In Brief: Pocket Hotline, by Chap Ambrose and Scott Magee

Pocket Hotline

While we were students at the Austin Center for Design, we noticed an overwhelmed front-desk attendant at the local homeless shelter. With a line of homeless people out the door and the phone ringing off the hook, the attendant could not help clients in a meaningful way but was left to give just enough information to move along the visitors and callers. At the same time, we realized that many people want to help the homeless, but most of them don't know how, so they may volunteer only during the holiday season. We saw an opportunity to leverage the volunteers to ease the information-distribution bottlenecks.

We developed Pocket Hotline to connect people who seek and a sympathetic shoulder. We used cheap or free mobile technology to tap into a large group of motivated volunteers. As the platform developed from an outsourced call center of volunteers, we realized the same model could apply to other nonprofit and even to for-profit endeavors whose customers need accurate, timely information.

Commercial clients pay monthly subscriptions that subsidize some of the same service for nonprofits and other social enterprises. This subsidy model worked to address one of the main challenges we faced as new social entrepreneurs: Creating value does not equate to profit. Social impact is now part of the equation where the betterment of human lives is an achievable outcome. Profit helps us run a business, but our focus and goal is on developing social currency—making the world a better and more equitable place to live.

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Participatory Design

Wicked Problems: Problems Worth Solving