I’m currently sat at Manchester Central, in the midst of the Business Rocks 2016 Hackathon. Various teams are working on a way to use tech to combat the issues surrounding global homelessness. As you can imagine, it’s an immensely complex problem and they’ve got little over 24 hours to try to find a solution.

Business Rocks hackers at work

We began the day by listening to a panel of experts, including several who have first hand experience of being homeless, brief us on the task at hand.


At Reason Digital, we’ve been working in the Tech For Good sector for eight years, and I was asked to share some of our experiences and some practical advice to the various teams.


Yep. It turned into a bit of a rant. Why? Because when working with marginalised and vulnerable groups of people, it’s incredibly important that we solve problems rather than create bigger ones.


So, let me recap, point by point:


  1. Assumptions are the devil. We’ve run countless internal innovation days looking at a whole host of social problems that we’re genuinely passionate about solving with digital. We run into the same blocker time and time again; we make assumptions. We’re not homeless. We’re not sex workers. We’re not drug addicts. We’re not <insert a marginalised group of your choice here>. The last thing we should be doing is make the assumption that there is a one-size-fits-all persona out there that we can dream up for these groups and then find a perfect and beautiful solution. Instead, we bring in experts. We mine them for information and we learn from their experiences.


  1. Talk to your audience. We adhere to a Human-Centred Designed approach at Reason Digital. That means talking to actual human beings. How can you design for a person that you’ve never met? How can you understand his or her needs without hearing about them first hand. How can you expect to be filled with a healthy rage at a problem and a burning desire to help fix it, if you’ve not see the terrible effect it has on people’s lives? When we designed SafetyNets to help protect sex workers, we went out into the brothels and onto the streets with a local organisation called MASH. Together, we met the people we were designing for and were able to hear their stories. Crucially, we were able test our prototypes with them.


  1. If you’re designing for society’s most vulnerable and marginalised people, you’re not going to find it easy to engage with them. You need to make sure that you’re comfortable in asking the difficult questions and you’re willing to go out and meet them in their environment.


  1. Don’t be part of the problem. I can’t stress this point enough. It’s so easy charge in headfirst that you end up trampling over others who are working on the same problems. Join with others and pool your talents and resources. If you genuinely want to make a difference rather than make a name for yourself, use everything and everyone at your disposal.


  1. Know the issue that you’re trying to solve. There is no quick fix to homelessness. It’s an immensely complex problem to tackle, decide which specific part you’re going to work on. This will make it easier to focus on what the real solution can be by really understanding the specific need.


It will be interesting to see three months from now, what comes from today. Good Luck!

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