"How can we use some of the same technologies that power Facebook to pay people's water bills?" — Tiffani Bell
It's the end of 2018, and charities and nonprofit organizations are gearing up for their most important fundraising campaign of the year. Over 30% of all annual giving occurs in December, with approximately 12% of giving happening in these final three days of the month. Whether it's SMS, mobile apps, social media, email newsletters, or a simple donation button on your website, technology has now made donating to your favorite cause easier than ever.
We're looking at digital giving this week on Function, and Anil talks with the creators of two of the most influential and innovative new nonprofits in the country. The Human Utility, co-founded by Tiffani Bell, helps citizens in Detroit and Baltimore pay their water bills. Anil speaks with Tiffani about what inspired her to start this initiative, and we learn more about the impact its had on communities in both cities. Anil also talks to the duo behind Appolition, Tiffany Mikell and Dr. Kortney Ziegler, about how their app helps people donate their spare change to help with community bail funds. You'll learn how even small actions in tech can enable us to be more generous, more giving and more charitable.
Anil Dash: Welcome to Function, I'm Anil Dash. If you're like me, the end of the year puts you in a little bit of a reflective mood, and I tend to think a lot about whether I'm doing enough. Am I helping? And really, at a fundamental level, am I giving enough? For some people it might just be can I give enough to get a tax break next year, but whatever your motivation, technology can actually change the way that we give. It can help us be more generous. It can help us be more thoughtful in how we give.
We're going to talk to some of the people who don't just enable us to give through technology, but then make it easier, more efficient, more part of our everyday lives. And that's transformative when we compare it to the old process of dragging out the checkbook and trying to give somebody a gift. Later, we'll hear from Tiffany Mikell and Dr. Kortney Ziegler. They created an app called Appolition, that allows users to automatically donate their spare change to help people who can't afford bail. People are often incarcerated and held in jail even for tiny offenses, and then they can't make bail and it leads to a whole series of problems that affects their entire lives.
But first, we're going to hear from Tiffani Bell.
Tiffani is the co-created of The Human Utility, and it's a simple website that lets you pay utility bills for people in need. It keeps their water running. Tiffani, welcome.
Tiffani Bell: Thanks for having me, Anil.
AD: I'm happy to have you anytime, because The Human Utility...I'm a big fan, you know, from day one, of what you do. Can you explain to folks what it is that The Human Utility does in the world?
TB: Yeah. So basically The Human Utility is a crowdfunding campaign that was put together to help people, originally in Detroit and Baltimore, with their water bills. Because when people couldn't afford their water bills in these particular cities, instead of helping them, the cities would just shut their water off and it didn't matter what the issue was. They could be someone who had just lost their job or was going though chemo, and they would turn people's water off. So all we did was just basically build a website to find people who needed help with their water bills and originally matched them to people who wanted to give $5, or in some cases $5,000, to help people with their water bills.
AD: This sense of almost direct person-to-person; I can see this person that has a water bill that needs to be paid and I can feel like I'm the one that's making that happen and helping them. It's very visceral, it's very immediate. But can you talk at a bigger level about the issue of water security? About what it is to not be able to have clean water, and who's affected by it.
TB: We have seen in the United States, the issue of Flint having water that you basically can't drink because it's polluted because for some reason Michigan can't get its act together with water, but there's this other issue where people can't afford water but it's actually drinkable. So there's places like Detroit, Baltimore, but there's also like Tulsa and New Orleans, Oklahoma City, that have been listed as places that have had shutoffs at levels just as bad as Detroit.
[audio breaks to a newscast]
Speaker 1: Thousands of Detroit water customers are at risk of having their water turned off. Now, if you live in the city....
[audio breaks back to Tiffani]
TB: Water companies, especially the public-run ones, don't get as much federal funding as they used to, and so they have to do things like make improvements to pipes and other infrastructure based off of just money that they make from revenues. What that means then is they have to keep raising rates to go along with different changes that they have to make to keep up with things like federally-imposed water quality regulations and whatnot. And again, since they don't get any federal money to do that, they have to go and change prices on customers. And in a lot of places like Detroit and Baltimore, those aren't exactly places that are swimming in jobs and people that are demographically in the highest levels of income in this country, and so what happens is those people can't afford these changes, these changes in price.
