Mobile Computing | Feature

Studying Data to Spur Better Campus Apps

George Washington University developed--and continues to fine-tune--its mobile app by listening to the data.

Two years ago, recognizing the pent-up demand for a mobile solution from the 25,000 students at The George Washington University (DC), the school's Academic Technologies Department began the process of developing a mobile app. Like many other schools, GW faced several challenges right off the bat. First, there were few mobile-optimized websites on campus; second, no strategy had been developed to foster a mobile web presence. Third, the web-content-management system did not support mobile pages, and the use of social media was extremely limited.

"We knew mobile was coming, and one challenge was how to move from the concept to the concrete," said PB Garrett, associate provost and chief academic technology officer. Developing a mobile application without a central mobile web strategy is a huge challenge, she added.

Yet the school ultimately overcame these challenges, culminating in the launch of a mobile app in January 2011. At the heart of GW's success lay two critical strategies: building partnerships with key data stewards on campus; and using metrics to "listen to the data" in order to develop new features and customization options.

The decision to build the app in-house instead of buying an off-the-shelf product from a vendor was one of the first major choices. According to Garrett, GW wanted the ability to control the development to meet the university's goals. In-house development also allowed the school to hire two GW computer science students to work on the project. The hope was that students would garner real-life experience and learn marketable skills.

Reliance on Data
But anchoring the team's efforts was a steadfast reliance on data. Indeed, Yordanos Baharu, executive director of academic enterprise applications, advises every institution to study mobile usage patterns on campus before designing anything. For the past two years, for example, Academic Technologies has surveyed incoming GW freshmen about devices and expectations.

"We found that the penetration of web-enabled devices is very high: 99.2 percent own cell phones, and 82 percent own web-enabled phones," reported Baharu. In addition, the iOS penetration is very high. In the summer of 2012 survey, 55.5 percent of surveyed freshmen had iPhones and 15.5 percent had Android devices. 

When students were asked how they expected to use their smartphones while at GW, respondents reported the following:
• E-mail: 85 percent
• Web browsing: 81 percent
• Calendar: 78 percent
• Social networking: 82 percent
• Book and document reading: 59 percent
• Accessing course materials: 70 percent
• Checking school events: 77 percent

Baharu said he was surprised that so many students--70 percent--expected to access course materials via their phones. With this student wish list in hand, the development team had to figure out which data sets they could actually access for the app. Recognizing that they didn't need to replicate the entire university website, the team focused on information to which students need quick access: course information, locations on campus, and calendars. As for the question of native app versus mobile website, the team opted for a hybrid approach, by combining existing mobile web content into a native app.

Forging Campus Partnerships
The GW app developers soon recognized the importance of building campus partnerships when they tried to assemble the data sets. "One of the most important components for us was identifying and creating data sets and web pages," noted Baharu. "Data resides within departments."

When the team first started work, for instance, they realized that there was no mobile-enabled campus directory. "We found a static list of frequently dialed and important numbers and converted it to xml," related Baharu. "As soon as the app was released, we started getting requests for other numbers to be added." By reaching out to other departments, the developers managed to secure help in creating a more sustainable solution: The Division of Information Technology built a dynamic mobile directory that is now integrated with the GW Mobile app.

While forging partnerships early is key to creating a product with wide appeal and value, it's also important to build as much flexibility into the product as possible. "We wanted to make sure the infrastructure we developed was flexible enough to allow us to easily integrate with other mobile devices and technologies," explained Baharu.

For example, after Alumni Relations saw the mobile app, it decided to hire a vendor to create its own app and integrate it with GW Mobile. "The more partnerships you have, the easier it is to develop an app," Baharu said. Other departments involved in the app's development included the Division of Information Technology, Admissions, External Relations, University Libraries, and Transportation and Parking.

"One of the main things we focused on in creating the app was [ensuring] that data elements in one module can be used in other modules," continued Baharu. For example, when a user clicks on a department in the courses module, they get a listing of the course titles, the number of credits attached to each, the course registration numbers, and whether the course is open for registration or not. Once students navigate to the course-detail page, the information there is tied to a directory that lists the instructor and the campus building location. From there, students can drill down to a description of the building, as well as walking or driving directions.

Since its launch one year ago, the GW Mobile app has grown to 22 modules, ranging from real-time information on campus-shuttle arrivals to information on computer lab locations, including what software is available in each lab. There is also an orientation module specifically for incoming freshmen and families.

Surprised by Usage Data
Surveying incoming students about their devices and expectations was just the first step in GW's data-gathering plans. Once students started to use the new mobile app, Academic Technologies collected a variety of new data points, including the number of downloads, which recently passed 18,000. "That's a good thing to watch, but we knew we needed more," said Jared Johnson, assistant director for project management. "We can track downloads via app market and self-selected user roles on campus. We use Google Analytics mobile APIs for role-based usage data. In terms of usage, we saw a 61 percent growth in June 2012 over the same time last year."

Some of the early data surprised the GW Mobile project team. For instance, iPhone use was even higher than anticipated. The iOS devices accounted for 91 percent of visits compared with only 9 percent for Android. "This may be a lot different at [other] schools," said Johnson. "At GW, it will force us to decide whether to keep developing for Android."

And while faculty and staff use has gradually increased, it is still lower than use by parents and alumni (57 percent of use is by current students). Parents tend to look at news and alerts. In 2011, when a hurricane passed close to Washington, DC, parent usage shot up.

But the single biggest selling point for why developers should rely heavily on data in making decisions is what happened with e-mail at GW. When the team first considered what features to include on the mobile app, e-mail didn't even make the initial list. Now it's the No. 1 use, followed by courses and maps.

"E-mail was never in our development plans," recalled Johnson, "because we are a Google Apps institution, and Google has mobile views. It never seemed logical that we needed an entry point in the app." Yet, feedback after the launch made it clear that students wanted e-mail, so it was added in fall 2011.

Academic Technologies won the 2011 GW Departmental Service Excellence Award for the app, but the best measure of its success probably comes from the students themselves. An editorial in the school newspaper noted that the app "demonstrates a commitment to student success and understanding of what users genuinely seek from a mobile app."

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