This spring, the University of Denver explored uncharted waters, launching its first annual homelessness hackathon, which was dedicated to generating innovative solutions to homelessness through a rapid design process. The event, titled Somewhere to Go, was hosted by the University’s Graduate School of Social Work (GSSW) and co-sponsored by other university groups, with generous financial support from the National Center for Excellence in Homeless Services as well as public and private donors.

Participants, including students and community members, formed interdisciplinary workgroups representing the fields of social work, computer science, engineering, international development, business, psychology, and beyond. Together, they learned about the issue of homelessness from the perspectives of academia, local government, nonprofit and faith-based organizations, and directly from adult and youth service users. Cash prizes were promised to the groups with the winning ideas. However, as the sun went down on the seven-hour event, it became abundantly clear that participants were focused solely on developing genuine understanding and realistic solutions.

After several hours of learning about homelessness, the groups began to brainstorm through a rapid prototyping process. Borrowing from design thinking and human-centered design approaches, participants were encouraged to explore solutions through a lens of empathy, intense consumer engagement, and a willingness to take risks and fail forward. As teams bounced ideas off community experts, who were roaming the room ready to offer feedback, they discovered that homelessness, though seemingly straightforward, was a complex issue with various leverage points. The question of where to begin proved more difficult than perhaps initially anticipated.

“One hour left!” rang through the room as groups poured over their three-minute pitches, making sure to highlight key judging criteria as to how their idea achieved feasibility, sustainability, innovation, and impact. One by one, each of the six groups wowed the audience with thoughtful, creative pitches that included mobile apps, peer mentorship, university courses, and microloans offered through credit unions. A panel of judges selected a shelter mobile app to win the main prize, while hackathon participants honored the credit union idea with the people’s choice award. And just like that, the event was done, with hearts full of inspiration and more questions about what comes next. Group members swapped contact information and buzzed about launching their individual ideas, while loading up on leftover pizza and snacks – the door prize for everyone.

As for the University of Denver and the GSSW, it was clear that something dynamic had taken place that day. A collective enthusiasm and energy swirled around participants from different disciplines, students and professionals alike, all ready to put their ideas to the test. GSSW doctoral students, Jennifer Wilson and Jonah DeChants, along with professor Kimberly Bender, developed the event and conducted a small pilot study to determine the feasibility of changing attitudes and developing ideas through rapid innovation. Results of a pretest and posttest survey administered to all hackathon participants revealed a significant increase in perceived knowledge of homelessness as well as significant and positive shifts in attitudes and beliefs pertaining to individual, societal, and personal responsibility related to homelessness. Additional qualitative feedback revealed that participants, who had already dedicated an entire Friday to the event, wanted even more – more time to innovate, more time with community experts, and more time to pitch their ideas and solicit feedback from the group. So now the steering committee is tasked with its own design challenge – how to take the homelessness hackathon to the next level in year two.

Jennifer Wilson, headshot

About the Author: Jennifer H. Wilson, MSW, IMBA is a PhD student in the University of Denver’s Graduate School of Social Work (GSSW). Her research interests center on the promotion of poverty reduction through social business interventions and social innovation. She is currently working with the Burnes Center on Poverty and Homelessness at GSSW, exploring tiny homes and comprehensive community initiatives. 

Like this post?
Check out this one about a homelessness hackathon at the University of South Florida.

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