Thursday, November 13, 2014

Combining app development and trying to make the world a better place

For a long time, I've been thinking about how app developers, myself in particular, can do more to help make the world a better place. Building apps is all well and good but I often feel that simply having more apps in the various app stores isn't really helping anyone.
Couldn't we do more to help make the world a better place?

It's a potentially noble but quite a grand goal. So I decided to try and simplify things a bit and trying to do something with my limited free time and the other projects I have on at the moment.
Realising there are many organisations already doing lots of fantastic work to help make the world a better place, my thoughts turned to supporting them rather than trying to start something all by myself.

In terms of supporting a charity through app development I see three available options:
  1. Build an app that directly supports the work
  2. Build an app that makes money that can be donated
  3. Build an app that raises awareness
Option 1 could be appropriate if directly tied to the work of an organisation. For example, this may be appropriate if having people look at images to identify patterns or objects or by using the processing power of the device to perform work that helps the charity directly. Such effort requires working closely
Option 2 is best suited to games. Not being a game developer I passed on this option.
This left me with option 3.
But which charity to support?

A few years ago I was working for a company and our office was in a large building housing many other companies. Our office was in one corner of the floor and the toilets were at the far side of the building. To get from my desk to the toilet meant going through seven doors, two of which were security controlled and required an electronic key to get through. A first world problem I know, but this really bugged me.
At least it did until I heard about Toilet Twinning.

When 2.5 Billion people don't have access to a toilet I felt bad about complaining about the minor inconvenience I experienced when I had to go.
Rather than just striving to not feel bad about my first world problem I wanted to do something practical to help and remind me of the fortunate position I'm in. So I twinned my toilet. I got this nice certificate and they got funds to "enable people living in poor communities to have clean water, a decent toilet, and to learn about hygiene – a vital combination that prevents the spread of disease, reduces the number of deaths among children, and brings hope for the future."

Here's the certificate, resting on the toilet I twinned.

It's something I should have been aware of more as I'd used the statistic that more people have mobile phones than access to a toilet in talks I've given in the past.

So, when it came to me thinking about which charity I'd like to help raise awareness for Toilet Twinning were my first thought.

Wanting to be respectful of IP and copyright and not wanting to use someone else's brand without permission or potentially duplicate anything they already have planned I contacted them (via their website) to see if they were happy for me to build something.
To be honest I wasn't expecting a response. If one came I could probably fit in the work around other projects and if I got no response then I'd have eased my conscience for a bit.

However, a few weeks later, when I got back from the Native Summit conference, all fired up by the talk by Mike Lee about developers doing more to improve the world and not just building more and more apps, I had an email from Toilet Twinning saying they were happy for me to build them an app. Taking this as a well timed sign as something I should get off my butt and do. I have.

I've found a bit of time over the last few weeks to fit this in and the apps are now available in the Windows and Windows Phone stores. See links below.

This story doesn't stop there though. If you know me or have read this blog for a while though, you may know I don't just want to make great apps myself, I want to help others build better apps also.

With this in mind, I wanted to combine building the Toilet Twinning apps with doing something that could help other developers improve their apps too.

Having been critical of apps built with App Studio in the past I took this opportunity to use it to build the base of the apps and then document all the issue I found (that many developers simply ignore) and how I addressed them so that others can improve their App Studio built apps too. I have a blog post explaining all this here.

In using App Studio to build an app that aggregates data from external sources, most of which are social networks, I was surprised to see that integration with Twitter was not supported. As I wanted this and I suspect many others would use it if it was available, I have also created a blog post that explains how to add twitter integration to an App Studio app and this is available here.

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