Mizzou-rooted software apps find national appeal
Welcome to Silicon Valley, Mizzou. Three software applications with ties to the MU College of Engineering’s Computer Science Department recently garnered mainstream media attention.
The highest profile hit was the 2013 Reynolds Journalism Institute Tech Showcase winner, Safe Trek, which was featured on “Good Morning America.” But the headlines didn’t stop there: Seasonal and Simple, an app that informs a user about in-season produce, was recommended by nutritionist Cynthia Sass on CNN.com. And local television station KOMU highlighted a third app, Runway Radar — an app for fashion shows, created by students for Prof. Dale Musser’s Collaborative Mobile App Development course.
Zach Beattie, a senior journalism student and member of the Safe Trek team, introduced the app on “GMA” in April in New York City. Safe Trek is a personal safety app that gives users a passive connection to law enforcement for those moments when a situation seems unsafe. Users hold down the app’s button, and if the situation does become dangerous, simply letting go of that button will alert law enforcement and identify the user’s position with GPS.
“It works like a home security system.” Beattie explained to the “GMA” anchors. “And over time, as more people use Safe Trek, we can look at cities as a whole and see where people are feeling unsafe, and then the cities can make improvements in those areas.”
Beattie said that the whole experience caught him by surprise. But Zach Winkler, the computer science graduate who worked as lead developer on the project, said the Safe Trek team worked hard to fix bugs over the summer and fall, and in the past few months, the app has really taken off.
“It’s great to see SafeTrek being used and trusted by so many people,” Winkler said in an email. “Our downloads are 100 percent fueled by word of mouth and sharing on social media.”
Since the app’s debut last year at the RJI Tech showcase, Winkler and the Safe Trek team worked with Microsoft programmers to widen the app’s reach to the entire United States. Safe Trek climbed the charts, peaking at #47 in the overall top paid apps list, a spot ahead of popular game Angry Birds. Beattie reports that the app has been downloaded more than 30,000 times. The Safe Trek team released the app for free on May 8 to encourage a larger number of downloads and grow their brand.
The media attention for Patrick Maltagliati’s app, Seasonal and Simple, also was a surprise for the recent grad. The app originally was developed as a part of Maltagliati’s summer assistantship with Musser, where it was clear that the app had legs beyond that of a normal project.
Maltagliati’s challenge was to develop a mobile app for a University of Missouri Extension website of the same name which connected local farmer’s markets and provided information on local foods in season. Maltagliati finished the app last summer, then didn’t give it much thought since he immediately started a new job with Kansas City-based healthcare software systems giant Cerner. But one day after lunch a few weeks ago, Maltagliati spent a few minutes browsing CNN.com.
“I clicked the article, and as I was going through, I saw [my app]. At first I thought, there’s no way.” Maltagliati said. “But I kept reading more, and I opened up the app, and it was mine! It took me by complete surprise.”
The author of the article was Cynthia Sass, a registered dietician who regularly appears on shows such as “GMA” and the “Today Show” as well as on CNN. Sass wrote that she “could spend hours scrolling through [Seasonal and Simple. It is] truly an app that lives up to its name!”
In addition to Sass’s article, the Missouri State Fair also used the app.
Runway Radar made a splash at Stephens College’s annual fashion show. In essence, the app allows the user to see information about the clothes, models and designers in real-time as they come down the runway. The fashion show was the first public demonstration of the app.
“This was our alpha test. We actually had to shut it down halfway through,” developer Ben Cohen said. “The results weren’t commensurate with how we thought it went. From an outsider’s perspective, it didn’t go well. But we found problems that were very fixable. It just wasn’t something that we could do on the fly.”
Cohen said that testing the app live during an actual fashion show provided the best feedback for what needed to be fixed. KOMU’s coverage of Runway Radar was just a surprise bonus.
“They actually totally blindsided us,” Cohen said. “We thought it was cool, it made us even more nervous because we weren’t sure what was going to happen. But we were flattered that KOMU took an interest in what we were doing.”
Though Cohen and his fellow app team members, Tony Santi, Alex Debeer, Jarrett Killie, Rachel Wittel and Christina Liu, are unsure whether they will continue to pursue the app to publication, they are pleased with how far they got in just one semester.
“We did a lot of work,” Cohen said, “The [collaborative mobile apps] class was a great opportunity. It was a struggle for us. A lot of building the app was learning how to code in an unfamiliar language, which is a really fun mental part of computer science — figuring out how to figure out how to do things. It was very new to all of us.”