and experienced CEO is not unprecedented. Google appointed a “grown up” leader in its early days, not to change a “bad boy” culture but to drive rapid growth. Eric Schmidt, a veteran of Novell software, served as Google’s CEO for 10 years and passed the CEO position back to cofounder Larry Page in 2011. For now, it seems that Kalanick is holding tight to the steering wheel at Uber, but the pressure is growing for a co-driver to take over and navigate a safer, less turbulent road ahead.
The election of Donald Trump stunned the majority of people in Silicon Valley, but it also awakened many from their apolitical slumber. Today, leveraging technology is a key part of the national resistance movement. Alison van Diggelen, host of Fresh Dialogues found that Silicon Valley may be the epicenter of high tech, but old-school methods still have their place in the tech resistance, and techies are less partisan than you might expect.
(Photo credit: A young women protests at an immigration rally, by Chris Shipley/The First 100 Days Project)
“Good is going to come out of this difficult time. Too many people in Silicon Valley stood back from politics…it’s the context in which we’re building our businesses. We can’t continue to build democracy as if it’s all about capitalism and we can’t build capitalism without the context of democracy,” Chris Shipley, Founder The First 100 Days Project
In the same week that Hillary Clinton formally joined the resistance movement, the BBC World Service aired this report.
Listen at Click on the BBC’s World Service (@3:26 ) or to the short segment below:
Here’s a transcript of the report and discussion with Click’s host Gareth Mitchell and tech commentator, Bill Thompson (edited for length and clarity).
Gareth Mitchell: After 100 days (of Donald Trump’s presidency), what’s the view of the tech community? As Alison van Diggelen has been finding, attitudes aren’t quite as straightforward as you might think.
Mario Savio: There is a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart that you can’t take part…and you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears, and upon the levers, upon all the apparatus and you’ve got to make it stop!
Alison van Diggelen: That was Berkeley student activist Mario Savio in 1964. Once again, Berkeley has become a flashpoint of political protest. The election of Donald Trump left many people in Silicon Valley shocked and outraged. Coder, Nick O’Neill was dumbfounded last November. But by inauguration day, he’d found his voice. He launched an app called 5Calls that makes it easy for citizens to become political activists. His app has enabled over 1 million phone calls to members of Congress in all 50 states. In US politics, old fashioned phone calls are still the most effective leverage. Here’s O’Neill:
O’Neill: People have tweeted us: I’ve never called my representatives before…but because we made it so easy… we put the phone numbers, and the scripts and issues together in one place, that helped them get over that hump. They know exactly what the process is.
van Diggelen: O’Neill is just one of hundreds of Silicon Valley techies leveraging tech skills, and a startup mentality to create a resistance movement against the anti-immigration, anti-environment, anti-globalization stance of Trump’s administration. Apps and projects include: Tech Stands Up, Track Trump, Swing Left, and the Tech for Campaigns Project…
What made the tech community wake from its apolitical slumber?
(Photo: “President Trump…therefore we resist” Interview with 5Calls Founder, Nick O’Neill at the Thinkers Cafe in San Francisco)
O’Neill: All these people feel disenfranchised, a little bit helpless, and so we’re all trying to build things to see what sort of change can make….The tech approach is to jump first, build things and see if it sticks. It’s the ethos that runs behind tech…
van Diggelen: But not all tech reactions are partisan. At the Free Speech Movement Cafe on Berkeley’s campus, I met with Ash Bhat, a 20-year-old student. He explains how Trump’s rhetoric felt personal for many, especially his Muslim and undocumented classmates. But it was a violent demonstration against a right wing provocateur on campus that inspired him to act.
Bhat: It was depicted as a group of Berkeley students destroying their own school and that couldn’t be further from the truth. Anarchists came in, breaking windows… I remember being in my rhetoric class, going to WhiteHouse.org …looking through the source code and I was like: hey this looks pretty scrape-able.
van Diggelen: Bhat found he can “scrape” or extract data updates from the White House every time an executive order is signed. The Presidential Actions app launched and his team now boast of tens of thousands of users across the political spectrum. They’ve resisted partnerships with partisan groups.
