US teenager creates smartphone app that helps locate missing people

  • TECH
  • Sunday, 26 Feb 2017

Sara Du, 16, won the Young Innovators to Watch award at CES in Las Vegas with her invention Bluejay, an app to assist emergency responders. She programmed a chip, pictured, that attaches to a drone and communicates with the app. (Cindy Yamanaka/Orange County Register/TNS)

IRVINE, California: Sara Du started her coding career two years ago, after reading news articles about kids much younger than her creating smartphone apps. 

She applied for an app development camp for high schoolers at UC Irvine, hoping to get a foot in the door. But she was rejected. 

That's not surprising. The 14-year-old had recently moved to Irvine from Georgia and had little computer experience. In fact, she said she didn't know how to delete files on a computer back then. 

Instead of giving up, Du bought Beginning iPhone Development with Swift, an 828-page book on creating apps for mobile devices. She spent an hour or two every day learning to write code on the MacBook Air she got for her birthday. 

"I turned that sense of failure into motivation," Du said. "It wasn't even difficult because it was fun. It was tangible, different from what I learned at school." 

Now 16 and a junior at Beckman High School, Du was one of four teenage recipients of the Young Innovators to Watch award – a part of the Mobile Apps Showdown – at the Consumer Electronics Show, the largest tech trade show in the world. 

She was honoured Jan 7 in Las Vegas for developing Bluejay, a smartphone app that helps emergency responders find people stranded in natural disaster areas. Rescuers can fly a drone that collects data, such as GPS, from the smartphones of those missing and create a map. 

Du was chosen from among 75 applicants from across the country based on the potential, creativity and sophistication of the inventions. 

"(Bluejay) had a humanitarian component, plus some really hard programming," said Robin Raskin, founder and CEO of Living in Digital Times, which organises Mobile Apps Showdown. 

A girl from Georgia 

All of this year's young innovator winners are children of immigrants, Raskin said. 

Du's parents – her dad is a physicist and her mother an engineer – came to the United States from mainland China. Du, who was born and raised in a small suburb outside Atlanta, speaks Mandarin. 

Although her family always had computers at home, Du said she didn't use them much as a youngster other than to occasionally play games. Instead, she spent a lot of time outside playing in and along the creek behind her yard, collecting leaves and catching fireflies.

Sara Du, 16, still has to built a casing for the chip, in hand, that attaches to a drone. In the meantime, she'll use scotch tape to adhere it. The Irvine teen demos her Bluejay, an app to assist emergency responders, at Irvine's Cedar Grove Park. (Cindy Yamanaka/Orange County Register/TNS)
Du, 16, still has to built a casing for the chip, in hand, that attaches to a drone. In the meantime, she'll use scotch tape to adhere it. The Irvine teen demos her Bluejay, an app to assist emergency responders, at Irvine's Cedar Grove Park. — Orange County Register/TNS

She was not among the best students and barely managed to stay in top-level classes, Du said. Her brother, Andrew, who's four years younger, was always at the top of his class in math and science, and was the star of the family, she said. 

Du was more interested in real-life phenomenon than theories taught at school. In elementary school she got interested in economics and began reading the Wall Street Journal

"I was always interested in everything, even non-science stuff," she said. 

Moving to California 

Du experienced culture shock when she moved to Orange County three years ago. 

People were more laid back in Georgia, she said, while her fellow students in Irvine can't accept any grades worse than As and compete in Math Olympiads and science fairs. She also met tech entrepreneurs who create augmented reality advertisements and make money developing apps, Du said. 

"It motivated me to study more, not putting off things until tomorrow and just doing them," she said. 

About a year after she started coding, Du launched her first app, Flappy Nation, a copy of the popular game Flappy Bird with birds that look like presidential candidates. It was a basic app, but enough to give her confidence to join various Meetup groups, where most members are programmers much older than her. 

One of the groups is Irvine-based OC iOS with more than 2,000 members developing mobile apps. 

As its youngest member, Du was quickly promoted to assistant organiser, speaking at panels, helping others with coding and recruiting new student members. 

"We, as developers or business people, have a lot to learn from her," founder Linus Lee wrote in an email to the Register. "She can be a true inspiration to all young people, boys or girls. She can motivate kids to put down the videogames and smartphones and to invent something exciting and truly amazing." 

Making it to the big stage 

Du came up with the idea for the Bluejay app based on her experience in spring 2015 when she had to wait alone at Irvine Regional Park in the evening because she couldn't get a wireless signal. 

She paced in the dark parking lot, worrying about coyotes. It took more than two hours, and numerous texting attempts, until her father showed up. 

"I was thinking, 'When I get out, I'm going to solve this,' because it happened to me a lot," Du said. 

She started the project in October and worked on it nearly every day for the next two months before learning about the Young Innovators to Watch contest. 

The biggest challenge was programming the Intel Edison chip to send and receive Bluetooth signals from a flying drone. There was no manual for the chip so she had to figure out how to work it by playing around with the command line and asking questions on Internet forums. 

She submitted her entry and application video minutes before the contest deadline, without testing the app and chip out with an actual drone. 

"I didn't expect anything," she said. "I don't usually try to let myself down by expecting too much." 

That's why she almost screamed and jumped when she saw an e-mail saying she'd won. She received a free trip to the CES, a US$2,000 (RM8,880) scholarship, a tablet computer and a programmable robot. She also went on stage in front of 500 people to present her project. 

Before she started coding, she was more withdrawn, Du said. 

"I just have more confidence in what I do," she said. "Failure motivates me, but getting some good news once in a while feels good." 

She still keeps Beginning iPhone Development with Swift on her bookshelf as her bible. 

"It's my inspiration when I'm like, "I can't do this,'" she said. — The Orange County Register/Tribune News Service

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