App for Veterans Wins Hackathon

Local Hero mobile app concept.

AT&T recently hosted a hackathon in New York geared towards helping veterans. The winning program, "Local Hero," is an app that allows civilians to reach out to local veterans through their phone to either ask for assistance or thank them with gifts. We had the chance to talk to the apps developers, Marc Niola, Derek Meitzer, and Ramkishore Dudi, as well as the event planners, Chris Norton and Alex Donn. The developers predict that the app will be completed before the end of the year, and will be available on Android, iOS, and Windows.

How did the hackathon get started?

Chris: We're a tech company. We are always looking for ways to integrate what we do on the technology front with what we do from a social good perspective. We do reach out to veterans for employment, and all of that led to the veteran's focused hackathon and I thought it was a huge success.

For the development team, have you had any experience with the military? How did you became a developer?

RK: My dad has an extensive military background in India. I was brought up there in that kind of environment. I think about my dad's military background and think about what he would want when came back. He's trying to get a job, he's trying to see if his skills match with what the industry needs, those kinds of things.

Derek: I spent five years in the Marine Corps as a combat photographer. I found out about the hackathon via EventBrite I think. Right now, I go to school full-time at NYU and I'm working at a video game company called Streamline Media Group. We do some other stuff, but one of our primary services is video game art sourcing. We do the artwork for games, "Bioshock: Infinite" was one of the recent big titles that we helped out on.

Marc: I wasn't in the military, but I'm a history buff and I've always been fascinated with the military, especially ours which is the greatest in the world. That was a big draw for me with the hackathon -- doing something for veterans and the military. I'm more or less a UX designer, a user experience designer, but I do have some coding background.

Tell us about the program "Local Hero."

Derek: The idea with "Local Hero" is that there are a lot of programs and things out there that are designed to help the veteran, but there's not enough stuff that lets the veteran help their community. There's Team Rubicon and that's a really great non-profit, but in general the government's spent hundreds of thousands of dollars minimum on each person to be trained in the military. Now we have these people in the civilian workforce and they have a skill-set they're not really utilizing anymore.

The idea with "Local Hero" is when somebody needs someone that has that skill-set within their local community, they're able to put out a ping or a message, and whoever has that matching skill-set gets the message. It could be veterinary, medical, engineering, whatever else, and the veteran can respond and help out. It's basically neighbor helping neighbor, but it's revealing which of your neighbors happened to have served and have this great training they're not really using anymore.

That's the first half. The other half allows people in the community to thank veterans if they have concert tickets, or a dinner, or something else, they can send out a thank you with the gift and it goes to the nearest veteran. That nearest veteran has five minutes to accept or defer, and if they accept it they get back to the person with a thank- you. If they defer, it goes to the next closest veteran.

A civilian would usually have to go through an organization to thank a veteran with gifts, but it sounds like "Local Hero" lets you get up close and personal.

Derek: Exactly. It's the one to one experience I think is important. It's about building communities. I think one of the challenges is that veterans have all this training, and this program lets them use it to connect with their neighbors. Especially in a place like New York, that's very important. I live in an apartment building that's only about six floors high, and I know probably three other people that live in that building.

Marc: "Local Hero" will allow veterans to connect with their community. As mentioned, matching skill-sets with community needs would be a great way to do that. It's giving regular civilians a way to show their appreciation and a way for veterans to connect with other veterans. The over-arching theme is to integrate veterans into the community. I got a sense from talking to some of the veterans at the hackathon that there is a sense of not being part of the community, and we noticed that this could be an opportunity to see how we can integrate veterans back into the community.

RK: The app that we built just barely scratches the surface. The amount of work and the number of features that you can add onto it is huge. The opportunity is tremendous, I think.

What role does technology play in addressing veteran's issues?

Alex: From the mobile phone side, it's having applications that either a) create a community or b) address some need that the veteran has. The phone is always with you, it has a lot of information that you have access too. Just finding what's around you is very critical. That's one thing that many developers honed in on: finding resources and building a community within your local area.

Chris: Today's military, the current post-9/11 generation, is a demographic that was raised with computers and mobile devices, and I don't leave without my cell phone. I'll leave home without my wallet, I'll forget my keys, but my phone? Forget it, I always have that thing, I sleep with it. I don't do that with anything else. You have to connect with veterans through mobile.

When I demobilized and left my unit, they all went home to Virginia and I left for New Jersey. The guys I went to war with are nowhere near me: I don't have my battle buddies. I think location-specific services are critical to veterans after they've left their support network. It's real important to, if you choose to do so, find other vets. One of the guys from Team Rubicon had committed suicide about a year and a half ago within two miles of a couple of his fellow servicemember. They didn't know he was there, he didn't know they were there, and they think it was a lack of a support network that led to it.

I've been working with some folks for what's essentially a panic button type app for veteran suicide, almost like an onboard tool on the phone that will either link you to health care directly or peer to peer counseling on the fly. I think there's a lot that can be done there.

Chris Norton presenting at the AT&T hackathon.

Do you think technology and social media are an integral component to successful veteran transitions?

