Coding for nonprofits

Santa Barbara students develop app to measure beach erosion

July 5-11, 2019 | By Marissa Nall, Staff Writer
A new app that measures sand erosion on beaches could also pave the way for a new model of partnership between for-profit tech companies, nonprofits and educators.

A team of Santa Barbara High School coders built the app for nonprofit CoAST SB under the tutelage of mentors from software firm Novacoast and the Computer Science Academy. The work, done at the Funk Zone coworking space the SandBox, connects companies with nonprofit projects and the next generation of engineering talent, said CSA board member Kevin Parent.

“This is an interesting model,” said Parent, who spearheaded the program, called Hello World. “Each entity benefits from the other two.”

The program fills in the gaps in traditional internships, he said, providing a practical academic project and a real customer to whom the students are accountable.

CoAST SB, which stands for the Community Alliance for Surveying the Topography of Sandy Beaches, is based at the Marine Science Institute at UC Santa Barbara and funded by the California Sea Grant Program to measure changing elevations at regional beaches.

The project combined a process using 1960s-era measuring sticks with brand new ways to record and transmit the results, aiming to add resolution to U.S. Geological Survey data and track beach erosion and recovery. Students presented the finished product at a launch event June 26 at the SandBox.

The completed app allows users to upload photographs from a designated start point and pre-loads standard metrics for distance and height, giving users the option to adjust them if they hit a cliff or other obstacle. Access codes allow admins to verify users’ identities and manage the data, which gets submitted as a spreadsheet file. The files transfer directly to a CoAST SB program, replacing hand-written sheets that had to be entered manually.

The data helps the nonprofit measure beach profiles over time, comparing seasonal and annual changes and tracking things like vegetation loss and bluff erosion, said program manager Aaron Howard. The app makes it possible to expand the work beyond the Santa Barbara Channel, he said, improving accuracy, completion rates and making the endeavor more fun to attract new participants.

Current CSA sponsors include regional tech firms QAD, AppFolio, LogMeIn and Toyon. Parent said the foundation plans to grow the Hello World program to involve all CSA students. That means seeking out additional sponsors willing to offer resources and mentorship, as well as nonprofit partners who have a project in mind that could use a little code.

“This is a great environment for prototyping,” he said. “This combination feels like the sort of thing that if we get this right, we can replicate … We have a small but mighty, growing tech industry, and it requires connecting at all levels.”

Working with the CSA and Hello World helps the company connect with the nonprofit community and employees donate their time and expertise, said Renato Untalan, vice president of development at Novacoast. Moreover, it helps introduce Novacoast to talent at a younger age.

The partnership is an outgrowth of a job shadow program Untalan launched within Novacoast in 2017. Jared Fitton, project manager for the six-person Hello World team, was one of the very first participants as a sophomore, leading him to intern three summers in a row for the company, producing code for customers like a large Android manufacturer that is still in use today.

Fitton is a first year student at UC Santa Barbara, having graduated from the CSA program the prior year.

“He’s only a freshman in college, and he’s already got the experience that a lot of college students don’t have today,” Untalan said.

Beyond coding skills, Hello World also offers junior developers like Fitton chances to take a leadership role managing a project, he said, which they otherwise might not get in a regular work environment.

“All the things we’re doing with Hello World, the technology we use, there are some variances, but if you look at the overall general structure, it’s all the same,” Untalan said. “We’re not dumbing this down for the kids. We’re using the same tools and best practices that we use in a corporate structure.”