San Francisco's low-income residents to benefit from civic-minded geek's new app 

click to enlarge Code for America hopes to develop something like Routesy, a transit app that uses Muni data - COURTESY PHOTO
  • Courtesy Photo
  • Code for America hopes to develop something like Routesy, a transit app that uses Muni data

Programmers from a group known as “the Peace Corps for geeks” will soon begin building a $360,000 app intended to help connect low-income San Franciscans to unused public assistance benefits.

The City was one of nine American municipalities to win a fellowship from Code for America Labs, a San Francisco-based nonprofit that sends programmers on computer service projects intended to “connect citizens to their governments.”

Four programmers will arrive in The City this month, and by November, they hope to deliver an app to the Human Services Agency. It manages benefits and services such as CalFresh — the debit cards onto which food stamps are loaded — for veterans, the homeless and low-income residents.

Many people who live on the streets or in supportive housing qualify for benefits they are not receiving, and the Human Services Agency wastes staff time when people re-apply for benefits that have lapsed, according to David Curto, director of contracts for the agency. The hope is that technology will succeed where outreach has failed, he said.

“We know of a lot of low-income San Franciscans who could be taking advantage of these benefits, but are not,” he said.

The programmers will be paid with $255,000 in city funds and a $105,000 grant from Code for America. It is believed that using Code for America programmers is cheaper than hiring private companies to build such an app. They’ll make $35,000 a year while living and working in San Francisco.

The four fellows assigned to San Francisco are some of 28 programmers selected from a pool of 550 applicants, according to Lauren Reid, a spokeswoman for Code for America. They’ll spend March working with city staff and decide what direction to take before building their product, she said.

One challenge to overcome will be low-income people’s barriers to technology. Computers are available for public use at the public library and at some nonprofits, and a recent federally funded program provides homeless people with cellphones. But smartphones are generally needed to use apps.

Similar Code for America fellows built an app for New Orleans that displays data about blighted properties. And in Santa Cruz, Code for America built an app to help small-business owners speed through the permitting process.

Since taking office, Mayor Ed Lee has embraced the tech community and encouraged the technology industry to take more of a role in city government. Lee has hired a chief innovation officer, who is tasked with persuading the community of software developers to apply its skills to government.

About The Author

Chris Roberts

Chris Roberts

Chris Roberts has worked as a reporter in San Francisco since 2008, with an emphasis on city governance and politics, The City’s neighborhoods, race, poverty and the drug war.
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