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The First Fruits of Significance Labs Show Civic Tech at its Best

BY Micah L. Sifry | Thursday, August 14 2014

Signficance Labs co-founder Hannah Wright (photo by Micah L. Sifry)

A few months ago, Significance Labs was little more than an idea with a beautifully designed home page, a home at Blue Ridge Foundation's hub in Brooklyn, and the seed funding to back up a daring pitch: Why not build technology aimed directly at addressing the needs of low-income Americans? Now, after picking six fellows from a pool of 150 applicants, the Labs is showcasing some inspiring results: five promising examples of working civic tech tools that can demonstrably help the poorest among us.

Unlike other start-up incubators, which seek to attract budding companies and then provide them with business development support aimed at helping entrepreneurs impress high-net-worth investors, Significance Labs focused on helping its fellows zero in on the needs of low-income New Yorkers. So, in addition to giving each fellow a team of designer/developer/hackers to worth with (paid well below industry standards, cofounder Hannah Wright told me), the Labs staff recruited a consumer insight group of several hundred paid volunteers, who were the test-bed for each team's idea. Thus, instead of just expecting well-intentioned coders to "Hack Against Hunger" or the like, the Significance Labs teams' work were grounded well in the actual needs of their would-be users.

The results, which I saw in a preview showcase Tuesday night, speak to strength of that approach:

JoinPropel's app EasyFoodStamps focuses on the problem of applying for food stamps. As fellow Jimmy Chen put it Tuesday, "What if there was a TurboTax for food stamps, designed for phones?" About 1.7 million New Yorkers receive supplemental nutritional assistance, with 40,000 new applications every month. But getting those benefits isn't easy--filling out all the paperwork and being interviewed by a case worker can take half a day. So the JoinPropel team set out to make the process much more user-friendly, and built a mobile tool that cuts an average of three hours out of the process (including enabling users to submit residency documents by snapping a photo with their phone).

NeatStreak focuses on helping house cleaners have better communications with their clients, building on its team's discovery that one of the biggest challenges house cleaners have in finding and keeping work is understanding what their clients want. Led by Ciara Byrne, the NeatStreak team built a fully functional mobile site that translates fluidly between Spanish and English, producing a written cleaning agreement that both parties can easily refer to. The app will also enable cleaners to connect more easily to each other, and to give their clients discounts for referring new clients to them; in effect, helping them start to function more like small businesses.

Rebank zeroes in on this astounding fact: 10% of Americans do not have a traditional banking account, and as a result they pay extra for basic banking services everyone else takes for granted like check-cashing. Over their lifetimes, these "underbanked" Americans will pay out an average of $40,000 in extra financial fees as a result. New York State law requires all state-chartered banks to provide basic banking accounts but these are much less profitable to banks and thus often well-hidden on bank site. Or, as co-founder fellow Avi Karnani put it Tuesday night, "banks move faster than the law." So his team focused on making it much easier for people to find those accounts and apply for them.

EasyDroid takes a different approach to the digital divide, focusing on the huge number of senior citizens who own smartphones (one in three) but have never downloaded an app (30%). The idea here should appeal to anyone who has ever provided tech support to an older parent or relative, by the way. Designed for Android users, EasyDroid works as a simple "launcher app" that reduces the number of confusing options and guides a user toward the most basic and useful apps they might want, for things like weather, sports, transportation and civic information. Notably, as fellow Shazad Mohamed pointed out Tuesday, the EasyDroid team learned that many seniors don't like the physical effects of having to swipe their phone over and over, and altered their design to bridge that obstacle.

Last but not least, OnTrack is an app that is focused on the problem of college completion. Fellow Margo Wright had spent years working for the Harlem Children's Zone, which has done impressive work with pre-K-12 education. Many of her students went to college--but that's where she saw difficulties arise. Nationally, nine of ten students who were the first generation in their families to attend higher education don't graduate. The problem, as she put it, is that college students need to stay organized and aware of how they are doing, grade-wise and with their assignments, well before they get their final grades and risk falling behind. Since financial aid is often tied to keeping a certain grade point average, this often starts a negative spiral towards a student dropping out or not being able to register for classes. So OnTrack aims to be a mobile planning dashboard to help students stay abreast of their GPA, as well as share assignments and deadlines with each other. Sort of like a "FitBit for education," my colleague Andrew Rasiej quipped.

These five projects are now at different stages of development, with two looking for investors, two looking to go free open-source, and one hoping to partner with government. If there was any flaw to the Significance Labs process, it was simply that it didn't quite close this last loop. But based on what the Labs showcased Tuesday night, all five of these efforts are highly likely to gain support. More importantly, they show--in case anyone doubted it--that the tech community can work on stuff that matters.