Data and Community – Homelessness, Housing and Digital Inclusion

Written by jodie ancrum on 12 Dec, 19
Innovation management Public service innovation Responsible innovation


The Data and Community Hackathon was held from the 8th to 10th November as one of the 42 Bristol Technology Festival 2019 events.The event provided an exciting opportunity to bring together a range of talented people to share knowledge, skills, and resources, to address some of Bristol and Bath’s key social challenges; namely homelessness, housing, and the digital divide.

The event was hosted by Bristol City Council’s City Innovation Team and Bath Hacked CIC, sponsored by Innovate UK and designed and facilitated by This Equals. Attendees included enthusiasts, subject matter experts, and coders. It was held at The Engine Shed, an innovative and dynamic working space that supports cross team and collaborative working.

Prior to the event, participants were sent briefing packs outlining the key local and national issues and priorities, the policy context, and lists of relevant datasets. These included:

Participants had the opportunity to comment on these documents directly.

The Kick-off

Hackathon - meeting everyone

Friday evening provided an opportunity for attendees to meet each other, hear about some of the key issues, opportunities and challenges, and to start thinking about the projects they would develop over the weekend.

Speakers included:

  • Marius Jennings (Open Data Lead, Bristol City Council) who welcomed participants and set the scene for the evening and weekend ahead.

Marius emphasised the dynamism of Bath and Bristol – not least in terms of their respective approaches to open data. Between them, Open Data Bristol and Bath Hacked CIC have over 360 data sets. Underlying this is the key question: How can we use data for social good?

The Our Data Programme is a core component of Bristol’s Smart City Strategy, and is supported by the recent Our Data Bristol Open Resource.

Partnership working has been essential in addressing local needs includ

ing the development of the Period Dignity App as a way to address period poverty. 

  • Kevin O’Malley (Innovation Lead, Innovate UK) spoke about the role of Innovate UK as the government’s innovation agency supporting the development of new technologies and innovation. He stressed how new approaches are needed to solve complex problems and this is where the idea for a series of Twin City Hackathons had come from.For Kevin, a great outcome of the event would be to have something that supports both cities, something that could potentially be amplified nationally, as well as products that can contribute positively to society.
  • Julie Snell (CEO, Bristol is Open) began with outlining her passion for understanding how to really make a difference. She brings this to bear on understanding challenges in Bristol, a city very much of two stories – from the wealthy to the deprived; from areas where 85% of students will go on to get a degree to other areas where only 5% will get an A-level; where some areas are digitally well connected, to others where connectivity can be potluck.Data is helping us understand what the challenges are and is providing insight. The community plays a key role in making this happen.Bristol is Open has created a secure, private, research and development testbed that has enabled city-wide experiments.
  • Ben Richardson (Charity Director, Caring in Bristol) made clear from the outset that in any discussion on homelessness, we need to go beyond the image of the person sleeping rough. We need to consider the hidden homeless, people couch surfing, living in temporary accommodation, in overcrowded housing.He outlined the role of Caring in Bristol and its work around homelessness. The core function of the organisation is to bring together people, resources, and community groups.Ben also wanted to bust some of the myths around homelessness and gave the example of the notion that we’re all three paycheques away from losing the roof over our heads. This is a misnomer and fails to take into account family and friend support networks, access to money and so on. The value of data is in empowering us to understand these issues better; but how do we use data in a way to ensure effort isn’t duplicated and support is put in place where is can provide the most benefit.Ben encouraged participants to consider the evidence base for the homeless strategy.
  • Suzi Toon (local expert on tech and open data) began by sharing her experience as having been one of the ‘hidden’ homeless. For her, there has been a real need to provide information about services for people. This was part of the rationale for the Bristol Open Data Jam in 2018.Suzi has a real interest in the intersection between homelessness and the digital divide and developing an understanding what works for people – in terms of their personal circumstance, age, the type of device they use, and if they have learning difficulties. In her view, what’s needed is a centralised system for the management of data collection. For users, there’s also a need to digitise the Bristol Survival Handbook.

Attendees had the opportunity to ask questions, as well as note their thoughts about some of the problems, ideas, and data tools.

