Why did Virgin’s Richard Branson decide to invest in Hyperloop One, the futuristic transport system that seeks to shrink journey times (like LA to San Francisco, London to Glasgow) to less than one hour? On assignment for the BBC World Service, Alison van Diggelen sat down with Branson in San Francisco to explore his vision for the Hyperloop, as well as Virgin Galactic, One Web and supersonic travel around the world.
Branson is still reeling from the deadly hurricanes that destroyed his island paradise, and he’s calling for a Marshall Plan to aid sustainable recovery in the Caribbean region. He told me he’s energized by the “climate skeptic in the White House.”
“When you’ve got 99% of scientists saying the world is heating up, the world is heating up. Yes, you’ve got a climate skeptic in the White House but most sane people – most rational people – know that we have a problem. It’s sad to have someone like that in such a position of power and therefore all of us have just to work that much harder to rectify any damage that he does.” Richard Branson, Founder of Virgin Group
My report aired on the BBC World Service’s tech program, Click. You can listen to the BBC podcast here (Branson segment starts at 0:35)
Photo: Richard Branson in conversation with Alison van Diggelen for the BBC World Service. San Francisco, October, 2017. Credit: Lewis van Diggelen
Here’s a transcript of the segment (plus some bonus material), edited for length and clarity:
The BBC’s Gareth Mitchell: First, a futuristic plan to transport us in supersonic tube trains. This is a concept called the Hyperloop and now one of the world’s richest people is investing in it. Virgin Group founder, Richard Branson has just done a deal with one of the companies developing the technology, Hyperloop One. Alison van Diggelen, our reporter in Silicon Valley has been speaking to Richard Branson. The conversation begins with Branson’s other great interest: space. Not just Virgin Galactic, but plans to improve connectivity for citizens back here on earth.
Alison van Diggelen: What makes Virgin Galactic distinct from what Jeff Bezos is doing with Blue Origin and Elon Musk with SpaceX?
Richard Branson: With Virgin Galactic our principal reason for being is to help this beautiful earth that we live on. Space can help people back here on earth…One of the things we’re going to be doing through a company we’re involved in called One Web is put an array of 2,000 satellites around the earth. That’ll be the biggest array of satellites in space and they can help connect the 4 Billion people who’re not connected today. If you’re not connected, and you can’t get Internet or wifi; it’s difficult for you to start businesses and help your children get educated in remote places….
Alison van Diggelen: What’s the timeline on that?
Richard Branson: One Web should be up and running in about 2 ½ years time (first launches are due to start in 2-3 months). Virgin Galactic’s mission is taking people into space, making them astronauts, and giving them an incredible experience and a chance to look back on this beautiful earth. Next year (2018) should be the year for Virgin Galactic, the year that VSS Unity goes into space, the year I go into space and we start taking people into space. Because Virgin Galactic – unlike what Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk’s are doing – is shaped like an airplane, like a spaceship (they’ve gone for big rockets) – it can go into space, it can come back, it can land again and we can grow it. So one day we can do point to point travel…
Photo: Richard Branson shows off Virgin Galactic’s VSS Unity. Credit: Jack Brockway
Alison van Diggelen: What does that mean? Rocket speeds around earth?
Richard Branson: We could potentially (laughter) send people into orbit at 18,500 mph which would mean you could go anywhere on earth in 45 minutes. Realistically, our bodies won’t cope with that so we most likely would send people into sub-orbital flight, traveling at more like 4,000 mph which would mean London to Australia in 3-4 hours, instead of 18 hours currently, so still a big step forward: much faster than Concorde was and still tremendously exciting.
Alison van Diggelen: What are the tech challenges to making that happen?
Richard Branson: The advantage we have today is something called carbon fiber and that is an awful lot lighter than metal – which is what Concorde was built with. That can also be used in the building of engines. A plane can be an awful lot lighter. The technology on supersonic engine power has moved ahead dramatically since Concorde. Unlike Concorde, which was built by British and French governments, and really never made any money, we think we can actually build planes to go supersonically that would be economically viable as well. Of course, as a private company they have to be economically viable…
Alison van Diggelen: Is that a Virgin Galactic project or the Boom supersonic jet project?
Richard Branson: We’re helping “Boom” but we’ve also got our own Virgin Galactic project.
Alison van Diggelen: Your latest big project is Virgin Hyperloop One. Tell me about that and your vision for that? You know (Hyperloop One board member) Shervin Pishevar, but what was it about the project that you thought: this is one for Virgin?
