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What I Learned from Building an App for Low-Income Americans (fastcolabs.com)
269 points by prostoalex on Nov 25, 2014 | hide | past | web | favorite | 91 comments

>The best thing about my time at Significance Labs was meeting incredible people like Jason and Angel. The most fun I had last summer was sitting in a room chatting to housecleaners.

This ending shows how hard it is to escape the "feeling/looking good rather than doing good" trap. This motivation about meeting and relating to people and realities outside of your usual social network are legitimate, but dangerous. If you don't evolve pass through this phase, you will end up getting used to this alien world, and it will become routine. And you will see the problematic and boring issues about chatting with housecleaners and also the flaws of Jason and Angel.

This, in itself, is enlightning. You stop considering yourself disconnected from your users or the people you are trying to help. The time has come when you might actually create some impact. But you must find your motivating above this fugacious desire to be contrarian among your peers. If your motivation ends when you feel you already have enough stories to share with your friends and that the "i am good people" stamp is already attached to your personality in your own and other's view; then you quit. And make no impact. Muhammad Yunus took decades to create impact.

I don't want to doubt the author's motivation, or predict that she won't cause any impact. Just that defining meeting interesting people (who are just boring people you don't know enough, like the rest of us) as the best thing on a "what i learned" post is definitely a red flag.

I feel like they are at least aware of the problem:

    Do you want to do good, or do you want to feel good?
    It’s much easier to feel good by giving away meals to 
    starving kids in Sudan, but you are not going to solve 
    any systemic problem in the world by doing that. This is 
    business, and business is messy and you have to make hard

I think a great deal of people are only concerned with doing something that feels good not something that can have a lasting change or impact (because that is usually not immediate). This is why I have a problem with all the Toys for Tots and Angel Tree Programs, they serve no other purpose other than appeasing people who give because they are sad that there are kids out there not getting Christmas presents. Well ok, let's give them gifts. Well we made them happy, however their family is still struggling to make ends meet. Why not nix the whole program and invest in programs that help those families so that they can improve their lives. I do have to agree, doing good requires making unpopular decisions (unpopular to those who want to just feel good).

I won't say you're wrong, but this an awfully cynical top comment.

That sure wasn't my intention. The thing is that there is an illusion about starting an organization with the goal of creating a positive social impact (non-profit or for-profit). It is a similar illusion as those that exist when creating a startup.

What I tried here is just to give some shock of reality, let people be aware of the traps that are these illusions. As there are lots of advice that people should read when starting a startup, I tried to create one that people should read when starting a social impact project. Actually, I think it is the exactly same advice: doing it for the right reasons is as important for the final outcome as doing the right things. My intention was to give my opinion about a particular reason that is common, legitimate as a first step, but for sure is not the right reason to start a project aiming at relevant social impact.

EDIT: to balance my comments with a positive review, these quotes are absolutely genius:

>"It also became clear that inequality isn’t purely about income. It’s about information and status and opportunity."

>"Living on a low income translates into other forms of scarcity: of power, information, respect, opportunity, time, health, security, and even of sleep. Our job was to build a piece of technology which could increase our users’ stock of at least one of those resources."

It is a great insight - brilliantly transformed in knowledge by Amartya Sen if you want to learn more about it. One can tell that she (and likely the people at this Significane Labs) knows what she is doing. She is doing all the right things - maybe that is why I just nitpicked the point about doing it for the right reasons.

I don't see a problem with that. Note that the comment is both correct and polite. It just replaces some warm and fuzzy emotions with sober reasoning.

The truth is sometimes bitter.

> The truth is sometimes bitter.

And HN is often bitter. And cynical.

And there's an awful lot of truths here. That's why I'm here.

I encounter these "civic engagement" apps every week. Honestly, unless the author plans to actually work hard on this, I find these kinds of apps more damaging than helpful.

No one benefits from a half-baked half-implemented app, which these kinds almost always are. If they are fully-implemented in maintained, then it's a different story, apps can change lives, but it's hard long work to change a life. But if the app is abandoned or half-done, then really the client will end up viewing the developer more or less like the other scam artists they have to fend off.

In my opinion, the approach itself is pretty flawed. You as a talented person come help those less fortunate than you for 12 weeks, it seems like a win-win, but really I think most sides just end up frustrated. Off the top of my head, a better solution might be to actually try and build your own cleaning business with that community and then see what tools you need. Software is software, cleaning is cleaning, you can't be a domain expert in one and then just know what will work in the other, I think you need deep expertise in both.

Disagree with the premise that apps can change lives, at least in the way I think you mean. Apps are conveniences, that's all. An app is not going going get a person out of poverty, unless the person is the developer and can sell the app to people who have the disposable income to pay for conveniences.

We're a bit cynical here because we tend to make frivolous stuff and market it as life-changing, but conveniences can actually add up for people in need. The problem with poverty, as the article notes, is that it's only partially about money - along with a scarcity of money comes a scarcity of time, a scarcity of information, and a scarcity of opportunity. If you can give someone below the poverty line more time or information, it may not change their life, but it can allow space for things that do.