Initial Ideas

The problem

Lack of connectivity

Do the elderly know what tech is around? What it can do for them?

Hidden homeless

Data is patchy – hidden homeless – we don’t know the level of need

Homeless bank account – donations/services

Not having a fixed address makes it difficult to access many services – GPs, libraries

Unknown bias in data (or missing data)

Make sure homeless people are allowed their privacy after we collect the data

Fear of authority

Lack of good user experience/design on websites supposed to help vulnerable people

Wages v rent – no ‘Bristol’ weighting – have these been mapped nationally to demonstrate income inequality?

Diversity of this group

Lack of proper housing and homelessness can lead to not having proper sleep. Rough sleeping can lead to various health problems and mental health issues which further causes housing issues, loss of jobs etc

GDPR compliance

Getting information about what homeless people need, from the homeless

Personal/ sensitive data blocking data sharing? Anonymise it?  


Identifying duplicate people/issues in system to reduce workload

Alternative social landlord scheme

Central database used by care providers

Website that connects businesses with people who need help

Visualise types of people in the system/visualisation and stories

Prevention – help with tenancy/mentorship/financial coaching etc

Stories of people who are homeless

Dashboard for council – flag people who are heading towards homelessness

Anonymous from for hidden homeless – a way for them to highlight their problem?

Support for landlords – how can they report a tenant who is struggling to find help i.e. money advice, before it’s too late

Using text network to send info to many at no cost to the receiver

Sharing data that could indicate potential homelessness and help prevent it eg. missed council tax payments

Getting a list of entry level jobs which is up to date

Big data can be used to predict the areas which are going to be hit by homelessness; government can provide facilities; prevention is better than cure

A better way of estimating numbers of homeless people using modelling – reduce cost of surveys

People not identifying as homeless – raise awareness of people’s right/services they can access

visual/facial recognition using CCTV to count street homeless

Crowd sourced homeless resource map – users and providers

Live information screens/interactive maps throughout the city. Could live update shelter space and timetable for free meals etc

‘Suspended meals’ in apps like wriggle, enabling people to pay a bit extra when buying their meals, which goes into a post reserved for meals for the homeless

‘Craigslist’ of donations; jobs 4 homes from citizens

Responsive portal with extensible form into which data can be entered, categorised, tagged, annotated etc (likely to require automated filtering, categorisation etc and some measures of human moderation).

Adaptive portal to enable those with fresh but surplus food to donate ingredients for others to turn into healthy food for redistribution on a daily schedule.

Open system to facilitate donation (or offer at favourable terms) of resources such as shelter, surplus fresh food, surplus cooked food etc for redistribution

Vouchers issuance and redemption system to assist in the allocation of nightly/daily allocation of shelter, healthy food etc i.e. Bristol pound

Use GIS data to minimise distance between ‘problems’ and ‘resources’ potentially able to address them

Available data

Council stats on homesslessness – street, intervention

Prison trends?

Data for tracking homeless transition and prevention

CCTV images?

Using public and hospital/medical data to highlight problem areas of drug use and see how this links to other factors eg. homeless/deprived areas

Reasons for homelessness across different types of people

Do we have data on where people lived before becoming homeless to match ward data?

Open city data – overcrowded houses; social housing, etc

Debt, missed rent; eviction notices files; homes not adequately heated

Available tech

Microsoft Power BI

D3Js [a JavaScript library for producing dynamic, interactive data visualizations in web browsers.]

Streetlink homeless reporting app

Mobile application frameworks such as react native/cross-platform; android/IoS, apps?

Mobile devices without internet; need to be available in public places

The evening ended on a high with a real buzz in the room. A great with lots of discussions and project ideas.

Day 1 – Project initiation and development

Project Work - Hackathon

Marius Jennings welcomed attendees to the day and talked through the structure of the event. This was followed by John Kellas (This Equals) and Dave Rowe (Bath Hacked CIC) who explained that attendees could work on the projects they wanted to and to ‘trust the process’. Throughout the day there would be check-ins – to get a sense of progress, and to also see where teams might need specific help, and where they might be able to offer it. This was then followed by a series of short presentations to outline some key issues.

