Finding Opportunities in Data for LGBT Youth Experiencing Homelessness

Just before President Obama’s historic visit to South by Southwest (SXSW) this year, The White House announced the launch of “The Opportunity Project,” a new effort to put public data in the hands of communities to help them navigate information about critical resources such as access to jobs, housing, transportation, schools, and other local amenities.

The initiative provides collections of federal and local open data sets, which tech developers and communities can use to build new digital tools. The announcement is a gamechanger for organizations like the True Colors Fund, which is developing a mobile app to ensure that lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth experiencing homelessness in the United States can find support wherever they go—and be themselves when they get there.

Turning to Technology for Answers

In America, up to 1.6 million youth are homeless each year, and up to 40% of them identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender (LGBT). Once they are out of their homes, LGBT youth are at a greater risk for victimization, unsafe sexual practices, and mental health issues than non-LGBT young people. In particular, transgender youth often experience homelessness for longer periods of time because access to services can be hindered by discriminatory policies and/or lack of protections (they also may not have government issued identification that matches their appearance, name, or gender identity, which can create additional barriers.) So what do LGBT youth experiencing homelessness do when the systems we’ve put into place are unable to serve them? More and more, they are turning to technology to find the answers.

According to a recent study, 83.5% of youth experiencing homelessness use the internet at least once per week; and 62% own a mobile phone. In fact, many young people will forego basic necessities in order to maintain their mobile data connections, as it ensures they have access to the resources they need to survive. Mobile technology is the ideal way to engage with this unique population, which tends to be transient in nature. That’s why the True Colors Fund is incorporating Open Opportunity Data into our soon-to-be-released True Connect mobile app, which is being developed to help LGBT youth experiencing homelessness across the country find the resources and opportunities they need to thrive.

The True Inclusion Directory

Over the past couple of years, the True Colors Fund has been building our True Inclusion Directory, a database of shelters and community centers across the United States that provide inclusive and affirming services for LGBT youth experiencing homelessness. In order to be listed in the directory, providers need to be assessed by True Colors Fund staff to ensure that LGBT young people will feel safe and welcome when accessing services. The first phase of development for True Connect will involve adapting data from this directory, which tends to use more clinical language, to make it more accessible for young people. For instance, rather than searching for “Emergency Shelter,” a young person might just be thinking, “I need a place to stay tonight.” The True Colors Fund will engage youth focus groups to develop appropriate language for the app.

We understand that LGBT youth experiencing homelessness need more than just shelter, so the second phase of the project will focus on expanding on our True Inclusion Directory by integrating datasets from The Opportunity Project. We want True Connect to link youth experiencing homelessness to a myriad of resources, including mobile charging stations, gender-neutral restrooms, food, shelter, job readiness programs, mental/physical health services, WiFi hotspots, and more.

“The Experts of Their Own Experiences”

LGBT youth experiencing homelessness are the experts of their own experiences—and their insight is crucial to the success of True Connect. Users will have the opportunity to provide feedback on their experiences with the services they find in the app, which will allow the True Colors Fund to ensure the integrity of our directory. Through data analytics, we’ll also be able to measure users’ success at finding the resources they need, and identify where there might be a lack of services in a particular area.

In addition to integrating data from The Opportunity Project into True Connect, the True Colors Fund has committed to contributing our own data on safe and inclusive services to the project under an open source license. Our goal is to give future Opportunity Project teams the opportunity to include LGBT-friendly resources in their own digital tools.

Many communities across the country have already begun building web and mobile applications to help vulnerable populations find and access local resources. These communities can now use the datasets provided by The Opportunity Project to enhance their projects and ensure that their efforts are informed by the most thorough and accurate public data available. In return, they can contribute their own data to the project, which opens up a world of opportunities for software developers who are looking to create a positive impact through technology.

Joe Moran
For more than 15 years, I've worked as a nonprofit capacity builder, techie, and creative producer. As the Director of Content Operations at The Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson's Research, I'm responsible for implementing project management systems, optimizing business processes, and collaborating with stakeholders across the organization to ensure all content-related activities remain in strategic alignment with Foundation goals. In addition to my experience in the nonprofit sector, I've also worked in the entertainment industry as an actor, producer, and writer. I'm an avid comic book reader, retro video game player, and wacky snacker. I'm also a certified Project Management Professional (PMP)®. Twitter: @JoeSaidSo