What the iPad will mean for the homeless

Apple’s iPad announcement isn’t even a week old and we won’t see the first devices until March but that hasn’t stopped a raft of analysis (professional and amateur) about how it might alter every conceivable field of human activity.

A representative but far from exhaustive sample: It’s going to refinance media even though we’ve got no hard evidence that a touch screen will suddenly make people pay for content. It will be the world’s best e-book reader assuming you live in the US and never find yourself under bright lights. It’s going to appeal to people who would never buy a PC even though it’s somewhat limited without being connected to one. It could transform teaching in the classroom despite there being no apparent way to stop everyone in the class using it to get onto Facebook instead. Never in the field of tech development has so much been expected of one device with so little factual evidence.

Given this glut of bandwagon-jumping it’s actually surprising that no-one seems to have touched on how the iPad might help the homeless. So after I saw that suggestion made facetiously on Twitter I figured it might be time to examine the question.

Of course it’s a brief analysis with only one possible conclusion: you’d have to be on crack to suggest it. There’s lots we don’t know about the iPad but what we do know is (to say the least) unpromising in this context.

According to the ABS there were 105000 homeless people in Australia at the 2006 census (a figure that’s likely to err on the low side). Of those 16% are “absolutely homeless” with nowhere to sleep at all. This group can immediately give the thumbs down to the iPad — it would be easy to steal hard to conceal and not much use after a day on the streets when its best-case 10 hours of battery life has run out.

That leaves 84% (relying on friends hostels and other temporary accommodation) who might occasionally get access to a power outlet. But what about content the apparent key to the iPad? We’ve got no idea of what sort of plans will get offered with the 3G iPad (or when it will appear locally) but it’s probably reasonable to assume that signing up for a 12-month plan is tricky when you don’t have a permanent address.

So the iPad (street edition) would need to be a Wi-Fi model but even then the only good odds of using it would be grabbing the free Wi-Fi at McDonald’s. And that’s only likely to last until one of the parents complains about how the hairy man in the corner is upsetting their children and security chuck you out.

All of which leads to the fundamental issue: the iPad in its initial incarnation is going to be a luxury accessory for people with money to burn on yet another device they might only use for a few hours a day when the iPhone or the PC isn’t convenient an object as pointless from the perspective of the poor as a Pandora bracelet or a dedicated hot-dog cooker. It’s a telling symbol of a wealthy society with cash to burn — so much cash that people can begin hyper-ventilating and planning to buy it even without knowing what it will cost in the long run. Its message is not “I’m magical”; it’s “here’s more shiny crap you can’t afford”.

I’d be the last to suggest that technology has no role to play in helping improve the lives of the disadvantaged . One of the more impressive programs I’ve seen of that type is Young People Connected a involving Mission Australia Barnardo’s and Youth Off The Streets (and sponsored by Vodafone) which provides mobile phones to young homeless people largely as a means of staying in contact with them and making sure they get regular access to support services. “They like getting messages just because it shows someone is thinking of them” Nicola Hensler from Mission Australia explained at the 2008 Connecting Up charity technology conference.

That program provides several key lessons in making technology useful among the homeless. The most relevant in this context is that giving out valuable technology is a bad idea. “We try to keep the handsets at a fairly basic value so they don’t have much of a market for swapping or stealing” Hensler explained. Come back Nokia all is forgiven.