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Pittsburgh’s Homeless Children’s Education Fund turned to Informing Design with a problem: the Police were complaining that services for the homeless were too scattered and complicated to access quickly. When an officer came upon a street person with an issue, they needed very quick answers.

“Could there be an app for that?” the Assistant Chief asked.

Bob Firth and his team researched the problem for nearly a year, and indeed found that no one had a handle on all the services available. Something as simple as where the next free meal could be found could stump professionals in the field. Bob soon concluded that yes, there should and could be an app to deal with this maze of services.

Enter, designed and coded by Bob and his team as a mobile-optimized web site.  It’s completely free and accessible without the need for any login or app store account.  It’s for police, teachers, clergy, medical and social services professionals, parents and helpers of all kinds.  And importantly, it’s for the homeless themselves (more than 60% of homeless youth have smartphones).

The foundation of BigBurgh’s design was that street-help answers needed to be found in a snap, without having to wade through long lists. Thus, BigBurgh opens with a “For You” dial that enables the user to pre-filter results by gender, age, veteran and family status. Even if the user goes straight for the unfiltered “All Services” option, the categorical breakdown of services is simple and obvious, with results appearing in distance-from-the-user order.

And there was another innovation: the introduction of “urgent needs” buttons. The Services Dial covers everyday needs, but underneath the dial are two buttons, one for “Safe Places & Hotlines” and the other for “Email Street Help.” With the first, the user has quick access to hotlines for crises such as rape and domestic violence. And the second enables the user to email the entire body of professional street outreach workers.  The first worker to respond arranges to take them to say, a medical van or a shelter, or bring them water or warm clothes.  Fourteen hours a day, 6 days a week, users typically get a response with 10 to 15 minutes.  

Police use the “Street Help” function to alert outreach workers to situations they would be better suited to handle. For example: an officer came upon a street person with a gash in his leg who refused to be taken to a hospital for medical treatment. That officer was able to get in touch with the outreach team so that they could connect the person to a mobile med van for treatment. For the first time in Pittsburgh, the Police now have a real-time line of communication to the outreach worker community.


To develop the services content, a partnership was formed with the County’s Department of Human Services, the Bureau of Police, the United Way and its PA2-1-1 service, plus Operation Safety Net (coordinators of the City’s outreach teams). To be included in the app’s content, services had to be free, without strings attached and described in succinct, jargon-free terms that spoke directly and welcomingly to the user. Built in to the database is a field called “Access Narrative,” because locating services is often not simply a matter of finding an address. For instance, the entrance may be a particular, not-obvious door to find, or unexpectedly down a back alley. 

On August 31, 2016, the app officially was publically unveiled at a news conference with Mayor Peduto, County Executive Fitzgerald and Congressman Doyle.

Designing and coding the app took about four months. The difficult part is keeping the app’s contents up-to-date over the long term. Informing Design insisted that any budget for BigBurgh must contain provisions for establishing a proactive updating process, with senior, professional staff reaching out to services on a continuous basis.

How has it been going? Now in its 18th month of operation, usage is now around 3,000 site visits per month, far exceeding the reported usage of San Francisco’s homeless services app ( and nearly triple the usage (on a per capita basis) of the national app of Australia (