Why Ireland needs to use Technology and IoT more to help their Homeless

21% rise in homeless sleeping rough in Dublin

15% rise in homeless in Cork

Rise also in Limerick, Galway and Waterford

Over 1,000 children are now homeless in Ireland.

Startling figures. Especially the last one. I cannot try to comprehend what it is like to be a parent, who must tell their children that they don’t have a place to go at night.

I, like many others have been in other countries cities to see that this is not simply an Irish challenge. So I will start by giving those examples, to address the global scenarios, and how our physiology must change locally. I remember vividly two occasions whilst abroad that a homeless person made a big impact on my life.

The first time was in 2005, I was in Auckland, New Zealand. We were staying in a hostel whilst backpacking. We weren’t having a particularly good day. The weather wasn’t great, and one or two things went badly. But as we strolled back to the hostel, we noticed a homeless elderly guy in a doorway right beside us. The “bad” weather had turned into a storm, with an incredible amount of flash flooding. I felt awful. And everyone has been there, where a reality check ensures that we come back to earth. I asked the hostel could the guy get a room. They said no, as he must have an address. I offered to pay for his room, still no. Yikes. So I decided all I could do was give him some money. But then I thought, why not do that, and have a conversation. I think we automatically think only money is what they need. I went out, and sat close to him. Whilst chatting, I learned part of his story, and one of the first things he said was that there were worse off people than him, and he didn’t drink, or smoke. And that he hated the rain! He thanked me for the $20, and also the conversation. We helped each other.

The next story is when I received incredible kindness from a homeless guy on my very first night in New York. Woohoo im in America, let go for beers! Oooops. Ended up feeling a little worse for wear outside a club. On my own. Minus my phone. In a lane way in a bad part of town. A big guy stopped. Uh-oh. But this guy asked me was I ok. I told him I was from Ireland, and that I lost my phone. He told me “man I don’t even have a phone”. He then walked me out of the lane way, and hailed me a cab. I gave him a nice tip, and the cynic out there will say he was looking for that. But he didn’t know me. Humanity exists.

And now to Ireland. I really want to stress that I am not some Saint. This is more to raise awareness and how potentially technology can help. I have contributed to Cork Simon Community at length at various points in my life, and if I have some change, I do give it to the needy. But herein lies the first challenge. A lot of people has less and less cash on them. And even if we do, people wonder, if I give this person money, what will they spend it on? Money doesn’t always help, as the upper class society of Ireland have also seen.

From a technology perspective, I want to talk about some potential ways for technology to help on this challenge.

The term Smart Cities has been branded about in relation to the Internet of Everything. Where we will use technology to improve people’s lives. Yet I have not seen much presented that will help the homeless. Imagine if we could use cost effective smart devices that would be worn by homeless volunteers to identify the paths they take, and where they sleep? So that soup runs can be more efficient, and beds can be found? I think it is one area that must at least be explored. There are doing this in Odense, Denmark. Check it out here.

I also believe that doorways could be fitted with load sensors to gauge how many are occupied in our cities. This data could be used to predict common places used, and even predict on particular nights where homeless people are. That coupled with temperature sensors could have saved Jonathan Corrie’s life last December.

The last idea I’ll propose here is to modify the many parking meters in our cities to allow them produce vouchers based on use in a particular day. The more the meters are used in the day session (which should correlate busier cities to more needy people), the meters in the evening print out food/supply vouchers when homeless people enter a code that is text to them. If they don’t have a phone, then their date of birth would be previously registered and entered.

I came across a startup on a recent trip to the United States. I was incredibly impressed. It is called HandUp. The whole premise is that homeless people can setup a online profile through the organisation, and can crowd fund to reach their goals. They never receive direct cash. Instead it is used to buy supplies, food, and sometimes tools to go back to work. So instead of writing their story on cardboard, they get help to set up a profile, and then hand out business cards to their site, so that people can logon and donate. It only based in San Francisco for now, but I have contacted the, to hear plans for global roll out. (And how)

Technology multinationals benefit greatly though our tax system, by positioning themselves in Ireland. And it’s great for our economy, through jobs. I have seen the kindness first hand by working in these companies. They create lots of great lives for people. I wonder if a 1% challenge in the tech sector, where people can volunteer (before tax) donate 1% of their annual wage (hence its 0.05% from us and 0.05% from government) to a particular social challenge. This could change annually. The homeless, the elderly. I think this sort of crowd funding which is spread thin could make a huge impact. I won’t do the exact maths, but 100,000 employees at average salary of €40,000 equates to €40,000,000.!!

A story of caution on the wrong ways to use technology. BBH labs tried a social experiment to use homeless people as wifi hotspots.!! You can read more here. Brain fry springs to mind.

The work done by organisations like Simon and Focus Ireland (and others) is incredible. I sometimes try to think if they weren’t so active, where would we be. I personally believe that the technology community can play a role in assisting and helping the fight. I also think the government gets bad press, and whilst not completely innocent, neither are we. Dublin Simon Community submitted an application for new accommodation last year. The result? 33 objections from the public. Not the government, but us.

“Part of the problem is we have a lack of activism.. We have a lack of people who are willing to step forward and be part of the solution” – Michael Esswein