Streetlives is an organization driving systemic change toward an equitable and inclusive model for social services.
As co-founder, my remit is strategic impact, creating the conditions for Streetlives’ vision to thrive: I focus on strategy, design research, product, and culture. As Director of Product, I lead a human-centered product development practice.
From tangible vision, to economic sustainability strategy, from research frameworks, to product design guidance, from product management, to nurturing organizational values and rituals, my work is geared towards the long-term sustainability of the project.
Growth of a bootstrap pro-bono organization from 2 to 15 volunteers. Launch of community-led product that enables users to learn new digital and mediation skills. Launch of a COVID emergency response product to find resources.
As of December 2020
Building a community-driven organization to drive system change
Almost 3.75 million people in New York City live in near-poverty. Amid this poverty, homelessness is on the rise: the City shelter census has increased 82% since 2007, with currently over 130,000 people experiencing homelessness, including 23,600 children.
Charity has been the model for social services since its foundation in the Poor Laws of 1597 and hasn’t changed significantly for hundreds of years.
We are betting on what hasn’t been possible: change the model of social services towards equity through human-centered innovation.
Prototyping from day one, we engaged with people who were panhandling in the city. We weren’t entirely clear on what we wanted to achieve, and that was intentional: we needed first hand input from the people we wanted to help.
We shared sacrificial concepts like: an SMS based service that would reply with the closest resources around; an online platform to share one’s story; a direct free-of-charge phone line to get information.
These conversation starters allowed us to understand the most effective way to deliver value to our users: a mobile-first online space to find what they need and share what they know.
Soon after engaging people directly, we started to realize that this approach was quite disruptive in the design of human services.
Our key differentiator is that Streetlives builds all its technology with, not for, people of lived experience of homelessness and other vulnerable populations: the whole team engaged in dozens of co-design sessions with users of social services and other stakeholders in the ecosystem.
This approach transformed the community’s attitude form suspicious and adversarial, to cooperative and proud. Nurturing relationships gained us trust and it makes sure the community feels shared ownership over what we are building.
Building the first product, the Street Team Tool, allowed Streetlives to gather data and key knowledge about the ecosystem, create a solid foundation for a public facing product, and plant the seeds for a system change.
The information available to social service users is scattered, often unreliable and outdated.
Trustworthy data is vital for our community: traveling hours with your last money only to find the service you’re looking for was canceled weeks ago, is closed, or the eligibility criteria have changed and you don’t fit anymore, creates a lot of anger and hurt.
Through prototyping, we envisioned how a website to search for information would be like. Sharing our ideas with the community, we got a better sense of what was useful, and began to understand how to structure data, with people’s need at the core.
That gave us the opportunity to get into the weeds of the system, giving shape to inconsistent, at time contradictory information.
Focussing on providing good referrals — matching people to the exact services they needed — we realized that finding resources means getting reliable peer-validated information that enables users to confidently access services: trust is a scarce currency in our community, and it mostly resides in people who shared the same life experiences, rather than in institutions.
Our strategic decision was to build a team of people from the community that could be on the field, engaging with providers to help them have the most updated information about the services available to the community.
Working directly together with people who are homeless, we built the Street Team Tool: a mobile-first web app that allows people to collect, validate, and amend information about service providers — from adding a new location to its eligibility requirements, from opening hours, to contact info. You can see a live version of the tool here (user id: marcoguest, pw: 123456). Please skip account verification, and if you are outside of New York, please move the map to New York to find services. I’d be happy to guide you through UX decisions, as I led product design hands-on. Ping me!
The Street Team Tool has been an effective trojan horse in creating systemic change. Beyond the direct benefit of having peer-validated data, thanks to the tool we have been able to:
A crowdsourced online map of information for and from the homeless community of New York City: a “Yelp for social services”
On the one hand there is no single, dedicated, reliable source of information for the people who are homeless or live in poverty. It’s almost impossible to navigate the patchwork of social services. We are committed to break through this huge and tangled mess and match people with the right services they need, when they need them.
On the other hand, there is no way for people to share their knowledge, and opinion, on social services and programs in the city. We found out that the more “experienced” navigating the system, wanted a way to help others, as much as a clear a path share their voice, to be heard, to influence outcomes.
Streetlives has been designed and built with many members of the homeless community, whom we’ve been working with since late 2015. Through hundreds of co-design sessions, we designed a product that meets people’s needs. Continuous iteration is allowing us to test our product at a larger scale.
Streetlives’ alpha was soft-launched in 2016, in partnership with key service providers. In 2018, after launching the Street Team Tool, the core focus moved into testing and iterating how to engage the community in giving feedback that is useful for service providers. In 2019 Streetlives is looking to launch a public facing MVP with over 600 peer-verified services – from food pantries to shelters, from training programs to legal help. If you’d like to have a deeper look and access our narrative prototypes, ping me!
By the end of 2019, we are looking to help thousands of people to find the resources they need fast and accurately. Concurrently, our goal is to is to change the culture at our provider partners by improving the quality and ease of communication between them and their client community, from a culture where providers are often hesitant to ask for client feedback, to one where they’re eager and driven by it.
Our key partnership — one which no other technology project in the city appears to be building — is with the community of people who need and regularly use social services. Without trust and buy-in from this population, there is no change.
At the same time, Streetlives has, by design, a systemic ambition. And to affect the system, service providers — those who give first hand help — needed to be onboard.
Our strategic partnerships include social service providers withwith many decades of experience, that collectively reach well over 200,000 NYC clients.
Our outreach to the civic technology community has resulted in an extensive, expert, and international advisory board. Our methods encourage others to join and stay connected.
One key element differentiating Streetlives, is the goal to build an organization staffed and eventually run by people of lived experience of homelessness. Economic sustainability and independence is fundamental to chart such an ambitious future. Our business model for sustainability is based on Data as a Service for social service providers, city administrations and funders of services.
Streetlives is driving systemic change towards an equitable and inclusive model for social services. This new model is founded on a journey of agency for people who live in poverty and homelessness, and a cultural change at social service providers.
Creating a systemic change requires a systemic approach: the process we undertake creates partnerships in an antagonistic ecosystem; customer satisfaction data in an environment that has relied on anecdotal evidence; and, community feedback that speaks where no voice was heard.
Finally, we drive toward handing over Streetlives so it is fully run by its user base, replicating the service in other cities, and establishing an equal place at the table for the community in any future discussion over how society addresses homelessness.