May 7, 2014
Vol: 21 No: 19


Taking back the hack

By Aaron Burkhalter / Staff Reporter

Before turning their tools to homelessness, Seattle’s tech workers set out to learn about it

Hack to End Homelessness team from left, Erin Murphy, Kris Wittenberger, Sandi Olson, Joaquin Uy present their project at Impact Hub Seattle.

Photos by Julie Lopez

Graham Pruss presents the phone app for the Union Gospel Mission project.

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When Greg Gopman, former CEO of San Francisco-based AngelHack, bemoaned the presence of the city’s homeless people in a December Facebook post, his words were revealing.

“Why the heart of our city has to be overrun by crazy, homeless drug dealers, dropouts, and trash I have no clue,” he wrote.

Gopman’s company organizes “hackathons,” gatherings of people who “hack” a problem by creating a technological solution for it.

Hacking doesn’t always help, in part because hackathons organized for social problems have nonetheless been driven by the tech industry, without much knowledge of what homeless people actually need, said Ethan Phelps-Goodman, a Seattle software developer.

Gopman’s comment showed ignorance about the causes of homelessness, as well as a startling disregard for the people who experience it. So Phelps-Goodman and a group of five others in the tech field set out to hack the hackathon.

Their event, Hack to End Homelessness, is an effort to improve on the form.

“We saw some very well-meaning efforts to create apps and programs,” said Candace Faber, spokesperson for Hack to End Homelessness. “But they didn’t have a really good understanding of what homelessness was or the complexity of the issues or how technology could make a difference.”

People in the tech world needed to get educated about homelessness before trying to help, said Phelps-Goodman, technology lead of Seattle’s event.

“There’s no reason to expect that the average software developer has any insight on the actual causes of homelessness,” he said.

Beginning in December, Phelps-Goodman and others met with service providers and advocates for homeless people, including Seattle University’s Project on Family Homelessness, the King County Committee to End Homelessness and the Washington Low-Income Housing Alliance.

They spoke with agencies to determine what is needed and arranged nine projects for the event.

Many participants met for the first time on the morning of May 3 at the Impact Hub, a Pioneer Square office that rents space to people using technology for social good.

Organizers provided coffee, meals, Internet access and tables at the Impact Hub for dozens of programmers, graphic designers and social service providers. They worked in teams that included tech professionals and at least one person who works in social services or has experience with homelessness.

After a few brief introductions, people took turns sharing their plans for software, websites and interactive graphics that they think could help service organizations. Then, they started working, huddled over laptop computers, quickly writing code and building programs to present to the group Sunday evening.

Organizers built a range of programs, maps and websites for various social service organizations, including Real Change. The Washington Low Income Housing Alliance and YWCA worked on two interactive maps that would show people homelessness and poverty statistics and how the state spends its Housing Trust Fund money around the state. Mark Horvath, who posts videos of homeless people at, got help building a social network for homeless people. Columbia Legal Services and the Housing Development Consortium got help creating an online visual display showing data on the 30,000 homeless students in the state.

Other organizations got help improving their websites and received donation software and internal databases.

Some of the projects were easy to complete, Phelps-Goodman said. Others will need some more time and work, but the participants were at least able to create prototypes for nonprofits to continue the work.

Joaquin Uy, spokesperson for the Washington Low Income Housing Alliance, said his organization didn’t have the technical skills or time to create the interactive maps they hope will aid their lobbying efforts in Olympia.

Tech professionals can take the data that nonprofit organizations collect and turn it into something that makes sense to anyone with access to a computer, Uy said.

“All that is way beyond the capacity of most, if not all, affordable housing organizations out there,” Uy said.

Organizers said that service providers and advocates left with useable products — or at least prototypes. Phelps-Goodman hopes that participants gained a better education on homelessness to narrow the divide between Seattle’s booming tech industry and social services.

“We want to create more ways for [tech professionals] to be engaged in the fabric of the city,” he said. “We all have to become investors in one way or another.”



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