Little Village app entered in Chicago-wide contest

By Lisa Schulz

Three female students in Columbia’s Interactive Arts and Media Department contributed to the creation of “Mi Parque,” Spanish for “My Park,” a versatile and bilingual smartphone application for the “Apps for Metro Chicago” contest, which was held in The Loft, 916 S. Wabash Ave. Building on Oct. 7.

The community-focused app tracks progress on the transformation of Little Village’s 23-acre, formerly toxic industrial waste site into a vibrant, activity-packed park, located at 2800 S. Sacramento Ave.

The app was named one of the top 10 finalists for the Motorola Mobility, IBM and RIM-sponsored contest. The second round in the competition highlighted community involvement. Finalists will move onto the “grand challenge” round.

“The challenge has been [keeping] the residents of the community engaged and thinking about how they want to use the park,” said Mindy Faber, academic manager in the IAM Department. “[The app also serves as] a watchdog for [Chicago] to make sure the city is meeting its construction schedule.”

Four weeks ago, Pallavi Anderson, senior staff research engineer of Motorola Solutions, contacted Faber in search of more female participants after she noticed the contest was dominated by males, Faber said.

Since then, Open Youth Network’s team of five students from Columbia, the University of Illinois at Chicago and the Illinois Institute of Technology scurried to meet in person and communicate online through Skype with the guidance of six other software engineers and support of Columbia faculty members.

Faber founded OYN in an effort to close the “digital participation gap” with underserved urban youth, she said. As for watching the disadvantaged in action, Faber said she was impressed with the amount of sophisticated programming and coding the team produced in such a short time frame, especially for working with completely new people.

“It was the most remarkable thing,” Faber said. “It was a refreshing and exciting way to work—maybe it’s because they were an all-female team—but they were just so professional. It was very intensive and very cooperative. I’ve never quite worked like that in my life.”

The competition, which judges creativity, longevity, functionality and usefulness, began with a round centered on transportation. Mi Parque then added a map function, tracking future park sites and current local news.

Along with a map feature, “Mi Parque” has community announcements, public meetings, advisories and news alerts, such as crime, weather and air quality reports. The app is supported by Web browsers, text message and smartphones with its HTML and Javascript background. There are also sections of the app where residents can suggest, share, promote and vote on their ideas for the park with Facebook integration.

“Every kid has a Facebook in that community,” said Elisa Baker, app designer and senior interactive arts and media major. “It’s something that’s really accessible and really easy to use.”

Even though Little Village is a very young community, Caitlin Wirth, app designer and senior interactive arts and media major, said Mi Parque will need to find a way to register differently, through an email address or a phone number, so all ages of the community can be involved, Wirth said.

The industrial wasteland was known as one of the most toxic sites in America, Faber said. For the past 10 years, the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization has been struggling to cleanse the land and keep health-hazardous carcinogens from affecting the community, she said. The site was capped with soil that stands eight feet above street level.

“It was a real shock to see Little Village,” Wirth said. “It kind of blew my mind that it was so close—an entirely different place was just so close—but it seems like a tight-knit community.”

The park project is set for completion in 2014. Planned proposals, which have been discussed in community meetings, include fields for sports and recreational activities, such as a skate park and an amphitheater. Environmental improvements are also on the list, such as an urban farm and garden.

After the park is completed, Mi Parque’s next phase is to include a volunteer participation section in which community members can arrange duties within the park such as cleaning and gardening. Also planned is a customizable calendar that allows residents to plan activities and events with their families.

“It’s such a beautiful example of collaboration,” Faber said. “It’s what happens when a college like Columbia comes together with industry and community around a civic purpose. It’s exactly what Columbia is about.”