An App for American Families in Need

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Code for America Fellow Alan Williams poses for a photo to illustrate the prolonged CalFresh hold times. Courtesy photo.

Code for America Fellow Alan Williams poses for a photo to illustrate the prolonged CalFresh hold times. Courtesy photo.

In September, Code for America released the Texan beta version of an app that allows Americans under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) to check their food stamp balance via a simple text message.

The app, appropriately called Balance, allows users to text their electronic benefit transfer (EBT) – also known as Lone Star – card number to the phone number of their local service center. After a few moments, the app texts back the user’s current EBT balance, in English or Spanish. Except for standard text message rates, the service is free.

“78% of families with less than $30,000 in annual income have access to a cell phone,” said Jacob Solomon, a member of the team that developed the app. “We’re simply allowing these families to use tools they already have to their advantage.”

Code for America Fellow Jacob Solomon gives a presentation on Balance and other social service initiatives at the 2014 Code for America Summit. Courtesy photo.

Code for America Fellow Jacob Solomon gives a presentation on Balance and other social service initiatives at the 2014 Code for America Summit. Courtesy photo.

Code for America, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, began in 2009 as the brainchild of tech industry veteran Jennifer Pahlka, who recently served as the Deputy Chief Technology Officer of the United States. Through its open-source “civic hacking” projects, the organization promotes efficient and transparent participation in local government by tech-minded citizens.

Solomon is one of those citizens. Last year, he worked as a Code for America Fellow, collaborating with the city government of San Francisco, tackling local issues. Today, he is a member of Code for America’s Health Team.

Solomon’s team created Balance in response to Fellow Alan William’s experiences with CalFresh, California’s state food stamp program. William took note of the complex and inconvenient process Americans went through to check their EBT card balance.

Code for America Fellow Alan Williams, whose experiences with CalFresh inspired the app. Courtesy photo.

Code for America Fellow Alan Williams, whose experiences with CalFresh inspired the app. Courtesy photo.

“He noticed that there were basically two ways to check your EBT balance: carrying past receipts around wherever you went, and calling an 800 number, giving your information to a robot, and having it read your balance to you,” recalled Solomon. “The problem with the first is that people want to know their balance before they make a purchase, not after. The problem with the second is that it’s a plain hassle.”

Using Code for America Internet channels, Solomon and his team touched base with other Fellows about the problem Williams had observed. Balance went live mere hours after its online inception with the help of coder Dave Guarino.

In the organization’s spirit of openness and participation, you can view the initial conversation online.

Balance itself uses existing phone interfaces to access users’ EBT account information. Any text sent by a user to their service center initiates, behind the scenes, an automatic telephone call to the center’s systems. With the user’s EBT number, the app navigates the call’s required responses in order to transcribe the account balance. Cloud communications company Twilio provided the technology that drives the automated phone call.

Importantly, this automated setup allows for Balance’s maximum application and expansion.

“Most states use the same avenues to issue and manage EBT cards for the SNAP program,” said Solomon. “This means that they use the same phone system, which in turn allows us to easily modify Balance to work in multiple states.”

For now, Balance officially works in four states: California (where it started), Texas, Pennsylvania, and Missouri. Solomon reports, however, that the app is rapidly reaching functionality in several other states.

Code for America Fellow Dave Guarino built the Balance app. Courtesy photo.

Code for America Fellow Dave Guarino. Courtesy photo

The 2013 American Community Survey, conducted by the United States Census Bureau, reported that, out of 620,467 households in Bexar County, nearly 99,000 received SNAP benefits in the 12 months prior to the survey.

The Texas module was created in-house by Guarino, and went live for users on Sept. 7.

With these figures, Balance stands to assist almost a sixth of Bexar County homes.

The app also has the opportunity to help the SNAP program reach more citizens who need it. In 2008, the U.S. Census reported, only one half the individuals in Bexar County eligible for the SNAP program made use of its benefits.

“Small things add up,” said Solomon during his recent Code for America Summit presentation, and it’s not hard to imagine the complexity of managing SNAP funds adding up to eligible Americans not receiving the assistance they need. By simplifying one aspect of SNAP through the increasingly familiar interface of SMS messaging, Balance has the potential to narrow the gap.

“Bad government forms create a divide between government and citizens,” said Maya Benari, a member of San Antonio’s own Code for America team, in a previous interview with the Rivard Report. While not a form per se, the process of checking one’s EBT balance is an inconvenient divide Balance works to fix.

“In regard to the city, Balance really supports the ongoing SA2020 initiative causes of Health and Family Well-Being,” said Benari.

Benari, along with the rest of the San Antonio team, is currently working with the San Antonio city government on the web-based housing permit initiative Homebase, which also seeks to cut through needless bureaucratic complexity.

For the app itself, growth is inevitable. Since its creation, 500 unique users have used the text system to check their EBT balance, with thousands of successful individual transcriptions.

Balance in action, using a trial EBT number. It took less than a minute to receive the text containing the balance amount.

Balance in action, using a trial EBT number. It took less than a minute to receive the text containing the balance amount.

Balance’s main drive today is to reach functionality in all 50 states. Solomon stresses that the process of adding states can be completely community driven. “We have been reaching out to Americorps for information on EBT management per state, and to local Code for America Brigades for technical assistance,” he said. “Any tech-minded individual can help.”

True to Solomon’s word, the Balance team has provided a complete set of online resources for using and modifying the app. Through the app’s online network of sites, you can find Balance’s source code, an in-progress spreadsheet of state EBT information, and instructions on how to add a state to Balance’s system. Helping to collect state information doesn’t require any coding experience, but writing individual state modules requires some work in Ruby, the programming language in which Balance is written.

On the backend, Balance’s development team has plans for horizontal expansion. “In California, for instance, any citizen eligible for SNAP benefits is also eligible for MediCal (California’s Medicaid Welfare program),” Solomon said. “This idea is still in the concept stage, but we would like to incorporate related social services into Balance, not just in California but throughout the United States.”

One thing is certain: Balance has the potential to make life a little easier for hundreds of thousands of San Antonians, another “small thing” that, through the power of code, adds up.

To check your EBT account balance using Balance, choose a phone number from this site based on your location and preferred language, and send a text containing your EBT number to that phone number. For Texas, the numbers are: 210-960-9120 for English and (210)-625-5815 for Spanish.

Official advertisement for Balance. The phone number featured is the English service number for Texas.

Official advertisement for Balance. The phone number featured is the English service number for Texas.

*Featured/top image: Code for America Fellow Alan Williams poses for a photo to illustrate the prolonged CalFresh hold times. Courtesy photo.

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