This article was originally published in the fall 2014 Harker Quarterly.
These days, it seems, there is an app for just about everything, and young app developers have become one of the fastest-growing groups of technological inventors. Often working from home with little or no overhead, using free or low-cost app development tools, creative app makers are attracting the attention of technology companies and users worldwide.
With cell phones practically an extension of our bodies, useful mobile apps have the power to directly affect and improve the quality of everyday life. Indeed, app invention is fast becoming part and parcel of the digital revolution and widely being incorporated into computer science education curricula as the demand for fun, easy to use, new apps grows.
This is music to the ears of several Harker alumni, who have launched, or are about to launch, innovative new apps. Meet app designers Neeraj Baid ’13, Govi Dasu ’12, Daanish Jamal ’12 and his business partner, Adhir Ravipati ’05.
Giftbook: A Mobile Wallet that Stores Gift Cards
Before designing his latest app, called giftbook, developer Neeraj Baid ’13 had a vision: that no one should have to carry or lose plastic gift cards again. That desire led to the creation of giftbook (https://gftbk.herokuapp.com/), Baid’s fourth app for iOS (a mobile operating system developed by Apple for use with their iDevices), which stores gift cards in a centralized location.
“Giftbook is an app that makes spending and keeping track of your gift cards easy,” Baid said. “You can save cards from any retailer on your iPhone so you never worry about forgetting one at home,” he added.
The app, which is now available at Apple’s app store as a mobile gift card
wallet, already has received overwhelmingly positive customer reviews. However, Baid is planning a design overhaul and a major update in mid- October that will enable users to purchase and send gifts through giftbook.
“I build features as they come up. For a major update like the one coming up, I’m often working the equivalent of a full-time job to ensure it’s ready by October. There’s also a fair amount of non-technical work involved, such as working with partners to allow me to sell gift cards in giftbook,” Baid explained.
In addition to his work as founder of giftbook, Baid also attends the University of California, Berkeley, where he is getting a degree in electrical engineering and computer science. Additionally, he worked as an iOS intern at Venmo, a company that provides a free, friend-to-friend, mobile payment platform app.
Among giftbook’s features is one that lets users know when they are near a retailer with a relevant gift card (with directions to closest locations); the card simply appears on the phone’s lock screen with easy accessibility. The app also uses a standardized approach to displaying barcodes, so gift cards are accepted by all retailers. To ensure security, sensitive gift card data (such as serial numbers and pins) are never stored on a server.
The apps Baid created prior to giftbook are Take Me Away, SpeakToSnap and a URL shortener for Google. Take Me Away allows users to travel the world from their iPhones by tapping a location button for any global destination, where they can view photos taken by real people, among other features. SpeakToSnap is a voice-activated camera, while the URL shortener allows users to quickly and simply shorten long and unwieldy URLs, using Google’s goo.gl shortening service.
Baid’s first app, SpeakToSnap, came about after taking the Global Online Academy iOS class offered at Harker during the spring of his senior year. “Harker really helped lay a critical computer science foundation,” he recalled.
“Every app I have built comes out of necessity for something I want in my own life,” he said. “For example, I built giftbook after graduating from high school. I needed a way to manage the huge number of gifts I received from graduation parties and already had from before. I’ve found that working on something you personally want is the best way to remain dedicated and complete it at the highest quality possible.”
The best way to learn iOS development, he advised, is simply by doing it. “Your first app won’t be your best – and it shouldn’t be. You’ll learn a lot from building something silly like a URL shortener, and that knowledge will be invaluable as you build your next apps. There are incredible iOS resource tutorials available online and pre-made app components,” he noted.
Learning Dollars: A Pilot Project Designed to Help English Learners in Developing Countries Land Jobs
Govi Dasu ’12 recently returned from a trip to India, where he spent his summer doing background research for an app he is designing, now in the pilot stage, called Learning Dollars. The socially conscious app aims to help individuals in developing countries improve their economic situation by landing higher paying jobs.
Dasu said he plans to accomplish this by first helping users to learn English and then connecting them with helpful resources to find better employment. The higher paying jobs in developing countries include vocations such as hotel workers, airport employees, cashiers, clerks and call center staff – all of which require English language mastery.
While in India, Dasu worked exhaustively on an experiment to see whether Rosetta Stone (a $400 software program) could teach English to someone unable to speak the language.
In doing so, he noted the ways the software could be made more comprehensive and effective for users in the developing world. One of his test users was a middle-aged cook named Geeta, who dropped out of school after second grade and does not know how to read any language (but can speak two). Extensively working with her helped Dasu gain an understanding of what kind of education technology works in developing countries, especially with people who are illiterate and (like Geeta) may not have used a computer before.
Before conducting his work abroad, Dasu believed that, if successful, “a free smartphone app that uses Rosetta Stone’s method might be able to help people in the developing world to learn English in order to gain access to higher paying jobs and higher education.”
While he walked away from India with mixed feelings about the viability of the Rosetta Stone program, it did not deter him from moving forward with work on his own app. Indeed, the testing process allowed him to note ways in which the software could be improved for users in the developing world. He said he came up with the name, Learning Dollars, because it has “learning” in it (i.e., learning English) but at the same time, it sounds like “earning” (as in earning dollars). He said he hopes to get a minimum viable product (MVP) out in the coming month. The program uses a Google app engine setup and coincides with his goal to dedicate his life to fighting poverty, promoting democracy and protecting freedom.
“Often the dollar – which besides being the U.S. currency, is the international reserve currency – is associated with a strong purchasing power in many developing countries,” said Dasu, who recently graduated (after just two years) from Stanford University.
During his years at Harker, he participated in many extracurricular activities, including serving as the school’s ASB vice president.
NextSpot: A Mobile App for Fluid Group Events
When Daanish Jamal ’12 and Adhir Ravipati ’05 partnered to create NextSpot, a mobile app that helps coordinate everyday meet-ups, they wanted to create something that they and their peers would find useful in their own lives.
Now available in Apple’s app store, NextSpot streamlines the details of such things as grabbing lunch between classes, catching a movie at the end of the week, enjoying a day at the beach, playing a game of basketball or planning a night on the town. It is integrated with Yelp and saves past favorite meeting spots, among other features.
“Say you’re a college student, trying to get 20-25 friends over for a party. What we’ve learned is that you’re not going to create a Facebook event (or Evite or Eventbrite) because that sets too formal a tone. On the other hand, messaging/group messaging is casual but too unorganized. NextSpot fits this use case – casual, organized events,” Jamal explained.
“We released a beta this past spring to select fraternities and sororities at Georgetown, USC, Stanford, Oregon and UC Santa Barbara. The feedback we received was overwhelmingly positive, and we are gearing up for our launch in a few weeks as well as raising our next round of funding,” added Ravipati.
Generally, it takes at least a few months to develop an MVP with the core functions of an app, Jamal and Ravipati agreed. After releasing an MVP, it becomes a quicker process developing the product based on user feedback.
Presently the talented duo are devoting themselves full-time to working on NextSpot. Jamal has taken a leave of absence from Georgetown University and Ravipati left his previous startup earlier this year to focus on launching the app.
They believe that their time at Harker helped pave the way for their current perseverance. “Harker has a great track record of occupational and entrepreneurial success amongst its graduates. I don’t know if it can be narrowed down to one or two things, but rather developing a problem- solving mindset that challenges you to look at problems differently,” said Ravipati.