Studio hopes to target vacant lots, urban farming

Urban Apps and Maps seeks to enagage college and high school students. From Fox School of Business’s Design Challenge, the university’s Urban Apps and Maps Studio has garnered ideas for transforming vacant lots into urban

Urban Apps and Maps seeks to enagage college and high school students.

From Fox School of Business’s Design Challenge, the university’s Urban Apps and Maps Studio has garnered ideas for transforming vacant lots into urban farms, creating a North Broad Street Association, and a “community connector” among students, residents and businesses.

Temple’s Urban Apps and Maps Studio will begin designing its first mobile applications. With $700,000 in Economic Development Administration and National Science Foundation grants, the project is about to start software development.

“We have three or four tangible ideas that came out,” Youngjin Yoo, head of the EDA grant for the project, said. “[The] farming ideas are getting a lot of traction.”

Temple took a set of potential application ideas to the Code Across America: Philadelphia’s Civic Hackathon in February.

“[Hackers] usually respond to challenges,” Yoo, a management informations systems professor, said.

Participating hackers and programmers ultimately developed an application prototype for connecting urban farmers with residents and business owners.

“It ended up being a fairly boring process…it wasn’t even a mobile app,” he said.

He credits part of this problem to the lack of specificity in the design challenge. A second competition, with a direct focus on urban farming, is being planned for Fall 2012. Yoo cited a major challenge for the studios with developing applications to perform the most important functions.

“There can be many different apps along the way,” Yoo said. “The difference between apps and conventional programs is that conventional programs are a lot more complicated and large in scope, whereas the current mobile app usually does just one thing and one thing well.”

“A lot of the faculty…come from traditional software development-kind of mentality,” Yoo added.

Applications will need to be able to help users find un-owned, arable empty lots, to “adopt a lot” and to find products sold from those lots.

“You need farming knowledge, and then you need money,” Yoo said. “Simply because it’s empty, you can’t just walk into somebody else’s lot.”

The Urban Apps and Maps team consists of eight faculty, two graduate students and one consultant administrator, all of who span various university departments. The project is shared between Fox and the geography and urban studies department within the College of Liberal Arts. Currently, Urban Apps and Maps does not fall under a degree program, however Yoo said his team is working with faculty to make course credits available for participating students.

Team member Hamil Pearsall, assistant professor of geography and urban studies, said the goal is to “formally” involve students in the studio.

“We realize that the first step should be to go to urban farmers in Philadelphia,” Pearsall said. “The idea is that we would produce a series of apps that could be useful for a variety of purposes that would fall under the broader theme of urban agriculture.”

For the moment, the project is concentrating on using land and engaging growers with businesses just in the North Philadelphia neighborhood.

“We haven’t yet spoken to specific homeowners,” Pearsall said.

Pearsall described the aim of these farms is to benefit business owners and residents alike.

“Ideally, it would make improvements in their lives,” he said.

Urban Apps and Maps plans to begin hiring students to develop the software in April and May. Students need a programming and mobile app development background, as well as an understanding of maps and databases, Yoo said.

To bring in high school students during the summer, the project is working with Building Information Technology Skills, a North Philadelphia organization directed by department of geography and urban studies chair Michele Masucci, as well as Hopeworks ‘N Camden, which provides technology training to Camden high school students.

The project is waiting word on a grant from the Knight Foundation, which would go toward educating high school students chosen to work on the program.

Yoo confirmed the studios’ website is due for completion within a month.

“Hopefully by the end of summer we’ll have a real app,” Yoo said.

Meanwhile, Urban Apps and Maps is conducting negotiations with corporations and start-up accelerators. Yoo mentioned his team is attempting to form “international relationships,” in an effort to make the studio an enterprising venture.

“I think what we will have is something like a crowd-funding model,” he said.

Yoo hopes the project will link Temple-area businesses and residents while drawing in people from Center City.

Amelia Brust can be reached at

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