Mobile Apps | Feature

Student-Sourced, Crowdsourced Mobile Apps

At Bryant University, mobile apps start with a student competition for mobile app ideas, then move into crowdsourcing and more.

When students at Rhode Island's Bryant University have an idea for an institutional mobile app, they have an opportunity to see it come to fruition — if they can make a compelling pitch. More than two years ago, Chuck LoCurto, newly appointed vice president and CIO at the university, got together with Bryant trustees to develop an annual "app-a-thon" competition. Students have 10 minutes to pitch their app idea to a panel of judges, consisting of LoCurto, a trustee professor, the executive director of university relations, the associate director of academic computing and media services and a software developer. Judging the competition is based on a predetermined set of criteria, including look and feel, navigation and design, simplicity and uniqueness of concept. Winners are awarded with a Windows 8 tablet.

"Our mobile app conceptualization is always done in conjunction with students," said LoCurto. "Business majors. Arts and sciences. It doesn't matter. We want student input. Last year's winning pitch becomes this year's app."

The result of the first competition was a dining app that provides menus, hours and nutritional information for campus eateries. This year's app, RoomFinder, is a tool for finding study spaces on campus. It launched this April and has been well received by students.

The RoomFinder idea grew out of a demand by students for study spaces where they could collaborate with peers. Students had been squatting in unoccupied classrooms between classes, at night and on weekends — and without a scheduling system, there was no way to know which rooms were available. The app shows rooms by building and room number, with either a green status for "available" or a red status for "occupied." To determine a room's occupancy status, RoomFinder taps into the university's Crestron occupancy sensors, which were installed a few years ago as part of a green classroom initiative (the sensors turn off AV equipment when rooms are not in use).

Crowdsourcing Design
If the app-a-thon is a way to crowdsource idea generation to Bryant's student population, the subsequent development process takes crowdsourcing to another level. Once the idea for an app has been initiated and approved, LoCurto and his IT team work with Topcoder, a crowdsourcing community recently acquired by Appirio, a global cloud consultancy headquartered in San Francisco, to come up with the app's user interface.

"We use Topcoder for ideas and innovation," said LoCurto, "and also for getting multiple 'look and feel' possibilities to choose from on a single proposed app. When Topcoder mocks up the UI, we actually get code."

"Crowdsourcing at Topcoder is all about making work fun while producing amazing results," explained Mike Morris, Topcoder general manager. "We have over 630,000 experts that span software design, development and data science, and they compete with each other to solve real-world problems. Projects are broken down into discrete challenges, which may start with an idea that the community converts into screenshots. Screenshots become a working prototype, and that prototype is built into a production- ready application, designed, built and tested by the community through challenges." Topcoder community members are rewarded with cash prizes, recognition, and the learning they get from their peers.

"With Topcoder," noted LoCurto, "I know in advance how much each step of the process will cost. Their fees are not based on time and materials, and this is unusual in Information Technology."

Armed with the UI options from Topcoder, LoCurto and his team move the app into development. "Our team determines who can develop it — an internal or an external team," said LoCurto. "Our IT team handles project management and coordinates testing and integration. When the app is ready for deployment, it comes back to the students, one of whom is hired to handle the marketing of the new app."

The CampusEAI Consortium has assisted in deploying the last couple of releases of Bryant's mobile apps. An international IT services provider headquartered in Cleveland, CampusEAIworks with LoCurto and his team on app development and also hosts the school's my.Bryant portal. "CampusEAI helped us develop our full suite of mobile apps," said LoCurto. "They got us into the app store with a series of apps that interface with our ERP (Banner) student information system. They also do the maintenance on our mobile apps."

Student Participation Is Key
The app-a-thon approach helps make students feel that they own the mobile app project, pointed out LoCurto. "The student worker who markets the mobile app is paid and has a title: student communication support specialist. The students come up with the idea, name the app, pick the UI and handle the marketing of the app after it is developed. This gives them a strong sense of ownership."

LoCurto offers four tips for any crowdsourced mobile app project:

  • Let your teams own the project/competition, and let your teams self-select on some of the work as well.
  • You must have in-house talent for an app development project to work. It's not about outsourcing at all: It's about innovation, getting new ideas, buying your team some "variable cost" help and having fun in the process.
  • Encourage your team to accept help. You need to "crack the code" on the age-old excuse, "We want to do the work but we don't have time. We don't want anyone to help, so the work won't get done until we're ready to do it."
  • In order for this to work, you need one or two people who are willing to volunteer. Find a way to incentivize them. It's great fun!
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