Look at the impact of mobile phones in rural Africa where they have been transformative. The ability of farmers to know things like the price their produce will fetch at market that day without having to go to the market first should not be underestimated.

There is plenty of scope for apps that genuinely add value and can help life people out of poverty, they aren't the ones that Silicon Valley is working on.

Thanks for sharing. In the upcoming years a billion people will come online that have less than $20000, $5000 or $2000 per year. They will have less education and less foreign language proficiency than the current internet users. At the same time the internet will provide the opportunity for them to make more informed decisions and become more productive. The sets of problems might differ vastly from the rich people's problems that are solved by the current internet ecosystem. I would love to hear some more perspectives on this matter.

> and less foreign language proficiency

Really curious about how you came to that conclusion. You don't exactly see a lot of multilingualism in most developed countries, where people are also most likely to consume content in their own language, or don't have too much economic pressure to learn other languages. Stable borders and a working education system where people learn a foreign language for a few years without using it much later might not necessarily lead to a high language proficieny.

Edit: a word

People generally learn English as a second language early in school in non-anglophone developed countries, and put it to use right away. That's the #1 language for web content, games, movies/youtube, music etc. Also lets you access jobs and education ouside your own country.

My interpretation was that these new Web users are likely to come from ethnic groups whose native languages are not much used online and whose educations might not have prepared them very well for content in the foreign languages (foreign to them) that are commonly used online.

I'm not sure why you would say that. Here in Europe most people, even the working class, have some understanding of multiple languages.

Here in the german speaking part of switzerland most people, even the grocery store clerk, speak english as well as german. And when you get into the middle class many speak three or more languages (english, german, french, etc).

The u.s. is uniquely mono-lingual.

"I'm not sure why you would say that. Here in Europe most people, even the working class, have some understanding of multiple languages."

Sorry, but this is just not true for "Europe" in general.

If you go to Italy, France, Spain (large countries with their own languages where basically all media is transalted/dubbed) you will will find out that also many people with higher education rarely go beyond very basic English (and, btw, I'm Italian, live in Spain and deal with French customers).

This is probably different in Germany, Austria, Switzterland, Nordic countries... the fact is that "Europe" is still made up of many different countries, it's very hard to speak in general.

I would put Germany in the "largely monolingual" block (they also dub their movies, perhaps uncoincidentally). In my experience they have nowhere near the level of multilingualism as Switzerland or the Nordic countries. You can go to any random Danish town and speak English, and it's a requirement for many jobs that you be fluent in both Danish and English, with extra points for speaking a third language (e.g. everyone in the civil service, hospitals, etc. is multilingual). But in most of Germany people are functionally monolingual, at least when it comes to conversations. They may have studied French or English in school, but they cannot carry on a conversation in those languages. The main exception is educated professionals in major cities. And even among those it's spotty: many doctors in hospitals cannot effectively communicate with patients in any language but German, and the civil service almost never can. Younger people are more likely to be at least bilingual, though; a 30-year-old doctor is more likely to speak English than a 50-year-old one.

People whose mother tongue is a romance language usually speak at least another romance language one fluently. Foreign language != English.

Not in my experience, it's actually more likely that they will speak some measure of English (which tends to be by far the most common foreign language taught in school), rather than another latin-derived language.

The fact that it's easier to learn another romance language for some people, it doesn't mean that they have any motivation to do so, while the benefits of learning English are obvious.

They don't in Spain. They might be able to read it (just about), and given a week or two on holiday they might be able to understand a fair bit... but fluently? No.

There was a recent article (I forget if it was in Spanish or Portuguese) that said the Spanish have higher fluency than Portuguese when it comes to English. Living in Portugal, having traveled in Spain, and having Spanish friends, we all had a lil' laugh at that. Of all the Portuguese people I've met living here, only two weren't fluent in English (one was an old man, the other was conversational).

Only two non-fluent? Really? I think you were either extremely lucky or have a rather low bar for "fluency". I'm Portuguese, and a software developer, and yet I know barely anyone I'd consider fluent (myself included) - especially when it comes to the 50+ demography, since at the time it was common to have French classes instead of English.

That said, we do have a better accent than the Spanish, probably thanks to watching TV shows and films subtitled instead of dubbed. Watching TV in Spain is painful :|

I'd like to think my bar is pretty normal, but I admit my friends and acquantances are late 20s/early 30s, live in Lisbon, and have pretty frequent interactions with foreigners.

For example, though, I'd consider you fluent, based on your comment.

have pretty frequent interactions with foreigners

Yeah, but that's not exactly common for the average citizen. At least, they don't interact with tourists or students, who are more likely to speak English, but with immigrants, who are _usually_ even less fluent.

For example, though, I'd consider you fluent, based on your comment.

Well, in writing, sure. But then I open my mouth :)

Right, especially because all TV and movies are dubbed to spanish, so there's hardly ever any contact with the english language.

Sure they do. Lots of Spanish people speak their regional language (Catalan, Basque, Gallego, etc) besides the national language.

