Austin, TX is going through an affordable housing crisis. While the median family income has only doubled since 1990, the median price of a single-family home has quadrupled. Unfortunatley, the housing landscape in Austin is rooted in planned racial segregation, and the historically underserved minority groups are being pushed out of the city because of an influx in population. This means lack of access to transportation, jobs, healthcare, education. Go to any city council meeting and it's a good bet that affordable housing comes up as a barrier to other social services that the city offers.
This project was born out of a hackathon and the City's great open data portal which allowed us to plot some affordable housing inventory. Our theory was that technology can help alleviate this crisis by 1) providing better access to affordable housing and 2) providing policy makers a better understanding of the affordable housing landscape. We quickly realized, however, that the data was of poor quality. There are many different organizations in Austin that create and maintain affordable housing through income restricted units and housing vouchers, but the data lives in siloed datasets of differing quality - none of them contain availabilty information and important acceptance criteria (evictions, criminal history, etc.) by default.
We are proud to have partnered with the City of Austin's Neighborhood and Community Development Department and Code for America, both put the funding in place for us to create two tools that will provide better access to affordable housing. The Housing Authority of the City of Austin has also been instrumental in inviting us into their process and helping us understand the pain points.
The first tool is a Affordable Housing Data Portal. Once we were able to integrate the siloed datasets, and create a more robust database, we needed a way for government agencies and housing conselors to update the affordable housing inventory on a regular basis.
Once we got this tool in the hands of those critical partners who are able to increase the quality of the data in one centralized place, we moved on to exposing this data through an API that allows government agencies, nonprofits, and private companies to use this data and deliver it as a resource. We channeled this data into an affordable housing app that serves Austinites searching for affordable housing.
There are a couple differnt needles we are pushing here. Most important which is providing one place to search for affordable housing. This helps tremendously with the affordable housing search which is already stressful because of the lack of available units. Increasing the quality of the data has increased visibility into what units are available and what criteria those properties have for accepting tenants. Another important needle is connecting the government with the people they serve. Establishing an affordable housing app allows the City to gain insight into how many units are available at given time, what kinds of opportunities those units provide in terms of transportation, education, etc; and what the demand for affordable housing looks like. For Austin, affordability is an equity question, and it's technologies like this that allow us to understand what Austinites demand from their government services in terms of who they are and where they are looking.
It's no secret that Substructure Technologies has been interested in journalism and newsrooms since day one. We are bent upon seeking out truth, trust, and transparency. But the news has lost its way a bit. If we are going to continue to value the information that is at our fingertips because of the internet, we need to understand what's the problem with news today and how it needs to change.
For us, that means understanding two things really well. First and foremost is journalists. They are the bread and butter of the information age, at least in terms of the kind of information that is available publicly. The second, is understanding platforms by which the news is distributed. This includes the obvious suspects in Facebook and Twitter, who have irrevocably changed the way we consume. But it also means understanding the supply and demand of information on local news sites, who have hit hard times, and how newer platforms that prioritize analysis over reporting - like Medium, can change the way the news works.
Know Your Beat is a great example of a tool that was born out of on the ground research. Understanding a space means understanding its people. And that's exactly what we did. We worked with a great journalist in the Austin area name Margaret Nicklas, who has published through many local newsrooms, to understand the local news in Austin, TX and what it needs to survive.
One thing we found is that there is a divide between the business side of news and the creative side of news, but data can be the glue that can connect the two. So we created KnowYourBeat. KnowYourBeat is a platform that allows newsrooms to track the supply and demand of information over time. We found that often journalists are on the clock to churn out as much content as they can, and oftentime they reuse material to create a news arc that may span several months. The trick with the news, as with nearly all types of information, is timing and context. KnowYourBeat gives journalists and newsrooms just that by providing a way to see how the supply and demand of various beats and topics trend overtime. It also allows them to tailor their own newsfeed so they can understand what the news ecosystem looks like, which provides them a source of research, and allows them to make better decisions about the best stories to produce.
To truly push the needle with journalism, we're going to have to figure out new ways of implementing business models. It's our theory that advertising shouldn't pay for information. There should be a direct monetary relationship between the producer of information and consumer of information. But before we can work on creating a platform that can facilliate this, we want to understand, and we want to help newsrooms and journalists understand, what kind of information is valuable in the first place.
InMoat is yet another one of our projects in our portfolio centered around journalism. The client that approached us about this project has actually been working at various PR firms or on PR technology for years. We were very interested in his vision to better connect PR firms with newsrooms, and even more excited to learn more about the people in this space.
The problem as our client saw it, is that newsrooms and journalists receive thousands of irrelevant press releases every day. These press releases can be important because they inform the stories that get written, but based on the research that we condudcted with journalists, maybe only 5% - 10% of press releases are actually useful.
But that doesn't stop press releases from coming. It can take hours for journalists to filter through their emails everyday, and it can be difficult to find the needle in the haystack, the story that is both relevant and timely.
InMoat is an exciting piece of technology that connects directly to the inboxes of newsrooms and journalists. The way it works, is that users pick a series of beats and subeats that are relevant to what they cover. InMoat scans incoming emails to their inbox, and categorizes their emails by understanding the keywords that distinguish categories of information.
It was really exciting to build this because it uses something called an IMAP protocol that no one on our team had used before - it gives our company new capabilities to build technologies that can connect to inboxes and transform the way that email works.
Our vision is that this technology can be applied to all sorts of organizations that get too many emails and need to quickly understand what's relevant and what's not. These kinds of systems can save time, and more importantly, optimize what kind of information to pay attention to and when to pay attention to it.
InMoat's email categorization tool is just the beginning, as we plan to build on this process by streamlining and enhancing the creative process of receiving a press release, finding a story, and sharing it with the world.
Hi, my name is Rohan Mathur - founder of Substructure Technologies. We're a team of engineers, designers, and researchers, and we're building the first public interest technology company of its kind.
Our core mission is to empower people to do good. We help organizations build technologies that amplify their work, allowing them to push on levers that may have otherwise been out of reach.
We believe in giving first. And we like to build relationships before we build solutions. We've had great success working with governments and nonprofits that share our values.
Currently, we're working on a range of problems - from gentrification, to zero waste, to journalism. We prioritize working on the issues that have the biggest impact on our coummunities.
We also believe in measuring growth by how much we learn, not just how much we do. For those interested in sharing ideas, teaching us about their work, or learning from our experience - our door is always open.
Although we are a distributed team of makers, Austin, TX is our home. I am a proud member of these organizations within my community, from which I have learned invaluable lessons that inform our work: