Article Insects, us & the future

Got an app for that? Decoding digital funding for journalists

Have you ever thought – ‘that would make a great app’? Whether it’s a niggling work problem or a fundamental software issue, most of us have had a passing moment of genius when we are clacking the computer keyboard in frustration. Then, usually, we forget about it and get back to our everyday lives.

But what if you want to make your idea a reality?

There are 1.2 million apps available on Apple or Android, with an average of 138 new ones being added every day and the market is continually growing. One of those new apps was developed by Wall Street Journal journalist Elliot Bentley who took the leap from idea to reality.

Like most good ideas, his stemmed from an annoying problem that he was continually facing. He was frustrated at the amount of time it was taking him to transcribe his interviews, flicking between a voice recorder and text editor, so he designed an app that integrated both. Users can slow down, fast forward and pause recordings all using keyboard shortcuts, as well as adding timestamps.

Bentley launched his app oTranscribe in late 2013 but the building and design wasn’t an overnight project. He had to put a lot of time and effort into learning the code to develop the app himself.

“It takes years to be able to put together something as apparently simple as oTranscribe. I’ve learnt this the hard way through many failed, overambitious projects. Software development, or even web development, is incredibly rewarding, but requires a pretty hefty time investment,” he said.

Although the project was time consuming, he was able to complete it without any need for financial backing and feels he has created something that other journalists can benefit from.

“The great thing about web development is that there’s almost zero overhead. I use so much great open source software every day, and I wanted to give back in some small way.”

It is possible to take the same route and create your own app, even without a technical background. There are many courses you can take to learn the basics or you can develop your skills through tutorials online and self teaching programmes. If you don’t have the time or inclination to learn the code yourself though, the idea doesn’t need to be cast aside. There are lots of developers out there looking for good projects to work on and who you can collaborate effectively with.

Search the web and you’ll find many companies that you can pitch ideas to and will fund and lead the development. You will have the professional backing, PR and expertise of their team onboard but they also take a hefty chunk of any future profits with one of the big players Medl Mobile dealing up a 75/25 split in their favour.

If you want to start smaller, or have more control, then it is a good idea to find an independent developer to work with. A group called Hacks/Hackers, which first developed in the US now runs monthly meetups in London where journalists and developers can get together, share ideas and find people to work with.

This sense of collaboration is the best way to solve problems and create strong, working media, according to Alastair Jardine, User Experience and Information Architect at The Guardian. He says that journalists’ input is vital to make software that works well:

“Off the shelf tools are well specced but often you need to hack the organisation to fit them or hack the tool to meet your needs. Usually it’s a mix of the two,” he said.

In his experience it is important for developers and journalists to work closely together to build something that is successful in the long-term.

“The challenge is around core usabilty of journalistic tools. Things might be logical to a designer or computer system but not for the user or journalist. We need to actively look at how they’re working and actually using things.

“You end up building things that are actually solving a problem. They may not be the whizz bang type of development but they are making a difference,” he said.

While they may be making a difference, don’t expect them to be making you too much money. 99% apps will not be financially successful according to a recent report by analysts Gartner.

So is it worth all the time and effort? Bentley says an emphatic yes. “A successful app is something of a killer CV bullet point!”

How to develop your app

Have a good idea!

What problems do you face daily? What changes would make your work life easier? Is there a situation that frustrates your colleagues as much as you? Finding something that needs fixing or solving is the seed of a great app.

Do your research

Before you go full steam ahead with your great new idea, check both the Apple and Android app stores to make sure someone hasn’t already made it. If they have, could it be adapted or improved?

Learn some code

One day courses like the ones run by Decoded are a good place to start for an intense introduction or learn in your spare time with online tutorials like those from Codecademy.

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