Beyond the Bell Milwaukee and UWM create app for teens

October 23, 2015

Teens from local organizations test the new app. Pictured (from left) are Skye Finley, Shira Higgins, and Shateria Wiley

Teens now have more than 250 things to do at their fingertips, thanks to a new app the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee App Brewery developed in collaboration with Beyond the Bell Milwaukee. Staffed by the Center for Youth Engagement, Beyond the Bell is a coalition of youth-serving organizations, funders, policymakers and youth. The group coordinates efforts to increase young people’s access to high quality programs and learning opportunities outside the school day. UWM’s App Brewery, which handled technical development of the new Beyond the Bell app, gives university students real-life development experience working with nonprofit clients.

The new app for teens gives them information and location of after-school programs on their phones. The Beyond the Bell app is designed to give youth access to after-school activities and expanded learning opportunities, said Reggie Moore, founder and CEO of the Center for Youth Engagement. More than 43,000 Milwaukee youth participate in afterschool programs each year, but young people in low-income communities are least likely to have opportunities to learn, play and thrive during out-of-school time hours, according to Beyond the Bell. The problems are particularly acute in Milwaukee, which has one of the highest rates of childhood poverty in the country.

“The core purpose of this app is to provide a tool to enhance young people’s awareness of the programs and services available to them.” Moore said. “This is innovation for good.” According to a 2013 survey of nearly 1,200 young people conducted by Beyond the Bell, teens identified that “lack of program awareness” was the number one barrier to afterschool engagement. Other barriers included family responsibilities and lack of transportation. However, access to information is one issue Beyond the Bell could tackle easily. In 2013, Beyond the Bell hired youth through the Mayor Barrett’s Earn & Learn program to map approximately 250 different programs and services for young people – ranging from afterschool activities to college access centers to the locations of food pantries. After testing and building a website, the group decided it was important to add an app to reach teens through their smart phones.

“Mostly adults use websites; Teens use their phones,” Moore said. University students and their mentors from the App Brewery helped turn the information into an app – with the assistance of 40 teens who volunteered to be beta testers from Running Rebels Community Organization, PEARLS for Teen Girls, Urban Underground, Express Yourself Milwaukee, Milwaukee Christian Center and Hope House of Milwaukee.

“Working on this project with the Center for Youth Engagement was a great learning experience for our student developers,” said Dustin Hahn, project manager for the App Brewery, which is part of UWM’s School of Information Studies. “We realized the importance of conducting focus groups, and enjoyed hearing what the teens had to say.” The app allows young people to quickly locate programs that meet their needs, and find addresses, hours and contact information. “The teens had a lot of ideas on how it should look and flow,” Moore said. The teens also provided suggestions for eventually adding photos, added Sarah Milnar McLaughlin, director of community engagement and partnerships for the Center for Youth Engagement. The Beyond the Bell app is free and will be available for both the iPhone and Android.