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By Viraaj Punia, '22
OIT Communications Intern

Photos of students on the Duke Notify team

Developing a technology project from scratch may seem like a daunting task, but students in Duke’s Code+ program did it with little to no prior experience in web or application development, creating an app that has garnered attention from university officials.

Juniors Geshna Aggarwal, Rhys Banerjee, Alex Shen, Lisa Tang, and senior Lucy Gu were not experts in web development before creating Duke Notify, a streamlined communications tool – now adopted by Duke – that would allow students, faculty, and staff to choose how to receive notifications from various departments, units, or clubs at Duke.

Working with team leads Harry Thakkar and Liz Wendland of Duke’s Office of Information Technology (OIT), the students learned how to use programs such as Ruby on Rails, Swift, Xcode, and GraphQL to create both a web and an iOS application.

“The Code+ program was the perfect balance between giving support and letting students learn new technologies for themselves. It wasn’t too hand-holdy, but provided help if we needed it,” Banerjee said.

Code+ is a 10-week summer program for undergraduates that offers the opportunity to work in small teams on technology projects that have real-world impact, setting students up for internships in the industry.

In August 2020, Duke Notify was adopted by OIT to act as a communication service for important campus-wide messages, such as COVID-related notifications and reminders for surveillance testing. Its usage by OIT has grown since it was introduced, although the tool is still in the pilot phase and not ready for general use.

Although the original team also designed an iOS app that allows users to configure how they’d like to receive notifications, that feature is still in production. Still, expanding Duke Notify for campus remains a potential next step.

“We need to figure out exactly where an app could fit. Ideally, we would want to integrate it into the DukeMobile app,” said Charley Kneifel, chief technology officer for OIT, and one of the project sponsors. “We use text notifications now because students pay more attention to them than to email,” he added.

Utilizing the DukeMobile app to receive and configure notifications would be a potential improvement over the method used now, but there has not been a large student demand for expanding the current functionality.

Graph showing Duke Notify usage

“Using the app would be cheaper because we wouldn’t have to send a text message, we would just have to talk to the app via push notification technology,” said Wendland, who manages Duke Notify.

Reflecting on building the tool, the students also touted how useful the skills learned in the Code+ program were for their futures in the tech industry.

“I would highly recommend the program to first-years and sophomores and anyone without a whole lot of coding experience. Learning skills like Git is very helpful for future hackathons or projects, and Code+ is a great experience to have on your resume for finding opportunities in the tech industry,” Aggarwal said.

Members also learned soft skills while working in Code+, such as communicating with various stakeholders, collaborating and delegating tasks within a team, and developing feasible goals that are accomplishable in a 10-week period.

“It provides a great learning experience for working on a project outside of the typical classroom format,” Tang said.