Coming home to music
Everyone has a favorite song they like to take along. Your headphones connect you to your music collection, as long as there is an electrical outlet nearby to recharge the device when the juice runs out.
When you don’t have a home, though, music can ease the situation. When you are homeless, just finding an electrical outlet is difficult.
For the homeless, mobile music can become a home of sorts. The MP3 players also make for good bartering material, report researchers from the University of Washington.
Scientists explore our relations to personal digital devices to uncover how our culture and our habits are changing. Some academics look at the role these objects play for people in difficult circumstances, like the homeless.
Jill Palzkill Woelfer and David Hendry from the UW’s Information School interviewed 12 people between the ages of 19 and 29 at a Seattle drop-in center for the homeless and people transitioning out of homelessness. They reported their findings at the Association for Computing Machinery’s Meeting Computer-Human Interaction Conference earlier this year.
Research meets public service
Here is a talk at the University of British Columbia by Palzkill Woelfer with an introduction by Hendry that explains how this project is about designing information systems that are sensitive to values, in this case, the needs of the homeless. As Hendry explains, their work is a research venture and a public service project.
In an eight-week session, the center offered a technology skills class. The youths who completed the class received an 8 GB iPod, a $15 iTunes gift certificate, and a thumb drive. The interviewees in the study were drawn from the group who received iPods.
All twelve participants, four women and eight men, are music fans with tastes ranging from death metal to techno to the Harry Potter soundtrack. One person said he loves music because “it kind of distracts me from the world. I put the earphones on and tune ‘them’ out.”
The study participants said they had trouble finding ways to recharge their devices and resorted to trading their MP3 player for food or shelter. Some of the some interviewees said they pawned their music players in order to buy bus fares or cigarettes. When they landed some cash, they bought back their device, sometimes going through several cycles of pawning and buying back their iPod.
Other interviewees said they had to permanently part with their music player when they traded it for another item. One person traded his iPod player for a warmer jacket. Others traded theirs for food or housing.
Six of the interviewees said they parted with their MP3 players to generate “some kind of goodwill,” the researchers wrote, explaining that these trades gave the homeless the “social capital” that survival on the street requires.
Incentive with baggage
The scientists were well aware that offering iPods as incentive for completing a seminar has baggage, also in the view of other researchers: Owning an iPod can boost self-worth for people “who normally receive used or discarded goods,” they wrote. While having an iPod can help the youth develop tech skills, these are not forcibly the skills that are guaranteed to get them out of homelessness.
The study participants came from University District, the eight-block neighborhood next to the university. It is a commercial area where there also is an emergency shelter as well as service agencies that cater to homeless youth offering food, shelter, clothing, and a drop-in center for watching TV or taking a shower.
The study revealed how hard it is for homeless youth to gain internet access and find locations with free electricity. Trespassing in order to get to an electrical outlet is risky because it can mean being escorted off the premises and a possible arrest. One interviewee traded his MP3 player for a battery-operated one just to avoid those risks.
Hendry, who is associate professor at the UW’s Information School works on social inclusion in IT. He and PhD student Palzkill Woelfer have set up a partnership with Street Youth Ministries. The organization serves youth between the ages of 13 and 22 in Seattle’s University District, offering computer access for homeless youth and technology literacy classes
In one agency center, the shelves were full of many brochures with agency program descriptions for the homeless. The scientists helped them work out ways to re-organize their resources to present information in a better way. In the video about the project you can see a box next to the brochure shelves. It carries a makeshift sign: “Check your weapons” to remind youth to turn in their weapons, which they receive back once they leave the center. That is a bit of reality the scientists cannot re-organize.
While we all have songs that might end up being distributed across an array of multiple computers and devices, the homeless face a heightened version of that challenge. Their living arrangements are usually temporary, which creates “a climate of unstable data storage and data migration,” the scientists write.
At the same time, when music, movies, and personal media can be stored and kept safe, these media “may offer a surrogate ‘home’” for the homeless, the scientists believe. But it is usually a temporary and frail home.
Living on your iPhone
Another way to better understand the homeless comes in the form of an app that lets users donate to charities. The iHobo app, launched in 2010 by the U.K.’s Depaul Trust, a large youth homeless charity, gives a homeless person a place to live, namely on your iPhone, for three days and nights. You “need to be there for him, day and night, providing food, money, warmth and support,” according to the description.
In the informational video, users are told of their responsibilities. If they ignore their hobo, “he’ll spend money on drugs, not food.” To avoid that, you can make in-App donations.
If you can handle the irony, there is a good-natured riff on the concept that giving to those in need can help you feel better.
References and links:
Palzkill Woelfer,Jill and D. Hendry. Homeless young people and living with personal digital artifacts CHI ’11: Proceedings of the 2011 annual conference on Human factors in computing systems.