Big Data to Fight Poverty, Part 3: The Big Opportunity

If you’re starting this series late, I encourage you to go back and read Part 1 and Part 2. They lay the foundation for this final post.

As if the struggle to build a path out of poverty weren’t hard enough, low-income families are facing unprecedented hostility. Recent policies and proposals, like changes to the public charge, are having a chilling effect across the safety net, scaring families in need away from vital resources and social services designed to help them overcome poverty.



As if the struggle to build a path out of poverty weren’t hard enough, low-income families are facing unprecedented hostility. Recent policies and proposals, like changes to the public charge, are having a chilling effect across the safety net, scaring families in need away from vital resources and social services designed to help them overcome poverty.

In a time when technology has made life easier for middle-class and wealthy families in monumental ways, it is actually getting harder for those struggling the most to find the help they need.

The safety net is historically a fractured and uncoordinated collection of under-resourced organizations doing the best that they can to serve the most vulnerable people in our communities. There are thousands of nonprofits and government agencies providing services and resources in the San Francisco Bay Area alone. There are of course pockets of coordination, and coalitions form and sometimes do good work. But the reality for the average person in need is daunting — how to navigate a complex system to just to meet basic needs.

While technology is leveraged in other parts of society to completely revolutionize entire sectors like grocery shopping or scooters-on-demand, vulnerable and struggling families are left with “tech scraps.”

In a world with apps like Wag, Lyft, and Doordash, the technology powering most social service nonprofits or government agencies hasn’t changed much since the ’90s. Much of the tech is not just mobile-unfriendly but downright mobile-hostile. I’d be generous in describing much of the UX as “clunky” — a side-by-side comparison with modern applications would shock many people who rarely if ever interact with social services. To be fair, the good folks who work at these organizations are often under-resourced and over-stretched with the daily work of helping people in need as it is, so optimizing technology isn’t their highest priority.


While technology is leveraged in other parts of society to completely revolutionize entire sectors like grocery shopping or scooters-on-demand, vulnerable and struggling families are left with “tech scraps.”


While some tech-for-good organizations are focused on single-service solutions, like enrolling people in CalFresh benefits, the reality is that most low-income families rely on a network of services to get buy. Of course these solutions are important, too, and help lots of people, but they’re not silver bullets that address the scale of the challenges faced by millions of families looking for help. For example, in the Bay Area, 62 percent of food insecure individuals aren’t even eligible for CalFresh, so they have to make ends meet by navigating to various other organizations just to feed their families

It’s past time to think bigger, because without real investment in scalable solutions, the safety net will remain fractured and uncoordinated, and continue to fail many millions of families trying to build a path out of poverty. Not to mention, the whims of politicians will continue to chip away at what little progress is made.

How could the social services sector put big data to work helping low-income individuals and families?

One Degree was founded to transform the safety net by leveraging the same technology that’s become omnipresent for most middle- and upper-income consumers.

A lot of us don’t think twice about calling a Lyft, or Yelping a restaurant, or ordering a new gadget on Amazon. It should be just as easy to find food or shelter or urgent help when we’re in need.

And I think data can play a central role. For-profit companies like Lyft and Amazon routinely use massive troves of personal and behavioral data to transform industries, make UX more effective, and optimize for increased profits.


A lot of us don’t think twice about calling a Lyft, or Yelping a restaurant, or ordering a new gadget on Amazon. It should be just as easy to find food or shelter or urgent help when we’re in need.


The social services sector should think big about what data can do for the families we serve (while placing much more emphasis on privacy, of course). What if we apply big data to the challenges we as a sector face? If we can ethically leverage reliable, anonymized data in near-real-time, it could be truly transformative.

Here are a few ideas from the One Degree team about how we could apply big data to fight poverty, just to get started:

  • We can react more quickly to changes in the needs of a region, or even neighborhoods. With One Degree data, we can “help smarter” by investing in what’s really needed by a community even when those needs change quickly. For example, when searches for emergency shelters start to trend upward in a particular neighborhood, government agencies can respond by redirecting resources to areas of higher need. Philanthropists could use this information to adjust investment strategies to respond to spikes or changes in need categories for their target regions and populations.
  • We can identify and mitigate resource gaps. For example, diapers are a very expensive necessity for new parents and we see significant search volume for free or reduced-price diapers on the One Degree platform. Unfortunately, there are relatively few diaper resources available to low income families in the regions we serve — and with One Degree’s supply and demand data, we know exactly where there are gaps. Armed with this information, decision-makers or funders could improve the supply of high-demand resources and services that represent significant unmet needs. It’s also possible to identify the inverse — resources or services that are over-resourced compared to demand. Or, to identify when there is need but perhaps the supply is under-marketed, meaning the resources aren’t well known and families would use them if only they knew the resources were available.
  • We can improve how we communicate the availability of resources, services, or benefits. Behavioral data gives us another opportunity to listen more deeply to low-income, marginalized, and vulnerable communities. By paying attention to the keywords individuals type as they search for help and navigate the safety net, we can check our own way of communicating what’s available. At One Degree, we want to get help-seekers to what they’re looking for as quickly as possible. Forcing “safety net” jargon on them makes that harder. We can meet our community members where they are much more effectively by listening and adjusting our service delivery approaches.

The One Degree platform makes this kind of real-world application of big data possible. By ethically gathering data, we can deeply listen to what low-income communities need and build a safety net that is more responsive and effective (and probably more efficient). As more and more organizations and people look to One Degree for social services, the richer that data becomes. We believe big data can be a force for good to help transform a sector that impacts millions of lives.


This data analysis was supported by a grant from The James Irvine Foundation and from the California Endowment.

Andrea Wood is the former Head of Development at One Degree. Previously, Andrea worked as Director of Advocacy and Fundraising at Mozilla and as Senior Director of Client Services at Change.org.

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Try out our Quick Screener, a fast and easy-to-use OxC module that allows Californians to see if they may be eligible for CalFresh and Medi-Cal assistance.