'Working Poor Finder' Helps Predatory Lenders

One of Front Seat's most popular Web sites is for the Predatory Lending Association. It features "racial profiling tools" and a "working poor finder."

Yes, both the association and the online tools are spoofs. "It's sort of a Stephen Colbert-esque satire," said Mike Mathieu, founder and chairman of Front Seat, referring to the star of a Comedy Central parody news television program.

Seattle's Front Seat describes itself as a civic software company focused on building software that "connects people to the places we live, the resources we consume and our communities," according to its Web page.

Mathieu and two others started the company about 18 months ago, beginning by experimenting with ways to use software to "make the world a better place," he said. "The theory going into it was that software is getting so cheap now. Ten years ago to make the average .com Web site, it was a million bucks and up."

That meant Web sites had to consider ways of earning revenue (or otherwise raising cash) to cover development costs. Now, however, a couple of people can launch an interesting site in a weekend, he said. As a result, people like Mathieu and his colleague -- two of them worked for Microsoft and they've all founded and sold startup businesses -- can build sites without worrying about a revenue stream. "Now it's cheap enough to focus on the social benefits of software," he said.

Front Seat is organized as a for-profit company, but Mathieu looks at it more as a hybrid philanthropy, he said. "The first thing we measure really is the social [return on investment]," he said. "And if we can maximize that and have revenue, that's a great thing, but it's not our primary focus."

Take the Predatory Lending Association. Front Seat created the site to draw attention to the tactics that some lenders use to prey on disadvantaged people. "We could have put Google Adwords on that and probably made some revenue, but we decided not to. It's a stronger message not to have it," he said.

Some branches of the military currently use the Web site as a tool to help teach new recruits about the dangers of predatory lenders, many of which target military bases. In fact, the Navy sent a letter of commendation to Front Seat for its development of the site, Mathieu said.

Another of Front Seat's projects, and its most popular to date, does have a revenue stream, although not enough to cover costs, Mathieu said. Walk Score is a Web site that lets users input a home or apartment address, and then it generates a score for the location based on how easy it is for residents to do without a car. It uses data from Google Maps, such as what types of shops, parks and schools are nearby.

Front Seat has also built a "heat map" for Seattle that lets viewers see at a glance the most walkable neighborhoods. Those shaded green are the most walkable, with those in red the least. The company plans to launch similar maps for the top 40 cities in the U.S.

For now, Google Adwords provides the only revenue for Walk Score. But real estate groups and new condo developments have contacted the company about using the Walk Scores to promote their properties, he said.

Front Seat "accidentally" launched Walk Score last July, Mathieu said. One of his colleagues finished a prototype of the site and sent an e-mail around to a few friends pointing them to the site and asking them for feedback. "It went viral," Mathieu said. In a day and a half, 100,000 people were trying to access the site, far more than the company was ready for, he said.

He listed a whole range of benefits to living in a walkable neighborhood, including health and environmental upsides plus cost savings from using less gas. There are also social benefits because walkers bump into their neighbors while walking up the block, he said.

My neighborhood fares relatively well on Walk Score, especially compared to some of my more well-off fellow Seattlites. My house gets a score of 88--100 is the most walkable.

If the address I found online for Bill Gates is correct (and it looks right on the map), he gets an 11, meaning I wouldn't expect to bump into him strolling through his neighborhood to the corner store when the family runs out of butter. I couldn't easily find Steve Ballmer's exact address online, but the neighborhood where he lives, which is quite close to Gates', scored a 34.

Rocker Dave Matthews' Seattle neighborhood, Wallingford, gets a 90, and he sure takes advantage of its walkability -- at least if you can believe the stories of practically everyone in Seattle who has a tale of seeing him at some shop in the neighborhood. (Ironically, almost every story includes an aside about how unrecognizable Matthews was, with a full beard and clothes so tattered he looked like a bum.)

In addition to the predatory lender site and Walk Score, Front Seat has worked on a handful of other projects, including one that aims to display data on Seattle electric bills comparing the customer's usage to the city average. Front Seat thinks that people's competitive natures will kick in when they see the comparison, driving them to consume less energy.

Mathieu wouldn't say what projects to expect next, but he said that the company plans to see what happens if it narrows its focus. Upcoming projects, then, will focus on walkability and ideas for how people can "lead a less car-dependent lifestyle," Mathieu said.

He said he's game to hear ideas, so anyone with suggestions for fun projects Front Seat might be interested in can e-mail them to the company.

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