04/18/2014 06:10 pm ET Updated Jun 18, 2014

Make the Safety Net Smarter

Penned by Code for America staffers Jack Madans and Lauren Reid.

In order to live, we each need a few basic things: food, water, shelter. These are the fundamentals for individual health, and the foundation of a healthy society.

Without them, little else -- whether it be education, invention, or civic duty -- can even begin to matter. And everyday millions of Americans would go unfed, unsheltered, and untreated if our cities and counties didn't administer benefits and services like food assistance, shelter, and healthcare.

This mix of policies and services is known as the "safety net." In fact, it turn out 70 percent of us will rely on it at some point during our lives. It's the helping hand, the extra bag of groceries. It can be the difference between a dream deferred and the American dream.

Far too often these critical services, put in place to protect the most vulnerable in our society, are also the most difficult to navigate. In San Francisco, hundreds of families unnecessarily lose access to food stamps every month, because they don't understand which, when, and how to fill out renewal forms. And many of them learn about the termination of their benefits in the grocery store checkout line.

Underlying much of the safety net is outdated and cumbersome technology. When this technology fails and government doesn't communicate with residents in ways they understand, the safety net doesn't work. Clients and government employees are stuck at either end of a faltering system.

Fixing this system is not about expanding or cutting the safety net; it's about making the safety net smarter. It's about reducing this repetitive removal and re-enrollment process by 50 percent (which Code for America helped to do last year) and then deleting the problem altogether.

Here at Code for America, our mission is to use technology as a tool to solve problems, and to build trust between community members and government. In this pursuit, we're committing to focusing on the interactions where the stakes are highest: those where basic human needs are met.

In reaction to a string of technical failures in benefit management systems last year, one of which prevented food stamp recipients in 17 states from using their EBT cards to buy food, the New York Times observed that the "old stereotype of applicants standing in long lines" is quickly being replaced by "countless hours in front of buggy websites, then getting a busy signal when trying to get through by phone."

This is one potential fate for the safety net, but we envision an alternative future in which people are helped, not just served (and we believe there is a difference). One in which children are fed, and this unnecessarily wasted government time and resources are reallocated to other pressing matters.

This year, Code for America has partnered with the California HealthCare Foundation to focus on how we can have an impact in this area.

Here's what's already happening:

Code for America built an application with the City and County of San Francisco that is reducing that turnover I described above -- people losing their food aid because they don't understand the paperwork -- by 50 percent just by sending text message warnings to clients at risk of termination. Now, we're making it easy for this tool to spread.

What we learned from Promptly goes beyond the application. The project highlights the importance of designing government processes with the needs of the citizen at the center, not the needs of the bureaucracy. When Promptly helps clients keep their benefits, the city doesn't have to spend time and resources re-enrolling them. Here, dignity and efficiency come together.

We're also building on our work with San Mateo County's Human Services Agency last year. We created a way for human service agencies, 2-1-1 organizations (such as the United Way), and governments to share directory information about local social services in a standardized format. We're calling this data format "OpenReferral."

Unlocking this social services data is the raw material to fuel civic startups (like Aunt Bertha) and civic hackers looking to serve up this crucial information in ways more useful to both social workers and clients. People can't access services they don't know exist. Effective service delivery starts with effective service discovery.

We are also pursuing new Health and Human Services-focused work in partnership with the City of Long Beach. As part of the 2014 Code for America Fellowship, and drawing inspiration from Dr. Jeffrey Brenner's "hotspotting work" with the Camden Coalition in New Jersey, CfA will be looking at ways to to target emergency room "frequent flyers," supporting early interventions that keep these patients in better health before they resort to costly ER facilities.

Over the coming weeks and months, I hope you'll follow along on our blog and our code as we explore how we can apply technology to health and human services.