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The past, present and future of MIT’s iPhone app

Andrew Yu and David Foucher, who oversaw the app’s development, discuss how it came about and what to expect in future versions.
Courtesy of MIT News Office

Released on Feb. 8, the MIT Mobile iPhone app gives users access to MIT news and several tools to navigate the Institute, including an interactive campus map, a searchable people directory and a shuttle tracker. More than 7,000 individuals in the community and beyond have downloaded the app.

David Foucher, vice president, online, at Technology Review and director of Web development at the MIT News Office, and Andrew Yu, mobile platform manager and architect in Information Services and Technology, have been key players in the development of the application. In this interview, they provide insights on how the application came to be and where it’s heading. (Since giving this interview, Yu has announced that he is leaving IS&T and MIT to start a venture that will provide mobile application framework solutions for higher education and commercial markets. Yu's new company will work closely with MIT to continue the mobile application development.)

What motivated the MIT News Office to get behind this project?

Foucher: Doctor Hockfield! In early fall 2009, Jason Pontin — now MIT’s director of media — and I showed her a prototype of a mobile app for Technology Review. She said, “When can we have this for MIT?” We thought it might be possible by around March 1, 2010. We were aware that MIT students had done some prototyping of an iPhone app during the summer of 2008.

How did the News Office and IS&T work together to create the MIT Mobile iPhone app?

Foucher: In October, we got in touch with IS&T’s Michael Gettes and Andrew Yu and discovered that the MIT Mobile Web was farther along than we’d known. You could already access Stellar, the Tech Shuttle, and the campus map through it.

Marilyn Smith, head of IS&T, put some funding behind the project and by December the MIT Mobile iPhone app was in development. Many people were involved. The News Office and Technology Review assigned developers Aleksandar Kanchev and Michael Callahan to the project, along with graphic designer Christine Daniloff. The bulk of the development, though, was handled by IS&T.

Yu: As project manager, I worked closely with News Office staff and with Justin Anderson, the project’s lead developer in IS&T. Other IS&T staff helped with server deployment. Two contractors with MIT connections, Sonia Huang and Brian Patt, were also involved and have been aligned with MIT Mobile Web project since 2007. Sonia is a still a graduate student at MIT, and Brian is an alum who graduated with a PhD in physics from MIT three years ago.

We hired an outside contractor, Eric Kim, for the user interface design, and a company called RaizLabs for the map module. So a lot of people have been involved, most of them with MIT affiliations.

MIT released version 1.0 of its iPhone app on a tight schedule. What new or improved features are at the top of the list for the next version?

Foucher: Version 1.1 will offer increased stability and a more uniform user interface. On the news front, you will be able to bookmark and search for stories. We’ve also had lots of requests to include the MIT Events Calendar and will be adding information on dining services.

Yu: It’s important to understand that with version 1.0, there were many things we wanted to implement, but we also had a deadline to meet. Right now the iPhone app has roughly half the capabilities of the MIT Mobile Web. So we definitely have room for additional modules and features, as well as improvements to existing modules.

Who decides which news articles are displayed? Is this an editorial decision or automated?

Yu: It’s automated. The mobile feed from the News Office is based on the most recent articles posted in a category. You can continue to scroll down the screen; the database holds up to 200 articles collectively for all categories.

How does the GPS shuttle tracker get its real-time data?

Yu: In 2008, MIT’s Parking & Transportation Office decided to go with a company called NextBus, which provides a GPS tracking service for a number of transportation organizations around the country. We have been using the NextBus data feed for the MIT Mobile Web and MIT SMS for over a year and a half now and, while nothing is perfect, it’s been fairly reliable.

Many MIT classes use Mobile Stellar, which can be set to notify users of class updates. How does it work?

Yu: We don’t currently have authentication enabled for this, so users have to select “My Stellar” to add a class to their list of favorites. Once a student has added a class — assuming it has Stellar activity — then anytime an instructor or TA posts a new announcement, it will appear in the app and the student will also receive a notification. The interface with Stellar is through a custom XML feed.

Does the Institute plan to develop a similar MIT app for Droid and Blackberry users?

Foucher: This is on our radar. Android is the more flexible environment, more open source, so we will be developing for that first. We’ll also be looking at the impact of Apple’s iPad and what that means for educational applications. It could be a game-changer.

Yu: For now the MIT Mobile Web works across the board, so we would encourage people to continue to use that, especially those who don’t have a native application yet for their mobile device.

From a technology perspective, what’s next for delivery of MIT news?

Foucher: We’re trying to follow the market, where consumers are. The Web is obvious. The MIT News Office’s new web site just went live in September 2009, so we’re still trying to figure out who the audience is, if they want to communicate with each other, and what they want to communicate.

The iPhone app represents a new audience. The most popular features are no-brainers — shuttles, maps, MIT news, Stellar, emergency status — delivering these types of on-the-go information is what mobile devices are good at.

We’re exploring new platforms, for example, eReaders like the Kindle and those from E Ink and Plastic Logic. We’re also looking at delivering news on tablet platforms, such as the iPad.

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