How do we value Public Good Technology?

A Ford Falcon, parked on the street.

A comment that was made from the stage at Good Tech Fest is sticking with me. A speaker talked about the need for makers to value their work and to find ways to monetize it so that they can continue to deliver, support, and (with perseverance, planning, and a helping of luck) create the intended impact. He pointed out that this is a hard conversation, that the word “monetize” can feel difficult and crass. But, he said, it’s a necessary conversation if we think the work is worth it.

I often make a throwaway comment about monetization; in fact, I had made one from the same stage the day before. I made it about Range, a little app that is close to my heart. Range shows a school-aged youth in the U.S. the nearest place to get a free meal. It works just like you’d expect: It opens to a map. You are the blue dot, and the red dots are all the open summer meal sites. You don’t need to log in and you don’t need to know your zip code. You just need a phone and a data plan. A youth can use it, their caregiver, a librarian, a street outreach worker.

When asked how I am going to monetize Range, I say that I have no intention of monetizing childhood hunger and family poverty. It’s meant to get attention, and it does. The comment at Good Tech Fest made me think more: Am I not valuing the work of this app enough to ask for the money we need to keep it going?

First, a few things:

  1. I understand monetization as building an earned revenue strategy. Which is not the same thing as ongoing financial support. When I say “monetization” this is what I mean: I am not planning to build a strategy in which the primary beneficiaries of Range are expected to pay (more than their phone and data costs) for its use.
  2. I am not above — and often do — ask for grant and donor support for Range. In those asks, in fact, I sometimes smile and say to whomever asked, “My monetization strategy is to ask you for money over and over.” I’m not kidding. That’s exactly how the grant system is set up. It doesn't work well for any of us.
  3. We made Range as skinny as we could. It uses data published by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Also, Range doesn't require a login so we don’t have to worry about storing and protecting PII, especially PII of minors.
  4. Because the impact is common sense and additive — and the project itself is so lightweight and inexpensive — we have not done anything approaching a full-scale evaluation. We do know that the use is increasing. We know the school districts throughout Pennsylvania point to it as a resource for summer meals. As do PTAs around the country. We know that Summer Meal Administrators in some states use it to make sure the data they have and are submitting to the USDA are accurate. We are also able to confirm that meal sites really are in the given location and really are open on the published days and hours.
  5. Honestly, that’s enough for us to keep the app going.

We've asked for money. Money to expand the features in Range so trusted individuals are able to add, remove, and edit sites. Money to update the technology used to power the app. Money to do more interviews and understand how it’s being used by site administrators to see if there is functionality we could build out for them.

And we have been told “no” every time.

No, because we don’t have a monetization strategy. No, because there are other places youth and their caregivers can learn the location of meals. No, because we haven’t done an evaluation. No, because we can’t prove the long-term impact.

I’ve struggled with all of this. It’s so inexpensive. $20,000 would go far in improving Range. Let us spend that, and get more info about the use and share it. But please don’t ask us to do an evaluation that would cost more than the app costs to build, maintain, and deliver. Please don’t ask us to hold information on young people and those who care about them. There's no reason to add that overhead to this effort. Instead, let us do interviews that help us build the functionality and utility. Let us use implicit measures of impact. We can assume, for example, that Pennsylvania finds Range valuable because they share it. We can assume they share it because it is valuable for their community.

So, how do we talk about this in a way that isn’t just “give us money because we like our idea” or “we don’t value this enough to support it financially, not really”?

Should we use a different way of thinking about how to fund these projects? Projects that are more like a public good?

A lighthouse is often used as an example of a public good (and challenged as an example). I find it useful here:

  1. It provides a benefit to everyone — sailors, ship owners, merchants, people who depend on the goods in the ship, and casual boaters.
  2. It's hard (if not impossible) to exclude a set of people from its benefits.
  3. It does not get less bright for one ship if another is using it.

There are many schemes to pay for the operation of a lighthouse. They can rely on something like a tax taken at port — a shipowner pays based on their share of the value. A percent based on the value of their cargo, say.

So how can we extend this idea to create a fund for tools like Range? Tools that aren’t the direct provision of services but make those services, in some way, work better.

How do we get money into that fund?

The government? They are paying for the direct provision of services. And that is hard. Organizations like Feeding America talk about the importance of the Farm Bill. I’d like to hold the federal government accountable for the infrastructure and tools that support their programs. But they are not doing enough to support basic provisions. It makes me think we should keep the fight there. Which I know let’s them off the hook. At least for now.

People who are providing the equivalent for-profit commercial resources? So, in this example, it might be grocery stores, restaurants owners of a certain size, companies like those that make food delivery apps. A small percent of their money could go into this fund. We have something like it with the Community Reinvestment Act. With the way we settle lawsuits or distribute fines.

Foundations? They could pay into a fund proportionate to their funding in the issue area. Give USD 2 M a year to food security organizations? Put .5% of that into a fund that helps build out the tooling that makes them better, as a whole. There are examples: Blue Meridian is just one of them.

How is this different from what happens now? We provide a clear total for money that is dedicated to supporting the tools that make the provision of services work better. It demonstrates the value of these tools to everyone, including the Makers. It reduces competition — no longer forcing digital infrastructure to compete with the actual services themselves. If done well, it incentivizes collaboration.

I believe this kind of strategy supports the Makers of these products and encourages them to build products that can continue to be delivered and improved. It does that without putting a burden on the Maker to figure out an earned revenue strategy. It acknowledges that many of these tools are not intended to return a profit and are being made a public good.

There are many issues, of course, that would have to be worked out. How do you govern such a fund? How do you apply for funds? What requirements might we put on people who access these funds? How do we share results in a way that accelerates what we know about the field?

But all of this feels like it could be a part of a structural shift that responds to the prompt about valuing the time and effort of the people who make public good technology. and start to build out a financial infrastructure that can support a subset of these.

*The photo above has nothing to do with the post; I just like it.