Interactive Tools on Homelessness

Changes in Homelessness:

It’s hard to get accurate statistics on the exact number of people experiencing homeless in the United States.  The National Alliance to End Homelessness tries with their detailed estimates and state comparisons with the national average.

Children & Homelessness:

What about children?  Often the forgotten face of homelessness, children face a great risk of being on the street. Find out how children fare in your state.

Multi-Year Homeless Count Map:

Homelessness appears to be on the rise across the US.  Although Texas lacks updated data, the number of people experiencing homelessness in Austin, TX is around 9,000.   What does your city look like?

Challenges of design research on wicked problems

I’ve noticed that some of the same challenges of design research are more pronounced when doing design research about wicked problems or for the social sector.

  • You often need an additional pre-research phase up-front to get your “head in the game.” Last quarter, we researched recycling and my group focused on farmer’s markets; since I’ve been to farmer’s markets before and felt comfortable at them, I already had past experiences in that space and could wrap my head around the “problem.” When we started our research project with ARCH about homelessness, I needed those first couple of weeks to get into the space—physical, metaphorical, and psycho-mental-emotional—before I even start to wrap my head around our research plan. We should have just all spent a full day at ARCH observing and talking to people, bootcamp-style or experience-audit-style, much earlier on…to force us to dive in.
  • You have to be much more careful about ethics. Any time you’re working with at-risk populations, you have to take more care with consent, compensation, and what you end up doing with the data that you gather. When you’re shadowing a case manager and her client meeting rather than an office worker using software, confidentiality becomes much more of an issue. On a purely logistical level, this also means you just end up with a lot less video and photography, too, because you’ll find yourself in more situations where it seems inappropriate to be recording things.
  • Contacting people and scheduling interviews is more difficult. On the one hand, we have bureaucracies and tangled systems and super busy people to schedule interviews with. On the other hand, with some of our populations and the large organizations that serve them, we’re having to get our research approved ahead of time. On yet another hand, we’re talking to people who often don’t have addresses or phone numbers; they may be transient or only temporarily in Austin. Participatory homework assignments, cultural probes, or even follow-up questions becomes trickier.
  • Trust is hard-earned. Some of our research surrounds truly challenging parts of other people’s lives, and they may not want to talk to us about it with us—especially if we can’t do anything to help in the immediate future, or if they could be spending that time telling the same story to a case manager. And some of the people we’re working with (especially now that Kat and I are narrowing our focus to women who are experiencing homelessness) have had to build up walls in order to survive. We want to hear their stories, and we want to drill down into the nitty gritty details and the whys and wherefores…but if we only have a one-shot half-hour conversation, we might not be able to get as deep as we need to for the most valuable insights.
  • Focus is hard (1). Tangents and stories and sidetracked conversations abound. Because we’re trying to be sensitive to our “interviewees,” and because we want to earn their trust, we find ourselves trying to get as much information as we can while carrying on informal conversations with many of them.
  • Focus is hard (2). Focus means a small slice of the pie. It’s the only way to have true impact, but it still feels bad to ignore the rest of the pie. Plus, these problems are so entangled and co-existing, that’s it’s hard to discern which small part of the system is the most interesting or the most impactful or the most entangled or the most culpable.
  • “You’re from the suburbs, aren’t you, sweetie?” You’re going to be outside your comfort zone, you’re going to feel really naïve, you’re probably going to have to confront your own inner assumptions, biases, stereotypes, monsters at some point. You’ll be talking to people who you never normally would talk to. It’s great, it’s uncomfortable, it sucks, it’s tremendously valuable, it’s hard, it’s awesome, it’s enlightening, it’s inspiring, it’s scary, it gets easier, it’s empowering, and it’s still hard.
  • Fine line between helping and rescuing. I think we’ll be grappling with this one for a long time. But it’s really hard not to perpetuate the us vs. them mentality. And it’s really hard to keep that mindset of “I want to step in and help you” in check. I think most of us are on-board with the “design with” and co-creation methods in theory, but it’s much harder to put them into practice when so many external factors push you in the opposite direction.
  • Not having a real client. For better or for worse, projects are much more contained when you have a real client who’s paying you for your work. Defining focus or making decisions become easier when you have some constraints to work within. Having that relationship with a company or organization also helps with making in-roads in scheduling interviews or contextual inquiries.

Like I said, it doesn’t feel like these challenges are unique to our design research. They just feel more amplified because we are 1) new to research and 2) working in a new sector. I’m curious if others in the class are feeling similarly or if they’ve come up with their own unique challenges because of their specific focus area.

Let's reframe case management

Yes, I’m blogging on Thanksgiving.I’ve already admitted to my compulsion to blog, and to be fair, this holiday is all about marinating. It always happens that when you’re marinating in data, your insights come during the down times, after the concept models have been made, and you’re not scheduled for anything.

