By Eve Fan
Rose Afriyie still remembers the day she spent more than two hours waiting outside a community service center on the South Side of Chicago, only to find out that she was ineligible for food stamps.
That experience was the inspiration for mRelief, a web and texting tool for social services eligibility screening that Afriyie hopes will make life a little easier for those experiencing poverty and hunger.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 25 percent of eligible people in the U.S. in fiscal 2010 did not enroll for SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, also known as food stamps.
mRelief offers pre-screening for 12 city and state programs, including food stamps, Medicaid, and child care assistance programs, and the web app is available in both English and Spanish.
Users may go online to fill out a form and learn their eligibility for certain programs, or simply use their phones to text “hello” to 773-377-8946. After answering a few questions, including income and education status, users find out whether they qualify for services.
Though more than 60 percent of American adults own a smartphone, according to the Pew Research Center, and Chicago residents can access the Internet for free at their local public library, Afriyie still thinks the resources for low-income families online or through cellphones are limited.
“There is not a lot of technology built for people who have the lowest income or the greatest needs,” said Afriyie, one of the three co-founders of mRelief, in an interview. “Our focus is on accessibility. Whether you understand the Internet or not, you should be able to find certain things.”
Afriyie graduated from the University of Michigan with a master’s degree in public policy in 2011. She worked in various communications jobs, then spent a year as a fellow in Google+’s Community Partnerships Program that works with entrepreneurs and advocates to learn Google marketing strategies and principles.
When the fellowship ended in the spring of 2014, Afriyie said she was struggling financially. Eager to find a way out, she enrolled in a course at The Starter League, a Chicago-based programming and web design school.
There, Afriyie met Genevieve Nielsen and Marina Goldshteyn, and her story inspired them to begin developing social service screening tools. That was in June, 2014. By September the trio had launched mRelief for use on the web.
In November, they launched their SMS, or texting, tool at business incubator 1871’s Open Government Hack Night. Mayor Rahm Emanuel had issued an open call for better social service delivery for low-income residents, which propelled adoption of mRelief’s tools.
The tools were first introduced to six community service centers in Chicago for social programs caseworkers and gradually spread its wings through peer-to-peer recommendations and technology events. Within its first two weeks, the SMS tool processed about 10,000 text messages.
mRelief services are free and sponsored by Goodcity, a Chicago-based social services organization. The SMS tool was supported by Smart Chicago, with the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation providing $15,000 in seed funding for the team.
Caseworkers, according to Afriyie, usually spend 16 minutes on average on social service eligibility screening, but around 4 minutes while screening with mRelief.
Some non-smartphone users may experience delays, according to Sonja Marziano, project coordinator at Smart Chicago, based on a testing of mRelief earlier this year.
The team now is applying for not-for-profit status, but earns revenue from SaaS (software as a service, a software licensing and delivery model), contracts, and donations, and has expanded to an eight-member team.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly characterized Rose Afriyie’s work history. Afriyie completed a year-long fellowship with Google+ in the spring of 2014. She did not lose her job. Also, mRelief offers pre-screening for 12 city and state programs, not 14; and only the company’s software team is all women, not the entire company.