Knight Foundation: Welfare Benefits for Chicago’s Poor

Knight FoundationOn Jan. 26, the Knight Foundation announced the winners of its annual contest, the Knight News Challenge on Data. The challenge, which was inaugurated in 2007 amid the disruption that the digital age brought to journalism and news generally, grants select winners a share of $3 million.

Knight News Challenge winners can receive substantial funding to carry out their projects, said Anusha Alikhan, Knight Foundation Communications Director in an email.

“For example, eight of the Knight News Challenge on Data winners received investments of $237,589 to $470,000,” she said. “Nine early-stage ideas received $35,000 each through the Knight Prototype Fund, which helps innovators take media and information projects from idea to demo.”

This year’s challenge was the most competitive to date, capping at 1,060 submissions.

“The project unlocks information about how data can be used for community problem solving,” said Nina Zenni, the foundation’s Media Innovative Associate. “It makes data easier to interact with.”

Among the 17 winners this January was mRelief’s Documents Empowerment Project, a project that helps low-income users prove eligibility for public benefits programs. The project was established in September 2014 by a Chicago-based, all-female software development team. It received $250,000 as a winner of the Knight News Challenge on Data.

mRelief began as a medium through which those eligible for public assistance – including food stamps, free public transit and family health care – could bypass long lines and receive fast information about whether they qualify for state and nation-wide welfare programs.

Through a series of questions, the web application determines a user’s eligibility, local resources and the next steps to take in procuring the provided public benefits. Since its founding, mRelief says that its tool has reduced eligibility determination time by 75 percent.

The project has also evolved to include a wide variety of programs, partnering with the Chicago Public Library and Catholic Charities and expanding to a larger user base.

Through a partnership with Purple Binder, an application that refers to low-income communities to local services like food pantries or homeless shelters, mRelief was able to extend its reach beyond those who qualify for welfare benefits. mRelief is now accessible in a number of Chicago-based community centers, having created an eligibility tool capable of multi-program screening.

The mRelief project previously received funding from Knight Foundation as part of its Knight Prototype Fund in May 2015.  During its prototype stage, the mRelief board participated in a Knight Foundation-sponsored human-centered design workshop, becoming familiar with a wider user base to understand its needs.

They found, for example, that 54 percent of Illinois residents are not smartphone users, and would therefore not benefit from a smartphone application. Hence the creation of the SMS-functionality, allowing non-smartphone users to type “hello” to a number and fill out a text-delivered questionnaire.

This modernization of public assistance allows underprivileged populations streamlined access to welfare benefits within the area — in this case, the greater Chicago area. How such data usage could expand to an international level, however, remains on the horizon.

The Knight News Challenge on Data supports ideas that make data work for individuals and communities. A growing number of applicants begets a growing number of entrepreneurial projects seeking to merge data usage for increased impact.

As Jonathan Sotsky, Knight Foundation Director of Strategy and Assessment, writes: “Data provides an opportunity for fundraisers to allocate resources to the most effective nonprofits and increase the impact of programs they support.”

If this were to happen on an international level, it might change the landscape of global philanthropy for the better.

Nora Harless

Sources: The Knight News Challenge on Data, The Knight Foundation, mRelief
Photo: StockMedia