[Nestless] A mobile app to help homeless

UPDATE: The project is in testing. Please visit NestlessNYC.com for more info.


UPDATE: A lot of people are stumbling onto this blog post and asking about the future of this app. Well here’s the update: I’m working hard to consult with people to design a working system. In addition, the technical side of things are coming along nicely. I hope to have a final product to present — along with some beta testing — by May 2012. If you have more questions or feedback, please e-mail me at alvinschang@gmail.com.


Nestless is a mobile app that allows people to help homeless people during inclement weather. There are two parts to this:

1) When passersby (who have Nestless on their smart phone) see a homeless person in need, they can “report” them using the app. Nestless uses the phone’s GPS to map them on a website.

2) People who are at home can see homeless people nearby who need help. They can bring clothes, blankets, warm meals or whatever else they may need.

This tries to bring efficiency, information and immediacy to the situation, essentially allowing local people to throw a lifeline to those in need.


When I first came to New York as an 18-year-old, I saw all the homeless people on the streets. People told me, at some point, I’d get used to them. But I vowed to never “get used to” them.

This also made me think a lot about why we “get used to” people in need. I don’t think it’s because we don’t care; I think it’s because we don’t know how to care. Other than giving a few bucks here and there — which is often discouraged, although I do it anyway — passersby can do very little to help a homeless person. Of course, if they really wanted to do something, they could offer them a bed in their apartment, though it’s a bit absurd; the threshold for that happening is extrememly high. But lower that threshold, and there are definitely people willing to give old clothes or blankets or even a hot bowl of soup.

But that threshold is still high. Only a small percentage of people ever do such a thing. And quite frankly, that’s OK. But that doesn’t mean they don’t care. It just means we have to find other ways for them to help.

So that’s how the ideas of “Nestless” came about.

It’s a mobile application that allows people to help homeless people, and the threshold for contribution is very low. It only requires that you notice a situation, take out your phone and input some basic data. Easy, right? It can be easier than sending a text message.

Here are my first musings on the idea:

Initial idea: Everyone Counts

So the first iteration of this app was called “Everyone Counts.” The idea was that New York City needed help counting homeless people. It’s a key to solving the problem, which is why there are often volunteers who walk the streets to try to get some kind of estimate.

On a technical note: I used Processing Android, and had my share of trouble. But if you know Processing, it can be a solid option. To get the touch screen to work properly, I simply used the mouseReleased() function.

Here’s some initial work on how the first screens would work:

Network and data

The second iteration involved getting the mobile app to collect data and send it to a PHP file on a server. Dan Shiffman’s PHP/Processing tutorial really helped.

So once I collected the from the app, I was able to shoot it over to the PHP script, which parsed it.

From there, I explored options of where to display the data. An SQL database was an option; I played around with somehow displaying it with Processing.js and some data visualization. But the problem was: The purpose was still convoluted, and there were still many problems with the “counting” aspect. When multiple people are reporting the same person, how do we get an accurate count? Does it require fancy math? What do these numbers mean, anyway?

Here are some other things I thought about in the early process, including other potential devices:

User Interaction

The app used basic sliding pages to allow for your typical smart phone interaction. It was simple; it had big buttons; it made sense. However, it was boring. There was nothing that really caught the user’s eye from a visual standpoint, which is something Processing could take advantage of. However, I wanted to make sure it wasn’t too complex; after all, this is a simply program. Here are some initial notes on it:

Anyway, to spice up the interaction, I introduced Henry the Bird.

He flutters around the screen, following your choices and eventually flying to the location you’re reporting from. It serves as a visual metaphor that, when you report a homeless person, they are getting some kind of help. And with Henry came a re-naming: Nestless.

Mapping: Ushahidi

After exploring several options, I decided to hook this up to Ushahidi for my mapping. I installed it on my server without my hiccup but, because of time constraints, I decided to prototype with CrowdMap, which is the hosted version. Here’s the site (link):

I also thought about how to map on the mobile phone itself. It’s still a work in progress but, for now, I’m simply trying to map to a still image. Here is the initial thought process on that:

Breakthrough: Inclement weather help

At this point, it was still a counting program. However, as I began displaying data on Ushahidi, I realized the power of this program was not only crowd-sourced reporting; it was timeliness. It could essentially tell you when a person was on the street within seconds of someone reporting it.

Now, as I was having this thought, I was walking through some miserably cold rain, testing the program, reporting people as I walked past them and seeing how it could come into use. And I thought: It feels convoluted to report someone for population counting as they are freezing right here in front of me!

And that’s where I had my breakthrough.

Instead of counting, what if Nestless was used to reporting homeless people who are suffering in inclement weather with insufficient supplies. So if it’s raining, someone walking home from work could reporting a homeless person. And another person who lives nearby — and happens to check the Nestless Ushahidi map — could walk over and give the homeless person a spare umbrella, or a hot bowl of soup or even some socks. (You wouldn’t believe how much some guys really want dry socks.)

It encourages a community of helpers. It only requires a few people to have a lower threshold to help. Everyone else can just report them. And when someone else shows up with a blanket and a hot bowl of soup, they can just say a little birdy told them they needed the help.

User stories

WITH THE APP: You’re new to New York. You see a homeless person who is freezing their butt off while sleeping in front of a small store; you don’t know how to help; you don’t have time to help. What do you do?

You download this app, and you basically let other people know that there is someone who needs help. It takes a few seconds. If you want, you can even ask them if there’s anything they need and report that.

WITH THE MAP: You’re the type of person who likes to go above and beyond to help out. You also have extra clothes and blankets.

So it’s snowing one day. And you check out the Nestless map to see if there is anyone who needs help nearby. There is! You pick out a blanket and some dry socks in a paper bag, walk a few blocks and hand it to the homeless person who has been freezing their butt off.

Pillars of support

It’s interesting to look at this from a “pillars of support” model because we’re not trying to take down any organization. At it’s core, it’s trying to a) lower the threshold for people who want to help and b) make donations more efficient and timely.

But it’s interesting to remember: We rely on governments or non-profits to help the homeless. Individual efforts can be quite difficult, mostly because the lack of time, information and efficiency. This is falling victim to a monolithic model, where organizations and power structures determine our ability to help.

However, Nestless tries to win over the local people by saying: “Look, you can help right now, right here. The connection is immediate. The help can be immediate.”


Nestless would be an initial success of thousands of New Yorkers downloaded the app and, on rainy or snowy or cold days, there are a few hundred reports of people in need. From there, if even half of those requests can be filled by local neighbors, it would be such a lifesaver for so many homeless people having potentially the worst night of their lives.

Current Progress

I have a working app, although there are still some bugs. Also there are a few other features I want to incorporate, but I’ll have to think it through a bit more. Anyway, without further ado, here are some screenshot:

Home screen and the three secondary buttons — Weather & Stats, About and Resources.

Home screen and the successive pages to submit a report.

6 responses to “[Nestless] A mobile app to help homeless”

  1. Professor Kathleen Eagles

    How are you doing with this App? It looks amazing and I am curious of your progress.
    Many thanks,

  2. Processing Android with Ushahidi

    […] my project, Nestless, I used Processing Android to create a front-end interface to interact with Ushahidi. Now, there […]

  3. Kirstin

    Is this App live yet?- very interested in having something similar in the UK.

  4. steph

    Hey, you should try and get funding on Kickstarter or gofundme if you haven’t already. Amazing idea and wonderful project. You are awesome!

  5. steph

    (What’s the update on this now?)

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