> The u.s. is uniquely mono-lingual.

I think that you're thinking of the UK - very few people there are bilingual.

In the Southern states there are a lot of bilingual people.

Neither are comparable to say Belgium, The Netherlands or Switzerland, where > 80% of the populations are bilingual.

> I think that you're thinking of the UK - very few people there are bilingual.

Where "not many" means 40% of the population, and ignores the fact that languages must be taught to school children under the national curriculum. EDIT {Obviously not all of those children will become fluent in those languages; they're not counted in the stats I quote. the point is that foreign language learning is compulsory for English state school children and not for American state school children}



The EU average is 58% of the population speak more than one language.

The US? Only 20% speak another language. 291,524,091 people, of whom 230,947,071 speak only English and only 60,577,020 speak another language.


We (Brits) all get taught another language in school. I'd say very few get fluent or even attempt to use it when abroad.

I think this quote by PG Wodehouse sums it up:

“Into the face of the young man who sat on the terrace of the Hotel Magnifique at Cannes there had crept a look of furtive shame, the shifty hangdog look which announces that an Englishman is about to speak French.”

Curriculum standards vary widely across the US, but it's very common to require some foreign language learning. Only a few states (mostly midwestern) have no requirement, but even there it's basically required for college application.

It is true, however, that it very rarely sticks. The reason is twofold:

1) It's poorly taught: usually only two years is required, and usually in high school (which is too late for really learning a language well) and usually via text books.

2) There's almost no need and little opportunity for most people in the US to use a foreign language. Even if a non-English language is successfully taught, it'll atrophy quickly. Unless you're a member of an ethnic sub-community, the only body of non-English speakers less than several thousands of dollars and an ocean away is Spanish--which is why you find most bilingual people in the south and southwest. But even in Texas it's quite easy to get along without a lick of Spanish.

Even if the government insisted you become fluent in some language in school, and they did it well and thoroughly, the eventual numbers of bilingualism would be about the same due to the linguistic landscape. You don't walk around with umbrellas in the desert.

I grew up here and was taught German and French (at least at an incredibly basic level) at school but I would by no means class myself as bilingual! I struggle even going on holiday to France! Of my colleagues, hardly any remember any French or German from school, despite it being taught. I think there is a large gulf between being taught it at school and classing as bilingual.

You're right, but that point was that not all US schools require foreign language learning.

People who can't speak another language aren't counted in the stats I quote.

Ah, I am surprised to learn that some US schools do not teach another language. What a pity.

Who knows what "some US schools" do, but every school I have ever been involved with for 30 years does. You're required to take a foreign language in high school. Most people pick Spanish. I unwisely took 4 years of German, which I have never used, outside of watching WWII movies. Not the best use of my time, in retrospect, but oh well.

Don't believe every bad thing people tell you about US schools.

Perhaps you could post a link to the regulations requiring all school student to have foreign language teaching? I posted the English national curriculum above.

I'm unable to find any such requirement for US schools. "Many" does not mean "all".

But as well as the lack of a requirement for US schools to teach a foreign language we see that US children do worse than Asian or EU children.


> Foreign language programs are often one of the first items to be scrutinized and cut when elementary, middle, and high schools in the U.S. face poor performance evaluations or budget crunches.

> Caccavale: Although parents may not be able to get a foreign language program instituted at their child's school in the immediate future, they can help to do so in the long run.

Edit: http://www.psmag.com/navigation/books-and-culture/u-s-studen...

> The center’s most recent report shows a decrease in the last decade in school language programs, which Rhodes says can be attributed to “budget cuts, and foreign languages are among the first things that get cut.

> America has never placed a premium on teaching foreign languages. Less than one-third of American elementary schools offer foreign language courses, and less than half of all middle and high school students are enrolled in such classes, the majority studying Spanish.


> When elementary and secondary schools and colleges around the country open for the fall semester, millions of students will not be studying a foreign language. Not necessarily for lack of interest. They won’t be able to.

> at public K-12 schools, course enrollment in 2007-2008 reached 8.9 million individuals, about 18.5 percent of all students;

Most damning:

>. - The percentage of public and private elementary schools offering foreign language instruction decreased from 31 to 25 percent from 1997 to 2008. Instruction in public elementary schools dropped from 24 percent to 15 percent, with rural districts hit the hardest.

>. - The percentage of all middle schools offering foreign language instruction decreased from 75 to 58 percent.

>. - The percentage of high schools offering some foreign language courses remained about the same, at 91 percent.

I'm officially part of that 40% for French, but I don't speak a word of it.

I do speak fluent Dutch, but I learnt that in The Netherlands. Not in the UK.

There's millions of people that speak languages other than English in the UK [0]. Apart from Welsh, there's Polish, Punjabi, French, etc.

21% of people in the UK are functionally illiterate. Which is pretty good compared to the USA at 48.7%. [1]

Even in the USA, there's lots of people that speak Spanish and English.