Richard Branson: 20 years ago, BR existed in Britain and it was pretty dire to say the least…most government run companies are not great, so we said to the government we’d be willing to take over the West coast main line and we also promised we’d transform it. There were 8.5 million ppl using it then. We brought in the Pendolino train and this year we’ll have approx. 40 m people using it, but we’re restricted to ~130 mph – whereas our trains could be going 160 mph – because the track isn’t good enough. So we’ve been looking for technology that will transport people at much greater speeds. The exciting thing about Hyperloop is that if we could get a straight line between London and Edinburgh or London and Glasgow, we could transport people in about 45 minutes. That would open up the cities more than anything and the idea of being able to get into a pod…the pod could literally come to your office or your home, pick you up, go down a tunnel…the pod will connect to our system and then it takes off and 45 minutes later, a grandmother in Glasgow could find herself in London, the pod carrying on and taking her to see her grandchildren somewhere in London: A lot easier than the 4.5 hours it takes currently on trains.
Photo: Virgin Hyperloop One team: Giegel, Branson, Pishevar. Credit: Virgin.com
Alison van Diggelen: What’s your timeline on that? My mother is 85 and she has grandchildren in London…
Richard Branson: I’m a little younger than her and am determined that it will happen in my lifetime. I will try to make sure it happens in her lifetime. Obviously we have got to have discussions with the government, they are building a high speed line but I think this could be compatible with that – and could be separate from that: Great Britain needs a lot more capacity. Obviously it’s not just for Great Britain…We are talking to countries all over the world…
Gareth Mitchell: That’s Richard Branson, talking to countries all over the world, and also to Alison van Diggelen. Let’s talk to Bill Thompson.
Bill Thompson: I really wish I could believe the Hyperloop is something I’ll see in my lifetime. The idea is a very interesting one: vacuum tube, high acceleration, low friction. There are enormous engineering challenges. I do think that talking it up as if it’s just around the corner is too much of a distraction from solving the real problems of urban transportation. Getting permissions…sorting out the safety problems will take a lot more work. What happens if the power goes down when you’re traveling at several hundred kilometers per hour in a steel tube? I’m pleased to see it being talked about but I’m certainly not holding my breath.
Continue listening to the BBC World Service Click podcast
Note: Virgin Hyperloop One was previously known as Hyperloop One and before that: Hyperloop Technologies. It’s distinct from rival: Hyperloop Transportation Technologies or HTT. Confused? Don’t be! Find out more here.
The new partnership was announced October 12 2017, and aims to offer passenger and cargo deliveries. Today it announced more strategic expansions to its team.
In San Francisco, the tech community continues to face an angry backlash for pushing out locals, artists and the elderly. Meanwhile, 50 miles south, Google has announced plans to partner with the City of San Jose to build a tech village dubbed “The Grand Central Station of the West.” Experts see this South Bay development as a way for Google to “do it right” and build an inclusive development around a transport hub with lots of public open space and affordable housing.
Why are some people calling it a new template for the tech campus? Alison van Diggelen reports on a tale of tech in two cities for the BBC World Service…
Photo caption: Google plans to rethink office space in Silicon Valley and use large translucent canopies to blur the distinction between buildings and nature. Source: Google (Charleston Rendering)
Listen to the podcast at the BBC World Service
Or listen to the segment below, introduced by the BBC’s Bill Thompson (report starts at 0:40):
Here’s a transcript of the report. It aired today on the BBC’s program, Click
[Atmos: Train, bus atmos at Diridon station, in downtown San Jose]
Glen Abbott: If the same tech gentrification happens in Santa Clara, which it is…’cos Google just bought up what’s available in Santa Clara, it just sends the housing prices up… people can’t afford to live here..
San Jose resident (retired union organizer): I am in support of anything that will bring jobs with dignity and a living wage … and we don’t just import a bunch of high dollar, high tech electronic gurus into our area…
Alison van Diggelen: These are just two of San Jose’s residents who have concerns at the proposed development benefiting rich techies, to the detriment of the wider community. One lives in a trailer park, one has been homeless.
This summer, Google announced a plan to create a massive campus for up to 20,000 employees in San Jose’s city center, the South Bay city that calls itself “The capital of Silicon Valley.” Google’s vice president of real estate outlined the company’s vision for the Diridon Station development at a council meeting…
Mark Golan: South Bay has been Google’s home for over 20 years now. We have thousands of Googlers who’re residents of San Jose. Google shares the City’s vision for the development of the Diridon area. …we are excited about the possibility of bringing a state of the art office, housing, retail, amenities, civic plazas, parks, and open spaces to the downtown San Jose area, all connected via an incredible mass transit system and integrated with the surrounding community.
Kim Walesh is the Director of Economic Development at the city. She laments that the tech boom means Silicon Valley’s roads are often gridlocked and sees a solution in public transport.