Data shows, like in Detroit for example, they've had water and sewer rate increase every single year for the last 10 years at least. And again, that translates to people not being able to afford their bills. These are public water companies, tax-payer funded, and that's what happens to people. This is a crisis that is kind of lurking in the shadows, but it's going to become worse as, again, we continue to not invest in infrastructure in this country.
One of the things that we learned in the course of doing this work is that water is tied to a whole lot of other things, that if you don't have water a bunch of other terrible things can start happening. So in pretty much every place in this country, when you don't have basic utilities in a house, that house can be declared unfit for habitation. And so in this instance, when you have kids in a house like that, that means that those kids actually shouldn't legally be living there because technically that's the definition of child neglect. They're living in a place that's unfit for habitation. And so we've seen and met people whose kids have been taken away because they didn't have water in the house. And again, that's just on top of things like not being able to do laundry, not being able to flush your toilet, not being able to wash your hands and whatnot. So people start living in really undignified and just literally families being broken up kinds of ways. It's pretty bad.
AD: So how did you find out about this?
TB: I mean, I literally read about it on Twitter. I wake up every morning and just scroll though Twitter for news stories and whatnot, and what was it, like a Thursday morning back in July 2014, I read about what was happening with like 100,000 people in the Atlantic, saying that they were going to have to live without running water because they couldn't afford the water bills. And I just decided something should change about that.
AD: So most folks, you read an article like that, this is a tragedy that's happening, and they feel depressed, they feel powerless, they feel upset and certainly care, but you did something. What was that moment, what was that inspirational moment where you see a story that says these people are going to be cut off and they're not going to have access to water. You can understand what the impact is going to be on their lives and you think I can do something about this? What did that look like? What happened?
TB: I mean, well, I didn't know any of this stuff that we know now about people losing their houses and their kids and all the other stuff that happens. I was working in City Hall in Atlanta at the time and the first thought in my mind was, knowing what I know, I just kind of starting thinking what kinds of things had to happen in Detroit for them to decide even if you can't afford your water bill and we can demonstrate that you can't afford it, we're still going to turn you off. And it just kind of pointed to a bunch of really bad decisions that people were making and it was just like I feel like we could do something about that.
So my co-founder and I, Kristy Tillman, built the website to find people because it kind of came down to, if you think about it, most people didn't owe that much money in the grand scheme of things. Like the average amount we help people with now is $300. And if you think about it, for most people, especially in tech and different industries we work in, that's not a lot of money to come up with. But for people that are between jobs and have been for a while, that is a lot of money. So we just kind of said we can throw away a hundred bucks in a weekend at a series of bad restaurants or something, here in San Francisco, so why not put that kind of money toward donating toward someone's water bill?
But, of course, both of us had huge Twitter followings, so we Tweeted about doing it and the entire internet came down and wanted to do the same thing. So that's kind of how we got started.
"Technology could really be transformative to the non-profit sector in a bunch of different ways." — Tiffani Bell
AD: So a lot of us could have that aha moment of saying, "Wow, it would be great if we could pay somebody's bill," but that's not the same thing as actually enabling it to happen. What did you have to connect together in order to make it possible for us to pay somebody's water bill for them?
TB: I mean, so that was a process, first of all, of just like I was poking around on the water company in Detroit's website and found a 400-page PDF that they had, supposedly of businesses and residential customers who they couldn't deliver the bills to by mail and for some reason they just posted them to the website. And the only thing that was missing was the name. So they had their mailing addresses, how much they owed, I believe, and their account numbers. And so at that time, the way the site was set up was that you could just take an account number and plug it into the website and it would show you everything about that account, except, in most cases, the name of the customer. It would show you everything as far as how much they owed, their previous billing and payment history, their consumption history.
