Budding Coders Build Apps to Make a Real Impact | MIT News



How can IT be used to help make the world a better place? It’s a noble question, but one that drives the team behind MIT App Inventor, a virtual programming platform that allows aspiring programmers of all ages to build their own apps.

After a year of disruption caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, the App Inventor team organized its second annual Virtual Appathon for real this summer, a marathon-type event in which over 1,000 coders used the App Inventor platform to build apps to help people in communities around the world. Participants in this year’s Appathon ranged from 4 to 82 years old and came from 86 countries.

Hal Abelson, Class of 1922 professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering in Computer Science, explains that one of the goals of the Appathon is to help emphasize the importance of impact when it comes to designing new AI systems. Thanks to advances in computers, he says, it is now possible for high school students to create mobile apps that help people in everything from access to clean water to city planning.

“We’re blown away by what the kids are doing this year and their vision for a better world,†says Abelson. “Children are now using professional-grade tools to position themselves as engines of technology. “

From apps created to help improve mental health to food exchange platforms focused on reducing hunger and systems that help users avoid zombies in a dystopian future, Appathon participants showed how the technology has the power to enable coders to make a meaningful difference in the world.

Mental Health

The impact of closures, school closures and social isolation on the mental health of children and adolescents has been a growing concern during the Covid-19 pandemic. In order to facilitate communication between children and their parents, an American team of youth and adults participating in the Appathon for Good has developed Vividly, a platform that allows children to share their thoughts and feelings through an intermediary. virtual.

“Technology is so integrated into all of our lives these days, and children and teens are growing up using technology as a whole other medium. This fact can be used to improve parent-child communication, â€says Bella Baidak, a 22-year-old graduate student who helped lead the Vividly team as a mentor, which took second place in the mixed team category. young people and adults for their efforts. .

“Often, teens can feel more comfortable posting their feelings on social media or texting a friend rather than having a face-to-face conversation with their parents,†adds Baidak. “When it comes to vulnerable subjects, technology can be a more comfortable outlet for many teens. While technology certainly shouldn’t replace face-to-face communication, an app like Vividly could certainly help break the ice.

Sophia Cho, a 17-year-old student from the United States, created a platform to help users maintain and improve their own mental health, based on her own experience using techniques such as meditation, exercise, goal setting and journaling. The app, named Mentallia, lets people track what they’re doing to promote mental well-being and uses a points system to motivate participation.

“I love computing and creating useful applications and programs. A lot of people also face a lot of stress on a daily basis, so I knew that by creating the app, I could help other people while still meeting one of the themes of the Appathon, which was action. IT, â€Cho explains.
“I plan to add a machine learning aspect to Mentallia so that the app can find patterns between certain situations and the user’s emotions and physical symptoms, and give advice on what to do,” more or less, to alleviate any distress. “

Inspired by a family friend with dementia, Louie Chiang, an 11-year-old student from Taiwan, developed the NoWorries app, which aims to improve the quality of life for the elderly. The app offers a memory game that users can play with their family photos.

“[When users] playing the game, they can see the photos and bring back old memories to make them happy, â€says Chiang of the inspiration for the game. He adds that in the future he hopes to“ focus on helping people. elderly people by creating more apps that can make their life easier and happier â€.


A number of Appathon participants were also motivated to create platforms addressing hunger and facilitating access to pantries. Community, a food exchange platform created by a team of young people and adults from the Philippines, was developed to serve as a hub for pantries so people in need can find help. The app also aims to connect community organizers looking to establish local food resources. Community users can access a map to see established pantries around the world and to find directions to nearby pantries.

Another app, dubbed Love Parcel, helps users find ways to donate items to people in need. Love Parcel allows people to submit requests for needed items and charities to help meet needs for specific items, such as food, clothing, or toys.

Cities of the future

Motivated by a desire to improve pedestrian conditions in Hong Kong, Nathan Lam, a 19-year-old Hong Kong student whose team worked out of the MIT Hong Kong Innovation Node, and his teammates developed an app that uses live street data to help traffic lights work better for pedestrians. Lam noted that since red light racing and jaywalking are common in Hong Kong, he and his teammates were inspired to make a significant impact on daily life by improving the city’s traffic light system.

“The Appathon gave us the perfect opportunity to bring our idea to life and improve the community with our app,†Lam and his teammates say. They add that they plan to implement several changes in their application in the coming months, such as “the use of a better network device that supports 5G connection to reduce network latency in data transfer. , improving the intercommunication between traffic lights to increase the efficiency of intersections, and incorporating a priority index to allow emergency vehicles to clear traffic more quickly.

From traffic lights to visions of the future, some participants have created platforms to help people survive in dystopian worlds. From a tracker that could be used to help track and avoid zombies, to a platform that explores what life might be like if we live among aliens, and a community watch app for residents of the Moon, the Appathon participants invented creative solutions to a myriad of futuristic challenges.

Whether or not a zombie tracker is needed in the future, the App Inventor team hopes that giving children and adults the opportunity to create programs that can make a difference in the world around them will help reinforce a whole new generation of IT action.


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