The Patchworks community project has developed a system for helping local homeless people keep track of their medical and social welfare appointments. An RFID chip worn on a wristband provides a link to a database from which the person’s appointment dates and times are then printed out in the format of a supermarket checkout list. The idea is to improve the healthcare and welfare of people leading disordered lives.

Community Technology Project Helps Simplify Healthcare Scheduling for the Homeless


‘Connected health’ ought to mean that everyone has easy access to healthcare. In this spirit, researchers at Lancaster University in the UK have been working with the local Signposts homeless persons’ charity organisation and the Manchester Digital Lab (MadLaB), a group of ‘DIY innovators and geeks’, on a project called Patchworks.  The prototype system they have developed, the Personal Appointment Ticketing (PAT) service – is cheap and intuitive and enables homeless people to keep track of their appointments with doctors and dentists and meetings with social workers. Made with simple and cheap technology, the PAT system comprises a base-station, which uses a Raspberry PI computer linked to a printer, plus an RFID device which is worn by the homeless clients on a specially-made wristband or embedded into a plastic card.

Appointments printout like a supermarket tab

The Lancaster University academics and their citizen scientist collaborators have been working hand-in-hand with the local homeless community to develop the prototype, which works by using radio frequency identification (RFID) technology. The RFID chip is generally worn on a specially made wristband but can also be embedded into a plastic card or a badge. When a member of the Community wishes to obtain an appointments update, s/he goes to the local Signposts reception centre and swipes the chip at the base-station.  The Raspberry PI computer immediately links to an online database containing the person’s schedule information and prints out a concise list in a format similar to a supermarket till tab.

A wider initiative

Patchworks is the first individual project in the larger scale ‘Catalyst’ initiative, comprising a “series of short research ‘sprints’ designed to test the boundaries of existing communications technology and empower groups to change the world for the better,” explained project leader Professor Jon Whittle of Lancaster’s School of Computing and Communications. The Patchworks designers hope to mass-produce the PAT system at low cost, so that health centres and organisations looking after the homeless can purchase it and make it widely available to those in need of a simple way to organise their care schedules. However, the project is not only about an end product, but is designed to involve local communities in designing technology that can help improve their daily lives. Medical biologist Dr Rod Dillon, who is leading Patchworks, explained: “Unlike other projects of this kind, Patchworks depends on the imaginations, experiences, design and manufacturing skills of homeless communities themselves. We are not telling people what we can do for them, we are asking what they need and working with them to create it.”