When Dale Zak and a team of volunteer software developers from Halifax set out to create an iPhone app one warm weekend in July, the idea was simple – by Sunday, there would be three new apps ready to be sold on the iPhone app store, with proceeds going to local charities.
In fact, it took four months for the fruits of the group’s labour to become a reality, but by December, the group had two iPhone apps available at the App Store and was officially registered as a corporation with a mandate to donate proceeds from the applications to charities.
Under the Apps 4 Good name, the group of developers has launched “Wish You Were Here”, an app that allows users to take photos and send digital postcards to friends, and “Meet Me Here”, an app used to schedule meet-ups via e-mail and Twitter.
“It’s hard to ignore the Apple app store,” Zak said of his decision to base the charity around the platform. “It’s just so successful and the fact that you can publish your app and you instantly have millions of people it’s accessible to – they take care of rolling out updates and they take care of purchases. In software development, one of the big challenges is just reaching a market. You can develop a great app but if no one sees it, no one’s going to be able to buy that application.”
The apps developed by Apps 4 Good have had moderate success, with about five to ten purchases per day (they cost $1.99 each), according to Zak, but what matters for the group is that ultimately, charities like Phoenix Youth Programs and Feed Nova Scotia are benefitting.
“It doesn’t seem like much, but if that’s constant every day for a year, that all adds up and at the end of the day, it’s more than the organizations would have had if we didn’t do this,” Zak said.
And it’s not just local charities basking in the good will – over the two-day iPhone Hackathon 4 Charity event in July, the developers became friends and built work alliances resulting in new collaborative projects. What’s more, the event gave the group exposure that has since turned into a number of freelancing gigs for some members.
So what exactly goes into designing an iPhone app? According to Zak, coming up with a new and interesting idea was the biggest challenge the developers faced when building the applications. “There’s so many apps now in the app store,” he said. “You really have to be creative and you have to make something that’s simple to use, but also fun.”
More than 20 ideas were reviewed and subsequently scrapped in favour of the postcard and meet-up apps, including a Farmer’s Market application to help visitors share information on vendors. “We voted on the ones we thought were really good ideas and also which ones we thought we could accomplish in a short amount of time,” Zak explained.
But the process was by no means an easy one. Although most of the work for the applications was done at Hackathon, graphics had to be created, a marketing plan had to be drawn up, the corporation had to be registered and an Apple license had to be procured. “But the good thing is now, because we’ve established Apps 4 Good, we’re planning on having a second event in the spring,” Zak said, adding that he hopes to expand Hackathon to Saskatoon and Montreal.
Apps 4 Good also ironed out a few kinks that stymied its progress the first time around. “We chose to use GitHub as our repository for our code … it’s a great system, but one of the problems we faced is there’s no integration with Xcode, the development environment on Apple to make iPhone apps,” Zak explained. “There’s no way to plug GitHub directly into Xcode so we couldn’t do updates inside of our actual development environment. That slowed down our process a bit.”
Going into the second event, Zak has a better idea of what he’d like to do differently, including extending Hackathon to a week-long event instead of over two days. “In hindsight, what we should have done is followed more of a development process,” he said. “We would have had an envisioning stage, we would have gone into design, we’d have gone into development and then moved into testing.”
For Lori Barker, director of development for Phoenix Youth Programs, Apps 4 Good’s work is a good example of how technology can be leveraged to support community projects. “I just think it’s wonderful,” she said. “I think the power of what social media can do and what technology can do in support of the charitable sector is phenomenal. I think we’ve really seen that change over the last couple of years … Social media is a way people can really engage in an active way. Last sentence seems incomplete? Through technology, like the app they’ve developed for the iPhone very much does that.”
Be the change you wish to see in the world - Gandhi