Holyoke Teens Develop Anti-Bullying App

May 18, 2017

Inside a stuffy second-story conference room in Holyoke’s innovation district, a small group of developers spent about three months creating a mobile app meant to combat bullying.

But they're not employees at a hot new tech startup. They’re teenage girls from Holyoke tasked with building an app that addresses an issue in their community.

The five teens are members of Girls Incorporated Holyoke, a nonprofit that offers after-school activities. This year, for the first time, Girls Inc. participated in Technovation Challenge, an annual competition that gives girls in nearly 80 countries 12 weeks to create mobile apps that tackle problems relevant to them.

After choosing bullying as the issue their app would address, the team conducted field research to figure out the needs such an app should serve, said Meghan Bone, a program manager at Girls Inc.

“They went into the schools, and they designed a survey, and got to survey about 110 kids,” Bone said. “They learned a lot of kids had been bullied. In fact, most kids had been bullied.”

Team members said they also have first-hand experience with bullying.

“I was mostly bullied because I hung out with boys more than with girls,” team member Jaylynn Rentas, 14, said in an interview.

Stella Cabrera, a 16-year- old who worked on the project, said she experienced in-person and cyber bullying.

“A rumor that I kissed a girl was all over Facebook, and then I got bullied in school; being called a ho, and a slut, and everything,” Cabrera said.

A prototype of AllSides, the anti-bullying app created at Girls Inc.
Credit Sean Teehan / NEPR

The group received assistance with all things technical from Lissie Fein and Andrew Pasquale, educators with Holyoke Codes, a community organization run out of the Massachusetts Green High Performance Computing Center.

Using Thunkable, a drag-and- drop coding software, Fein and Pasquale show the girls how to link together coding command blocks. On the screen, the bright-colored blocks look like something between an awkwardly shaped jigsaw puzzle and a game of Tetris. But, as Pasquale said, the preview screen allows them to see those commands, in action.

“The part that they get excited about is when they get to create something that’s their idea. They can take their ideas and bring them to life with code.”

In April, after months of work, and some missed days due to snow, the girls put the finishing touches on their app, which they name AllSides. It includes advice for victims -- and perpetrators -- of bullying, motivational videos and contact information for emergencies.

In a moment of truth, the girls sat around a conference table and watched as a friend tested out the app’s prototype on an Android tablet.

“I would use these steps if I was getting bullied again,” the girl said after scrolling through the app.

Everyone at the table smiled at the positive review.

For Cabrera, working on the app got her thinking about a possible career path. It also represents her own ability to advocate for issues at the grassroots level.

“I’m thinking of going into a computer science major when I get to college,” Cabrera said. “It’s, like, something empowering. You’re helping other people by something as simple as making an app.”

Promotional video for AllSides