Photo: Visualization of HSR San Jose by California High Speed Rail Authority (image is preliminary and subject to change)
Kim Walesh: Google will be the first major tech company to consciously decide to grow near transit. It’s an opportunity to get it right…a counterpoint to traditional Silicon Valley campus development – a human scale, urban place….we’re not even calling it a campus. That can connote inward looking like Facebook or Apple.
This is a totally different concept it says: Let’s put our innovation employees right in the heart of downtown in an open campus environment with well designed parks and plazas for all sorts of people to enjoy and interact. That’s where innovation comes from…
Bob Staedler of Silicon Valley Synergy is an expert in tech developments and a frequent advisor to the City Council. He describes this Grand Central Station vision…
Staedler: You’re going to have a multi-modal transport hub that could be 150 feet up in the air, having four separate modes of transportation from bus to high speed rail, to light rail to Uber drop-off to traditional cars, and a campus integrated in there…
technology integrated into it like you’ve never seen before: you walk in and you see where exactly is the train on a map; and you see with technology where you go with light up boards, similar to what you see in Singapore and Tokyo….a 21st century transit station …
Staedler contrasts the open nature of Google’s proposed campus to that of Facebook’s Headquarters which is a high security island. As for Apple’s brand new campus, 10 miles north?
Staedler: Apple has created the spaceship as they call it, it’s really more of a fortress monument, a monument to Steve Jobs. What we’re looking at with Google is creating an urban fabric with employees and the population and the transit station all integrated into one.
San Jose’s Mayor, Sam Liccardo insists this proposed Google campus is critical to the future of Silicon Valley and the city…
Mayor Sam Liccardo: Silicon Valley has developed on the suburban model a lot of tilt up, one and two story tech campuses surrounded by a sea of parking – there are inherent challenges in the sustainability of that model. We’re running out of land and God’s not building any more. We have horrible congestion on freeways and it’s not an affordable place to live.
We need to develop differently – we’re trying to retrofit a city built for automobile into a city built for people. We need to attract Silicon Valley’s talented, creative people…if we cannot attract the 20-30 year olds to live here, they will be somewhere else…We’ve got a vision for the Grand Central Station of the West… We’ve seen what they’re doing in London…it doesn’t hurt that they have a few bucks.
Alison van Diggelen: So what have they learned from San Francisco’s tech experience?
Sam Liccardo: We’ve seen how intense the tech backlash has been in San Francisco. We’ve got a strong focus on building affordable housing… address concerns about displacement, pressure on the cost of living.
Liccardo points out that this development may be long in coming…a decade even…
Sam Liccardo: This is not going to happen tomorrow: We’re not going to have 20,000 Googlers descending from parachutes…
Patagonia’s Yvon Chouinard calls himself a “benevolent dictator” who levies a 1% “Earth Tax” from his company to fund environmental activism. Currently Patagonia is funding a campaign to protect Bears Ears National Monument, now under threat from President Trump’s executive order this week.
Alison van Diggelen, host of Fresh Dialogues sat down with this revered pioneer of environmental responsibility. Chouinard explains how a Scottish rugby shirt inspired his Patagonia business; why he believes regenerative agriculture could save the planet; and what he’s doing to ensure Patagonia’s environmental mission continues after he dies. Chouinard’s book: “Let my people go surfing” is an attempt to challenge business as usual and the culture of conspicuous consumption. The interview took place at the Heritage Theater in Silicon Valley in October, 2016.
Listen to this special Fresh Dialogues “Uncut” podcast:
Here are some highlights of the conversation:
On his 1% for the planet “Earth tax”
Yvon Chouinard: Your typical large corporation is out to make as much money as they can for the shareholders. And what the shareholders do with their profits is their business. We believe it should be done in the business as well. I believe in taxes. Especially the kind of taxes where you get to decide where the money goes. I think that’s called taxation with representation… So we just tax ourselves 1% of our sales – not our profits – 1% of revenue is given away to 900 different small activist organizations working to save our planet.
On Private vs public ownership
Alison van Diggelen: You’ve said that your stock holders are ‘the people of the planet’
Yvon Chouinard: That’s right. When you’re CEO of a public company you have no power. Your board, your stockholders tell you what to do. I can do whatever I feel like. We’re sole owners. We can make quick decisions, be a lot more efficient, move quickly. I would never think of becoming a public corporation….I’m a dictator…
Alison van Diggelen: A generous dictator?
Yvon Chouinard: The most effective form of government is probably a benevolent dictator. Things get done. Look at American politics. The best you can ever achieve is a compromise. And compromise never solves the problem. It leaves both sides feeling cheated.
Alison van Diggelen: What else have you been able to do because you’re a private company and you have this “dictatorship”?
Yvon Chouinard: [Laughter] It’s all through the company. There’s no boss looking over your shoulder. It’s a level society throughout the whole company. Outside the company we’re getting to be very visible. I can’t believe the power we have. We’re getting invited to the White House all the time to advise on policy (under President Obama).
