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Cultivating homeless knowledge to improve outcomes and continue research

Full swigle volunteers
Swigle @ GiveCamp Pittsburgh 2016
Full swigle on mobile
Swigle on a mobile device
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Preview swigle on mobile
Youtube 40073e2a27c3d525feb2942e86c500c768fec0d984a169da9df1f080c1754496

If you Google “how to be homeless in Pittsburgh” you get a list of programs and a lot of organizations asking for donations.  At the time we started Swigle, there were no books on how to be homeless.  If you recall trying something for the first time, you know that it’s hard to be good at it and make good decisions.  When you are homeless for the first time, you’re emotional about what’s happening to you and it’s hard to prepare or even think critically about next steps.  In our research, we discovered that many folks were surprised to be on the street.  If they had access to experts early on they might have made different choices and relied on people close to them with different thinking, planning, and outcomes.  

Swigle started as an experiment in Design Thinking to explore what practitioners call a “wicked problem.”  It’s clear the homeless problem has not been solved and we wanted to see if we could have impact.  At this moment, 90% of us living in the US have a mobile phone and much of that percentage are smartphones.  Smart phone ownership increases for youth and young adults which make up a large percentage of the newly homeless.  In our interviews of homeless folks and those working directly with them, we observed folks were solving everyday problems with their phones.  When you map out the journey of someone homeless for the first time, they encounter a rapid series of recurring problems that need to be solved—how and where to sleep, how to make money, places to find a bathroom, where to eat and how to contact a shelter.  These are the most basic problems.   From there the list of problems grows in scope and technicality covering local laws, children and schools, medical conditions, medications, benefits and a myriad of practical issues that never go away.

We imagined that if Google searches returned better and more technical content then we might make a difference.  Therefore, we turned our attention to a content strategy.  We explored examples of how people learn deep and technical topics from Google searches.  Some of the best examples we found served up questions and answers directly for specialized topics and that’s where we put a stake in the ground.  We believe that some homeless folks will ask questions and answer them by using their mobile phone.  Even if many do not directly engage in Q&A, many will benefit from others that posted an answer.  To ensure success, we have partnered with Allegheny County, Community Human Services Corporation (CHS) and other service providers to help us un-cover the “lived experience” of Pittsburgh’s homeless.

Today, our project is 100% volunteer made up of designers, developers and professionals working in the space.  Our project moved from its design phases into implementation and improvement recently.  We believe that 1000 answered questions in 2017 will drive up our standing in Google results and be the tipping point where homeless folks can self-service answers to questions at any time. The funding from the UpPrize would help us hire the full-time staff we need to meet our 2017 goals.  These new staff would engage with people living on the street and service providers curating Q&A.  We also believe that 1000 answered questions could begin a new round of research and experiments.  As of today, there is no single documented source of knowledge on the homeless experience in Pittsburgh.  This resource could improve training of service providers, build empathy in the larger community and change the way we think and behave. 

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Nov 12 2016

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  • Chris Berg
  • Terry Rorison
  • Andy Meyer
  • Keith Brings

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