iHobo - finally, a charity iPhone app that makes you think

iHobo - finally, a charity iPhone app that makes you think

iHobo - finally, a charity iPhone app that makes you think17

A new iPhone app by Depaul actually makes users feel something (while getting around donation restrictions). That is revolutionary, says Jonathan Waddingham.

Despite over 100,000s apps being built for the iPhone, very few charities have entered the world of mobile applications. That could be understood in the early days of apps, but since iTunes has had over a billion app downloads, it’s clear there’s a market.

The charity apps that have been released so far are mainly been trying to be useful or informative. Good examples of these are BullyingUK’s app, (which puts their content in your pocket), WaterAid’s Toilet Finder app (that helps you find a nearby toilet) and the recently released JustGiving app (useful for individuals fundraising).

Don’t get me wrong, they’re all great, and serve the purpose they’re meant to, but none of them make you sit up and think differently about a subject. This is where the iHobo app, built by Publicis London for Depaul UK, comes in.

This app puts a homeless person in your phone for three days, and uses the technology of the iPhone to make a subtle, but immersive experience. You see, your homeless person sends you messages (using the iPhone’s push notifications) every so often during the three days, and if you respond and give him a sleeping bag, money or a sandwich, he’ll be ok. If you ignore him, he might not find a place to sleep, be offered drugs or go hungry. You can check on his overall wellbeing at any time to see his body temperature, calorie intake and how many alerts you’ve missed.

iHobo app

In a way, it’s like the Tamagotchi pets that were so popular a few years back –give them attention and they thrive, or leave them alone and they suffer. But it’s also nothing like Tamagotchi, as you grow strangely attached to your hobo as the days go on, and you respond to the calls for help and feel good as you see him get along ok thanks to your help – like it’s a real person, not a toy.

Another clever feature of the app is the donation options – as they’ve not tried to accept donations within the app, nor send people off to a website to make donations (which aren’t always optimised for mobile either, but that’s for another blog post), but include options to send a text donation. It’s a very simple way of getting around the app donation issue, but very effective. I’m surprised no one’s thought of that before. Plus, they show how much of the text donation goes to the charity, a good nod to transparency.

But back to my hobo. I ignored him last night, and when checking on him this morning, I found out that he’d been mugged. I genuinely felt bad. And this is the crux – this app makes you feel something. Yes, it might make some uncomfortable and argue that it’s belittling the plight of the homeless, but that’s what I like about it. The best charity appeals, for me, evoke an emotional response. They challenge you to think differently about a subject, and for me, that’s why the ihobo is a fantastic charity app.

Check out the video to find out more.

Ed Tait
Head of IG
14 Mar 2011

The long-term results are now available in the latest edition of Civil Society:

An astonishingly high 573k plus downloads from 350k users
An even more astonishingly low £11k raised from 4.5k donors, with just 800 email-able contacts recruited

I was one of the critics of ihobo - not critical of how cool, clever and innovative it was (it was very well put together), but critical of how de-meaning it was to the people it was created to help.

The fact that it caused a stir and created a debate is good.

The fact that it was such a poor motivator to donate is unsurprising; I should think the demographic of the users was 14-25 - the last demographic in the world you should be investing in to make income for your cause.

The fact that Publicis did it for free is no surprise - it is award-fodder and has probably helped them win (gullible) clients.

The fact that Depaul went for it is a shame; they do some great work and if only they'd put some hard work and effort into effective DM, instead of playing with fun stuff, they'd have more income to help homeless people at a time when they need it more than ever.

Tom Eeles
Fundraising Consultant
Kenes Associations Worldwide
20 May 2010

Hi all,

So quite a debate here. I'd be interested to here your views on this blog and also the iHomeless concept in the comment on the blog. Do either of these ideas work better/cause less offence?

One thing seems to be certain. There are people who care about this problem, but don't care enough to do as fundraisers is it our job to bridge that gap in more inventive ways?

Steve Bridger
Builder of Bridges
15 May 2010

I really welcome the debate that Jonathan has started. Let's be clear - this is just the beginning.

