The City of Edmonton, Alberta found that the benefits available to residents may not be apparent to them, and in an effort to create transparency and open lines of communication, it created “You Can Benefit“. The program provides easy access to information about a range of financial benefits and subsidies for residents. By entering simple demographic information, a user can determine which benefits are available to them. It was co-created with the Edmonton civic technology community and is currently operated by the City of Edmonton. Managing Editor Laura Benold spoke with two members of their team who shared about how the project came to exist and what they learned along the way: Katie Walker, a Community Development Social Worker with the City of Edmonton, and Norman Mendoza, Manager of Open City and Technology for the City of Edmonton. Check it out!
LB: Tell me about your winning project.
KW: You Can Benefit is a made-in-Edmonton project that was created in response to the expressed needs of our community, with the support of committed volunteers, community organizations and the City of Edmonton. This easy-to-use web-based tool provides easy access to a range of municipal, provincial and federal benefits. Individuals can answer 8 screening questions and will be directed to the benefits and subsidies they could be eligible for, including up to 33 different benefits and programs. These benefits and subsidies can represent up to 40 per cent of income for lower-income residents.
LB: Why is it important to the City of Edmonton to strive for community engagement?
NM: The City of Edmonton is actively seeking opportunities to collaborate with our community of partners and residents. It has become a key component of how we work. The more community involvement we have, the better we can design new solutions to complex City challenges.
LB: Of all of the options to achieve your goals, why did you choose this route, specifically?
NM: The challenge of reducing poverty through financial empowerment is the exact type of complex issue that requires collaborative solutions. Several of the collaborators were already working together on other financial empowerment initiatives and the community co-creation of a technology product was a very natural extension to that work. With the constant spread and speed of technological solutions, we were able to create an easy-to-use app that anyone can access, which was one of our key objectives.
LB: What results have you seen, so far, and which ones surprise you most?
KW: There are about 350 users who have consistently used the service each month which indicates it is still relevant since we launched at the end of 2017. This is a good start toward our usage goals and we hope to continue to spread the word in the community.
LB: What partners did you work with on the project, and why were they chosen?
KW: You Can Benefit was developed in collaboration with the City of Edmonton and the non-profits e4C, Beta City YEG and End Poverty Edmonton. The initial idea was built on the foundational work of the City of Edmonton with Vibrant Communities and e4c’s Make Tax Time Pay Program. It evolved into a technical project with the support of Beta City YEG, which is a regular meetup connecting public employees, citizens and members of Edmonton’s tech and data community. It was the work of a citizen volunteer who provided the technological support to create the benefit navigator tool that was able to address a complex social issue.
LB: What advice would you give another city looking to do the same thing, and do you think your project would work in any size city or only one similar to yours? Why?
KW: Our advice would be to ensure that the project is relevant to the community and engage the community organizations and community volunteers. Without the community engagement we would not have been able to accomplish what we have, and they provide additional perspectives that are very valuable to the project.
We think that the project would work best in medium to large cities, as they have a variety of benefits and services available to make the development of the app worthwhile. Smaller communities may have more centralized benefit programs and may not need an additional service to bring all the information together.
LB: What does it mean to you to win a Smart 50 Award?
KW: Those of us in the Family and Community Support section with the City of Edmonton often primarily work with social issues, and we are so excited and honored to receive a technical award. We work directly with people so much, and to find a technical solution for this issue gives us hope and allows us to dream of how we can work to find technical solutions for other social issues.