The world of apps is often accused of frivolity and superficiality. There are a few services that will let you hire a private jet with only a few hours’ notice. You can enjoy on-demand butler services and beauty treatments. There’s even a delivery service that can get you condoms within the hour (with discrete delivery, whatever that means).
Thinking that this is what apps focus on, though, is in itself superficial. There is nothing wrong with making apps for people with money. And apps that focus on the frivolous do serve a valuable function in improving efficiency and developing culture. Some will do well, others won’t.
Beneath the frivolous surface is a sea of apps that do social good, redistributing wealth, helping people connect, opening up opportunities… Most aim to help individuals in developing nations survive disasters or start businesses. Apps for crowdfunding, microloans, healthcare advice or financial management for those without bank accounts aim at bringing scale to phones (smart or regular) in remote places, opening up access to services and information that emerging economies have little experience with.
Yet here comes a new segment: apps aimed at alleviating poverty in the first world. Poverty is always a complex issue, even more so in the developed world, where measuring standards are confusing and sometimes non-existent. Unicef recently published a report estimating the number of children living in poverty in rich countries to be over a staggering 76 million. The 2011 US Census found that 15% of adults and 22% of children live in poverty. Take a look at this eye-opening report by National Geographic.
While in no way implying that helping out with poverty in our comfortable back yard is more worthy than feeding an entire family far away, below-subsistence incomes in first world economies is a big problem that we can’t ignore, especially when we see so much waste around us all the time. Tackling third world poverty through technology is vital to the world economy. And being poor in the US is very different, for example, from being poor in Zimbabwe. Yet the homeless people on the corner, the kids whose parents are working four jobs just to pay for groceries, the handicapped or ill whose benefits have run out, they deserve efficient and useful help, beyond the coins that we hand over when we see them on the street and we’re in the right mood. It has often been the case is that it is simply easier to donate to people far away, with a few taps and a swipe on our screen. But more and more apps are working on changing that, with a simple concept and a good interface.
A few ingenious solutions:
Handup uses crowdfunding to fight urban poverty by connecting the homeless with those who want to help. The beneficiaries don’t even need to own a phone or have access to a computer. A network of partners such as grocery stores, clothing retailers, shelters, etc., will help them create their “project” (such as a week’s groceries, clothing to go back to school, baby supplies, medical treatment, a laptop), and will allow them to redeem donations for food or services. Handup has also launched a gift card service, actual physical cards that can be redeemed at participating retailers, that you can hand to someone you want to help. A plus: Google is matching the cards dollar for dollar.
Food re-distribution has huge potential. Restaurants and retailers throw away tons of food every day, and truckers are often left with pallets of produce that they can’t deliver. The Food Cowboy app alerts a network of food banks and charities when a restaurant, retailer, wholesaler or catered event has surplus food to donate. The charities organize pickup, sometimes for a small fee to cover costs. Feeding Forward will send a “food hero” to pick up surplus food to distribute to San Francisco’s food banks. ZeroPercent does something similar in Chicago. Hundreds of similar initiatives operate around the world with similar intentions – on an app, the distribution and tracking gets more efficient and transparent.
Benevolent is a crowdfunding platform aimed at helping low-income US-based individuals fund an item or a project, such as bus passes, a computer, a refrigerator, a business course… Youcaring helps with medical expenses. KhanAcademy gives free educational videos to anyone with access to a tablet, smartphone or PC.
Even the Collaborative Economy plays an important part. Platforms like TaskRabbit, Handy, Instacart and NeedTo allow those with virtually no assets or training to help out in exchange for cash. While not exactly on the same level of poverty alleviation as donations, they are anti-poverty apps in that anyone who wants to work, can get paid for doing something. Dog walking, photo labelling, house cleaning, grocery delivery… Notice that I haven’t mentioned Uber, the “sharing economy” star, since you apparently have to actually have a car. Or Airbnb, since you apparently have to have a room to let. For many in the sector, though, you just need hands, legs, eyes and a brain. The catch is that you do need to have a smartphone, preferably also a computer, not always accessible to those below the poverty line.
The app Even will turn your uneven (and presumably low) stream of freelance or by-the-hour earnings into a steady income. Even calculates your average pay based on the last few months’ data, and pays you that amount each month. If you make more, it saves it for you. And if you make less, it’ll make up the difference. The app’s objective is to take some of the stress out of money management, and to help those with uneven incomes establish a “regular” lifestyle and to live within their means. Does this help with poverty? It certainly can make income fluctuations a bit less terrifying. Volatility is not limited to those near or below the poverty line, but that is where it hits hardest.
Poverty is a huge subject and one that humanity needs to work on solutions for. In no way do I pretend to be able to even scratch the surface of the problem by talking about apps, and in no way do I expect to be able to do justice to the many apps out there that are tackling hard problems. I do want to point out that innovation is paying attention to helping others, and that with technology, we can reduce barriers to development, donations and decisions. It’s a slow process, unfortunately, as we struggle to develop solutions and then to achieve reach and impact, none of which are easy. We make mistakes along the way, we sometimes hit insurmountable barriers, and we sometimes need to withdraw and re-think. But we are thinking about this, and while apps for the rich will continue to flood the app stores, we are seeing more and more apps that want to change the economic balance in the world, spreading wealth, education and opportunity to new areas, full of hope and potential.