The COVID-19 pandemic magnified the health and financial strain in communities across the country. With stay-at-home mandates, a record number of people are unemployed and struggling to make ends meet. The Aspen Institute, an educational and policy studies organization, anticipated evictions may reach 20 million by September 2020.
Before the pandemic hit, Wildfire, a state association for Community Action Agencies, was working with Prefix Health Technologies (Prefix), an Amazon Web Services (AWS) Partner Network (APN) Technology Partner, to develop a cloud-based solution for utility and rental assistance.
When the City of Phoenix requested they support the distribution of $20 million Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act funds, they shifted their resources and existing infrastructure and, in a matter of weeks, stood up a repeatable public-facing solution. Now, they are able to deliver assistance quickly to people negatively impacted by COVID-19.
Time was important as it is expected 577,733 renters in Arizona will be at risk for eviction. Additionally, the CARES Act funds expire on December 31, 2020—the solution implemented will help the city serve their residents and connect funds with those in need within the time constraints.
From traditional process to streamlined digital approach
Previously, the process of applying for utility and rental assistance was fragmented and difficult to access. Applicants often spent hours on the phone, were required to take time off work to meet with a caseworker, and then found they did not bring the right documents to qualify for assistance.
These challenges can deter applicants who can’t miss work, are homebound, or do not have transportation or child care. People needed an accessible, digital solution that allows users to complete an application online quickly and receive notifications on their application status.
To address this issue, Virginia G. Piper Charitable Trust, a private, place-based foundation that supports organizations which enrich health, well-being, and opportunity for the people of Maricopa County, convened a group of organizations. Facilitated by Wildfire and Borns Solutions AZ, an Arizona-based consulting firm, the meeting focused on supporting the needs of the Phoenix community to create a more streamlined customer-focused approach to getting the limited assistance funds into the hands of the most vulnerable. They built the Arizona benefits portal.
Today, the Arizona benefits portal allows COVID-19 impacted households to pre-screen and apply for assistance with rent, mortgage, gas, electric, and water. By answering a few questions on a mobile device, computer, or tablet, the applicant receives confirmation of probable eligibility and a list of documents required to support the application.
The applicant then creates a secure HIPAA-compliant account. Using their phone’s photo capabilities, applicants can attach document images to the application. Optical character recognition (OCR) captures the data from the images and populates or verifies the data entered, which eliminates the need for manual verification and speeds up the processing time. In many cases, eligibility can be determined at the point of entry and funds can be credited to the customer’s account with little or no delay.
Throughout the process, email and text notifications keep the applicant up to date on the application status.
The solution empowers customers to independently access assistance and caseworkers can more efficiently process applications with the assistance of automation and user-focused design to expedite the review process. Application processing can take place in less than two days so those in need are receiving funds quickly.
The Arizona benefits portal is an example of how cloud-based technology has helped reduce the risk of eviction by quickly delivering assistance to vulnerable applicants from the safety of their homes. The portal transforms the way users engage with services, empowering them with access and transparency.
COVID-19 and beyond
Wildfire’s vision for streamlined service delivery matched the cloud-based technology solution developed by Prefix. With the cloud computing resources in place, they were able to create this solution that supports utility and rental assistance to provide relief to Arizonans from COVID-19 and beyond.
For example, access to utilities and housing are essential for positive health outcomes even beyond COVID-19. Every year, growing numbers of people die from exposure to heat and cold. In Arizona alone, there were 283 heat-related deaths in 2019. In September, an additional programs will be added that supports several utility and rental assistance programs such as utility-funded grant programs, which are not limited to COVID-19 impacted households.
Over time, the portfolio of programs will expand providing a single point of access for a user to access multiple sources of support. Once the individual has completed an application, their data and documents can be securely saved to their account, eliminating the need for re-entry and allowing outreach by the local community providers to inform them of new benefit opportunities.
Collaboration on the cloud
The solution uses AWS services such as Amazon Virtual Private Cloud (Amazon VPC), Amazon Elastic Container Service (Amazon ECS), AWS Lambda, and Amazon Simple Storage Service (Amazon S3) as well as Amazon Simple Notification Service (Amazon SNS) for outreach and Amazon Elasticsearch Service for analytics among other services for security, identity, and compliance, and administration and development.
To pull the data from images in this solution, the Arizona State University Cloud Innovation Center (CIC) developed an open source asset to refine the ability of Amazon Textract, a machine learning service. This OCR prototype can be used to augment any program utilizing Textract and is available on GitHub.
Most municipalities will adopt a similar process and requirements to better serve their communities impacted by COVID-19 and can benefit from this solution. This functionality is applicable to other eligibility programs and can be part of an agency’s plans to modernize their existing systems, allowing them to be agile and efficient with their resources.
Learn more about the cloud for state and local government, and check out more resources on the cloud for state and local government.