Swarthmore Computer Scientists Find App Development Success

Danny Park '14, Htet Moe '16, and Samantha Goldstein '14 (photo by Ed Hille/Philadelphia Inquirer)

From left, Danny Park '14, Htet Moe '16, and Samantha Goldstein '14 at VUID headquarters. (photo by Ed Hille/Philadelphia Inquirer)

Philadelphia Inquirer: Birth of an app

This is the story of Spotlight, a social media app that went live on the Apple Store and Android on Friday, August 1st. It's roughly a two-year-long arc from patent (August 2012) to thing (August 2014).

It started with an idea from founder Kevin Brophy: "What if a social medium were based, not on how often you post, but on good, well thought-out posts?" What if a user could post only a limited number, one to five a day, say? And what if the community of users could vote on the posts they liked? What if there was a monthly prize? Brophy invited former business partner Karen Meidlinger to come in, and VUID was born.

The app now needed to be created which required a head engineer who knew how to write and design an app. Good luck intervened. Meidlinger was a judge at the Swat Tank business design competition at Swarthmore College. "I was sitting next to Richard Wicentowski, head of Swarthmore's computer science department," she says. "I mentioned the kind of person we were looking for, and before long. . . ." Before long, they were interviewing Swarthmore student Craig Pentrack ['14].

While finishing his degree, Pentrack started making Spotlight. "Once you know what you want to do," he says, "you plan the architecture, figure out the smartest way to make a system that can accomplish your goals. What existing tools are out there? And what do you have to create from scratch?"

Many common features are available off the shelf. For example, software for "push notifications" - in which the app can, even when the user isn't using it, send the user a message that "stuff is going on over here, come on in" - exists ready made. "Some are great," says Pentrack, "and some can cause headaches. You have to choose wisely." And, of course, everything gets modified.

To make the app available both in Apple's iOS system and in Android, the same app had to be written in two different languages. "It's a process of iteration and reiteration," Pentrack says, "reworking and improving."

After building came in-house testing. "An article I read said, 'Devote three-fifths of your time to build, and two-fifths of your time to test,' " Pentrack says. "We threw all sorts of requests at it, seeing its capabilities, testing for usability and technological soundness."

After acceptance came "beta testing," in which the app was test-run among people. This took the form of a series of weeklong contests, with the winner getting $250. Tayarisha Poe ['12] of Philadelphia, a Swarthmore graduate filmmaker, won the first one, attracting more than 1,700 likes for her work.

Winner of the most recent test/contest was David Bowser of Phoenixville. He calls Spotlight "the American Idol of social media."

In addition to Pentrack, Samantha Goldstein ’14 and Danny Park ’14 are also employed full-time at VUID, Inc. Htet Win ’16 is currently working as VUID’s marketing and communications associate through the Swarthmore Future Entrepreneurs Program