On Patagonia’s business conflict: making money vs saving the planet
Yvon Chouinard: I’d say buying a jacket from us causes less harm to the environment than buying a jacket from another company that doesn’t put all the thought and processes causing the least amount of harm. For instance, we only use organically grown cotton. That’s fine. Growing cotton organically causes less harm but it doesn’t do the world any good. It still causes the world a lot of harm. That’s why I decided to go into the food business. I want to go beyond organic foods, organic cotton to what’s called regenerative agriculture. The difference is, regenerative agriculture builds soil and captures carbon.
And so now I have to go to my cotton farmers – who supply us with cotton – and say: you can’t plow any more because every time you plow, it releases all the carbon you’ve captured back into the air. So agriculture is one of the biggest causes of global warming so it’s probably the biggest thing we can do to save this planet. I’m really excited about this. I think it’s our only hope to regulate the climate. We’re not going to do it any other way. Agriculture has a chance of sequestering so much carbon out of the air through changing our grazing practices and our farming practices; and basically going back to the old way of doing things. And that’s what gets me excited.
On Being a Reluctant Businessman
Yvon Chouinard: I never wanted to be a business man. I was a craftsman. I just happened to come up with ideas that people wanted. I love working with my hands. I slowly got trapped…I had no desire to get rich. I’ve done a lot of climbing on every continent and became aware of all the destruction to natural world…I decided to use my resources, which is my business, to do something about the natural world. That’s the reason we’re in business.
On the Scottish inspiration for Patagonia
Yvon Chouinard: I was in the business of making climbing equipment…I came to Scotland to climb Ben Nevis and saw a rugby shirt in department store in Edinburgh. Back then, active sportswear was basically grey flannel sweatshirts and pants. Men didn’t wear colorful sports clothes. It had a blue body, yellow stripes. I was wearing it around Yosemite, everyone said, ‘Woah!’ A light went off…I imported a few. I said, maybe I’ll get into the clothing business.
On Steve Jobs, Apple and influencing businesses to be green
Yvon Chouinard: We’re influencing small companies, not large companies. A lot of the green stuff is green washing
Alison van Diggelen: Do you feel Apple’s efforts are green washing?
Yvon Chouinard: Absolutely – it’s like that with every large corporation. They’ll pick the low hanging fruit, but when it starts getting a little tougher…They’ll do the things that turn into more profits, but when you really have to knuckle down and be truly responsible, they’re not going to do it.
Alison van Diggelen: What’s been your biggest influence in greening the world? Business side or consumers?
Yvon Chouinard: Young people. I wrote this book “Let my people go surfing” – that has gone around in 9 languages and that has influenced a lot of young people and small companies are really paying attention. The idea of changing large corporations is pretty naive of me.
On Patagonia’s business philosophy
Yvon Chouinard: I never liked authority, I never liked telling people what to do. We decided to do it in our own style. That’s the title of my book “Let My People Go Surfing.” I don’t care when you work as long as you get your work done. You go when the surf’s up. Not next Tuesday at 2 o’clock. So it’s affected our management style. It’s created a way of managing a business so that we’re not tied down. We don’t drag our butts to work every day. We skip up the stairs two steps at a time. You don’t have to do it like everyone else. We don’t hire MBAs; we don’t have advertising agencies. We do most things ourselves because we can’t trust other companies to do it.
Alison van Diggelen: Beyond your lifetime, how will you ensure Patagonia keep the environment central to its mission?
Yvon Chouinard: We’ve become a B-corporation company… In a B-corporation you can put down what your values are and they have to be values that are good for the planet, good for society.
Alison van Diggelen: Will your son or daughter stay at the helm?
Yvon Chouinard: I don’t know…I have no idea what’s going to happen after I’m dead.
Alison van Diggelen: Are you grooming them to do so?
Yvon Chouinard: Yeah, they are slowly taking over more responsibility, absolutely. My daughter is head of sportswear design right now and my son is on the board. They both have the same values that my wife and I have.
Alison van Diggelen: One last question: going back to Scotland – John Muir, I know he’s been an inspiration to you. Do you have a favorite quote or inspiration from him?
Yvon Chouinard: [laughter] When I was a climber, it was John Muir and Emerson, Thoreau and the transcendentalists, philosophers which had a different attitude to climbing mountains than say the Europeans did, which was to conquer the mountains and our attitude was: you climb them and leave no trace of having been there.
Listen to my report on Chouinard and consumerism on the BBC World Service (starts @16:00 on the podcast)
Here are Fresh Dialogues Transcript & Highlights of my BBC Report
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This is the second in the series: Fresh Dialogues Uncut
The “Uncut” series launched with an in-depth interview with Google’s Dave Burke
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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