Saving the homeless and the wordless

Geographic information is saving lives and helping the world become a more just place. Ed Freyfogle invited two inspirational projects who claim to be saving the homeless and the wordless with geo-technologies to our latest Geomob event in London. They battled for the coveted SplashMaps best speaker award.

Ed invites Geo-saviours to Geomob

Imagine the bulldozers

Imagine you’ve been watching your world being invaded for centuries. You’ve been able to live in relative peace protected by your forest and the delicate eco-system that supports you and your loved ones. Then imagine the bulldozers and chainsaws that can splinter this whole way of living in a matter of days.
Deforestation is one of man’s greatest self-inflicted wounds and a reflection of the inhumanity we collectively accept in return for cheap food and hardwood furniture.

In the front line

The SES Team open the bridge they’d constructed in the Corcovada National Park.

In the front line are the sorts of communities that the Scientific Exploration Society bring aid to. With little access to modern world medicines and an understandable unwillingness to engage with the invaders, these communities are often considered illiterate nuisances in the way of modern commerce.

Extreme Citizen Science

Dan Artus’ project is part of Professor Muki Hacklay’s Extreme Citizen Science group within the Geography department at University College London. Dan and his team of anthropologists and geo-geeks aim to give these communities a voice that works in every language. Armed with smart phones (and less smart phones) they are able to use a simple set of icons to capture data such as illegal logging, boundaries and key locations for precious resources.

Participatory Mapping

Mark Iliffe (another SplashMaps Winner) with SplashMaps Parcipipative mapping in Tanzania

This participatory mapping happens in regions where the national mapping agencies will seldom visit. We’re quite used to this approach with the Ramani Hurai project in Tanzania, where SplashMaps provided the maps for locals to use.  The communities themselves are now building a rich resource of Geo information than can be used in settling grievances caused by encroachment of illegal loggers on their land.


The platform enables simple icon driven data collection for participative mapping

The first cut tech stack has been created under the name “Sapelli” and now they look to find ways to make Sapelli robust and commercial. With a £100k application for funding the XML encoding and other hard and software building aspects, Dan also intends to conduct the market research in order to assess the size of the market and propose a sustainable business model for this worthy work.


Note to the Geo nerds at Geomob, if successful in gaining funding, they will be hiring over 14 months in phases from Feb 2019.

A consumer potential

My thoughts; There’s no doubt this is a worthy project and clearly an elegant solution has emerged to give these communities a voice. Regards a business model, the communities have no money and, in fact, society as a whole is the beneficiary. So, it would seem like the NGO’s would be the main target. But surely there’s also a consumer potential behind this. If communities in the forest can capture data using the most sophisticated technologies enabled by a simple phone app, then why can’t this be the case in more high-spend societies? Time for deeper imagination and stronger collaboration with a design led partner?

You are where you live!

Chris’ well deserved win at Geomob – He chose the World

Since 2010 the incidence of “rough sleeping” on the streets of our cities has increased 122%. The culprit, in part, is society’s belief that you are where you live. All the systems of society are based upon a stable address applied to each citizen. Lose that and you can lose everything. This realisation drove architect, Chris Hildrey of Hildrey Studios, to try and alleviate the problem with the application of a simple geo solution.

Die at 47 yrs old

Digging deeper into the stats the one that stays with me is that, on average, long-term homeless people die at 47 yrs old.

The path toward long term homelessness

How can Geo technology come to the rescue here? Chris laid out the path toward long term homelessness, describing a vicious spiral that ends in those horrific mortality figures. Just consider yourself in this scenario;

People already helped out of homelessness by Proxy Address

Life is good, but property values are rising. Your land lord decides to sell or increase rent to exploit this trend (don’t forget that inflation is growing and he’s under pressure too), you find yourself unable to pay and as a temporary measure end up sofa surfing from friend to friend while you find a more permanent residence. In the meantime, you have NO address. No address in the eyes of the local authority means you’ve lost a critical part of your identity. You can no longer claim benefits, open a bank account (or sustain your own), or receive any of the typical support you may want or expect from society at your time of greatest need. With no benefits and no fixed address, getting a job, prospering or even surviving become extremely difficult. You end up on the streets and become one of the long term homeless.

Immanent disaster

With an overall reduction of 40% in the spend on support services for the homeless, Chris forecasts an immanent disaster.

Simple Solution

Chris’s simple solution is to provide an address, a “Proxy address”, for these situations. Exploiting genuinely disused properties with legitimate addresses he can assign a stable address in this period of flux. In a country that puts so much value on your address, this provides the stability you need to get back on your feet again; to get help, find work and start again. It’s already saving lives.

Ban the use of house number “13”

Proxy Address has now come into contact with all the parties involved – from the homeless to the Government mandarins. Along the way he’s encountered some fascinating address conundrums. For example, some councils actually ban the use of house number “13” for simply superstitious reasons.
Chris also observed that all those letters to Father Christmas actually end up at an address in Northern Ireland. A cunning re-direct by The Royal Mail. Chris and team exploit this same service so that mail arriving at a proxy address will actually end up with the individual.

Layers of fraud

Anna won a SplashMap for exposing who really owns London in Private Eye using INSPIRE geodata

Challenges persist. What happens if we could all choose to be identified against an empty warehouse in Neasden? There’s no doubt that an unregulated approach could invite layers of fraud in an already highly opaque property market (see the presentations from SplashMaps winner, Anna Powell-Smith). However, Chris is working now with people like FCA to get around the trust issue, in particular with banks.

A worthy SplashMaps winner

My thoughts; What a worthy project, genuinely saving lives! And a worthy SplashMaps winner at this Geomob! A simple concept that can help to prevent people entering this highly destructive cycle in the first place. The challenges are less geo and more politico. But Chris is saving lives already. Please stay abreast of developments at ProxyAddress and contact him directly if there’s anyway you can help or support him.

All welcome!

I hope you enjoyed this review of saving the homeless and wordless with Geo.  Why not join us at a future Geomob, present and join the geo-Celebs changing and improving the world.  As a sponsor we contribute prizes for the presentation and the sponsors assure free #Geobeers at a pub nearby after each session.  We’re always interested in more sponsors, more participants and engaging presentations.  Come and join us!

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