12 November 2019

Seb Barker is Co-Founder & COO at Beam, a crowdfunding platform built to support homeless people through training and into stable, paid work: https://BEAM.org/  He will be one of the many exciting speakers at PsychTech 2019, the mental health and technology conference run by NHS psychiatrists being held at Hamilton House in Euston on 22 November. You can view information about the Programme here. It's not too late to book a place.

In preparation for the conference, we spoke to Seb to ask him about Beam and to get his thoughts on technology and health.

How does Beam work?
Beam is the world’s first way for the public to make a safe, transparent and easy investment into a local homeless person. We support people who are ready for training and work. We build a career plan with the person that looks at a job they want to get into, then we use the website to remove all the financial barriers which the person faces in getting into that career. We’ll fund training, but also any other costs like childcare, specialist equipment or travel. The money is raised through the public, people coming to the web page and donating, and we spend it in the way we’ve agreed with the person being supported. Each person also gets a support worker who’s a member of our team, who will continue to support them for 6 months after the campaign has funded, through the training and into employment.

How does a homeless person find Beam?
We take referrals from our charity partners and we also work with people who’ve gone through the local authority and are ‘statutory homeless’. We have a network of over 30 partners, a mixture of rough sleeping charities like St Mungo’s and CenterPoint, as well as local government; Hammersmith and Fulham and Southwark Councils both commission Beam.

Also, when a homeless person joins Beam they get given a number of ‘golden tickets’ which are short bits of writing which they can hand out to people they know who may also be homeless, and then we’ll find a referral route for them.

Why choose a crowdfunding model and personalised budgets to address the problem of homelessness?
I used to work for NHS England, and my role there was supporting the roll-out of national health budgets. I was very struck by the benefits of having a different conversation with people around the outcomes they want to achieve. People did really well when they had more control over the type of care and support they were receiving, for example we worked with a man in Bristol who was frequently in and out of the mental health inpatient ward, with a diagnosis of schizophrenia, and he spent quite a small amount of money on a cinema pass. He would go to the cinema and that helped him manage his symptoms, and he went for several months without one inpatient admission, and it was quite a radically different way of working. Beam borrows from that playbook, looking at where someone wants to get to, and using crowdfunding to provide those resources for that person. Every budget is completely individual to the person on Beam and it removes every financial barrier that they currently face to the workplace.

How do the people being supported by Beam feel about being visible online?
The main anxiety people generally have is whether their campaign will fund at all. We thought about that from an early point, and 80% of donations made through the platform are split between everyone, so it’s not the case that one person is funded quicker than someone else.

We’re also very careful to keep people safe, so individuals can use a pseudonym. We never have any traceable information on any of the campaign pages, they don’t mention the training centre they’re going to, and if someone is at risk of violence from someone else, we anonymise it completely to supporters, we won’t have a photo or a real name on there, but they’ll still have a space to tell their story and received messages of support, and post updates.

What about the ‘peer support’ aspects of Beam?
We want to further build peer support into the model as we grow. One of the things we’ve already done is that people joining Beam will get a personalised news feed, similar to what you might see on Twitter or Facebook, which collates the updates of the other people using Beam, so someone who’s just started electricians training would be able to see updates from others who are further through the training, and they could message and contact each other though the app, moving peer support into the digital environment. If the person doesn’t have a smartphone or laptop, we’ll get them one through crowdfunding and help them to use it, and that becomes a great way for them to stay in touch with all the people using the website.

Can a supporter reach out to the person they’re funding?
They can message that person through us, and what we’ll look to develop is an easier way of people having a back and forth without revealing the contact details of that individual. That technology already exists, you see it on AirBnB for example, where you can have a conversation with the host.

We have birthday and Christmas parties for the last 2 years, and that gives everyone the chance to come together and there are some really great conversations that happen at those events. That’s a good example of where ‘off line’ is just as important as online. They might have spoken briefly through the website, but it’s so much more powerful to meet in person.

What do you know about the people subscribing to support Beam?
Most of the donations come from within London, which isn’t surprising as it’s the only place we operate at the moment, and people like helping others who live locally. In terms of supporters, I’d break it down into two broad groups based on research we’ve done, an older group we call the ‘hearts’ who tend to be women usually above the age of 45 years who like that they can have a very direct connection with someone on the website, and they like getting updates and commenting on them. Then there’s a younger group, under 35s who’ve told us that they like the transparency and efficiency of the platform, that 90% of their donations going to the funding campaign budget we’ve listed out, and they know how the person does afterwards, and they like the innovative edge to it. We’ll need to grow into other groups as we scale.

Beam users are currently divided into two main camps, either members who need help, or supporters who want to help. Those distinctions will become more and more blurred as we grow, and if a homeless person goes into work, most choose to pay back into the website, to support new people coming through, so today’s members are tomorrow’s supporters.

What should the government be doing to better address homelessness?
There needs to be a shift in perspective. It does involve government doing more, but it also involves everyone treating this problem in a different way, we need to come together. Beam is trying to be a part of that, but it will need a much wider buy-in from government and the public, toward wider shared responsibility.

What is Beam’s relationship with the NHS?
We haven’t taken referrals from the NHS so far, we’ve been developing the model since 2017, getting things up and running, but moving into health commissioning will be one of the big focuses for the next 2-3 years. We scale up by moving to new areas, but also working with new groups of people. We can offer intensive support, both in terms or money and time, and I can see there being a cross over with people coming out of mental health services, people who have one form of support tapering away, then having that final support into becoming fully independent.

Do you feel the NHS is moving in the right direction with technology?
For procurement and commissioning, following on from the (WannaCry) virus that hit 2 years ago, the NHS needs to do contracts differently. I thought it was appalling that Microsoft tried to get all of the CCGs to pay for these patches which they didn’t want to pay for, and that was part of the reason they were exposed.

There’s also a transformation in how people feel about their personal data. Your GP records are held as such sacrosanct information that you’ll go to the hospital and they won’t be able to access them, yet your phone at this point knows more about you than your parents. There has to be a middle ground between those two extremes, with people having their data looked after, but also being able to make decisions with informed consent around that data being shared accessibly where it’s needed, rather than the default being it’s siloed in one particular service.

Are there other tech for good organisations that deserve more recognition?
There is a lot of really good stuff in the food space at the moment including Olio which allows people to share food that they would otherwise throw away. Too good to Go are doing really well, taking waste food and giving people the opportunity to buy it at a discount price, which is really excellent.

In health, you have Babylon Health who are using technology to increase people’s access to primary care, so it’s an exciting time. NHSX has been set up by Matthew Gould. He’s been very helpful to us early on in the lifecycle of Beam. He’s a real champion of trying to think about problems differently and use technology as a means to get there, but without that installing the right operating system in hospitals will suddenly make everything better. He sees technology as a way of making work easier and quicker, and of patients getting a better experience.