Where does change happen?
I’m not thinking of the personal changes we make in our lives, although it often feels like a mystery as to how we change ingrained habits, limiting beliefs, and situations that make us feel trapped or disempowered. I’m talking about social change, about tackling the big issues, about making a difference; I believe that real change happens when people devote their time and energy to something greater than self. When communities come together with a common goal of solving a problem. When it’s less about ‘me’ and more about ‘we’. And the funny thing is, I have a feeling that this is the answer to both greater social change, and the longing we have to make change in our own lives.
I have long believed that the union of innovative technology and human empathy is the axis where we’re going to fix the things that seem broken in our society, the fulcrum upon which real social change will happen.
Last weekend (August 24 & 25, 2019) I had the opportunity to test this theory when I got involved in organising and participating in the Beddown Hackathon, held at the wonderful space provided by the good folks at Just Digital People in Brisbane. The organising bit was dynamic and fun; I revelled in leveraging the awesome connections and networks I’ve made through my working life, and being able to call upon the Telstra brand’s amazing capability and might…but the real magic was seeing 50 people from 45 different organisations give up their weekends and work collaboratively (and pro bono) to create tech solutions to help the homeless in our community.
This Hackathon was organised for Beddown; an organisation with the simple vision that everybody deserves a bed to sleep in at night. Beddown looks to activate and repurpose under-utilised spaces into pop-up accommodation hubs, with the aim of offering homeless people a great night’s sleep. Their secondary goal is to connect people into other complementary and government services, to begin the process of rebuilding their lives. Ultimately, the goal is to end the cycle of homelessness for all. In short, Beddown is an organisation devoted to changing and saving lives.
The statistics on homelessness in Australia are truly shocking. On any given night, over 8000 people are sleeping rough in parks or doorways; around 400 children under the age of 12 are also sleeping rough each night. Hundreds of people a year lose their lives from sleeping rough, often from medical issues that could be easily treated. Another sobering statistic is that the life expectancy of a homeless person in Australia is just 47 years. And while it is hard to believe, the fastest growing homeless population is women over 55 years of age.
With Beddown’s pilot project commencing in late September in Brisbane’s CBD, Founder and tireless champion of the cause, Norm Mcgillivray, approached me for help with activating the Hackathon, and sourcing talented minds who could come up with an app or platform that could assist guests sleeping in the pop-up accommodation to check in and/or to connect them to other services and information.
When I heard more about Norm’s story, my feeling was that he and his Beddown project were a shining example of that guiding principle ‘people and purpose’. As a young boy, Norm’s family experienced a shocking event that changed their family structure forever. His father, a successful carpenter and shopfitter, suffered a stroke at a very young age. With his right side paralysed, his speech and appearance affected, the family was put under immense strain, and eventually his parent’s marriage dissolved. Soon after, Norm’s Dad was homeless. An already difficult situation took a tragic turn when Norm’s Dad died of a heart attack; he was just 42 years old, and Norm only 11.
This experience profoundly affected Norm, and his deep empathy for the plight of people living on the street only deepened over the years. Although he was powerless to help his own Dad at such a tender age, the time came when Norm was able to mobilise his deep longing to make a change, and so he founded Beddown so, as he said to me ‘I now have the opportunity to help someone else’s Dad, Mum, son or daughter, brother or sister.’ To that end he has worked tirelessly to get Beddown to the pilot project stage; and the response to my LinkedIn call-out for creative developers and designer was overwhelming.
Companies represented over the weekend included Telstra, Microsoft Azure, Fifty Zoo, Orange Sky, Tquila, BHP, Canstar, The Australian Tax Office, The College of Rural and Remote Medicine, Auto and General, NEDS, Console, CBRE, Suncorp, QLD Police, The Salvation Army, Survey Digital, and more, but all these people were there of their own volition. All the creative minds were kept fed and watered by sponsors Grilld, which really made the day.
It is these generous sponsors and supporters that made it possible for us to connect tech, design, development, and deployment specialists and bring them together to work on tangible ways to assist our community’s most vulnerable citizens, and to assist Beddown to be the most effective and helpful organisation possible.
On Saturday August 24, there was a buoyant, determined energy in the room as 50 awesome minds of all ages and persuasions came together to explore eight possible application challenges in a collaborative and goal-oriented setting. What was astounding was the depth of expertise in the room across a huge host of industries. There were management consultants, data scientists, UX/UI gurus, medical industry experts, data transformation specialists, high-ranking police officers, and more there, and the atmosphere was electric.
There were eight challenge statements to choose from and it was joyful chaos as people assembled themselves into eight teams to explore solutions, and come up with a tangible result by the weekend’s end. Challenges included a solution to help loved ones reach a person living on the street, identify and ‘check in’ guests using the Beddown service, and ways to connect homeless people to clean food, clothing and amenities, and social services.
The event was divided into four parts:
The day flew by, powered by Grilld burgers to fend off the afternoon slump, and everybody went home with their minds in overdrive about how to complete their design by the following afternoon!
Everybody appeared bright-eyed and full of enthusiasm to continue work, and the morning began with an inspiring talk by QLD Police inspector David Jackman. I live tweeted throughout the event, capturing the faces and stories of some of the legends who’d donated their weekends to this amazing cause. You can see my live tweet series by visiting https://twitter.com/JorjaLeroy
The second day felt even more incredible than the first, as the teams honed their ideas, engaged in collaborative trouble-shooting, and finessed their ideas for presentation to the group. To have 50 people thinking of real-world solutions to a human problem...it felt like we were really harnessing all the positive human qualities for the benefit of all.
The judging criteria looked at how well each idea addressed the challenge statement, the quality of the presentation by each team, and how well the team collaborated.
With so many amazing prototypes, it was hard to choose, but in the end the winning designs were one called Feedshout, which links the homeless to free meals, and Book a Bed, which looked at ways to seamlessly log homeless guests into Beddown’s pop-up accommodation, with capabilities to extend this even further in the future.
The weekend ended with group photos, new friendships and connections firmly forged, two designs that Beddown hopes to develop and release, and lots of positive energy about our contributions to our own community. This experience only confirmed my hunch that the answer to that question about change, internal and external, micro and macro, truly does seem to lie in connection, community, and in giving yourself to something greater.
To mark the end of this experience, I jumped onto The Good Box, another brilliant charity that donates boxes filled with useful goods directly into the hands of homeless people.