So again, the first insight we had was what if we just got the account numbers of people who owed money and we just got their stories and just allowed people to come in and just pay, as if they were that person. So what we did is we basically set up this site to find people who needed the help, they told us their story and whatnot, gave us their account number. We verified a bunch of different things about their situation, like how much they owed and stuff like that, and then people would come in and say, "I want to pledge 50 bucks." And so what we would do then is we would send them directions and an account number, as far as how to go to that website and pay as if they were that person, and then they would give us the confirmation number back. And that's pretty much how the whole process ran.
So we paid like $100K in bills in like 30 days, just doing that. We had a team of volunteers from Twitter as well, and we just would email the people the directions and match people up and that kind of thing. Everything was done basically in a Google spreadsheet.
AD: So the first version of this is just a Google spreadsheet, where you're matching...almost like the have-a-penny, take-a-penny thing at a convenience store.
AD: And what was the scale of that? Just in that first sort of version you said $100,000 was pledged?
TB: Well, that's what we actually collected. So there was probably somewhere around three to four hundred thousand dollars that was pledged. We had some problems as far as the city taking that funding and whatnot. But again, yeah, the first 30 days was $100,000 worth of bills that were paid for people. It was pretty cool because, again, it's also something I didn't expect people to do, honestly. Because if you think about it, it's kind of weird for someone to pay someone else's water bill. But people totally did it because I think they saw just like ... You know, if you think about just being in an apartment building and your water is shut off for the first two hours of the day or something, you can't bathe or whatever, it's a serious inconvenience. So just think about having to live that way. I think people saw that and wanted to just pile in.
AD: You built really what was a prototype, but it got a couple hundred thousand dollars of bills paid. And then you decide to sort of make this a real thing, right? You're going to make it formal and make this what you do. Talk about that process. How did you go from this sort of "aha moment: and a Google spreadsheet being shared online, to we're going to take this and make it something that's designed and intentional and has an organization behind it?
TB: Yeah. So again, that was ... So I'll go back and I'll say, a lot of the things that we did at the very beginning were not intentional things and this was not meant to be like an entire organization, at least not originally. But the more we learned about the scale of the problem and we kept getting people that needed help and whatnot, it became very clear that we had to keep doing this work. And so I had a fellowship at another organization that was a year-long thing when I started this, but the same weekend that that fellowship ended, we were funded by Y Combinator....
AD: And Y Combinator is one of the sort of most influential and well-regarded investors in Silicon Valley.
TB: Exactly. And so they also have interest in funding nonprofits that are like tech-based in some way. So they immediately saw that, hey, you could use tech to improve the situation for people who can't afford their water bills. And again, we just were able to make it a full-time thing from that funding. And so I've been doing this full-time now since, let's see, January 2015, basically.
AD: So what was your path to this? What were you doing before and what did you study that you became a person that would create something like The Human Utility and be paying people's water bills?
TB: I started programming when I was six but also wanted to be a cartoonist, and so didn't think of it as a career choice originally, until I took a programming course in high school and then saw that, yeah, that's actually a thing you can go to school for. So I went to Howard University for computer science, I finished in 2008. Started another company that didn't work out very well after that, then also worked for a family member of mine doing Rails and iOS development. And then had a fellowship at Code for America, which is a nonprofit based in San Francisco, that helps cities with technology, at that time at least as far as using technology to improve service delivery to citizens. And I started this whole thing during that, but it was not a project of the organization's.
But again, I've always had an interest in building things that were useful to people. And I kind of laugh at Tap and Fetch It apps, or like photo filters and things like that. I mean, they have their place in the world too, but I think a lot of technologists don't spend a lot of time looking at how technology can help everyday people. And I feel like that's the only interest in it that I have, like how can we use some of the same technologies that power Facebook to help people with their water bills or improve people's ability to access other services that they might need. And that's what my interest in this has totally been. I get to use all of the skills that I sat in class for, as far as all the calculus classes and all of the different programming classes I took during college, to actually help people. And that's really rewarding for me.
AD: Do you feel like you're part of a bigger wave of technology that's trying to do good, or of different apps or different tools that are trying to help people be charitable and help others?
TB: I think so. I like to think that we kind of like help people see what's possible. And just kind of think a little bigger than like what's the next startup we can start just to get rich. I mean, that's great, but I think we're a good example of what you can do with the same kind of technologies in order to actually help.
