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These digital ads help Stockholm’s homeless find shelter

Digital ads can do good in the world–they can be programmed to serve the community in times of crisis.

These digital ads help Stockholm’s homeless find shelter
[Image: courtesy Clear Channel]

In Stockholm, the advertising company Clear Channel owns more than 1,000 digital kiosks serving an endless loop of ads to citizens. It’s the sort of high-tech urban installation we wish might do more than just sell us things. And beginning in November of last year, Clear Channel partnered with the city to give these signs new purpose: to offer homeless people directions to the nearest shelter on particularly cold nights.

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“It started with us asking, ‘How can we use our screens, our technology, and infrastructure to do something good?'” recounts David Klagsbrun, head of communications at Clear Channel Scandinavia, in an interview with Co.Design. By taking an inventory of its reach, Clear Channel realized it had informational screens, “in the street, in the city centers, in the subway systems–and that’s actually where this other group of people spends their whole lives. It’s where they reside,” says Klagsbrun.

[Image: courtesy Clear Channel]

In conversations with the city and local organizations, Clear Channel spotted a promising opportunity. When temperatures drop below 19°F in the city, all sorts of organizations from churches to community centers open their doors as part of an agreement to support at-risk populations on cold nights.

“From what we gathered, most homeless people in Stockholm know where there are shelters, but during these emergencies, they don’t know where the new ones will be, and the new ones fill up quickly,” says Klagsbrun. It’s exactly the sort of scenario a digital billboard, full of dynamic information, can respond to perfectly.

With the help of nonprofits, the company identified 53 billboards within inner Stockholm that were close to many homeless people. On cold nights, these billboards play two regular ad loops, with one ad slot in each replaced with a public service announcement. (These PSAs are displayed pro bono, with Clear Channel collecting no revenue for them. Klagsburn called them “forfeited revenue.”) The first loop displays the nearest open shelter. And the second loop displays information for volunteers, including items most needed for donation, from coats to toothpaste.

So how is the initiative working out? “We don’t have a reference, but having talked to people who staff the shelters and have been our partners in this, they say there’s a lot of new faces coming into the shelters they haven’t seen before,” says Klagsbrun. “And more pertinently, there are more volunteers and necessities donated than previous years.” In other words, the ads can not only serve homeless people directly; they can mobilize a city of citizens to be more responsive to their needs.

Clear Channel intends on running a more complete audit when the initiative runs its first cycle at the end of January. “What we’re going to do in February is evaluate it–has it been appreciated, has it been successful?” says Klagsbrun. “If it’s been proven to be both, there’s nothing stopping us from expanding this to other cities in northern Europe.”

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About the author

Mark Wilson is a senior writer at Fast Company who has written about design, technology, and culture for almost 15 years. His work has appeared at Gizmodo, Kotaku, PopMech, PopSci, Esquire, American Photo and Lucky Peach

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