Thursday, 27 April 2017

Thinking outside the box

Can a gang of computer geniuses help to end homelessness? Jess McCabe finds out why Westminster Council thinks they might

What happens when you bring together a group of super-smart technology developers, feed them pizza, and give them a challenge? As technology firms have long known, the answer is innovation.

Events which bring programmers together in one place - known as hack days or hackathons - are becoming increasingly widespread.

‘The idea of a hack day is if you get enough cool people in a room, they’ll do cool things,’ Matthew Cashmore, digital development director at book publishing company Hachette UK, explains.

Examples include the Facebook ‘like’ button and the timeline, both of which came out of internal hack days at the social media giant.

Westminster Council's homeless hack day

Tried and tested

Hack days emerged in Silicon Valley in 1999 as technology industry events, and to this day, most are organised by technology companies or venture capitalists wanting to develop commercial ideas. But they are increasingly run by charities or public services. Random Hacks of Kindness, for example, is an international series of ‘hackathons’ which aim to come up with solutions for disaster response across the globe, while an NHS hack day held earlier this year produced an application called Patient List, designed to help doctors to keep track of patients’ treatment. But can a bunch of computer whizzes really help homeless people?

Westminster Council decided to find out because it wanted to inject some new thinking into the homelessness sector. And so, one Saturday in June, around 30 technology developers, about 20 people from homeless charities and other ‘interested’ agencies, along with one homeless person - who all gave their time for free - gathered in the local authority’s offices.

While most hackathons last 48 hours, this was a more manageable one-day affair. The aim, as it was advertised to potential hackers, was ‘to build something useful and accessible, for homeless people themselves, for the professionals who assist them, or for members of the public’.

Terence Eden, an independent mobile consultant and veteran of many hack days, says: ‘I found it absolutely fascinating. Homelessness isn’t something that I have had any interest in before. It was completely new to me.’

Developers in the room were keen to contribute, he adds. ‘A lot of people’s job is “how do I get people to click this button to make more money?” It’s not socially useful. [But] there was a real sense that, if you get this right, you can help people.’

The day began with short presentations from Westminster Council, the umbrella body for homelessness organisations Homeless Link, charity the Single Homelessness Project and The Connection at St Martin-in-the-Fields, with staff members also available throughout the day to chat with the developers and answer their questions. The programmers then formed into groups and started to develop six ideas, and some began to code prototypes.

Hack days are usually competitions with the chance to win prizes - in this case, the top three ideas were given donated prizes including an Xbox computer console and tickets to see Swedish recording artist Robyn. All participants were also given a free computer hard drive, worth around £200, donated by the Charity Technology Trust.

Where the idea began

Westminster Council's homeless hack day

Staff from homeless charities were available throughout the day to chat to the hackers and answer their questions

The driving force behind the hackathon was Irene McWilliams, author of Westminster’s digital inclusion framework. She had been mulling over the possibility that smart phones could be used to bring more homeless people online, especially as the council has provided free wireless internet access in the west end since July.

In February, she was giving a presentation at Tea Camp, an informal meet-up of ‘government and non-government digerati’ that takes place every month. ‘I mentioned my idea and people came up with the idea we should have a hack day, and get [developers] together with homelessness charities,’ she says. It was then a case of getting into discussions to find a sponsor (the Post Office), and arrange the event, which took place in partnership with the Home Office, the Government Digital Service and charity Go On UK.

‘I invited homelessness charities to produce a brief on the areas they would like addressed, and we provided that to developers before the hack day,’ Ms McWilliams explains.

As Janet Haddington, head of rough sleepers at Westminster Council, puts it, they were able to ‘use their IT intellect to come up with really imaginative ideas’.

Homeless Link came to the hack day with a specific problem: to deliver a system, proposed by housing minister Grant Shapps last year, to allow members of the public to call in local outreach services when they see a rough sleeper, which was included in the recent cross-government report on preventing homelessness, Making every contact count.

The winning hackathon team, Homeless Link API (application programming interface), developed an app which brings together the charity’s own database of services available with geo-location data, to identify the nearest suitable service for the user to contact.

Westminster Council's homeless hack day

A learning curve

Bringing new ideas into the room is productive - but it can be a bit of a learning curve. Mr Eden, who worked with a team developing the app for Homeless Link, explains that the developers found it difficult to come up with the right language to use to describe the service they were working on - the first things that came to mind, such as ‘report a homeless person’, or ‘alert the authorities’ were unintentionally dehumanising.

Westminster’s was the first hack day that digital developer Paola Kathuria has participated in, despite decades working in technology development. ‘The hack day seemed to be an ideal opportunity to get a group of people with different backgrounds and areas of expertise to think about solving problems,’ she says.

Ms Kathuria worked in a small group which included Mahmud Chowdhury, a former foreign student who became homeless while studying for a MSc nine years ago. The group’s idea, Social Capital, came out of chatting to Mr Chowdhury about how difficult it is to keep track of important information and appointments, such as with the Home Office and other agencies, when you are homeless.

The group was inspired to create a private, free data store for homeless people to track important information and set reminders for important information, all controlled by text messaging. They also envisage an option to use it as the basis for a social network for homeless people.

‘There has been some exciting interest in Social Capital since the project write-up was added to the homeless hack day blog,’ says Ms Kathuria.

Since the hackathon, Ms McWilliams from Westminster Council has arranged a meeting with a telecommunications firm, whose support would be needed to make the text messaging controls affordable.

It’s not the only idea that has momentum - Homeless Link has now tendered for a developer to produce its app. A blog ( has also been set up to collect information about the hack day and all six projects that emerged from it.

Meanwhile, Westminster Council is planning another hack day, details of which are yet to be decided, to continue the work it started this summer.

What’s a hacker?

You might think hackers are crack computer coders trying to break into the Pentagon, but the reality is not all like Lisbeth Salander in bestseller The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. The term hacker can refer to a particularly skilled technology developer, or even outside of the coding world, someone who solves problems in a clever and resourceful way.

Hold your own hack day

The Hack Day Manifesto provides a full and detailed guide to how to make your hack day or hackathon a success. It governs everything from pizza and alcohol provision, to how to deal with intellectual property and how many power sockets to provide per participant (a minimum of 1.5 per seat).

The final six

Homeless Link application programming interface - the winning hackathon team built an interface that combines data from Ordnance Survey and the Communities and Local Government department with Homeless Link’s own, closed data, to identify the outreach services available in a particular location.

Everyone in - an app or website for members of the public to submit information when they see people sleeping rough, identifying the services for homeless people in a particular area.

Life map - an easy-to-use interface for both homeless clients and outreach workers to track a person’s progress, taking account of low literacy levels among homeless people.

SMS service app - a service where homeless services can use text messages to communicate with clients, via second-hand phones.

Social capital - a free online data store for homeless people to keep track of their important documents and keep a log of meetings, to be added to and accessed online or by text message.

Text donation - where text messages are donated to homeless people who don’t have credit on their phones

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