Big Data

Sleepbus using data to help homeless Australians get back on their feet

Sleepbus' founder and CEO has embarked on a project to help Australia's 105,237 homeless people, whilst leveraging data to change the model of a charity to one that also engages the donor.

sleepbus.jpg
(Image: Sleepbus)

In Australia, there are 105,237 homeless people, with 17,845 of the total under the age of 10, according to Homelessness Australia [PDF].

Entrepreneur Simon Rowe told TechRepublic this is a problem that many, including himself, walk past hundreds of times without a second thought. Rowe, however, has been there before, having spent four months of his young adult life without a place to call home.

"When I told my children about a homeless man I met and how tired he looked, they told me I should do something about it, so I decided I would," he said.

Rowe founded Sleepbus, a safe place to sleep for people doing it rough.

"The concept hinges around providing a safe temporary place to sleep, to keep them healthy, and allow a person to gather their thoughts in order to plan the steps required for their pathway out of homelessness," Rowe explained.

The Australian registered charity is aiming to end the need for people to sleep rough in Australia within six years. It converts buses into safe, temporary overnight accommodation to get people off the street and keep them safe and healthy until they can get back on their feet, with the motto, "Sleep changes everything".

"We believe that with a good night's sleep, the pathways out of homelessness will be a little easier to see," Rowe said.

Within each sleep pod on the bus is a free-to-air digital television. An auxiliary channel provides a loop of ads of all the services available to the individual within a 2km radius of the Sleepbus, with maps, information, and contact details of each service.

Although not your typical tech startup, Rowe uses iPad Pros and the Apple Pencil for signing documents; cloud accounting software from Xero; and app-based project management firm Trello to keep the team, who predominately work from home and in other countries, across everything.

"We can also upload any documents or graphics they may need to promote their campaign," Rowe added.

Sleepbus also uses GPS tracking and monitored CCTV surveillance.

Somewhat a smart bus, Sleepbus boasts digital, magnetic locks on all sleep pods, which can be activated remotely by controllers in the CCTV control room.

Technology is vitally important to the cost-effective operation of a Sleepbus service, Rowe said, and also allows donors to stay connected and see that their donation is truly making a difference.

Although the charity has a range of innovative tech in place, Sleepbus' business model is centred on the use of data.

"Usable data is king," Rowe said. "We identified prior to launch that people had become disenchanted with donating, because they believed the money never went where they were told it would."

100 percent of public donations go directly to Sleepbus projects, and Rowe said it's through the use of data that he proves it.

"We show a donor what Sleepbus their donation has been allocated to. They can then log in to our website and see information on 'their bus', such as how many safe sleeps it has provided to date; average age of guests; number of male vs female; average length of time spent homeless, and so on," he explained.

"We then take this a step further and provide real-time reporting to government departments and other supporting agencies to give a true gauge of what's happening in the field."

In turn, Rowe leverages this information to secure ongoing support where required.

"By knowing what is happening on any given Sleepbus at any given time, we are able to react quickly to demand. For example, say we have several buses in an area, and the data shows two are always left empty because the demand isn't there, but in another town, city, or state, we are turning 12 people away each night."

Armed with this information, Rowe can drive an unused bus to an area requiring more beds the next night — something a bricks and mortar shelter cannot do.

Rowe's business caught the attention of US-based software vendor Qlik, with Sharryn Napier, VP and regional director for Qlik Australia and New Zealand, telling TechRepublic she was inspired by the story around why Rowe started Sleepbus, and believed greatly in the need to solve the homeless issue in Australia.

Qlik's software is being used to track Sleepbus donations and will soon extend to using the data collected from the homeless to provide feedback to the government and on real "street-level" insights.

Napier said working towards solving homelessness in Australia should be important to everyone in the greater community.

"I think many of our community issues can be solved if everyone just cares a little bit more and actually does something to 'change the world'," she added. "There is, I suppose, a fear that one person can't affect anything, but I feel it's untrue. It takes one person, and others will follow if they are passionate about really doing something."

Qlik also provides software grants for charities and is currently seeking to raise AU$100,000 to build a new Sleepbus to provide 8,030 safe sleeps per year. Qlik recently hosted an "office sleep-in" to fundraise for the cause.

Sleepbus also recently won the Telstra Charity Award for Victoria, and received funding from the telco giant to keep the bus going as a result.

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About Asha McLean

With a degree in Communications, and a background in technical writing, Asha has left the engineering world and joined the ZDNet team in Sydney as a journalist.

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