I think there is huge potential for charities to embrace immersive games / tech for awareness & fundraising. In fact, I can foresee many of the larger charities (and the web-enabled smaller ones) having someone specifically on their payroll to explore partnerships and opportunities in this area.

One app that Jonathan didn't mention is RNID's 'Hearing Check' app, which has reportedly helped over half a million people check their hearing so far. There's a donation facility (not unlike iHobo) embedded into the app. I know this is different - providing a useful service that will positively rub off on the RNID brand, but I like their approach.

I don't think iHobo has got it quite right, but there's a hint of a story there, which will be key to how people connect with these apps if they are to succeed (whatever 'succeed' means in this context).

13 May 2010

I do understand the points that are 'pro' this app but dont agree. I dont think you can just do anything innovative to raise awareness and make it OK by saying it's raising awareness. You cant really ignore the problem in London of all places I dont think... which is where iphones are particularly thriving. I think it creates a negative cognitive effect because it is reducing a disadvantaged person to a virtual game - your brain cant help but compare it to that of a lesser value before thinking about the real situation. I think that's what's dangerous about it.

Also anyone can have an iPhone, these kind of apps can get into the wrong hands with people not quite so open minded or understanding.

Conor Byrne
Conors Fundraising Blog
14 May 2010
Response to [Louisa]

Louisa, you say "You cant really ignore the problem in London of all places"... but thats just the point... people do, thousands of them every day ignore the problem

21 Apr 2012
Response to [Conor Byrne]

I never replied to you Conor, 2 years late and my feelings haven't changed about this app. Yes people ignore it, but that's no justification for this reductive amoral 'game'. Hell, why don't we just produce iRetard, iCancerpatient, iLittlestarvingblackkid if 'raising awareness' is all that matters? Are you offended? Because you should be

Lucy Cooper
Marketing and Fundraising Manager
London Cycling Campaign
10 Sep 2010
Response to [Conor Byrne]

I agree, people become immune to it and are happy to just walk straight past. I think the app is a great idea, any new innovative way of fundriasing has to be good.

Jonathan Waddingham
Digital Strategist
13 May 2010

In my 3 days of using the app, I have found some things really powerful, and some things grated. So it's by no means perfect.

But in fairness to the app, I was the one comparing it to a Tamagotchi, not them. But I didn't say it was the same:

"In a way, it's like the Tamagotchi pets that were so popular a few years back –give them attention and they thrive, or leave them alone and they suffer. But it's also nothing like Tamagotchi"

The "hobo" in your phone is a live animation of a real person, so it's in no way like an animal, it's actually quite realistic, as well, it's a video of a real person.

But I like your dodgy logic Ed - you find it easy enough to label something as "offensive" when it suits you, and only say it's a judgement call when it's someone else's opinion. So your opinion is fact, other's is just, well, an opinion. Having studied philosophy for four years, I know that morality is not objective.

As Conor says, this app is by no means perfect, and Geoff argues that it should be considered in context, whilst the users find it interesting and thought-provoking. But by all means, keep riding your high horse, and ignore all other opinions.

Conor Byrne
Conors Fundraising Blog
13 May 2010

When I saw this I, like Jonathon, thought this was a really great application. Ed, I see where you are coming from in terms of the name and the reference to Tamagotchi Pets. They may have got that very very wrong. There certainly is a fine line here and maybe standing back with our 'taste' hats on we can see that parts of this maybe aren't tasteful.

However I think overall Depaul should be applauded for creating an application that is really bringing people face to face with the problems their service users face. And its bringing that to a new audience. Yes there are parts they could change, but overall I think this is a great application

Ed Tait
Head of IG
13 May 2010

Having been in DM for 10 years I am perfectly capable of distinguishing between communicating in a way that interests a target market as opposed to oneself - I spend a lot of time at work arguing this principal with colleagues.

But Jonathan, it is you who is missing the point; just because some people find something interesting doesn't automatically legitimise the message.

Calling homeless people hobos is offensive - even if people find it interesting. Comparing homeless people to animals by using them as virtual pets is offensive - even if some people find it interesting.

