Service Through Software

Trinity undergraduates write free, open-source apps that save lives and serve the greater good. 

On Thanksgiving Day, 2009, Salvation Army volunteers across New York City served a free turkey dinner to 10,000 people, one of the largest “mass feedings” in the organization’s 129-year history. The logistics of such a large-scale humanitarian operation are daunting—a dozen serving sites, 500 volunteers and coordinators, massive amounts of perishable food—but everyone hit their marks with the help of a simple piece of software written by undergraduates from Trinity and neighboring colleges.
The software, called Collabbit, looks and feels like a bare-bones Facebook, and is designed to give relief organizations like the Salvation Army and the Red Cross a secure online tool to share critical updates during a disaster. Collabbit was born at Trinity from a National Science Foundation-funded initiative called the Humanitarian Free and Open-Source Software Project, or HFOSS. Collabbit was written and developed entirely by undergraduates—even some non-computer science majors—and is exactly the kind of project Trinity professor Ralph Morelli had in mind when he and colleagues from Wesleyan University and Connecticut College sought funding for HFOSS in 2006.
“Computer science suffers from some misimpressions,” says Morelli. “That it’s nerdy, individualistic, even ‘selfish.’” HFOSS deliberately tries to shed the “solitary geek” stereotype by showing how computer science—particularly the open-source software movement—can bring smart, service-minded people together to improve people’s lives. Think of it as Habitat for Humanity, but replace the hammers and paint with Java and Perl.
The first release of Collabbit was written in just three weeks in the spring of 2009 by a small group of HFOSS students, including Trinity undergraduate Dimitar Gochev ’11. From day one, the team worked hand-in-hand with representatives of the New York City Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster (NYC VOAD), a coalition of every major relief agency and emergency management office in the city. This open, collaborative, user-centered development model was the key to Collabbit’s success, says HFOSS program director Trishan de Lanerolle.
“In the end, VOAD gets a software app that really meets their needs, rather than superficially meets their needs,” says de Lanerolle. With constant feedback from the relief organizations, the working prototype of Collabbit is designed to answer two basic but critical questions during a disaster: 1) What’s going on?; and 2) Who do I contact?
In addition to the Thanksgiving feeding, the Salvation Army relied on Collabbit in July 2010 to coordinate the operation of 19 “cooling centers” in New York City to offer citizens relief from a relentless heat wave. A month earlier, the American Red Cross used Collabbit to organize a “dry run” response to a mock hurricane. In the past, says de Lanerolle, relief agencies relied on mass conference calls to update each other on critical needs and coordinate a response. Besides being chaotic, the calls left no written record to analyze for future improvements. During the recent exercise, Collabbit not only proved simple to use and effective, but left organizers with their first step-by-step record of a real-time disaster response.
Most of the coding and development of Collabbit happened at the HFOSS Summer Institute, a two-month paid student internship offered at Trinity and four other partner colleges. The internships are open to computer science majors and non-majors with an eye to attracting more women to the field. Pauline Lake ’13—who is majoring in computer science with a minor in education studies—and Nina Limardo ’11—a theater and dance major with a minor in music—had taken only one computer science course when they were accepted for the Summer Institute.
While another group of Trinity interns tinkered with Collabbit, Professor Morelli assigned Lake and Limardo to a group working with Google App Inventor, a mobile software development tool for Android phones. As a fun exercise, Morelli encouraged them to write a simple program to submit to the Apps for Healthy Kids contest promoted by First Lady Michelle Obama. With only ten days left until the contest deadline, Lake and Limardo wrote a quick app called Work it Off! that gives kids a fun way to track their calories and choose activities to burn them off. Remarkably, the app won the student award and the entire HFOSS team was flown to Washington, D.C. for an awards banquet and a $10,000 check. Lake, now a double-major in computer science and educational studies, is teaching a class this semester for neighborhood kids at the Trinfo.Cafe about how to build their own apps for Android.
Trinity is proud to be the home campus for HFOSS. “When we started, there weren’t any other schools trying this out,” says de Lanerolle, who graduated from Trinity in 2004. The original collaboration with Wesleyan and Connecticut College has now expanded to 10 colleges and universities, even far-flung Oregon State. Both Morelli and de Lanerolle see open-source as the future of software development and believe that HFOSS’s blend of hands-on learning and real community engagement is the perfect match for Trinity’s liberal arts mission.
Learn more about the Humanitarian FOSS Project, test out a demo version of Collabbit, or download the latest version of Work it Off! to your Android phone.