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Apps for Good: technical innovation from the minds and thumbs of disadvantaged youths

Apps for Good recruits immigrant or unemployed youths from London neighborhoods to develop phone programs relevant to their needs and to teach entrepreneurial skills.

By Esha ChhabraDowser.org / August 17, 2011

Technical innovation: Apps for Good works with students in east and south London to come up with applications (apps) that are homegrown, developed by and for youths.

CDI/Apps for Good

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“When you go to a group of young girls in East London and say, do you want to program? They’ll probably run away,” Iris Lapinski joked.

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But last year, she proved herself wrong when 40 girls applied for 20 spots in one of Ms. Lapinski’s new courses on designing applications for mobile devices.

Putting technology in the hands of youths is not new. However, putting technology into the hands of the underprivileged or unemployed is a more recent development. Apps for Good is part of that trend, working with students in East and South London to come up with applications (apps) that are homegrown, developed by and for the target audience.

Lapinksi, who serves as the head of the nonprofit Center for Digital Inclusion (CDI) in the UK, has already signed with nearly three-dozen schools across the UK to run a technology-savvy course where students are encouraged to formulate an idea for an app, do the market research, and then implement it, building a prototype that they can then pitch to a Dragon's Den-like panel of business and IT experts.

Lapinski, however, emphasized to me that this is not just a program about technology and building apps; it’s also about understanding what matters to youths, what affects the life of, for example, a young Muslim girl in East London. She hopes the program gives them practical skills and encourages them to be more confident and entrepreneurial.

One of the most successful apps developed through the program has been Stop and Search. As in many cities, profiling can play a part in policing in London, with authorities often stopping and searching young male teens. So, a trio of young unemployed South Londoners came up with an app that lets users give feedback on police stops and searches, providing data on whether or not their experience was positive or negative. The app also provides an overview of an individual’s rights, letting them know what is legal and illegal in searches.

Lapinski believes that these apps are a new way for us to learn more about the issues young people encounter, what they are thinking about socially and politically and what they need from technology.

A second app developed through her program helps Bengali-speaking parents overcome the language barrier and interact with their children’s teachers during parent-teacher meetings.

Concocted by high-school age students at Central Foundation Girls' School, the aim is to improve communication between teachers and Bengali-speaking parents. Even in a densely populated immigrant neighborhood of London, where street signs are written in Bengali, communication barriers can be common.

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