Presentations included:

  • Paul Sylvester (Head of Housing Options, Bristol City Council) who spoke about the work of his team in preventing homelessness, and talked through the commissioning of services. Key to all of this is partnership working. Paul made clear that the City Council can’t do it all.The Council has a number of aspirations and ambitions around homelessness. Included in the One City Plan is to reduce rough sleeping by 50% by 2022, and to eliminate it by 2027. The long term vision is that by 2050, every person in Bristol can live in a home they can afford. However, this is set against a challenging backdrop where homelessness is on the rise.Paul made clear that what drives homelessness is complex, picking up on the point raised the previous evening that it’s a myth that we’re all three paychecks away from being homeless. Instead, homelessness is mainly driven by poverty. Overlaying this is a complex set of issues that may include domestic violence, adverse childhood experiences, mental health issues and so on. Current drivers also include no-fault evictions where tenants are given 2 months notice to leave properties.Other challenges include very limited housing stock, not just an issue in Bristol but across the country. In addition, the local housing allowance can mean an average of a £200 gap per month for tenants. Much of the local housing market is not accessible. Also, many services are now digital by default, including access to Universal Credit, and this is a problem for many.Paul noted that while local authorities are rich in data, much more could be done with it. With this in mind, and given the nature of the event, he would very much welcome insights and tools including visualisation of data.
  • Catherine Makin (Digital Inclusion, Innovation Team, Bristol City Council) spoke about the Council’s focus on digital inclusion to ensure people can access and have the skills to benefit from digital technologies. She noted that about half of those not accessing the internet are low income households.Catherine highlighted some figures from the Lloyd’s Report  in that many don’t have the digital skills they need for work. She flagged that there is considerable work happening nationally, regionally, and locally to support digital inclusion. Digital inclusion has also been included in the One City Plan.In the Southwest, the picture is relatively positive as there’s a lower proportion of people without digital skills than much of the UK, but it must be remembered that there are people behind the figures. There’s still a lot to do.
  • Martyn Jones (Bristol Soup Runs Trust) spoke about the role of the Trust in providing food, hot drinks, clothing and sleeping bags to homeless people across Bristol. In addition to supporting homeless people, they also provide support to many who can’t afford to buy food and/or cook it.Their costs run to about £50 – £100 per night, and work spread across about 20 teams. Martyn went on to outline some challenges they face in the context of data. The first of these is in predicting demand from night to night was there can be wide variation. They also have challenges with logistics with picking up food from various businesses as times vary, and delivery.Data by way of the number of people who use the service on a nightly basis is not collected every night.Martyn also flagged that much of the work by charities across the city isn’t connected up and there would be a real benefit to organisations working together better.

Project Pitches

Attendees then had the opportunity to pitch their ideas for projects to be done over the weekend. Others would then have the opportunity to join projects and teams where they had an interest and felt they could add most value. And there was no shortage of ideas.

Just some of the projects pitched included:

  •  Using library membership with indices of digital exclusion
  • Mapping the continuum from secure housing to homelesseness and to use data to give a better picture of potential markers of vulnerability. This would then lead to the development of a product that could be used to personalise services for individuals
  • Development of predictive analytics for homelessness
  • An app to allow people to provide temporary accommodation to homeless people
  • Visualisation of homelessness and the hidden homeless to support policy makers, service provision, community engagement and so on;
  • Predictive modelling to support the Bristol Soup Run Trust in understanding needs on a daily basis
  • A tool to address and inform people around Section 21 notifications and address issues of rogue landlords
  • Digital information points to support homeless people
  • Eat, Sit, Sleep – website to provide information to the homeless
  • Adaptive input forms
  • Use of data to support charities to work together to better manage the under and overprovision of services
  • Noomap – to help people to understand typologies of services
  • Toolkit to support digital literacy and
  • Decentralised model to support the Soup Run in managing collection and distribution across volunteers

 Throughout the day projects were refined, others reframed and some dropped. There were regular check-ins so everyone could get a sense of progress, and where the morphing project teams either needed support or could support other teams.

