HUD, VA team with rocker Bon Jovi on app contest to help homeless vets

Monday - 3/19/2012, 9:41pm EDT

A bevy of federal technology officials — and one rock musician — launched a contest for app developers Monday with the goal of providing resources for homeless veterans.

Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan, along with W. Scott Gould, the deputy secretary of Veterans Affairs, announced the launch of Project REACH, which is short for Real-time Electronic Access for Caregivers and the Homeless.

Singer Jon Bon Jovi, who chairs the Jon Bon Jovi Soul Foundation in New Jersey and is also a member of the White House Council for Community Solutions, was also on hand for the announcement.

The contest is one of a growing number of "challenges," which leverage public participation and often specialized knowledge, that the government has initiated.

"Under Project Reach ... talented developers and software designers will compete to create an app that people will use to help homeless veterans quickly get the help they need," Donovan said in a call with reporters. "We all use smartphones, tablets or laptops to check the score of a game or to text friends. Well, what if we had the ability, in real-time, drawing upon local data, to actually help the homeless vet on the corner find the help he or she needs."

The app will provide information about access to open beds at shelters, medical care and even resources for finding a permanent home.

Donovan was joined on the call by Gould, Bon Jovi, VA Chief Technology Officer Peter Levin, Jonah Czerwinski, the director of VA's Innovation Initiative, and Aneesh Chopra, the former federal chief technology officer.

"This will be a high-tech, high-compassion, low-cost solution," Gould said. The app-development challenge is part of a long-term goal to end — not reduce — homelessness among veterans by 2015, he added.

The goal of the contest is to create a national platform that allows health clinics, food kitchens and housing services to post information about the availability of their services, in real-time, on the Internet.

Five finalists — the first to successfully meet HUD and VA app requirements — will test applications at the Bon Jovi's organization, the JBJ Soul Kitchen, a Monmouth County, N.J., nonprofit. Finalists will receive a $10,000 cash prize and the overall winner will receive $25,000.

The HUD and VA officials acknowledged it's not likely every homeless person has access to a smartphone, which is why the agencies are also focusing on "caregivers," a term which encompasses shelter employees, community groups and Good Samaritans alike.

Chopra noted the increasing use of challenges since their use was authorized in the 2011 extension of the America Competes Reauthorization Act.

Since Challenge.gov was launched in October 2010, agencies across the federal government have issued more than 150 challenges and prizes.

"People want to help," Chopra said. "This is not a government RFP for which there are millions of dollars of support resources. This is to tap into the creativity and the voluntary spirit of the American people."

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