Ride-hailing, social interactions from behind tiny screens and fitness tracking are just a few of the things we’ve all become accustomed to thanks to innovative app-makers. It’s not often that we think of tech serving society for good. But it’s time we do.
Promise, mRelief, Pigeon.ly and Concrn are four companies that, from the start, set out to have a positive impact on society. The heads of these startups have identified issues that plague society and that few people take the time to consider. Bail reform, easier access to food stamps, communication with incarcerated individuals and helping people in need are not sexy issues. But you can utilize tech to try to fix them, and you can hear all about it at Disrupt SF.
The issue of bail reform has gained traction in recent years and has been espoused by the likes of California Senator Kamala Harris and Rand Paul, as well as civil liberties groups. That’s because 62 percent of the jail population is behind bars because they can’t afford bail. The premise of Promise is that it serves as a cheaper alternative to incarceration by partnering with counties to monitor the whereabouts of low-risk offenders via an app, rather than keeping them locked up until trial.
“People are going to jail because they look at a piece of paper and misread it, or are going to jail because they can’t afford a class because they’re instead paying child support,” Phaedra Ellis-Lamkins, Promise co-founder, told TechCrunch in March when the company raised a $3 million round led by First Round Capital, with Jay-Z’s Roc Nation participating.
Like Promise, mRelief is a service that partners with government. The company’s platform is designed to help cut through bureaucratic tape that can prevent people from accessing important services. Either using a web app or text messaging, users can determine their eligibility to receive food stamp services. Recent updates to the platform now let users in certain locations go through the entire application process using the web or SMS platform.
The company has helped more than 230,000 families since launching out of Y Combinator in 2016.
Incarcerated individuals are already cut off from society, and when calling friends and family is too cost-prohibitive, it intensifies the isolation. Frederick Hutson, CEO of Pigeon.ly, started the company to help minimize those costs. Hutson, who served four years in prison for drug trafficking, knows all too well the burden this creates. Since the company was founded in 2012, its services have expanded beyond voice. It also allows users to connect to their inmates with photos and letters.
In San Francisco, there is an app that allows users to help people in need. Currently available only in the Tenderloin in San Francisco, Concrn was designed to provide an alternative to calling emergency services. If a user sees someone in emotional or behavioral crisis, they can use the app to report it to a trained Concrn Responder. This helps to alleviate stress on the 911 system and prevents people from unwillingly going into the medical system.
“Our focus has been to create economic opportunities for people in the Tenderloin community who have previously been marginalized or unable to access employment and also people who have experienced their own mental health crisis in the past,” Neil Shah, Concrn co-executive director, told TechCrunch last year.
Phaedra Ellis-Lamkins, Rose Afriyie, Frederick Hutson and Neil Shah will be on the Disrupt SF stage in just a few weeks to talk about using technology to effect change in a society that badly needs it.