Day 2 – Project completion, pitches and prizes

The day started quietly with attendees clearly focused on developing their projects and pitches. There were a few group check-ins throughout the day, to see first, if teams needed specific help, and second, if attendees had capacity of offer help. At 11am, attendees observed a 2 mins silence for Remembrance Day.

Teams had until 3pm to draft their pitches. Attendees gathered and the pitches began.

The judges were:

  • Katie Tar
  • Mike Sylvester
  • Kevin O’Malley
  • Callum Day
  • Sophie Taysom

Project presentations

Visualising homelessness

Winner – Service Space

The project – Using open data and information provided by Paul Sylvester, the project team used Microsoft Power BI to create a set of tools displaying information about homelessness and the housing pathway.

Extensible Input form – John Waters

The project – Focusing on the problem of multiple and often unwieldy databases created by imperfect and unnecessarily rigid data structures, John Waters presented on the possibility of creating an elegant and simplified data schema that would save time and money. The concept was based on the idea of an extensible input form.

Streetwise App

Winner – Combined with Soup for thought – Service space and cash, James Thomas and Charlotte Bermingham

The project – Focusing on the problem of multiple and often unwieldy databases created by imperfect and unnecessarily rigid data structures, John Waters presented on the possibility of creating an elegant and simplified data schema that would save time and money. The concept was based on the idea of an extensible input form.

Personalised help, Mike Sweeton, Irene Roura, John Kellas

The project – Personalised Help for the Homeless -`

Given that a profile can be generated from existing data of a person that has come into contact with a homeless organisation, how can personalised updates be derived from this data, and communicated to the person?

 Based on the generated profile, updates could target:

  • Health (Mental/Physical)
  • Basic Needs:
  • Shelter, Food, Etc
  • Digital Literacy
  • Financial Support or Advice
  • Legal Advice

 Updates may be communicated via text message, or via phone, or mobile app.

 Updates may signpost:

  • Regular services (Health drop ins / Soup Kitchens)
  • General advice based on profile (things most people on the homeless spectrum will need).
  • Specific advice based on profile (things that are specific to people, indicated via their profile)
Adulting: Path2APad

Winner – Cash, Georgia, Arthur, Matt, Srimanth, Johnathan, Cecile

The project – A game focused on crisis prevention through a scenario based game dynamics applied for teenagers having to solve possible challenges such as receiving Section 21 notifications that requires people to vacate their premises within two months. 

The Lettings Hub @ Bristol, Richard

The project – A game focused on crisis prevention through a scenario based game dynamics applied for teenagers having to solve possible challenges such as receiving Section 21 notifications that requires people to vacate their premises within two months. 

First Contacting Training

The project – Bias awareness training. A workshop plan to engage council and other staff with awareness of how their own life experiences and assumptions can create bias.

Mapping complex relationships

The project –

  •  Better understanding for decision makers to better engage and inform
  • Good for explaining and identifying SWOT of current plans
  • Could be scaled to multiple areas
Soup for Thought

Winner – combined with Streetwise – Service space and cash, Dan Nielsen, Lewis Trinh, Elisa Covato, Kamran Soomro

The project – A predictive data model made through combining historical information about numbers of people using soup run services, weather information (including wind direction) – for use by Soup Run Trust to predict demand.

See presentation slides: Soup for Thought

Judging Panel Feedback

  •  Clear problem to predict how many people will require services – data from the org, weather, events…data currently sporadic
  • Would reduce waste and uncertainty as to client needs
  •  Prediction enables greater efficiency – only an error of 9 people as opposed to a variation of up to 50 people per night as is currently the case
  • Will go on to identify factors that have the biggest impact such as temperature and wind; events in Bristol; what other datasets could be used? Unemployment; mortgage default; evictions info?
  • Predictive and ML model to fill gaps; would be fascinating to see it tested further
  • What’s the business model?
  • Future data – link to streetwise app – could feed into other products – could have huge impact on services with more data – could provide also training around data collection
  • Has potential to be really useful for delivering efficient provision
Mapping homelessness, Gavin Wilkinson, Tom Stark, Diego Lascurain, Vijay Kumar

The project – Using modern web technologies, the team presented a project to map homeless people as an evolution of street link that was available to a broader set of support services.

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