New York City's Housing Authority has aligned with users of the highly popular Pokemon Go app to expand internet access and city service delivery to residents of public housing across the city. This project may seem like an unnatural alliance, putting the sometimes manic-inducing game alongside local residents in need of internet access for things like job searching, but I believe this is it's most innovative and exciting feature.
NYCHA's three free-to-use mobile computer labs - each one has free WiFi, eight laptops, two tablets, scanners and printers, pens and pencils, calculators, comfy offices chairs, and air-conditioning - are built into large vans that can drive to anywhere in the city. Since 2014, nearly 9,000 residents have used the van labs at different public housing sites across the city each working day. Doing some crude arithmetic, this works out to slightly over 17 people per day that are applying for jobs, opening email accounts, applying for tenant recertification, or paying rent.
To encourage visits, NYCHA invited Pokémon trainers to catch some Pokémon and tour its digital van. As it turns out, there’s a popular Poke stop near one of the locations. And it seems the tangential relationship with the popular app has helped bring young people into the project. According to project staff, most people utilizing the van’s resources are young people doing research for school or creating CVs to apply for jobs. The second largest user group is the local seniors who seek things beyond computer help, such as social interaction.
For those that wonder where the money for all this comes from, the vans are partly funded through the New York City Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications as part of an effort to bring digital access directly across the five boroughs. The Department of Education's Pre-K for All Outreach Team and NYCHA's Resident Engagement Office just recently began working together to deliver pre-K information to families. Each of the three digital vans cost about $175,000 (approx. £140k), with a $200,000 (approx. £160k) annual operating budget, and visits between 18 and 25 developments over the course of a two-week rotation.
This valuable case study shows us the way forward for cities and local authorities in delivering services. The project highlights that young people can be engaged in a way that bridges age and culture differences and begins the process of building trust between beneficiaries and front-line staff. By connecting through Pokemon Go, the NYCHA staff are enabled to chat directly and familiarize themselves with the local residents and young people. Critically, these informal discussions have led to awareness raising of job-searching programmes and supporting people young and old to apply, practice for, and find employment. And Renaisi’s own experience has shown that building relationships with those seeking employment often helps develop trust and aides in the job-searching process.
The GLA and local authorities across the UK would be wise to learn from these lessons and be creative with how they reach out to the residents, young and old, of their boroughs. New ways to engage and support residents and young people are becoming more important as unemployed people face higher and higher barriers to work. And if council's see that young people are socialising and congregating in certain areas, then it may be time to look at bringing the services to them.
with Pokémon trainers assembled, NYCHA chair and CEO Shola Olatoye described the vans as “an effort to better connect our residents to the city and the resources it has to offer,” and recognized Pokémon Go as a “great way to drive foot traffic to the digital van.”