AD: What's your favorite story of somebody who's been helped by The Human Utility?
TB: Probably ones that have to do with senior citizens and/or cancer patients. There's a video we did for GitHub, one of our other funders, where we got to meet a woman named Helen.
Helen: When that water bill come out and it said over a thousand something dollars I said, "wow, what do I do now?"
Tiffany: Helen ended up in a nursing home for like eight or nine months so she got home to this huge water bill because her toilet was running in the basement.
Helen: Tiffany assisted and given me some help and that was a life-saving thing to me.
TB: You know people paid a few hundred dollars and she got her water turned back on and we actually got to meet her and what not and she was just so delighted about, you know, having people out there who cared, basically. I think that's what I love about every single story and every single donor that helps us out is that you know, just by giving five or ten dollars or even more, whatever you're capable of, you can just show someone that somebody out there cares.
AD: And it seems like an app that let's somebody realize that someone else out there cares is about as good as we can do on the internet these days. Do you think who you are and your experiences is part of why you were drawn to build an app like this and why you're good at it?
TB: I think yes, that has a lot to do with it. I mean I'll just go ahead and say it, I'm black woman here in the United States of America. I'm 33 years old and a lot of who we're helping frankly is a lot of other black people; a lot of women come through this system who need help basically and it's highly motivating and rewarding to help people that look like you basically. Especially when they've been overlooked else wise or elsewhere and I think that actually is a really big draw for me especially as far as using tech to help these women out. A lot of other companies just don't cater to that demographic. They're overlooked completely until they have, you know the money in order from something to get delivered or whatever and use Uber or whatever. But otherwise, they're overlooked and I think the work that we do is really trying to redress that, I think.
AD: When you were at Y Combinator which helps fund and create a lot of startups, usually for profit but in your case non profit. How many other black women were there?
TB: So in my batch out of probably around 250 founders, there were two black women and both of us ran non-profits.
AD: So you've shown a model of how you take a specific problem and tackle it with a relatively straight set of technologies. This wasn't having to invent some new virtual reality thing. It's just, you know, put your credit card in here and the money goes over there. It seems like most non-profits, if they just had the technology to be able to connect the people they're helping with the people that have the money, that would solve a lot of their issues.
TB: I think that sometimes because my background is so heavy in tech that I don't think of what we've done necessarily as being groundbreaking, but I've talked to other non-profit founders, and sometimes just telling them the logistics of how our website works for example, they look at me like I discovered fire. And I think like, you know, it does speak to the state of the use of technology in the non-profit sector.
I mean, like a lot of people, you'll hear stories about non-profits using old computer equipment and stuff like that, and those are not false stories. But we kinda look at it as like technology is the center; it's central to what we do. And so we can't, you know, do anything without it basically, which some people would argue maybe is not good. But it allows us to help people much more quickly and much more efficiently.
You know we're kinda known in the community for helping people in a much faster way than you would get from other channels. Like if you applied for state relief grants and stuff like that, we help most people...sometimes the same day they apply for assistance or within that week depending on if it's like a Monday or something. And the biggest bottleneck, ironically, is government as far as them verifying details that we need to just confirm that people owe certain amounts and what not. Technology could really be transformative to the non-profit sector in a bunch of different ways.
AD: So now everybody who's listening is gonna wanna help these families in need through The Human Utility. How do they do that? Where do they go? What do we do? And what if I wanna give, you know on an ongoing basis; not just pay one bill, but help people going forward?
TB: The donation process is super duper easy. All you do is go to HumanUtility.org or DetroitWaterProject.org and you just put in your email address, your name and you know maybe a reason why you're giving and what now and how much you actually wanna give and you can just give in less than two minutes. It's a super duper easy process, and if you want to keep giving, we have a program called The Tap, of course, where you can become a recurring giver and so whatever amount you choose during the donation process comes from your debit card or credit card every single month.
AD: And if people give every month, it's always gonna go to whoever's most in need of having their water bills taken care of?
