Hacking against homelessness: how technology is rising to the housing challenge

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Our recent “Ideas in practice” briefing for our members highlighted the difficulties in calculating the numbers of homeless people. And, as we’ve previously reported, the official figures don’t reflect the full scale of the problem.

But there’s little doubt that homelessness continues to affect large numbers of people. Worldwide, more than 1.6 billion people are estimated to have inadequate shelter. And figures published last month suggest that in the UK homelessness is a long way from being beaten.

Local and central government, along with homelessness charities are working hard to tackle the problem, but new approaches are needed to prevent and address the issue. One of these is the idea of hackathons.

Applying technology to help the homeless

Hackathons are collaborative challenges where teams of skilled technology developers (or ‘hackers’) compete to solve a given problem or demonstrate innovative use of technology under a tight time constraint.

They originated in Silicon Valley, and have often been used by technology companies such as Google and Apple to develop commercial ideas. The “like” button on Facebook was one such idea to emerge from a hackathon in 2007.

However, social enterprises and charities have also been exploring the possibilities of hackathons, and some have specifically focused on homelessness. Recent examples emerging from the US include:

  • A 2014 hackathon where teams of digital developers and designers got together to brainstorm, prototype and pitch ideas on tackling homelessness in Seattle. The winning idea centred on a system to allow homeless people to digitise personal identity documents.
  • An app developed by coders in New York to help keep homeless people off the streets and give them the care that they need.
  • A weekend-long hackathon in Tampa, Florida, which developed a smartphone app to help the homeless population more easily find resources such as shelters and soup kitchens, and a web-based survey to help calculate the scale of homelessness in Tampa.

UK hackathons

The hackathon idea has also taken hold in the UK. In 2012, Westminster City Council brought together a group of digital developers and housing charities to apply their minds and skills to tackling homelessness.  The stakeholders set out their objectives, challenging the developers to build something useful and accessible, either for homeless people themselves, for the charities and local authorities supporting them, or for members of the public:

  • Homeless Link wanted to offer people a means to act when they see a rough sleeper, to prompt support services, and to inform people of what is offered to rough sleepers locally.
  • The Single Homeless Project (SHP) charity was looking for a way of enabling its clients to be inspired and motivated to use digital technology and to learn how to use it in a cost effective way.
  • Westminster City Council highlighted the need for rough sleepers to be shown they were valued members of the community.

Among the ideas to emerge from that first hackathon were:

  • an app allowing the public to submit information about people they see who are sleeping rough
  • an application connecting Homeless Link’s data with geo-location data to identify the nearest suitable service for a homeless person to contact
  • a personal organizer for homeless people to log their contact with government agencies and track their applications for benefits

The homelesshack website has continued to report on how these and other applications have been developed and updated.

In April this year, the Business Rocks festival in Manchester included a homelessness hackathon that challenged participants with the question: ‘How Can Tech Solve Global Homelessness?’ Contestants were asked to focus on mental health service solutions through social media, and were made aware of the everyday challenges and systematic needs of the homeless and most vulnerable, in the UK and across the world.

The winning idea was an app to encourage, support and help find work opportunities for homeless and vulnerably housed people. Other pitches included a website to connect homeless people with relevant support services, an app to facilitate crowdfunding for homeless support projects and a remote postal service for people with no fixed address.

And this coming weekend, teams of coders, designers and housing professionals will take part in a hackathon in Edinburgh. They aim to come up with creative solutions to support people facing homelessness or poor housing.

Making it happen?

As these examples demonstrate, there is no shortage of good ideas on how technology can be leveraged in the cause of addressing homelessness. It remains to be seen whether these imaginative and innovative solutions can be developed to tackle one of the world’s greatest social problems.


Further reading

2 thoughts on “Hacking against homelessness: how technology is rising to the housing challenge

  1. Pingback: Local authority housing companies: getting back into building | The Knowledge Exchange Blog

  2. Pingback: Can they fix it? Reactions to the white paper on housing | The Knowledge Exchange Blog

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