Shifting Terrain: How We’re Defining Tech Success Now

When we launched One-E-App in 2003, the technology for transmitting information was a bit rough. In San Diego County, for example, applicant information was relayed from a little-league baseball field to our servers using transponder boxes Velcroed to buildings across the city. By going to the fields where families were already gathered, community organizations were able to quickly enroll eligible families using our new digital tool. It was the upload of data after the application that proved to the obstacle.

Today, a person in San Diego can determine their SNAP eligibility on their own while riding a bus using a quick-screener eligibility tool that relays data over a mobile phone. But verification of identity and other tasks are still challenging. The changes in technology we’ve experienced since our beginning present great opportunity, and with it, great responsibility to design tools that respect people’s dignity and privacy. 

Despite the advances in technology, the need for support and services is higher than ever. Economic inequality in the U.S. is starker today than when we started building connections 20 years ago. Today, an estimated 43% of people living in the U.S. are considered poor or low-income.[1] The economic gap between high- and low-earners in large metropolitan areas such as San Francisco, Los Angeles, Seattle, and New York City is so large and housing demand so high that even families earning seven-to-eight times the federal poverty rate still do not make enough to afford rent for an average market-rate apartment.[2]

Despite the number of people needing support to get through tough times, many people who are eligible for support programs are not enrolled. In 2016, only 51% of eligible parents and children received WIC benefits.[3] There are still important connections to be made.

Given the advances in technology along with increases in need, we asked experts in policy and technology at Social Interest Solutions to weigh in on areas of technology solutions delivery that can be improved, and what they see as the real wins and footholds in progress. 

What do you see as real pain points in the way technology is still not enabling dignified, quality access to services? 

John Gonzalez, AllumaJohn Gonzalez, Chief of Technology and Design, Strategy & Innovation:
“One of the greatest frustrations for me is that people are forced to endure hours of non-productive activity [by] completing forms and verifying historical activities (work, residency, etc.). Technology exists that can help all of us streamline the accurate sharing of data and documents, while protecting privacy and security. Many commercial organizations have figured out better and more efficient means to accomplish similar information exchange requirements (consider modern methods for applying for home loans, for instance). With determination and some ingenuity, user-centered methods and processes could be applied to delivering human services as well.

Kristan Drzewiecki, AllumaKristan Drzewiecki, Executive Director, Business Development:
“My biggest frustration is how slow the public sector has been to effectively utilize technology to improve delivery of government services and connect with people. Government services – from applying for healthcare benefits to vehicle registration – should, and can be, as easy as ordering towels on Amazon or making a playlist on Spotify. The technology exists; the money is being spent; but the goods aren’t being delivered. One reason for this is the way the public sector purchases technology, favoring ‘big bang’ implementation approaches and large vendors with long track records, over the lean, agile start-up mentality.”

Sonal AmbegaokarSonal Ambegaokar, J.D., Executive Director of Policy Innovation:
“There are lots of assumptions being made about how low-income consumers use technology: that they don’t have access to or know how to use tech, that their design needs are the same as broader consumers, or that all low-income people are the same. When we talk about human-centered design – which humans are we talking about? Take, for example, translation: just translating something doesn’t help someone understand the words if they can’t also read — so how best do you provide this population information? We cannot assume translation is all that is needed.”

Steve "Spike" SpikerSteve “Spike” Spiker, Chief Data Officer:
“Two things: one, that technology used by state and local government is not ubiquitously mobile-friendly, and second, that when tools are built for mobile, they’re just smaller versions of the same desktop-intended technologies, with no thought given to the ways people use mobile devices. Not everything needs to be an app or site – text messaging works for so many services!”

What are you celebrating? What do you think are significant wins in the sector?

John Gonzalez, Chief of Technology and Design, Strategy & Innovation:
I celebrate that technology development and delivery for socially-centered, non-profit activities is rapidly becoming a valued and respected career path for technology professionals. The pool of talent and experience that is both interested in and capable of advancing services and service delivery is much broader and diverse than 5 or 10 years ago. People of all ages are now looking to ways to ‘give back’ to society, rather than extract wealth and luxury from the world. This give me hope and seems to me to be a great reason to cheer.”

Kristan Drzewiecki, Executive Director, Business Development:
“I am most excited about the coalescence of health and human services and housing services delivery to offer a truly holistic network of supports to elevate people, families, and communities. People needing services and front-line staff have always understood their interconnectedness, but the ability to offer truly ‘one-stop shopping’ and a ‘no wrong door’ approach to integrated, multi-benefit service delivery has historically been hindered by siloed federal funding streams and lack of alignment within program eligibility criteria. I am seeing some bold, concrete action among health care payers and public sector leadership – like Kaiser’s investment in an affordable housing project in Oakland to prevent rent increases for vulnerable residents – that makes me optimistic that this type of creative investing, undaunted leadership, and tenacious problem-solving is on its way to becoming ‘the new normal.’

Sonal Ambegaokar, J.D., Executive Director of Policy Innovation:
“I think the significant win is an understanding that there is a holistic approach the public sector needs to take to improve individuals’ lives. Connecting people in a comprehensive way no matter what you call it — social determinants of health, wrap-around services, etc. The goal to break down silos is important and significant. I look forward to that being realized more and thinking about how we can help do that.”

Steve “Spike” Spiker, Chief Data Officer:
I’m excited that the capabilities like machine learning and AI offer are driving more organizations to treat their data seriously, and it is driving consideration about what new data needs to be generated. It’s a huge source of motivation for organizations. I’m also encouraged when I see agencies working out robust data-sharing agreements, because keeping valuable data in agency silos only hurts the people those organizations often co-serve.”

What do you think are the most important changes happening right now? What wins are you celebrating? Tweet at us @SISorg or send us your thoughts via email


[1] Low-income is defined, in this case, by 200% of the Federal Poverty Rate. https://kairoscenter.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/03/Poverty-Fact-sheet-March-2018.pdf

[2] https://extras.mercurynews.com/pricewepay/

[3] National- and State-Level Estimates of WIC Eligibility and WIC Program Reach in 2016 Final Report: Volume I. Nutrition Assistance Program Report Series, Food and Nutrition Service, Office of Policy Support. February 2019.