Brad Larson, Creator of Molecules App, Honorable Mention @ NIH/NLM “Show off your Apps” Competition

As promised, in my previous post, my research team and I will be featuring various app developers who have contributed to challenges run by federal agencies on challenges.gov.

Developer: Brad Larson
Bio: Brad Larson is technically gifted with a track-record of programming. He has been working in the mobile app realm since the days of Palm. He is an engineer by training, earning a BS in chemical Engineering with a minor in Computer Science from Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology, in addition to an MS and PhD in Materials Science from the University of Wisconsin. His current interests in the mobile development space focus on advanced 3-D graphics and high performance image and video processing, particularly when used in scientific applications such as machine vision.
Current Position: Co-founder and Chief Technology Officer at SonoPlot, Inc., Consults and develops through Sunset Lake Software

App in Focus: Molecules
Federal Citizen App Program: NIH/NLM “Show off your Apps” Competition
Recognition: Honorable Mention

Description of the App: Molecules is an app that displays 3D renderings of molecules. It allows users to access and download various molecules from the RCSB Protein Data Bank or NCBI’s PubChem. Both are public repositories for molecules and compounds. Once a specified molecule or compound is downloaded, the app displays a 3D rendering and permits the user to manipulate their view; to zoom, pan or even to change from ball-and-stick to spacefilling visualization models. The molecules once downloaded are stored on the mobile device for later review.

Who is the App Intended to Serve: The original target audiences were researchers and high-end knowledge workers in the sciences. Now the primary users are in the education field, with usage even at the high school level.

Current Statistics: The application runs on iPhone, iPod touch and iPad. As of March 22, 2012, Molecules has been downloaded by 2,040,480 people.

Why was the app developed: Initial work on the application began on June 15, 2008 and the first version was submitted on July 6, 2008. It launched with the iPhone App Store on July 10, 2008. Molecules was created to solve a challenge identified by his brother, and one that if solved would benefit many researchers. It began and continues to be developed as a hobby project that focuses on 3D renderings of molecules and compounds. In addition to generating 3D renderings of specific molecules, the application was intended to provide mobile access to users anywhere.

How was the app developed: The development of Molecules began with the normal design process (defining the scope, etc.). With its development contingent upon Brad’s learning and mastery of particular skills, such as 3D rendering. The Apple Developer conferences played a critical role in not only teaching him some of these skills, but also in connecting him with others in the development community. Once able to 3D render, he partnered with RCSB Protein Bank and the NCBI’s PubChem to leverage their databases of molecules and compounds. Molecules makes its source code publicly available, allowing other developers to research and fix bugs/other issues. Complications and challenges in the development process were addressed via two avenues; his network of developers built through conferences and the online resource, StackOverflow.com.

How was the availability of the app communicated to potential users: As one of the first 500 applications on the iPhone App Store, it was fairly visible from the launch of that service. It was the eighth most downloaded free utility in 2008. Since then, it has been featured by Apple multiple times on the App Store, and has appeared in passing on Apple's television commercials and in a couple of their keynote presentations. Other websites have listed it in collections of scientific and educational iOS applications. Beyond that, Brad has told friends and associates about the application, but have not actively advertised it beyond occasional mentions on various developer websites like Stack Overflow.

What were the key lessons learned during the development of the app: 1) Build small, throwaway test applications to explore specific areas that I didn't understand and then to use the lessons learned from these experiments in the larger finished application, and 2) Attend conferences for networking to build partnerships and working relationship with other developers.

What recommendations do you have for government agencies that are trying to incentivize the creation of citizen apps and the leveraging of open data programs:

  • Increase the visibility of the challenges and competitions. Many app developers do not know of them.
  • Improve communication with app developers and external parties. Leverage the app developer networks to increase the reach of the message.
  • Cash prizes while good need to be in touch with realities of developers. Seldom do developers have extensive resources to support travel to D.C for events (even when they win prizes or receive recognition).
  • Support the development of local events for app developers to meet, share ideas, learn from each other, and work on problems.

What do you plan on doing next with the Molecules app, and your interest in app development for tackling social and technical problems: Brad plans to continue the development and refinement of Molecules based upon the reviews he receives online. To-date 389 reviews have been written for all-versions of the app, referencing features such as color coding, interface layout and inclusion of more molecule information. His most recent efforts have been focused on adapting and improving the application for the iPad 3. He also, as noted above has begun work in ‘assisted visioning’ applications.

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