Through their Capstone project, a group of iSchool students is helping a Seattle-based nonprofit carry out its mission and put clothing, food, diapers and other necessities into the hands of families in need.
The Informatics students, Autumn Derr, Lauren Smith, Tyler Van Brocklin and Hayley Younghusband, knew from the beginning they wanted to work with a nonprofit for their project.
“We decided to reach out to local nonprofits because many of them don’t have the budget to develop their own apps and software,” Van Brocklin said. “Mary’s Place really stood out. The problem that they were facing was something that we had the talents to address.”
That problem was a mountain of paperwork. Mary’s Place staff had to endure the tedious process of interpreting hand-written donation receipts and adding the information to a database — a single month of receipts took about 8 hours of work. Mary’s Place staff wanted to speed up the process, giving them more time to help families move out of homelessness.
The students began by talking with staff and volunteers to understand the current process and how to improve it. They decided the best solution would be a responsive app. They hoped at first to allow the app to send information directly to Mary’s Place’s database, but the system is old and it wasn’t possible.
The team kept working and found a solution by exporting the data from the app to a CSV spreadsheet and then uploading it to the database. The process takes about 3 minutes.
Dealing with older software was one challenge. Coronavirus was another. Partway through their project, the team had to adapt when in-person contact was no longer possible. They were all based in Seattle, and had planned in-person user testing. Now, though, they are spread out around the Western United States, and had to make the most of online collaboration tools. They used their classmates as remote test subjects and also used an online user-testing website to collect anonymous feedback, which gave them the information they needed to make the app user-friendly.
While Mary’s Place isn’t able to accept donations right now, once it’s safe to do so, it will be a quicker and easier process.
“Especially in light of COVID-19, and the effect it has had on our economy, the work that Mary’s Place does is more important than ever,” Smith said. “Our project will allow volunteers and employees to spend more time doing what they do best.”
In addition to making the process easier for staff, it will be easier for donors. It only takes a few clicks to complete a donation, and information will be saved for repeat donors. And the donor will be automatically emailed a receipt for tax purposes — a big improvement over carbon-copy receipts.
“The Mary’s Place staff were so pleased with the app,” Derr said. “It felt awesome to work with such an inspiring organization and its people.”
Capstone projects are the culmination of an iSchool education — a chance for students to apply what they’ve learned to a real-world problem. The students said the project was a powerful way to use their knowledge — gained both from classes and extracurricular work. Derr and Younghusband were co-presidents this year of the student group Women in Informatics.
“The iSchool gave us all the skills to do this work,” Younghusband said. “It helped us be prepared to work as a team, which was huge. … And it feels really nice knowing how much our solution is going to help Mary’s Place. One of my favorite parts of this project was getting to know and understand how much time we would be saving for Mary’s Place employees to be productive elsewhere.”
Hannah Anderson, in-kind donations manager for Mary’s Place, said this app wouldn’t have been possible without help from the iSchool students.
“It was fun to see their knowledge and fun to meet with them and just see it from the beginning of spinning out ideas and having an idea of what they wanted in their heads and then making it real,” Anderson said. “This is going to free up a lot of time for staff to put energy into other projects.”