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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Success Story from Helsinki

You’ve got a real-world problem that could be solved with software, but none of the pre-canned solutions you find quite fits your particular needs. Wouldn’t it be great if you could take something that almost fit and tailor it? And wouldn’t it be great if you could do it within hours and without hiring a programmer. This is the promise of App Inventor, and the promise of an open source where the “source” is actually decipherable.

I recently received a series of emails from a couple who needed an SMS Texting broadcast hub to organize a community event. They tailored one of the App Inventor tutorials I wrote, BroadcastHub, to solve the problem. From Myles Byrne:

My wife and i are respectively a cancer scientist and a bioinformatician who moved from San Francisco to Helsinki last year. We’re working extracurricularly with a local arts organization to try to lift a central neighborhood to a more creative and inclusive plane, especially regarding the growing immigrant population. So there is at least some relatedness to the mission of FrontlineSMS.

So we’re organizing events from now till 2012, when Helsinki is World Design Capital. The first such event is Saturday, and we’re trying to get  broadcastHub working in this way:

– a cell number on an Android (HTC wildfire) receives SMS’s from people who want to be part of the event
– each SMS receives an auto-response reply
– each number that sent in an SMS receives several more messages over the next few days – simple text broadcasts

I was planning to learn App Inventor at leisure. But hours of searching for commercial SMS providers doing what broadcastHub does (for Helsinki users) turned up nothing.

A few days later I received this:

Dave,

Our community raising event in Helsinki went off really well. About 1000 people came.

(almost entirely in Finnish)
http://www.facebook.com/#!/profile.php?id=100001436757236

We needed SMS broadcast capabilty for up to a thousand people over a few days. We looked at FrontlineSMS, Clickatell, and others – nothing had the right fit. Then I got my invitation to App Inventor, looked at the broadcasterHub tutorial, and realized with a shock this was the perfect solution. In a few hours I was able to modify the broadcastHub tutorial app to fit exactly our needs:

Any SMS’s sent to my phone number with the app running received an autoreply: “Text ‘beatroot’ to this number to sign up for our message list.” Any numbers sending an SMS to me containing ‘beatroot’ or ‘Beatroot’ were added to the broadcast list. But because our event was in Helsinki, the broadcast messages needed to be in Finnish. So instead of writing them myself, I told the app to take any messages sent to me from Heta and Jon, the Finnish organizers of the event, and automatically re-send it to all the numbers on the broadcast list.

It really was incredibly fast and easy to modify the broadcastHub app to do only what we needed. The app worked perfectly and can be easily re-used, modified, and shared. Having the capabilities of an android phone plugged into a graphical programming environment is an amazing experience. You’re not just learning logic, you’re learning it in the context of the social world connected to your phone.

Thanks David and Google for bringing the next level, again.
We will be using your tools for more ambitious (but still local!) projects in the near future.

Cheers,
– Myles Byrne
Heta Kuchka
Jon Sundell
: Punajuuri (Beatroot)
Helsinki, Finland

Check out their event page at http://www.punajuuri.org/

and you’ll see the invitation for people to join their broadcast list:

Elävä musiikki alkaa viiskulmasta ja jatkuu
Pursimiehenkatua pitkin kankurinkadun kulmaan.

Send “Punajuuri” SMS to +358 50 415 6799 to get live SMS updates

Cheers to Myles and team, and cheers to the App Inventor team!

App Inventor: “No Text While Biking” App