Mobile Challenge Helps Pennsylvania Tap Millennial Talent

The Mobile PA Challenge is a state program that spans a semester, giving students recognition and professional development for creating a needed app or website — and serves as a recruiting tool for the commonwealth.

by / May 13, 2015
(left to right) Pennsylvania Secretary of Administration Sharon Minnich; Gary Tennis, secretary of the Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs; and Harrisburg Area Community College Professor Eric Yoxheimer stand with the three HACC students who created the "Get Help Now" website through a partnership with the commonwealth of Pennsylvania: Brad Bell, Christopher Mumma and Sara Forry. Pennsylvania Office of Administration

Motivated by civic cause, Pennsylvania community college students have created a simple and innovative website to promote drug addiction recovery for the commonwealth. 

The mobile site — Get Help Now — is an exciting development of the state program Mobile PA Challenge, but it's also icing on the cake, said Rosa Lara, Pennsylvania deputy CIO.

Foremost, she said, the challenge is a recruiting tool for the commonwealth, where of 2,500 IT positions, less than 1 percent of employees are millennials.  

"That is really what drove the need to get creative," Lara said.

The Mobile PA Challenge, unlike weekend hackathon events happening locally, spans a semester and gives students recognition and professional development for creating a needed mobile app or mobile website. At the same time, the commonwealth gets to introduce itself to students before they commit to jobs and also receives their work at the semester's end.    

"The true value of this is that every time we've done this challenge, every student is amazed at what we do in state government," Lara said, adding that this is a switch in thinking from students who did not equate mobile technology with what's being done in the Office of Information Technology (OIT).

Lara has been involved with the challenge since its inception nearly two years ago, and she works to find the best candidate projects for students to address by polling agencies; marries projects with universities and their goals; and works with professors regarding the projects. She said the work has been straightforward and the payoff high — already student participants have approached her interested in state jobs. 

Last fall the challenge took the form of two classes: one of independent study at Harrisburg Area Community College (HACC), and an emerging issues and technologies course at Penn State Harrisburg, where the project was a key component. 

"Really what [the HACC students] did in the class was deployed a couple weeks ago," said Daniel Egan, press secretary for the Pennsylvania Office of Administration. 

At the end of the fall 2014 term, three HACC students presented Get Help Now before handing its production over to the commonwealth. Creating the site codes, students had access to a compilation of data points but not live data feeds, so the OIT performed the backend integration work, including connecting the beta site to database infrastructures and geocoding the data. 

The students chose their project from a group of possible ones and met frequently with a point of contact from the Pennsylvania Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs; this dialogue was a change from the previous pilot semester, where there was less communication between agencies and students, Lara said.  

"So the agency would get something at the end that they could actually bring into the environment and move forward with," Lara said. 

During independent study (versus the class project model), the HACC students had more time to connect with their client, gather business requirements, go through the development lifecycle and manage expectations, Lara said. That model worked by enabling the students to create a website nearly in its entirety.

In the end, the students created a resource that commonwealth residents can link to from the department's website, connecting them with providers that deal with drug addiction. 

"I think the site is beautifully designed and, speaking on behalf of the Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs, they are thrilled with what the students have put together," Lara said. 

The site's design is clean, but its functions are many — it helps those dealing with addiction to navigate health-care coverage, find treatment providers by area and connect with sources of publicly funded treatment, among other things. The department is using the site to respond to a wider problem of the issues of addiction to opioids or prescription painkillers that are leading to a growing heroin epidemic.   

"It's taking down those small barriers in terms of actually getting to the help," Egan said.

Also last fall at Penn State Harrisburg, 12 students divided into four teams to tackle two mobile apps. The resulting projects included a recycling app showing where items could be recycled, and a library app giving library users mobile access and extras like scavenger hunts. 

Pennsylvania agencies are still developing these ideas, which were submitted more in prototype form than the Get Help Now site. Each agency decides whether to pursue the submission after the challenge ends, Lara said; some projects demand more work than others, like the recycling app, which requires a central repository of recycler data that is not yet compiled.  

"We really leave it up to the agency to decide what to do with the students’ work after the challenge is over," Lara said.  

Originally, the commonwealth piloted the program in fall 2013, partnering with Harrisburg University to challenge students to create mobile apps in two computer science courses. At the time, the challenge was a competition with a judging panel and two winners, one project of which is still being developed.  

"There were a lot of lessons learned from the pilot that we applied," Lara said. Changes have included altering the format to focus less on a competition and giving students more time to work. Although the challenge has been refined, it is still evolving, Egan said. 

This fall, the commonwealth is looking to broaden its work with colleges and universities. One idea includes having students at multiple schools tackle the same project so the OIT and Pennsylvania's participating agencies can pick the best or pull winning aspects from each submission. 

However the challenge is configured, it is important to the commonwealth that all stakeholders have a say and want to be involved, Egan said.  

And although Pennsylvania offers no tangible prizes for successful apps and sites, students have shown ample motivation in completing projects for the challenge.  

"What has been compelling and what has come across very clearly," Lara said, "is the civic component of this program and how the students really rose to the challenge not because they had to, but because they wanted to." 

Jessica Hughes Contributing Writer

Jessica Hughes is a regular contributor to Government Technology and Emergency Management magazines.

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