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Thursday, October 09, 2014

Apps for the Poor: They're Not What You Think

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Jill Duffy, writer and software analyst writes, "Mobile technology is being used to solve unique and sometimes unexpected problems facing low-income people."

In 2013, 14.5 percent of people the United States were beneath the poverty line, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Worldwide, the numbers are much higher, with several countries tipping over the 50 percent mark. From the point of view of a technology creator, you could think of some of these numbers as potential user bases.

Photo: PC Magazine

With mobile devices having greater reach into low-income communities all the time, the potential to serve these communities through mobile apps is there, as long as the technology developers don't bring with them any assumptions about what poor people need.

The problems of poor people aren't always what many assume they would be. Knowing their income and expenses? For many low-income folks, who count every incoming penny and know exactly when late fees are applied to their bills, budgeting is simply a non-issue. Access to organic food? Sure, some neighborhoods have better produce than others, but there are likely many more pressing issues.

Figuring out which problems to try and solve by actually talking to the people in need and listening to their problems is one of the most important steps, says Hannah Wright, co-founder of Significance Labs. Her organization led a fellowship program this summer that had five app development teams create mobile tools for poor people that solved very specific problems that they face.

What made the fellowship at Significance Lab unique is how the fellows kicked off their projects. During the first week, Wright told me when I visited her office in Brooklyn this summer, the developers were all asked "to take the problem-solver hats off and just go out and talk to a really diverse group of low-income workers who we set them up with, and try to understand their situations and experiences."

Other organizations that are creating technology solutions to help the poor (and unsurprisingly, they're mostly non-profits) often start from a non-technical background. Smile Train, for example, helps fund cleft lip and palate surgeries and related treatment for people around the world. That's their first order of business. But the organization understands that technology should play a role too. In addition to creating a virtual surgery simulator and online medical library Smile Train has created a mobile app for patients, post-surgery (explored later in this article). The group is full of what some would call subject matter experts. They know the problems and the people affected by them extremely well. 

Source: PC Magazine

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