Students develop accessibility app, health site for Star

May 6, 2019
group of kids

(From left) Erin Thomson, Rocky Baier, Ava Garcia, Professor Michael McKisson, Phillip Bramwell and Arizona Daily Star editors Rob Wisner and Becky Pallack.


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

Missing file.

Graduating senior 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, a graduating master’s student, and junior Rocky Baier have produced “Tu Salud Tucson” (“Your Health Tucson”), a bilingual mobile website with health resources for Latinx families.

Missing file.

The four conducted more than 100 empathy 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 remain sources for feedback and information.

“We are getting to a deeper level with people … trying to help the community,” said Thompson, who suffered a spinal-cord injury in 2009.

Baier said “people thanked us for making” the health-care site, “grateful that something like this was going to exist. Health organizations had the same sentiments, thanking us for our work and even offering to pay us for our product.”

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.

Missing file.

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 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 in 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

Missing file.

“Tucson Access Guide” opens to a map, where users can click on a location to rate or read a review of its 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/exits.

Bramwell 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 going on, 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.

Missing file.

“Tu Salud Tucson” has 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."

Missing file.Missing file.

Erin Thomson and Phillip Bramwell explain how they conducted their empathy
interviews and how their map of "Tucson Access Guide" works.

Missing file.Missing file.






Ava Garcia brainstorms with Rocky Baier with ideas on sticky notes at the Arizona Daily Star. Here is the menu of "Tu Salud Tucson."

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 on May 2, 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, but 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 hails from Tempe.

Thomson is going back to her hometown of Minneapolis after graduation, but she hopes to return to 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. So many of these groups are willing to talk to you if you just do it in a proper manner.”

Bramwell, who hails 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.”

• For updates and information on “Tucson Access Guide” and “Tu Salud Tucson,” contact Arizona Daily Star Product Manager Becky Pallack at

Read story in UANews