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Wednesday, 04 December 2013 14:19

At WCU, an app to keep students out of the rain

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By Paul Clark • SMN Correspondent

So, here’s the problem. It’s raining and you need to catch the CAT TRAN, one of the purple vans that shuttle students and staff around Western Carolina University.

You know when the van is supposed to arrive, but you don’t want to stand out in the rain hoping you’re right.

Chris Ward has an app for that. A computer science major at Western Carolina and a student in its mobile app class, Ward and classmate Hayden Thomas have built “CAT Track,” an app that lets people know where their van is and how far away it is from their stop. Instead of getting soaked, riders using the app can limit the time they spend outside.

“App development is definitely taking off, as more and more people get smart phones and tablets,” said Ward, a junior computer science major from Morganton. “This is the future of programming.”

Worldwide, 1.2 billion people were using mobile apps at the end of last year, according to mobiThinking.com. Analysts quoted by the website estimate that 56 billion to 82 billion apps will be downloaded this year alone. By 2017, there may be as many as 200 billion downloads. In October, Apple announced the number of apps in its app store had reached one million. Google claimed to have reached that milestone in April.

Andrew Scott teaches the mobile app class that Ward and Thomas are taking at Western Carolina. An assistant professor in mathematics and computer science, Scott was hired in August from his job as a research fellow for the Centre of Excellence in Mobile Applications and Services in England. Scott, who has played on a unicycle hockey team, has developed a number of mobile apps in tourism, entertainment and equine management, among other fields. He was already an accomplished software engineer when he started developing mobile apps in early 2010. 

The university’s mobile apps class started in 2010 and is hugely popular. All 25 seats were occupied on the first day of the semester (two students have since dropped out), Scott said. The class could be bigger if the university could accommodate everyone who wanted to take it, he said. 

All the students are computer science majors who have had at least one year of Java, the language the class programs in. The students are on a track to get a degree that will help them become software developers. And they likely hold our future in their hands, largely because of how ubiquitous and powerful smart phones and tablets have become. As the world broadens and flattens, apps are increasingly regulating our lives (for better or worse, Scott noted), controlling how we communicate with people in our lives and the appliances in our homes. 

Though 60 percent of mobile apps in Apple’s store have never been downloaded – a statement about their quality and/or uniqueness, Scott said – demand is high for app developers. There’s an acute shortage of them, actually. The job Scott left in England still hasn’t been filled because the person with the right skills hasn’t come along, Scott said. “I’ve heard companies say it takes them a year and a half to fill a position,” he said.

Hence the app class at Western Carolina. It’s hard, and it moves fast. “There’s so much to cover in a short amount of time,” Scott said, but “this is one of the classes where students know they are learning something interesting.”

Ward and Thomas, from Burnsville, are talking to the university about its adopting the CAT Track app. Whether that happens or not depends on whether Western Carolina will support it after the two students graduate. Ward would love to see that happen, but he’ll be off to bigger things. The mobile apps class will help him get a job with a software development company in Charlotte, he believes.  

Generally the students work individually on their own apps, but as the complexity of the work ratchets up, they’ve begun working in groups, each bringing his or her own set of skills and solutions to the challenges at hand.

“It’s my job to guide them in the right direction,” Scott said. That means, he said, “not picking a road to nowhere,” no matter how cool an idea the app may be. “In my old institution, we sold to a lot of entrepreneurial types, people who would come to us with ideas for apps. One gentleman came to us with what he thought was a great idea – the quickest way to school or to work. I said, ‘That’s not a good idea, people will use it once and that’s it.’ Those are the kinds of thoughts you’ve got to present to students. Can you sell this idea?”

It takes many things to become a successful mobile app developer, diligence chief among them, Scott said. Imagination is high on the list. 

“You’ve got to be creative,” he said. “You’ve got to have good visual skills to be able to produce graphics and buttons with a good sense of design and color. Attention to detail is important. It helps if you’re musical as well, because these apps come with sounds. You’ve got to be a mix of an artsy type and a geeky type. If you’re both, you’ll fit the mold quite well.”

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