(Photo: Ash Bhat and I discussed the power of resistance in the Free Speech Movement Cafe in Berkeley. It’s dedicated to Mario Savio, whose passion inspired thousands of students and activists worldwide)
Bhat: As someone in tech, it’s a responsibility for us to build software that helps inform the public… be compassionate towards both sides and provide unbiased bipartisan information. There’s a lot of talk about the resistance…my worry is being too tied to a polarized side just feeds the echo chamber. The people who’re afraid of tech will no longer listen to it…
van Diggelen: How will he ensure Presidential Actions information is unbiased?
Bhat: We’re taking the actual docs from the White House, first hand primary documents, we’re looking at summarization algorithms as opposed to subjectively summarizing contents… We want to be able to present the news to our users so that they can come to their political conclusions completely by themselves.
van Diggelen: But the tech resistance isn’t all bits and bites. Remarkably, old fashioned ink and paper is part of its arsenal.
Chris Shipley has advised over 1500 startups in Silicon Valley. After the Women’s March in Washington DC, she was inspired to create “The First 100 Days Project” to chronicle citizen activism in stunning visual images. Her Indiegogo campaign aims to make commemorative postcards and a book. Why so old-school?
(Photo: Chris Shipley’s project aims to support “at risk” organizations such as Planned Parenthood, The Environmental Defense Fund and arts organizations)
Shipley: There’s something ephemeral about digital media – it a wonderful expression, a wonderful reach, but then we go to the next url and we’re on to something else. A book, a postcard, something you can hold in your hands has this reminder effect..a book can sit on your table, someone can pick it up, flip through it and come back to it again and again, and be reminded of the conversations happening in DC, in SF and Seattle, one march after another…
van Diggelen: But of course she’s leveraging technology via social media:
Shipley: Text msgs, IMs, Twitter, all social channels are ways of building awareness…allow the message to be amplified. It’s very gritty, hand to hand combat. If there’s a tech to get the message out, we’re going to use it.
van Diggelen: Shipley admits that her project is aimed at progressives, but is emphatic that they want to be heard and listen to the other side too…
Shipley: We’re in a really pivotal time. I’m a casual optimist, good is going to come out of this difficult time. Too many people in Silicon Valley stood back from politics…It’s the context in which we’re building our businesses. We can’t continue to build democracy as if it’s all about capitalism and we can’t build capitalism without the context of democracy.
Bill Thompson: A certain sector of the tech community has been enlivened by the election of Trump to deploy their skills. It’s always good when people get engaged in politics, but I’m reminded of Evgeny Morozov‘s book “To Save Everything Click Here” and part of me wonders how much real engagement these apps will get. There’s a danger of it descending into “clicktivism.” The app that encourages people to phone their representatives about issues that matter to them – on whatever side of the political fence you are – is a really important development there.
Gareth Mitchell: It’s a bit more active than clicking on something you agree with…you have to take some action…
Bill Thompson: Exactly. It’s not just “liking” something. It’s designed to take you through to be really engaged with politics. At a time when the U.S. does seem slightly fractured, it’s good to have things which encourage people to be politically active and argue for the things they believe in.
Gareth Mitchell: Yes, and follow people on Twitter with whom you don’t agree!
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What can Uber and Fox News do to change their hostile work environment for women? And how can organizations create a productive atmosphere where men and women thrive? Alison van Diggelen, host of Fresh Dialogues sat down with Julia Gillard, the 27th Prime Minister of Australia to get her insights. Gillard got the world’s attention after making an impassioned speech to parliament, detailing the sexual harassment she endured as prime minister. Her Misogyny Speech has empowered many women and a provided a wakeup call for “unenlightened” men.
“I will not be lectured on sexism and misogyny by this man…I was personally offended by the leader of the opposition cat-calling: ‘if the Prime Minister wants to, politically speaking, make an honest women of herself ‘ and when he went outside the front of parliament and stood next to a sign that said ‘Ditch the witch’…(and) a sign that described me as ‘A man’s bitch’, I was offended by sexism, misogyny every day from this leader.” Julia Gillard, 27th Prime Minister of Australia
The BBC World Service program, Business Matters aired my interview with Julia Gillard last week, and we had a lively discussion about the steps companies and organizations can take to tackle sexism. This topic is especially timely as news broke this week that Bill O’Reilly has been fired from Fox News due to a sexual harassment scandal. Is the tide finally turning, thanks to tech augmented consumer pressure?
