San Jose uses AI to locate homeless encampments. Will other cities follow suit?

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Tami Rule stands outside the vehicle she lives in along Sandpebble Drive on Wednesday, April 3, 2024 in San Jose, California. The city of San Jose has launched a pilot program to use AI to identify occupied RVs and homeless encampments. (Aric Crabb/Bay Area News Group)

Across the country, cities have begun experimenting with artificial intelligence to map potholes, reduce traffic and fight wildfires. In San Jose, officials are now using the rapidly evolving technology with another goal in mind: locating homeless encampments.

Three times since December, a white city-owned Toyota sedan with half a dozen small cameras attached has driven through South San Jose to gather footage of parked cars and RVs. The images were then fed into different AI systems developed by four private companies to detect whether people were living inside the vehicles.

The open-ended pilot program, believed to be the first of its kind nationwide, may soon try to identify tent camps and one day expand to a permanent fleet of vehicles passing through the city.

While homeless advocates fear the effort could lead to more encampments and RVs, city officials say they are optimistic it will provide needed services and shelter to the homeless. or will help to connect with housing. Officials stressed that the program is not designed to collect footage that identifies license plates or people’s faces.

“We’re not interested in the individual identities of people who are living outside,” San Jose Mayor Matt Mahon said. “But we need to know where all the vehicles that live in the city are so we can manage them.”

The programme, first publicized by The Guardian, comes as Mahan is calling for an “end to the shantytown era” as residents grow frustrated with homelessness on the streets.

At the mayor’s urging, the City Council earlier this year agreed to develop policies to ban RVs near schools, limit large vehicle parking citywide and establish new two-way zones. The city estimates it has more than 800 residential RVs.

At the same time, city officials are making plans to move about 1,000 homeless people to local waterways and shelters. San Jose has an estimated 6,300 homeless residents, about 70% of whom live outdoors or in vehicles. The rest live in shelters.

San Jose Mayor Matt Mahan speaks during a news conference where he announced plans to clear 1,000 homeless people from the city’s canals and rivers over a year and a half, Friday, March 1, 2024, in San Jose. , in California (Die Sogano/Bay Area News Group)

In addition to responding to encampments, San Jose’s pilot program aims to help identify litter, graffiti, potholes and parking violations. Other cities already use AI for these purposes, but San Jose is the first to use the technology to locate RVs or tents with people living inside, according to AI experts and national homeless advocates.

Tami Rule moved into an RV parked in a residential area near Highway 87 and the Capitol Expressway last year after a fire destroyed the apartment she shared with her husband in San Jose’s West San Carlos neighborhood. shared with Rolle, 56, said her biggest concern about the program was watching people watch footage of plastic boxes filled with clothes and shoes, small potted plants and other items the couple had packed into their car. Standing outside.

“But for someone to understand what it’s like to live in a camper,” she said. “I wouldn’t mind that.”

Elsewhere in the Bay Area, officials in San Francisco, Oakland, Fremont and Mountain View said they have no plans to use AI to track encampments.

Still, experts said it’s not hard to imagine cities following San Jose’s lead. Last month, Mahan hosted officials from the White House and local governments around the country for a virtual forum on using AI to improve public services.

Vishnu Pandiala, an AI professor and researcher at San Jose State University, said the technology has “huge potential” to detect homeless encampments. But he also noted privacy concerns surrounding the pilot program and new AI efforts.

“We’ve already seen a lot of things get hacked, and a lot of things get misused,” Pandiala said. He pointed to reports of Apple contractors allegedly listening to recordings of iPhone users’ questions to Siri, the AI-powered program.

City officials and the companies working on the pilot said protecting people’s privacy is a top priority — in part by explicitly instructing the AI ​​system to ignore faces and license plate numbers.

“Whether we like it or not, AI is going to be a dominant technology,” said Khaled Tawfiq, San Jose’s chief information officer. “We want to be a leader in discovering risk and finding ways to mitigate it.”

Tawfiq said his department is not sharing any information with other local agencies or police departments during the pilot, and any data or footage shared in the future would obscure identifying details.

San Jose started the program, which is currently limited to South San Jose’s Council District 10, in response to thousands of 311 calls each year reporting abandoned vehicles, Tawfiq said. He said the city aims to proactively identify which vehicles people live in so officials know where to send homeless outreach teams.

So far, the pilot has identified resident RVs with about 70% accuracy. It only correctly identified cars 10% to 15% of the time.

Musaf Daud, vice president of San Mateo-based Xloop Digital, one of the companies involved in the pilot, expects those numbers to improve as the AI ​​analyzes thousands more images. He said this is the first time a city has asked the company to identify live-in vehicles. Xloop Digital’s software looks for markers including dirt on the roadway, lines of parked RVs and unexpected objects, like a coffee maker on a car’s dashboard.

Despite the technology’s potential, Daud still expects a margin of error. “I don’t think we can say, or we should say, ‘Oh, we can be 100 percent,'” he said.

Other companies that have participated in the pilot are Sensen.AI, CityRover and Mountain View-based Blue Dome Technologies

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