When Tech Helps the Vulnerable


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There’s a stereotype that tech start-ups are focused on trivial things. And while there are plenty of pizza-delivery and dog walking apps, there also are technologists working on serious problems.

At a time when tens of millions of Americans have lost jobs, it is important to highlight how companies are using technology to help others.

Propel, as I mentioned last week, started in 2014 to help food stamp recipients access benefits on their phones, clip coupons and apply for jobs.

Now that more people are struggling, Propel is also offering its customers practical guides to pandemic-related government services, and it’s directing $1,000 cash payments, funded by charities, to individuals.

About 38 million lower-income Americans receive food stamp benefits through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP. Their needs — and their numbers — are growing now.

Jimmy Chen, Propel’s 32-year-old founder and chief executive, said nearly nine in 10 people who use Propel’s app said they had lost their job or had work hours cut since the pandemic hit. Some states have said the number of new applications for SNAP started to soar in March.

Propel has started to incorporate more coronavirus-specific help into its app. It walks people through whether new legislation makes them eligible for higher food stamp payments, and it directs people to help obtaining government stimulus checks.

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Propel also recently linked with charitable organizations to direct $1,000 cash donations at random to people who use its app. The idea is to get money quickly to people who might need help paying rent or other bills. Chen said Propel has distributed more than $10 million so far.

Propel’s app isn’t magic. Its main feature lets people check the balance on their food stamp accounts instead of calling a government hotline.

But as is true for many social safety-net programs, applying for and using food stamps can be maddening. My colleague Tara Siegel Bernard wrote recently that in some states, people can’t use SNAP benefits to buy groceries online or at curbside supermarket pickups — options that are appealing as people try to avoid stores. (Propel’s app doesn’t help with this.)

Chen sounded annoyed when he talked about technology start-ups that overwhelmingly target their products and services at higher-income people. “People have a total blind spot about how much money lower-income people spend, and how poorly served they are,” he said.

He is speaking from personal experience. Chen said that when he was 10 years old, his father lost his job and at times his family had trouble putting food on the table.

Chen said he hoped that Propel is “the kind of company that my parents would have loved to use when I was growing up.”

Tip of the Week

Give your gadgets some T.L.C.

Brian X. Chen, our personal tech columnist, reminds us that we don’t always have to buy new stuff.

With so many people worried about money right now, it’s a good moment to learn how to take better care of our electronics and extend their lives.

Some of my past columns have gone over the basics for how to keep our computers, smartphones and tablets running longer. The steps include expanding storage, adding memory and replacing batteries.

If you are going to do just one thing this week to extend your gadgets’ lives, I encourage you to take a look at how much storage you are using on your devices and purge unnecessary apps, files and media. The more of this you have saved, the slower your devices get.

Here’s a starting point: On iPhones, check out iPhone Storage, which lists apps that take up the most data and when you used them last. On Android devices, Google offers a similar tool called Files. Deleting the data-hogging apps that you haven’t touched in months is a simple way to make your phone perkier.

Do you have a laptop stowed in the closet that you want to revive, or are curious how to keep that old TV set working for longer?

Email ontech@nytimes.com with your D.I.Y. questions, and we’ll answer a selection with help from our friends at Wirecutter and other experts. Please put “gadget S.O.S.” in the subject line.

Before we go …

  • From Google to the Pentagon: The former Google C.E.O., Eric Schmidt, says he is convinced that technology, some of it relatively untested in military settings, would improve U.S. defense and intelligence operations, my colleagues Kate Conger and Cade Metz report. Schmidt is frustrated by the slow pace of change, but he has faced complaints that he is benefiting financially from what he’s pitching the Pentagon.

  • Sleepy sheep and the dogs of Chernobyl: The Times writer David Pogue crammed a recent weekend with virtual tourist activities, including a video tour of dogs living in the former Ukrainian nuclear zone and a magic class. David said the online experiences were an imperfect but ingenious way to absorb himself in another world.

  • When the city council pitches sweet potatoes: Low-level government officials in China are shooting short videos and webcasts to drum up online buyers for products made or farmed in their areas, the Chinese publication Sixth Tone reported.

Hugs to this

An adorable 3-year-old sheep handler guides a playful sheep named Ethel.

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