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The Web-App for the Homeless & the Vulnerable

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The Web-App for the Homeless and the Vulnerable
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The Web-App for the Homeless and the Vulnerable
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Police using to help a homeless person
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Police using to help a homeless person
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Youtube 40073e2a27c3d525feb2942e86c500c768fec0d984a169da9df1f080c1754496

How came about

Homeless on the street needing help?  Needing food or warm clothes or shelter or a podiatrist or eyeglasses or, especially, a path out of their predicament?

Up until now, when the Pittsburgh police came upon a homeless person in distress, figuring out on the spot where they could turn for help was difficult.  Officers only had a crumpled piece of paper with a couple dozen phone numbers of homeless services.  Moreover, outreach workers had no way of knowing what the police were seeing out on the street, and the police had no way of knowing what outreach workers were seeing.  Even the experts in agencies couldn't keep track of the 170+ free services that were available from 80+ providers and sites within the City of Pittsburgh.

At a conference on homelessness, Deputy Chief Maurita Bryant sought out Joe Lagana, the founder of the Homeless Children's Education Fund.

"Could there be an app for that?"

Joe then called on Bob Firth, founder of Informing Design.  After 18 months of drilling deep into the problem, Bob and his team reported, "yes, there can be an app for that," and with the help of six local foundations, the pilot project was born.

What went in to its creation is a web-app for the homeless and the vulnerable in Pittsburgh.  And yes, it does what you would expect it to do:  it quickly directs the homeless -- 60% of whom have smartphones -- to shelters, meals, food pantries, medical and counseling services and more.

What you wouldn't expect is how BigBurgh works:  it has a sleek interface of dials that make the app simple and fast to use.  When we looked at other examples across the world, we became painfully aware of the problem of runaway lists, and massing multitudes of map pins.  We were determined to eliminate those problems at every stage of the design.  As you'll see in the video, our proprietary design aims to do just that.

BigBurgh's opening screen is a dial that lets users filter results directly to their applicable gender and age status (including transgender), or family and veteran status.  Then you can select from another friendly dial with icons for everyday needs.  Drill down to what you need, and you see your filtered results listed in distance order and mapped out on Informing Design's cartography of Pittsburgh.

But there's more:  we added a totally new twist underneath the dials, something we've never seen on any other homeless app -- PANIC BUTTONS.  One instantly connects to SAFE PLACES & HOTLINES. The other panic button, "LIVE STREET HELP," opens a live chat with an outreach worker in the field, an outreach worker who can then drive to where the person in need is located and provide water and food, lend an ear to what's bothering them, or even to get them to a med van.  When no outreach workers are logged in, the button says, "EMAIL STREET HELP," and a user can send a note and get a response within hours.

And this panic button is not just for the homeless to use.  It was originally conceived as a way for the police to be able to alert outreach workers to homeless in need.  Now teachers, clergy, social workers, medical/clinical workers and even care passers-by can use it.

Then something happened after it went live

Within months, BigBurgh became a viral success.  From August through October of this year, BigBurgh had 11,000 site visits.  During that same period, the homeless app for the 23,000,000 people of Australia got 20% fewer than BigBurgh.  The homeless app for the 850,000 people of San Francisco got 35% fewer.  

Moreover, BigBurgh gets 3.0 page views per visit.  Australia gets 2.1 and San Francisco gets 1.2.  This means that users are actually using BigBurgh -- they are drilling down from category to subcategory to an actual description of a service.

Where BigBurgh can go from here

Through the Homeless Children's Education Fund, BigBurgh has been funded as a two-year pilot project, with Informing Design as developer/manager/operator.  But based on its unprecedented success, we believe it has the potential to develop into a national mobile platform for reaching the homeless and the vulnerable, and for forging tight collaboration between police out on the street and outreach workers.

Already, there has been an outpouring of interest in:
  • Expanding from City-wide coverage to County-wide;
  • Doing a Spanish version;
  • Doing BigBurgh for Milwaukee and for Louisville;
  • Doing a version for transitional housing landlords;
  • Doing a version for families of the incarcerated;
  • Even creating something we call "BigBurghRx" for physicians to address the social determinants of health for common diseases like diabetes and asthma.
This is what the UpPrize could help catalyze.  Informing Design, and it's primary non-profit partner, the Homeless Children's Education Fund, stand ready.

What people are saying about BigBurgh

" is transforming our relationship with the community."
Commander Anna Kudrav, Pittsburgh Bureau of Police
"It was right in there [BigBurgh]," Officer Spangler said. "I showed her three places within walking distance where she could go get her feet taken care of."
From WESA interview with Police Officer Spangler, who saw a homeless woman who needed medical care for her feet
"It's very exciting.  I feel like Pittsburgh is at the forefront of this innovation and this technology."
Chris Roach, Outreach Supervisor, Operation Safety Net
"I've had a request from our high school counselors/staff to help spread the word about BigBurgh, as it is such an amazing resource."
Marura DeRiggi, Propel Schools
"Super Excited about the app.  It is truly a great resource and tool."
Vaughn Skinker, UPMC Children's Hospital Adolescent Medicine
"I was shocked to hear that you engaged street outreach workers and police as end-users.  I've never heard of anyone doing this before.  This is such a big deal."
Prof. Eric Rice, USC, blogger on the homeless for Huffington Post and expert on homeless youth and tech
"Everyday, I find out there is another kid who was used the app and was able to get the resources that they needed."
Debra Smallwood, Parent volunteer and organizer, Brashear High School
"You can't Google this stuff!"
from an unaccompanied youth in the BigBurgh focus group


Nov 29 2016

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  • Robert Firth, Project Lead
  • Joe Lagana, Non-Profit Partner Lead
  • Chris Harrington, Programming Lead
  • Yelena Lamm, Graphics Design
  • Debra Knox, Agencies Liaison

Contact this team about Funding, Collaboration or other methods of support. Contact Team


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