Geo-Locating Doubts

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On Wednesday, the Point-in-Time Count will take place across Santa Barbara County, a census of homeless residents that takes place almost every year. While conducting a brief tally or demographic survey of the county’s unsheltered population could serve as a way to distribute resources, the Point-in-Time Count goes too far in its data collection by amassing detailed geographic data on where unsheltered people are sleeping, even if they do not consent to participate in the count.

The app used by volunteers to survey those sleeping outside requires volunteers to drop a pin at the exact location of the unsheltered or car-living person. Creating an expansive dataset of the exact locations of people sleeping outside is extremely dangerous to those people. What if law enforcement were to demand the geolocation data from the count in the name of public safety? Can people sleeping outside rely on the organizers to protect their data from abuse or mismanagement? When asked about this during the training, United Way presenters did not have a clear answer, then said that volunteers did not have to collect data that they felt uncomfortable collecting. This issue should not depend on the comfort level of volunteers. United Way should already have a survey method in place that prioritizes participant safety instead of creating a dataset can and will be used against the people it is trying to help.

Volunteers participating in the count are also encouraged to take data on people sleeping outside and in cars even if they do not want to be surveyed. During the training, volunteers are taught how to “gently” wake up people sleeping on the streets and incentivizing them to take the survey by offering socks or a cereal bar. Once awake, if somebody declines to take the survey, volunteers are supposed to do an “observational” survey where they drop a pin and record as much information as they can remember about the person, including demographic information. What if the person did not want to be surveyed because they do not want their location published in a database? If a prospective participant declines to participate in the count, the observational survey is a violation of their free will and privacy.

The organizers can and should take several steps to ensure better protection of participants. First, specific geolocation data should be avoided entirely. Volunteers could instead take location data by city or by neighborhood, and that would be plenty of data to judge the distribution of unsheltered folks. Second, the survey should be completely voluntary, as some people are rightfully afraid that this data can be used against them. Finally, for data that is absolutely necessary, Point-in-Time organizers should enact strong and transparent data security measures on their app such as encryption and ensure volunteers and participants that the necessary steps have been taken to protect participants’ privacy.

With just a day before the count, prospective volunteers should consider sleeping in instead of participating. The count should be delayed until the app can be redesigned instead of potentially giving law enforcement a tour of where the most vulnerable go to hide. If you share these concerns, please consider calling the county’s Continuum of Care agency.

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