TB: Exactly. And so there's nothing you have to do besides just, you know, donate your gift. You don't have to do anything as far as picking families and that kind of thing. It's designed to be a really easy process. And then we update you, you know month by month as far as who you've helped and the overall policy situation and that kind of thing. It's a really cool program to be a part of.
AD: Tiffani, thank you.
TB: Thank you.
AD: We'll have more with Kortney Ziegler and Tiffany Mikell the creators of Appolition after the break.
"The simplest solution is always the best." — Dr. Kortney Ziegler
AD: Welcome back to Function, I'm Anil Dash.
[audio breaks to audio from Time: The Kalief Browder Story]
Speaker 1: Was the bail set?
Speaker 2: Yes.
Speaker 1: How much was the bail?
Speaker 2: Three thousand.
Speaker 3: A lot of people just go to the ATM, but we're sitting in the poorest congressional district in the county. 85 to 90 percent of people can't make bail right out of arraignment.
Kalief Browder: From what I know, you know my mom told me she didn't have the money and it was true, she didn't have the money, it was a lot for my mom.
Speaker 3: What they're being punished for is that they don't have enough money to make bail, that's their crime.
[audio goes back to Anil]
AD: That's a clip from The Kalief Browder Story. Browder was charged with attempting to steal a backpack, a charge that was later dropped. But the thing is, Kalief ended up incarcerated for 33 months at Rikers prison because neither he nor his family could make his bail of three thousand dollars.
[audio breaks to audio from Time: The Kalief Browder Story]
Speaker 5: Sounds like a small amount, but when you don't have it, you don't have it. And I did not have it. And I couldn't do anything; this was my child. They took my child from me, just snatched him off the street.
[audio goes back to Anil]
AD: Browder's story became a national headline and Jay Z got involved and started advocating for bail reform and eventually that led to the Netflix documentary that was produced. But by that time it was sort of too late for Kalief; he had ended his own life. Now we can't ascribe these things to any one single cause, but there's no question that Kalief suffered enormously because of the physical and emotional abuse he endured being at Rikers.
I had a chance not too long ago to sit down with a member of Kalief's family and the thing you realize is, it's not even just about this one person and the injustice of them sitting in jail. It affects their lives for the rest of their lives, it affects their families for the rest of their lives, and it has these effects that just undermine entire communities.
It's stories just like this that I had in mind when we talked to Dr. Kortney Ziegler and Tiffany Mikell. They created the Appolition app because it's designed to help people just like this — folks who are stuck in prison only because they can't afford bail. At a tech level, Appolition is kind of like Acorns. You sign up for the app, it connects to your bank account and it automatically grabs the spare change out of your account and sends it over to Appolition who partners with the organizations that pay bail in each local community for anybody that can't afford it.
AD: Tiffany, can you give us some background on what's the problem with bail today?
Tiffany Mikell: Absolutely. So one of the things that I'll start out by saying is that I am not an expert in bail or the bail system at all. I am a black American, and because of that my life has been intimately affected by mass incarceration, so I had come to understand how the bail system negatively impacts our community and so something like 60 percent of all the people that are in jail right now, have not even been charged with a crime. They're just awaiting trial and simply cannot afford bail.
TM: And so what that means is that if you are poor and innocent you will sit in jail and your life can be ruined in a lot of ways. So my background, I'm a software engineer by trade. Kortney and I are tech entrepreneurs, and because we are also black Americans and just people who care about the world around us, we're constantly thinking about how can we utilize technology to solve problems that matter to us. And so Kortney actually conceived the idea of Appolition and it was one of those ideas that kind of took on a life of it's own.
AD: So let's talk about that Kortney. This is something that happened in a tweet.
An app that converts your daily change into bail money to free black people.— King Kortney, PhD ✊🏿 (@fakerapper) July 23, 2017
Dr. Kortney Zeigler: Yeah, I love Twitter. I also love the kind of possibilities of Twitter being able to test ideas to see if someone will like it or retweet, and I do that quite often. I was super inspired by the work of National Bail Out which is the collective of socially driven, mission driven organizations that came together in 2017 to do on the ground, grassroots fundraising for bail, for black moms in particular, the mothers they bail out, black mamas bail out. And so I had caught wind of that, actually on Twitter and was ...
