Idea Transformation, App Inventor, and State Farm Insurance

How many great ideas get left as just that, some jotted down notes on a dirty napkin in an even dirtier bar? Especially with software and mobile app ideas, most get dropped with, “if we only knew a programmer.”

App Inventor changes things by lowering the barrier to app development– just about anyone, with little or no training, can take an idea and build a working Android prototype for it. Even if it’s not the most refined, complete, or beautiful app,  an interactive app can convey an app idea better than a power-point presentation or dirty napkin.

USF Student Daniel Finnegan in the App Inventor class. Photo by Shawn Calhoun (http://www.flickr.com/photos/shawncalhoun/4622481338/in/set-72157623971497647/)

Here’s an example. Daniel Finnegan was a student in my App Inventor class last spring. Daniel is a really sharp, creative guy, a creative writing major who I’m sure spends more time thinking about the human condition than cell phone apps. But with a few hours focusing on app development he came up with a great idea. He had read about the dangers of texting while driving– incredibly, something like 28% of accidents involve a phone. For his final project, he came up with an app that tries to help by eliminating your urge to text back. The app, which Daniel coined, “No Text While Driving,”  auto-responds to any arriving text with a response message such as, “I’m driving right now, I’ll text you back later.”  You turn it on when you start your drive and all your friends and colleagues know why you’re not there for them. The app even lets the user change the response for different situations—say if you’re going into a meeting or a movie– and we’ve written versions that speak texts aloud and even send the driver’s current location as part of the auto-response.

Daniel’s idea struck a chord with people and when App Inventor launched in July,  Daniel’s app was cited on the App Inventor About page. Because the app was also a nice example of the powerful Android features you can program with App Inventor,  I also developed it as a tutorial for the App Inventor site, and created a YouTube screencast on how to build it.

A few days ago, we were excited to see that State Farm Insurance had launched “On the Move”, an Android app that is quite similar to  “No Text While Driving”. State Farm distributes it free to anyone as part of State Farm’s updated Pocket Agent® for Android™ application.

Daniel Finnegan's "No Text While Driving" app

“It is our hope that this widget will prevent crashes and save lives,” said Laurette Stiles, Strategic Resources vice president at State Farm. “This new service will help drivers manage the temptation to read or respond to text messages when they are behind the wheel. We wanted to make this widget available free-of-charge as just one of the ways we’re working to keep our roadways safe for drivers.”

I don’t know that the State Farm app was inspired  by “No Text While Driving”, but its quite possible. In pondering this, I realized the incredible nature of it–an app created in an introductory computer science course,  by an English major who had never programmed a computer, possibly being the inspiration for a now mass-produced piece of software! And one that saves lives! As soon as I finish this blog, I have to email USF President Stephen Privett!

If Daniel had written a term paper on his idea,  I wouldn’t be blogging about it possibly being the inspiration for the State Farm app. But because App Inventor made it possible for Daniel to transform his idea into something tangible–well, virtual– an interactive app, it is a distinct possibility.

So cheers to Daniel, and to the App Inventor team– you have built a tool that opens up app development to a huge new pool of creative people!

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