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.”

About the author

Jessica Leber is a staff editor and writer for Fast Company's Co.Exist. Previously, she was a business reporter for MIT’s Technology Review and an environmental reporter at ClimateWire.