Winning team: Shawn Frank (second from left) with employees of Samsung. Image Credit: Courtesy: Shawn Frank

Shawn Frank and Ronak Dave, two computer science graduates from the University of Wollongong in Dubai, have won a competition to create a user-friendly app for special needs children at the Al Noor Training Centre in Dubai. The contest was launched by Samsung’s as part of its ‘Hope for Children’ programme.

The programme, which originated with the donation of around 100 Samsung tablet devices to Al Noor, involved a competition to design apps that would help students with their educational and personal development. From over 180 applicants, Shawn and Ronak, both 22 years old, were shortlisted among the top 20 developers and won in two out of the five categories: Grooming and Semantics.

As technology enthusiasts, Shawn and Ronak are in the early stages of setting up their own web development business (Mindhyve), which already boasts an impressive client list. The entrepreneurs felt they couldn’t pass up the opportunity to use their passion for technology to make a difference.

Their winning app ‘GroomAr’ helps students learn how to clean their teeth, bathe and wash their faces, while the ‘Matchalon’ app teaches students how to match up items and sequence them together. Having trialled the working prototypes of the two apps with children at the centre, the final products are now under development.

The pair have a history of developing award-winning apps, with Shawn having won the regional finals of the Microsoft Imagine Cup for three successive years. Both Shawn and Ronak represented the UAE with their ‘Reutilizer’ app – a technology-based waste management system — at the international finals of the 2012 Imagine Cup in Sydney, Australia.

More than the thrill of winning, the two contestants said they would feel successful if they were able to positively impact even one child’s life. The duo outlined to Gulf News Education the process of creating the apps and their plans. 

How did you two think of creating an app for special needs children?

Shawn: From our college days, we have always been thinking about apps, websites or software that can make a difference.

Along with that, the great initiative by Samsung motivated us to come up with great apps to help children with special needs learn grooming, safety, semantics, academics and sharing.

Ronak: Not many apps cater to special needs people. So we saw this as an excellent opportunity to help add apps to platform marketplaces that educate, and perhaps, even entertain, people with special needs. 

How long did it take to develop this app?

Shawn: It took us about 4-5 months. It might sound a bit cliched but one of the biggest inspirations have been the kids with special needs. It is sad to see the skills most of us take for granted, such as tying our shoe laces, brushing our teeth and knowing that a lock and key go together, to name a few. Special needs children struggle with these basic functions.

Right now, they are being supported by Al Noor and their parents every step of the way but the key to their well-being is empowering them with skills by which they can be independent. They should be able to take care of themselves, interact with others, get jobs in the future. It was this challenge that served as an inspiration for us. 

Has anyone created such an app before? Can it be adapted for a wider reach?

Ronak: I am sure there will be apps on the app store that will be useful for the kids at Al Noor but at the end of the day, coming back to a previous point, when it comes to children with special needs, there can be no assumptions.

Most apps out there will not be as detailed as it is required to train kids at Al Noor and hence, developers were reached out to during this amazing campaign by Samsung to design and develop tailor-made apps for the kids at Al Noor.

We are sure great apps exist and can be used, but what Al Noor wanted was something very specific and tailor-made as they know exactly what their students respond to.

Shawn: To answer the second part of your question, surely these apps do have a universal appeal and these are not relevant only to students at Al Noor.

A parent or a teacher at a nursery can use these apps in several different ways such as teaching them basic grooming skills, semantic skills, rewarding them for doing their chores...the possibilities are endless. Especially since we give the user such a high level of customisability in our apps.

A parent could use these apps to see how ready their kids are for school, or even start to train them before they join nurseries. 

Have students at Al Noor used it? What was their response?

Shawn: Students of Al Noor used it to a limited extent and the app is not yet fully used by all students as yet. It should be on all tabs and possibly ready for when they return by September or October.

For Matchalon, the kids did not need any training once the matching screen was loaded. This app is very intuitive to use, has a great and obvious user interface, has good feedback with audio, so this app was used very easily by the kids. It was very satisfying when we did not even have to show them how to use the app!

The GroomAR app took a bit of time getting used to but this is something that was expected. The app will be used to teach the kids skills they don’t have, so they needed to be tutored by a teacher on the steps but they were able to interact with the app and use it. In one case, after about 7-8 helps with the tutor, a girl was able to complete the whole toothbrush challenge on her own and moved on to a more challenging game. 

What is the next step? Do you have to patent the app and can it be commercially successful?

Ronak: We have not really looked too far ahead as we just recently won the competition and are very grateful to Samsung for the opportunity to develop this app with them. They came up with the initial concept of the different apps to help kids at Al Noor so they will be the main drivers behind this app since they laid the foundation and all the groundwork. They have a vision for what they started and we are here to support them with our ideas and skills.

We don’t think something like an app can be patented and we did not really look to be commercially successful from this project itself.

This app helped us do something wonderful for kids with special needs; it helped us make a difference. At the same time, we have the opportunity to say, yes, we were the first in the market to release such a custom app with cool concepts and really unique features.

Do you intend to create more apps for specials needs students?

Shawn: Last year for Ronak and myself just flew by. We studied together and graduated together and so it’s been quite a journey so far.

A year ago too we had big ideas, and I told Ronak, ‘Let’s save up and start a company’. Fast forward a year and we have launched our own startup called Mindhyve (mindhyve.com). This gives us a platform to launch such apps.

We intend to create a lot more apps, not just for special needs but to help people in all walks of life.