Team setting up physical chalkboards as pilot tests after Holi festivities

ChalkItUp is a mobile app concept that my teammates, Dani, Jovan, Will, and I developed during the Engineers for Social Impact course taught by Matt Karau, Prof. Felix Hardmood Beck and Prof. Craig Protzel. Part of a wider NYU Abu Dhabi Engineering Division initiative, the course considers how engineers can deliver mindful and innovative solutions to resource-constrained communities. For the Spring 2016 installment of the course, we partnered  with urban research and action collective, Urbz, to work with residents of Dharavi, Mumbai.

The course is structured as a directed study. The first half of the semester was spent researching contexts and generating ideas for projects that matched our skill set with opportunities for improvement in the community. We ended this phase of the course with a few project ideas. But we continued to struggle with the feeling that these “interventions” (as seems to be the parlance in NGO circles) all involve us outsiders telling other people how to live their lives. This felt very presumptive and I was not comfortable with it.

A key turning point came over our spring break, when we visited Dharavi and spent 8 days interacting with and learning from community members. The people we spoke to ranged from newly arrived economic migrants to well-respected community leaders and activists. We concluded that there are many intelligent and capable people in Dharavi who want to improve their community, and the best way we can contribute is to empower these individuals and give them the reach they need to organize and effect wider change in their community.

With this in mind, we worked on developing a mobile app around geographically localized community organizing. We believed a mobile app developed by a group of outsiders can serve as a neutral ground removed from the usual dynamics and hierarchies of the community, where people can come together to discuss their ideas for community improvement and collaborate to bring them to life. None of us had much experience developing mobile apps and the process was quite challenging, but we did succeed in producing a minimum viable prototype that demonstrates the concept. Our source code can be viewed at this repository.

In addition to the mobile app prototype, we also summarized our semester’s work in a report which you can read here.

Recently, one of my teammates, William Young, built on the concept we developed for ChalkItUp and (with a separate team) came up with a more polished app that is now published on the Google Play Store. The original ChalkItUp team are happy to see this concept being carried further along!