Tempers Rise Over Satirical Homeless Encampment Tracking App

The minds behind an app to track and flag homeless encampments in San Francisco say that the app does not exist and was in fact intended as a commentary on tech culture.

Since its launch on Tuesday, the app has been damned on Twitter.

SnapCamp’s purported premise was “cleaning up” San Francisco’s communities by encouraging its residents to take pictures of homeless encampments and noting “problem areas” at a safe distance.

The fake app made its debut during a time when residents are reacting strongly to the growing number of homeless people in the area, many of whom have reported being displaced by the city’s efforts to accommodate tourists visiting the city for a week of Super Bowl 50 events.

Its creators defended the project. “SnapCamp is art,” wrote one of the website’s creators in an email to Mission Local, declining to identify themselves due to the “rancor” that the project has inspired. The project serves as a satire of tech culture, according to the anonymous emailer, who is a self-described owner of a small software company and “deeply embedded” in tech.

“It would be self-aggrandizing to say that we’re trying to raise awareness; everybody in the city is aware of the issue. The Superbowl pushed a lot of people south of Market, and the rain forced them to seek shelter, creating a very visible issue,” the SnapCamp creator wrote. “But, it shines a light on a central question in tech that I think often goes unexamined: We are obsessed with ‘solving problems.’ But whose problems do we solve? And what new problems are created?”

SnapCamp is non-existent in the app store, but its website promises that the app will “bring about social change one photo at a time,” by allowing users to document and share the locations of illegal encampments, vagrancy or trespassing.

Without an actual app to develop, the project took surprisingly little time. The site’s anonymous creator said that a three-person team spent some 10 hours on the project and “a couple of bucks” for the domain registration.

“A web page theme. A few photos on a nice day. Incidentally, anybody whose tent we photographed, we asked their permission and gave them $20. That was by far the largest expense,” the person wrote.

The website for the app launched yesterday and caused a stir in the Twitter-sphere as well as on Facebook. Reactions online have been, for the most part, outraged.

“Meanwhile, App Startup Land has its own Final Solution for the homeless of San Francisco. Behold, callous disregard for human life given form as an app!” wrote Facebook user Eric Hall in a post around noon, when it was still unclear whether the app was a real endeavor or satire.

“Satire has to be clear in order for it to be effective. If this is a hoax, it is reinforcing the bad behavior instead of problematizing it. If it’s real, same thing,” posted Facebook user Shannon Bolt.

One Twitter user called the project disgusting.

In response to the outrage, SnapCamp’s creators tweeted this morning:

That did little to pacify other Twitter users:

Grist called the hoax on Wednesday, pointing to dead links on the app’s website and user testimonials that seemed far fetched, exacerbating tech cliches. In one of the testimonials, alleged SnapCamp user “Jared Gustafson,” described as a digital designer, was quoted saying this about homeless encampments:

“Nobody wants to say it, but I will. It’s the smell. When I get off the bus from Mountain View, I have to hold my breath. I feel like we need to send a message.”

This morning, the photo accompanying Gustafson’s quote was that of venture capitalist Steve Jurvetson. But following the Grist article, Gustafson’s picture was changed.

The SnapCamp creator admits to having “a weird sense of humor.” Though not a resident of the Mission, the emailer said “Campos is my supe,” and that they are “gentrifying a different neighborhood.”

The motivation came more from a longing for more meaningful engagement from tech workers.

“I’m trying to build something, in my professional life, that I hope will have social impact.  I have been disappointed by few people find that to be a motivating factor,” they said.

When asked if the creators behind SnapCamp feel that the disconnect between tech’s mentality and the community’s needs can be bridged, the answer was “probably not.”

“Hackathons are easier to organize than political campaigns,” the emailer wrote, adding this message for those who denounced SnapCamp both as a real app and as a joke: “Good. You care enough to Tweet. Now take the next step.”

SnapCamp’s creator did not specify whether the website will stay live, saying only that “art is ephemeral.”

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2 Comments

  1. Dan Badger

    Interesting discussion. Is this a snitch app or a platform for Dorothea Lange style photography to encourage change?

    Most everybody knows the famous Migrant Mother by Dorothea Lange.

    https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/5/54/Lange-MigrantMother02.jpg/788px-Lange-MigrantMother02.jpg

    She’s my favorite photographer. Besides her famous work for the Farm Bureau during the Great Depression, she also photographed homeless men in the South of Market and Mission Areas of San Francisco. What’s heart wrenching, is the pictures of the homeless today – during the time that San Francisco is the most booming and expensive City in the nation, are worse then the those of the Great Depression. That’s just wrong. And hiding the homeless during the #SB50, is not the answer!!

    We noticed the City of San Francisco OpenData website removed the pictures that residents sent in about homeless concerns. Maybe for privacy reasons, or maybe for the Dorothea Lange effect. Interesting discussion.

  2. Hmmm, this has already been happening. As in, it is an official SF thing..

    Mayor Ed Lee announced reporting of homeless concerns as a new feature of the official San Francisco App
    https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/sf311/id666635420?mt=8
    back in October of last year.

    Here is his press conference / official announcement about it.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WAOf6FaTyss

    In the official app, some people report homeless concerns with hatred, others make reports that sound like real concern for a sick or vulnerable person’s health and well being.

    As an exercise at a free mapping meetup tutorial at the Barlett campus of City College, I made a web-app to display the result. To me, the pictures show suffering, and that the homelessness is a significant problem.

    https://www.arcgis.com/apps/MapTour/?appid=0c389cb938e741048426d949235ac809#map

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