“Company reputation and consumer pressure is actually putting the spotlight on businesses to change behavior, and women can work with that to put a spotlight on work practices in their business,” Julia Gillard.
Did Julia Gillard anticipate Bill O”Reilly being fired?
Listen on the BBC Podcast (@26:40) or to the short clip below:
Here are highlights from our conversation:
I began by asking her if there’s anything she’d add to her speech in today’s work environment…
Julia Gillard: It was coming from a place of frustration and mounting anger about the way in which gender has intersected with my prime ministership and some of the many sexist jibes and treatment I had to put up with. For many women, it’s come to represent something that answers their own frustrations. A lot of women come up to me and say: “this happened to me at work. I wake up at 3 in the morning and really wish I’d said X, Y and Z; and then I’ve watched your speech and it’s given me some heart that I really should call out sexism when I see it.”
Alison van Diggelen: Here in Silicon Valley, women in tech are in a minority. In some instances they’re facing hostile environments at work. Do you have any specific advice for them?
Julia Gillard: What’s interesting about the Silicon Valley environment is: company reputation and consumer pressure is actually putting the spotlight on businesses to change behavior, and women can work with that to put a spotlight on work practices in their business; and put a spotlight more generally on that fact that not enough women study and come through the STEM stream… We do want to be encouraging more girls to go into the sciences, engineering, into coding, computer science and new technology because that’s where so much of the future is going to lie.
Alison van Diggelen: Uber has been accused of having a hostile environment for women. If you were on the board of Uber, your advice to them?
Julia Gillard: I’d give the same advice to any company, whether it already had a public problem or not. First look at hiring practices and see whether there’s any gender bias, even unconscious…Look at promotion practices, it could be managers valuing time sitting at the desk rather than results, which would count against women who also have family responsibilities. I’d be setting policies, practices, cultural norms about treating everyone with respect. No practices of going on boys’ nights out where women are excluded.
There’s a range of things you can do from structural biases, actual policies to cultural influences. You’ve got to be thoughtful at every level and make it easy for women to say something’s wrong here, all sorts of ways of raising a complaint, including putting in complaints with anonymity, so women can get a spotlight on issues without feeling they themselves are at risk.
Roger Hearing: Asit Biswas (in Singapore), in your experience, in the areas of government and academia, do you feel a lot of progress has been made?
Prof Asit Biswas: There has been some progress, but it’s not enough. In academia, the number of university presidents who are women, I can count on two hands…there’s a great deal of glass ceiling…In India, I was surprised to see the culture has deteriorated: there’s more harassment, not much being done about it.
Alison van Diggelen: I do want to go back to Julia Gillard’s point about consumer pressure. Boycott movements* (and demonstrations) are happening against Fox (News) because of accusations of sexual harassment…
Roger Hearing: We should explain, Bill O’Reilly…There have been allegations against him and it’s emerged that money has been paid to those people, though he says the allegations have no merit.
Alison van Diggelen: Exactly. There are boycott movements shining a light on sexism and bad behaviors. Companies can’t get away with it like they used to. Tech is playing a role in exposing these bad behaviors and a lot of companies are aware of it and are trying to close the income gap and improve the retention rates of women, and making sure that all men become enlightened men and treat women with the respect that they deserve.
*Mercedes-Benz – one of the first major sponsors to drop Bill O’Reilly – said in a statement: “The allegations are disturbing and, given the importance of women in every aspect of our business, we don’t feel this is a good environment in which to advertise our products right now.”
This interview took place in the green room of The Flint Center in Cupertino. Big thanks to Dick Henning, founder of the Foothill College Celebrity Forum Series for the invitation backstage.
Imagine if you could help end homelessness with the click of a button. There’s an app for that! In Silicon Valley, despite the vast affluence and many tech millionaires, homelessness is a huge problem. With average home prices close to a $1 million and tiny flats renting for well over $1,000, making ends meet can be challenging; and for some people, just finding a roof over their heads is mission impossible.
Alison van Diggelen, host of Fresh Dialogues met one woman whose homeless brother inspired her to change all that.
“For those who are homeless and poverty stricken, it’s like having a life coach, a service provider and a trainer in the palm of their hands. There’s really something to teaching to fish…rather than giving fish…helping them be self sufficient rather than temporary handouts… We’re here trying to help in other ways that are more sustainable and that lead to a permanent resolution of the problem.” Karen Addato, Founder of Hi Tech Rover and ROVA app.
