Engineering students show app-titude in RJI Student Apple iPhone competition
Searching for a senior capstone project, three University of Missouri computer science seniors honed in on an Apple iPhone student competition sponsored by MU’s Reynolds Journalism Institute (RJI) in cooperation with Apple Inc. and AT&T.
Besides earning class credit for designing, testing and marketing an iPhone application (app) that would “improve the practice and business of American journalism,” the contest offered five finalist teams cash to develop their apps and a trip to Apple headquarters in Cupertino, Calif. Additional incentives for teams that ended up on top of the heap fattened the pot. And then there are those intangible benefits of getting to mess around with something different.
“It was interesting to me because the technology was new, and I hadn’t yet explored it,” said Brian Grinstead, a dual major in computer science and IT.
Capstone partners Kevin Karsch and Chris Stein, also a dual CS/IT student, joined Grinstead at the competition’s information session in early September, and the three decided to give it a shot.
In addition to MU’s School of Journalism and College of Engineering, sponsoring schools included Business, Education, and Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources. Competition guidelines required at least one team member to be a journalism student, so at October’s team-building session, jokingly referred to as the speed-dating event, the three engineering students hooked up with senior J-school student Mary Beth Bergsieker.
Apart from time constraints facing four busy MU seniors, learning how to develop an iPhone app presented the greatest hurdle.
“It’s not something that computer science coursework translates directly into,” said Grinstead. “Luckily, Kevin had some previous exposure to a similar development environment and was able to get us going in a good direction pretty quickly.”
“Getting an idea off of the ground — initial development — was the hardest part,” Stein said.
Several ideas were investigated. The team considered a barcode reader, a video camera and a speech-to-text client application, but each proved unfeasible.
Limitations on the quality of the iPhone’s camera focus would not allow for a clear barcode image, the lower level interface necessary to make the iPhone a video camera violated the competition agreement with Apple, and existing engines for voice recognition gave “really bizarre” results.
“Then I came up with the basic idea for a news reader application,” said Grinstead. “The other team members agreed and we ran with it. We’re happy that the idea we settled on is feasible, relevant, and legal.”
The team’s app, originally called “Custom Fit News” and later changed to “NewsFlash,” was a unique, customizable news application that could pull up-to-date news stories based on a user’s GPS location.
“It required much less of a legal and technological hurdle and fit the goals of the contest well, since it was journalism and advertising based,” said Grinstead.
Karsh took responsibility for most of the of the native iPhone app program coding. Grinstead worked on the web server development – actual news results for the app to display. Stein helped out with both, and contributed graphic design. Bergsieker helped frame the idea from a journalism and business perspective and worked on the presentation for the fast-approaching Pitch Night.
Held in RJI’s Fred W. Smith Forum, members of the thirteen viable teams, seven judges from academia and industry, and a handful of spectators assembled in late November for app pitches. Teams came forward one by one in the partially darkened room and plugged their presentations into a computer. Apps-in-the-making flashed onto the big screen behind them as team members extolled their virtues: what it is, how it works and why you need it. Explanations, demonstrations, projections on the work to be done and potential associated costs, technical specs, and market research were all presented with a little nervousness and a lot of sincerity.
Apps demonstrated included social news and gaming, in-game advertising, area-specific event locators, business and weather profilers, real estate searches, news feeds, a business coupon game, politician/government tracking and flight logging.
With twenty minutes allotted for each pitch and questions from judges, it was after 10 p.m. when the teams stepped out of the spotlight. Incredulous judges agreed that most of the apps were inspired, some were downright ingenious, and choosing the five best would be difficult.
“I was nervous, but confident that our app was good and would impress the judges,” said Grinstead after learning that they had made the final cut.
Team NewsFlash headed to Apple headquarters in Cupertino, Calif., in late January with the four other finalist teams. A whirlwind two-day trip to the Golden State that started out at the Kansas City airport in the wee hours on January 29 and ended up there well after dark the following day.
Once at Apple Inc. headquarters, a tour was followed by lunch and presentations by company executives who, as Stein pointed out, get to wear jeans to work. The five teams were briefed on the company’s product development cycle and learned which features translate into great iPhone apps. Then the tables were turned, and the MU teams pitched the apps they’d developed to their hosts.
“We were given lots of useful feedback,” said Stein. “We got some new ideas for features to incorporate into our application.”
Grinstead and Bergsieker both graduated in December and joined the workforce in their respective fields, requiring the group to work independently and communicate electronically. Besides new features for NewsFlash, minor changes were made in the code in anticipation of loading it into the Apple app store – so that real-world feedback would be available for final presentations scheduled for May 4 and 5. Marketing efforts to garner the competition’s People’s Choice award got underway as well.
Only four of the five finalists in RJI’s iPhone Student Competition, followed through on development of their apps, and only three teams went public with them. Still in the running were NewsFlash, The ADverse Network, a geo-located advertising service, and NearBuy, a real estate app that searches classified advertising for available properties, and displays them on a Google map interface.
Demonstrations of the apps and the opportunity to cast an electronic vote for a favorite were loaded onto the RJI website in April and spirited campaigning for votes ensued.
Final presentations again took place in RJI’s Smith Forum, only this time Karsch and Grinstead gave their group’s presentation to a packed house.
“What could be better for a journalism contest than reading news?” Grinstead asked the audience. “Until now, you’ve been stuck with the same source, it costs too much and there are no local results. We have developed an app that will let you read a broad number of news sources for free.”
The pair explained that unlike other news apps, NewsFlash pulls stories from global, national and local sources. Article searches are customizable; users can edit predetermined section headings in addition to creating their own — easily. Once selected, a brief description of the article appears, along with the option to view the entire article in an embedded web browser.
“We were expecting mostly family members to download the app,” joked Karsch to the crowd. “The results surprised us. An average of 300 people a day from all over the world are downloading the app. It’s number 15 on Apple’s website.”
As the last of the three presentations ended, one of the judges spoke for everyone in the room saying, “It’s impressive what you all brought together in such a short amount of time.”
Then Mike McKean, director of RJI’s Futures Lab, stepped forward and announced to a flurry of cheers and applause from the audience, “With 900 votes, NewsFlash wins the People’s Choice Award.”
“And NearBuy takes first place, winning the all-expense paid trip to the Apple Worldwide Development conference,” he added.
Admitting some slight disappointment, Karsch said the number of friends and fans who praised NewsFlash buoyed the team. Many said that they believed it should have taken top honors. Getting to keep the iPhones — the reward for winning People’s Choice — was a nice consolation, however.
“And that Tony Brown from NearBuy gave a great presentation,” Karsch conceded.
Stein and Karsch graduated in May, scattering team members even farther. But it’s not over until they say it’s over. Karsch, who is headed to the University of Illinois’ graduate program, says it’s not a question — the team will work online to update the app based on feedback they’ve received from users. They are hopeful that the work they did for the contest will open doors for future projects.
“I think I got a great education at MU. There were so many opportunities and options that I just couldn’t have gotten anywhere else,” he said.
That includes opportunities like the RJI Student iPhone Competition.