MFA students win Notre Dame App Challenge with South Bend City Connect
Alexandra Muck | Thursday, March 30, 2017
Two Master of Fine Arts (M.F.A.) design students, Miriam Moore and Robbin Forsyth, won first place in the Notre Dame App Challenge Wednesday night for their mobile app South Bend City Connect. The app seeks to serve South Bend city residents who need financial assistance, want to help build up the South Bend community or are looking to better understand their finances.
Moore, a visual communications design major, and Forsyth, an industrial design major, started the project in the fall of 2016.
“We always hear about people talk about collaborating, and we don’t see a lot of it, so we thought we would try and do this,” Forsyth said.
After meeting with South Bend city leaders, Moore and Forsyth realized the city faced a problem with their 311 phone center — 80 percent of the calls came from 20 percent of the customers.
Forsyth said these customers are typically calling when they are in a panic, in situations such as when their utilities are about to be shut off.
“Once you get into shut off, you basically have to show up with cash at the city office to pay your bill. We wanted to learn more about these customers,” he said.
The two worked as volunteers at the local nonprofit Stone Soup Community to further understand these customers, who are classified as the working poor by United Way’s ALICE threshold.
“We [volunteered there] because Stone Soup is the only agency left in St. Joseph County that offers emergency aid on a walk-in basis,” Forsyth said. “It’s the only place you can go to and say, ‘Today I have a problem. I need help.’”
Through their research and volunteer work, Moore and Forsyth identified 40 percent of St. Joseph county residents belonged to the working poor — members of the working poor are subject to what Moore and Forsyth call the “additional costs of poverty.” These costs typically result due to a lack of a bank account and include fees to cash paychecks or short-term, high-interest loans.
“The less money you have, the more expensive it is to live sometimes,” Forsyth said. “If you don’t have the convenience of enough cash flow to have some money in the bank to be able to wait for your paycheck to clear, you’re spending money to access your money.”
Moore and Forsyth also found these low-income residents typically do not have access to a desktop computer and instead use a smartphone for internet access.
While Moore and Forsyth said South Bend is planning to revamp its website to help reduce the strain on its 311 call center, they identified a mobile application as a better option. This realization led to birth of South Bend City Connect.
“South Bend City Connects integrates financial education, low cost banking resources and electronic utility payments in a powerful tool to aid in the transition to self-sufficiency,” Moore said. “We see South Bend City Connect as a powerful tool that aligns with the Notre Dame vision to heal, unify and enlighten the world.”
The app offers services such as bill pay, budgeting and paying it forward to help a neighbor and reporting a city maintenance problem such as a pothole. In addition, the app alerts users as to overdraft fees when they pay their bills and will offer to connect them to Stone Soup Community, the financial education partner of the app.
Other partners for the app include Notre Dame Federal Credit Union, which is looking to offer some accounts to the working poor that will integrate with South Bend City Connect, and the City of South Bend’s Innovation Department, which will house and operate the app.
Currently, Forsyth and Moore are working with Notre Dame’s innovation department to determine the app’s future. While the two want to stay involved with the project after graduation, they would not manage the app on a day-to-day basis.
“The goal is to get the innovation department … to set something up and get a running entity,” Forsyth said.
Two other banks and a national initiative are interested in serving as partners with the app, which would allow the program to expand to a regional or national level.
“People are really excited about the idea; it’s just a matter of getting the infrastructure to scale it,” Forsyth said.