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The digital divide is located somewhere outside of Topeka.

New York's Propel is building apps for people in need

In May 2014, Jimmy Chen left his position as product manager at Facebook in search of something smaller and more meaningful. That’s when he stumbled upon Significance Labs, a Brooklyn-based incubator offering three-month fellowships for those interested in using technology to help underserved Americans.

Chen applied and was eventually selected for a fellowship, during which he and his team built Propel, which has a mission of making the government more user-friendly for low-income Americans. We recently talked with Chen about Significance Labs, Propel, and his company’s first product, Easy Food Stamps.

Wakefield: What was it that led you to leave the comforts of Facebook for Significance Labs?

Chen: The thing attracted me most was the argument that the social good created by technology is not evenly distributed throughout the population… A lot of technologies these days go to comfort the already comfortable.

W: It’s just money chasing more money, right?

C: It’s not necessarily a conscious thing, but people tend to build technology that scratches their own itches and meets their own problems. You have a lot of technology out there that meets the needs of young urban technologists, but that’s not actually the profile of the people who overwhelmingly use technology.

W: 15 years ago, we talked about a digital divide, separating people who were online from those who weren’t. Now that the vast majority of Americans are digital, it’s almost like you’re talking about a second digital divide.

C: Definitely. There is a large and growing population of folks in the United States who have access to technology but don’t have the right software on their phones and computers. There just aren’t as many apps to help low-income Americans navigate life.

W: Did you join the program with the idea for Propel and Easy Food Stamps?

C: No, it directly came out of this experience. We saw that people spend a lot of time navigating programs run by the government. Which isn’t too surprising for anyone who’s tried getting a new driver’s license… But for me, standing in line at the DMV is annoying. For a single mom not able to fix her EBT card, it means she can’t put food on the table.

W: Once you realized this is a severely underserviced community, how did you start creating the tech itself?

C: We looked a couple pieces of software that we thought were similar… one of them was TurboTax. We think TurboTax is great – it sits on top of this complicated tax code and simply reframes the complexity into user-understandable questions, presents them one at a time, reduces the amount of jargon and legalese, and in the end spits out a completed tax form. We thought that was a great model.

W: Why did you choose to tackle food stamps first?

C: In talking to the communities, the program came up time and again. It is so essential for so many people that we thought the process of navigating it should be simpler.

W: So how did you develop this software?

C: My team and I spent time applying for food stamps ourselves. And understanding what the application process itself was like, trying to understand why the system responded in certain ways when we inputted certain documents, for example – that was essential to get a better map in our heads of the process and how we might help someone navigate them.

W: Now that the Significance Labs fellowship is over, where do you go from here? You had a successfully funded Kickstarter campaign in August.

C: The Kickstarter campaign is going to seed our finances and allow us to keep working on this full-time. My cofounders and I are looking to raise additional money right now so we can more clearly execute the mission of making the government more user-friendly for everyone. So we are raising money from angel investors right now, and we are also looking to investment funds and foundations.

You can learn more about Propel here.

Now go forth (and do something good).

This interview has been condensed and edited.

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