As low-income populations get smartphones, how will apps serve their needs, too?

HealthLeads works with patients in hospitals and is now developing an app for its clients.

The idea is HealthLeads could better reach patients with social services after they leave the hospital.

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Now That Everyone’s Got A Smartphone, We Need Apps That Serve Low-Income Groups

A new breed of smartphone apps dealing with issues like health care and education access could address the needs of low-income populations.

There are 1 million apps in Apple’s app store. They fulfill all manner of needs, real and imagined. Want to scan a digital copy of your key? KeyMe has got you. Craving a Korean taco? Seamless is great. Have you ever thought about practicing your makeout skills by kissing your iPhone screen? This exists.

But what if you are a smartphone owner who needs food stamps? Or you want to access a "daily deal" that offers free museum admissions to low-income New York City families?

While there are no apps for that, increasingly there’s a demand for smartphone software that serves a broader income base in the U.S.. From 2011 to 2013, nationwide smartphone ownership nearly doubled for low-income adults, jumping from 39% to 77% ownership for low-income 18 to 29 year olds and 26% to 47% for low-income 30 to 49 year olds, according to data from the Pew Research Center. As the cost of plans and devices drop (and with some existing government subsidy programs for mobile devices), those percentages will continue to climb.

"What we’re seeing is kind of a major growth in the ownership of smartphones with Internet access within our population," says Zach Goldstein, director of systems and technology at HealthLeads, a nonprofit that works with hospitals to help doctors write and fill "prescriptions" for life-saving social services alongside their usual prescriptions for medicine. "The advent of smartphones has helped our clients overcome the digital divide," he says.

Venture capital investors and most app developers, however, don’t have much financial incentive to rush to serve this growing user base, which leaves nonprofits and social ventures to fill the gap. HealthLeads, one of two recent winners of the Blue Ridge Foundation’s "Digital Prototype Opportunity," a $150,000 award that helps existing nonprofits bring their offline work online, is now one of a number of organizations looking to develop mobile apps that offer local services to this population.

With the grant money over the next few months, HealthLeads will be building and then user testing a beta app. The way Goldstein envisions it, the app would be a bit like a Yelp for social services, enabling HealthLeads clients (and maybe a broader, low-income population) to search for resources nearby and serve their own needs more easily. The app would also allow clients to access the action plans that they developed with HealthLeads advocates during their hospital visits and provide appointment reminders and progress tracking.

The other winner of the Digital Prototype Opportunity, Cool Culture, is a nonprofit that allows more than 50,000 low-income families to visit New York City museums and cultural institutions for free, helping these places to become more inclusive, while improving kids’ literacy and learning. The app they plan to develop will allow them to move their paper-based coupons online, and like Foursquare or Groupon, more closely track usage data as well as provide marketing and "nudge" opportunities.

As more nonprofits develop apps, the question of how to design the user experience will loom large. "To me that’s very fascinating," says Parker Mitchell, entrepreneur-in-residence with the Blue Ridge Foundation. "You’ve got all of these marketing and coupon sites that are aimed at a high-income demographic. We’ll have to see what carries over from groups like Groupon and what needs to be new and unique. ... How do people respond to different kinds of nudges?" (Though the Blue Ridge Foundation only awarded two winners, Mitchell says it plans to work with the some 190 groups that applied with a broader series of open-source lessons and workshops in digital technology tools).

Goldstein says that HealthLeads will have to make decisions about how much to push to its work online and to smartphone tools, and how much to still require face-to-face or phone interaction with a counselor. "I think it still remains to be seen what really is going to be most valuable for our clients and how do we deliver something that helps them find resources they need and isn’t just a fancy app that nobody uses," he says.

Like brick-and-mortar retailers, banks, and many other traditional businesses before them, nonprofits are going to soon have to start figuring it out. "Whether nonprofits like it or not, smartphone ownership is starting to grow really rapidly. ... Nonprofits are going to be forced to figure out how to engage their clients," says Goldstein. "The innovative organizations, and I think the ones that will be around in 20 or 30 years, will be the ones that figure out how to join the offline work that they are doing with the online enablements of it."

