There’s no good way to sugar coat it. California has the second lowest food stamp participation rate in the U.S. It’s a big problem, and a complex problem to solve. But if there’s anyone well equipped to help the government work better for its citizens it’s Code For America (CfA).
An Insurmountable Food Stamp Application, A Determined Team
Code For America fellows Jacob Solomon, David Guarino (lead engineer), and Alan Williams (lead designer), took stock of the food stamp problem and picked a side they could work on – the application process. The first thing they did was try to apply for CalFresh, California’s food stamp program. Read that with a strong emphasis on the word “try”.
In a 147 slide presentation, Jacob Solomon documents UX trials you must endure to apply for food stamps. To save you the trouble, here’s the whole excruciating, draconian process in a GIF. (brace yourself)
It takes many people 2-3 hours to apply. Jacob’s new application method takes 11 minutes.
Building A Better Way
The team, partnership with the San Francisco-Marin Food Bank and the San Francisco Human Services Agency, built a much easier application process for CalFresh, powered by Twilio SMS and Front. Applicants can go through the whole application process from their phone. This saves them from having to track down a computer and a fax machine. Yes, that ancient relic, a fax machine, was required previously.
40% of food stamp related searches in California are done on a mobile phone. It made sense to build an application tailored to the device applicants already had in their hands. Here’s the rundown.
How To Manage Thousands Of Inbound Texts — Via Email
Applicants can text information they’d enter in CalFresh’s application to Code For America who parses and forwards that information to the government. They can even send pictures of IDs like driver’s licenses or utility bills to Code For America via Twilio MMS.
When Code For America receives a text from a person applying for food stamps through SMS, it goes straight to Front’s app. Front is the middle man between the person texting Code For America, and CfA’s email inbox. Front parses the SMS into an inbox so the Code For America team can go through the log of SMS to more easily track and send applications to CalFresh.
The Difference Texts Can Make
At the bottom of each text CfA sends to the applicants there’s a line “reply directly if you have questions.” People reply. Their questions get answered. This may seem like a small thing, but it takes courage to ask a question, and time to write it out. Applicant response rates via SMS are much higher than email. This means they’re getting the information they need, on the medium they prefer.
It’s a huge win for Code For America and another step in the right direction for the state of California. When the state knows what information its citizens need, and the right way to communicate that information, they can change their lives for the better. It just might take a few more resourceful engineers to get them to see that.