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Report: Social Capital


The need

We assume that, without a place to call a home and dependent on others, a person’s self-esteem plummets, along with their self-confidence. We envisage a spiral of despair.

The journey back to society is made possible when people recover their self-belief and feel valued. At the Homeless Hack Day, we wanted to come up with a tool for homeless people to help get them back on the road to recovery.

Homeless Hack Day #wdif

Social Capital is a project that was created by a small team at the Homeless Hack Day in June 2012.

The hack day was organised by the UK Government Digital Service, Westminster Council, Go ON UK and other organisations and charities.

The Social Capital team:

Paola Kathuria
Twitter: @paolability

Mahmud Chowdhury
Twitter: @voltron2009

Ian Richardson
Twitter: @codeulike

What we know

  • The mobile phone has become the must-have accessory for news about the things or people we are interested in and for being part of communities.
  • Homeless people often have access to basic phones with SMS functionality, although keeping the same phone and number can be a challenge.
  • Access to smartphones is rare among the homeless, although many can get online at hostels and internet cafes.
  • Real-life connections and networks of support can help create long term improvement in the lives of homeless people.
  • Online social networks can therefore be valuable because they can develop into real life connections and networks of support.
  • Forms of acknowledgment, feedback and interaction that are common on social networks can also help increase self-esteem and a feeling of social inclusion
  • Social networks might, if managed correctly, build links between general public and homeless people, including donations of help.
  • Homeless people may have to navigate lengthy bureaucratic processes with many other organisations and parties over long periods, while living a chaotic lifestyle.

Mahmud’s story


Mahmud is homeless. Through no fault of his own, Mahmud lost his passport.

In the UK, without a passport, it is illegal to earn money. And one cannot hold a bank account.

Without his passport, Mahmud lost his job, then his bank account. This is why he is homeless.

How it happened

Mahmud arrived in the UK from Bangladesh in 2002, obtained a B.Sc in Computing and Information Systems, then went on to study for a Masters in 2009.

During 2009 he applied for a visa extension; it was complicated by his college losing, and then regaining its license. This led to the visa extension being initially denied.

From there, Mahmud was entangled in three years of bureaucracy, and while he was unable to officially show his identity and status, he lost his job, then his bank account, then his home.

During these three years, Mahmud has had to manage:

  • his visa appeal
  • his attempts to recover his passport from the Home Office (who, at one stage, said they had lost it)
  • dealings with his local MP
  • dealings with the Bangladeshi High Commission
  • and various agencies and professionals

In August 2012, Mahmud hopes to finally be in possession of his passport again.

Mahmud is not unique

Mahmud has encountered other people in similar situations. People can also get embroiled in applications for housing or benefits. They similarly need to keep track of the process and know where they are in it.

Mahmud’s log book

In such complicated situations, detailed notes on who has said what, and what is happening next, are vital. Throughout this time Mahmud has carefully kept a log of all his contact with the Home Office and other parties, in the form of a Word document that he has kept updated and repeatedly emailed to himself.

He has also maintained a high-level timeline so that he can easily explain his position and what he has been doing.

Mahmud’s logbook is the inspiration for the logbook part of the Social Capital project.

Social Capital overview

Social Capital is a personal organiser that can evolve into a social community with practical donations of help, implemented as an SMS Service supplemented with a web interface

The three stages are:

  1. Private remote LogBook for storing and retrieving information, and for other personal-organiser like functions
  2. Evolving towards a social network by allowing some LogBook entries to be shareable and adding friend/network type functionality
  3. Evolving towards a “help broker” system that allows the general public to make practical donations of help to homeless people



LogBook is held on remote servers with guaranteed a) availability and b) security. By keeping one’s information remotely, one can send and retreive items by SMS, e-mail or web.

The LogBook has been designed to be very simple. It is so simple that it could appeal to the general population.


There are SMS, e-mail and web interfaces to LogBook.

  • SMS: Log entries and commands are sent to a single phone number which ties the sender’s mobile number to an account.
  • E-mail: Like Tumblr and Flickr, account holders are assigned a unique e-mail address which is tied to an account. Mailing this address is like texting from a specific mobile.
  • Web: People will identify themselves with private information they provided when they registered. A mobile phone number will not be the primary identification information because phones are easily stolen or lost when one is homeless.

The default action by SMS or mail is to append the text message to the log.

All interactions are acknowledged with a return message that includes the date, acti0n, text and a unique reference number for new log entries, tasks and reminders.

