John Schimmel, Creator of Access Together App, Runner Up and Most Replicable @ FCC and Knight Foundation Apps for Communities Challenge

Third profile of developers who have contributed apps to federal challenges. Click to see Brad Larson and Curtis Chang profiles.

Developer: John Schimmel

Bio: John is currently an adjunct faculty member at the NYU Interactive Telecommunications Program. He focuses on teaching courses on assistive technology design for the disabled and web programming.  His background is in tech hacking, with a focus on web development (code/design/engineer).

App in Focus: Access Together
Federal Citizen App Program: FCC and the Knight Foundation Apps for Communities
Recognition: Runner Up and Most Replicable

Description of the App: Users open Access Together via their mobile phone’s web browser to check-in to places, and are prompted to answer a series of accessibility questions. The information provided on the app is primarily crowd-sourced, and provides individuals with accessibility restrictions with invaluable information.

Who is the App Intended to Serve: Citizens seeking to provide and view accessibility information about their community.

Why was the app developed: Access Together started in Spring 2011. The app idea was sparked at the New York Hall of Science during a discussion about human abilities and accessibility information in the city. Simultaneously, Foursquare released their location API, allowing individuals to query their system for information (venues). The timing was ideal to integrate accessibility needs because of the ability of the new API. John learned of challenge.gov through Twitter, and was interested in it due to his development background. The combination of accessibility and needs information along with the API could contribute additional, useful data as well as pave the way for future challenges. John thought, “Why not just build it?” so he started app development with a friend (designer).

The app challenge did provide motivation, but it was seen as more of an opportunity to present their app to an audience. The challenge did not start the development of the app, but helped motivate them to get the app project completed for the challenge deadline.

How was the availability of the app communicated to potential users: John shares information about his app to networks accessible to him such as his Facebook network. He also tries to directly contact the organizations he thinks will benefit from his app, and those he would also be interested in working with.

Advice for other developers/Lessons Learned: Using the data available from the government is the motivation behind the challenge. However, developers should not just focus on the provided data, but look towards integrating the data with the community involved and making it engaging. Don’t just make a client to access the data, but make it so that people can engage and interact with it. That was the appeal of this challenge. The only real challenge they faced was their data, as they created it from scratch. They had to create some accessibility data initially to make the app presentable and usable.

Issues of Privacy: Only issue was people with an “older mindset.” Individuals log in using a Google account or Foursquare account, but from there the user may to choose to stay anonymous, use their first name, or use a display name. This way the user’s identification is protected. Some people like to gain recognition by associating a name, but some people don’t want to be known, particularly when giving a negative review.  Few concerns were raised regarding privacy so it didn’t need to be addressed.

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:

  • Having a monetary prize is good, but not sufficient. Provide a way for developers to create closer relationships with the organizations and other pertinent stakeholders. The idea would be to help developers find more resources to continue the project, or to potentially find someone to sustain/hand the project off to if the developer needs to move on to something. In place of money, you could find government organizations that might have some need or interest in the applications. If they want to have government involved, then try to build it into a sustainable program with people involved who keep the ball rolling instead of making it a quick hack competition with a cash prize. If the people involved aren’t pushing it then it won’t go anywhere.
  • Increased advertising. There were a lot of false endings when the competition was supposed to end in July, but was pushed back to November due to lack of submissions. They could’ve pushed a little harder in terms of marketing by going to their target people like posting on Hacker News.

After the competition: The app got picked up by a few news sites focused on disability and accessibility, but during that time it didn’t have all the features it does now. John tries to tweet the FCC from time to time wondering if they’ll engage with Access Together more, but no response so far. He has also pursued engaging the city government, but he needs to create a 501c3 (non-profit) for this. However, he would rather be a sustainable business corporation. For now, he uses his networks on Facebook and direct contact.

What do you plan on doing next with the Access Together app, and your interest in app development for tackling social and technical problems: Used the prize money to spend 2 months to further enhance the app. The challenge now is to build an audience, adding new features to the mobile and desktop version, and making it more useful. He didn’t want to walk away when the project was over since he believes this can become something more. John has been in contact with 2 different organizations with similar apps. One organization is in Berlin, Germany called Wheelmap.org, and the other is AccessMap. He plans to meet with them to figure out how to combine their data into one accessible system because they share a common goal and the data is bigger than the individual apps.

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