Here’s my BBC World Service report. It aired April 4th on the BBC’s World Tech program, Click. Listen @15:40 for Host, Gareth Mitchell’s introduction on the April 4th BBC Podcast or to this short clip:
Alison van Diggelen: I’m here on the Hi Tech Rover, an RV (large camper van) that brings both the internet and a safety net to homeless people all over San Jose. Karen Addato (founder of the Hi Tech Rover and the ROVA app) and her volunteers offer an opportunity for homeless people to get off the streets and reboot their lives. They offer Internet training, help with online job applications, housing search, and even access to detox services.
Karen, where are we going right now?
Karen Addato: We’re in downtown San Jose, the Capital of Silicon Valley and we’re going to a couple of encampments under bridges, right here in the heart of town. One of them is on Woz Way…
Alison van Diggelen: Woz as in Steve Wozniak, cofounder of Apple and generous philanthropist here in Silicon Valley. Karen Addato is a vivacious single mom, a mortgage broker and executive director of the nonprofit: High Tech Rover. She used $7,000 of her savings to create this Rover Outreach Vehicle App prototype, ROVA for short.
Karen Addato: For those who are homeless and poverty stricken, it’s like having a life coach, a service provider and a trainer in the palm of their hands… when we’re not here helping them, they can stay on a pathway focused on upward mobility. They can get on to ROVA and press one button.. “I am seeking help.” Up comes a list of resources available for that gender and age group. We have a geo-tracker right here, so you can find out where they are…This tool will also help government officials, donors, and service providers figure out what’s needed and what’s not.
Alison van Diggelen: Connecting homeless people with jobs, training opportunities and relocation information are a key for Addato. Her brother Stevie was homeless in Boston, and she believes that those who supported his panhandling simply enabled his alcoholism and homelessness. Instead, she’s serious about connecting people to local services, and getting people off the streets for good.
Karen Addato: I’ve learned a lot in my time in the trenches working with this population…I’ve learned a lot through the life and tragic death of my brother…There’s really something to teaching to fish…rather than giving fish…helping them be self sufficient rather than temporary handouts… that in some ways is part of the problem. We’re here trying to help in other ways that are more sustainable and that lead to a permanent resolution of the problem.
Alison van Diggelen: The High Tech Rover – a huge camper van – is kitted out with desks and laptops. Addato and her volunteers take it to homeless camps around Silicon Valley.
Atmos: Sound of walking to homeless camp…traffic…
Alison van Diggelen: We make our way over rough ground to the confluence of Highways 280 and 87. Addato grabs her pepper spray, just in case. We find a half dozen scruffy tents stretched out along a concrete embankment. Below us: the Guadalupe River. Above us, although it’s midday, there’s a constant drone of heavy traffic.
Jason, whose name has been changed to protect his privacy, tells me he’s been homeless for 2 years. He’s 19 and working two jobs, earning between 11 and 17 dollars an hour…
Alison van Diggelen: You can’t get a decent roof over head with that?
Jason: Not in Silicon Valley, it’s too expensive…one bed’s like $1300, it’s crazy out here. Us teenagers, we need help. Not all of us want to be here forever.
Alison van Diggelen: Every morning, Jason has to find a place to shower and clean up for his service jobs. We tell him about Karen’s app. Would that be a useful tool?
Jason: That’s actually a very brilliant idea, because a lot of us actually have phones… I’ve actually wanted something like that. Keep helping!
Alison van Diggelen: I ask another young man, what would help him?
Charlie: San Jose needs to lower how much it costs to buy a house, their rents…you need to live with like three people, making at least $20 an hour to end up being able to have your own place in San Jose.
Alison van Diggelen: The ROVA app includes a database of over 700 low-income housing facilities in the county. Both young men plan to relocate out of state when they can afford it.
Like many in Silicon Valley, Addato dreams big and is seeking sponsorship from the tech community to launch her app, and create a whole fleet of High-Tech Rovers across the nation. She recently pitched her dream at the Apple campus and remains hopeful. The wider tech community is already tackling homeless via brainstorming hackathons; leveraging data-driven solutions and social media to spotlight community challenges. In Australia, an app called “Ask Izzy” already offers similar services to ROVA.
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