Action Description


Register / Re-register Provide registration and secret information (e.g., a reasonable combination of name, username, password, date of birth, e-mail address, secret answer) SMS e-mail web
Log <text> Appends an entry to the log.This is the default action and won’t require a command if interacting by SMS or e-mail. SMS e-mail web
Today Reply with the day’s todo and tasks SMS e-mail web
<blank message> (registered) Reply with latest log entry, todos and any upcoming reminders SMS e-mail
<blank message> (unregistered) Introduction to the service and instructions on how to register SMS
Logged [<n>] Reply with the last n log entries – defaults to 10 (?) SMS e-mail web
Mail Mail the log, reminders and tasks to the user’s registered e-mail address SMS e-mail web
Forward <address> Mail recent (?) or (web) selected log entries to another e mail address SMS e-mail web
Insert Create a log entry with a date in the past web
Edit Change the text or date of an existing log entry web
Unlog Remove individual or selected log entries web
Remind <text> Create a one-off reminder (e.g., appointment, pay rent, pick up prescription) SMS e-mail web
Remember Reply with all reminders (and the generated reminder numbers)
Unremind <text|n> Remove an individual reminder (by sending the original reminder text or its number) SMS e-mail web
Todo <text> Create a dateless task SMS e-mail web
DoWhat Reply with all tasks with their generated task numbers SMS e-mail web
Done <text|n> Mark a task as done (by sending the original task text or its number) SMS e-mail web
DoneWhat Retrieve completed tasks SMS e-mail web
Undone <text|n> Remove a task (by sending the original task text or its number) SMS e-mail web
Log in Using a combination of information provided at registration web
Manage reminders Change the text, date or occurance of a reminder or remove individual or selected reminders web
Change tasks Edit the wording of a task web
Search Reply with log entries matching the search text SMS e-mail web
Browse Browse and sort the log for viewing web
Forgot Reply with the e-mail address to interact with LogBook SMS web
Help Reply to available commands and their use SMS e-mail web


Initial registration for LogBook will be via SMS, and so that the user’s phone number will be associated with their account.

However, LogBook must be able to handle situations where a lost phone is replaced with a new number.

Additional secret information that people could provide to identify themselves to the system in these circumstances can include a username, password, date of birth or secret answer.

However, homeless people may need extra help; we would aim to encourage charities and agencies who work with the homeless to help them get set up in LogBook or regain access to their account after a phone loss. This will involve giving some admin access to those agencies and charities.


Some homeless people have CHAIN numbers that identify them on the cross-agency CHAIN database (CHAIN stands for Combined Homeless and Information Network). Associating users’ LogBooks with their CHAIN number may also help them keep access to the log in the event of a phone loss.

Added benefit

An anonymised version of LogBook data might be useful to charities and researchers.

Evolving to a social network

Once users are regularly logging what they are doing in the private LogBook, the following SMS commands, if added, would be the first steps towards creating a social network:

  • blog – write a non-private entry (audience is the user’s list of friends)
  • friend – make a friend link with the specified user (identified via username, phone number or email)
  • news – returns recent blog entries by friends
  • ask – mark an entry as a question to be asked to one’s friends

This would be supplemented by standard social network functionality in the web interface, such as commenting and acknowledging posts.

Who would use it

For the system to become a social network that reflects people’s real situations, it will need to be open to non-homeless people as well. The non-homeless members would presumably be less likely to use the SMS-logbook and more likely to use the web interface.

However, once the system becomes a social network (rather than a private log) more care needs to be taken to moderate the signups and the communications within the network – as it will be a network that includes vulnerable people.

Registration could be performed via partner agencies and charities. Or registrations and messages could be moderated.


We hope that some homeless users would consent to making some of their entries public anonymously. This would give the general public an insight into homeless people’s lives and encourage them to join the network.

Evolving to a help broker

Once there is a network of homeless and non-homeless people, we can add the ability to ask for or donate help.

Donations could be direct, between connected people on the network, or possibly indirect via a queue/broker system.

Types of things that could be donated:

  • Oyster Card top-ups (just an Oyster card number is needed to add credit)
  • Mobile phone top-ups
  • Payment for prescriptions (via code texted to user, then redeemed by the chemist)
  • Legal advice
  • Company (moral support) for important meetings
  • Storage space (e.g. lockers in train stations)
  • A personal reference
  • A forwarding address

Making it happen

What would be needed to make Social Capital a reality?

  • A prototype of the first stage – the LogBook – perhaps built at the next Homeless Hack day
  • More detailed designs and prototype of the web interface
  • Funds to run a server
  • A phone number to receive and send texts
  • Support from existing homeless agencies and charities – to encourage people to use the system

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