[0] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Languages_of_the_United_Kingdo... [1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Functional_illiteracy

Yes, of course there are, in any country which has some measure of immigration, people which will speak their original language, in addition to the language of the country they moved in.

Just as well, the people of some region of the same country with a different language than the national one, will likely speak both (Wales, Catalunya...)

But in this case I would say that multilinguism is a side effect for those groups, not something that is part of the country itself.

I think the Welsh (or Scots, or Northern Irish) would disagree that their language is not part of their country...

For "country", I meant the United Kingdom, at least in this context.

Although I agree that the term is open to interpretation:


The u.s. is uniquely mono-lingual

Uniquely? Get outside the tourist/business zones of China, SE Asia, England, France, Brazil and many other countries and regions and you won't find many grocery store clerks who can speak a language other than their mother tongue.

Certainly, Swiss (and the citizens of certain other countries) have very good language skills, but that's often tied to educational systems, colonial legacies, and large populations of people living nearby who speak other languages.

> , but that's often tied to educational systems, colonial legacies, and large populations of people living nearby who speak other languages.

"but", what? Of course there are reasons for them being multi-lingual; it's not simply that they are culturally or genetically predisposed to learning languages for the sake of it. That doesn't undermine the point that they are multi-lingual.

I tend to think that the most important sign of whether somebody knows another language is more likely to be how long you would have to travel to get somewhere with a different native language. I don't know about the US being /uniquely/ mono-lingual, but depending on exactly where you live, you may have to drive for days or take a relatively long and expensive flight to get to the nearest country with a different language - Mexico. And so you naturally find that relatively few Americans speak other languages, and Spanish is the most common.

It might be more accurate to say that Europe is unique in being highly poly-lingual, which I think is mostly due to so many countries with different languages in close proximity, all with easy border crossings and good transportation infrastructure. Many Europeans could probably get somewhere that speaks a different language in hours, by car, train, or plane. I don't think that it makes them particularly special, though.

Oh well, being officially quadrilingual, Switzerland is rather an exception in Europe.

Agreed. He should make a visit about 500 km up North to Germany and in an average sized German town try to stay for a while speaking only English. It's close to impossible. Same for France or Spain.

> Same for France or Spain.

Spain is another country with several languages; Spanish, Galician, Basque, Catalan. Those who speak the minority languages would presumably need to also speak Spanish if they want to be able to live and function beyond their own regions with a dense number of minority speakers. Catalan in addition to Spanish might be useful if you live in Barcelona, and probably even more so if you plan on staying in Catalonia outside of Barcelona.

The Spanish aren't good at English (in my experience), but it is another example of a non-monolingual country, like Switzerland.

Well, to be honest, in the context of the Internet (the original topic of conversation, now slightly forgotten), "foreign language" = English. If you want to unlock 80% of the content on Internet, Spanish + Catalan won't take you very far.

> Well, to be honest,

Oh give it a rest! You were replying and agreeing with someone who said that Switzerland, with four official languages (none of which are English) is a special case. Clearly the discussion in this sub-thread was about knowing multiple languages in general, not just knowing your mother tongue and English in addition to that.

And his reply was to someone who was talking about countries in Europe in which they speak multiple languages (yes, not just "mother tongue + English").


How exactly did we come from "The sets of problems might differ vastly from the rich people's problems" basically talking about 3rd world without calling them 3rd world, to Switzerland of all places? Not exactly the poorest of 3rd world nations.

When I took high school spanish, the spanish teacher was more along the lines of multiculturalism than grammar and vocabulary. I still learned how to ask for a beer, but we spent a substantial amount of time on cultural issues, so we would actually have something to talk about. Anyway I remember that Ecuador, for example, has a way higher mono-lingual percentage than the USA, and generally speaking the USA is more multi-lingual than the entire continent of south america (if you demand a local enough small geographic anecdote, then you can find cultural border zones where 100% of the population speak Spanish and Portuguese, but that doesn't really mean anything on a large scale, like "USA" size scale)

As for other 3rd world locales, I do know that people from India generally can't talk to each other unless they're from the same general area or happen to share a language (like English). This is often portrayed as a strength, although I have no idea why. I think its a classic macro/micro confusion where multiple languages is always a strength on a micro/individual scale and always a disaster on a macro country sized scale.

What I'm getting at is imagine how much better Swiss bankers could do their work if they only had to waste time learning one language, although any individual banker with an unusual language skill has an automatic benefit over any individual who doesn't know an unusual language.

I like to say that a native speaker of English that has actually bothered to learn a significant fraction of vocabulary is at least sesquilingual.

English has filched so many words from so many other languages, and has such a large corpus of written literature, that any anglophone wanting to learn more language than he already knows could simply learn more English.

As a result, people who speak English as their first language are probably less likely to pick up another unless they have a specific need or interest in doing so. Plenty of Americans learn Spanish as their second language simply because America has a large Hispanic population.

I had the choice between French or Spanish in high school language classes. Outside of school, my Jewish friends learned some modern Hebrew in Saturday school, I learned some German from a German-American heritage society. And for some reason, my family says the Polish-origin word dupa instead of "ass".

