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  • Paola Kathuria 7:11 pm on July 31, 2012 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , project   

    Report: Social Capital 

    The need

    We assume that, without a place to call a home and dependent on others, a person’s self-esteem plummets, along with their self-confidence. We envisage a spiral of despair.

    The journey back to society is made possible when people recover their self-belief and feel valued. At the Homeless Hack Day, we wanted to come up with a tool for homeless people to help get them back on the road to recovery.

    Homeless Hack Day #wdif

    Social Capital is a project that was created by a small team at the Homeless Hack Day in June 2012.

    The hack day was organised by the UK Government Digital Service, Westminster Council, Go ON UK and other organisations and charities.

    The Social Capital team:

    Paola Kathuria
    Twitter: @paolability

    Mahmud Chowdhury
    Twitter: @voltron2009

    Ian Richardson
    Twitter: @codeulike

    What we know

    • The mobile phone has become the must-have accessory for news about the things or people we are interested in and for being part of communities.
    • Homeless people often have access to basic phones with SMS functionality, although keeping the same phone and number can be a challenge.
    • Access to smartphones is rare among the homeless, although many can get online at hostels and internet cafes.
    • Real-life connections and networks of support can help create long term improvement in the lives of homeless people.
    • Online social networks can therefore be valuable because they can develop into real life connections and networks of support.
    • Forms of acknowledgment, feedback and interaction that are common on social networks can also help increase self-esteem and a feeling of social inclusion
    • Social networks might, if managed correctly, build links between general public and homeless people, including donations of help.
    • Homeless people may have to navigate lengthy bureaucratic processes with many other organisations and parties over long periods, while living a chaotic lifestyle.

    Mahmud’s story


    Mahmud is homeless. Through no fault of his own, Mahmud lost his passport.

    In the UK, without a passport, it is illegal to earn money. And one cannot hold a bank account.

    Without his passport, Mahmud lost his job, then his bank account. This is why he is homeless.

    How it happened

    Mahmud arrived in the UK from Bangladesh in 2002, obtained a B.Sc in Computing and Information Systems, then went on to study for a Masters in 2009.

    During 2009 he applied for a visa extension; it was complicated by his college losing, and then regaining its license. This led to the visa extension being initially denied.

    From there, Mahmud was entangled in three years of bureaucracy, and while he was unable to officially show his identity and status, he lost his job, then his bank account, then his home.

    During these three years, Mahmud has had to manage:

    • his visa appeal
    • his attempts to recover his passport from the Home Office (who, at one stage, said they had lost it)
    • dealings with his local MP
    • dealings with the Bangladeshi High Commission
    • and various agencies and professionals

    In August 2012, Mahmud hopes to finally be in possession of his passport again.

    Mahmud is not unique

    Mahmud has encountered other people in similar situations. People can also get embroiled in applications for housing or benefits. They similarly need to keep track of the process and know where they are in it.

    Mahmud’s log book

    In such complicated situations, detailed notes on who has said what, and what is happening next, are vital. Throughout this time Mahmud has carefully kept a log of all his contact with the Home Office and other parties, in the form of a Word document that he has kept updated and repeatedly emailed to himself.

    He has also maintained a high-level timeline so that he can easily explain his position and what he has been doing.

    Mahmud’s logbook is the inspiration for the logbook part of the Social Capital project.

    Social Capital overview

    Social Capital is a personal organiser that can evolve into a social community with practical donations of help, implemented as an SMS Service supplemented with a web interface

    The three stages are:

    1. Private remote LogBook for storing and retrieving information, and for other personal-organiser like functions
    2. Evolving towards a social network by allowing some LogBook entries to be shareable and adding friend/network type functionality
    3. Evolving towards a “help broker” system that allows the general public to make practical donations of help to homeless people



    LogBook is held on remote servers with guaranteed a) availability and b) security. By keeping one’s information remotely, one can send and retreive items by SMS, e-mail or web.

    The LogBook has been designed to be very simple. It is so simple that it could appeal to the general population.


    There are SMS, e-mail and web interfaces to LogBook.

    • SMS: Log entries and commands are sent to a single phone number which ties the sender’s mobile number to an account.
    • E-mail: Like Tumblr and Flickr, account holders are assigned a unique e-mail address which is tied to an account. Mailing this address is like texting from a specific mobile.
    • Web: People will identify themselves with private information they provided when they registered. A mobile phone number will not be the primary identification information because phones are easily stolen or lost when one is homeless.

    The default action by SMS or mail is to append the text message to the log.

    All interactions are acknowledged with a return message that includes the date, acti0n, text and a unique reference number for new log entries, tasks and reminders.

    Action Description


    Register / Re-register Provide registration and secret information (e.g., a reasonable combination of name, username, password, date of birth, e-mail address, secret answer) SMS e-mail web
    Log <text> Appends an entry to the log.This is the default action and won’t require a command if interacting by SMS or e-mail. SMS e-mail web
    Today Reply with the day’s todo and tasks SMS e-mail web
    <blank message> (registered) Reply with latest log entry, todos and any upcoming reminders SMS e-mail
    <blank message> (unregistered) Introduction to the service and instructions on how to register SMS
    Logged [<n>] Reply with the last n log entries – defaults to 10 (?) SMS e-mail web
    Mail Mail the log, reminders and tasks to the user’s registered e-mail address SMS e-mail web
    Forward <address> Mail recent (?) or (web) selected log entries to another e mail address SMS e-mail web
    Insert Create a log entry with a date in the past web
    Edit Change the text or date of an existing log entry web
    Unlog Remove individual or selected log entries web
    Remind <text> Create a one-off reminder (e.g., appointment, pay rent, pick up prescription) SMS e-mail web
    Remember Reply with all reminders (and the generated reminder numbers)
    Unremind <text|n> Remove an individual reminder (by sending the original reminder text or its number) SMS e-mail web
    Todo <text> Create a dateless task SMS e-mail web
    DoWhat Reply with all tasks with their generated task numbers SMS e-mail web
    Done <text|n> Mark a task as done (by sending the original task text or its number) SMS e-mail web
    DoneWhat Retrieve completed tasks SMS e-mail web
    Undone <text|n> Remove a task (by sending the original task text or its number) SMS e-mail web
    Log in Using a combination of information provided at registration web
    Manage reminders Change the text, date or occurance of a reminder or remove individual or selected reminders web
    Change tasks Edit the wording of a task web
    Search Reply with log entries matching the search text SMS e-mail web
    Browse Browse and sort the log for viewing web
    Forgot Reply with the e-mail address to interact with LogBook SMS web
    Help Reply to available commands and their use SMS e-mail web