If you don't find that offensive, that's fair enough - just because one person finds something offensive, doesn't mean it is offensive. It is a judgement call. Some people don't find racism, sexism and homophobia offensive - but society has rightly come to a general agreement that it is.

In fundraising we always tread a fine line between communicating our work in a way that engages people and exploiting the very people we are there to help - and we constantly have to argue within our organisations to retain this freedom so we can be effective fundraisers - but ihobo steps way over this line and makes all our jobs harder.

Reuben Turner
Creative Director, The Good Agency
The Good Agency
12 May 2010

Do I like it? Do I not like it? I get asked a lot. Immaterial. I don't really like the 'Go Compare' ads but I'm certain they make 'Go Compare' a lot of money. Will this do the same for Depaul? Admittedly there's more to offend rather than just annoy here, but let's find out if it's effective and let that inform our debate.

You might also like, or virulently dislike, this campaign:

Geoff Sloan
safer london foundation
12 May 2010

If it works in the market it's designed for, it works. It's really worth resisting the knee jerk response an idea like this can produce long enough to consider it in it's context. After all, which is more offensive/demeaning: the idea of a virtual 'pet' homeless guy or the reality of homelessness this app looks likely to help Depaul address?

Lots of young social media consuming folk aren't all that interested in the old fashioned flavours of 'decency' or 'taste' that might push the buttons of the us baby boomers; we need to find ways to hook then in to causes like this one which work for *them*. Less a case of the ends justifying the means, more the cause.

Jonathan Waddingham
Digital Strategist
12 May 2010

Ed, I agree with in principle with you that ends don't justify means but I think you're missing the point - it does matter if the target market find it interesting. Whether you (and all the commenters on other blogs) like it or not is not important - the charity isn't trying to talk to you, and if it did, it would no doubt do something differently.

I didn't come up with the idea, didn't work on it, don't know anyone from the agency or the charity, but I think what they've done is brave. The best ideas often polarise opinion, and that's what has happened here, so I make no apologies for writing about it.

Maybe you only get it if you use it.

Ed Tait
Head of IG
12 May 2010

It doesn't matter that some of the target market found it interesting (in fact, like me, many more found it abhorent) - the ends don't always justify the means.

And having a 'pet' homeless person, sorry 'hobo', on your phone is patronising and deeply offensive - it's just wrong.

Jonathan Waddingham
Digital Strategist
12 May 2010

Ed, Adam, I hear your points - I said above that I didn't think this would be for everyone, but let me copy a few of the comments from people who have *downloaded* and *used* the app to give another point of view:

"Donwloaded for a laugh and this app adds a bit of humour/fun to a serious topic.... One of the first apps i've downloaded that actually has a message behind it"

"An insightful app that highlights a worthy, important and growing cause. This will spread Depaul's message and get many involved as I had never heard of Depaul before"

"The name makes you think it's gonna be silly but bloody hell, what other free App's as deep as this?"

The feedback from people who have used this is almost entirely positive. So, you find it patronising, the target audience, well they like it.

And, er, my *clamour* for charities to invest, whilst hardly a clamour, is so they can reach people in ways they couldn't before, to get them to think of something in a way they hadn't before.

Clearly, that's the effect this app has had on the people who have used this app. Shouldn't that be applauded?

Ed Tait
Head of IG
12 May 2010

A charity comparing homeless people to Tamagotchi Pets and calling them hobos - is it April Fools Day again?

Offensive, patronising and misleading - this is one of the vilest pieces of trash I have come across.

The fact that Publicis produced this is of no surprise - like many agencies, they have duped a gullible charity into helping them pick up some awards, but I am truly gobsmacked that a charity of Depaul's stature went with it - it is an unforgiveable error of judgement.

This blogger also appears to have thrown out his sense of decency in his clamour to persuade charities to invest in social media.

Even the agency world is disgusted - check out the comments at

Adam Johnson
Head of Major Giving
12 May 2010

An application that reinforces stereotypes about homelessness, promotes short term, short sighted solutions and turns people into Tamagotchi pets is not to be praised. The only thing I FEEL is furious about this article being published.


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