Human services agencies that serve families in need in Lincoln and Lancaster County, Nebraska have a wealth of program information in catalogs and on websites. But what happens in a crisis situation when someone may not have internet access? The answer may be an app.
“In a crisis, I can’t just hand a family a catalog,” said Bryan Seck, Employment Skills Developer with Prosper Lincoln. “It’s always been a dream to put that data together in some kind of app.”
Seck is very familiar with poverty and homelessness in Lincoln, and the programs that serve these populations. Prior to joining Prosper Lincoln, he was the Homeless Outreach Specialist for Lincoln Public Schools.
“I worked with 500 homeless students every year,” he said. “During the course of my career, I’ve memorized catalogs from the Center for People in Need, Department of Health & Human Services and United Way’s 211 service.”
The issue is that people in need sometimes, or perhaps often, don’t know these resources exist.
“They might not know that Community Action can help if you’re behind on an electric bill,” Seck said. “Or the Salvation Army if you’re behind on a gas bill. If you don’t know that, you don’t know that.”
Seck was a participant in Leadership Lincoln last year. One requirement for each participant is a community service project. Seck convinced his team of nine to pursue the app concept, called MyLNK.
“I very selfishly suggested this project because it meets a need,” he said. “There’s really nothing out there for a resource that people can have on their phone.”
The team was hoping somebody’s friend could build MyLNK, but that didn’t work out. Then they were introduced to Don’t Panic Labs.
“It was the beginning of the summer when we first met with Bryan and the team to see what their needs were,” said Matt Will, Architect (aka Code Wrangler) with DPL. “We were trying to come up with a project for summer interns. This was low risk to experiment with, and one of our core principals is giving back to the community.”
The concept is to consolidate program data from various human services resource providers into an app that can be downloaded onto a mobile device, but that does not require internet or cellular service to access once the app is installed.
“When you think about low-income families in Lincoln, most have a mobile phone,” Seck said. “The difference is that I have a data plan and they don’t, they just use it as a wifi device. When they go home with no internet, the only thing that works is what’s in its memory.”
One of the lead developers for the app is Noah Costello, an intern at DPL and student at Lincoln Southeast High School and The Career Academy. He connected with the internship through 1st Job-Lincoln, a high school internship program coordinated by the Lincoln Human Resource Management Association.
“I hadn’t had a lot of experience planning out a project from the beginning, organizing things in a way that makes the project run smoothly,” Costello said. “To have the freedom to design it and plan it out has been a really big learning experience for me.”
MyLNK is designed to be searchable by topic or category. Feedback from service organizations in the community have led to additional features such as accessibility improvements or not storing browsing history associated with the app to prevent leaving tracks for perpetrators.
“Along the way Noah and the other interns had the chance to interact with the Commission for the Blind & Visually Impaired,” Will said. “Through that process, we were able to learn how they interact with smartphone applications. Accessibility is a huge thing, and we’re striving to make something that’s useful for everybody.”
Hoping for a launch early next year, Seck and his team are reviewing data for accuracy. As data is updated, it can be downloaded to the app whenever it is connected to a wifi network. He is very complimentary of the work done by human services organizations to compile resource directories, and their willingness to cooperate with MyLNK. He also thanked the Community Health Endowment for financial support for the interns and marketing efforts.
“They did all the work, and they collaborated,” he said. “The idea is to take all this information that exists, put it together and have it be an accurate representation of all the services that are available.”
“We don’t want to take away from what people are already doing,” he added.
Rod Armstrong is Vice President of Strategic Partnerships for AIM in Lincoln, Nebraska. He is a regular contributor to Silicon Prairie News.