A Yelp for the Poor

By Joel P. Engardio

What if a startup helped single moms find social services as easily as you can pick a restaurant on Yelp?

Rey Faustino is building an app to prove that San Francisco’s tech boom doesn’t just benefit the rich. But first, he wants the public to remember how frustrating it was to locate a good place to eat when all they had was a search engine that listed names and addresses.

He hopes the memory might generate some empathy for the less fortunate, because many are still looking for services like it’s 1999.

“If Yelp was anything like the websites that poor people rely on for assistance, everyone would be up in arms about the crappy service,” Faustino said. “Users shouldn’t have to settle for subpar products just because they have low incomes.”

That’s why Faustino and his technical partner, Eric Lukoff, created the One Degree platform (www.1deg.org) that anticipates the real needs of a financially struggling parent and those with low incomes.

Today, a mother facing a housing crisis may have to blindly search online and then make sense of what shows up. Social service websites are notoriously clunky and unintuitive, he said. The keyword “housing” might list 50 agencies, but oftentimes a user wouldn’t know if the contacts were for homeless shelters, rentals, subsidies or counseling.

“It’s like getting 50 restaurant suggestions and you have no idea if they’re for Italian, Mexican or sushi,” Faustino said. “And forget about ratings or reviews. You don’t know what you’re getting.”

One Degree aims to connect people directly to the most relevant resources they need by asking targeted questions to learn more about the user. Instead of providing a passive list of agencies, the app offers next-step actions such as filling out a housing application or making an appointment with a counselor.

Users also get to post reviews and rate how well a non-profit agency served them.

The app is still in early development and will initially focus on low-income parents ages 18 to 40 because three-quarters of that demographic has access to a smart phone.

The creators of One Degree believe no such app service has yet been developed specifically to help the needy.

“Tech products are only focused on middle and upper class consumers, so there’s zero incentive to make anything that works well for low-income people,” Faustino claimed. “That pisses me off, but I’m putting my passion to work.”

Faustino, 32, with a laptop under his arm and bike helmet in hand, looks like any tech hipster who just hopped off a Google bus. He shares a Mission studio with his boyfriend. A master’s degree from Harvard hangs on the wall. But there’s more to his story.

“I was a low-income immigrant from the Philippines and my family struggled to find resources,” said Faustino, who is paying his student debt through a federal program for professionals dedicated to non-profit work. “I know from experience how difficult it is to navigate the social service bureaucracy and I want to make it better for others.”

One Degree is currently supported by donations. But Faustino has plans to make his app self-sufficient. While many local governments outsource social services to non-profits with little oversight, One Degree can sell the performance data it gathers on non-profits to let City Hall know which organizations deliver the best services, he said.

One Degree’s rate and review feature will do much more than alert users to bad providers – it seeks to hold non-profits accountable to the taxpayers that fund them.

“The reviews will elevate the user’s voice to create a level of transparency that non-profits never had before,” Faustino said. “The bad ones will shake out just like bad restaurants on Yelp.”

Also published in San Francisco Examiner March 30, 2014


Innovation, TechJoel Engardio