Christian Heilmann

Apps for good – an “IT for good” programme with an educational edge

Friday, June 18th, 2010 at 5:29 pm

Yesterday night I went to the Apps for Good graduation event in Brixton, South London. Apps for good is an interesting program that aims to improve the lives of young people by teaching them skills to build mobile applications and letting them have a go at planning, executing and building their own app.

The power behind the programme is CDI who have been very successful with similar work in Brazil getting kids of the streets and away from drug dealing. Other partners that made the first round of the apps for good course possible are Dell and the High Trees Development Trust. You can learn more about the programme and the players on the about page.

The problem with “IT for good” events

As you know I spend most of my time these days on conferences, hack days and application competitions and in the past I’ve been part of a lot of “for good” IT events (Social Innovation Camp, Together 08, my own Scripting Enabled) and to be fair I was a bit tainted by my experiences. A lot of “IT for good” events left me pretty disappointed – they felt like a chance to “feel good” and “do something for people less well off than us” but in the end resulted in a handful of projects that petered out a few days after the event or competing products all doing the same thing (how many carbon footprint calculators do you know?). If I were a total cynic I’d say they are a great chance to get good PR and not spend much money as you get it back from tax anyway. However, I refuse to acknowledge this as deep down I honestly believe in doing good and sharing and educating as being the most fulfilling experience you can have in this world.

In essence, I am frustrated with the execution of a lot of these events and programs as they are not helping people much and also fail to bridge the gap between charities and the IT world. Developers are busy people who you can get easily excited and are always happy to help. If you don’t walk at their pace though you will lose them very quickly. If you do a “for good” project and want technical help don’t just dump the building of the product on volunteer developers and then go away – work with them or you won’t achieve anything. And please – if you get an email answer them immediately, don’t wait for three days and then give them a call – this is as inefficient. We can email and code at the same time – using a phone is another story.

A welcome change in approach

This event, however was very different and I am happy having been dragged to it by my friend Carin. Instead of partnering with professional developers the programme mentored students to build the apps themselves – students who never touched any code before and due to that were totally hyper about having achieved so much in such a short time. The apps really weren’t that important – their ideas and the boost of confidence they gave the students (who never considered IT as an option for education) was what made this program really work. This was not about building apps to change the world and get funding for them to blow on a nice logo – this was about the liberation of young people by showing them the opportunities the mobile and IT sector offers. Instead of money the organisers paid in knowledge, coaching and mentoring.

The graduation event started with introductions to the history of the program and the background of CDI. After this we got to see a showcase of the apps:

  • StudioPhly by Lemel Frank, Symon Morgan and Foyzul Hassan is an app where young and aspiring musicians can find recording studios either locally or with specific equipment and sound. This could be pretty cool if we also can find studios to donate free mixing time for unknown artists.
  • Student Voice by Moses Sonson, Matthew Tanti and Carlos Mateus is a university guide that gives you an overview of all the universities in the UK with locations, equipment and links to Google streetview and campus information. Much like a university focused facebook.
  • Stop&Search by Aaron Sonson, Satwant Singh and Gregory Paczkowski was my favourite. It is an application that gives you information about the police practice of stopping and searching people randomly in the street. This practice is very important but also – according to the research of the team – amazingly inefficient. In 10000 searches in the UK apparently only a handful resulted in people being arrested. Stop&Search allows you to get the information about your rights when you are being searched, you can rate the way the police behaved when searching you and it automatically geolocates you and adds the search to a central database. What this app now needs is a text messaging interface to allow people to use it with any handset.

Everything is already available

The thing I liked the most about the event is that instead of another “let’s build only iphone/ipad apps and call it mobile” event all of the applications were done for Android (this was because of two reasons – one was Dell as the sponsor wanting to see people build for their new handset and two because you can get the apps out without waiting for approval by Apple). This means that they will run on a variety of handsets and that all of the apps are already available on the Android store.

Building the future

Now the plan of action for the event is to take the apps further with more mentoring and also financial support and to run another round of the course later this year. For this, CDI want to put together a board of advisors and helpers and need technical people to lend a helping hand for the next round of aspiring developers. You can contact CDI Europe on their page or just give them a ping on Twitter at @appsforgoodcdi.

I will do my best to get on the board and do my share for this programme although my travelling can be in the way. We’ll see. After all I was very impressed with the event and I have never seen hackers thank the organisers in the following way before:

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