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Students at Watts College are ‘Coding for a Social Good’ to address challenges for residents experiencing homelessness

BY ADAVI111 – SEPTEMBER 14, 2021

A recent report by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development revealed that more than half a million Americans nationwide experienced homelessness. And with over 10,000 people experiencing homelessness in Arizona, finding solutions to support these individuals is critical. 

Knowing that these communities face a multitude of challenges that go largely unaddressed, a new course launched out of ASU’s Watts College of Public Service and Community Solutions, in collaboration with the University Technology Office, last spring enables students to be part of the solution. The course, Coding for a Social Good, combines elements of social entrepreneurship, coding and design to help students enact change. 

“We know that a significant opportunity exists for students to narrowly define sub-challenges associated with the broader issue of homelessness,” said Chris Hayter, an associate professor and co-instructor for the class. “The course helps students learn to iteratively create, test and refine a feasible solution that can generate real impact in our community.”

Welcome to CPP494: Coding for a Social Good

Students embarked on the 15-week course to research, design and test a service-oriented app aimed at reducing the burdens for individuals experiencing homelessness. Divided into seven teams, the students were able to use their unique and shared experiences to work together to create solutions. 

Co-instructors Hayter and Bailey Borman developed a buildability framework to help students guide and evaluate their ideas. The five-step process uses a “go or no-go” decision matrix in which students identify opportunities for impact and research their assumptions, mobilize resources to understand the capacity for change, ideate solutions and then test for feasibility. 

When it comes time for the “go or no-go” decision in step five, students either establish community use (go) or can choose to continue client discovery and refine their ideas (no-go).

Key to designing an effective prototype that is ready for use and deployment is understanding the basics of coding. To do so, the course used Apple’s Swift Playgrounds, a software that helps students learn app development.  

“Swift Playgrounds is an interactive curriculum that teaches the different elements of coding through game-based learning,” said Borman. “This is what makes our course unique. We combine elements of computer science, research and social entrepreneurship to help students learn how to approach solution building in a new way,” Borman continued. 

Select teams move forward from design to deployment

ASU students Katherine Scher (top) and Huong ‘Hana’ Dang (bottom) pitch their team's app idea for USource, previously known as Devil Up.

The course concluded with a Shark Tank-style pitch session to an esteemed panel of judges. Each team took the virtual stage to present their ideas and design in under five minutes. On the strength of these pitches, two teams were selected to continue developing their app over the summer, working with Swift Champions and Swift Junior Programmers from ASU’s University Technology Office.  

With over half of the student population in Arizona requiring need-based aid, USource (previously called Devil Up) uses a matching system to help students access resources to housing, food, health and financial aid. In describing the process from design to deployment, the team shared how the course provided the foundation for understanding app development. 

“The Swift Playgrounds gave us a good intro into coding and computing,” said Huong Dang, an undergrad studying Informatics at ASU. “Having this base knowledge of the coding language has helped us work with the Swift Junior Programmer to code and develop our app,” Dang continued. 

The team behind Periaid, an app developed to address period poverty by connecting those in need with feminine products, also shared how they have continued to apply the skills they learned using the Swift Playgrounds curriculum to work more effectively with their developer. Jesus Vega majors in Global Studies and had little experience in coding before taking the course. “We were given a basic intro into coding, where we had to complete assignments, like block coding, ourselves,” Vega shared. 

ASU students Jesus Vega (top) and Alex Mavrikos (bottom) pitch their team's app idea for Periaid.

UTO’s Carter Kwon and Krista Sefiddashti took on the role of Swift Champions, providing guidance to the two teams selected to develop their apps and the ASU student workers hired to provide programming support. Known as Swift Junior Programmers, the students spent a few weeks upskilling in Swift coding language before working directly with the teams to develop their apps. ”We were very impressed with how well the teams and programmers worked together,” Kwon said. “By the end of summer, each team had a functioning proof-of-concept that could continue to be developed. 

From food insecurity to affordable housing, teams pitched impactful app ideas 

The other projects developed through the course displayed novel solutions to common problems. Two groups focused their solution on reducing the risk of housing insecurity.

  • Because homelessness disproportionately affects the LGBTQ+ community, Pride Guide offers mentorship through the app’s messaging service to foster a sense of community for these students.
  • Save Juntos takes a proactive approach to keep individuals in their homes by helping communities establish fair housing agreements, providing literacy courses and increased access to social services.

Another set of teams expanded their solution to address the gap for basic needs, including housing, food, health and more.

  • A largely unaddressed yet daily challenge for these residents is access to clean facilities, especially restrooms. Toilily offers users a search feature that identifies the closest accessible bathroom or to request a camping toilet.
  • Devil’s Advocate is on a mission to educate and destigmatize housing and food insecurities. With 3 out of 5 students qualifying for assistance, the app not only educates students on the issues, but also connects them to available resources. 
  • Data Crumbs helps food distribution centers better collect and track data. From meal allocation to soliciting donations and preventing waste, the team showcased multiple use cases for the app to help improve services. 

Alongside the judges, course instructors Hayter and Borman were proud of all the team pitches. “From design to deployment, each of these teams presented a compelling narrative around their app’s approach to reduce factors contributing to homelessness,” said Borman. “Each element of the course — from social entrepreneurship to coding and design — was represented and brought to reality through these pitches.”

Both USource and Periaid will pitch their apps to Venture Devils, where they may be matched with a dedicated Venture Mentor and receive exclusive access to opportunities that will assist them in growing their products. 

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