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Angry_Birds_Land_Särkänniemi_8Many 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.”

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DC districts map by Peter Fitzgerald. (Wikimedia Commons)

DC districts map by Peter Fitzgerald. (Wikimedia Commons)

“Civic hacking” has become a popular way for people skilled in programming and data crunching to give back to their community. Through organized Hack-a-thons or groups such as Open City and Code for America, volunteers imaginatively transform enormous tables of numbers into user-friendly web and mobile tools that bring localized and interactive information about a city to its citizens. From simple questions such as “has my street been plowed yet?” to more complex visualizations of zoning laws or crime patterns, these apps are changing the interaction between cities and their residents and creating an exciting new spirit of civic participation.

This summer, the Computation Institute will further nurture these efforts with the Data Science for Social Good fellowship. From early June to late August, aspiring data scientists will be brought to Chicago to work on the application of data and computation to urgent real-world problems with members of the Obama campaign analytics team and experts from the business world and academia, including the University of Chicago, Argonne National Laboratory and the Urban Center for Computation and Data. Projects addressing questions in education, health, energy, transportation and other spheres will be developed in interdisciplinary teams overseen by an advisory team including Google’s Eric Schmidt and Rayid Ghani, chief scientist for Obama 2012.

PhD, masters or advanced undergraduate students, software engineers and people with statistics, programming and data skills are encouraged to apply. The deadline for applications is April 1st, and all the information required can be found at the fellowship’s website. The fellowship is also seeking experienced mentors and partners, who should e-mail the organizers at datasciencefellowship@uchicago.edu. Good luck!

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