AD: Yeah and it was hugely successful.
DKZ: Yeah, they were super successful; they raised about a million dollars and it was really a moment for me that I got to see kind of grassroots fundraising open up this larger conversation of crowd funding for black freedom and I was super inspired and like Tiffany said we're tech entrepreneurs and being in this space where access to resources and a little bit of access to time that others may not have. We wanted to leverage the popularity and the ease and simplicity of spare change technology and make it applicable to something so large and helping to fight mass incarceration by bailing folks out. And so I send a tweet and got a lot of traction, a lot of retweets a lot of like "I'd sign up for that" and so we're like alright, let's go, let's do it, let's make it happen.
AD: So this is interesting because both of you, you're talking about your connection to the criminal justice system or the bail system is just as community members right? This is sort of lived experiences, but that's not your background. Your both technologists and you sort of like real casual just said, you know "spare change technology"; that's a mind bending concept, talk to me about what that means. What does that phrase mean?
DKZ: It's a concept that isn't new. A lot of banks actually have kind of save your change like Bank of America according to how you spend right, if you spend $1.50, that $0.50 goes into a savings account. There are other kinds of technologies that leverage the idea of saving or investing your money to get more money. But for me it was like okay, that model has already been proven, people have already bought into that idea of that spare change can be used to save and create something bigger and so it made sense, not a pun but that's actually great. It made sense to use something, again, something so simple, right? And something again has been proven by other spaces in other projects and other ideas of saving. So it made sense and people kind of bought into it and they're still buying into it and we sign up users every single day. We launched last November 13th 2017, we were hoping to have 200 users, we had over 10 thousand sign ups at this point. So we are excited to ...
AD: That's incredible.
DKZ: ...be able to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars and bail hundreds of people out. So we're doing that every day.
TM: Kortney and I consider ourselves social engineers and I think what that means for us is that we're not always looking to build brand new technologies but really kind of looking at existing technologies, existing models that have worked and figure out how we can apply those to really big problems that need a multi-approach solution.
AD: There are apps that will, you know, move your couple of pennies over into your savings account and do some of this automation there, but most of them are oriented around personal finance and taking care of your own financial goals, not as many of them are connected to some of the big social issues, some of the big cultural issues that we are all sort of focused on. You know there's not a lot that are sort of oriented towards justice, right? So is that the approach that you have? Is saying maybe the tech we need is mostly already out there it's just a matter of applying it?
TM: Absolutely. For us it's about which users are actually centered. Our values from the beginning has really been to be really inclusive in both our branding and our marketing and in our design of technology so Appolition is a web app, it's not a native and that's intentional because we wanted anyone on any device to be able to access it from the day we launched. Small things like that, we make sure that we take better care of just making sure that people who don't have a whole lot of money, but want to contribute are able to do so in a really easy way.
AD: So I want to take a little bit about the experience, you know I signed up for Appolition, I think right, pretty much when it launched, like the first couple days and I had saw it and seen it all over my, you know social media feeds and everything and for folks who haven't done it yet, and you all should, you go to the site, you put in, you create a normal account, you make your password and stuff and then you put in your bank account info ...
AD: ... normal account. You make your password and stuff, and then you put in your bank account info, which is a little bit of the deep breath moment really, where you're like, "Okay. Is this gonna be okay?" And then, it's just sort of magic. Can you tell us what's happening behind the scenes, as soon as I've finished that sign up, I put in my bank info, what are you all doing behind the scenes to make all this work?
AD: These are services that help you connect to bank accounts and to payment systems?
TM: Absolutely. Absolutely. So we can really focus on the hard problems that haven't been solved, like how do we get this money to community bail Funds across the country each and every month when they actually need it? How do we allow users to choose which organizations across the country they want, and which campaigns they want to donate to? Those are the problems that we focus on. Then we let the technical part of taking the money out of your bank account, the folks we spend all of their time doing fintech.
