'Real Change' Goes Mobile

Since 1994, homeless and low-income vendors have been selling Real Change newspapers on Seattle streets as a more secure alternative to panhandling. Over two decades, the local publisher has proved adaptable to the needs of both purveyors and customers, and now Real Change is addressing a new reality—our increasingly cashless economy. Since so few people carry cash (let alone exactly $2), the organization worked with volunteer software developers at local Google campuses to develop a free smartphone app that allows buyers to purchase the paper by using their phones to scan a code on the vendor’s badge. Once the payment is accepted (via iTunes or Play Store), the vendor hands over a print copy and a digital version of lands on the buyer’s phone. Founding director Timothy Harris says he wanted an app that would accommodate our increasing reliance on mobile phones, attract a younger demographic of buyers and preserve the face-to-face exchange between vendors and customers—the last of which he says is crucial to the success of the business model. Slated to launch this month, the first wave of badges featuring the app code will be restricted to vendors with an established turf and a consistent customer base. In a few months, the program will expand to more vendors, and eventually Harris hopes to share the technology with street newspapers around the world.