Animating a community

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — When the Founding Fathers wanted to start a revolution, they headed to the pub.

In the 1700s, local taverns weren’t just a place to pick up a pint of ale — they were places people gathered to share ideas and connect with like-minded individuals. It was in one such pub — the Green Dragon Tavern — that the Sons of Liberty discussed the locations of British soldiers and plotted the Boston Tea Party.

But if you tried to start a revolution in a pub today, you’d probably get a few strange looks. (If anyone glanced up from their phones.) While these “third places” — a place that’s not your home or place of work — still exist, patrons tend to keep to themselves, chatting to a friend or keeping an eye on their phones or laptops.

A Penn State research team — including lecturer of information sciences and technology Jess Kropczynski and doctoral candidate Jomara Binda — is developing and studying how an app called Community Animator can use technology to help bring together people with similar civic interests. The app is being developed in the Center for Human-Computer Interaction with the support of John M. Carroll, director of the center and Distinguished Professor of Information Sciences and Technology.

“Traditionally, a ‘community animator’ is a person that is very keen on community networks and interests and can connect people looking for partners on projects,” said Kropczynski. “But that role can be taxing, and people usually don’t do it for long. So we wanted to see if we could build an app that would automate that process.”

The app works much like a dating app. But instead of matching people who want a date, it connects people who want to come together to do something for their community.

Users create a profile and select their interests — like health and wellness or nature and climate change. After switching their status to “available,” they can wait to see if community members with similar interests show up. If so, they can strike up a conversation within the app and decide whether they want to meet and talk further.

The app was developed by Binda, who originally came to Penn State from Brazil as a visiting scholar in 2014. She had heard that Kropczynski was interested in creating an app about community engagement and immediately contacted her. But Binda was only able to get the app developed before it was time for her to go back to Brazil — no time for testing it or getting it deployed.

The separation was short-lived.

Binda returned to Centre County last fall to earn her doctorate in information science and technology and immediately got back to work testing the app with Kropczynski. When they felt that Community Animator was stable enough, they planned an event called The Happening — taken from a 1960s phrase meaning a casual get together. Several students showed up to experiment with and test the app.

“We were impressed that people showed up and wanted to test this new technology,” said Binda. “People were really into and interested in the idea, and that helped motivate us to continue with the project.”

Binda’s interest in computer programming started when she was in high school. Her family didn’t have a computer when she was young, but when she decided to study informatics, her father bought a computer from a family friend. Binda went on to earn her bachelor’s degree in computer engineering at a Brazilian university and got a job at Samsung, which she credits with giving her valuable experience that she used when developing Community Animator.

“It was great to get this view of how the industry works,” said Binda. “How to design an application, how to develop it, how to run tests and then finally how to deploy it to the Google Play or Apple store. I got to bring all this experience with me to Penn State.”

While Binda and Kropczynski hope the app helps people come together to do great things in Centre County, they are also looking forward to the research opportunities available after the app goes live.

Kropczynski says they’re interested in learning more about where third places are in State College — where people are connecting to brainstorm and execute new ideas — and whether the app can help connect groups of people that don’t normally interact, like students and members of the community that are working on similar projects.

"We'd like to see, first, if the app does help break down the barriers standing between people," said Kropczynski. "Also, does it take the burden off of the community animators? And does it allow for community animation to happen in places other than designated innovation hubs?"

Places designed as innovation hubs are spaces where members of the community can come to brainstorm ideas and collaborate on projects. In Centre County, one such space is New Leaf Initiative, located in downtown State College.

Kropczynski says they’re exploring using the app as a way for people to sign into New Leaf when they arrive. Then, visitors will be able to see what other innovators are working on and find possible opportunities for collaboration.

But whether the app takes off across the county or stays put in the lobby of New Leaf is of little consequence to Kropczynski and Binda, as long as a problem receives its solution.

“I know my overarching interest — and I think this goes for Jomara, too — is identifying problems,” said Kropczynski, “and then seeing if we can innovate around them to better serve communities.”

If you’d like to learn more or are interested in helping the team test Community Animator, please contact Jess Kropczynski at jnk14@psu.edu.

Contacts: 
Last Updated August 25, 2016