The Arizona State University Smart City Cloud Innovation Center Powered by AWS (ASU CIC) recently collaborated with Wildfire, a leading community-based organization and numerous local nonprofits to apply Amazon’s Working Backwards Innovation process to improve the delivery of rental and utility assistance and reduce the level of housing vulnerability and prevent evictions in the Phoenix area. Phoenix is the 5th largest city in the United States with a population of 1.7 million people and the City received over $20 million in CARES Act funds to support households negatively impacted by COVID-19. 


Today, a number of government and non-profit organizations provide utility and rental assistance to people in crisis, many on the verge of eviction.  The State of Arizona experiences about 40,000 evictions a year.  Inability to pay utilities is one of the early warning signs for households at risk for eviction. Due to the extreme summer heat, utility bills can create financial hardship requiring households to forgo rent or risk negative health outcomes. During the summer months, the state supports a moratorium preventing service disconnection for nonpayment for the state’s three utilities Tucson Electric Power, Arizona Public Service and the Salt River Project but moratorium does waive the costs. Assistance is crucial in a normal year and with the soaring numbers of COVID-related unemployed, will be even more important in 2020.

The process of applying for utility and rental assistance is fragmented and can be difficult to access.  Applicants often spend hours on the phone, are required to take time off work to meet with a caseworker, and then find they do not have the right documents to support a positive eligibility determination. These challenges deter applicants unable to miss work, or those who do not have transportation, or child care from applying for assistance. Applicants need a solution they can access anywhere, at any time with a seamless customer-focused experience from application through payment.

The Arizona benefits portal provides a better experience for people who are likely under duress and have limited time and resources. The benefits portal also helps caseworkers process applications  in an efficient and organized way, increasing staff capacity, allowing them to meet the challenge of disbursing federal CARES Act funding and allowing staff to support the most vulnerable customers who need a high touch approach.


Wildfire and AWS worked with Prefix Health to develop an eligibility portal that is accessible from any device and provides a streamlined end-to-end process for customers. Through an intelligent screening questionnaire and a personalized engagement strategy, customers are directed to programs for which they are likely eligible. The Arizona benefits portal provides a communication bridge, giving the customer and support staff better visibility into the status of the application and access to support. Utilizing Optical Character Recognition (OCR), eligibility is determined from captured images and information entered by the customer.  In many cases, eligibility can be determined at the point of entry and funds credited to the customer’s account with little or no delay. For more complicated applications, customers are connected to a caseworker who can provide the necessary level of support or complete the application on behalf of the customer. The solution empowers customers by allowing them to independently access assistance without the need to meet with a caseworker. Accelerating the path to financial support will help many remain safe and healthy while they shelter in place.

To build a more effective way of delivering assistance information and aid to customers to better help them in crisis situations, reduce evictions, downstream health impacts, like those caused by extreme heat and improve housing stability/security.

At the heart of the Utility Assistance solution is an eligibility broker supported by micro services and designed to the needs of the target population. These services will include: screening, eligibility determination, outreach, and fund distribution.  As the platform expands, clients will have access to multiple services through a single screening process and can be proactively contacted as new programs are added. Information is captured once, either through images or data entry, and used across multiple programs, reducing effort and improving the customer experience.

The current project supports Utility and Rental Assistance. However, by changing the questions asked, the same processes and functionality can support a multitude of government and community-based programs.

Supporting Artifacts

The Amazon Working Backwards process produces three artifacts - a Press Release, a list of Frequently Asked Questions and a Visual depiction of the user experience. You can find the Wildfire AZ artifacts here:

Next Steps

Wildfire engaged Prefix Software, an AWS partner, to develop the covid-19 emergency rental assistance program starting with an off-the-shelf solution and adding customization to meet the specific needs of the utility and rental assistance use cases. The ASU CIC developed an open-source (OCR) optical recognition tool to support the uploading of utility bills, identification and other documents.

The covid-19 emergency rental assistance program developed quickly and was released into production in 2020. It can be accessed via https://wildfireaz.org/PHXERA/.

The code and instructions for the OCR tool have been published as open-source on the ASU CIC website and GitHub

About the ASU CIC

The ASU Smart Cities Cloud Innovation Center (CIC) is a strategic relationship with Amazon Web Services (AWS) and is supported by AWS on ASU’s Innovation campus - SkySong. The mission of the CIC is to drive Innovation Challenges that materially benefit the greater Phoenix metro area and beyond by solving pressing community and regional challenges using shareable and repeatable technology solutions from ideation through prototype as a service for the greater human good.

The CIC also provides real-world problem-solving experiences to students by immersing them in the application of proven innovation methods in combination with the latest technologies to solve important challenges in the public sector.

The challenges being addressed cover a wide variety of topics including homelessness, evidence-based policing, digital literacy, virtual cybersecurity laboratories and many others. The CIC leverages the deep subject matter expertise of government, education and non-profit organizations to clearly understand the customers affected by public sector challenges and develops solutions that meet the customer needs.

For more information on the ASU CIC, to read about projects or to submit a challenge, please visit https://smartchallenges.asu.edu.