“Spare some change?” might soon become “Scan and donate?” for the homeless in the UK. Indeed, with people carrying less cash in their wallets, the homeless have already seen their tin cans struggling to fill with coins at day’s end. To solve this issue, Greater Change – a social innovation project supported by Oxford University Innovation and Oxford Said Business School – has thought of a way to help those most in need via a QR code donation system.
The way it works is that passerby who have the desire to donate but have no cash, can simply scan the homeless person’s code and make an online payment. The beneficiary’s profile is also available in the system, so that donors can learn about the life, background and reasons of for being homeless of the beneficiary. All donations are transferred into accounts managed by case workers who ensure that the funds are partially allocated to rental payments and other basic necessities. The homeless, however, do not have full ownership of their accounts as the funds cannot be used to purchase certain products such as drugs or alcohol. At first, this might appear like a positive move to discourage addictive habits and promote better health, but an ethical question arises about who should be allowed to choose for others. In this case it might be understandable given that each homeless person is followed by a case worker, but what happens when such a system is extended to welfare or family allocations?
The risks of an all-digital social net are already appearing in this example where the lives of those in need, including the trials and tribulations leading up to homelessness, are public and for all to see. But that’s not all. In many ways the person’s freedom is also at stake as the donated funds can only be spent on things that case worker deems acceptable.
Where should the line be drawn in choosing what is good or bad for others? As honorable as Greater Change’s motivations may be, it would be interesting to see what the beneficiaries’ think, with the risk of it leading to a similar scenario as the Australian welfare card, a subject of great controversy to this day.