This is why the US is not "monolingual". We simply have so many immigrant languages that the one most open to adopting foreign words (and beating them mercilessly with a rolled-up newspaper) is the one that everybody speaks. It is difficult to learn, because it has been frequently remodeled by both exploration and conquest, becoming like Frankenstein's chimera. Or perhaps it is like Wendigo, swallowing up other languages, only to become larger and hungrier.

It's almost amusing to see the Academie Francaise try to hold off the onslaught unleashed by the Internet by coining new words like courriel and logiciel. Meanwhile, the OED just throws twerk and selfie right into the seething breeding pit that is English vocabulary.

As someone who is currently living in the german part of Switzerland(Zurich) I concur. I am also amazed by how most swiss people speak at least two languages and often three(german, english and french/italian).

The u.s. is uniquely mono-lingual.

What nonsense. Have you ever been outside Europe?

Here in NYC where I live, multilingualism is extremely common.

"The u.s. is uniquely mono-lingual."

Where do you get your "facts"?

> In the upcoming years a billion people will come online that have less than $20000, $5000 or $2000 per year. They will have less education and less foreign language proficiency than the current internet users.

To me this is obvious and all the confusion in the sibling threads is a bit surprising.

The large numbers of people making less than $5,000 per year are not in the continental US. They are in India, China and other developing countries. In China, for example, the poorer people coming online now are vastly more likely not to have a working grasp of English or any other foreign language than the much wealthier group of Chinese internet users of the the 90s or even a decade ago.

How did so many commenters get hung up on the relatively low rates bilingualism of native English speakers? They are not the billion poor people coming online. Even if they were, their language skills would not be a barrier to internet usage as there is a very large and vibrant English-language internet which includes this site!

Less foreign language proficiency? Only if all of those people come from the continental United States.

> In fact, a higher proportion of low-income Americans rely on their smartphone for Internet access than the population as a whole. A 2013 Pew research survey showed that 45% of users living in households with an annual income of less than $30,000 mostly use their phone to go online, compared with 27% of those living in households with an annual income of $75,000 or more.

If the situation is similar in the rest of the world, could this then be the driving force behind the trend of ever increasing screen size (phablets)?

I mean, if a smartphone was my only means of accessing the internet you can bet I would want it to have a big screen.

27% is still a lot, and those would be the ones who could afford phablets.

I would guess that a lot of the people in the demographic we're speaking about make do with previous generation smartphones or the lower end ones you get with a contract, so smaller screen sizes are probably more common, as are older Android versions.

So one better uses features that the 2.3 Android browser understands.

I'm more surprised that feature phones don't play a larger role, but I guess this would be different outside of the US, in developing markets.

>those would be the ones who could afford phablets

Poor people are usually not that good at managing their money. That's the reason why phone companies subsidizes the phones, not because they are nice, but because they know they can take advantage of the situation. A low earning person will rarely shell out a lump sum of $600 to buy a phone. Instead, if you offer her the option to buy it in 24 easy $30 payments she'll go for it.

Some poor people are insolvent, most poor people have liquidity constraints. So my intuition is that the target of expensive phones are poor and rich people alike.

Probably, in the long term, until the larger screens trickle down into the cheaper phones. In the short term, the more astute poor people are buying the $30 4" Android phones and just buying minutes when they can, leaching wi-fi otherwise (at least, this is what my 21 year old daughter does). The current cheap phones have relatively small screens, but at least they are bigger than the faux blackberry type Android phones of 2 or 3 years ago.

> If the situation is similar in the rest of the world, could this then be the driving force behind the trend of ever increasing screen size (phablets)?

I don't think it's a trend that needs explaining - it just makes sense. I'm baffled by how long it took us to get to the 6" form factor.

Now I imagine a brainstorming session at Apple a couple of years ago;

Jobs: Ok, we are going clockwise, start.

Engineer1: We should use a 5" screen in the new iPhone 5, Samsung will go 5", and it even has a 5 in the name.

Jobs: Why the hell should we do that, just because Samsung is doing it?

Engineer1: To improve user experience for using the internet and watching media content?

Jobs: I don't see where you are coming from, why wouldn't they just use their iPad or MacBook for that?

Jobs: Next!

Engineer1: But, but ... some of them don't ...

Jobs: I said next.

Engineer1: Ah, nevermind.

Cost? As touch screen manufacturing prices came down, the screens have gradually gotten bigger. Larger screens have lower yields due to "defects per square inch" until later generations perfect (and cheapen) the process.

Only now are we starting to get to the "barely fit into pocket" size, which marks the end game for phones.

I saw a pretty ridiculous "tablet" at MalWart the other day, though. 20-something inches (and thick). Ow, my arms!

My sample is small but here in Kenya where most people access the internet through their phones, very few complain about "big" phones.

I have never looked at it from the income perspective though.

