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NU student’s mobile app offers quick news fix

Posted by boston.com  December 16, 2013 12:11 PM

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Courtesy of David Muench

David Muench (left), with his brother, Andrew.

When people were rioting on the streets of Egypt two years ago, Northeastern University senior David Muench was missing out on the action.

“My brother called me one night and asked if I had heard about the protests going on in Egypt, but I had to tell him ‘no,’” said Muench, who was working on a co-op at Liberty Mutual at the time. “I was getting home at 9 or 10 o’clock at night and found that there wasn’t really a means where I could – within five or 10 minutes – understand what was going on in the world.”

It was during this phone conversation that the idea for Skimmin, a free smartphone application that aims to give its users the day’s news in under a minute, was born. The app, launched by the brothers in 2011, recently hit 10,000 downloads.

“Skimmin is designed in terms of cold, hard facts,” Muench said. “If you don’t have the time, it shouldn’t take you 15 minutes [to read the news]. It should take you 30 seconds to a minute.”

Although neither Muench nor his brother, Andrew, 28, a research analyst who took nine months off to work on the app, have experience in software development, the pair employed a mix of Google searches and sheer will to teach themselves how to create an app. Muench is majoring in marketing and finance.

“We’d never made an app before, but we saw a need in the current news model and went for it,” Muench said. “We wanted to change the way people read the news.”

The brothers developed an algorithm that identifies about 20 to 25 articles daily, based primarily on the number of mentions a topic receives across an array of popular news publications. From this pool, they select 10 to 12 stories to highlight, sorted into five major categories – the U.S., World, Sports, Business and Technology.

“The categories help to create a balance,” Muench said. “For instance, even if you don't like sports and could not care less about Alex Rodriguez, guess what? His suspension is still technically relevant to you, if not for the fact that other people are talking about it.”

Using this rationale, the brothers serve as Skimmin’s editors, choosing stories they think will be relevant to readers. Under the story headlines, they write short summaries, with links to the original content.

“The fundamental difference between ourselves and your standard news aggregator is the idea that, at the end of the day, we have a human editing what’s going into your feed,” Muench said.

Kathryn Fogarty, a Skimmin user who is a senior at Villanova University, said she heard about the app through a friend from Muench’s hometown of Avon, Conn. She said she uses the app almost every day.

“I think it's totally perfect for us so-called busy people,” she said. “All the big stories get mentioned.”

Muench has relied on word-of-mouth and his own street-corner marketing to spread the word about Skimmin’. Northeastern sophomore Dylan Connor, who is news editor at NUTV, became acquainted with Skimmin when Muench stopped him on his way home from class one day.

“He would wear a shirt emblazoned with its logo on it – a white lightning bolt on a red background – and walk people to class to tell them about Skimmin,” Connor said. “He became known around campus for that.”

Connor said he was initially interested in the app because, as a news editor, he is constantly looking for the latest stories. He said that, while intrigued, he was not sure if he would use it regularly because he prefers to read in-depth stories.

“Still, I think it’s cool that he was able to find time to market the app between his studies,” Connor said.

Muench said balancing schoolwork and app development was challenging.

“It’s been a lot of giving up sleep,” he said.

He purposely takes morning classes and tries to do all of his schoolwork right away, so he can switch over to coding and working on the app, he said.

Muench’s brother, Andrew, said the brothers’ work on Skimmin to date is “merely a starting point for a long journey ahead. We support each other and encourage one another because we share the same vision” and are willing to keep improving the app.

Muench, who is still deciding what he wants to do after college, said that while he hopes there might be a way to monetize the app in the future, he is now focused on less quantifiable goals.

“The main reason we came out with the app was to inform society,” he said. “It’s hard to make a difference when you don’t know what’s going on in the world.”

This article was reported and written under the supervision of Northeastern University journalism instructor Lisa Chedekel, as part of a collaboration with The Boston Globe.

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