Hacking to fight COVID-19’s mental-health fallout

Andrew Moss, a visiting professor in NYU Tandon’s Department of Technology Management and Innovation, has long recognized the power of technology to contribute to the public good. He sits on the Steering Committee for the NYU Alliance for Public Interest Technology and contributes to the NYU Human Rights Innovation initiative, for example, as well as serving as a mentor in the Betaworks Ventures Circles program, part of the venture capital and accelerator’s mentorship program. So he was intrigued when he heard from Alex Bennett, a young family friend who had recently started a job at the Jericho Project, a nonprofit dedicated to ending homelessness at its roots by providing not only housing but extensive, results-based programs addressing employment, overall wellness, and other such issues.

As a technologist concerned with hard data and evidence, Moss was especially impressed by the fact that the Jericho Project  was able to provide demonstrably workable services for just $13,000 per adult client a year, compared to $36,000 for a cot in a New York City shelter, $70,000 for a room in a family shelter, or $118,000 for a City jail cell.

On May 20, Moss, freshly elected to the Jericho Project Board of Directors, began helping build a bridge between under-resourced populations and the technology community. As a member of the COVID-19 Technology Task Force, he quickly connected the lead organizers of the COVID-19 Global Hackathon 2.0: Social Isolation & Mental Health with Jericho and other social benefit organizations. 

The hackathon is inviting participants to address social isolation and mental health issues that have arisen during the pandemic, particularly in vulnerable populations like the elderly, children, people of color, and the unhoused. The hackers will receive support from expert mentors representing organizations who work directly with those vulnerable groups, and in addition to the Jericho Project, the nonprofits include AARP: Community Connections, the Crisis Text Line, and Foster America.

Moss — who had been involved with the NYU Entrepreneurial Institute since 2014 as the Entrepreneur-in-Residence and is currently developing the Culture and Organizational Resolve (COR) Methodology — hopes Tandon students will be among those jumping in to come up with locally and globally focused solutions to the mental and social problems caused by isolation, social distancing, and difficult economic conditions. He points out that all those problems are exacerbated by the circumstances people in vulnerable populations routinely face. “We know, for example, that being in a crowded homeless shelter raises the risk of COVID-19 infection, so imagine the anxiety and depression that it can cause among people residing in those conditions,” he explains. “Or consider those already struggling with mental health issues who are now physically isolated from the family members and friends they count on for support.” 

He stresses that the hackathon is a collaboration, not a competition, and that participants will be expected to share resources, information, and ideas freely. “Our bottom-line goal is to build tech tools and products that will help people in need,” he said. “That makes this a great initiative for NYU Tandon students since it corresponds directly to the school’s mission of harnessing technology to improve the world.”

Registration for the COVID-19 Global Hackathon 2.0: Social Isolation & Mental Health officially opens on June 16th, and projects can be submitted from June 27 to July 5. Aspiring participants are invited to sign up now on Slack to connect with mentors and potential teammates.