Students Build Mobile Apps to Help Their Communities, Learn Technology Skills Along the Way

May 30, 2012
Kelsey Herron
Common Sense Media
San Francisco, CA
CATEGORIES Digital Literacy, Out-of-School Learning, Students, Technology Integration

Since its creation, almost four years ago, the app has revolutionized the way we play games, communicate, order takeout, and even exercise. However, for many students, building apps has become a tool to encourage diversity in their future fields, and an innovative way to help solve problems in their communities.

Katie Ash of Education Week recently reported that students of all ages have been enrolling in app-developing programs to better the world around them. YouthAPPLab in Washington, DC, provides local high school students with afterschool training in software design and mobile app development, while helping them to turn their ideas into new Android Apps. One of the apps created by the group is called “Go Green DC: Community Garden Edition” and will be appearing on Google Play this summer. This app helps DC residents learn about and locate community gardens within each quadrant of the city. Ultimately, the goal is for students (and their apps) to compete for internships with technology-based startup companies in the DC area.

Youth Radio, based in Oakland, California, traditionally worked with youth to design student-created radio segments. However, the initiative recently opened its Mobile Action Lab, which partners young people with developers and entrepreneurs to propose, create, and market apps that encourage community engagement. One of their most noteworthy apps, “Forage City,” enables users to share excess fresh food with neighbors and nonprofits. It was adapted from University of California Berkeley graduate student Asiya Wadud’s project, “Forage Oakland,” which was designed to help people in her neighborhood share excess fruit from their backyard trees.

Ash describes the transition from idea to app, and turning ‘Forage Oakland’ into ‘Forage City’:

Through Forage Oakland, Wadud communicated with her neighbors to set up times for her to go into their backyards and harvest fruit that would otherwise go to waste. She then helped connect folks who were looking to trade their fruit with other neighbors. Moving this to a digital platform, where Wadud would not have to facilitate every interaction herself, was a step in the direction of making the project self-sustainable, she said.

However, turning Wadud's face-to-face project into a mobile app took more re-imagining than she or her teammates at the Youth Media Lab originally anticipated. The app aims to go beyond just citizens in the communities with overflowing fruit trees. They added restaurants and bakeries with excess food to give away at the end of the night, nonprofit organizations that could use free leftover goods to distribute to those in need, community-supported agriculture shareholders, and farmers' markets. Adding nonprofit organizations into the mix helped achieve the equitable access goal behind the project—the makers of the app wanted the food to be distributed to everyone, not just those who have smartphones, so the nonprofits act as an intermediary in getting those goods in the hands of those in need.

Youth Radio and YouthAPPLab are not the only programs revolutionizing the way we use mobile app technology. New York’s Grover Cleveland High School was selected in early March to participate in the Mobile App Curriculum, a pilot program to give schools the tools they need to build mobile apps. The program is sponsored by the multi-billion dollar tech company Lenovo and the National Academy Foundation (NAF). It will select 40 seniors from the school’s information technology program to create and market apps. The most promising developers will move on to a national competition at NAF’s 2012 Next Conference in July 2012. Lenovo will market the winning group’s app nationwide.

Many of these efforts are particularly heartening given that young people have for several years now been pulling away from the traditional models of civic participation, from voting and staying informed about the news to taking part in traditional “civic” organizations in their communities. There has been considerable handwringing over this drop-off, starting years back with Robert Putnam’s “Bowling Alone.” Yet perhaps the worriers have just been looking in all the wrong places for this kind of “engagement.” Beyond the more obvious examples of youth using social media to launch an Arab Spring, there are many other examples of commitment and social action like several of these mobile apps reveal.

For more on how technology is creating commitment, see Professor Joseph Kahne’s work and Tom Watson’s book, CauseWired.

Photo/ Youth Radio