York-supported AI research: link between COVID-19 and social issues

Photo related to computers or code OR photo related to homelessness. (Courtesy of Pixabay)

A brand-new AI project has been launched that aims to help coordinate Canada’s COVID-19 response with critical social factors like homelessness, suicide, and domestic violence. The project is called Leveraging AI In Canada’s Social Response to COVID, and will be advised by York professor Dr. Stephen Gaetz. 

This partnership has the potential to create exciting new opportunities in social service delivery and homelessness prevention,” says Dr. Amir Asif, York’s vice-president of Research and Innovation. “It is yet another way the critical research stemming from the York community is designing solutions to solve local and global societal problems.”

During the next nine months, the project will aim to predict instances of homelessness, suicide, domestic violence, and other social welfare issues todetermine how they connect to COVID-19. They also plan to create a map of over 250,000 community social services across Canada to aid in recovery efforts. 

Dr. Gaetz is an internationally recognized expert in the field, and serves as the president & CEO of the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness (COH). Through this project, he hopes to encourage a more preventative approach to the issue of homelessness.

“One of the things the pandemic reminds us of is that the Canadian response to homelessness, which relies heavily on emergency services such as shelters, day programs and soup kitchens, is woefully inadequate,” says Dr. Gaetz. “During a pandemic it becomes more acute, as such programs often place people in overcrowded congregate settings, where maintaining hygiene and social distancing is a challenge.”

     Using cutting-edge technology and a dedicated team of experts and researchers, the project aims to revolutionize Canada’s response to social issues, switching from a reactive approach to a proactive one.

The project is led by HelpSeeker, an innovative social enterprise dubbed the “Yelp of social services.” They have created the prototype for an algorithm that will predict rates of homelessness and suicide in 40 cities. With the support of new funding they received from the Digital Technology Supercluster in August, the scope can be expanded even further. 

Dr. Alina Turner, CEO & co-founder of HelpSeeker, says predictive analysis will be essential in addressing crises before they become greater.

“We know stress and upheaval exacerbates social issues, so we hypothesized that there was a marked increase in cases of domestic violence, suicide, and homelessness as a result: yet, we just weren’t ready, and COVID-19 shone a light on this so starkly,” Dr. Turner says. 

“With our amazing partners including York, we now have an opportunity to rebuild our system of supports to ensure that next time, we are ready. Being able to anticipate where rates of homelessness, suicide, and domestic violence are expected to rise by bringing predictive analytics into the fold will help us get there.”

Using cutting-edge technology and a dedicated team of experts and researchers, the project aims to revolutionize Canada’s response to social issues, switching from a reactive approach to a proactive one.

“The prevention of homelessness has unfortunately not been sufficiently prioritized in Canada,” says Dr. Gaetz. “Hopefully we can change that, through using technology to identify those at risk and then targeting supports to help people avoid becoming homeless in the first place.”

This initiative could not come at a better time, as COVID-19 has only served to worsen social issues that were already dire before the pandemic. According to Statistics Canada data from 2019, before the pandemic even occurred, over 1,000 women and children were being turned away from emergency shelters for those fleeing gender-based violence. 

With the spread of the disease, addressing the situation becomes both time sensitive and vital. The pandemic has increased the momentum to create lasting solutions, prevent further harm, and strengthen Canada’s social safety net. 

Dr. Turner, a driving force behind this AI project, is acutely aware of the issues at hand, bearing a personal experience with this tragedy.

 “I have seen firsthand the damage that crises like homelessness, suicide, and domestic violence can leave in their wake,” says Dr. Turner. “I personally lost my brother to this conflation of issues exacerbated by COVID-19 last month. I understand it viscerally, and I will continue to dedicate my efforts and those of HelpSeeker to finding ways of preventing personal and community tragedies in the future.”

About the Author

By Sakeina Syed

Former Editor

Sakeina is in her third year at York University studying public administration and creative writing. She is committed to learning and writing about critical issues and uplifting marginalized stories. Outside of Excalibur, you'll most likely find her reading a book or collecting funny cat videos.

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