Homeless, not phoneless: The app saving society's forgotten tech users

If you became homeless, would you keep your smartphone? One app offers life-saving guidance, in the recognition that someone might not have a bed but likely still has a phone.

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Malcolm Turnbull, Australia's prime minister, tried out AskIzzy at its launch earlier this year.

Infoxchange

When Lisa Peterson became homeless, she spent months without a bed of her own. But her phone never left her sight.

Driving across the country, couch-surfing and staying in crisis accommodations, Lisa would charge her phone at train stations and use free public Wi-Fi to stay connected.

The idea of being "homeless with a smartphone" may sound contradictory, but for the 1 in 200 Australians who are homeless on any given night, it is surprisingly common. Now, a not-for-profit group has created an app and mobile site that caters to this oft-forgotten part of society. AskIzzy connects the homeless with life-saving services.

Imagine you're facing a night on the street. AskIzzy doesn't bombard you with complex information on the thousands of homelessness services in its database. It just asks simple questions. Do you have somewhere safe to sleep tonight? Are you escaping family violence? Based on your specific circumstances, it then handpicks the services you need, such as crisis accommodations or health centres, with directions via Google Maps and details about how long it takes to get there on public transport.

The service is the brainchild of Infoxchange, an Australian not-for-profit that manages a database of more than 350,000 community services. While this database has been used for decades by homelessness charities and government agencies, it had rarely been used by the people who needed it the most. Infoxchange set about building an app to access the information and launched it in late January.

Staying connected on the street

When I spoke to Infoxchange CEO David Spriggs, my preconception of homelessness was like a TV trope: I walk past tents in the park on my way to work. A mobile soup kitchen appears at the end of my street on Wednesday nights. An older homeless man wanders around my suburb.

But after two decades in the not-for-profit sector, Spriggs is patient when he points out why the common perceptions are only a fraction of the picture.

"Often people have this view that homelessness is an older person sleeping rough under a bridge, but people sleeping rough only makes up 6 percent of the total homelessness number," he said.

"It might be you've lost your job, you've missed a couple of rent payments, you get evicted, and suddenly you found yourself sleeping in your car ."

Spriggs says most people living with homelessness, particularly young "digital natives", don't call themselves homeless. They might be couch-surfing at a friend's or staying in an overcrowded boarding house. But without permanent accommodation, they become part of the statistics.

Despite fraught circumstances, the large majority of people experiencing homelessness remains connected and tech savvy.

"Ninety-five percent of people who are homeless have mobile phones, and 80 percent of those have smartphones," said Spriggs. "Often they might be on prepaid phones, with no credit, but they access free Wi-Fi to get online."

Peterson was one of those people.

"People...say, 'Homeless people don't have phones.' Yes, we do," she said. "Your phone is your lifeline. Services can't get in touch with you unless you've got a phone. A housing provider, to tell you you've got a house, can't get in touch with you if you don't have a phone."

Peterson comes from a privileged background, but like many people who experience homelessness, a perfect storm of circumstances pushed her life "downhill." It was 2011, she had just left an "unlivable" marriage and was facing massive debts over a social security payment error. When she could no longer afford to pay her rent, she was evicted and had nowhere to turn.

With no idea how to navigate the homelessness sector, she would have loved a simple service that pulled together essential information.

"It was something that I was wishing desperately for then," she said, "because everything was so ad hoc and haphazard, and you couldn't find information anywhere."

When AskIzzy was born, she volunteered at Infoxchange to give feedback on the app and said she's been "advocating for it ever since."

Answers in a crisis

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These are some of areas of help that AskIzzy offers.

Infoxchange

At the start of AskIzzy's development, Infoxchange partnered with Google to combine its own knowledge of community services with the tech giant's expertise on mapping, analytics and app development.

Peterson was one of a number people -- all of whom had experience with homelessness -- who offered real-world advice during the build stages, sharing what information users would really need, especially if they were newly homeless.

"People don't necessarily know where the practical things are, like where to get a swag," she said. (A swag is a covered sleeping bag and tent hybrid handed out by many Australian charities to people experiencing homelessness). "If you've never been in that situation before, you never think, 'That's what I've got to look for.'"

Fellow volunteer Danny, a man who also brought the experience of homelessness to the app development process, agreed.

"The knowledge I picked up in playing around with AskIzzy for an hour probably took me about two to three years on the street to pick up," he said.

Peterson's experience also shaped the way AskIzzy was built, right down to the language used in the app.

"When you're dealing with people who are in crisis, the easier and plainer you can make the English, the more useful it is," she said.

Spriggs agrees.

"For somebody in a crisis situation, they don't want to get a list of 200 services to go and choose between. They want to get something that's really actionable," he said. It was about "keeping it simple and being mindful of the mental state of somebody in that situation."

Real-time lifeline

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AskIzzy offers practical advice for people experiencing homelessness.

Infoxchange

While AskIzzy is already used on the front line, Infoxchange is eyeing new features for the future. Spriggs wants to track services in real time, so a mobile soup kitchen could transmit its location and app users would know exactly where to go. The data generated by the app could also help service providers track the needs of people moving in and out of homelessness "on an almost real-time basis," rather than them waiting years for potentially inaccurate census data.

"At the government level, it can be where they should be targeting funding and services based on where the demand is," said Spriggs. "Really it's going to be the first time that you'll be able to get any of that demand data directly from those people that need the service."

But for now, the app delivers an immediate lifeline beyond a bowl of soup or a warm bed, by reaching out to a segment of society that Spriggs says is often overlooked when it comes to technology.

"Often you see innovations making the next billionaire," he said. "But in this case it's technology and innovation for social good."

With AskIzzy, smartphones could become the new lifeline. After all, Peterson might have lost almost everything when she was homeless, but there was one thing she didn't give up.

"My phone did not leave my hand while I was homeless," she said. "For me it was more necessary to have a phone while I was homeless than it was while I was married."

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