Journalism Students Develop Accessibility App, Health Site for Local Newspaper

From left: UA students Ava Garcia, Rocky Baier, Erin Thomson and Phillip Bramwell

From left: UA students Ava Garcia, Rocky Baier, Erin Thomson and Phillip Bramwell

(Photo: Michael McKisson)

As newspapers scramble to develop new business models and products, four University of Arizona School of Journalism students are helping the Arizona Daily Star find new ways to engage with the community.

Recent graduate Erin Thomson and senior Phillip Bramwell have created "Tucson Access Guide," a mobile phone news app that gives people with physical disabilities details and reviews of accessibility at restaurants, tourist spots and other destinations.

Ava Garcia, who recently graduated with a master's degree, and junior Rocky Baier have produced "Tu Salud Tucson" ("Your Health Tucson"), a bilingual mobile website with health news and resources for Latinx families.

The four conducted more than 100 interviews with the public to develop and hone their projects. In turn, the students hope those citizens will spread the word about the products and continue to be sources for feedback and information.

"We are getting to a deeper level with people … trying to help the community," said Thomson, who suffered a spinal-cord injury in 2009 that left her in a wheelchair.

Baier said people thanked them for making the health-care site, saying they were grateful that something like it was going to exist.

"Health organizations had the same sentiments, thanking us for our work and even offering to pay us for our product," Baier said.

The projects evolved from the school's Product Development in Journalism class taught by Michael McKisson, a UA assistant professor of practice, and a $35,000 grant that he secured from the national Online News Association.

Each student received $4,700 to work with Arizona Daily Star Product Manager Becky Pallack and Director of Digital Innovation Rob Wisner. The two teams demonstrated their projects to Arizona Daily Star Editor Jill Jorden Spitz and other executives at the newspaper on April 26.

"The students really crushed it," McKisson said. "Unanimously, everyone in the room was enthusiastic about both projects … and there's interest on the Star's part continuing the partnership with the school, which is really cool."

Students are hoping to keep a hand in maintaining the products, which are scheduled to be available to the public this summer.

"I think both of these projects are very viable, useful and helpful — and targeted directly to a particular audience," said Spitz, a UA journalism alumna. "What a home run."

How each product works

The "Tucson Access Guide" app opens to a map, where users can click on a location to rate or get a review of accessibility. Reviewers are not commenting on "how the pizza tasted," Bramwell said, but on five categories: bathroom access, transportation options and parking, staff assistance, ease of mobility inside the location and ease of entries and exits.

Bramwell, who was born with cerebral palsy, and Thomson interviewed people with physical disabilities — having them navigate a prototype of the app — at places such as Southern Arizona Adaptive Sports, where wheelchair basketball games were taking place, and at the Disability Resource Center on the UA campus.

"You want to make sure that every person can use the app," Thomson said. "I have limited hand mobility, for instance."

"Our app is meant to be diverse and appeal to not just wheelchair users but people who also use canes, walkers or crutches," Bramwell said.

The "Tu Salud Tucson" mobile website offers three main sections in Spanish and English. "Get Healthy" includes news stories and information about health-related studies. "Find a Clinic" lets users search for a clinic based on the type of care they need, cost of care, whether providers speak Spanish and whether providers require insurance. "Health Events" lists dates for shot clinics, walking group meet-ups and health fairs in the community. Each section is searchable by different aspects, such as cost.

"We truly want to help people get the information they need," Garcia said. "Health is so important, and we want people to know what resources are out there."

Added Pallack: "Hospital systems might want people to use this mobile website, as opposed to having them show up in the ER."

Project prepares students for careers

All four students want to pursue journalism careers.

Garcia, who defended her master's project on climate change efforts in Arizona, landed a prestigious Pulliam Fellowship at the Arizona Republic this summer as a reporter.

"My dream beat would be covering environmental and health issues," said Garcia, who grew up in Scottsdale.

Baier intends to be an international reporter and return to Israel to work for the Jerusalem Post, where she worked as a summer intern in 2018. However, the "Tu Salud" project has made her rethink her career goals.

"Product development is cool because it can help newsrooms (financially) as well as people in the community," said Baier, who is from Tempe.

Thomson returned to her hometown of Minneapolis after graduation, but she hopes to revisit Tucson to continue her journalism career and report on diverse groups.

"The most concerning thing in the last couple of years is how mainstream media handles underrepresented people," she said. "So many of these groups are willing to talk to you if you just do it in a proper manner."

Bramwell, who is from Boonton, New Jersey, wants to be a traditional print journalist, but he said the news app project has improved his interviewing skills.

"Even people who don't like the media are giving me more respect because I'm trying to help them," he said.

"The students made a great case for both the importance of the products that they’ve created and also the sustainability and viability from a business perspective," McKisson said. "And the projects really opened their eyes about alternatives in journalism."