My name is danah boyd and I'm a Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research and the founder/president of Data & Society. Buzzwords in my world include: privacy, context, youth culture, social media, big data. I use this blog to express random thoughts about whatever I'm thinking.

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i can haz housesitting tool pls?

Dear enterprising developers of the world, I have a request:

I travel a lot. I prefer staying in apartments to staying in hotels. But I hate imposing on friends and, frankly, crashing on couches isn’t as fun as it used to be. When I’m lucky, I randomly learn that a friend is out of town and I have the opportunity to housesit. And when I’m lucky, I randomly learn that someone I trust is in Boston when I’m not and can get them to catsit/housesit. Cuz I’m always begging for housesitters. But there has to be a better way of getting this information in our world of interconnectedness.

I want an application that lets me announce to my friends when I’m out of town and my apartment is vacant or when I need a housesitter. And I want to know when people that I know are out of town and would welcome me to housesit/catsit/plantsit. As wonderful as couchsurfing.com and airbdb are, they don’t serve my needs. I don’t want the burden of having to socialize with strangers (or, realistically, friends) when I travel for work nor do I typically want to stay at strangers’ places (or have strangers stay at my place). I want an easy way to trade apartments with people that I already know. And I want to know when people’s homes are vacant, not when I’m welcome to crash at their place.

I want to be able to create a calendar of when my place is empty and see when my friends’ places are empty. I want to be able to indicate who I trust to see my empty apartment calendar. I want to be able to pivot based on location and see when there’s a specific need (like catsitting). It’d be great to message out to friends when I have a catsitting need. I don’t want to make my calendar available to just anyone that I know so opening it up to anyone in my Facebook social graph isn’t the solution. I want it to be really easy for my friends to indicate when they’re gone so that it’s not a crazy burden to keep the calendar updated. .

Perhaps there’s a tool out there that would meet my needs that I don’t know about and, if so, please tell me. But so far, I haven’t been able to find one. And I don’t think that it would be that hard to build; a minimalist tool would be good enough. I’m not sure that such an application is actually monetizable because no money is being exchanged, but perhaps travel ads could make it profitable.

Anyhow, I throw this desire to the coding wolves in the hopes that someone might make it a reality. I would be eternally grateful.

ktxby

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29 comments to i can haz housesitting tool pls?

  • It seems like something that would exist but I haven’t looked for it. If you’d posted a couple of days ago I could have passed it on as an idea for Startup Weekend (happening at NERD where I think you work but I assume you’re not around on the weekend, I’m mentoring and judging tomorrow). There is a woman doing something a bit related, will send her your post.

    Closest thing is probably Dopplr right now… should largely fit the bill, although not specialized (e.g. no “cat” or “plant” checkboxes).

  • i’ll do design and UI for anyone who has the coding skillz… just sayin.

  • I am pretty sure that you can use facebook for that.. Just create a new group on facebook that is invite only and invite your friends to the group.. then let them all create new discussions about their open houses or their need for a place to crash..

    Its that easy. Why move everyone over to a new platform when you can just use the one you are on.. SUPER simple.. I do something similar to manage meetup groups for a clothing swap.

  • anonymous

    I think the problem is that most people don’t know that many people spread around the country – for someone like you that is the case – but you are a major exception, thus market is small

  • Dopplr has an API. Just sayin’…

  • For creative people (surely you qualify) there is creative caravan, which is similar to that which you suggest, although it does put you in touch with strangers.

  • I was just thinking about this issue. In my case it was a discussion of, who do i know in new york in a week, who’s not in town.

    It’s in some ways similar to dopplr, a problem which is only had by folks who travel a lot. But between the low cost of trans con flights, and low cost flights in europe, there might be a fair amount of this. I’m on the road for a couple of months, and we found an doctoral student doing his field work to house sit for us. It was kind of random. But it was also something where didn’t know him, but he was one degree of separation from us on facebook.

    Might be kind of easy to build on top of dopplr.

    PS, know anybody who needs their apartment ‘cared for’ the week of june 13-19th in new york?

  • A dedicated Google Calendar could do the job…

  • Yes, this could work on Dopplr but is Dopplr hasn’t evolved since it ended up in Nokia. And Dopplr’s graph is tricky because I’m happy to tell more people that I’m in their town than I am to invite them to stay at my place. This is where we can’t multi-purpose a graph as easily as one might hope. (And where we run into big challenges with Facebook and other services all colliding. And where we lack the right interface to be able to meaningfully segment.)

    The problem with the Google calendar approach or the Facebook groups approach is that it’s me-centric and that won’t create the network effects necessary for this to work. My friends need to be able to announce their housing availability to all of their friends who are going to be different than my friends. This is the group vs. network problem. For this to actually work (and for people to invest time in it), their networks need to be a part of it too. Or else they won’t bother updating. And I don’t want to make my calendar visible to friends-of-friends just like I don’t want it to be available to everyone on my Facebook friends list. This is precisely the kind of problem that requires having a social graph under it to work.

    I also do NOT want it to be publicly accessible. No robberies please.

  • Alex Weheliye

    Have you tried Sabbatical Homes: http://sabbaticalhomes.com/. It’s not quite what you’re looking for but works well for extended swaps/rentals.

