Listen to the UVA Today Radio Show report on this story by Marian Anderfuren:
August 30, 2010 — Thomas Jefferson's university now has its own iPhone app.
Over the weekend, Apple approved the University of Virginia's "app" – an application for use on iPhones, iPads and iPod Touches – for free download from its iTunes Store. "The Official Virginia iPhone app," the result of collaboration among several different entities around Grounds, offers 22 different sub-applications for prospective students, students, alumni, faculty, staff and Cavalier sports fans.
Users can check the admissions timetable, search for books in the library, look up President Sullivan's office phone and e-mail address, read about University traditions and play the "Good Ol' Song."
They can track athletic contests in progress and look up the bios of the players and coaches; read the latest news from UVA Today, the Cavalier Daily and the U.Va. Magazine; make an appointment in the Health System; and check whether there are any available seats in Larry Sabato's politics courses. There are sub-apps for special events like Homecomings Weekend and Final Exercises.
One function drawing attention (available only on GPS-enabled iPhones) allows folks strolling on the Grounds to point their phones at a building and find out its name and brief description.
Jefferson – always on the cutting edge of technology – would no doubt be enthralled.
"This is the hot area for technical development," said Zachary Wheat, director of interactive media and Web services in the Office of Development and Public Affairs. He noted that smart phones have captured about a quarter of the mobile-phone market, with the numbers steadily rising. "It is very much like where websites were a few years ago."
So hot, in fact, that earlier this year, many techies from around Grounds were trying to figure out how to put together their own apps.
Instead of a piecemeal approach, several entities convened a working group beginning in May to come up with a unified app. The group included representatives from Admission, Student Affairs, Athletics, Information Technology and Communications, the Office of Engagement, the U.Va. Alumni Association and the University Library. After a competitive bidding process, they contracted with WillowTree Apps Inc. of Charlottesville, which handled the design and build-out of what they nicknamed "The Good Old App."
"This is an exciting addition in our connection with all of our various constituents and places us among the leaders in higher education," said Robert D. Sweeney, U.Va. vice president for development and public affairs. "Almost as important is the wonderful collaboration that will allow us to do even more down the road."
"Lots of organizations bought into it," Wheat said. "That allowed us not only to share costs, but to build a full-featured app – with more to come."
After downloading the app from iTunes and opening it, first-time users find a greeting from U.Va. President Teresa A. Sullivan. They are then prompted to indicate their relationship to the University, and led to sub-apps that most apply to their status. However, all 22 sub-apps are available to anyone, and most can be removed, if desired.
In the debut version, the Athletics offerings are particularly robust. Besides receiving updates on games in progress and being able to check rosters and bios, users can read the Athletics Department's press releases and view its popular VirginiaSportsTV videos.
Thomas Faulders, president and CEO of the U.Va. Alumni Association, said that the apps from other universities that he researched offered little to alumni. He's particularly excited to give alumni an instant way to follow the Homecomings Weekend schedule or to locate fellow alumni.
"It shortens that information loop," he said, noting that even surfing the Web often can require finding a computer and threading through several layers of links. "We wanted to make it easier for our alumni to find UVaClubs and contacts. It's all right there, and that's what I like about it."
Wheat stressed that the app remains a work in progress. The current offerings will be refined, while new offerings will bubble up. Efforts are in the works to allow users to purchase tickets to sporting and cultural events from their phones, for example, and to incorporate other University-centric apps, including HoosBus, which tracks the comings and goings of UTS buses. Students may eventually be able to check the day's menus at the University's various eateries.
If the app proves to be popular – it debuted over the weekend, and by Monday morning was already listed as the No. 1 "New and Noteworthy" app in the education section of the iTunes store – there are plans to adapt it for use on Google's Android platform, and to optimize it specifically for Apple's iPad (though it already functions on that notebook device).
Like the Internet, potential uses seem limitless. Even before the Virginia app was made available in the iTunes Store, several members of the working group loaded it onto their own phones and showed it off; people immediately started offering their own suggestions for new functions, Wheat said.
Down the road, Wheat forecasts that it may be possible to use a mobile app to generate barcodes that could be used as a security code to enter dorms, for example, or to pay for items from the University Bookstore.