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AT&T sponsors upstate mobile app challenges

Kate O'Connell

AT&T has thrown its support behind a two-month virtual hackathon aimed at creating smartphone apps that serve community needs in upstate New York. The AT&T Rochester Civic App Challengewas launched Thursday in partnership with the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT). And, it will have an $18,000 prize pool to attract local developers.

This is the first of three AT&T sponsored mobile app challenges that are set to take place in the upstate region. The locations of the other two challenges remain under wraps, but all three competitions are designed to address the growing demand for apps that serve a public purpose, and for the developers who can create them.

AT&T spokesman Neil Giacobbi says the best way to meet consumer demand is to source from the consumers themselves.

“We think the great ideas come from the bottom up and come from the community, which is why we haven’t really specified exact challenges we want to meet. We want to hear from the people and see what they see as the challenges that are unmet and could be solved by mobile technology,” Giacobbi says.

RIT student Jennifer Kotler is answering the call. She’s entering the 60 day challenge and plans to use open source government information to create a game that teaches kids to properly balance their meals and their diet.  

Kotler says childhood obesity is a serious public issue, and kids need an interactive platform to teach them healthy habits.

“Games are really powerful for communicating with children, I think more so than a lot of other medias. Games really draw people in and I think then they’re more open to learning when they’re in that state of interest. And other things just won’t get children to be that interested.”

Fellow student Mihir Singh is working on an existing project throughout the challenge. He’s creating interactive map that can share government data with locals seeking information about their neighborhoods.

“Basically we’re using public data from the city of Rochester and we’re mapping that data over the city of Rochester. So users can go to our website and over the city of Rochester they can view things like the violent crimes rate,” Singh says.

They’ll also be able to see other information, such as population and poverty rates in neighborhoods, and he says that can be useful for a range of purposes.

“I know a lot of friends who are looking for apartments in the city and being able to see what parts of the city have high violent crime rates…I think they were excited about that.”

The challenge, which is open to the public, kicks off with a 24-hour hackathon at RITs MAGIC center beginning Friday evening.

At the end of the competition, prizes will be awarded to the top three apps in two categories: apps already under development and apps created specifically for the competition.

Assembly Majority Leader Joseph Morelle (D-Irondequoit) will join local technology experts and community leaders on a panel of judges who will assess apps on their potential impact in the Greater Rochester community, execution, creativity, and novelty.

Andrew Phelps, Director of the RIT MAGIC center, says they’re looking for people who can use mobile technology to create apps that will make a difference in social and governmental institutions, issues, and lives in the region.

And, he’s hopeful that AT&T’s sponsorship will spur interest from developers throughout the community.

“That provides a sense of ability to scale,” Phelps says.

“There are a lot of opportunities there to really, not just make something and have it be a great entry into a contest and walk away from it, but to make something that could have some real legs and kind of grow into something that lasts and has impact.”

Phelps says there are a lot of possibilities open to participants and a wide range of apps could be developed during the two-month competition.

“Government’s become more complex, healthcare’s become more complex, environment’s become more complex, just the simple how does government operate has become more complex. So I think you can see interventions using digital media around lots of different possibilities in engaging the public and getting data into their hands.”

The challenge is focusing on marrying government data with local developers. And AT&T spokesman Neil Giacobbi says civic apps can play a big role in meeting public needs and solving problems.

“Technology can peel away the layers of government. And there’s an enormous amount of data that the government produces everyday just in normal operations that can be infused with other data that’s generated in the community to create ideas and solutions that I don’t think we can even imagine.”

High Tech Rochester, Digital Rochester, and Hack Upstate are all partnering with RIT and AT&T to support the event. 

First place winners in both categories will receive $5,000. Winners will be announced in May.

WXXI/Finger Lakes Reporter for the Innovation Trail
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