AD: Fintech is financial technology for people that are not in the know already. What you're talking about is that you're taking this cutting edge of what's happening with everybody else building apps around money, transferring money, and being able to send it anywhere, and you sort of build on top of these tools that are out there that developers know, coders know, but that maybe ordinary folks don't know that that tool is there?
DKZ: Exactly. That was super fascinating, I think, when we launched that. A lot of folks had to trust us. We actually did a study of our users to find out who they were, and where they were from, and why they wanted to participate. A lot of folks were elders, folks who are not necessarily involved on social media and using different apps all the time. It's very interesting for them to have them say, like, "Oh. I have to link a bank account," but because I think a lot the users knew who I was and who Tiffany was and kind of our portfolio of work, we had to gain trust in our users.
DKZ: You're right. A lot of folks in the industry may know what Plaid is, which is a leading company that allows folks to access to bank accounts. People may not know what Stripe is, that it pretty much is used to do payouts by a number of companies. But again, they had to trust us as people. Then once they started seeing Appolition showing up on their bank account, people got excited and they would screenshot their contributions, which still happens, and screenshot how much they've raised, and Tweet it, and Facebook it. Then that gave us more legitimacy, and more users were like, "Okay. This is a real something. It really works. It's safe, and it's actually doing something really good."
AD: Talk to me about scale. If we talk about...it's been almost a year you've been running. You've had all these people sign up. How many people have been impacted? Whether it's dollars or peoples lives, how do you all look at the impact in the world?
TM: Yeah. Although we launched a year ago, we've been live for about seven months total. As Kortney mentioned earlier, when we launched the app in November 2017, we started as a side project and it's become a really big and important and amazing side project. But we thought this was something we were gonna kind of do on the weekends and we wanted to have two hundred users by the end of the month. By the end of that month, we had two thousand users.
In the beginning, again, we were actually at that time we were using a white-labeled solution that was really only built to handle a couple hundred users. I think it maxed out at about five hundred, we were kind of...
AD: You blew past that right away.
TM: Exactly. Yeah, we were kind of like, "Oh, no. We have to actually build this thing from scratch." It was really cool, because it was a really good problem to have. We were able to take all of that early feedback on how our earliest users wanted to talk about their contributions and share them across social platforms, so we were able to build a lot of that functionally in.
TM: Yeah. In the first five months on that white labeled solution, we wanted to give the members-
DKZ: We were able to, at this point like Tiffany said, we were in seven months of operation. We took this past summer to pause the app, because we couldn't handle demand. There are two of us. We brought on a volunteer marketing director, who's really, really awesome. We brought on a social media person, and someone to help us a little bit with customer support, but it's still mainly Tiffany and myself. In that seven months, we raised about a $160,000 at this point through spare change alone, which is amazing.
AD: Wow. Unbelievable.
DKZ: Yeah, unbelievable. We were generating $30,000 a month up until April 30th of this year.
Folks don't know — bail ranges across states sometimes from a hundred dollars to thousands of dollars. Some of the folks that we've definitely bailed out, their bail has ranged from the hundreds to the thousands. We've been able to bail out over fifty people, primarily I think black Americans, and a lot of trans folks. One story is really important. It was a trans person in solitary confinement who was sitting in jail, in solitary confinement, for months. Through the work of Appolitionists, which are our users, we were able to get them out and provide them support service post incarceration, such as housing, health support, and things like that.
The amount of money we've raised, and the amount of people we bailed out, and the kind of conversation we've helped to create in the tech space, is really, really amazing. I think that with the success of Appolition, a lot of folks who were very ignorant in our industry about what bail is and how it functions have been able to have a space where they've been educated, whether by signing up, or just by intentionally being part of the online conversation and seeing the way Appolition has moved through media. It's made an impact on the amount of money it's made, the amount of people we've been able to bail out, and the amount of education we've been able to create.
AD: That's unbelievable. You're talking about in less than a year, over fifty people been helped. Not just bailed out, but in many cases to be able to sort of re-enter their life after going through the criminal justice system. You're talking about more than once a week this is happening now? Tell folks how they [can] try it. How do I sign up for Appolition? What do I do to get started?
