The Department of Veterans Affairs and the White House are holding an app competition for mobile applications that connect unhoused persons to social programs. The competition has announced the top five finalists, including the demeaningly named Sherlock Homeless, but triviality has already stolen the show.
The premise of the app competition was flawed from the outset, and is emblematic of a chronic syndrome in the social sector. We are too easily swayed by the trends of the corporate world, time and again believing that if we just copy what those in the corporate sector do we will enjoy success.
In the mid to late 2000s the craze was hiring MBAs into the social sector. If only non-profits were more like businesses! The economic collapse at the hands of MBAs cooled that trend, but alas the app craze filled our empty panacea cup.
As Silicon Valley blazes trails like it did in the 1990s, the social sector has started wondering why there is an app for sharing photos with friends, but there is no app for ending poverty. Well, photo sharing is trivial, ending poverty is not.
But, we can make trivial applications about poverty. That must count for something right?
And yet the White House itself is pushing the misnomer that technology can solve social problems. It cannot. If connecting people to homeless services was simple enough that a part-time developer could solve this problem, Google would have done so a long time ago. Google indexes pretty much every website on the Internet, so why does Google search fail to effectively connect people to services?
Social service agencies do not always have a web-presence, and when they do, they do not adequately maintain their sites with sufficient information to make referrals. That is why 211, and my own company, employ people to manually maintain our resource databases. The problem of maintaining resource data is not a technological one, it is logistical, and there is no app for that.
I am not arguing that there is no place for technology in the social sector. As a firm that uses technology in its work with social sector organizations, obviously I believe there is a place for technical innovation in our work. But slick, shiny apps with ridiculous names and soon to be outdated databases are not what anyone needs.
There is a reason that in the app economy apps sells for a dollar. They are easy to make, and easy to forget. We don’t need apps, we need real solutions.