Young Innovators Develop Apps to Help Others

A contest by IEEE-USA awards participants for innovative projects

6 October 2014

An app to alert emergency contacts when someone is in trouble, and another to keep Android phone data private, won top prizes in the first App-E-Feat contest, which had contestants as young as 13. In partnership with the Clinton Global Initiative, App-E-Feat invites people to design mobile apps that could benefit humanity.

The three-month competition sponsored by IEEE-USA was launched on 18 February during U.S. National Engineers Week. “The goal of the contest was to interest young people in technology, have them think about how technology could help others, and potentially inspire them to consider a career in engineering,” says Chris McManes, IEEE-USA public relations manager, in Washington, D.C.

Participants ages 13 to 17 were asked only to develop the concept of what their app could accomplish, while those 18 or older were required to develop a fully functional app. More than 50 contestants signed up to participate.

FROM PERSONAL EXPERIENCE

Helping Hands, developed by 13-year-old Austin Rawlins [above], from Jasper, Ind., won first prize in the under-18 age group, and he not only developed the concept but also built the app. In one click, Helping Hands sends a text message reading “HELP!!!” to two preloaded emergency phone contacts. The message also includes the user’s location based on the cellphone’s GPS. The app is available on Google Play for US $1.99.

The inspiration came to Rawlins after he and his mother were stranded when their car broke down on an unfamiliar road. Cellphone service was spotty, and they had no way to figure out where they were. After that incident, this self-taught coder figured out how to build the app from online tutorials.

“My mom and I are always thinking up new things that should be in the world but aren’t,” Rawlins says. “When we were stuck on the road, we thought how great it would be if there was an app that could send a message without us having to call or figure out where we were. I just didn’t think I’d be the one to do it.”

Rawlins had a few glitches designing the app, such as incompatibilities with the upgrades of some smartphone operating systems. Rather than give up, he found a mentor at nearby Vincennes University who helped him. Rawlins completed his app in three months.

With the contest win under his belt, Rawlins says technology has moved way up on his list of careers, right next to working with animals. He already has more app projects under way. He’s working on one that helps caregivers keep better track of people with early onset dementia who can get lost if they forget their way home.

Jude John Tony, 24, won first place in his age category for developing his "Clean Droid" app. Photo: Jude John Tony

Clean Droid, developed by Jude John Tony [left], from Kochi, Kerala, India, took first place in the over-18 category. His app, designed for Android smartphones, automatically deletes data that’s no longer needed, such as cookies and a search history, to save space and protect the owner’s privacy. Similar to a virus scan, the app will search the phone each day to detect and remove outdated downloads, chat records, and other items. His app is available free on Google Play.

Tony, now 24, who develops apps and games for a living, built the app because he wasn’t satisfied with what he found on the market. “When I searched for an app similar to Clean Droid, I found most were only cache cleaners and wouldn’t clear most of the junk on my phone like the downloads that fill up my storage.”

To develop his app, he turned to the Android Open Source Project, which helped him better understand the inner workings of his phone’s system. Once he got a grasp on that, the rest was “pretty easy,” he says.

Each first-place winner received an iPad Air and will get the opportunity to work with an IEEE mentor selected by IEEE-USA. Rawlins’s mentor is working with him on his latest app, and Tony’s is providing him with career guidance.

THE RUNNERS UP

Second-place winner for the 13-to-17-year-olds was Jeremy Nathan of Ashburn, Va. He came up with the idea for MobiLearn, an app that allows teachers and students who can’t meet in person to connect by mobile phone and electronically share assignments, notes, and grades.

In the 18-plus category, second place went to Jack Cahn and Benjamin Attal from New York City for their Cartwheels app. The app provides nutritional information about meals and snacks served by food trucks, and allows clients to see their menus and rate the food. The two runners-up each received US $250 Amazon gift cards.

Third place for the 13-to-17-year-olds went to Kavya Kopparapu, 13, from Herndon, Va., for her concept of a “Diabreathometer.” The idea is for diabetics to breathe into a device attached to their smartphones that can monitor blood sugar levels and alert them when it’s time to take their insulin.

Tour-De-City, from a team of David Cahn, Victoria Greene, Severyn Kozal, and Sweyn Venderbush, all from New York City, landed in third place in the 18-plus group. Their app maps biking, walking, and public transportation routes in Boston and New York City with the aim of reducing air pollution.

Although the contest is over, the App-E-Feat initiative is a two-year-long project. If you want to build an app to help a cause, visit its website for some suggestions.

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