ITP Alumni Create Neighborline to Help During Self-Isolation

Wednesday, Apr 29, 2020

Text reads "Neighborline, 917-341-7837, every day, 3pm EST, have a friendly chat in a strange time"


As per Tisch News: 

In a highly connected world, what happens to the people who may be feeling left behind by technology? As the country—and the world—is hunkered down amidst the most severe quarantine measures in modern history, digital communication has become a social lifeline for many. Zoom, FaceTime, iMessage—the conduits for social chatter are plentiful. But the omnipresence of these platforms during the COVID-19 pandemic belies the reality for many others who are now more disconnected than ever. 

Friends and collaborators Simone Salvo and Dawn Sinkowski are pursuing their master’s degrees from NYU Tisch’s Interactive Telecommunications Program (ITP) and have teamed up with software developer and UCF student Terrell Ibanez to find a solution for those who aren’t engaged in online social circles or don’t have internet access. Neighborline, quite simply, is a phone line open at 3 p.m. EST every day that places community members on the line with another caller for a spontaneous conversation. As they say on their website, “a small conversation can be a beautiful thing.”

While Neighborline is currently only serving New York, the team behind the project is providing all documents and resources to “inspire others to replicate, reimagine, and rediscover the magic of a good, old-fashioned phone call.” 

The project emerged from NYU ITP's Hack Against Covid-19 event that took place in March, and we recently spoke with Salvo and Sinkowski to learn more about how they conceived Neighborline and brought it to New Yorkers.

It’s easy to forget about the people who aren’t connected online because of age, resources, finances, or other accessibility challenges. How did you start thinking about Neighborline as a response to self-isolation challenges?

Dawn Sinkowski: If you had an idea [for the hackathon], you crafted it and pitched it, and then teams formed around the ideas. I actually walked to the grocery store a couple weeks ago and saw all of these older ladies in my neighborhood and I was scared for them and wanted them to go home, but also thought, “This has got to be so isolating.” That was in the back of my head, and then the hackathon was happening, and I thought maybe there’s a way to keep people connected. Zoom and FaceTime are great for us right now; it’s really helping people feel connected. But if you feel intimidated by it or you don’t have the technology, then I think it’s a really isolating time. We wanted to do something that bridged that for people. 

Simone Salvo: This is something that Dawn and I have both had an interest in. Dawn had the incredible idea, and I”m so happy I decided to do the hackathon. It’s concurrent to something I’ve been thinking a lot about, specifically [regarding] my grandmother. I was actually building a site for another class that was kind of more conceptual, like, “send my grandmother an email.” But she doesn’t have email or internet. She once asked me, “How come I keep hearing about emails but I’m not getting any?” In this time, we all almost feel too connected, but there’s this whole other population that is not experiencing the same kind of internet renaissance that we are. 

I think the ethos for both of us too [asked], “How can we design something that has this specific population in mind, but also is the design-for-all ethos?” There also are plenty of people who are just tired at looking at a screen or missing that spontaneous connection or a safer environment that’s more local. We don’t want it to seem like it’s only for people who don’t have the option. 

Neighborline emerged out of a hackathon, but what specifically attracted these team members to this project?

Dawn: Once the pitch was out, people sort of went to the idea that spoke to them the most. Simone and I had worked together and are friends. We’re obviously in the same program, so we were already connected. Then when Terrell came on he brought a whole set of skills that, safe to say, we’re lacking. He was a really critical part. We were prepared to deploy something on a very low-tech level without him, but when he came he had this engineer's brain and was able to go to town…

Simone: He was the hackathon guardian angel that swooped in. I think he was the only non-ITP student to take part. 

Dawn and I had never done hackathons before. And Terrell has just done all of them, so we’re on opposite sides of the spectrum, and I kind of feel like that synergy is what propelled this. We were able to act really quickly, everyone had very specific strengths to bring to it, and we were all in on…”Past the hackathon, let’s get this out because we believe there’s a value in it and people need it.”

How do you imagine your studies at ITP impacting the work that you hope to do in the future?

Simone: Once I came to know this specific program, I only applied to ITP. My background is in the documentary photography space, and specifically a nonprofit that supports photographers telling social justice stories. In that space we’re always talking about engagement with a story, and at ITP it’s all about how you interact with something. So, I’m very interested in exploring this line between engagement and interaction and how to use creative applications of technology to augment political and social justice work—as well as in the art space. 

I work a lot with activists and artists and putting them into communication with technologists. There seems to be this very big expanse between the two, and part of why I’m at ITP is to figure out how to shrink that gap.

Dawn: I’d say Simone and I have some similarities. I’ve been working for some time, and I wasn’t really thinking about going to grad school, but somehow I found myself applying to grad school. I also only applied to ITP. It was a program I had been aware of and had been fascinated with what they were doing for years, but somehow didn’t make the connection that it was a place I could go to myself. 

I came into the program pretty open-ended about what impact this was going to have on my trajectory. I had been working in media and I’m really interested in new ways of storytelling and connection-building. I think this particular project does speak to a sensibility of mine: there is tech, but it’s not the thing that presents itself first. It’s not a tech solution, it’s a connection solution. That distinction feels very important to me.