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Footprints in Sutton:
Using Geographical Information Systems (GIS) to optimise business strategies for Sutton Night Watch Homeless Charity


What is this Innovation Fellowship about?

Sutton Night Watch is a small high street charity with a strong reputation of services for their homeless clientele. They have built a reputation of trust and reliability with their community partners and the local council and are ready to move to the next stage of business growth to serve their clients more holistically. The needs of the homeless are dynamic and complex. Holistic service means addressing imminent issues like housing and rehabilitation, and also making them feel included, safe, and hopeful in the future. This requires an intricate understanding of the daily routines and activities of the homeless.

Research suggests that homeless mobility (movement activity) data captures unseen narratives of homeless coping strategies embedded within the ways they experience marginalisation, uncertainty, and grief. This project proposes to align SNW’s vision for growth with a need for understanding their service users’ mobility using technology.


How is this project innovative? 

This project falls within the remit of examining the social structures within communities to serve the needs of the vulnerable in our society. These service sectors are often funded to attend to a societal need, but rarely given assistance to research their practice. To date, homeless charities struggle as they can only actively to the needs of homeless service users, they are rarely provided the opportunity to anticipate these needs and design their services to be more front facing for users.

Sutton Night Watch Homeless Charity (SNW) are growing into a stable hub design in their community, which sees them as a port of call through which homeless care services can be redirected. However, at current scale, their model is reactive, relying on servicing clients on an ad hoc basis, without clarity on the complexity of prospective services the clients may need. The primary strategic need targeted by this project is that of ‘Know Your Customer’, which in the special case of this charity, cannot be reinforced using conventional marketing principles.

The secondary strategic need satisfied is allowing for more organic business plan development, by leveraging the in-depth data collected from via this project to appeal to funding bodies, partners, and community workers about the relevance and urgency of their mission. Collecting mobility and geographical data via this project will give a significantly different and novel perspective on the needs of the homeless clientele, from what is ordinarily available through the local council, other charities, or by word-of-mouth.

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Why is this project timely?

There are previous research studies done using mobility / GPS data to analyse the daily activities of the homeless populations of cities, and to determine how these can be linked to better provision of welfare services (Šimon, et al., 2019). As far as I am aware, this proposed project will be the first study to carry out an in-depth investigation on a longitudinal basis over 3 months (other published studies have lasted between 1-3 weeks). In consultation with the researchers in previous studies, they stated the struggle with data collection of this nature has been the managing of the homeless participants as it is quite challenging to find a secure location or base that the homeless could use to engage with the project and secondly, the limitations of the technology without frequent servicing and charging of devices. By partnering with Sutton Night Watch, I will be able to co-design the steps taken for safe recruitment, monitor the wellbeing of the participants involved and provide reliable check-in periods for the technological management of the data collection. There will be approximately 10-12 homeless participants in this study. It is essential that the wellbeing and safety of the homeless are safeguarded in this type of research and therefore preliminary discussions have been held with Sutton Night Watch to inquire about the general process and comfortm that would be required to conduct this type of research in preparation for this application.


Aims of this research:



1. Understanding homeless transience in the Sutton area – the data collected can be used to identify

where and how frequently SNW clients change where they sleep/rest;

2. Improving homeless visibility – the data can be used to target awareness campaigns in local areas
where the homeless frequent for food or comfort; and,

3.Creating a ‘social prescriber’ pipeline model – the data can identify key health and wellbeing services in
the areas frequented by the homeless and create partnerships to refer clients to these services, which
may be in more familiar and accessible areas for the clients.

How is this data collected?


Data will be collected using small GPS software which clients wear over a period of 3 months, in terms of only longitude and latitude points coordination points which will be timestamped. I am only interested in knowing the pathways travelled and the length of time spent in one location. In order to protect participants’ privacy this data will have a delayed upload onto the system we access, so we can only know in hindsight rather than live-tracking. No audio or video will be collected in this study. Homeless clients of SNW will be given wearable devices which will log their activity in the local council over 3 months. These devices will be configured and maintained by a 3rd party specialist wearable technology consultancy, Thrive Wearables Ltd.


Data will be secured by SNW and will be analysed by a data science or geographical information systems graduate (Research Assistant). The RA will be employed by Roehampton and work on-site at SNW where necessary. The software will be customised to only collect data within the proximity of SNW in South London.

The activity logs data will be supplemented by interviews carried out by the PI. The analysis of this data is expected to lead to deeper insights about how the homeless in the local region spend their days. This will allow SNW to explore anticipatory services and better align with the prospective needs of their clients, in addition to achieving more effective business planning and projections.


The second method of mobility data will also be combined with ‘walking interviews’ (where the researcher will interview consenting homeless participants while they are mobile on their daily routines) to enrich the analysis. Walking interviews are a relatively novel type of method, which lends more ease to the participant to lead the course of the journey in a non-interview like setting. It is an ideal method for homeless clients who might draw more sense of comfort from some public spaces and being able to explain and show the features of public spaces that offer respite and those that do not. While GPS data will be collected consecutively in 3-months, the walking interviews will take place up to three times per participant in 30-60 min sessions.

Research Assistant

Mr Zulfikar Putra, University College London


Zulfikar is a PhD student at the Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis (CASA), University College London. He is also a lecturer in the Urban and Regional Planning program at Universitas Gadjah Mada, Indonesia. He has more than seven years of experience working in academia, consulting firms, and UN agencies, which exposed him to the intersection of the theoretical and practical world of urban planning, delivering several international journals, book chapters, proceedings, and concept notes. His research interests are around grassroots urbanism, spatiotemporal analysis, survival analysis, app-based data analysis, people-centred smart cities, citizen engagement in urban management, co-creation processes, urban innovation and technologies, online platforms, sustainable development, and climate action research.

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