04
November
2021

Seriously Scalable, Resilient, Accessible, and Fun! West Arete’s Scott Woods on Developing the CAMPfire Social App

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By Amber Rasche, Senior Communications Specialist

Scott Woods is the CEO of West Arete, a custom software development company for the higher education community, InCommon Catalyst, and sponsor of the 2021 CAMP Week held October 4-8. In this Q&A, Scott shares about his team’s effort to design, develop, and deploy a fully accessible social app to support the virtual CAMP and ACAMP events in less than three weeks. (Yes, you read that right – three weeks!) 

The open-source “CAMPfire” app combines a fun and fully accessible interface with a scalable and resilient back end for hosting virtual social hours during CAMP Week. Whether you experienced CAMPfire firsthand or are learning about it now for the first time, read on to discover more about West Arete’s meaningful contribution to the community.

Tell us about West Arete and how your team supports the higher education community.

In a nutshell, our team designs, builds, and maintains custom software applications for universities. 

These applications range from large research information management systems that integrate research metadata with identity metadata, to critical workflow applications that automate an important part of university operations, to public-facing outreach applications that serve a public benefit.

There are a variety of ways that we work with our university colleagues. Sometimes we work alongside an in-house team on software strategy and development. Sometimes we provide a complete service contract for a custom software application to free up the in-house team. And sometimes we simply provide strategy, guidance, and mentorship.

It’s funny – we’re closely tied with the Identity and Access Management community, but we’re technically not an IAM company. We’re a team of highly-skilled software engineers who love to apply our craft to meaningful causes in research and education. It just so happens that that almost always involves building software that amplifies what’s already being done with IAM. 

We also differ from a lot of other companies in that we’re a public benefit corporation. It’s a relatively new legal construct that is something of a hybrid between a non-profit and a for-profit organization. This means that our mission more closely aligns with higher education, and you’ll find us investing heavily in the community. 

How did you first get involved with InCommon and Internet2?

Several years ago, Nicole Roy invited us to be part of the initial process of modernizing the InCommon Federation Manager. She helped us to understand some of the sophisticated concepts that underlie so much of the technology around InCommon and Internet2. Then she connected us with members of the community and ultimately helped us to start attending Internet2’s community events. 

I’m eternally grateful for the warm welcome and support that Nicole showed to us. But the thing is – there are many people in this community who make the same investments in others. And now we’re able to do the same thing ourselves. 

This shared culture of mutual support and technical excellence is what makes this community incredible. And it’s why it’s so rewarding to contribute to it.

West Arete is part of the InCommon Catalyst Program. Can you talk about that and why you thought it was important to join the program? 

I remember speaking with Ann West at CAMP in 2019 about how there could be a better bridge between commercial companies and the InCommon community. She hinted that they already had some exciting plans in the works – which became the InCommon Catalyst Program.

I think the Catalyst Program is brilliant in that it leverages the same things that make the InCommon community unique. It goes well beyond a traditional vendor relationship, in that every Catalyst member is making genuine, meaningful, ongoing contributions to the community. It’s not a passive membership or a one-way relationship. Each one of the Catalyst companies is an active part of the community and is making substantial contributions.

This type of working relationship helps to build trust between universities and the Catalyst companies. It’s so much more effective and rewarding than traditional vendor relationships. I know that I would be more open to learning about a company’s paid services if I saw them making worthy contributions to my community.

As a custom developer of software, tell us about the work you did to support InCommon’s CAMP and ACAMP events.

Our primary contribution was the design and development of the new “CAMPfire” app, which allowed all participants to congregate and socialize virtually before and after the event. 

The app matched the fun, campy decor of the conference. Participants could see who was gathered around each campfire, which let them find their friends and colleagues. They could join each campfire via video/audio and also bounce between campfires. It was extremely lightweight and unassuming, which also made it very engaging. 

We also assisted with the design of the event surveys, including how to approach questions of diversity and inclusion. And we were able to recruit a few new people to the community and the conference.

What was the main challenge you were trying to solve in developing this app? 

We found that the traditional vendor product for the social part of virtual events was completely inaccessible for people who are blind or using assistive technology. Our team worked for hours to try to make it work with a screen reader, to no avail. We then confirmed with a colleague who is blind that we weren’t missing anything. It was incredibly frustrating and demoralizing for everyone. What good is a virtual conference tool if it completely excludes part of your audience?

So we proposed to Internet2 that West Arete would custom build a replacement app … in three weeks’ time. 

I’m proud to say that our team did a great job having it ready with plenty of time to spare. We estimate that the app had about 10 times the usage of last year’s social hour that used the traditional vendor solution. Most importantly, our colleagues who were using assistive technology happily reported that they could finally participate in the social hour with everyone else. Success!

I’m proud of the Internet2 team for taking the stance that the status quo was unacceptable, and I’m grateful that they had the confidence in us to deliver the new app on such a short timeline. 

What did you learn from the project and what’s next for West Arete?

We gained a deeper, more nuanced appreciation for creating a first-class UX for people who are using assistive technology like screen readers. Huge thanks to Keith Wessel at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign for his feedback and mentorship during this process. 

Our team is using the app as a platform to demonstrate some next-generation back-end technology that we’re planning to use in upcoming mission-critical projects. Ryan Schenk on our team has been leading this transformation for some time. Technically the level of fault tolerance and scalability was overkill for this particular use case. But it was a smashing success as a demonstration, and we are really excited to start introducing this tech to higher education.

Finally, we were able to help mentor a new developer from the community who was looking to break into the field. Julia Iwinski did the front-end design and development, and we’re happy to report that she successfully landed a position at another InCommon Catalyst company as a result of her work. 

Anything else you would like to add?

I’m grateful to the InCommon team for trusting in us to develop a replacement social app in only a couple of weeks, and for them taking the principled stance that technology must be fully accessible. It’s a great example of InCommon living up to its values, and it’s part of what makes it easy for us to continually invest in this great community. 

The InCommon community is truly the best tech community that I’ve ever been a part of, which is saying a lot after a few great decades in the field. We’re very proud to be an InCommon Catalyst. 

Connect with West Arete

If you have questions for Scott, are interested in a demo of the CAMPfire app, or would like to learn more about West Arete’s capabilities to provide custom software development in support of the higher education community, email the West Arete team at team@westarete.com.

ICYMI: 2021 CAMP Week