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.

CDI/Apps for Good
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.

“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.

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.

While the apps have been developed in small courses so far, Lapinski hopes to make the program more widely available on the web and employ it through a vast network of schools and community centers throughout the UK. In fact, this September, they go online and global. Also, they’ll hand over the reigns to teachers, who will lead the course after receiving training from the CDI UK team.

When asked about sustainability or building a for-profit model, Lapinski emphasized that she’s not looking to make money through this initiative, though there are avenues of revenue (from the apps and from well-established non-subsidized schools paying for the cost of the course). Rather, her focus is on developing students' entrepreneurial skills. So far, CDI has gotten support from the Dell Youth Connect program and UK-based Nominet Trust. Lapinski has also entertained the idea of doing projects for companies who’ve approached them about developing apps, according to their needs. But the focus, for now, has been on bottom-up innovation by youths.

Interestingly, CDI’s roots are far from the UK. CDI was started in 1995 by Brazilian businessman Rodrigo Baggio who wanted to help disadvantaged communities in an innovative manner, not yielding to just charity. So, he donated five computers to a favela, encouraging them to build a skill set and become entrepreneurial. Lapinski modernized the idea, opting for mobile apps rather than computers. CDI has since expanded significantly, operating in 13 countries and across hundreds of centers. The UK’s Apps for Good is just one program and a fairly new one.

But, not everyone agrees that Apps for Good is producing a product with a strong social impact. Lapinski’s faced a set of critics who have argued that these apps don’t contribute to society in a profound way.

Lapinksi, of course, disagrees. In fact, she says that some apps like BuzzerBuddy, designed with a buddy alarm system, can be used by different groups of people and with each use, the impact is different. One obvious use is for getting up to go to school. Another, though, she pointed out was brought to her attention by social service workers. They suggested that it if it was used by individuals to make them attend probation appointments or social service appointments, then it could certainly have a strong social impact.

CDI’s idea of an absolute good is broad. And by doing so, Lapinski is really hoping to see what provokes young students, not dictating to them what they should build but letting them be creative.

This July, they’ll be holding another Dragon’s Den round where new apps on financial budgeting for youth, game reviews, safety precautions when walking home at night, and bullying will be on the agenda. An Oyster app designed to enable an easy tracking system of funds remaining on your Oyster (travel) card was left hanging when the London transport authority (TFL) wouldn’t share their data with the team.

So, a few misses, a few wins. But, Lapinski is delighted when she sees a 14-year-old girl pitch an idea in front of 1,000 individuals and do so with charm and finesse. That’s what her focus has been – supporting youths.

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