Jimmy Chen spent eight years in Silicon Valley, attending Stanford and then working for LinkedIn and Facebook. He enjoyed it, knowing he was making products that were changing the ways people found jobs and shared with their friends. But, ready to build something of his own, Chen left his job at Facebook early this year.

As he was deciding what to do next, he stumbled upon a fellowship through Significance Labs, an incubator for technology to improve the lives of low-income Americans, and was taken by their mission.

“Significance Labs made the point that the social good created by new technology is unevenly distributed among the population, and that’s because people tend to build technology that scratches their own itches,” Chen said. “The result is that a lot of new software is aimed at providing more comfort to the already comfortable, and we aren’t spending nearly enough time building technology that addresses real social problems.”

Chen became a part of the first class of fellows this year. After only 13 weeks, he created a platform that is essentially a TurboTax for food stamps. It allows New Yorkers to skip over the painstaking process of applying for food stamps, making government process much more efficient overall.

He’s now launching the platform, Easy Food Stamps, under a startup called Propel, with a mission to make the government more user-friendly.

A new kind of incubator

Significance Labs is an offshoot of the Blue Ridge Foundation, which has been operating in New York City for about 15 years. The foundation is an incubator and funding program for nonprofits focused on social mobility in the city. It incubated companies such as Blue Engine and iMentor, and it supported Code for America.

Significance Labs, which has received $500,000 in funding, takes the mission of the foundation and applies it to technology. The first seed was planted by Parker Mitchell and Hannah Wright the other two co-founders, who were social entrepreneurs for the Blue Ridge Foundation at the time. Through their careers, they noticed the feedback loop of people building technology to solve their own problems.

“We are our own first, best customer,” said Bill Cromie, co-founder of Significance Labs.

He gave an example: “If you’re a 30 year old software engineer for Google, and you decide to strike out on your own and build an app, you’re going to build an app that meets the needs of 30 year old software engineers at Google — not the needs of a working mom trying to hold down two part time jobs — even though both of you have smart phones.”

The team wanted to create technology that solves problems for the 25 million Americans who live on less than $25,000 a year, because about 80% of low-income Americans use mobile devices.

“How can we build technology to try to solve major social issues that low-income folks face in New York and throughout the entire country?” is the question Cromie and the team seek to answer.

Here are the other apps created by the other 2014 fellows, all meant for low-income New Yorkers but designed to scale nationally:

  • Neat Streak, created by Ciara Byrne, is a mobile website that allows house cleaners and clients to agree on a cleaning checklist and how the cleaning should be done. It is available in Spanish and English. The app helps them avoid misunderstandings, and keeps a record for domestic workers, who are often treated unfairly or paid below minimum wage.
  • ReBank Me, created by Avi Karnani and Stephanie Raill Jayanandhan, is an app that shares and compares banking options for New Yorkers to help improve their financial situations. The idea came about because the team learned low-income Americans will pay about $40,000 on alternative financial service fees in their lifetime because traditional banks may restrict them.
  • Easy Droid, created by Shazad Mohamed, is an app that acts as an intermediary for elderly, first-time users of Android devices. It streamlines the navigation and guides users through the experience.
  • On Track, created by Margo Wright, is an app meant for the first-generation college student. It gives students visibility into their academic record, including GPA, and financial status so they aren’t caught off guard at the end of the semester.

Building an impactful product

Working in this environment was a world of difference than what Chen experienced in Silicon Valley. He and his team spent hours in food stamp offices, waiting in line and filling out forms. They spoke with people in line, trying to better understand their relationship with the government, their frustrations, and how they troubleshoot problems with food stamp applications.

As he realized that food stamp enrollment was entirely too difficult, Chen also learned that smartphone ownership among low-income Americans is growing rapidly. According to a 2013 Pew study, 45% of low-income Americans who own phones are using smartphones as their primary way to access the internet. But most government websites and forms aren’t built with smartphones in mind, and they are difficult to access via mobile devices.

Users of Easy Food Stamps are guided through steps of the New York enrollment process: eligibility determination, personal information forms, digitally signing the form, and uploading documents by taking photos. The documents are turned into a PDF of the appropriate form and faxed to the appropriate place. Users can opt-in for text or phone call updates about the status of their application.

Immersion in low-income communities will be the key to Significance Labs’ success.

“You may think you have a great idea, but it’s not until you actually put it out into the world and see how people interact with it when you see the misconceptions you made, the opportunities you didn’t realize existed, and it’s the process of really focusing on the user experience,” he said.

The 13-week program has several parts. Immersion and ideation phases to understand and focus on the audience the fellows are trying to reach, recruitment of engineers and designers to build out the products, and implementation — including user testing and a final demo day for the community.

The Significance Labs team spent months building out a large community of low-income people in New York who have been instrumental in helping with the fellowship, and they will continue to be a part of its growth in the future.

“They’ve invited us to their homes, helped us with brainstorming. We’ve shadowed them in their day to day lives, [they’ve helped with] user testing and user validation once we have products to work with,” Cromie said. “It’s really sort of this two fold thing: the fellowship and a user group we can test against and validate with.”

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