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  • As one of the partners behind the Digital Prototype Opportunity, we at Blue Ridge Foundation New York have appreciated the response and excitement generated by this article. We also want to credit our two partner organizations for co-creating and co-executing this project. Without them, there would be no Digital Prototype Opportunity:

    ThoughtWorks ( is an incredible firm whose purpose is to revolutionize software design, creation and delivery, while advocating for positive social change. ThoughtWorks is developing the custom software for the Health Leads and Cool Culture products.

    The Parsons School of Design Strategies is an experimental educational environment that advances innovative approaches to design and business education. The school is running design thinking workshops throughout the process, helping applicants and winners conceptualize digital solutions to meet the needs of their clients and constituents.

    -- Matt, Blue Ridge Foundation NY

  • Erine Gray

    How exciting to see so many initiatives spinning up in this area. Aunt Bertha ( was started out of Austin, TX in 2010 and right now serves the entire United States (just type in your zip code). Anybody can add their favorite programs, rate them, build lists and share them with others. You can do it all anonymously and it's a completely free service. No installations necessary -> just go use it.

    The project was recognized by TED as one the 2014 Fellowships ( The team also has built and made available the first open-source human services taxonomy (

    Anyway, great to see so many people paying attention to this big need!

  • Hi Erine - Look forward to catching up with you about the great work of Aunt Bertha, its expansion, and ways to sync up efforts. As you know, we are huge fans of Aunt Berta at Blue Ridge! Matt

  • There are coding and civic hack groups all over the country that are attempting to fill this gap. Discover one in your area and find a way to assist them. Especially if you are a person who has or is in need of assistance.

  • The median salary in the US was less than $27k in 2012, so most Americans fit comfortably into the lowest income group on your graph, which makes it misleading at best. I'm guessing that if you looked at the truly low-income families you're talking about you'd realized that no, not everyone has a smartphone.

  • Manik Bhat

    Great article! At Healthify, we are building similar tools and distributing them via healthcare delivery settings. Right now, we feel that texting usage is still much higher than smartphone usage, so we have focused our efforts on interactive texts to help low-income groups connect with these services. We are seeing great engagement via texts!

    There is still lot to be done to truly connect the social services space with healthcare but readily available information around services is going to help tremendously.

    Find out more on our site: and follow us on Twitter: @HealthifyUS We also recently chatted with Health Leads at a Kaiser Permanente Panel Event. You can watch the discussion here

  • Parker Mitchell

    Good question Noel - it seems counter intuitive in some ways. But our position is not to judge - if the data indicate almost all Americans, including low income Americans, have smart phones, let's take advantage of that as we try to find and design solutions.

    I'd also add that I personally dont judge people who have smartphones - they are useful in everyone's lives, not just well off people's live. And if you're interested, a great book called Thinking Fast and Slow explores some of the complexities in our decision making.

    Having worked in this area for 15 years, I'd say that there's as much variance in low-income people's spending habits as there is among the rich - whether they are savers or spenders, whether they plan or react, whether they're generous or tight-fisted. I think these traits are universal, not specific to income - it's just that in lower income households, sometimes the impact can be more pronounced.

  • During our Code for America Fellowship last year, my teammates and I built something very similar for San Mateo County in California:

    We were one of the winners of the latest Knight News Challenge for Health and received a grant last month to continue developing the open-source platform we call Ohana API so other cities can take advantage of it:

    Find out more on our site:, and follow us on Twitter: @ohanapi.

  • Yes! Blue Ridge Foundation New York supports Code for America too (we housed the launch of CfA's NYC Brigade) and we are excited about your app and standard. Look forward to connecting these efforts. Matt Klein, Blue Ridge Foundation New York

  • Rik Warren

    Why must one log in before commenting. I understand the requirement before posting, but to lose the comment because the order is reversed is weak for a "Fast Company".

    So to the topic. The costs of apps is dwarfed by the cost of travel & office visitation. Complicated chronic conditions are remarkably expensive to manage. Multiple visits to multiple specialists require a travel secretary. The provider only has the data recorded when the patient is in the office. The better mousetrap is to remotely collect the health data & wirelessly transmit it for analysis & archive. Richer data results, patient & provider time allocations are reduced & a broader picture of the trends are generated. Our company does this for less than $10 per month. Wireless sensors are in their second and third design generation. Prices are falling & devices size is shrinking. Pending devices monitor all vitals from one body location. But until insurers accept this paradigm we are stuck.