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Are Mobile Apps Serving the Underserved?

Are Mobile Apps Serving the Underserved?

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Homeless man on cell phone by Flickr user artie*

With over a million apps now available to smartphone users it's easy to believe that there's an app for everyone. Sadly that's not the case. The target for cell phone apps is largely a mainstream one.

Apps for Donors, Not Communities Served

Apps created specifically to address the needs of low-income and underserved communities in the United States are few and far between – despite the fact that smartphone adoption rates are higher within minority communities where social services are in greater demand and poverty tends to be more concentrated.

According to a November 2012 Pew Internet and American Life Project report, a higher percentage of African American and Latino cell phone users have downloaded at least one app in comparison to Whites. These same ethnicities are heavier users of the mobile web, send more emails and texts, and are more likely to conduct mobile banking transactions via mobile phones.

Even charities using mobile apps are more likely to develop apps for potential supporters and donors rather than for the people they serve directly.

Bridging the App Gap

The good news is that a number of organizations are hard at work tackling the "app gap." Organizations like Applications for Good and Code for America are engaging developers to build mobile tools with the needs of local communities in mind.

One Applications for Good-developed app, called MyTaxBack, allows users to easily calculate the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC). The EITC offers tax refunds for individuals or families earning $48,360 or less (in 2010). The IRS estimates that as many as 25% of people eligible for the EITC never file for it – missing out on an average credit of $1,700. Applications for Good features a catalog of currently available apps, and those in need of developer support. They target health, education, jobs, and finances.

Apps for Youth, By Youth

In addition to efforts to build community-relevant apps, a number of initiatives designed to train youth from underrepresented communities to build mobile apps have recently launched. Among these are Youth Radio's Mobile Action Lab, the Hidden Genius Project, Iridescent's Technovation program, and Black Girls Code.

Not surprisingly many of the apps developed by participants in these programs are developing apps to address needs and opportunities in their own communities. Youth in the Mobile Action Lab program, for example, developed Forage City – an app which allows people in a local communities to share surplus food.

Numerous community-specific mobile hackathons and competitions have also been rolled out in recent years. Random Hacks of Kindness, for example, regularly sponsors hackathons to rapidly develop web and mobile phone solutions in sectors like health and education.

While we have a long way to go before the "app gap" is fully addressed, thanks to efforts like those above, significant progress is being made to level the playing field.

Moving forward, the more that developers, community leaders, activists, and those most in need of services themselves can work together on relevant app projects the greater the likelihood that we'll truly have apps for all.

Paul Lamb is the principal of Man on a Mission Consulting, a management consulting firm which focuses on technology for the social good and social enterprise for nonprofits.

Image: homeless man on cell phone, artie*

Becky Wiegand is the Webinar Program Manager at
@bajeckabean on Twitter

  • This was beyond my expectation - the population I focus on do not process the ability to speak, but want to tell us something on their mind.  An app via pictures and sound on a tablet format would allow them the opportunity to speak and get the answer to a special request.  We have a young woman in our Art program that can not speak or use her hands, but paints with her feet.  I have often wondered if we were meeting her needs, but have not had anyway to communicate effectively with her.  I will continue to read and learn more about the services offered on Techsoup and its partners.  Thank you, again, for providing this vital educational tools for our non-profit.