I was really hoping for some concrete app-development lessons learned. For example, was it important to target old/low-end versions of phones? The article both says SMS is a lowest-common-denominator, but also that smartphones are more prevalent than one might assume; what was the outcome from those considerations? I noticed the food stamps app presents one question at a time, with a "Next" button after each one. Was that approach discovered after user testing, or was there just an assumption that that would be more successful for the user base than showing all the prompts on one screen?

Also, I am excited the IT industry has evolved to where these point-solution apps are both easy to build and plentiful. This is the "long tail" in action.

There is a lot of backend infrastructure that enables what I call "UX apps", where 90%+ of the effort is on frontend design and functional requirements, and very little consideration needs to be paid to infrastructure issues like OSes, networking, high availability, etc. The enablers here are things like PaaS, powerful mobile and browser clients, and reliable and prevalent communications (cellular / WiFi).

It's really nice to read that this sort of thing is being done. I believe technology can be a great enabler to create new low and semi skilled jobs, or improve current jobs. House cleaning and related duties I always felt has great potential when combined with technology. You could have a person come in and take and capture your requirements regarding cleaning, packing, organising parts of the house, including handling the laundry with a laundry service, or you could capture this information yourself with an app. Then you can have casual or full time workers use an app to guide them through the house and the requirements, even if they haven't been to the particular house before. It could organise and schedule rounds of these people serving multiple households and schedule laundry pickups and drop off around it. It could allow people to pick their 'shifts' and move them in advance. It could encourage more people to take up shifts when there's a spike in demand.

In practice this doesn't work for most people, because effectively you're allowing someone to get into your house, so you want to know him/her. We first signed up with an agency, but they kept changing our cleaners so we gave up and went for a broker, who "captured our requirements" and procured us a stable cleaner we could trust in the long run.

Automation maximizes efficiency, but some human elements often cannot be replaced.

Written requirements with no feedback sounds prone to misunderstandings. I'd rather simply call the cleaners, if meeting them the first time they came to clean was really impossible.

I like this article.

Most of my friends and family are the working poor and for years I have been struggling to find a way to give back in a meaningful way. I would love to help them technology-wise, but I've come to realize is that they are not facing a technology problem -- they are facing a problem of opportunity, or lack thereof.

Instead, I've been offering them free training and equipment to learn what I do (software engineering), as I know there is a demand in the area that has not been filled and they can get those jobs if they put in a few months of time and dedicate themselves. Even if they couldn't get those jobs, they could get an office job and 'automate it away' to impress their bosses (this is exactly how I started).

So far, I've had surprisingly little interest. That said, they are not ones to take handouts...

> So far, I've had surprisingly little interest.

Not everyone can be an automation/programming geek. I know I'd rather work a low-pressure, no-customer-facing, low-salary job than a high-salary, high-pressure PR job, even if handed out to me on a platter. For some people it's the opposite.

Also, you "struggling to find a way to give back" can come across as patronising.

I suppose I might be coming off as patronizing, but I only offer to teach those who have expressed an interest first.

> housecleaners prefer to be paid in cash (so mobile payments were out), mainly use text messaging, and sometimes don’t want to reveal professional information online, especially if they were undocumented.

We have many users who fall into the lower-income bracket, and understanding their needs at a design level is very challenging. Many functions that we might take for granted within an application -- logging in, downloading, installing from the app store, etc. -- can be foreign if not altogether new concepts. We have to deliver success, error and information messages to users who fundamentally won't read or anticipate what is happening.

The SMS/text scenario is a big deal for us. We have users who interact with our service solely through their text message application -- nothing installed from our service on their end. When we offer a chance to use our mobile app, we have been asked "what's the app store?"

That said, it's rewarding to build something that makes someone's life easier for them. We are certainly falling in the do good camp.

"What he really needed was a steady job which would provide him with an income for his family. No mobile app I could build in three months was going to deliver that."

In summary, our economy is too small for our population, so minorities and others defined as undesirables get heartlessly kicked out of the economy. I don't like it, but that's the facts of our ever shrinking economic system and ever expanding population. So their plan is to use technology designed for the people still inside the system, on people outside the system, because by being insiders they are morally superior and should culturally imperialize the folks kicked out of the economy. And if it works inside the system, being very provincial, they think that all that exists is the inside of their system, so obviously we need to re-educate those in another system to see things the one true insider way. And despite having been kicked out of the economy, they are assumed to still have something that can be harvested from them that insiders value that isn't already being harvested by efficient megacorps (walmart has all their money, you aren't getting it). And somehow its assumed imperialism is not only a good idea, but it should work if they just wish hard enough, despite centuries of past experience showing imperialism mostly just screws things up. The whole thing is just nonsense on a big picture systemic level.

People kicked out of our economy already use logic and reasoning and technology, at least as much as our educational system permits them, to solve their own real problems, and this isn't one of them. In an era of hyper pervasive media they don't need to be shown how the remaining rich/lucky people live, they're drowning in it from the media and it causes little other than resentment. If the square peg doesn't fit in the round hole, working smarter not harder fails just as bad as getting a bigger hammer or pretending there is no fundamental as designed by our oligarchs mismatch.

