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Unleash your hacker culture to get an app built

Now you have a pretty good idea of a mobile product you might build. You know what your audience wants, what your staff can sustain, and the features that users need it to include.

But how do you actually create it?

Make it a side project

In the spirit of starting small and cheap, many publishers may not be in a position to hire new staff with new skills, at least not yet. An alternative is to find volunteers who would enjoy building your app as a side project.

Maybe a student or class at a local university is looking for real-world projects to build as a learning experience. Maybe you have a web producer who’s learning to code on the side and wants to try making her first app. Or maybe a systems support specialist in your IT department is bored with updating computer software all day and would appreciate a side project that lets him unleash his creative side.

This is how the Detroit Free Press created its marathon app.

When the marathon organizers started toying with the idea of what would a marathon app might be, the race director Harshbarger turned to the company’s web technology team, which included a few developers and supervisors.

After some examination, the group decided that none of the other major marathons had created a robust mobile experience to complement their races. The brainstorming group at the Free Press embraced the challenge.

“It really was the collective of eight people in three or four departments that were just sort of brainstorming one day and everyone said, ‘Yeah, let’s do this!’ And it’s that that we are proud to still hold on to,” Harshbarger said. “Coming together across divisions to work on projects is still very much central to our culture in a lot of ways.”

The team gathered on their own or after hours to work on the project because they were excited about the potential and tackling the problems. “The passion and excitement that the digital development team brought to the project — their ability to say ‘let’s get this done’ was a real inspiration for us,” Harshbarger said.

The development team took real ownership of the project and divided up tasks among themselves, added Jennifer Sims, the marathon’s digital director. They even set up a booth at the race expo to help runners download the app and answer their questions.

Use a low-cost vendor

If the staff side project approach doesn’t work out, you can look at hiring a company that specializes in quickly generating mobile apps from pre-fabricated templates.

The costs are low because the company is reusing a framework it has already developed and uses with other clients.

For that reason, you’ll also have few customization options. You can plug in content feeds or map some locations, and add your own logos and colors. But the underlying technology will be pre-baked.

Common vendors that provide these types of “white-label” apps include Verve, Shoutem, Spreed and DoApp. Each will vary a bit in its pricing and features, but all can get you up and running quickly and cheaply.

Build on free, simple software

You may be surprised at how simply and cheaply you can power some of the core services of your app by using freely available tools.

For instance, all the data that flows into the Post-Dispatch’s Hip Hops beer app is stored and updated in simple Google Drive spreadsheets.

“I could just fill in different data in terms of beers that we were highlighting, breweries, bars, restaurants, that sort of thing.” Benn said. “It was super easy for me to update. I just would go into that Google doc and at a click of a button it would be instantly updated so I could add beers and really keep it a fluid, live thing … I made that part of my weekly routine to add new beers, new reviews, new breweries that were opening.”

If you want to explore this idea further, Alan Palazzolo of nonprofit news service MinnPost explained in a blog post how Google spreadsheets can be used as an app data tool:

You can use this in your application because there is an API that is provided to pull the structured data in the spreadsheet into your application. This is actually really powerful, as Google Spreadsheets provides a nice interface to collaboratively create data that can be used in an application.

At MinnPost we used this approach to power the editorial side of our 2013 legislature tracker which provides up to date information on what is happening with specific bills in the legislature and also a reusable application. Specifically we used Google Spreadsheets because we needed to allow our reporters to supplement the data about bills. A key ingredient to utilizing Google Spreadsheets in our application is Tabletop.js, a JavaScript library to help utilize the API effectively.

A caveat of using Google Spreadsheets is that Google puts bandwidth and rate limiting on the API, and does not provide information on when and how this happens. To protect against this, we built a very simple, easily deployable on Heroku (free tier) proxy that caches the results from the API. Another approach is, with an API, you can easily create a script that downloads the spreadsheet data and then embeds it in your application as needed.

If your app succeeds and you decide to get more serious about it, you may have to invest in more professional development. Your quality standards will rise, and the project will start to require more time and attention.

But just hacking it together is often a good way to start.

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