A mock-up of community walking data projected onto the smokestacks at the Waterfront. Image courtesy of Tab Chao, Arlex Gole, Shen Lu, Hamza Qureshi and Nadia Razek

We want to be healthy and we want our technology to help us: The number of U.S. residents using fitness trackers is projected to double by 2021, with 1 in 5 Americans capturing key health metrics with wearable devices by then.

West Homestead Councilwoman Ashley Cain was thinking about that stat last June — and noticing that people who walk with a buddy are more likely to stick with it — when she envisioned a walking app that would allow residents to connect with each other.

Borough Manager Cindy Bahn knew about Cain’s idea. And when she learned that Afsaneh Doryab, a systems faculty member in Carnegie Mellon University’s Human-Computer Interaction Institute, was looking for opportunities for her students to solve problems for local municipalities, she had an “a-ha!” moment.

“It seemed as though Ashley’s idea for a walking app could be a good project for the class,” says Bahn.

Cain and Bahn began sketching out a rough concept, incorporating the neighborhood connections of Nextdoor.com, the real-time mapping features of Waze and the data displays of the Eight Sleep app. They submitted a proposal to Doryab that was selected as one of seven projects for students to tackle in her “Computing for Good (C4G)” class last fall.

Other C4G projects included a prediction tool to help farmers in India assess the risk potential of loans and investments; a website matching students with colleges; and a program that protects wildlife in the Congo by harnessing artificial intelligence and machine learning to uncover hidden mines.

After meeting with Cain and Bahn, students Tab Chao, Arlex Gole, Shen Lu, Hamza Qureshi and Nadia Razek surveyed walkers at The Waterfront and the community park. By December, they had developed the prototype for Let’s Walk!, a socially-networked mobile app designed to help West Homestead residents find neighborhood walking partners, map their routes and count steps.

In an innovative twist on traditional activity trackers, the app will offer an interactive component that projects individuals’ achievements on the smokestacks from the former Homestead Steel Works at The Waterfront. The more steps walkers take, the brighter the display gets.

An added incentive to get healthy: As users log increased activity, they’ll earn virtual coins that they can redeem for discounts at local retailers.

Doryab believes that one advantage of bringing students together from varied disciplines is the kind of creative problem-solving it inspires. For example, the projection concept came from Qureshi, a junior architecture student who saw potential in the massive smokestacks, which Waterfront Manager Care Kann is excited to see put to good use.

“He was extremely impressed by the outcome of the project,” Doryab says, “and is interested in working with CMU to develop it further.”

Although the connection was serendipitous, it’s hard to ignore the juxtaposition of positive health data projected onto an enormous physical symbol of Pittsburgh’s smoggy industrial past.

“They used to pollute the air,” she says, “and now they’re being used as a symbol of health.”

Bahn says the app dovetails with a comprehensive plan West Homestead is undertaking with Homestead and Munhall to improve green spaces and recreation in the three communities. But she believes its potential reaches beyond the Steel Valley.

“I can imagine municipalities all over the U.S. using the app to help their residents improve their health,” she says.

The partners are seeking funding to build the app and Doryab expects the process to begin within the next six to nine months. She plans to offer C4G again in the fall and hopes a group of students will pick up where last year’s class left off with the project.

“I really enjoyed teaching this course — and think students really enjoyed taking it,” she says, “because working for good is a motivating factor.”

Homestead officials had a positive experience with the students as well.

“They exceeded our expectations in every way,” says Bahn. “They took a somewhat amorphous concept and created a design that is fresh, exciting and user-friendly.”

Emily Stimmel

Emily fell in love with the written word as a teenager, when she published zines and wrote for her school paper. Today, she is a freelance writer with a decade and a half of experience in non-profit communications. She enjoys cooking, reading, crafting and exploring Pittsburgh with her husband and two sons.