Harnessing technology to expand opportunity

July 2, 2018

Dear Changemakers,
 
When tech entrepreneur Jimmy Chen was forming his company, Propel, he wondered who was building software to meet the needs of struggling families. “That’s how we started thinking about what equity in the system looks like. Who gets the innovation of technology? Who gets the real benefit of that?” he said at a recent Urban event. “And what would it look like if we were a company that took the playbook and the tools and skill sets of Silicon Valley and applied that to solving the problems that low-income Americans face on a daily basis?”
 
Chen’s solution? His company developed the Fresh EBT app to help people who receive Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits easily check their electronic benefit transfer (EBT) card balance, as well as access grocery coupons and job services. “We’re trying to make the EBT card feel like a modern financial tool,” Chen said.
 
For consumers with privilege—consumers like me—there are many developers building apps and services to make our lives easier and more efficient. Propel is one of a growing number of for-profit and nonprofit social enterprises trying to level the playing field. But we need more changemakers to leverage technologies to lift up community voices, break down racial and geographic barriers, and help families and communities trying to get ahead.
 
At the Innovation for Inclusion Summit that Urban hosted last week in partnership with the Mastercard Center for Inclusive Growth, Jimmy Chen joined executives from Code for America, Enterprise Community Partners, and crowd-sourcing public finance start-up Neighborly in describing exciting new technology efforts aimed at equity and inclusion. And leaders from DC, Chicago, and Philadelphia spoke of how government and its partners can create the right climate to support these efforts. 

I am not naïve. There is a real danger that—without intention—technology could simply harden the present and growing divides in society. But, at Urban, we have been using each era’s best version of data science and research technology to help expand opportunity for almost 50 years. We’re increasingly embracing today’s cutting-edge technologies, such as augmented intelligence, machine learning, and cloud-based high-speed processing, to develop our analyses and insights. And we are excited to apply ourselves to work that can help accelerate innovation for inclusion

Our new program by that name, under the leadership of Senior Fellow Solomon Greene and Chief Data Scientist Graham MacDonald, is helping cities understand how local changemakers can use technological innovation to understand and tackle inequalities in their own communities.

Do you know of an innovative technology solution that can help to advance inclusion? Or technologists who want to apply their talents to these problems? Please share your ideas.
 
Warmly,
Sarah


In case you missed it…

Days after the South Dakota v. Wayfair Inc. decision, the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center explored what it means for states to collect sales taxes from remote sellers. View the discussion with Senator Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND) and tax and policy experts.
 
Check out our latest Critical Value podcast, where Urban experts Margery Austin Turner and Solomon Greene examine the geography of opportunity and offer up ideas for how to support upward mobility in all communities