If you’re looking for something to rekindle your faith in tech’s potential for good, after the inexplicable rise of Yo and Kim Kardashian’s mobile game, take a close look at Significance Labs.
The latest initiative by non-profit Blue Ridge Foundation, Significance Labs aims to solve problems for a group typically ignored by startups and tech companies: the 25 million families who earn less than $25,000 a year.
Over the past three months, Significance Labs has had a team of six hard at work tackling issues for low-income New Yorkers. The key to all of their solutions? The surprisingly fast rise of mobile devices, especially smartphones, among the low-income community.
After all, with most startups these days taking a “mobile first” approach to their products, it makes sense for non-profit groups like Significance Labs to follow.
Among people aged 18 to 29 earning less than $30,000 a year, 77 percent owned smartphones in 2013, according to the latest Pew figures. That’s basically double the 39 percent of people in the same demographic who owned smartphones in 2011. Smartphone ownership similarly doubled among people aged 30 to 49, reaching 47 percent. Even if you don’t have access to a mobile data plan, the abundance of free Wi-Fi in New York City can still make having a smartphone worthwhile.
“We’re operating around the idea that people who build technology typically try to solve their own problems, not problems that the rest of society faces,” said Hannah Wright, one of Significance Labs’ three co-founders, in an interview. “What if you could take the best and brightest of Silicon Valley and try to introduce them to problems in New York, using smartphones as a Swiss Army knife for low-income New Yorkers?”
Focusing on real problems
It’s easy to be skeptical of a few affluent techies swooping in and trying to solve significant social problems with their smartphones. But, Wright explained, Significance Labs also worked directly with members of the low-income community over the past three months to figure out what they really need.
Jimmy Chen, a former Facebook product manager, and his team spent time waiting in line for food stamps, where they saw first-hand how nebulous the process is for applying for food assistance. It typically involves waiting in line for hours, collecting key documents, and filling out a lengthy form on paper or a desktop computer. You can forget about applying for food stamps online.
All of that insight led to Propel, which lets you apply for food stamps right from your smartphone. You can think of it like TurboTax for a food stamp application: It’s a friendly and informative interface that sits on top of the overcomplicated government forms.
Propel gives applicants an estimate of the amount of aid they can receive, helps them prepare for the eventual phone interview, and lets them upload essential documents by taking a photo with their smartphone. Chen estimates that the Propel application process only takes around one and a half hours, compared to the four and a half hours (or more) a typical food stamp application takes. With over 400,000 people in NYC who are eligible for food stamps, but have yet to apply, Propel could end up saving them over 1 million hours of time.
Ciara Byrne, a developer, technology writer, and occasional VentureBeat contributor, led the team behind Neat Streak, a web app that allows home cleaners to easily communicate with their clients. You can mark down specific cleaning requests, a quote from your client, and send a copy of everything to your client right from the app. You can also jump between Spanish and English in the app’s interface, which could make it a useful tool for bridging the communication gap between many cleaners and their clients.
Two of the Significance Labs projects aim to make it easier for low-income Americans to deal with major institutional problems. ReBankMe, led by Avi Karnani and Stephanie Raill Jayanandhan, gives New Yorkers a way to find banking options that can suit their needs (and hopefully help them avoid ludicrous fees at check cashing outfits).
OnTrack, led by Margo Wright, offers first-generation university students a way to organize their lives and keep track of their GPA performance. Since many scholarships require certain GPA levels, it can be disastrous if a student lets their GPA slip. That’s even more important for first-generation students who often work off-campus and have to deal with family issues in addition to their school work.
Startup entrepreneur and Facebook product manager Shazad Mohamed was the driving force behind EasyDroid, a simplified Android launcher for seniors. Over a third of Americans over 65 own a smartphone, according to Pew’s stats, but around 30 percent of them have never downloaded an app. That problem is even worse for low-income seniors, and it effectively makes their smartphones dumb phones. EasyDroid highlights apps that could improve the lives of seniors, like Google Maps and easy 311 access (NYC’s civil assistance service).
This week marked the end of Significance Labs’ 2014 program, which leaves all of these projects in a position of figuring out what to do next.
Propel and OnTrack are currently pursuing monetization options through partnerships with the government and institutions (not by charging consumers); Neat Streak could potentially be monetized by charging clients; EasyDroid is planning to go open source; and ReBankMe is positioning itself as a non-profit.
Even though this was Significance Labs’ first year, I’m impressed by the quality of the projects its fellows have developed. In many ways, they’re far more interesting than the nascent companies emerging from tech incubators that I get endlessly pitched on. Its next class of fellows will definitely benefit from the groundwork laid out over the past few months.
In Significance Labs and similar organizations, like the Centre for Social Innovation (which also launched in NYC this year), we may see the future of technological progress. Startups have the spotlight right now, but as the projects from these fellows show, there’s room to do more than just create another photo sharing network.