Last month, the Pritzker Foster Care Initiative, which funds a number of child welfare-related non-profits, including my organization, hosted a half-day convening on “Web and Mobile App Solutions for Transition Age Youth.”
The afternoon was broken into two panels: one stacked with out-of-an-HBO-TV-show techies and the other with child welfare advocates, non-profit leaders and former foster youth who turned to technology to help solve some of the endemic problems that the field perpetually faces.
I had the interesting, and not very straightforward, task of moderating these two very different groups navigating the dizzying world of big data, “bots” and end-users alongside the constraints of working with a highly legalistic, resource-starved foster care system.
What was clear as soon as the techies started talking and as I looked out over 50 or so child welfare experts – many of whom are developing web and mobile technologies to serve youth themselves – was that I had never been in a gathering quite like this.
“I think there is enormous opportunity for this sector [foster care] to benefit from what’s going on in terms of leveraging the Internet to connect people, to provide education and to find resources,” said Winnie Wechsler, executive director of the Anthony and Jeanne Pritzker Family Foundation, which organized the gathering. “How can we apply some of what is happening in the commercial sector for advancement of solutions for social good?”
The first panel included an incredible group of technologists who, in some cases, are already marrying technological solutions to problems that affect human wellbeing. There was Bharat Nhardwaj, the CEO of Nedocs, which built a resource management system for hospitals that was the inspiration for the title of a TV show called “Code Black.” Mathew Cohen, of Moblabs, develops a whole array of mobile apps at his Venice studio. Ariel Jalali is the founder of Sensay, which uses real humans to answer any question you may have. John Feng has developed tutoring technology for students. Also on the panel was Jon Bradford, the CEO of Colab, “a venture studio” that helps build out new ideas for mobile technology.
After the event, Bradford said that while he had spent most of his time developing apps in for-profit ventures, he would be very interested in working with non-profit leaders trying to develop technology-based solutions for issues facing transition-aged foster youth.
“It is not like I would be unwilling to do anything,” Bradford said. “Money has been a byproduct of doing our jobs, but the real goal is to be impactful.”
In the packed room were about 50 child welfare experts and non-profit leaders, some of whom had developed or were in the process of developing apps or websites dedicated to the issue.
- TeenParent.net, developed by Public Counsel and the Alliance for Children’s Rights, which is geared towards pregnant and parenting foster youth.
- Foster Care to Success, an online portal for foster youth trying to navigate college.
- Foster Club, an online community and resource guide for current and former foster youth.
- iFoster, an online hub for foster families, foster care professionals and youth, which provides, among other things, a “Digital Locker” where foster youth can store all their vital records.
- Think of Us, a website that helps foster youth make decisions about their future in health and work.
- KnowB4UGo, a mobile app to help foster youth link up to the resources they need while transitioning to foster care.
- FOCUS on Foster Families, an app geared towards helping both foster youth and their caregivers, whether kin or foster parents.
- Persistence Plus, a mobile app that “nudges” foster youth along as they try to matriculate through colleges, which relies heavily on text messages.
- Ventura County Foster Healthlink, which provides foster parents and other caregivers medical information on the children in their care.
- In addition, Bay Area Legal Aid is developing an online resource that will act something like Legal Zoom, to help transition-age youth get connected with the legal resources that they need.
And this is just the start of the foster care related apps and web-based projects designed to help foster youth. Bradford of Colabs was surprised at how much non-profits in this sector are doing with technology.
“There is actually a lot of competition amongst various organizations,” Bradford said. “There are some walls in between things. If they could open-source the stuff they have built as individuals to build something together, they would have a greater chance to impact a larger pool of people.”
Despite the potential benefits of collaborating, the non-profit sector, even the non-profit foster care sector is, for good and bad, wrought with the same competitiveness found in the for-profit world. This was something that Sixto Cancel, the founder of Think of Us, pointed out during the second child welfare-dominated panel.
The second panel was immediately followed by a brainstorming panel, wherein participants agreed that a good goal would be to aggregate all the various online and mobile technology-based resources for the foster care community, and make them accessible through one portal.
Wechsler said that the Pritzker Foster Care Initiative will be continuing to host conversations around the issue, and will fund promising efforts to advance technological solutions for foster youth.
Separately, but similarly, Baker McKenzie, LLP, and Google will be hosting their second “Children’s Rights Summit” in Mountain View, Calif. on December 1. The convening, much like the Pritzker event, will feature technology experts and child advocates trying to, as the organizers say, disrupt barriers and innovate solutions.