A new data project immediately hits you with a simple yet devastating message on its homepage: “The issue of modern homelessness is broad and complex, affecting too many of our neighbors and communities.”
But not all hope is lost. And for the site Understanding Homelessness, that’s the goal — to explore solutions to this intractable problem across the U.S. through compelling data visualizations, maps, and human-centered design.
The project, which is supported by the Massachusetts-based design firm Sasaki, aims to fight stigma surrounding people experiencing homelessness through education and transparency. By compiling various aspects of data into interactive maps, Understanding Homelessness offers an engaging and digestible look at the problem.
And it could inspire city officials, nonprofits, and even you to come up with impactful solutions.
Gretchen Keillor, an urban and campus planner with Sasaki and project lead for Understanding Homelessness, said the impetus for the project was a mix of personal and professional. She used to live in a part of Cambridge where she saw people experiencing homelessness every day — on her commute to work, while running errands, coming home from a dinner out.
“I wanted to engage with the issue beyond giving someone spare change, and remind myself — and others — that this is a human problem, deserving of compassion,” Keillor said.
Professionally, she wanted to better grasp the complexity of the issue as a planner, understanding the needs and concerns of homeless populations. So she applied for and received a grant through Sasaki’s research program, which allows designers to dive deeper into areas that, according to Keillor, “perhaps do not have immediate, direct application to our practice today, but can inform our work, perspectives, and capabilities going forward.”
For the map, Keillor and her team used data from January 2015, when volunteers around the country counted 546,580 homeless people in the U.S. One dot on the map represents five people experiencing homelessness. (More recent estimates from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development show that homelessness affects roughly 560,000.)
“It’s the ‘where do you even start?’ syndrome. I wanted to help overcome this heaviness.”
Using Continuity, Sasaki’s custom-built data viz tool, users can see information about homeless populations through the lens of a range of geographic, economic, and social factors, and in a variety of formats like a map, grid, histogram, etc. You can also select “Tell Me a Story,” which illustrates takeaways you might find surprising. For example, homelessness is actually highest in areas where the unemployment rate is less than 5 percent.
But Keillor and her team, which includes two graphic designers and two developers, didn’t necessarily set out to reveal anything groundbreaking or revolutionary. They just wanted to create an interface where they could view all of these factors juxtaposed with rates of homelessness to present a larger picture of the issue.
While the map is the cornerstone of the project, it’s by no means the only feature of the project. True to its name, Understanding Homelessness offers a sort of primer on the issue — what Keillor likens to “Homelessness 101.” The site defines homelessness in simple terms, dispels misconceptions and stereotypes, and details out systemic causes like lack of affordable housing, a suffering economy, and a lack of supportive and health services. There’s also a timeline of the evolution of homelessness in the U.S. since 1800 and a list of the three primary solutions (the housing-first approach, training and education, and essential support services).
“Data visualization brings a complex issue out of the vague, enormous, and overwhelming into the realm of personal, tangible, and grounded.”
Last but not least, Understanding Homelessness offers practical ways that people of all stripes can help.
“Another major challenge in discussing this issue is the… heavy, overwhelming nature of this complex human problem,” Keillor said. “It’s the ‘where do you even start?’ syndrome. I wanted to help overcome this heaviness by providing bite-sized examples of tangible things that individuals or cities could do to start chipping away at the enormity of the problem.”
The “Strategies” tab provides more than 80 examples from cities, organizations, and individuals around the world, with tips for public officials, designers, nonprofit workers, and, simply, concerned citizens.
“In general, the data visualization portion is pretty and shiny and rich with concrete numbers, but I think the upfront context to proactively address some of the stigmas is so important for someone to understand before they dive into the data,” Keillor said. “And once they’ve understood this context and explored the data, giving them tangible next steps and ways to help — answering that ‘what can I do?’ question — is equally important.”
For Keillor, data mapping lends a tangible factor to complex social challenges — a concreteness to otherwise abstract and unwieldy issues. She said that at Sasaki, they’ve “found again and again that seeing really is believing.” And Understanding Homelessness takes that further, aiming to provide an experience of discovery, exploration, and perspective.
“Data visualization brings a complex issue out of the vague, enormous, and overwhelming into the realm of personal, tangible, and grounded,” Keillor said. “A transformation that is helpful for any social cause.”