Poverty? There’s an App for That

I recently had an experience with my extended Indonesian family that got me thinking about apps for the poor. My daughter is adopted from a large family from another island. As I learned, early on, adopting a child (or marrying) in Indonesia means you adopt (or marry) the whole family.

The eldest daughter, after finishing her university education, now has a good job. However, she’s been missing shifts at work due to a lack of transport and if this problem continues, she will lose her job. All the men in the family compound have motorbikes, but only work short-term jobs when they need money and are reluctant to give the women rides. The women don’t own motorbikes and generally don’t know how to drive. I am reluctant to give money or a motorbike to the women, knowing the men are likely to take it from them and use it themselves or spend the money.

I started asking Indonesian friends how they support family without giving them money and came up with an answer: Go Jek, the Indonesian lower-cost ride-on-demand service, available via an app. A friend of mine uses Go Jek as a taxi for her kids, and tops up their Go Pay (the e-payment system in the app) account at Alpha Mart or by ATM, so they always have money for the fare.

I asked both mother and daughter to download the Go Jek app and told them when they needed money, to message me and I would put credit on their account. This way, they will always have a ride if they need one.

I also realized that using Go Pay and Go Jek might be a good way for family or friends to help women leave domestic violence, even if they have no money.

I started to wonder how apps can be used to fight poverty. I’ve heard stories in the media about commodity price apps that allow farmers to access market data so they know exactly how much their crop is selling for in far-off cities. This way, when middlemen come to buy their crops, the farmers aren’t exploited and can break out of poverty cycles.

Poverty figures for the USA sit at just over 12%. Yet, 80% of low income households in America own a mobile device, despite their economic status. Globally, nearly half of the world’s population is considered poor and roughly 22% of the world’s population live in extreme poverty. Despite these figures, there are still over five billion mobile devices around the world, so even in regions with persistant poverty, mobile devices and smartphones are gaining good market penetration.

“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,” wrote Jill Duffy about apps for the poor in PC Magazine.

Significance Labs is a US-based tech start-up looking for the “pain points and opportunities” in the lives of poor and low-income people in America. They hold annual fellowships designed to bring designers, hackers and entrepreneurs together. The teams spend time in low-income neighborhoods in New York City, asking questions, surveying people, finding out what their ‘pain points’ and needs are, and then taking that information away and designing apps that can solve real-life problems.

Significance Labs have created apps that make it easy to apply for food stamps (Propel), help scholarship students keep track of their grade point average (GPA) and get an early warning if their score dips below levels needed to keep their scholarship funding (OnTrack), find banking services that won’t exploit people with poor or no credit histories (ReBankMe) and remind teenage Moms, who are often poor, of crucial information and dates, such as vaccination schedules or pediatrician visits, and help them access health resources (Text4Baby).

Significance Labs have also launched Neat Streak, an app designed to help low-income independent cleaners in the US, who often struggle with English, to effectively communicate with clients regarding job details, cost, contract agreements and customer feedback – and to do all this in two languages.

Charitable groups, such as ONE, a global advocacy and campaigning organization that seeks to end extreme poverty, recommend using apps such as Charity Miles. Users can keep track of the number of miles they run, bike or walk, and then donate money for every mile they have traveled.

A popular ride-sharing app in Kenya called Little Cabs allows users to choose between a female or male driver. As women who use the app increasingly choose to ride with a female driver for safety, the number of female taxi drivers in the city of Nairobi has exploded. Women drivers point to the flexible working hours, the ability to choose passengers, guaranteed payment and higher salaries as key factors in why they have partnered with Little Cab. This new job track is helping lift many local families, especially those headed by women, out of poverty.

Last year, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) organized an African-wide hackathon to encourage young coders to address issues of poverty and food security. One of the goals of the program was to find a way to keep young Africans on the land, instead of leaving to find work in cities. In Africa, more than half of arable land is not cultivated, and many countries turn to imports to meet their food needs, risking their food security.

The winner was an app called AgriPredict, a Zambian invention that allows local farmers to identify which diseases or pests are affecting their crops, and find resources to either prevent or defend against infestations before their crops are devastated. Other apps proposed included one in Senegal that links farmers seeking to rent land with land owners, and another that helped farmers link with financial lenders.

Significance Labs has developed a number of apps that are effective in fighting poverty in the developing world. GiveWork is an app that gives refugees in the developing world the chance to complete tasks remotely and get paid. The jobs include data entry, online research, fact checking and other administrative tasks.

Health care access or information is often not available to poor people and some apps are addressing this lack. Smile Train is an app for the Mexican market that links parents who have a child born with a cleft palate birth defect to resources, such as free surgical correction, speech therapy services and counseling. A group of five teenage Kenyan girls partnered with Google’s Nairobi office to develop an app called I-Cut to address the problem of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) in their country. As many as 25% of Kenyan girls and women have been forced to undergo this dangerous and painful procedure. The app helps girls at risk connect with rescue centers and provides access to legal and medical aid for those who have already been cut.

As more and more of the world has access to smartphones, the need for apps that target the specific and unique issues of poor and low income people will only continue to increase.



Email Liz at LizinBali@gmail.com

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