Technology-Led Social Innovation to Prevent & End Homelessness: Our Next Frontier


By Alina Turner, University of Calgary; Turner Research & Strategy Inc.

There is no doubt that technology advances over the past 20 years have revolutionized our lives. This impact has sunk entire business sectors, and has given birth to sectors that were just science fiction to some growing up before personal computers. Strategic planning in corporate boardrooms nowadays are prefaced with statements akin to, “How do we become Amazon and avoid turning into Sears?”

Yet, for as much impact as technology is having in some aspects of our lives, we have been painfully slow to truly unleash its potential to solve our social challenges. Imagine the impact if we put a fraction of the effort being spent in innovation to create business intelligence tools to monitor sales or pipeline output into poverty, homelessness, violence, etc.

Big Data, augmented reality, and machine learning remain foreign concepts for our sector – yet these are poised to restructure the very nature of work and social relations. It is essential that we reimagine our work in light of these innovations.

Fig. 1: Do people experiencing homelessness have mobile phones? 

graphs on homelessness and cellphones

So, what’s this got to do with preventing and ending homelessness?

Some of our most basic assumptions about reaching those in need must be rethought leveraging technology. Take for instance the use of smartphones amongst those living in poverty and homelessness. A recent study on homeless adults found that 94% currently owned a cellphone and 97% had owned one in the last 3 months, with over half (58%) being smartphones. In comparison, 95% of the general population use cellphones, and 59% of them are smartphones (Rhoades, Wenzel, Winetrobe & Henwood).

Similarly, InfoExchange reported that 95% percent of people who are homeless have mobile phones, and 80% of those have smartphones. Nearly every homeless person has a cellphone, therefore access to technology is no longer a barrier. We no longer live in the day and age of phonebooks, referral guides, and faxed forms; it’s time to move our sector into the 21stcentury.

How many times have you heard from those with lived experience or those trying to help them of the difficulties of finding appropriate resources, supports, and services? Yet we can open up our smartphones and narrow down to the ‘highest rated Thai restaurant, averaging under $20 a meal, within 200m’ of our current location. Why can this same notion not be applied to those in need? The disparity of access amongst those in need of help is no longer acceptable given the technology we have at our fingertips.

App-Based Solutions to Service Access

helpseeker logo

An elegant solution to the challenge of navigating complex eligibility criteria, location, services provided, population targeted, etc. is offered by a simple app. I developed HelpSeeker as a web-based app to help anyone in search of services and programs, whether these are shelter, housing, education, counselling, health services, domestic abuse, bullying, recreation, etc. It’s operated by Turner Innovations, a social enterprise spinoff of Turner Strategies, to solve the most common challenge I encounter across Canadian communities I work in: helping people find the right help at the right time.

As a web-based app, it is compatible with all platforms (iPhone, Android, Desktop) and utilizes geo-locations and filters to best match users with relevant real-time services. The app is free for anyone to use anywhere on iPhone and Android versions are being launched in April 2018.

Users are provided with all programs in an immediate radius of them, which they can filter to ensure relevant services and programs. Importantly, users have the opportunity to provide feedback to the service provider on the app, thus providing programs with real-time feedback from those with lived experience.

Fig.2 – Client view of available organizations and programs within an immediate radius 

helpseeker screenshot

HelpSeeker engages programs to register their services, target populations, and locations, which are then made available in a user-friendly app format. Programs sign-up online to be part of app and pay a $10 annual fee to maintain the Canadian server and improve the app. Organizations are given the opportunity to update programs on the admin dashboard to ensure current relevant information is reaching their target clients. To manage and benchmark traffic, the analytics portion of the app gives program administrators data and trend visualization on client and program use.

Fig. 3 – Admin Dashboard View

helpseeker screenshot

Beta Testing in Medicine Hat, AB

The app was launched in Medicine Hat, AB on Jan. 24, 2018 and within 24 hours, there were more than 40 programs signed up, including programs delivered by municipal government, health services, school boards, affordable housing bodies, shelters, food bank, parenting, and prevention programs.

We have learned how important it is to promote uptake across platforms and levels; Medicine Hat leaders mobilized the whole community to adopt the app, including the Mayor & Council, funders, public and non-profit organizations, lived experience, media, and the public at large.

Learnings in Systems Planning & Integration

In supporting the program sign-up campaigns, we have learned the level of complexity that needs to be sorted for programs to even come onto the app – getting programs onto HelpSeeker becomes an act of systems mapping and planning across public sectors and very diverse non-profits agencies. It shows how critical this work is if we’re going to have an integrated response to complex social challenges that are cross-cutting on the ground – i.e. homelessness, poverty, domestic violence, health and wellbeing, etc.

Connecting Informal and Private Sector Sources of Support

A surprise from implementation was the signing up of programs and services, like pro bono counselling or legal and financial advice from local professionals. We would have never thought of targeting such supports in the app, yet it proved to be an easy way to maintain real-time directories of a range of supports.

Supporting Diverse Communities Regionally

Our next steps are to roll the app out across southern Alberta, including the many medium and smaller rural communities that have very few resources to weave a coordinated network of supports.

If you have an interest in coming on to HelpSeeker, there is no fee or contract to sign up; just follow the links to sign up your program or cruise the site to see how it works in Medicine Hat to get an idea of functionality. If you want to start a sign-up campaign for your entire community to register programs, connect directly

Dr. Alina Turner is the Principal of Turner Strategies, a consulting firm dedicated to accelerating social impact in Calgary, AB. She is also a Fellow with the School of Public Policy, University of Calgary.

Alina was the Vice President of Strategy at the Calgary Homeless Foundation, the organization leading the implementation of Calgary’s 10 Year Plan to End Homelessness until 2013 when she left to pursue consulting in the non-profit sector. Alina founded Turner Research & Strategy Inc. in 2013, a consulting company that provides research and strategy development support to advance social change. In this work, she supports communities with system planning, transitioning to Housing First, and ending homelessness, as well as research, strategic planning, program and organizational design. Alina is also engaged in strategic planning, policy development and academic research in the area of domestic violence, affordable housing, and immigration. Alina has a Doctoral degree at the University of Calgary focusing on migration and housing.

Source: Homeless Hub