Studio launches, targets urban blight

An interdisciplinary “apps and maps” studio plans to help the local economy. This month, Temple announced the launch of its Urban Apps and Maps Studio. Funded by federal grants totaling $700,000, the studio allows civic-minded

An interdisciplinary “apps and maps” studio plans to help the local economy.

This month, Temple announced the launch of its Urban Apps and Maps Studio. Funded by federal grants totaling $700,000, the studio allows civic-minded students to develop software aimed at addressing urban issues.

Fox School of Business hosted the launch Feb. 16. Mayor Michael Nutter attended the event. Nutter reportedly praised the studio as the type of program needed to “build a better future” in the city of Philadelphia and the nation.

The studio’s goal is to stimulate the local economy with job creation by uniting students with university faculty and community members to identify problems in the neighborhoods surrounding Temple, and generate digital solutions that may evolve into sustainable urban business ventures.

Temple officials announced in September 2011 that the university would receive a $500,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Economic Development Administration for the purpose of building the studio, producing software applications and creating technology-based companies and jobs.

The EDA’s University Center Program awarded 21 university-based projects a total of $12 million to create jobs and develop the economy. Temple was the only Philadelphia college selected.

The university also received a $200,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to establish a test bed of campus and urban wireless networks. Computer and information professor and chair of Temple’s department of computer and information sciences, Jie Wu, is the principal investigator of the NSF grant.

Youngjin Yoo, a management information systems professor, heads the EDA grant.

Yoo said the studio was a team effort. The project involves interdisciplinary collaboration between 13 university departments, government agencies and local businesses.

“We just finished the first phase [of the project] in the Design Challenge,” Yoo said.

Facilitated by management information systems assistant professor James Moustafellos, Temple’s second annual Design Challenge lasted four days and provided a forum for more than 125 students from Temple, the University of the Arts and local high schools to propose solutions to the urban problems they observed first hand.

This year, students had access to Philadelphia Housing Authority sites in what Moustafellos described as a very “hands-on” learning experience.

When the Design Challenge concluded, a vote decided which proposals were the most completely formed ideas with real commercial potential.

“We agreed to choose three ideas from the Design Challenge,” Yoo said.

These winning ideas will then be developed in the studio and eventually fuel local civic business incubators with material that can later be brought to investors for commercial development.

Urban blight was a common theme of competition. Yoo and Moustafellos both identified the Philadelphia Urban Farming Association as a serious contender. The plan would make use of abandoned spaces by converting them to farms and then connect urban gardeners to businesses and consumers interested in the products they grow.

Another noted project, Small Spaces for Big Ideas, would utilize vacant buildings along Broad Street and make them into spaces available for use by organizations.

The studio also has plans to engage local youth in the project. The Design Challenge had six high school students from Crossroads Accelerated Academy participate.

During the summer, the studio plans to provide more local high school students with a part-time job where they will also learn necessary computer skills. The students will then be connected with urban entrepreneurs who want to commercialize the apps after they have been developed far enough by an incubator.

Selected ideas from the Design Challenge will also be introduced to “hackers” and “mappers” at the Code for America Hackathon, which will take place in Philadelphia this month.

Yoo explained that while the Urban Apps and Maps Studio is interested in the ideas produces in the Design Challenge, the proposed project are in their earliest stages and are “like a draft” that will need much cultivating before any type of commercial product can be made.

“[The studio is] not only for ideas of commercialization, there is a strong civic interest,” Moustafellos said.

He explained that the students involved want the city, as a whole, to function better.

There is a planned fellowship program for the Urban Apps and Maps Studio.

The studio, which is currently located in the department of geography and urban studies, hopes to eventually expand to several more locations while it is federally funded for five years.

Haley Kmetz can be reached at

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