News / Vancouver

DTES app bridges social service information gap

A new mobile app created in the Downtown Eastside shows people where the nearest services are.

LinkVan.ca allows users to access the Downtown Eastside services nearest to them.

Jeff Hodson/Metro

LinkVan.ca allows users to access the Downtown Eastside services nearest to them.

Access to technology in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside shouldn’t be a contentious issue, says an advocate who helped launch a new social service finder app in the community this month.

LinkVan.ca, a web app that geo-locates the nearest DTES services for a myriad of needs, is now live thanks to a collaboration between the DTES Literacy Roundtable, the University of British Columbia Learning Exchange and computer programmer Kevin Tanyag.

William Booth, co-ordinator at the DTES Literacy Roundtable, said the simplistic tool allows anyone to find any service and instantly access critical information to the many resources located within the neighbourhood.

For example, someone seeking shelter will be given a full list of nearby bed spaces.

Choosing a specific one from the list will bring up operating hours, capacity, phone numbers and special notes like whether the shelter provides food and showers or permits shopping carts or pets.

The app was developed through several community roundtables and was tested with trial runs in the community.

“We had no idea about doing an app at first,” said Booth,” but there was a consensus from both the community members and service providers that people wanted to have a centralized source of information.”

An app seemed like the best option.

What Booth didn’t expect was to be defending the need for such an initiative to people from outside the Downtown Eastside.

“The perception is that people in the Downtown Eastside don’t have access to technology. And if they do, how is it they can afford it if they’re on welfare?” Booth said of the skepticism he encountered. “That attitude needs to change.”

In an increasingly digital world, computer literacy is absolutely necessary, said Booth.

“If people need to do anything in terms of government support these days, it has to be on the computer, so they need that literacy,” said Booth. “Access to technology wasn’t as big of a problem as once thought [when developing the app]. People do have some form of IT technology available to them. It may not be the latest model, or they may not have a contract but it’s there.”

Strides have been made to bridge the so-called digital divide that threatens to further marginalize people who would otherwise be unable to afford connecting online.

Many organizations provide devices and opportunities to access the Internet.

The Vancouver Public Library has a program that allows e-readers to be loaned out to residents, and also hosts free tech cafes to teach people how to use the devices.

Recently, organizers of the DTES Street Market have been installing free public Wi-Fi hotspots throughout the neighbourhood for users who can’t afford data plans.

And Booth said the city’s expansion of free public Wi-Fi hotspots, one specifically at Carnegie Hall at Main and Hastings streets, will further increase the usefulness of tools like LinkVan.ca.

Meanwhile, ACORN Canada, an advocacy group for low- and moderate-income residents, has been lobbying the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission for a subsidized $10/month Internet plan for qualifying low-income families as the regulator prepares for a review of the country’s telecommunications industry this spring.

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