Upgrading Community Service
Undergrads Develop Mobile Apps that Make a Difference
By Mark Dwortzan
Team APPLEcation fine-tuning their strategy to develop a client intake app allowing Health Leads volunteers to spend more time with patients and less time doing data entry. Health Leads is a national non-profit that trains college volunteers to connect patients to food, housing and heating assistance and other resources.
Team Appocalypse met with Massachusetts Service Alliance representatives Shana Lothrop (top/left) and Lindsay Snyder (top/second from left) to discuss their initial plans for an app to help volunteers identify suitable service opportunities, share them on social networking sites and track hours served. Numerous MSA-supported organizations and programs throughout the state recruit thousands of volunteers to mentor and tutor youth; improve beaches, parks and trails; build affordable, safe homes for low-income families; and assist the elderly.
To build an app for the Massachusetts Service Alliance enabling potential volunteers to find suitable opportunities, share them on social networking sites and track hours served, Team Appocalypse began on paper, moved to organizing "wire frames" of basic features, added in graphics and updated the design, and programmed a simulation of the app.
Health Leads, a national non-profit that trains college volunteers to connect patients to food, housing and heating assistance, wanted a mobile “client intake” app that would allow volunteers to spend more time working with patients and less time doing data entry. The Massachusetts Service Alliance (MSA), which supports numerous AmeriCorps programs and volunteer-driven organizations across the state, sought an app that would enable a volunteer to find a service opportunity by zip code and interest area and share it on social networking sites.
Thanks to a new five-day, intensive summer residential workshop called Clean App Your Neighborhood, those apps are on the way.
Hosted August 7-12 by the College of Engineering and funded in part by the Kern Family Foundation (KFF), the program brought together 30 undergraduates and recent graduates from Boston University, Gonzaga University, Kettering University, Lawrence Technological University, St. Louis University and Worcester Polytechnic Institute—all members of a KFF collaborative network of academic institutions committed to equipping their students with an entrepreneurial mindset—to design and build apps for five community service organizations. The apps are intended to help these organizations improve access to health care, education, nutrition and other critical resources in neighborhoods in Greater Boston and around the country.
“In five days, the students went from meeting each other for the first time to giving professional presentations on their advanced prototypes of mobile apps that they had developed from scratch,” said Jonathan Rosen, director of Technology Innovation Programs at BU, who conceived and organized the workshop. “Typically getting an app to this point takes four to six weeks at a professional app development company, but two of the five teams developed apps that are nearly ready to be published and the three others are at the advanced prototype level.”
Moving Society Forward
Clean App Your Neighborhood is the latest of the College of Engineering’s ongoing initiatives to cultivate a new generation of Societal Engineers equipped to apply technical and interpersonal skills to improve the quality of life.
“Jonathan Rosen has put together a tremendous concept for a program in which you can not only work together and learn teamwork, but also get excited about how technology and innovation can impact communities,” College of Engineering Dean Kenneth R. Lutchen said to the students, whose majors included engineering, management, arts and sciences, fine arts and communications.
BU Dean of Students Kenneth Elmore added that mobile apps have the power to connect people to the wider world and to make possible entirely new ways of doing things.
“Help us all get from here to the rest of the world,” he said, “and even better, remember you have within you the capability to make the world anew all with the work that you’ll do over the course of this week with something seemingly so small as an app.”
Building an App in Five Days
Each student was assigned to one of the five teams based on his or her computing experience, skills, school and interests. After hearing from participating organizations on their efforts to improve neighborhoods through community service and their particular needs for an app, the teams partnered with one of the organizations based on shared interests.
Supported over the next four 12-hour days by instructional sessions and advice from BU faculty and industry experts on how to design, storyboard, prototype and demonstrate an app on the Apple iOS5 platform, each team assessed its organization’s needs, developed a project plan and initial concept design, produced a rapid prototype of its app, and solicited feedback from organizational representatives.
“The program opened my eyes to the capabilities I have,” said Christine Ngan, an engineering management sophomore at Gonzaga University who contributed design, development, organizational and leadership skills and substantial experience as a volunteer to support her team, APPLEcation, in its efforts to build an app for Health Leads. “If you have an overall concept of the mission and a passion for what you’re trying to accomplish, you can learn to figure out the steps along the way.”
Health Leads systems analyst Benj Kamm lauded the team’s professionalism, dedication and intuition. “They took the time to understand our needs and use our feedback to present new solutions quickly,” he observed.
Throughout the workshop, participants learned how to work effectively in teams, deal with setbacks and resolve ambiguous problems.
“At the beginning of the week, we didn’t know each other,” said Michaelina Dupnik (BME’14), who leveraged her artistic skills to help her team, Appocalypse, develop screen designs and user interfaces for an app intended for the MSA. “After the first day, we were laughing and getting along. It was interesting to work with people from different majors and backgrounds and find ways that we could each contribute.”
Bringing Apps Back to the Neighborhood
On the last day of the workshop, the teams delivered final presentations before faculty, friends, community organizations and industry experts. Even after the program, students are continuing to improve and test their apps, which are Open Source and available for free to any organization that can use them.
MSA aims to be among the first organizations to integrate a Clean Up Your Neighborhood app into their operations.
“Team Appocalypse did a great job, in a very short period of time, getting to know our organization and the role we play across the state and how to develop an app that would further our mission and work in the community service and volunteerism sector,” said Lindsay Snyder, director of External Relations & Development for the MSA. “We’re eager to work with the team on next steps. Once we have a fully-functioning app, MSA will launch a mini-campaign across the state to promote it.”
In addition to building apps for the organizations represented at the workshop, participants were encouraged to take the application design skills they developed during the week and help “Clean App” their own neighborhoods.
“I already had my own application [planned out], but I didn’t know how to build it,” said Ryan McNeely, a junior computer science and engineering major at Saint Louis University and aspiring entrepreneur whose programming skills helped power Appocalypse to success. “I think that I can now make a really good effort at it.”
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