19 Feb 2014

Geeks doing good: tech entrepreneurs tackle social issues

While some computer whizz-kids have got a bad name in San Francisco for pushing up house prices and making insensitive remarks about less affluent residents, others have the community firmly at heart.

Rose Broome is the co-founder of HandUp, a start-up tech company with a focus on philanthropy, writes Mikayla Bouchard. HandUp is a direct donation system for people in need. It connects sponsors with homeless individuals, or “members,” and allows them to donate over the Internet.

Ms Broome, a native San Franciscan, deplores the current friction between different residents of her city:

“There has become this polarisation—that we see it as tech against everyone else and I think that is really a false dichotomy,” she said. “There are so many different kinds of people in the city and so many people working to make the community better.”

An influx of young tech wokers has been widely blamed by more long-standing residents for a wave of rocketing rental prices, rising eviction rates and a decrease in the number of rent-controlled apartments.

Ms Broome’s company HandUp is currently part of a startup incubator company called Tumml, which focuses on nurturing young companies that look to tackle urban problems.

Tumml in action at the Hatch Today

After applying to Tumml and joining the incubator’s first cohort, HandUp was brought into a cowork space called the Hatch Today.

Of the almost 100 startups in the Hatch Today, Ms Broome says that HandUp is one of many that have a philanthropic focus, continuing a trend they call, “tech for good.” Others include Watsi – which crowdsources funding for “low-cost, high-impact medical care” – Kiva Zip, and DataKind – which brings together data scientists to work for free for non-profit making organisations to help improve the collection of the data that can inform policy decisions.

No money in it?

“It is a very dynamic startup ecosystem here,” said Ms Broome. “Some of our team participated in a ‘Hack for Good,’ hack-a-thon…people came together, different technologists, and built projects for good.”

The startup trend is a major aspect of the tech boom phenomenon in San Francisco. But in the face of heavy competition, Ms Broome is quick to point out that tech workers at these young startups are hardly financially flush:

“I understand why people are frustrated. It is very expensive to live in this city… A lot of start-ups are boot-strapped and don’t have a lot of money as well so I can definitely empathize with that from a personal place.

“I think we should start seeing the tech community as allies rather than enemies. And that if we all work together we can come up with more practical, actionable solutions to what is going on right now.”