  • This is a similar problem to what I was talking about with the Multibasing discussions a few years ago and seems a lot simpler at face value then in actual practice. Not to suggest it can’t be done, I fully believe it can, but it’s far too complex for a facebook group or simply using the dopplr API as suggested above. One of the initial problems is it requires a critical mass to work right from the start, it’s not something that can scale up. In my initial notes we were thinking of having 5-6 different people from different parts of the world who were all trusted and approved by the other members forming a bit of a network and assumed that all those people would constantly be traveling and thus be able to use the apartments of the other people in the networks when they were in town. A simple example of that would be two people, one in NYC one in LA who used each others places when visiting the other city. The issue requires both people to have identical yet opposite travel schedules which gets much more confusing with a larger yet still small group of people. What happens when one person decides not to travel for a month, or when all 5 people in the network end up in the same city at the same time. So you need a much larger initial group 50-100 probably just to balance out the unknowns and create enough redundancies for it to still work regardless of the changing plans of any one individual. I know this isn’t exactly what you are talking about, but I mention it just to note that this is a bigger problem that is shared by a lot of people and if someone comes up with a working solution it’s going to make a lot of people happy.

  • Something simple, like using a shared Google calendar?

  • I feel like the “hit rate” would not be high enough for this to become a viable platform in any way shape or form. I feel like a fairly “well traveled” individual but I’ve only taken 4 or 5 trips this last 12 months. Multiply the number of friends an average person has outside of their home town (50?) with the percentage of time they’re out of town (2%?) divided by the range of cities their friends live in (25?) and you have something like only 1 in 25 trips becoming a “success”.

    Those are the most optimistic figures I can come up with so it’s likely to be an order of magnitude worse.

    You are, of course, an edge case.

  • This may be a bit off-topic (or even overkill), but this feels to me like a Vendor Relationship Management (VRM) problem…

  • I would have said Dopplr, but I get the group-management issue. The main problem is starting the trend: Facebook is your most likely largest graph, and is has group-filtering so, use that to announce that you are looking for sitters & a place to stay. Include a link to a proper system — Google Calendar, or maybe Tungle, that has more interesting features.

  • +1 Shared google calendar.

  • I agree with @Lindsay that Facebook is the right venue for this. You can set up a list of friends that you want to share your information with and every time you are traveling you can invite them to an event telling them that your place is available. Any like-minded individual can do the same and it probably takes 30s to setup and send the event. As for a dedicated tool, I also agree with @Xianhang Zhang that there isn’t nearly enough liquidity in the market you are talking about to make that worthwhile.

  • Why can’t this be open to the world? If you share a vacancy with all of your friends but not your friends’ friends, but your friends can also share their vacancies with their friends but not their friends’ friends, isn’t it likely that your friends’ friends are your friends’ friends, too?

  • The hubs is teaching software engineering this fall & is always looking for projects to have the kids develop… I’ll pass this idea on to him!

  • I think one of the first commenters has it: most people don’t know so many people who also travel. The first-level graph isn’t big enough. And the second level graph might be big, but then you don’t know the people well enough. That’s why the services that offer house sitting (or similar) are members-based: you pay a fee that grants you some level of credibility to swap houses with nearly anonymous strangers. And all the other options essentially get you back to spamming your friends with a note of “anyone want to cat-sit on XYZ days?” or “Does anyone have an empty place in Cleveland during conference ___?”

  • Lisa

    I was going to suggest Dopplr too. Don’t know that the API would allow any of this, but Dopplr would need to add just: (1) a list–the subset of friends who are allowed to hear about your empty apartment. (2) a checkbox, when you set up a trip, for “AND my place at home is available.” (3) ideally, a calendar for finer-grained management of your empty apartment’s schedule.

    As for facebook groups and spamming your friends–definitely non-ideal, but it’s a reasonable interim solution. And it still works if, as people noted, one’s network turns out to be too sparse for the better methods to take off.

  • Lisa

    p.s. For that matter, I want to know which of my friends are currently in the city I’m traveling to, as well. Haven’t found a good solution to that yet, but better search tools on dopplr would be one way.

  • Sounds like something maybe you could use Neighborgoods.net for? Someone needs to do a mashup of that with Dopplr.

  • I kind of buy this. Dopplr or Facebook alone don’t really do the trick, but a service that lets you control privacy and hits their APIs (as well as those of Tripit, Foursquare, etc) to see who’s traveling and / or which friends are out of town are might do the trick.

    Startup Weekend New York is this weekend; I’ll pitch this app and if there’s enough interest, maybe it’ll get built. Any ideas for a catchy name?

  • Katie

    What about Second Porch?

  • Chris Leeder

    Echoing John Lindal, this sounds like leaving yourself open to be burglarized.

  • We worked on Sparekey at Startup Weekend NY, got some working code, but fell well short of a full app. The planning we did (captured in the tracker project linked below) is pretty solid. If anyone wants to continue on with this software, please keep us posted. Good luck!

    project management: http://www.pivotaltracker.com/projects/90125/overview
    source code: http://github.com/jonathanpberger/sparekey