    Initial registration for LogBook will be via SMS, and so that the user’s phone number will be associated with their account.

    However, LogBook must be able to handle situations where a lost phone is replaced with a new number.

    Additional secret information that people could provide to identify themselves to the system in these circumstances can include a username, password, date of birth or secret answer.

    However, homeless people may need extra help; we would aim to encourage charities and agencies who work with the homeless to help them get set up in LogBook or regain access to their account after a phone loss. This will involve giving some admin access to those agencies and charities.


    Some homeless people have CHAIN numbers that identify them on the cross-agency CHAIN database (CHAIN stands for Combined Homeless and Information Network). Associating users’ LogBooks with their CHAIN number may also help them keep access to the log in the event of a phone loss.

    Added benefit

    An anonymised version of LogBook data might be useful to charities and researchers.

    Evolving to a social network

    Once users are regularly logging what they are doing in the private LogBook, the following SMS commands, if added, would be the first steps towards creating a social network:

    • blog – write a non-private entry (audience is the user’s list of friends)
    • friend – make a friend link with the specified user (identified via username, phone number or email)
    • news – returns recent blog entries by friends
    • ask – mark an entry as a question to be asked to one’s friends

    This would be supplemented by standard social network functionality in the web interface, such as commenting and acknowledging posts.

    Who would use it

    For the system to become a social network that reflects people’s real situations, it will need to be open to non-homeless people as well. The non-homeless members would presumably be less likely to use the SMS-logbook and more likely to use the web interface.

    However, once the system becomes a social network (rather than a private log) more care needs to be taken to moderate the signups and the communications within the network – as it will be a network that includes vulnerable people.

    Registration could be performed via partner agencies and charities. Or registrations and messages could be moderated.


    We hope that some homeless users would consent to making some of their entries public anonymously. This would give the general public an insight into homeless people’s lives and encourage them to join the network.

    Evolving to a help broker

    Once there is a network of homeless and non-homeless people, we can add the ability to ask for or donate help.

    Donations could be direct, between connected people on the network, or possibly indirect via a queue/broker system.

    Types of things that could be donated:

    • Oyster Card top-ups (just an Oyster card number is needed to add credit)
    • Mobile phone top-ups
    • Payment for prescriptions (via code texted to user, then redeemed by the chemist)
    • Legal advice
    • Company (moral support) for important meetings
    • Storage space (e.g. lockers in train stations)
    • A personal reference
    • A forwarding address

    Making it happen

    What would be needed to make Social Capital a reality?

    • A prototype of the first stage – the LogBook – perhaps built at the next Homeless Hack day
    • More detailed designs and prototype of the web interface
    • Funds to run a server
    • A phone number to receive and send texts
    • Support from existing homeless agencies and charities – to encourage people to use the system

    Download this as a PDF

  • Jon Foster 5:32 pm on June 16, 2012 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: project   

    SMS App 

    Creating an android app to power a ur_msg like system. The idea is to allow may other small homeless charities access to this type of service with low/minimal set-up costs.

  • Jon Foster 5:31 pm on June 16, 2012 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: project   

    Social Capital 

    The team have created  designs and ideas (that can be taken up at future/other hack days) for a personal organiser that can evolve into a social community with practical donations of help.

    Contact @paolability

  • Jon Foster 5:15 pm on June 16, 2012 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: project   

    Everyone In 

    Key people to talk to about this project: @edent, @clarehat, @nicoweinert

    The team have come up with a public-facing service (app or site) where the public can submit information about people they see who are sleeping rough. The team have written all of the copy asking questions, giving feedback and also have developed a payment system if people want to donate and do more. The user interface has also been developed.

    The report will go the responsible authority, for the location, based on geodata. This also generates information about the service offer in each area, who will respond to the report.

  • Jon Foster 5:09 pm on June 16, 2012 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: project   

    Text messaging 

    Two main areas:

    ‘Donate your texts’ (Enrico Costanza) - addressing the problem of homeless people not having credit, hence limiting the scope of how people could sign up. Conceptual work and really good ideas about ‘text donations’. Some good contacts made during the day. Mainly working through using other peoples phones/credit to send messages. Looking at how to get past the 10p signup. Perhaps a ‘Botnet of phones’.

    ur_msg Scraping (@ewanck) – Building more scrapers to use for the existing ur_msg system.

  • Jon Foster 4:54 pm on June 16, 2012 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: project   

    Life Map 

    Key contact: @jacattell

    An easy to use, universal, visual interface for clients and outreach workers to use to identify and track status and progress.

  • Jon Foster 4:44 pm on June 16, 2012 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: project   

    Homeless Link API 

    Key contact: @RicRoberts

    Built a working an API that returns data from the Homeless Link database.

    The API  uses the Homeless Link database to return all of the services available in a particular local authority based on a lat/long input.

    This has been designed to work in conjunction with Everyone In, but if publicly released could be used by anyone.

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