After years of hearing the private sector in the U.S. complain about the inefficiencies of government, investors are beginning to marshall their resources to help solve the problem.
No organization exemplifies that notion of harnessing private industry tools for public good more than mRelief, a non-profit launching in the latest Y-Combinator batch of companies.
Founded by two friends who met at a coding bootcamp in Chicago, mRelief epitomizes the notion that technology can help to address the problems that are born from the bureaucratic worst tendencies of government assistance.
Last year in the U.S. there were 46 million Americans living in poverty, and $11 billion in unclaimed assistance that was left on the table, because eligible recipients did not know how to apply or have access to applications.
It’s that kind of problem that mRelief is looking to solve. And for the founders — 31-year-old Rose Afriyie and 23-year-old Genevieve Nielsen — these problems were as much personal as societal.
For Afriyie, who grew up for a time in the Gun Hill Houses in the Bronx, government assistance like the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program were a boon to families in the community — if they could access them.
“I definitely think that that empathy was there,” in the creation of mRelief, said Afriyie. “But I don’t think that’s the only thing. Knowing that the truth is a lot of families have come from humble circumstances and needed to ask for help is one thing, but it was also born out in the data.”
From New York, Afriyie’s family moved to Pennsylvania, where she went to high school and university before pursuing a career in public policy — even interning in domestic policy assistance at the White House.
She witnessed the health care reform fight firsthand from the White House trenches and said that the experience of learning about existing safety net policies and how they worked in tandem with health care reform informed the development of mRelief.
Meanwhile, Nielsen, a native of New Orleans, saw the breakdown of government support systems in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and that informed her perspective on the need for better mechanisms to enable accessibility to assistance programs for those who were previously unable to get them.
If their experiences growing up influenced their decision to launch mRelief, so did the two founders’ experience working with Chi HackNight (started by Derek Eder), according to Nielsen. Afriyie explained that the event was regular hackathon, which brought together data scientists and developers to solve problems for the Chicago community through coding.
The two would-be entrepreneurs took the time to explore different aspects of the delivery of public services in Chicago. For instance, 10,000 people were applying for rental assistance annually, but only 400 were meeting the requirements of the program.
“Someone had to manually review those applications, and so many people had to fill out those applications only to find they’d wasted their time because they were ineligible,” said Nielsen.
The two women wove the disparate threads of their exposure to coding, knowledge of public assistance and awareness of the red tape that people were dealing with in Chicago and wove it into the tapestry that would become the mRelief set of services.
“We’d heard about the civic tech meetup and from there it continued,” said Nielsen. “We were taken by a presentation on social service delivery that was with the Innovation Delivery Team with the city of Chicago. From there it was a very organic process. We built a screener on the web where you can find out if you were eligible for food stamps.”
From that simple web app the two continued to develop a product that would meet the specific needs of the community they were trying to serve.
Roughly 36% of Americans don’t have access to smart phones so the two women worked to create an SMS version of their on-boarding surveys.
“One role that technology can play is making the delivery of services less fragmented,” said Nielsen. “The conversation isn’t: ‘Do I qualify for assistance?’ It’s I need help this month what am I eligible for? And we’re trying to make as many programs as available as possible.”
At Y Combinator the refinements have continued and the two women have a new product that they’re offering to beleaguered government assistance programs around the country — mRelief Builder.
Their website launched on September 1, 2014 for users to check their eligibility for food stamps. Then in November the two women launched the SMS version of the product. The mRelief Builder tool takes the service to another level.
Now instead of having to work with government agencies or non-profits to create screening tools, the two women have come up with a service that automatically generates eligibility screens based on criteria pre-set by an organization.
Pricing for the screening generation subscription service ranges from a basic free service for a basic web screen and a text message-based screen, to a full suite of tools with multiple eligibility generating options and downloadable data about the people using the service.
For would-be applicants, beneficiaries can go to the mRelief web site and enter their zipcode and see a list of available programs in their area. They can click on the program they want to screen for, and then fill out a questionnaire to see if they qualify.
There are three categories for applicants, accepted, rejected, and “maybe”, Nielsen explains. Complex situations around citizenship and other issues will result in a maybe response from the tracking tool.
On a mobile device, a user would text “hello” to a number reserved for mRelief. The user would then be messaged a number of programs to choose from, and they select the one they’re interested in.
The non-profit has an all-women development team, according to Afriyie. “For us, it was about leveraging technology for maximum social impact. We wanted people who were committed to building things for scale and who stand for something in each state in the U.S.”
Since they’ve joined Y Combinator the mRelief service has been posting impressive numbers. The service has seen 90% growth week-on-week, with 2,000 eligibility screening checklists completed in the last week alone, according to data provided by mRelief’s founders.
One of the main problems the two women were looking to solve was that people who are eligible — or potentially eligible — weren’t applying for the program. And according to the company’s data, two-thirds of those who pre-screened and were deemed eligible did apply for assistance (one-third actually received it).
Beyond the work that they’ve done with different non-profits, the two co-founders have also managed to push the USDA to publish eligibility requirements for food stamps in 42 states in a machine readable format on data.gov.
“People don’t live single-issue lives. It’s a combination that’s needed to help them move their lives forward,” said Afriyie.
The mRelief service actually currently supports43 programs in Chicago and another 2 in Anchorage.
The non-profit (and for now it is still a non-profit) is backed by grants from the Knight Foundation and the recent grant from Y Combinator.
“The capability of a text messaging platform to crawl into rural communities and low income communities and make accessible at someone’s fingertips the ability to pay rent, to eat food, to keep the electricity on and to make a reliable form of transportation accessible to everyone is amazing. We’re doing that,” said Afiryie.
Though its mission is unique, the path that Afriyie and Nielsen are following is one that an increasing number of entrepreneurs are also beginning to travel.
From being an object of derision among the private sector, there’s a growing awareness, thanks in part to the work of President Obama’s Presidential Innovation Fellows (and other public-private partnerships fostered by the administration) that government and tech aren’t such strange bedfellows. And that the tech community can build viable businesses (or great services) to make government work better.
“We look at this as the operating system for the system,” said Ron Bouganim, the founder of the Govtech Fund, a venture capital fund focused on technologies like mRelief.
Bouganim and others like him, are helping the entrepreneurs like Nielsen and Afriyie turn their passion into viable projects that make a difference. In the case of mRelief they’ve already made a difference in thousands of lives, from Chicago to Alaska. And California is on the way.