Last night, we started throwing out ideas about reducing wait times, point systems in exchange for service, getting people through the system quicker—half-baked ideas from our research at ARCH and surrounding homelessness. This led to us talking about games, leaderboards, incentives. We mapped out activities, actions, feelings along a user journey through a “game.” (Think people sitting around a sheet of brown paper with beer, throwing out ideas to a scribe with a sharpie. Wait, I think I have some visuals…)

Anyway, it was a useful exercise to blow out one idea and play it through in more detail, but I wasn’t completely sold on the game idea, and this morning I woke up realizing why. A game and incentives sort of assumes that we want you to keep working with the current system.

I think we need to rethink the current system.We talked to one woman in line at Trinity Center who was planning on going to MHMR for an intake appointment, so she can get a case manager to help her apply for housing.

You need a case manager because the system is so complicated. I have to do the footwork to get there and give them all my information, and then they’ll do the rest.

I drew a concept model! (Three weeks ago, I would have thought this through as a list or in writing, instead of with a model. These design tools are getting under my skin.)

In the current system (on the left), social workers become case managers who do all the organization, resource finding, system navigation, referrals FOR the clients. In the current system, many organizations feel like they need more case managers, period. And social workers are educated and trained to believe that a critical part of their job is to help clients navigate the system to get the resources they most need.

What if we change the system (model on the right), so that it’s easier for clients to navigate it on their own to find and obtain resources? What if we made it so easy, clients felt empowered enough to do so? What if social workers could spend more time doing the counseling and support work that they’re trained to do and less intake and referral? What if peer groups could support each other during the process? What if we created tools that automated some of the information management and data entry? What if we created a “wayfinding” system to help people navigate the system of social services?

It’s what happened in the travel industry.My mom used to be a travel agent with Summit Travel. She helped individual customers book flights across a system of airlines. Her travel agency went out of business, and she ended up working as a “city ticket officer” for Saudi Arabian Airlines, doing more specific work for the airline and its dedicated customers.

Individual customers now book their own flights with online tools that help them navigate the various airline options. Now that the middleman of the travel agent is gone, airlines have to cater to and compete for the “end-user.”

So why not remove the middlemen of case workers providing referrals and processing paperwork? Why not help people navigate the system themselves so they can connect directly with the services they need? Let’s design the parts of the social service system that we designers can actually influence, and give the people who deal with people (the counselors, social workers, psychologists, therapists) more time to work with people.

chaos to community

Synthesis and data sorting can often look like chaos to those not involved. Walls of post-it notes, lots of sharpie drawings, maps or models on brown paper, and pictures. But this wall for all of us involved in the design community represents a treasure chest. We spend hours sorting through our data, adding to the wall and reviewing what others have added. Each point on the wall represents a new opportunity or insight to someone in our community. The wall becomes a safe place for us to share far-fetched ideas, insights, and stories we have encountered. Our understanding and shared knowledge around the project transforms this wall of “chaos” into a project and community wall. The various drawings, pictures and post-its have helped all of us discover new opportunities and use different perspectives to gain understanding of another community.

It has come up for many of us that at first glance all we could see is chaos—people hanging out, locations for services, schedules, bags, and noise. But as we listen to the stories of the individuals involved in services both staff and clients we begin to understand their system. We begin to understand more about their community with every story we hear, share and observe. We learn what some of their tattoos mean, what is important to them and why they carry it, what the various services around town offer and mean to them as well as the stories they share through marks on their clothing and bags.

How do we build on the community that exists?What is shared within the community?What creates a sense of trust and safety within the community?Is there an equivalent to our wall for their community?

This is just the beginning and there is much more, so check back as we continue to try to make sense of what others may view as chaos…

Data diving, dive bar-ing… and synthesis

Last week Ruby wrote a great post on the progress of our research to date.   This week I’d like to share some thoughts on our process, and the reality of funneling massive amounts of data into usable design criteria.

To put it bluntly, the past week has been all about marinating in data.  We’ve meticulously transcribed hours of video into processable data.  We’ve filled excel spreadsheets with annotated quotations linked to various images and artifacts.  We’ve scheduled interviews, interviewed, rescheduled interviews, and interviewed again.  We’ve made videos and filled whiteboards… we drank a lot of coffee.

Through those processes we’ve managed to refine our focus several times, each time re-assessing with whom we need to do our next interview.  More data.  And more data.  And more data.

This week, however, was also a turning point.  It really felt like we were able to begin synthesis in earnest, and as we did we finally brought some clarity to all this data.

Synthesis itself is an amazing part of the design process, and in the past week I’ve seen it take two distinct forms: The formal – framed by rigor, process, and rules – and the informal, framed by everything that happens in between.

