Utilizing Data Analytics to Improve Food Stamp Access
Research Associate, mRelief
When Cara Karter chose social and economic development policy as her major, she never imagined that she’d end up working for a tech startup. Now she is using policy and data analysis to help Americans get the support they need to apply for food stamps.Cara Karter (EDSE ’16)
For Cara Karter, who grew up on the South Side of Chicago and now lives in Munster, Indiana, an interest in human service research and evaluation was sparked during her first year at Illinois Institute of Technology. A subsequent opportunity to travel to San Claudio, Nicaragua, with the university’s student chapter of Engineers Without Borders, working as the group’s community needs assessment lead, further solidified Karter’s interest in the specialization.
“I found that I was well suited to research and evaluation projects in community development and continued to pursue any and all opportunities to prepare myself for a career in evaluation after graduation,” she says.
Karter’s first job out of college was working as a project assistant at Chapin Hall, a University of Chicago-based research and policy center focused on advancing the well-being of children, youth, families, and communities. Karter also worked as a research and evaluation specialist at After School Matters before returning to Chapin Hall, where she served as coordinator of research support and then as a research and development associate. Since then, she has joined mRelief, a Chicago-based tech nonprofit that helps people in all 53 states and territories that participate in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) find out if they are eligible and apply for SNAP.
“I was hired to manage all of the policy research that goes into designing civic technology and to plan and conduct research studies,” Karter says. ”During my first six months on the job, I ran mRelief's first qualitative study and spent a lot of time getting to know civic technology and the complexities of representing eligibility rules as code. Now I lead data analysis for the organization and am building out new systems for data monitoring.”
Karter says she enjoys utilizing her expertise on SNAP eligibility to train mRelief’s outreach partners on how to help applicants navigate the food stamps enrollment process.
“Those SNAP 101 training sessions are one of my favorite parts of my job,” Karter says. “I get to make all of the dry policy language come alive by sharing examples and working through scenarios, and, in the end, it helps outreach workers be prepared to better assist their clients.”
Looking ahead, Karter sees opportunities for growth at mRelief, as well as the possibility of further education for herself with support from an annual tuition assistance stipend from mRelief.
“As mRelief continues to scale its technology, I see a need for more sophisticated data systems,” she says. “I'm looking to build skills in database engineering to continue to grow those capacities. I will be graduating with a M.Ed. in statistics this May [from University of Illinois Chicago], but am also weighing the possibility of going back to school part-time in an online program for a second bachelor's, likely in data science or informatics, so I can build those database engineering skills.”