How New Apps Will Help Unconnected Americans
The steamrolling convergence toward a mobile Web society threatens to leave many Americans behind. But the Federal Communications Commission has enticed app developers to help prevent that from happening.
An FCC contest to meet the needs of "those least likely to be online" has resulted in new applications that will help people who tend to be underserved by commercial innovation.
Among the innovations from developers competing for $100,000 in prizes is software that makes it easier to travel on schedule, apply for a job, or locate local services using only a basic feature phone. The apps could increase the quality of life for those without Internet while also enticing those populations to tune in, the FCC observes.
"The costs of digital exclusion are high and getting higher. Five years ago, if you didn't have broadband you'd probably be okay. But today it's not like that," FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski said in a statement.
Personalized functions from over 60 submissions demonstrate the potential of mobile technology to distribute public information. The top prize of $30,000 went to the developers of Yak.bus, an app that makes bus and train arrival times instantly available to cell phones through a simple text message function: No more guessing games about when to start walking.
Second prize-winner Homeless SCC makes local service referrals for those in homeless shelters and eliminates agency reliance on paper binders. Existing systems are stuffed with collections of business cards and brochures that are often incomplete and can't be searched through or updated, developer Curtis Chang said in a video posted on the Apps for Communities website.
Third-prize winner txt2wrk enables job seekers to apply for employment anywhere, anytime through simple text-to-speech commands and their cell phone.
"Today looking for a job means being able to have access to the Internet, being able to navigate a website, and being able to read full job descriptions online. These are artificial barriers that these people don't necessarily have to deal with once they have a job," creator Alex Tam said in the same video.
Tam's software searches its own database of postings and résumés for good matches and alerts seekers who can listen to the description and cue the system to send an application.
Other winning open software apps target users who already have mobile data packages or other Internet access: apps that map locations of nearby fresh produce, preschools, and wheelchair-accessible places.
Ultimately, the initiative by the FCC and the Knight Foundation seeks to stimulate development of civic-minded apps and benefit everyone by boosting participation in the wireless world.
"The FCC seeks to promote broadband deployment and adoption for all Americans — regardless of geography, race, economic status, disability, residence on Tribal land, or degree of digital or English literacy — by providing easy access to relevant content," stated the Apps for Communities program web page. "New apps can pull new users online, as well as increase the value of broadband connections for existing users."
"Technology is increasingly providing new opportunities to help strengthen our democracy. Yet that potential will only be realized when more Americans have Internet access," Knight Foundation national director Damian Thorman said.