Recently the City of Philadelphia unveiled a new, comprehensive anti-poverty strategy called Shared Prosperity Philadelphia.
This multifaceted plan is focused on delivering a “holistic approach to understanding, confronting and reducing the effects of poverty and creating a more thriving, prosperous Philadelphia for every citizen.”
An important component of this new effort is the identification of existing benefit programs that Philadelphians are eligible for – programs like SNAP and the EITC – and enrolling people in these programs. In the words of the program sponsors:
Even though the social safety net is badly frayed, some government benefits are available to alleviate poverty’s worst effects. Too many Philadelphians do not take advantage of them.
This is an area where data and the efforts of civic hackers can help make a difference.
Data Makes a Difference
Finding ways to connect people to benefit programs that they may qualify for is – at it’s core – a data problem. Organizations like the Benefits Data Trust (BDT) have been working to address this data problem for years. BDT works with the State of Pennsylvania and other government entities to hep identify individuals who may qualify for benefits that they are not currently receiving. But identifying who may qualify for a program is only part of the data challenge – getting this information in the hands of those who need it is another.
This is why the Mayor’s Office parters with BDT to conduct outreach to Philadelphia residents, informing them of benefit programs they may be eligible to participate in. It’s also why the Innovation Management Team at the Office of Innovation and Technology is working with BDT to identify new data sources that might help in identifying those in need that may qualify for unused benefits.
It’s also an area where open data and civic hacking can have a real impact.
The Role of Civic Hacking
In a way, this is an issue that civic hacking has had a role in addressing for several years.
In 2011, at the “Random Hacks of Kindness” civic hacking event held at Drexel university, a group of civic hackers developed PhillySNAP – a text messaging based application that made it easy for SNAP recipients to locate participating retailers. Using this app, anyone with a mobile telephone – even an older feature phone – can quickly and easily locate a retailer near them that accepts SNAP benefits and hat also sells fresh locally grown food.
Recently, one of these team members – now the Director of Civic Technology for the City of Philadelphia – updated this widely recognized app to use new open data releases from the City of Philadelphia.
This is an object lesson in the power of open data – it supports the generation of simple, lightweight yet extremely powerful applications quickly and at low cost. These are some of the tools we will need in the fight against the persistent problem of poverty.
What other useful apps might the civic hacking community build to help those in need locate the services that can help them? The location of City-operated health facilities? The location of tax assistance centers that provide help to those who qualify for with the EITC? The possibilities are endless.
As this new anti-poverty initiative is implemented by the City of Philadelphia and its partners one thing is certain – data and civic hacking will play a part in its success.