A race to prevent homelessness
How technology helped one county keep people off the streets during a pandemic.
The COVID-19 pandemic isn’t just a public health crisis, it’s an economic crisis. With businesses furloughing or laying off staff, people and their families are continuing to face financial hardship, food and housing insecurity. In Clark County, Nevada, home to Las Vegas, the loss of tourism and countless convention cancellations brought much of the economy to a standstill. It was projected that in 2020 more than 249,700 people in Clark County, more than 10 percent of its population, were at risk of eviction. Facing unprecedented levels of unemployment, Clark County needed to get help to their citizens as quickly as they could.
The county received federal funding from the 2020 CARES Act. With this money, the Clark County Department of Social Service decided to launch a new program called the Clark County Housing Assistance Program (CHAP) to help citizens who suffered financial losses due to the pandemic and could not pay for their housing costs. The agency wanted to move fast. But with face-to-face service centers closed, they needed more options to provide help to residents online. They turned to IBM Watson Health to help launch a program that was mobile friendly and easy to use.
The agency and IBM Watson Health have a long history of delivering projects to support the residents of Clark County. Working together with the agency, the Watson Health team built two key technologies to support the program launch in just 11 weeks. The first component was a Watson AI-enabled prescreening chatbot designed to answer commonly asked questions. The second was a citizen engagement portal with a mobile friendly responsive design that helped citizens apply on the devices they had access to.
The Watson Assistant chatbot
With agency service centers closed, caseworkers were working remotely while facing the difficult circumstances of balancing an increasing caseload with childcare, home schooling and other challenges. To minimize the impact of the CHAP program on caseworkers, the agency wanted to automate the application process as much as possible and screen out people who weren’t eligible for the benefit before they submitted an application. Then, caseworkers would only have to process eligible applications.
A Watson Assistant chatbot was deployed to pre-screen applicants. By asking a few screening questions, the chatbot could determine if the applicant was likely to be eligible for the benefit. Applicants who were likely to be eligible were given a link to the application and invited to apply. Over just one month, the chat bot managed 122,000 inquires that previously had to be handled by caseworkers. The automation meant that caseworkers could focus their time on people who really needed their assistance the most.
The citizen engagement portal
IBM Citizen Engagement is a digital services platform built specifically for governments that supports development and deployment of responsive and secure web applications for public services. Since its technology has been used to support 2 million clients at the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services as well as 3 million citizens at the New York City Department of Social Services, the Citizen Engagement platform was a natural choice for serving the over 2 million residents of Clark County.
Designed to be easy to configure and quick to deploy, the Citizen Engagement platform helps governments respond to the needs of their citizens as they arise. Every moment matters when someone is facing eviction, unemployment or other life-altering challenges, so creating a portal that provides a great user experience on any device is vital. In Clark County, qualifying residents can securely apply for CHAP assistance and track their applications on a device they prefer, whether it’s a phone, tablet or computer. They can also use the portal to receive secure alerts and messages from the agency, view their payments and manage their accounts.
More help is on the way
In March 2021, the Emergency Rental Assistance Program made USD 25 billion available to assist households that are unable to pay rent and utilities due to the COVID-19 pandemic. As cities and counties receive access to these needed funds, more governments will be turning to technology solutions that can help them reach their most vulnerable citizens.
As the successes in Clark County demonstrate, governments can deploy technology quickly to help make the most of their existing resources and provide their workforce with more time to focus on people who have complex needs. Technologies like IBM Citizen Engagement and the Watson Assistant chatbot provide the security and customization that governments and municipalities need without sacrificing speed as they face critical challenges.
In July 2021, IDC Government Insights named CHAP the winner of its Smart Cities North America Awards in the Public Health and Social Services category.1 IDC states that “winners in the SCNAA illustrate best practice examples of how forward-thinking municipalities are effectively leveraging technology and innovation to offer new services and economic opportunities and to meet the needs and expectations of citizens and residents.”
IBM Citizen Engagement empowers state and local government to effectively manage and distribute Emergency Rental Assistance Program funds.