Blue Ridge Labs Showcases New Round of Civic Tech Prototypes

Blue Ridge Labs @ Robin Hood runs a summer fellowship program that’s not the usual summer accelerator fare: the competitive program accepts top talent to work on big problems that are affecting low-income communities and gets fellows out into the communities they’re designing for to make better products. Blue Ridge pushes its impressive fellows to work cheaply, rapidly, and closely with its costumers at every step in the process. This work is enabled in part by the lab’s Design Insight Group, which conducts user testing and seeks input on product design from New York City residents. Blue Ridge’s summer fellowship is in its second year, with four of the five 2014 products (which we wrote up last year as well) still in operation.

Last night at Civic Hall, the 2015 fellows demoed their work for a full house. The criteria that the audience and judges were asked to vote on were:

Impact: Does this address a real pain point faced by New Yorkers?

Validation: Is this something people want and need?

Feasibility: Is this a approach realistic and likely to be effective?

All of the products presented were beautifully designed and well-thought out, but the unanimous winner, as picked by the judges, was More on JustFix and all of the products below.

Dan Kass, Georges Clement, Lucas Carlisle is a tool to empower tenants to get repairs made on their apartments. The team explained that more than 35% of NYC public housing residents live in “deficient” housing that may require frequent repairs. However, complex legal conditions and scattered city services make it difficult to seek help when landlords are negligent or unresponsive. JustFix is based on the idea that, in order to get repairs on your apartment made, you need to build your case. The JustFix app guides you through doing an inspection on your apartment, tracks your progress and communication, and collects photo evidence. The app automates complex processes like drafting a letter of complaint and finding the proper city services. JustFix then lets you share your case with caseworkers and lawyers if you need to go to court. JustFix already helped two beta testers win their legal cases, with one judge commenting that the JustFix user was “more qualified than her landlord’s entire legal team combined.”

Lindsey Wagner, Alex Hunsucker, Fred Diego

Duckling is a platform that provides little loans to college students who need them through peer-to-peer lending circles. Duckling is responding to the problem that few students are prepared for the full cost of college, and a gap exists between the true cost of living at school and what many students can actually pay. Its founders explained that most students have few options to cover those extra costs: high interest credit cards, payday loans, or missing class to pick up an extra job. As a result, over half of dropouts in community colleges are due to financial pressure. Duckling creates a mobile platform to establish lending circles among college students. It matches students who need cash now and will pay a small fee with students who are able to save longer and want a larger payoff. Friendly texts and built-in orientation makes it easy to understand, join, and manage payments. Duckling wants to help students with immediate costs now prepare for a healthier financial future.

Susie Kavanaugh, Nikhil Murthy, Ashley Treni

Grapevine seeks to make finding educational community resources take minutes, not hours. Its team’s research found that websites that centralize educational resources aren’t mobile friendly and don’t organize information efficiently, causing parents to click through many, many pages to figure out whether a program is right for their child. Grapevine lets users search for local resources and filter by the categories that are actually relevant to them—age of child, time of day, cost, etc.—and allows users to text programs that they find to their friends or share them on Facebook. Filters were created based on their research of parents’ actual search patterns. The Grapevine team populated the educational resources in Brownsville as a test case, and has plans to extend not only the geography of the app, but also the scope of resources into career opportunities and social services.

Nova Jobs
Amer Fitian, Judy Siegel, Alexei Magiakov

Nova is a platform that creates a two way marketplace for laborers in the food service industry. Available in English and Spanish, Nova helps food servers, bussers, line cooks and other food service workers looking for employment connect with restaurant managers who need to fill open shifts. Its founders explained that there are over 44,000 food services facilities in NYC alone, but certain kinds of restaurants have trouble finding replacements for open shifts when people call in sick or schedules change. In Nova, a server, line cook, bus boy, or other food service professional fills out a profile about their skills and ability and the app generates an anonymous resume. (It’s anonymous in order to reduce discrimination.) Restaurant managers are then able to search through profiles of food service professionals to find someone with the right qualifications, availability, and good ratings. Users can rate one another and choose open shifts and employees based on skills and the in-app review platform.

Sam Gimbel, Dylan Butman, Joel Stillman

Populace is an SMS-based communication platform that’s helping community programs get the right information to the right people at the right time. Populace’s founders say that it’s easy to find programs online, but a lack of effective communication channels between community organizers who run programs and the people who want to take them prevent people from actually registering for programs on time: registration times don’t line up, people see the flyers too late, you sign up on the web and forget about it later, etc. Populace provides a platform for interested people to sign up via text and then receive timely information and reminders from the program managers. As people text Populace, organizers get live updates on how many people are interested or have registered and allows organizers to manage waitlists and alumni through the same SMS platform. Populace has wide applicability: after school counselors, immigration advocates, community boards, shift managers, and many more may see ways to use it. Populace is already doing several pilot programs with various NYC community organizations and is planning a larger public launch in Q1 2016.