Arkansas Innovators Promote Tech's Everyday Problem-Solving

Arkansas Innovators Promote Tech's Everyday Problem-Solving
Erika Suhr, the manager of the Hunger Not Impossible pilot program, says technology provides another way to address hunger. (Marty Cook)

Two years ago, Justyn Hornor was in Little Rock for the Ark Challenge accelerator program when he learned that Little Rock real estate agent Beverly Carter had been kidnapped and murdered while showing a home to someone she thought was a potential buyer.

Hornor, a former armed escort for unarmed Army National Guard personnel, and his partner, Tim Brausell, co-founded Real Agent Guard, which launched in November 2014. Real Agent Guard is a mobile security system for solitary workers in the real estate industry.

“We were trying to solve the problem of lone workers going out into remote areas and not having to come up with an expensive new device to keep track of them,” said Hornor, a staff sergeant who has served in the Army National Guard since 2009. “There are some really expensive solutions out there. If somebody gets hurt on the job, there is no way to detect if something has happened to them.

“We were trying to bring this to market for the energy industry. We shifted from the energy industry to focus specifically on the real estate market as our initial vertical. Really, though, this applies to so many different situations.”

The technology Hornor and Brausell developed and used is straightforward: Users register in their phone when and where they are scheduled to be; if they fail to check in, police can be notified quickly as to their approximate location. Hornor said the idea is similar to squad check-ins while on patrol in the Army.

The added element of Real Agent Guard is that the alert system works even if the user or the phone is disabled.

Versatile Building Block
Technology to many people conjures thoughts of self-driving cars and spaceships flying in outer space, or maybe a smartphone that can show you a picture of how much milk is in your refrigerator so you know how much to buy at the grocery store.

That same technology provides the building blocks for programs such as Real Agent Guard and Hunger Not Impossible, which started a 30-day pilot program in northwest Arkansas on Nov. 26. Hunger Not Impossible, developed by Not Impossible Labs of Venice Beach, California, chose northwest Arkansas because Wal-Mart is headquartered there and because of the growing technological ecosystem of the area.

“Solving hunger is not necessarily a problem you would look at [and say], ‘We can solve hunger with tech,’” said Michael Paladino, the co-founder and chief technology officer of RevUnit in Bentonville. “But as you start to think more and more, tech will be a part of every solution. The younger generation is more geared that way; they do think of tech as part of every solution. For some of us who haven’t grown up with cellphones in our hand, it’s still a shift in thinking. It should be a part of every solution for every problem out there.”

RevUnit is one of the area technology companies that are working with Hunger Not Impossible. Erika Suhr, the manager of the pilot program, said her company found out that even a large percentage of the homeless or food-insecure (often people are both, of course) have cellphones, if not wireless plans.

The program allows users to request a meal through a text and identifies what restaurants are close. A volunteer then orders and pays for the meal with the program’s funds, and the user then gets the meal.

Suhr said food banks and hot meals at places such as churches are great helps, but some of those in need don’t have the facilities to prepare a meal or perhaps the time and ability to get to where the hot meals are. The Hunger Not Impossible technology hopes to be a third alternative.

“I don’t want to insult the team that has built the tech around this and say that it is low tech, but the beauty of it is it is simple and accessible,” Suhr said. “Whether you are someone who has a government-issued phone and you have 450 minutes a month or you’re relying on WiFi to connect, if you have a phone — and 62 percent of the homeless do — this is an answer. You have the tech in your pocket already.”

Tech Proliferation
Casey Kinsey is the founder and president of Lofty Labs, a web development consultancy in Fayetteville. He said the impact of technology has grown since it has become more accessible to the general public.

Remember those old stories about how NASA’s first computer weighed 10 tons and took up a city block? Well, the computing power of a smartphone puts those old dinosaurs to shame.

“It’s the small-business economy on software,” Kinsey said. “People are turning their attention to smaller problems. Tech was shipping people to the moon. At Lofty Labs, we’re not shipping people to the moon, but we’re using the same technology to solve terrestrial problems.”

As technology became accessible, people with a multitude of different agendas have embraced it. Some use it to design incredibly complex logistical plans for transportation; some use it to analyze big data for financial institutions; some use it to figure out a way to connect hungry people to food.

Some use it to chase and collect imaginary creatures.

“Pokemon Go is a crazy example of what technology can do,” Paladino said. “It’s not solving anything. That’s an example of technology not just changing behavior as it impacts looking at your phone, but changing physical behavior. People were driving to parks and walking around and driving to the Bentonville Square. It was literally activating groups of people to go do something. It was for a game; it wasn’t solving any social issue.”

Kinsey said the proliferation of technology is a great thing. Government agencies and huge corporations spend incredible amounts of money on developing and revising technologies for big-ticket problems.

But the availability of that technology allows for Hunger Not Impossible to use cellphones to feed the hungry.

“It’s a pretty cool time,” Kinsey said. “[Proliferation] is a big driver of all this you’re seeing. It’s really amazing that technology is being applied in all these ways.

“The little guy can look at any problem and work to solve problems too small for the big guy.”