Passion and Purpose: Duke Senior Creates Software for Homeless Shelters - 1

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"How can I use my skills to make a difference in my community?"

This is a question Ashley Qian has been asking herself since she arrived at Duke University from New York three years ago. This past spring, she found her answer: Umbrella.

Umbrella is an integrative computer software program that allows local homeless shelters to keep up-to-date records and also improve client outreach.

What started as an idea at the 24-hour Duke Hackathon held on campus in March will soon become a real and helpful tool that social service agencies can use to better serve their needy clientele.

As co-founder of hackDuke, Qian was in charge of organizing and overseeing the event. She wanted to create a theme that would depart from traditional Hackathons by addressing pressing social needs. Unlike other collegiate Hackathons,"Code for Good" urged over 300 participants to create something to be used by the nonprofit sector.

Several of the successful products from the night were related to issues of homelessness, a cause Qian cares deeply about. Winner Alex Browne developed BullHorn, a program that would allow shelters to text clients directly through a listserv. Despite many favorable comments from the judges, however, busy schedules prevented several participants from fully developing their ideas past that night. Qian saw this as her chance.

She approached the students who had developed programs for homeless shelters and asked if she could enhance their codes to create an advanced, fully-inclusive software. Along with the listserv concept from BullHorn, Umbrella includes methods for inter-admin communication and an automatic checklist for tasks (which were ideas from FrontDesk, another Hackathon service created by Austin Lu and Anh Pham). Browne and the others believed in Ashley's vision and agreed. After a summer of using her programming skills to build from the prototypes, Umbrella was born.

Urban Ministries of Durham will test a beta version of Qian's software. She anticipates speaking to more homeless shelters throughout the area, and hopes that by the end of her senior year, Umbrella will offer high-quality services to many shelters. She also sees scope for expanding the program to cater to orphanages, immigration offices, and domestic violence shelters.

In the worst case scenario, only Urban Ministries uses it. In the best case scenario, I'll be influencing policy and creating a network for homeless shelters around the world to make data-driven decisions, Qian says.

Unlike other task managers that charge thousands of dollars, Umbrella will only charge a small monthly fee.

Traditional task managers target a different population, like corporations or students; they're not made for nonprofits. Places like homeless shelters don't necessarily have the time or skills to tweak the programs to their needs, remarks Qian.

As a computer science major, she has the technical skills to build Umbrella. She's also studied design, and is creating a user-friendly interface. Qian is also pursuing a second major in women's studies, fortifying her passion for social justice and strengthening her decision to target the underserved nonprofit market.

Qian has always been interested in innovation and entrepreneurship too. The summer after her freshman year, she interned with San Francisco-based Bizo - the Duke grad-founded marketing solutions agency recently acquired by LinkedIn - where she received exposure to business development, advertising and software development. At Duke, she started DiDA, a student-led design agency for Duke University. She is also Co-President of The Cube, the entrepreneurial living community on campus. And this past summer, she participated in Melissa & Doug Entrepreneurs, a mentorship/scholarship program for promising Duke students looking to start ventures (See her entertaining application video below). She believes Duke has offered her the leadership abilities and social conscience, as well as the hard skills, to transform something like Umbrella from an idea, into a reality.

Several of her peers have asked Qian why she doesn't pursue a more "profit-oriented" venture. She agrees that catering to nonprofits will be difficult.

But this will be so much more important to me if it reaches its vision," she says. "There may be a 99% chance this can fail. But that 1% is why I'm doing it that 1% makes everything worth it.