RK: Yes, that's very important. Social media is something that's taking everyone by storm, and if you want to be connected to the world, then that's your way to do it. In the old days, whenever you went out people were more social, but today those things are slowing down. You don't really go out and talk to your neighbor so much as much as you do with social media. When you get an opportunity to connect and reconnect, they might not be standing next to you, but they're somewhere out there and if you happen to know them, social media is giving you an opportunity to connect.

Marc: I take both sides to the social media revolution that's happening. I agree with RK that it is integral, it is trending, and everybody's on it, and the world is your oyster when you're on social media. You can connect with anybody around the world like never before in history. At the same time, I don't mean to be pessimistic about this, but it can also isolate people. You could have someone in your social network right next to you and they'll be tweeting. There's not a connection there. I would say that there's more of a connection in meeting face to face and actually shaking somebody's hand than sending a tweet. Not to say there isn't value; I'm on the fence.

Derek:  Veterans aren't necessarily this big separate community. I think that's very clear when you have Facebook and everything else. We don't really lose contact with people that are in our lives. It's not like World War II or Vietnam where people would go home and they were gone, and maybe you'd get letters. Nowadays, even people who are deployed can get to an MWR (Morale, Welfare, and Recreation) or a larger base and connect back home to chat with somebody or make a phone call.

People who are in the service always kind of connect. What's the point of a high school reunion anymore when you can see what everyone's doing? Veterans are a part of the community still and that's our way to keep our foot in the water. We're not there every day back home or wherever else we want to be, we're still in contact with people.

The great thing about it is that it eases transition and provides a forum for us to talk to each other and know where we all are. Like the guys I deployed with, I know where the majority of them live if they're on Facebook still. I mean, it's a way to maintain connection. It doesn't replace human interaction, but it's a way to communicate and know what's going on.

Chris: I think there's definitely a generational aspect to that. I have, just looking at my own social network, what I consider to be a pretty strong military social network in and around my geographic location. Half these people I haven't even met, but I correspond with them regularly, we share resources, information, job leads, all amongst this social network. I didn't serve with these guys, they're form different branches, but the fact of the matter is that I'm connected with them. I think it's an evolution of community and again, mobile ties it all together.

Marc: One thing we talked about while developing the app was integrating social media when civilians give their thanks to veterans. We're leveraging social media to give a vital aspect to the app. Some people like to share good things that they do on social media, and if they do that, maybe we could gamify it so the more thanks you give to veterans you get more points, or something like that.

Can you touch on what "gamify" means and how it pertains to an app like this?

Marc: Gamify is like a rewards system. If you do something, you get a reward or you unlock something if you do a certain task. It keeps up a user's interest. Maybe you'll show a progress bar with a percentage. There's some social psychology behind it: usually people like to complete tasks so if you show how far along they are, they'll be more engaged with your app.

How important would you say integrating with the local community is to a successful transition?

Derek: I think that's the next step. You might have a digital connection, but a local community is really important. I think that's what Marc and RK were referring to: that face to face and that handshake. That's where you really need the local community, plus a lot of veterans do leave the service, go somewhere unfamiliar, and aren't completely sure on how to get to know the people around them. Well, helping them is a start. Veterans are told to volunteer and serve. They want to help other people or do something to feel like they're contributing still. I think this app gives them the opportunity to do it, and that's what makes the transition smoother and maybe easier to deal with.

Chris: It's hugely important; it's probably the most important thing. The military as a society is a tight-knit unit; you have very strong bonds with the people you go to war with. They're stronger and tighter than you'll find anywhere else. As part of transition, you lose that. You go home and you've changed, maybe your community hasn't, but you don't have that connection that you used to. Years ago, when more people served, you could still reasonably expect to find other veterans in their community that you could connect with on that level.

It's much harder to do that as the size and scope of the armed forces has changed and we have a generally less linked society than we used to. We're geographically dispersed, we're not centered in our town hubs. We've got this sprawl all over the place; it's harder and harder for people to connect. That's why when I see what Alex and the techie guys do, I get so excited because I know it solves that disconnectedness that happens when you leave the service.

Alex: That's one of the things the hackathon side of AT&T can really contribute to this community. It used to be that you'd take traditional classes to learn how to do things, but now through certain websites and services people meet up and go do things together. They actively engage with other for support and growth.

Do you see a future for technology and mobile apps in helping veterans?

Derek:  Yeah, absolutely. They do just want to help people in general and I don't think it's going to go away. I think we're very much moving in this direction consistently.  The millennial veteran is something that's coming up now, the kid who went from his iPhone to war and came back to his iPhone or whatever else. I think people that grew up around technology are going to be having an easier transition as more and more technology fits their psyche.

RK: Just to give you an example, when we were doing our presentation one of the judges told us that if had the app running, he had concert tickets he wanted to sponsor right away. If that was the kind of response that we got from one of the judges, you can imagine that if we have this kind of an app in the outside world, I'm sure this is going to be a tremendous success.

Marc: I'm a bit of a natural skeptic, so I'd like to take a step back and do research to verify some problems that we're seeing. Once we get some hard facts that there really is a problem or people really are looking for a solution, I think we'd be on much stronger ground scaling it up. I am going to be talking to the director of veteran's affairs here in the city to see if I can interview some veterans and family members of veterans to get some insight into this app.

For more information on apps geared towards veterans and servicemembers, check out Military.com's Best Apps page.

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