Nevertheless we often had trouble persuading housecleaners and other domestic workers to come to interviews, even though we paid $25 per hour, which was higher than their regular hourly rate. They didn’t know us and it looked too good to be true.

You could pay $25/hour for some product interviews, but how long does that last? Say someone does 4 interviews with you for a total of $200. Housecleaning for a new client might pay less per hour, but it also has the potential to be a steady gig which might yield a few thousand a year in additional income whereas this app probably won't. One also has to factor in the non-negligible time cost of getting to and from the interview. It's not really enough for someone to get excited about unless they have nothing else going on; people who work hard place a high value on their limited leisure time, and giving product design interviews sounds more like a way for the interviewer to pad a resume than anything that will deliver a long-term benefit to the interviewee.

As someone who spent quite a lot of time at the bottom of the economic pyramid, doing similarly casual labor, there's probably not a lot of value that an app cobbled together in a few months can deliver. The most useful things you can do with a smartphone are:

1. receive calls, email and text messages

2. Maps app and public transit scheduling to get you to your gigs on time

3. web browsing to check Craigslist

Those three things deliver a lot of value because they save a lot of time. It's unlikely that a shallow app is going to deliver anything like as much utility, and the utility it does add has to be weighed against the time it takes to use.

After that your income comes down to knowing whatever job it is that you do and being able to set prices and stick to them. The latter is quite important; some people are a pleasure to do business with, others will try and beat you down or trick you out of money. I've had people that owed $150 for furniture removal lie about the rate they negotiated and try to pay only $100, and when called out on it they shrugged and said 'no harm in trying.' That's a lot harder to deal with for someone who doesn't have English as a first language or the confidence to call someone's bluff.

The best way to empower a poor person is to teach them something that allows them to charge more money, which is typically a different skill as low-paid laborers tend to be price takers more than price makers and competition is friendly but intense. Short of a new work skill, the other thing a lot of poor people could benefit from is a basic course in microeconomics from a labor perspective - not so they can quote Adam Smith but so they have a consistent way to model things like opportunity cost and production possibilities and make decisions in less time instead of puzzling over things and wondering if they could have made a better deal.

Not everyone can do this, but basic micro does not involve a lot of math and gives people a systematic way to think about the economic problems that they already face on a regular basis. Developing a course based on the practical problems like deciding which of two mutually exclusive jobs to take or how to maximize profit would have enormous value. For a housecleaner, say, you could figure out that offering 'natural cleaning products' might have a cost in both consumables and additional cleaning time amounting to $4/hour, but clients who care about that may be willing to pay an extra $5/hour (or more), yielding greater profits.

It really bothers me when people take advantage of workers who do manual labor for what we privileged would consider "little."

Talking with an acquaintance, she was "calling the maid to cancel tomorrow." I said, "but it's too late." Response: "Oh, not, she can come back next week." My answer: "sure, but this week she will be short $100 to make the rent."

She looked at me like I was a Martian. I don't think I made a dent in her understanding.

A great example. People in low-wage jobs who face situations like that usually lack two things the know-how to set business terms and conditions like cancellation fees, and the leverage to enforce them (when losing a client could be financially very painful). People who are poorly educated, illegal aliens, parolees and others often have difficulty learning about or asserting rights they might have under city, state or federal labor laws.

Now, I know that the original goal here was to find better ways to empower poor people with technology, not to set up an additional social service. I thought the example in the article of an app that helped people submit an application for food stamps (saving many hours of standing in line at an office) was right on point.

One idea that occurred to me since I wrote the grandparent comment last night (and forgot to post before I went to bed) was to flip an existing concept on its head. The article mentioned a tool for people in Mexico who were outside the regular financial system to establish some sort of credit profile that would allow them access to lower-cost cellphone plans. Maybe a useful thing for poor people in the US with smartphones would be a parallel 'client credit report' that would let casual and informal workers alert each other about problem clients who attempt to evade payment or behave abusively, as well as hooking them up with other resources, eg there are probably people with paralegal experience who would be happy to draft a demand letter for a small fixed fee. Think LinkedIn for low-income people as a way to vet potential clients and avoid persistent troublemakers. The best thing about NeatStreak (the author's app) was not the housecleaning-specific stuff (although that's helpful) but automating the booking/billing process, which is something that a lot of casual/informal workers need.

Of course an approach like this turns up some interesting legal questions, because reversing the usual top-down direction of economic influence is politically loaded and would upset some people. But I think sooner or later there will be demand for such functionality; the 'sharing economy' we are moving into matches buyers to sellers effectively for many casual services, but the firms that establish such new markets are typically also seeking to be monopolistic brokers and their economic interests are not necessarily aligned with those of the people who actually provide the services; to the extent that the latter are organized, it could disenfranchise the job brokers. I think it's only a matter of time before established players attempt to capitalize on that, so that the SEIU attempts to organize Taskrabbit workers or the Teamsters try to sign up Uber and Lyft drivers, and I'm not so enthused about that because I think unions can often end up as rent-seeking organizations themselves. Perhaps technology has the potential to provide low-income workers with more practical organizational benefits by automating the information-brokerage function of trade unions without the administrative overhead.

