Bridging the Opportunity Divide

Where Helping the Poor Comes Before Innovating for the Privileged

September 11, 2014
by
Menu
Where Helping the Poor Comes Before Innovating for the Privileged
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
A NYC tech incubator fosters ideas for the growing low-income population using smartphones or tablets.

Silicon Valley and the ilk are often hatching ideas for the educated, middle-class, urban professional. Anything from renting an apartment in an international city to booking a car service has attracted national attention (and capital, for that matter).

But a New York City-based incubator is taking a different perspective on innovation and focusing on the rising number of low-income Americans who own a smartphone or tablet and that are looking for ideas to help the challenges of daily life. Significance Labs, a tech hub aimed at helping the 25 million Americans who earn less than $25,000, consults low-income device users to find out what type of technology they’re looking for to improve their lives.

For example, the lab found through their research that many low-income individuals prefer using an Android device, and often don’t retain a monthly data plan — opting instead to access public Wi-Fi at local cafes and restaurants like McDonald’s, according to Fast Company.

Funded by Blue Ridge Foundation, Significance Labs selected six fellows to spend three months and $50,000 and equipped with a team of designers and programmers to develop a prototype app. The catch was that unlike elsewhere in the tech sector, each team member earned the same $25 an hour as everyone.

The outcome? The bilingual app NeatStreak, which was created by 24-year-old Jessica Thomas and Ciara Byrne (a Significance Lab fellow) to help domestic workers communicate with clients. Thomas, who has been working as a self-employed housekeeper among other jobs as well as earning a degree in accounting from LaGuardia Community College, helped create a means for other domestic workers to clearly define and price out tasks.

“It’s so awkward to communicate with clients,” Thomas said. “It was nerve-wracking when you had to talk to clients about money. I was letting things go because I didn’t know how to communicate effectively in a normal, not nervous way.”

Using a simple web form and checklist, domestic workers can avoid decoding handwritten notes and avoid any language barriers with instructions.

“It makes it simple for us,” Thomas says. “I can say this is how much I’m charging you for this week, but it might be extra for this next week.”

Among the other ideas directed toward a population often left out when it comes to technology is an app to help fill out food stamp applications and one to assist students map out a path to graduation.

“The most important thing that we can do is use this project to demonstrate to entrepreneurs and tech firms and the folks that are building all the great technical innovations that are currently aimed at middle- and high-income Americans that this is a viable model,” says Significance Labs co-founder Hannah Wright.

Just as good of news? The lab is planning to add more programs and possibly expand next year.

Comments