Data Diving: You need to spend hours with your data.  You need to spend the time coding, reading, writing, tracking, watching, and soaking in it.  That means hours in front of whiteboards, surrounded by piles of notes, trying to make sense of it all.  In my experience this step is essential, and often leaves me feeling energized but overwhelmed; my head buzzing, attempting to link hundreds of data points into some sort of coherent message – looking for that ah-ha.

Dive Bar-ing: And then you need to turn off the computer, walk away from the whiteboard and re-enter life.  Go to a bar, drink some cheap beer, and have a conversation about anything but what you’ve been working on.  This is when life fills in the second part of the equation.  It’s the conversations you have, the things you see, the smallest interactions, that are now framed in the context of the data you’ve been absorbing.  Your brain is synthesizing while you walk down the street, when you ask someone for directions, and while you sleep.

So after days of formal synthesis, we stepped away from the data.  Then today in class we had an unexpected hour to work on our project.  I mention that it was unexpected because having unscheduled time often just as valuable as having scheduled time.  We didn’t have an agenda, or a plan on how to spend the time synthesizing… so Ruby held an impromptu interview session with everyone in class on a topic that emerged from our first round of formal synthesis.  Then the two of us sat on the floor in the kitchen of the studio and talked through how the new data informed our initial data.  The informal setting made it easy to talk about our research informally, and allowed us to begin making those links (between rigorously collected data points) that had been marinating in our heads for the past few days.

We had several great breakthroughs and it finally feels like we’re rouding the first corner of the research process; clarifying our intentions along the way.  So what were the breakthroughs?  You’ll have to come to our presentation next week to find out.

Rigor + Life = Design Ideas.

Homelessness is Messed Up!

Week three.  We had lots of great research but no clear focus.

What did we do?  We wrote down all of the things that felt were messed up about ARCH, the system, and homelessness.

Then, we took that criteria and imagined what ARCH might look like in “Impossible World” where we were in charge and could do anything we wanted.

Out of this came design criteria that will guide Christina and I into whatever focus we choose.

  • How do we give people more breathing space?
  • How can we make the past help, not hurt?
  • How do we incorporate rewards and immediate feedback into more processes?
  • How do we make services more convenient for those who are working?
  • How do we respect and use cultural differences?

Is information the problem?

blockquote>The message is that through more and more information, more conveniently packaged, more swiftly delivered, we will find solutions to our problems. And so all the brilliant young men and women, believing this, create ingenious things for the computer to do, hoping that in this way, we will become wiser and more decent and more noble. And who can blame them? By becoming masters of this wondrous technology, they will acquire prestige and power and some will even become famous. In a world populated by people who believe that through more and more information, paradise is attainable, the computer scientist is king. But I maintain that all of this is a monumental and dangerous waste of human talent and energy.

Like to threw foundation zipper using not So easily the go Its.

Imagine what might be accomplished if this talent and energy were turned to philosophy, to theology, to the arts, to imaginative literature or to education? Who knows what we could learn from such people — perhaps why there are wars, and hunger, and homelessness and mental illness and anger.

The above is from Neil Postman, who has a mastery in connecting society and technology. Over the last week or two, my team (Scott and I) has been talking to different people to understand the role of information in understanding and helping homeless population. Information is powerful. Information about homeless is required by the HUD (Housing and Urban Development) and the city to release grants. Information is required by donors to sustain funding. But, what information? Information that is required is more often than not at a superficial level like demographics, age, ethnicity, etc. It would be unfair for me to completely brand it as superficial because an effort is done to understand about mental illness, domestic conditions, financial struggles, etc. But what is done with this information? Can this be used to help the clients themselves?

The power (or information) of data will always come from an associated action. ARCH uses the information to generate reports that will help sustain funds. They seem to be understaffed to do anything beyond that. They are helping people by providing shelter and basic assistance and want to continue doing this. The city or HUD get the reports and are happy that the grants are being used to “help homeless”. Is that sufficient? Can we use the same information to restructure the processes to help accomplish more?

There were several process breakdowns we encountered in our short research phase. This is where can use the information to address these breakdowns. Unfortunately, one breakdown was the way information was gathered. These systems/software to gather information seem to have been built without a deep understanding of the problems faced by clients. There are various aspects of a system that needs to be considered while building any solution. In this particular case, we found out that the interaction and needs of the clients were not given deeper thoughts while designing. For instance, a new client who comes to ARCH has to fill some forms as part of a basic mandate. While the need for this information is super-critical for managing data, the way it is gathered can end to be a frustrating experience to clients, and in turn, the employees, for whom the system for designed in the first place. Information is critical, but a design method that enables seamless transaction of information is even more critical


Colored post-it's help with synthesis

Kat and I have been talking to a lot of people about jobs—some are working day labor jobs, some aren’t worried about looking for work, some are planning on furthering their education, some are in job training programs. Trying to make sense of our research data, I mapped our interview participants along a spectrum of process stages:no desire — desire — prep — search — unstable — stable — permanent or independent

For 3 variables:Blue = HousingYellow = IncomePink = Jobs

Each row is one person’s story.

