How to Sling-Shot Mobile Computing Beyond Angry Birds


Many of us carry a computer in our pocket that's as powerful as the supercomputers of the late 1980's. Many of us also mostly use that revolutionary device to slingshot cartoon birds at evil pigs. Smartphones have undoubtedly improved and changed our lives in many different ways, yet the potential of these mobile computers to benefit science and humanity has often been overshadowed by their talent for eating up free time with a silly game. But as CI fellow T. Andrew Binkowski said in his (flood-delayed) talk for Faculty Technology Day on May 8th, there are few reasons why the power of smartphone apps can't also be harnessed for teaching and research in an academic context.

In general, the world of smartphone apps is a cruel and competitive ecosystem. Almost 1 million apps are available in Apple's App Store, which has seen some 50 billion downloads since its launch in 2008. Due to this scale, Binkowski said he often warns people that no matter how good their app idea is, it's very likely that somebody else has already created and released something similar. Often, it's the design, marketing and support of the app that separates it from a crowd of lookalike releases -- Angry Birds wasn't even the first game where a player flings animals at buildings, and yet it is now the most successful franchise in iOS history.


For your typical developer, that makes selling your app "the hardest 99 cents you will ever earn," Binkowski said. But for academic apps meant for the classroom or laboratory, that fierce competition is irrelevant.

"A lot of educators have goals to better reach out and connect with students, facilitate research, or something as simple as improving communication," Binkowski said. "This removes a lot of the burdens and constraints of developing an app. If you want an app for your lab and you're the only one in the world doing this research, you don't have to worry about this fiercely competitive marketplace. You can build something that just helps you."

In fact, Apple has also made it so these small-scale apps don't have to worry about the bottom line either. The first steps towards building an iOS app -- registering with the Apple Developer Program and downloading their app creation tools -- are free. It's only if you want to distribute your work through the App Store that they charge you the annual $99 fee, Binkowski said. "Ad hoc" apps that will only be used by up to 100 people (in a classroom or a laboratory, for instance) can be distributed with a paid developer account.

Binkowski has created applications to assist his own research and the work of collaborators. In his primary position with the Center for Structural Genomics of Infectious Diseases, researchers run thousands of screening experiments on human health and disease related protein targets. Binkowski created an app that saves time (and grad student sanity) by allowing researchers to review the results on an iPad and catalog the interesting ones. Another app, still in development, is helping physician-researchers interpret the results of complex supercomputer models of histocompatability between  donors and patients.

"I think we're seeing a lot of really good uses here at the University for integrating devices into research," Binkowski said. "What I've found is the biggest deal is that it facilitates the collection and improves the quality of data."

The largest hurdle for many educators and researchers remains the programming skills needed to transform an idea into a working application, but even there Binkowski said there are easy solutions. The University's Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation and the New Venture Challenge run an annual Mobile App Challenge where members of the University of Chicago community are invited to submit their app ideas, and the best ones are matched up with people who have development skills.

"It's good for everybody -- these apps get built that have a good purpose, and the students are looking to develop applications to show off if they're looking for jobs as professional iOS developers," Binkowski said. "So if you have an idea for an app, let's find you some students."

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