Manchester #HomelessHack

10 July 2017

Phil Barton

This weekend the development team used their free time to attend to the Manchester #HomelessHack, a community-led event bringing technical experts and community leaders together to use tech to improve the current homeless crisis in Manchester and beyond.

We were welcomed into Valtech's gorgeous offices

What is #homelesshack?

#homelesshack is a 2-day event for anyone interested in helping tackle the problem of homelessness in Manchester and support those currently facing it.

The Manchester #HomelessHack is a ‘hackathon’ type event, which challenges teams to produce ideas or prototype designs in a restricted time. These are judged on their originality and merit, however competitiveness isn’t the aim of the event: Driving creativity and collaboration is the real goal of a hackathon.

The #HomelessHack events being run across the country started in London and will continue through Oxford and Leeds, as each city runs their own event in search of real-world solutions. The aim is to help those at risk or currently homeless. The problems are wide and varied and the solutions are often costly and difficult to implement.

Can we make a difference in 36 hours?

On arrival, we were led into some amazing offices in the Northern Quarter of Manchester city centre belonging to tech agency Valtech, who kindly supported the event alongside other companies belonging to the Manchester Digital network. The event began with an amazing set of talks given by homeless help charity Street Support, Greater Manchester Police, Manchester City Council, and Mooch – a previously homeless person who now works with charities.

We had had a couple of meetings internally before the event to discuss ideas and go in with a sense of purpose, but we quickly realised that we’d completely underestimated the complexity of the issue. Homelessness is not just a single problem, it’s an accumulation of hundreds of varying and unique circumstances; each one needing a unique method of resolution. Mental health, domestic abuse and drugs are only the tip of the iceberg.

PC Dave telling us about the issues he faces on a day to day basis. 
PC Dave telling us about the issues he faces day to day.

How can we help the homeless?

Our team, ‘The Hack Pack’ consisted of Phil and Thibaut from the development team, a lovely ex-homeless lady who wishes not to be named in media, and Rachel Breeze from tech company Sigma.

We looked into many ways of helping: Can we connect homeless people with goods and services they need? Can we connect recently rehomed people together in communities to help make a ‘Home’ from a house? Luckily we had our team member with homeless experience on hand to talk through these ideas and we were quickly advised against a number of them. For example, if you put several recovering drug addicts together it could create temptation so a community idea could be bitter-sweet and some ideas may cause more problems than they solve.

We needed something different.

34SP's Thibaut and the 'Hack Pack' team at the #homelesshack’s Thibaut and some of the ‘Hack Pack’ team deliberating ideas.

We realised that the there are some absolutely fantastic support networks. The StreetSupport site can direct a newly homeless person where to find an immediate meal that day, or which charities to speak to for finding accommodation, both short and long term. PC Dave from GMP walks the walk and visits homeless people on the streets of Manchester. He told us that he spends a lot of time directing homeless people to the StreetSupport website and pointing them in the right direction. We realised that we’d never heard of this site though! We also realised that even if a homeless person has access to a mobile phone, where do they get wifi? How do they charge their phone? How do they find out about the support available?

After listening to all the information presented to us about the schemes and support already in place, we came up with the multi-faceted idea: to try and inform people, provide access to tech where needed, and provide access to support.

How could we implement this?

We brainstormed a number of ways to try this and finally settled (after a good 5 hours of deliberation) on the idea of prototyping a cheap, portable wifi hotspot for use in soup kitchens, charities and other events where homeless may gather. The hotspot would run off batteries and would automatically redirect connected devices to our custom landing page which contained links to some vital information; we linked to the StreetSupport website, a custom events aggregator for community events such as AA meetings and support groups, and some videos from other people in the same situation to try and encourage motivation.

This hotspot would also provide phone charging points and a tablet screen for those without any access to a mobile device to be able to use.

Our thinking was that if we can get the information about the support and help that’s available directly to those who need it, maybe we can help break the cycle.

Designing the prototype

Thibaut and Rachel started designing a landing page for the hotspot and a community events page, whilst I went to a local hackspace – HacMan, which is a community workspace in Manchester. I made use of the 24 hour access to tools and equipment there to build the device, laser cutting and fabricating a container for the device using a Raspberry Pi, 4G dongle, and a tablet PC for the main tech.

Our finished product looked amazing considering this was all built and coded in under 24 hours!

Thibaut presenting the prototype

In conclusion

We got amazing feedback upon presenting the prototype. There is definitely a lack of information for those who need it. We didn’t win with this idea, however we didn’t mind at all. The event wasn’t about winning, we were there to find ways to make a difference.

The winning idea is an AirBnB type site for the homeless called ‘Stop the Spiral‘, a website which matches people at risk of homelessness with members of the general public who have a spare room. It’s a fantastic idea to try and prevent homelessness before it starts, and hopefully this will be taken from idea to reality in the future.

Other great ideas included:

  • Help point obelisks dotted around the city, with locations of shelters and food banks.
  • An app to help the workflow of homeless support workers.
  • An app to help those in domestic abuse situations get information.

So no, we didn’t solve the issue of homelessness in 36 hours. However we did show just how much can be achieved in a short time and how many people and organisations care about the community in Manchester. There are ideas which will be taken and built upon by other HomelessHacks, and ideas which may be built into real world solutions. It’s a small step but the start of an amazing journey to improving the world around us.

The whole team had an amazing couple of days, building new relationships with other tech professionals working to improve our City as well as community leaders, not to mention having a lot of fun!

Do you run a website for a UK based charity? will host your charity website for free.