Think Globally, App Locally

In the Global App Initiative's computer lab, the Harlem Hospital team works on integrating new health-related content about asthma into their app.
In the Global App Initiative's computer lab, the Harlem Hospital team works on integrating new health-related content about asthma into their app.

A modest College of Engineering workshop that built mobile apps for community service organizations last summer has mushroomed into a vibrant BU-wide student organization that is enhancing communication between pediatric emergency staff and families in New York, enabling collaboration between hundreds of technology trainers, and has its sights set on a massive global project to convert landfill waste into energy.

Last August the College of Engineering ran a five-day residential workshop called Clean App Your Neighborhood, in which 30 undergraduates and recent graduates from across the country designed and built mobile apps to boost the productivity of volunteers for five community service organizations seeking to improve access to healthcare, education, nutrition and other critical resources. Supported by BU faculty and industry experts, the participants assessed each organization’s needs, developed a project plan and initial concept design, produced a rapid prototype of its app, and solicited feedback from organizational representatives.

Eager for a year-round version of the highly successful workshop, five College of Engineering undergraduates took the logical next step: they formed a student organization, the Global App Initiative (GAI), where undergraduates across BU could learn how to design and build mobile apps while addressing the needs of community service organizations. Since its founding last September, GAI has grown to more than 100 members, produced several apps for volunteer-driven organizations recruited by GAI—and recently began to field requests from app-seeking organizations around the world.  

That includes Sustainable Waste Resources International (SWRI), a new nonprofit that plans to recruit 10,000 volunteers (mostly students) around the world to collect and share data about 100,000 landfills that could vastly improve the quality of the environment and public health for 1 billion people in developing countries. Starting with data provided by Esri, a satellite mapping technology company, SWRI aims to equip volunteers with up to three apps to help them identify landfill sites where waste recovery and conversion businesses could profitably transform garbage into recycled materials, fuel or energy.

That’s where GAI comes in. On April 19 from 10 a.m. to noon in Photonics 206, the club will host a seminar on the SWRI effort, known as the Waste to Worth project, to launch the project and invite BU students to participate starting in September. Featuring the CEO of SWRI and a senior program leader at Esri, the seminar will explore how Geographical Information Systems (GIS) mapping and ground-based information collected by volunteers can be used to improve the lives of people in resource-limited countries, and how GAI members can be part of the solution.  

Working in teams, the club has already developed apps to solve problems for four community service organizations, from Harlem Hospital’s pediatric emergency department to the World Computer Exchange, which provides refurbished computers and technical training to youth in developing countries. The Harlem Hospital team’s app provides simple, clear and concise instructions to parents with educational and language challenges so they can respond more effectively to children with asthma, sickle cell anemia and other illnesses. The World Computer Exchange team’s app is designed to help the organization’s 800 volunteers collaborate with one another to improve their effectiveness as technology trainers.

“The work offers a lot of freedom of expression and team interaction, and provides a great opportunity to make a real difference,” said Habib Khan (ECE’14), president of GAI. “While you have the time as a student, why not give back to the world?”  

Supported by funding from the Kern Family Foundation and ongoing training sessions from BU and industry professionals, the club meets at 111 Cummington Mall in a classroom and computer lab provided by the Computer Science Department where members learn about, design, develop and publish iPhone, iPad and Android-based, open-source apps that any organization may use. Today about 80 core members participate in one of four teams composed of students from ENG, CAS, CFA and SMG. Each team has a leader, communications director, lead developer and lead graphic designer.

“What we started as a co-curricular initiative has now morphed into a popular campus-wide extracurricular activity that allows undergraduate students to apply their emerging technical, communication, artistic, management and other skills directly to respond to the needs of communities worldwide through the development of apps that support volunteer programs,” said Jonathan Rosen, director of Technology Innovation Programs for the College of Engineering, and faculty advisor for GAI. “It also reflects the College’s commitment to educating students to become Societal Engineers who apply what they learn to solve challenging problems faced by communities and the world-at-large.”