Four teams of students compete in U mobile app design challenge

The challenge began last semester and winners will be announced Friday. The final four were selected from a pool of 10.

by Claire Bramel

This week marks the end of a two semester-long contest for University of Minnesota students to design a mobile app.

Sponsored by the Office of Information Technology and the Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program, the Mobile App Challenge’s final four teams presented their ideas Friday for final evaluation.

The finalists’ apps varied, with innovations ranging from itinerary-based travel apps to one that simplified the use of the Metro Transit bus system.

The top-three teams will be announced Friday, ending the challenge and providing the winners with networking and development opportunities to advance their ideas.

The top three will also have dinner with technology experts in the web development field at the University.

The grand prize winner will receive up to $10,000 to attend a major developer conference in the app industry.

“One of the big reasons we put this thing together is there is a lot of creative and entrepreneurial and inventive spirit here at the University of Minnesota,” Patrick Haggerty, a representative from OIT, said last semester during the project’s kickoff event. “We really wanted to harness that and direct that by mimicking the entrepreneurial cycle.”

Groups first brainstormed their ideas and made preliminary sketches. Most teams divided the work between their design-focused members and the technical developers. All the groups submitted written proposals, and only 10 were selected to pitch their ideas in November. The field of finalists was further narrowed to four.

Natalie Doud graduated in December with a degree in graphic design but continued working on her app with partner Nate Martin, a computer science junior.

Their ideas began last year, but the pair was cautious about moving forward because they were nervous about being too similar to already well-established developments.

“Not wanting to compete with a mobile app goliath like Foursquare, I halted my efforts and focused on other pursuits,” Doud said.

But after seeing advertisements for the mobile app challenge, Doud said she saw an opportunity to further her initial concept.

Enter “Wander,” an app that helps users make decisions and discoveries of a city’s offerings.

“For the traveler with a just a few hours to see the highlights or the local who wants to discover the city’s ‘hidden gems’ between meetings, ‘Wander’ sets a goal-based itinerary responsive to a user’s input,” Doud wrote in an email.

Other app inventions focused on simplifying a pre-existing website already designed for smartphone use. Take graphic design junior Andrea McNett’s team: It identified a problem and set out to fix it.

“My team members and I are smartphone users who ride the bus. Metro Transit currently has a mobile site, but it’s just not working for us,” McNett said.

She said the current site can be unreliable and doesn’t utilize GPS technology, which makes it difficult to find the correct bus stop.

“We designed and developed an Android app that solves this problem and makes riding the bus easier,” she said.

The app includes six functions related to transit service, like a stop locator that uses GPS to find the stop nearest to the user and a favorites tab that allows the user to bookmark frequently used routes.

The two other teams focused more on academic pursuits when designing and developing their ideas. The mobile device language-learning app and academic app are both Android-based apps that seek to simplify students’ lives.

The language-learning app is geared toward students or other individuals who want to learn a foreign language without enrolling in a college course. It allows the user to progressively learn a foreign language by finding texts and activities appropriate for a new learner’s levels and fluency.

The academic student services app helps users keep track of everyday academic needs in a simple, user-friendly way. The app consists of three specific areas — terms, course information and grades.