This year, a Parsons alumnus brought a social justice non-profit organization into the mobile app universe, and in the process connected the group with a huge new audience. And it was all down to a chance encounter with an acquaintance at a Manhattan Apple store.
Clayton Ewing, who graduated from the MFA Design + Technology program at Parsons The New School for Design in 2010, had been developing web sites for law firms before coming to Parsons. Designing a mobile app, let alone one for a non-profit, was “so far away from anything I would have done,” Ewing said over the phone from Florida, where he’s currently teaching at The University of Miami. “I think I bought the iPhone 3G the summer before I started at Parsons,” he goes on, “and I thought, ‘Oh, that would be kind of cool if I learned how to make an app.’”
While a student, Ewing was selected as a fellow with the Open Society Foundations, through a partnership with Parsons that enables students to work on technology projects with NGOs across the globe. While working abroad with ARASA (AIDS and Rights Alliance for Southern Africa), he realized the impact his computer skills could have to help people.
After graduation, Ewing focused mostly on designing educational games for non-profit organizations. Then he ran into that friend at that Apple store. She was working with the social justice organization Restaurant Opportunities Center International (ROC-U), which focuses on issues affecting food service workers.
ROC-U had recently published, to much acclaim, their first Diners’ Guide, which collects data on the pay, leave policy, and chances for advancement for food service workers at over 150 restaurants in some of America’s largest cities. Critics and activists were thrilled with the result. Mark Bittman, writing in The New York Times, was particularly impressed. He hoped the guide could be “the beginning of a change” in the pay system of the restaurant industry.
There was only one problem: the guide was only available at ROC’s website, as a downloadable pdf. Many wondered why it wasn’t available for the iPhone, and Ewing’s friend wondered if he might be able to help. He got right to work.
The result, ROC United Diner’s Guide, was released in late 2012. It incorporates a Yelp-like map, which pulls up restaurants local to the user, as long as they’re in one of the major cities in which ROC-U collected data (including Chicago, Detroit, Houston, Los Angeles, Miami, New Orleans, New York City, Philadelphia, San Francisco, & Washington DC). Clicking on the pins that show up on the map brings up information about the restaurant – not its menu and hours, but its employee pay, leave policy and more. It’s a guide to truly responsible eating. In future updates, Ewing hopes to incorporate a user update feature that will allow food service workers to upload info on their own places of employment.
The app broke into iTunes’ top 200 in Apple’s Food and Beverage category, and nearly into the top 100, connecting ROC-U with what Ewing describes as the “massive audience” of smartphone users.
This is “just the initial first step,” Ewing says. “If an application is doing something interesting, it means more eyeballs to a cause. And that’s always a good thing.”