Developers focus on apps for people with autism

More than 40 developers have gathered in Cupertino to create applications to help people with autism. (David Louie/ABC7)
October 11, 2011 12:00:00 AM PDT
An unusual event is unfolding on a satellite Hewlett-Packard campus in Cupertino. More than 40 developers have gathered to create applications to help people with autism. They are all volunteers with a desire to use technology. They are breaking into teams of eight to 10 people. Each team will work on developing a specific app.

The genesis for Tuesday's hackathon came from Rich Silverstein of the San Francisco advertising agency Goodby, Berlin & Partners and HP and its efforts to inspire its employees to innovate. Chief Technology Officer Phil McKinney said he didn't want to donate equipment or money. He wanted to work on something that would have real impact. It was his realization that Silicon Valley has a higher rate of people with autism than the nation (1 in 90 versus 1 in 110 nationally) that crystallized there was a real need.

Over time, with input from autism experts, families and other stakeholders, it was decided to solicit ideas to create applications for a variety of computer devices. Over 200 ideas were submitted. An advisory committee narrowed down the field to eight.

HP solicited volunteers from other Silicon Valley companies and from the developer community. Volunteers not able to attend the gathering Tuesday in Cupertino will work remotely from as far away as China and India.

The applications will take about three to four months to complete, so Tuesday's hackathon is only the start of the process. The plan is for the completed app's to be available on all devices and all platforms.

Because of the wide spectrum of needs of people with autism, the app's will try to address different aspects of their lives. One, for example, will be a "social story" that represents what a child will experience on a visit to the dentist. Another will discuss the nature of appointments and time management. Others will address bullying and safety skills.

The work each team is doing could typically cost from $50,000 to $175,000. An organization called "Random Hacks of Kindness" is helping to coordinate their work. A typical team includes specialists in UI (user interface), graphics, coding, testing and quality assurance. An expert of autism is joining each team to guide the developers.

Parents, programmers and autism specialists seek more information can go to a special website, www.hackingautism.org. The project was first announced last May, and it led to the creation of an advisory committee made up of stakeholders, technology executives and programmers.

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