I didn’t see it until after I finished grouping them and took a literal step back from the paper, but no wonder we’ve been having trouble finding a focus in our research! Once you separate out income from jobs, you see that people are all over the place in terms of jobs. Even if my spectrum is debatable, the power of colored post-its in synthesis is clear.

Some emerging groups:

  1. People with steady income either from disability check or stable job, who tend to have more stable housing.
  2. People staying with other people (church family, friend, girlfriend).
  3. People staying at ARCH either through lotto or case management trying to find income in other ways.

This is just the beginning, first attempts at making sense of data. Our class is currently working through a lot of brown paper and sketches and post-it’s as we move from research to synthesis. I like seeing all the messiness.

2 weeks into research on homelessness, have some thoughts, no answers yet, and lots of questions still

On “people are people”

Alex and I spent a Sunday morning filming at Church under the Bridge. Inspired by Fifty People One Question, we thought it’d be an interesting way to learn more about the people that are experiencing homelessness. So we put up a sign and asked, “What would you like to have happened by the end of the day?” As it turned out, what they want aren’t all that different from what everybody else wants: health, $100 bill, my dog to stop barking, a back massage, good Mexican food, etc. At the end of the day, people are people, which is what we have been hearing from staff at ARCH, as well as designer researcher like Jan Chipchase who presented at his TED talk on how people across the world all carry 3 of the same things.

On play + service

I thought in order to not disrespect or offend anyone, humor and play should be out of the question when working with problems as heavy as homelessness. But I think I have completely underestimated the power of having fun. For the longest time, we have wanted to but struggled with just sitting down and talking to people that are homeless and ask them about their stories. Until one day when we decided to just lay down some stickers in the middle of ARCH and see what would happen. As it turns out, everyone wanted to play with the stickers and tell us about their days. It was fun and people were excited, which got me thinking about Jon Kolko’s TED talk on products having their own personalities and characters. Can we design something (product, service, or a program) that showcase each of their unique personality, and also make it fun for them to want to keep doing it? If people are people, at the end of the day, despite their economic circumstances, would still love to entertain and be entertained. Thanks to Alex for reminding me that there isn’t such thing as “what does fun mean for people that are homeless”. Because, if people are people, fun is fun. How do we design something that combine play + service?

On support network

We also attended the Annual Homeless Memorial Service at Townlake the other day. Then I heard someone said, “A lot of us are 4 paycheques away from being homeless. We work twice as hard but get half as much.” That comment stuck with me as I recall the many conversations Alex and I had around we are where we are today because of our support network. I thought back to when I first moved to Austin – and how if I didn’t find a job in a few months, I could be homeless. I never thought of it that way, and of course I haven’t, because at the end of the day I know I always have a support network to rely on. And if I didn’t, the decision to take the risk and quit my old job wouldn’t even have occurred to me. There is such a stigma around people that are homeless, where they are often perceived as having mental disabilities, some sort of addictions, or criminal background. A percentage of the homeless population certainly fall in those categories, but what people don’t realize is that many of them are just like us, working as hard as they can, living within their means, then something happened and suddenly they had no choice. If my support network doesn’t exist, I could be in the same situation. And I’m still chewing on that thought.

On cultural shock“Why can’t they just stay at their jobs?”, “Why aren’t they showing up for their appointments?”, “Why aren’t they helping themselves? Don’t they want to get out of this situation?” I hear many ask those questions about people that are homeless. I am pretty sure I once asked those same questions. But Kat has rightly pointed out that perhaps there’s simply a cultural shock that needs adjusting to. Dawn from ARCH has mentioned that one of the biggest causes of homelessness is growing up in poverty, with single or no parent around. Now, if you were never taught about being punctual, following up on tasks, goal settings, etc, over and over again when you were a kid, perhaps you wouldn’t be taking all those “common sense” for granted also. We all seem to understand the concept of cultural differences amongst different countries, why aren’t we more accepting about the cultural differences amongst different demographics, and more importantly, upbringing? As a start, I recommend the Women’s Bean Project video.

On self-worth Every single person we talked to mentioned something along the line of helping another person. The need to bond and craving to be of use to others are definitely universal. I have been extremely blown away by this insight as I can relate to it with another personal anecdote of mine, where I’ve seen first hand of how empowering it can be for someone to be able to offer advice, share resource, or even just make another individual smile. It’s so powerful that I think it fundamentally changes the way people see themselves and their reasons of being. I heard Jon Kolko and Suzi Sosa were having a discussion around whether the Maslow hierarchy is true in the sense that basic needs like shelter is more important and must be achieved before self-actualization can happen. I used to think yes, but now I’m not sure anymore. I want to hear more of what other people think.