San Mateo County ranks 47th out of 48 California counties in enrollment for SNAP, the food stamp program. And California is the worst-performing state in the country for food stamp enrollment. That was the starting point for San Mateo County's Code for America fellows when they began their work in February on how to connect people to services.
"So a lot of resources we've found, people only get them from word of mouth. It's not easy to find these resources, and what we're trying to do is expose more of these to make it easier for people to find them," said Sophia Parafina, who started and sold a company and then worked in the private sector as a consultant before joining Code for America.
Code for America is a nonprofit organization that pairs professional coders with local governments across the U.S. to address the needs of the regions' residents by building civic-oriented technologies.
Right now, three professional coders working with the San Mateo County Human Services Agency are toiling in a communal loft space in San Francisco's South of Market neighborhood. They are focused on improving San Mateo County residents' access to governmental services such as food stamps and to nongovernmental services such as church-run food pantries and food banks.
In San Mateo County, the cost of living for a family of three is $85,000 a year, $60,000 above the poverty level. There are people who need assistance but are making too much to qualify for a lot of government aid.
"And so there are a lot of people who aren't eligible for government aid but who are eligible for aid from nonprofits, but they might not be aware," said Moncef Belyamani, who worked for AOL for 14 years before becoming a fellow. "There's a lack of awareness in the county."
In order to better connect people who need assistance and the available resources, the fellows have built an open-source platform that will allow third-party developers to access a database of service and location information and then build apps upon that platform.
The county had a database of services that was maintained by the library system, but it was updated only once or twice a year and was not in a format that was easily searchable.
The fellows set out to build an open-source database that will eventually allow people to update information in real-time and to conduct location-based searches for nearby services, such as mental health clinics, food pantries or farmers markets.
"So they've given us this data, now we're opening it up, making it accessible to third-party developers," Belyamani said. "So it's available in a structured format."
What the fellows need to do next is to encourage people to start developing these third-party apps. They're looking for residents who can contribute information to the database and for people who have ideas about potential third-party applications.
"There are various ways to contribute — you don't have to be a programmer to contribute," Belyamani said. "If somebody has a database of places where you can forage for food, or community gardens, that would be great to have."
The fellows also hope that a third party might construct a text message-based system to access the information for people who do not have access to smartphones or the Internet.
"It'd be for people who can't access the website. That way, they can just text a number and press one for food, press 1 for shelter, that kind of thing," Belyamani said.