Apps for Real Problems

Photosharing and chatting may be fun, but a few startups are seeing mobile apps as a way to serve the underserved. By Joe Blessing

Apps for Real Problems
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From its onset, the digital age has come with promises that it would reshape our world.  Several decades after the introduction of the personal computer and more than a decade after the widespread adoption of the internet, we can confidently say that it has, but not necessarily in the ways we had hoped.

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The tech industry has always been tinged with some residual aura of the California counterculture that Silicon Valley first grew out of – anti-authoritarianism, social liberalism, an emphasis on personal expression and fulfillment – but instead of those ideas being tied to specific political causes, as they were in the sixties, they instead form a nebulous ethos that can be warped to justify almost anything.

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In an excellent New Yorker article, George Packer analyzes this blind faith among many engineers that simply by devoting themselves completely to their own personal startup, however trivial it may be, they are part of TECH, a disruptive force transcending mere politics that will deliver people from inefficiencies and increase happiness on a previously unimaginable scale.

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Cracks are emerging in this social naiveté, however.  San Francisco, ground zero for all of these changes, is finding itself bifurcated into two cities, one for the largely white tech/finance elite and another for the largely non-white low-wage service industries, while the middle class has fled or been forced out.

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Tech is becoming a larger presence in pop culture as well, but no longer are they always the geeky, universally sympathetic underdogs; sometimes they’re treated with the scorn usually previously reserved for bankers and corporate raiders.  This might seem trivial, but it can sting for young people who turned down more financially lucrative offers at Wall Street firms to feel a part of something more important.

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Propel App BrooklynMeanwhile, a look in the business pages shows that, apart from some perennial stalwarts like Apple and Google, the hottest tech companies are apps that streamline minor chores but provide little social value, such as Uber or Venmo. 

Yiren Lu points out in the NY Times Magazine that an increasing priority has been placed on being perceived as cool, rather than solving concrete problems.  The insulated, youth-centered culture of Silicon Valley is producing apps that solve the problems of their own very narrow subculture instead of tackling the problems of society at large.

 But if this is the predominant narrative of the tech industry in 2014, it’s not the only one and there are still a good deal of engineers and designers who are dedicated to making products to help the social good.  I recently traveled to the offices of Significance Labs here in Brooklyn, an offshoot of the Blue Ridge Foundation and an incubator for companies whose mission is creating tech to serve the needs of lower income Americans and thus facilitate upward mobility.

 

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I spoke with Jimmy Chen, a member of the Propel team, former fellows of Significance Labs., that recently launched their first product, easyfoodstamps.com, a mobile-based website that aims to dispense with the long lines and confusing paperwork that usually accompanies applying for food stamps in New York City.

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Jimmy worked at Facebook until the beginning of this year, but “it felt a little big,” and he decided to leave to work at a smaller company where he could get back to more hands-on work.  He heard about Significance Labs through a friend and checked out the website.  “I was taken aback because I felt like it was the kind of thing I would have written myself if I was fifty percent clearer, smarter about how we think about priorities and the impacts of what we build.”

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As a graduate of Stanford, Jimmy already had one foot in the door of the tech industry, and when he applied for jobs, he chose first LinkedIn and then Facebook because he sees them as providing a social impact.  “They were creating things that were fundamentally changing the way that communication worked, or career-seeking worked, and that was really exciting to me.”  But part of the reason he left Silicon Valley was that be began to see that “the social good created by new technology is not evenly distributed throughout society.”

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The reasons why are no secret.  “People tend to build things that scratch their own itch, or solve their own problems,” Jimmy said, echoing Lu’s observation in the NY Times.  In earlier days of tech, serving the needs of wealthy young people could be defended on purely economic grounds since they were the only ones with access to the platforms.  But that’s changed dramatically in recent years; in 2013, Pew Research found that 77 percent of those aged 18-29 earning less than $30,000 a year now own smartphones, with the percentage only expected to rise.

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Another study found that 44% of lower income Americans use their mobile device as their primary method of using the internet.  Yet while all of these people now have access to things like Instagram or Tinder, there is still a huge shortage of apps meeting their more concrete, immediate needs, like providing access to childcare or public housing.  Propel aims to remedy this, first by streamlining access to preexisting services, through sites such as easyfoodstamps.com.

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One of Propel’s main challenges in their early days has been to understand the needs of lower income families and use that mindset to develop useful products. Jimmy says that they’ve needed to develop empathy for their market by “talking to people in the community, we’ve been lucky enough to be invited into people’s homes for meals, and taking walks with them,” engaging in conversations to find what people’s most pressing needs are.

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Sometimes, like with easyfoodstamps.com, the most useful products simply facilitate access to existing government services.  Part of their research involved waiting in line to apply for food stamps the old fashioned way, an experience Jimmy described as “eye opening.”  Services such as food stamps and public housing are absolutely crucial for many people, but the process of obtaining them can be labyrinthine and time consuming.

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When working long hours, you don’t have time to wait in lines and navigate a bureaucracy simply to put food on the table.  By streamlining the access, Propel can help to insure that the programs work the way the law intends them to and help the maximum number of people.

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While applying for food stamps, Jimmy observed a common sight in New York, a crowded sidewalk outside of the human services office.  Both for-profit and non-profit workers who target the lower income market congregate there as a natural meeting place, offering things as diverse as cell phone plans, health insurance, or access to further subsidies for essentials such as home heating.

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“We think that there’s potential value we could create by building a digital version of that sidewalk and reach those people on a much larger scale.” These observations are informing their brainstorming process for future products.

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Propel is still extremely young, with less than a year of experience, but they have received overwhelmingly positive feedback for easyfoodstamps.com and hope to build on that success, using tech to help people with pressing needs.  They are starting local and New York is a natural starting ground, both because of the large population and because the de Blasio administration has prioritized expanding access to services.

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Ideally, more success in New York will allow Propel to expand nationwide.  Apps for photosharing and chatting with only emojis are fun, but it’s invigorating to see the power of tech utilized to solve real social problems and hopefully more companies will choose to go beyond the obvious clientele and create products for underserved sectors of our society.

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Joe Blessing is a freelance writer, the editor of the Dossier, and a film critic.

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