As we approach the 2020 election, Democrats and Republicans alike are increasingly interested in a key voting demographic: rural Americans. This isn’t without cause—this demographic has heavily swung red in recent years. With the impending election, Republicans have an interest in keeping these areas, while Democrats endeavor to understand the demographic well enough to get them to change loyalties.
Intertwined with these political interests is the rural perception of the American economy: Namely, can rural Americans access basic, necessary services whenthey need them? Thanks to the internet, the answer to this is increasingly “yes.” Now more than ever before, Americans in rural areas can access online commerce and communications and tap into the global economy. For example, U.S. Representative Kelly Armstrong of North Dakota recently noted in a congressional hearing, “I come from a very rural area. The closest—what you would consider a big box store—is in Minneapolis or Denver… I think we’ve got to remember that at no point in time from my house in Dickinson, North Dakota, have I had more access to more diverse and cheap consumer products. Things that would require a plane ticket or nine-hour car ride to buy, can now be brought to my house.”
That said, these benefits aren’t reaching everyone: 20 million Americans still lack broadband connectivity, landing them on the wrong side of the digital divide. ACT | The App Association recently hosted a briefing for congressional staff in cooperation with the House Small Business Committee on the issue. The panel of experts featured four App Association member companies including Canned Spinach, GetSwift, Foster Care Technologies, and SentryOne, all of which innovate in the rural environment and overcome the challenges associated with connectivity, access to capital and talent, and ultimately, access to consumers or clients.
Getting Started in Kansas: Foster Care Technologies
Foster Care Technologies saw an opportunity in the private foster care system of the state of Kansas to assist social workers with the placement of children. One child welfare agency developed an algorithm called Every Child A Priority (ECAP) that yielded 22.5 percent better placements and a 12 percent reduction in time in foster care. The demand for the new system based on this algorithm boomed and member company Foster Care Technologies (FCT) was born.
Paul Epp, the company’s chief operating officer, elaborated on the beginnings of FCT during the panel. Because their technology originated in Lawrence, Kansas, and the company wanted to stay there, they sought venture capital funding from the Bioscience and Technology Business Center at the University of Kansas. Within the incubator, they secured $1 million in funding and attained client agencies in Oklahoma, Wisconsin, and Texas, to name a few. Paul credits the incubator for much of his startup’s success, saying that these local partnerships lead to more ownership and capital, and ultimately, a stronger foundation for his business.
That said, the gravity of FCT’s important mission did not elude the audience. “Foster care can happen anywhere. It’s when a child needs to be removed from their home due to neglect or abuse. The data you get about each child is important. It’s also important that the data is timely because children wait when they’re not placed,” said Paul. Better placement for these kids may lead to a forever home—a fit a social worker without ECAP would have taken longer to find.
GetSwift: SaaS for Company Delivery
Another company on the panel with an unusual origin story is GetSwift. Believe it or not, this company began as a liquor delivery service in the Australian Outback. Complicating the delivery process were roads in the Outback with difficult-to-pronounce names and sporadic broadband connectivity. In addition, customers wanted to know when to expect their delivery—and if it was delayed, where it was. As the backend location-tracking software improved, GetSwift began offering their services to other companies looking to provide direct consumer delivery.
As panelist John Wilson, GetSwift’s chief strategy officer, noted, “We live in an imperfect world, and you start with what you have.” He held up a smartphone and said, “Everyone has one of these: drivers do, customers do. As broadband is built out, you can do more data, service the customer, a farmer can see what the weather might mean today, and what the connectivity issues are when it comes to delivery. Then you have it all together in a seamless way.”
He held up a smartphone and said, “Everyone has one of these: drivers do, customers do. As broadband is built out, you can do more data, service the customer, a farmer can see what the weather might mean today, and what the connectivity issues are when it comes to delivery. Then you have it all together in a seamless way.
Nowadays quite a few of GetSwift’s clients are farm-to-table operations. Restaurants and direct consumers alike unsurprisingly like to know where their purchase is in the delivery process. GetSwift has allowed their clients and ultimately their clients’ customers to do this in a relatively inexpensive way by providing an Uber-like mobile interface. This strengthens the company-consumer relationship like never before, often exponentially increasing sales for the companies that use GetSwift’s technology.
Connectivity is Key for Member Companies Canned Spinach and SentryOne
Speaking of getting from point A to point B, the cost of lost productivity when driving certainly isn’t lost on Andrew Savitz, partner at digital design and marketing firm Canned Spinach. His firm has created two solutions for clients Toyota and BodyBoss to bring the product to the consumer instead of the consumer having to go to them. For Toyota, Canned Spinach created an augmented reality app where a customer can use their phone to engage with a car as if it were in front of them. For BodyBoss, Canned Spinach has an app that uses a smartphone’s accelerometer to track the movements of a patient doing remote physical therapy. In each case patients and customers, respectively, don’t have to make what can be an hour-or-more-long drive to physical therapy a few times a week or to the Toyota dealership.
That said, both of these products are dependent on internet connectivity, with the product interface only working as well as the internet speed. Augmented reality is especially data-hungry, requiring high-speed access. Also dependent on internet connectivity are the employees at SentryOne, a database optimization company. Douglas McDowell, chief strategy officer at SentryOne, said, “Because the best technologists aren’t in the same place, we have to connect them, and a lot of my employees have connectivity problems. Think of it like checking in for your seat on Southwest without having good connectivity—but the anxiety lasts all day.”
Because the best technologists aren’t in the same place, we have to connect them, and a lot of my employees have connectivity problems. Think of it like checking in for your seat on Southwest without having good connectivity—but the anxiety lasts all day.
The Solution: Television White Spaces
We at the App Association are advocates for the use of television white spaces (TVWS), or the unused swaths of spectrum in the television band, for broadband. (Think of an old-timey TV with a dial—those hazy black and white channels where there’s nothing but static are white spaces.) The House Small Business Committee recently wrote to the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), Ajit Pai, encouraging the FCC to finalize rules on the deployment of TVWS. As we anticipate the FCC’s next steps on TVWS, we encourage all policymakers to put their weight behind this momentum and thank the Small Business Committee for the work it has done to continue forward progress. These efforts are critical to ensuring that not only rural entrepreneurs, but all Americans, can access the products, services, healthcare, and job opportunities showcased in this briefing.