She looked at me like I was a Martian.

It wasn't your $100 you were trying to get her to spend.

This app is actually useful.

Empirically -- and I'm not giving too many details because certain HN users are assholes so I don't make my account identifiable -- good english makes you worth $10-$15 / hour more. What is the difference between the $20 and the $35 to $45 / hour handyman? How well the latter understands your instructions and hence how much supervision he or she needs. This is complicated by the fact, and I'm not sure if it's cultural or just the people I've worked with, but certain people will just say "yes" on the phone even though they didn't actually understand what you wanted done. When what you wanted doesn't happen, it makes you frustrated and unlikely to employ that person again. Simply being able to call your handyman and give him or her instructions over the phone, and being confident that they understood and will do what you wanted, without you having to be physically present the entire time, makes them far more useful and worth a lot more.

So this app, which helps english speaking people purchasing home cleaning communicate with spanish speaking cleaners, may well be quite useful. Part of the value chains give, and for which they keep a big piece of the transaction, is clear communication between english speaking customers and primarily spanish speaking cleaners. Tools like this help cut out the middleman and get the cleaner much more of the $60-$80 customers pay.

source: I help manage an apartment building and hence interact w/ lots of cleaners, handymen, and carpenters.

edit: for example, the guy who cleans the building every week and takes care of light maintenance has terrible english. Saying, eg, "please trim the hedges next to the driveway" simply cannot be reliably communicated without someone being there in person. The other maintenance guy can, eg, be told "something's leaking in the 2nd floor laundry room". He can go there, diagnose -- eg bad drain tubing -- communicate, and be told to go to home depot, buy new tubing, and replace it -- all over txt message. This makes him worth way more money. I think the first guy could also do it, but I would have to be physically present the entire time. The second guy gets paid twice as much.

Good points all. I was a bit harsh in my earlier criticisms because I felt the writer was still missing some key points and the article had an air of poverty tourism despite the underlying good intentions.

This is a good example of trying to create demand where there was none before. This can work if you have a really great salesperson, but it's hard.

Also, I see your survey results on smartphone usage but I'm not convinced. In my experience poor people have spotty data plans - either no data or very limited, and only use their phone for sms and voice.

I'm making some decent money - not huge amounts - providing a service to low-income Americans. I have a server application that is used by 211 organizations, suicide hotlines, government groups, etc to communicate over sms with mostly low-income Americans.

"This is a good example of trying to create demand where there was none before."

In the article, they are conducting user interviews to figure out demand. They are not creating demand themselves.

"Also, I see your survey results on smartphone usage but I'm not convinced. In my experience poor people have spotty data plans - either no data or very limited, and only use their phone for sms and voice."

WiFi is also pretty prevalent here in the US. Even when I traveled to other countries, WiFi can be found in most cities.

It's possible that your experience may just be yours and other people's experiences are different.

It's definitely true that many people on low income don't have a good data plan. That's why they sometimes have a smartphone they only use on Wifi as pointed out in the survey results.

I can't remember the last time I saw an open access point. You can't expect someone to buy a cheeseburger or coffee everytime they want to check their smartphone app.

Most people on hn have no idea what it's like to be poor. Checking your email is an ordeal - have to go to the library for example - and infrequent.

But everyone has a cellphone and even tracphones can do SMS (but can be costly so you want to make it count)

What? Where I live every library, McDonald's, and Tim Horton's has free WiFi no purchase necessary, so if you want to check something it's at the nearest plaza.

(too cheap for overpriced Canadian data plan)

You're showing your ignorance of what it's like to be poor. It takes time and money to get to those locations, two things the poor don't have. The bus trip, or train, or gas in a car that's used has to cost less than what the app would gain them and that money/time needs to not be slotted for anything else (such as making it to and from jobs until payday).

Someone elsewhere in the thread said that the poor aren't good with managing money. From my experience, it's the opposite. Imagine you're behind on every bill, with less money coming in than it costs to have electricity, get to and from work, eat and pay rent. You literally rotate which bills get paid based on what will be shut off next. If someone gives you $100, you could pay more of the bills, or put it in savings, or spend it on entertainment/something fun. In 3 months, no matter what happens, you'll be back in the same state you are now. Spending it on entertainment to feel like a person isn't a bad decision at that point. It's just not one that those who live privileged lives would make

You can't expect someone to buy a cheeseburger or coffee everytime they want to check their smartphone app.

That depends on the app, no? "EasyFoodStamps" is not exactly something that needs to be checked every 10m, but it can still be very useful. And some apps can be very useful without requiring internet access at all.

I may have misread, but my reading of the article was that they conducted the user interviews after deciding on the app that they were going to write.

Hi! I'm the cofounder of Significance Labs. Just wanted to point out that all of our teams did extensive user interviews before landing on a product idea as well as usability tests during the development process. Some of our teams pivoted substantially as a result of the tests they ran.

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