TM: Absolutely. Any device, any browser, you can go to Appolition, A-P-P-O-L-I-T-I-O-N.us. All you have to do is have a bank account; any funding source. Actually, one of the things on version one, we had a very limited set of funding sources that were allowed on that first version. We did quite a bit of work to make sure that we were able to include thousands more; about 70% more funding sources are now included on Appolition. Go ahead. The sign up process takes just a few seconds.
Then you can also donate off the app as well. We have quite a few people who just go and sign up for monthly or weekly donation plans. You can do that from our website as well.
AD: Yeah, that's what we started doing. I had shown my wife the screenshot of dashboard and here's what we're giving. She's like, "Why are we doing the pennies thing? Let's just go and do it right." It was nice. It was like the on ramp to being more thoughtful and mindful about how we contribute.
I've got one last question, which is...this seems like it's succeeded beyond what you had ever imagined while you had this little side project you were building. But if you look even more ambitiously out there as to what are the other ways that we can be connecting to tech that already exists, without inventing anything, and help other marginalized folks -- ll the people that are underrepresented and not really taken care of by current technologies, what are the things you see out there where we could apply tech that already exists, and solve some of the harder problems around us?
TM: I think one of the really cool things about Appolition is that it has really... One of the things we talk about is the spending power of people of color in the United States. There's a lot of conversation around how do we leverage spending power to address social issues, and how do we make philanthropy easy for everyday individuals. I think the model of Appolition has really expanded possibilities around that conversation. We're really excited to, in addition to addressing issues in mass incarceration which are huge and far reaching, we want to address other issues with a similar model of leveraging spending power.
I think the other really cool thing about Appolition, and was one the reasons we really committed to building in public, is our process for building has been to always talk to the people who have the problem and talk to the people who are in the community and affected by the problem, and ask them what do they want and what could be cool. Then we look at the technology landscape at that time and figure out where the crossover is. But I think it's always critical to start with the people who have the problem and just spend time there, and the solutions will come up.
DKZ: Before we try to figure out how to apply already existing technologies to problems, we need to talk to the people that we're trying to find the solutions for. With Appolition, even though it was a tweet that really was a catalyst for it being built, it was the work that others were doing in the space, and being able to talk to them and partner with them, that really undergirded our work and allowed us to be super successful. Without us knowing and having an insight and having conversations with folks before applying technology to it, I don't think we would've been as successful at all. I think it's important for everybody in our space, and in our industry to be a little bit more aware of the communities that we want to contribute to.
AD: Well, Tiffany, Kortney, I think you have such a thoughtful and important perspective on what the tech we use can do. I think not only is Appolition important and the problem that you're tackling important, but the way you're doing it and that it might inspire other people who know how to build, who make technology, or who use these apps every day to start thinking about maybe we can apply these to more meaningful, substantive problems. Maybe for the folks that aren't the usual suspects that get helped by most of these apps. Thank you both for joining us on Function today.
DKZ: Thank you so much for having us.
TM: Thank you, Anil.
But there's a bigger lesson here too. We talk a lot about how technology's designed or created; what's just as important is who is creating that technology. Because what you'll notice is that the faces, the communities, the people that are not always represented in tech, when all of sudden they're let into the room and when they're included in the conversation, you're solving a whole class of problems that's different than just all the other apps you hear about every day. That idea that technology can help the people who are most in need, seems like the thing that got us all excited about technology in the first place.
That's it for this episode of Function. Now we gave you some ideas about how to give your money away this time out. New year, new me. We're also gonna help you plan for how to manage your money in the year to come. Join us for an episode that's focused on apps that help you do right with your money, next time on Function.
Function is produced by Bridget Armstrong. Our associate producer is Maurice Cherry. Nishat Kurwa is the executive producer of audio for the Vox Media Podcast Network. Our theme music was composed by Brandon McFarland. A big thanks to the entire team at Glitch.
You can follow me on Twitter at @anildash, and of course you can always check out Function at glitch.com/function. Please remember to subscribe to the show wherever you listen, and we'll be back next week with a brand new episode.