Iphone app to help the homeless

This is a blog post I wrote for the  Intelligent Cities Tumblr account. The blog is part of course at  New York University’s Wagner Graduate School of Public Service exploring the intersection of urbanization and ubiquitous computing in the 21st century. It is taught by Anthony Townsend.

This project was shared by a friend of mine at ITP–NYU’s Interactive Telecommunication’s Program. It is being developed within the department and is in a ”test” stage.

The project is called “Nestless”: it is basically an Iphone app designed to empower people to “help their homeless neighbors”.

The way it works is very simple. If you see a homeless person in need of help you send an alert through your phone.  People that live in the vicinity receive the alert, and thus note that someone in the street is in need of help. After these people help them, they can report back to the first person who spotted the problem, so that he knows that the homeless person is alright.

The project’s goal—to increase the visibility of homeless people in the city— is a noble task…but it can also turn out to be a double edged sword. What if this information is used by government officials to kick the people out? What if the information turns viral—leading to mob-mentality actions against the homeless themselves?

The reason people in this city don’t pay attention to homeless is that they don’t want to be involved with a community that is so ostracized. Religious organizations and other civic groups help the homeless, but this is not part of a daily New Yorker’s everyday life. New Yorker’s just don’t care.

Promoting awareness of the needs of the homeless by increasing their visibility is an important task. Yet, who is in the position to speak for the needs of these people? Perhaps developing a deep ethnographic study of the homeless’ relation to the city would allow us to understand their needs better. It can allow us to develop something that’s better tailored to their needs—something that increases their visibility on the spot. Having said that, we must note the project is in its beta stage. As such, it is an important contribution to the development of new forms of civic technology. Please help the developer by downloading the app and telling him what you think of it!

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