Tech for Good

Posted by Alexa Salvato on Thursday, April 13, 2017

by Evan Sobkowicz '17

Examining the intersection of emerging media and community service

I’ve lived in Ithaca, NY for the last four years, attending Ithaca College as an Emerging Media major and a member of the Park Scholar Program.

As a Park Scholar, I focus my time on helping people and organizations solve problems with websites, apps, and other emerging media technologies. I’ve worked on a number of projects over the past four years on campus and in the greater Ithaca community.

On campus, I’ve served as the Web Director for Ithaca College’s student-run newspaper, The Ithacan, for four years. I’ve also served as Managing Editor of the publication for one semester. I rebuilt The Ithacan’s website twice, once in 2013 and again in 2016. I’ve developed two versions of The Ithacan’s iOS App, the first in 2014, written in RubyMotion, and the second in 2016, written in Swift. Over the last few years I’ve also worked to improve the overall communication and workflow management within the organization. This has included setting up Slack (a team communication tool) and Trello (a project management tool), and teaching our editors how to best use them for more productive communication and workflow tracking.

Four years on The Ithacan’s editorial board has given me the opportunity to really learn the ins and outs of the organization and see many challenges come up within the process and team. Through my roles on the editorial board, I’ve been able to work on improving the internal process and external publication with technology. Slack has changed the way the editorial board communicates, and has enabled a lot more clear and transparent communication within the team. Our improved website and app have also taken The Ithacan’s online presence to the next level. I’ve received great feedback about the website and it has won several awards over the last four years.

Off campus, I volunteer with other Park Scholars as part of the Media Club group service project. For the last 2 years, I led a web and game development club at DeWitt Middle School. For 6–8 weeks each semester, my fellow Park Scholars and I went to the middle school to work with 5–10 students. Over the two years we worked with many different students on various projects, including basic web development with HTML and CSS, 2D game development, and developing fictional story narratives. This semester, I’m helping launch a new marketing/journalism club at the Greater Ithaca Activities Center. We’re working with a small group of fifth graders there to launch a newsletter for the parents of students who attend the after-school program there.

My involvement in Media Club over the past three years has been extremely rewarding. I enjoy getting kids excited about technology and giving them an introduction to skills that they might not be getting from their schools. I also think it’s important for kids to learn that playing video games and scrolling through social media aren’t the only uses for their phones and laptops. Having fun while learning how to create something with technology, like we do in Media Club, can help the kids understand that.

In 2016, I started volunteering for the Friendship Donations Network, an organization that focuses on food rescue and redistribution in Ithaca and neighboring communities. After learning about their work and hearing about their needs, I discovered that they had a website in need of attention and that they didn’t have a good system to track the donations they were receiving and distributing. I spent several months working with FDN on developing a new website design and reworking their content to better tell their story. We also focused on making it easy for users to figure out how to donate money or food to their cause. I’m also developing a donation-tracking web application for FDN. This internal tool will allow their volunteers to use their mobile devices to enter donation locations, types, and amounts into a system that can keep track of everything in a centralized way.

Previously, FDN had a confusing website that was hard to navigate, and occasionally tracked donations on paper. I was able to help them improve both their internal and external communications with the new website and tracking application. It has also been a good experience to get off campus and learn more about the Ithaca community and nonprofit scene.

For the last year and a half, in both my Emerging Media junior project and senior capstone courses, I’ve been working with fellow Emerging Media students on developing a mental wellness tracking app called Self Checkout. Self Checkout enables users to track their moods and what caused them, and engage with a checklist of self-care tasks. The iOS app can also remind users to check in with customizable notifications. The first version of the app launched in the App Store in April 2016, and as of March 2017 the app has over 975 downloads, 280 monthly active users, and more than 6,500 total check ins. This semester we’re working to build version 2.0 of Self Checkout, improving the overall design and user experience, as well as building a predictive algorithm to suggest self-care tasks to users before they might be feeling a certain way.

My work on Self Checkout has been an incredible learning experience in many ways, including learning more about mental health and iOS development, two things I knew little about before starting on this project. It’s also really exciting to be able to build a product that people all over the world can use to mange their mental wellness. We’ve received some incredible reviews from our users and have heard positive feedback from users we know personally.

I spent the last two summers interning for Twitter. During summer 2015 I worked at Twitter Boston, developing a new crash reporting system for Crashlytics as part of the Fabric team. I spent summer 2016 working at Twitter’s HQ in San Francisco, building tools that enable journalists, publishers, and developers to integrate Twitter into their own products and publications. After graduation, I will be returning to Twitter in San Francisco full time as a software engineer.

My work at Twitter helps organizations on a much larger scale, and is rewarding in a different kind of way than my work with local organizations in the Ithaca community and at Ithaca College. The Park Scholar Program strives to create a “community that develops future communications leaders who engage critically, act globally, and perform ethically.” Through my work at Twitter, I’ve found that two of Twitter’s ten core values, defend and respect the user’s voice and reach every person on the planet, connect directly to the goals of the Park Scholar Program. Working at Twitter enables me to make a difference on a global scale, and also critically and ethically engage with the world.

Overall, being a member of the Park Scholar Program and majoring in Emerging Media at Ithaca College have enabled me to develop skills in web and app development, and use those skills to help people and organizations solve problems with technology, both in my local community and globally.

Originally published here