Addressing housing barriers with the cloud: Baltimore launches My Digital Data Locker
Imagine for a moment that you have experienced homelessness on and off due to a cascading series of events in your personal life—job loss, rent hikes, medical debt. Now, after months of sleeping in your car or bouncing from shelter to shelter, you’re looking around your new apartment. You are home. This is the goal for anyone who has experienced homelessness.
Removing the barriers to rehousing, especially for those chronically homeless, is a critical part of a community’s efforts to combat homelessness. This month, the city of Baltimore is launching My Digital Data Locker, an innovative cloud-based platform that gives people who are experiencing homelessness a secure place to manage digital copies of vital documents. This service reduces one of the key barriers to housing for people experiencing homelessness: vital document storage and access. Around the country, people are able to access housing after periods of homelessness, but doing so requires proving your identity, your income, your credit history, and more. Often, when experiencing homelessness, keeping track of official documents is the last thing on people’s minds. My Digital Data Locker makes this process seamless.
People experiencing homelessness, especially those who are chronically homeless, have no safe place to store documents that can help prove identity, citizenship, legal residency, veteran status, or a disabling condition. Even when replaced, without stable housing, these documents may be again lost, stolen, or destroyed. Case managers spend considerable amounts of time helping clients replace documents—efforts that limit their capacity to address the clients’ underlying causes of housing instability. The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated these challenges as many service providers have switched to remote operations. Without the required documentation, many people remain homeless. A solution to this barrier has to be one that lessens the burden of people facing a housing crisis. Because the solution is open source, My Digital Data Locker can be adapted and scaled by other jurisdictions or for other use cases.
“Ending homelessness is a community effort and My Digital Data Locker Baltimore is a wonderful example of private and public sector partners lending funding, expertise, and innovation to better serve our neighbors experiencing homelessness in the housing application process,” said Tisha S. Edwards, acting director of the Mayor’s Office of Homeless Services. “Documents are frequently lost, stolen, or destroyed during a housing crisis. Now, by snapping a photo with a cell phone and uploading it to a secure account, these documents will be more easily maintained. Baltimore is proud to pilot this program.“
Envisioning new solutions to longstanding barriers
Leaders in the Mayor’s Office of Homeless Services (MOHS) knew that technology could address the need for vital identification documents but realized that a solution would depend on close collaboration with service providers, philanthropic funders, and support from the private sector. MOHS approached Amazon Web Services (AWS) to convene leaders from the Baltimore Continuum of Care (Journey Home), local housing service providers, and people who have experienced homelessness to envision the new solutions to these longstanding barriers. Their big idea: what if people experiencing a housing crisis could store digital copies of their vital documents and share them electronically when applying for city services? Working backwards from this challenge, the AWS Envision Engineering team collaborated with Baltimore’s core team to develop a secure document management prototype. In nine weeks, the team created a prototype and delivered and validated a cloud-native web application to reduce the overhead and remove the barriers of the manual process.
Building on the learnings from that early prototype, New America’s Digital Impact and Governance Initiative (DIGI) worked with MOHS, technical and philanthropic partners—including AWS Partner Network Partner (APN) Two Bulls—to build and release a managed service for the City of Baltimore that leverages a serverless cloud-native architecture, securely connecting the frontend with the backend through Amazon API Gateway, storing vital records in Amazon Simple Storage Service (Amazon S3), and encrypting these records using AWS Key Management Service. The code Two Bulls developed for the solution is open source and available on New America’s Github repository. The system is being tested in an early pilot phase of deployment with residents applying for Baltimore City’s Rapid Rehousing program. My Digital Data Locker Baltimore is designed to help residents efficiently locate and share documents with case managers and city agencies.
“Working together to envision and design this solution helped us to build a coalition deeply invested in making this a reality for our fellow Baltimoreans,” said Winston Phillip, chair of Journey Home, Baltimore’s Homelessness Continuum of Care Board. “This solution has broad appeal and has weathered changes in leadership because it was built by all of us working together.”
It was important to MOHS to involve people with lived experience in the decision-making process. Shawn Jones, previous chair of the Lived Experience Advisory Committee (LEAC), was part of the core team from the beginning and kept the perspectives of people experiencing homelessness top of mind. “This solution is empowering because it allows people to set up their own accounts, upload electronic copies of their vital records, and control who those documents are shared with,” said Jones.
APN Partner Two Bulls focused on the user experience. “Having previously worked with New America, we were excited to be asked by them to tackle this urgent need. Aligning the needs of so many disparate stakeholders while keeping the ultimate users—people potentially facing the most stressful moments in their lives—front and center was uniquely challenging and a responsibility we took incredibly seriously. We consider it a tremendous success to have delivered both an open source project for jurisdictions interested in building their own solution and a scalable managed service on AWS infrastructure for jurisdictions who want to get up and running immediately so quickly,” said Noah Harlan, founding partner, Two Bulls.
When a piece of technology can address many pain points at once, it can modernize the whole crisis response, giving case managers more time to focus on critical needs like support for health-related services. “People in need of programs literally designed to help them shouldn’t be punished because systems don’t talk to each other—but they are. I’ve seen people unable to finish their applications forced back into the shelter system, all because they no longer had a document that they had already shown another agency a few months before. This tool will eliminate that experience for others going forward,” said Jones.
Efficiencies of collaboration
A coalition of public, private, and nonprofit entities are collaborating on the Baltimore project, including New America, Baltimore’s Mayor’s Office of Homeless Services, The Journey Home, Two Bulls, and AWS, with support from Kaiser Permanente, The Annie E Casey Foundation, and The Rockefeller Foundation.
“Providing free digital storage of vital documents for low-income and homeless service seekers in crisis in a way that is accepted by government social services agencies removes obstacles so people experiencing homelessness can access the services they need to get off the streets.” said George L. Leventhal, Ph.D., director, Community Health Housing for Health, Thriving Schools at Kaiser Permanente. Support from Kaiser Permanente will be used for project operations and to lower the burden on service seekers to get connected to various social assistance programs across local government agencies. This will vastly reduce the wait time to connect to aid and minimize the time Baltimore residents spend in crisis.
The Annie E. Casey Foundation, which invests in efforts to increase safe and affordable housing in Baltimore and other communities throughout the nation, is also among the project’s supporters. “This is an important step toward removing housing barriers and enabling all people who live in Baltimore City to access much-needed resources and support,” said Talib Horne, director of The Annie E Casey Foundation’s Baltimore Civic Site.