Almost everyone wants to have an app these days. But how do you go about finding the right designers, programmers, and marketers to take your app from an idea to millions of downloads in the app store?

  1. Validate your idea. Not all ideas are as great as you my think, and no one wants to call their baby ugly. Validation can be done quickly and cheaply by creating a simple “Pros and Cons” spreadsheet of your competitors, and running online surveys. But you got to do it.
  2. The planning stage is the last time your have total control – You can save a lot of money in development costs if you have drawn the entire app drawn out on paper. I’m not talking about just the main screens; I mean EVERYTHING. Each pop-up message, every menu option. It seems like overkill, but you’re really designing an architectural blueprint here. Designers and engineer have to follow these “wireframes” so they know what to build, and even so that they can give you accurate estimates. You wouldn’t give a build a blueprint for your house with a downstairs bathroom missing, and expect them to just fill in the blanks would you? If you don’t want to do this, expect to pay your developer team to do the wireframes for you, and never use a company who doesn’t offer this step.
  3. Find the right team for you. In any technical endeavor, it’s hard to pick a good team, especially if you are not very technical yourself. You can be techno-babbled to death, or won over by shinny demos. There are a few simple questions you can ask to make sure the team you’re picking is a good one:
    1. Where is the actual development done (in the US? Or is it outsourced to India?)
    2. How does the team manage their source code? You want to hear them say that they use a version control system like GIT (This is like the Track Changes function in Microsoft Word, but for software code).
    3. How is the team going to help you through the planning process? Are they going to build you a functional wireframe you can play with? How about a basic prototype? The more steps they have early on, the more likely you are to succeed.
    4. Ask to touch and play with real life examples of systems the team has worked with.
    5. Find our if they’ve worked on similar products or in similar industries. A little bit of previous experience goes a long way. Find a team who has already made their mistakes on someone else’s dime, so that you don’t have to pay for it.
  4. Understand the process – You don’t have to become a programmer yourself, but spend sometime educating yourself on the technologies and jargon you will encounter. Unlike building a house, you probably have never seen a software project being worked on as you drive down the road. So your frame of reference is very difficult. The process can be extremely opaque as a result. It’s your money; learn a little about how the sausage is made. I’d suggest learning at least a little bit about how databases work, and how source control works – these two topics alone will allow you to have much honest conversations with your developers.
  5. Don’t launch it and leave it – When your app is all done, getting it in the app store can be tricky. Start finding out what you need to do to get into the Apple store early on – this includes reading their terms of use, which isn’t as bad as you think. Make sure you have a business entity set up, and a registered Dunn and Bradstreet number if you’re going to charge money for you app, include ads, or in-app purchases. And finally, learn about how to promote your app in the stores and on the web. You’ve all heard about SEO, but there is such a thing as App Store Optimization as well.
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I help cruise lines turn their technical ideas into reality. I'm experienced in all stages of innovation and technology management. I've also been programing since I was 8 years old, and have somehow retained the ability to have normal human interactions. Occasionally I speak about how Industrial Psychology and Neurophysiology can be interrogated with IT and systems management, because I spend a lot of time thinking about the subject, as strange as that may seem.

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Are School Bus Tracking Systems Dangerous?

There has been a lot of hype recently in Tampa Bay about the “Here Comes the Bus” app. This is system that allows parents to see when their kids have gotten on a school bus, and where the bus is. Some parents are concerned that systems like this one could let malicious users, or government agents track their children. So I’m going to give a quick overview of how systems like these work, and why they are not dangerous. We will also look at what parents SHOULD be concerned about.

How it works

The system is fairly straight forward. Students have either a barcode or a passive RFID chip printed onto their “Bus Pass” – which is just a card they carry around. This card is scanned once the student boards the bus, either with an RFID reader or a barcode scanner (basically the same technology used at grocery stores and clothing shops).

The barcode or the RFID chip carries a simple ID number. This number does not represent the student in any identifiable way – it’s just randomly assigned. The RFID scanner is connected to an internet-enabled device and sends the ID number securely to a server.

Keep in mind, if any data is intercepted up to this point, it is of no use to an attacker. The attacker would at best get a random number that means nothing.

On the other side of the system is the parent’s app. This app is connected to Here Comes The Bus‘ servers, which lets them know that their child is on the bus. The bus also has a GPS tracker on it, which connects to the internet and lets the Here Comes the Bus‘ servers know where the bus is.

That random ID number is then looked up in a database which lets the application know which child has been assigned that ID number. The parent’s device securely requests that information, and it is provided securely down to the app.

It is possible the data coming down to the parent could be intercepted by an attacker. However, as this technology is very secure and is commonly used in almost every piece of software these days (from your health systems to banking apps), it is HIGHLY unlikely.

Could you track kids using their cards?

Some of these bus passes contain a chip, and that sounds scary right? Well, you don’t have to worry too much. These chips are passive RFID chips, the same type of technology that is imprinted in clothing labels to stop theft. Passive means that they need to be picked up by a powered scanner. In order to track a child, you would need to know their ID number (the randomly assigned one), and then set up expensive, high-powered scanners all around town. So it is possible, but there are WAY cheaper and easier ways to track someone. So this seems incredibly unlikely.

Could you track kids if you hacked into the Here Comes the Bus servers?

So the one thing that COULD happen is the Here Comes the Bus’ servers could be hacked. An attacker could break into the database and potentially be able to work out where a child has been, but this does not necessarily mean they will be able to find information on a particular child either. This data is hopefully encrypted, or linked to the school’s secure systems. I can’t speak to how this system has been secured and architected. My best guess is the system was designed with the understanding that this is sensitive data, and great care should be taken over the security. There are also a number of regulations in place that govern the usage and security of student and child data. The Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act of 1998 (COPPA) provides strict regulations regarding a child’s data. The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act of 1974 (FERPA) gives parents certain rights with respect to their children’s education records. These two regulations will have been taken into account by the developers and the school board when evaluating this software.

Should I be worried about this?

No system is perfect and inherently has its risks, but these risks need to be balanced against the rewards. I think that the safety aspects of this application far outweigh the highly remote possibility of the system being misused. There are WAY easier ways to track people than trying to exploit a system like this.

So what should I be worried about?

There are real threats and issues out there for you to be worried about. Kids download all sorts of things to their devices, and these downloads represent real, actual threats. Malware embedded in games, social media apps, and even downloaded backgrounds can track your exact GPS location, leak your phone number, show inappropriate content, or steal personal information.

Instead of worrying about the government tracking your kids while you send them to a Public school, take a look at your kids’ actual devices. Install something like Norton Security Online and Norton Security for iOS or Android, or Malwarebytes. Also talk to your kids about what apps they’re using, and listen to hear for anything strange about their data usage, or content that is coming up unexpectedly, or unusual phone calls they’re getting. These are indicators of real threats to kids’ information and of valid concern by parents.