The Boston Globe’s weekly Ocean State Innovators column features a Q&A with Rhode Island innovators who are starting businesses and nonprofits, conducting groundbreaking research, and reshaping the state’s economy. Send tips and suggestions to reporter Alexa Gagosz at email@example.com.
Brown University senior Jason Whang and his brother Elijah Whang, 17, have been learning remotely for the last year. In their spare time, they found that there was a real need for consumers to know which businesses were — or were not — following public health protocols during the pandemic.
From their childhood home in San Antonio, the duo developed Co-Crit, an app that allows users to rate and review how businesses are handling COVID-19 safety measures, even in states where restrictions have been lifted.
Q: What is Co-Crit and how does it work?
J. Whang: Co-Crit is an app where customers can search for businesses and review how they’re handling COVID-19 safety practices.
When you log in, you’re taken straight to a map that shows your location. You can search for any business in the world. Once you find that business, you can read reviews and write your own. The business’s page includes its average star rating, along with other metrics that come from users filling out our survey in their review, which asks about the percentage of customers and employees wearing masks, if employees were wearing gloves, or if there was outdoor seating or hand sanitizer available.
Then we have the comments feature, where people can write what else they saw, such as temperature checks or extreme social distancing that made it feel safer.
It was important to us that this app is straightforward and easy-to-use, when a large part of our user demographic could be older.
Q: How did you come up with this idea?
J. Whang: I was living at Brown up until March. The pandemic hit and I was sent home to San Antonio. My brother was in school, but then he transitioned to distance learning. And we thought, ‘We’re not doctors, but how could we help?’ At Brown, I took courses in computer science and with the BEO program [The C.V. Starr Program in Business, Entrepreneurship and Organizations], and Elijah and I talked about how it would be a good idea to know how safe a business was that we wanted to visit. We were both still in school, but were working on this app in our free time and on weekends.
It’s the first app that we’ve ever created.
Q: How many users have downloaded Co-Crit, and who is your target audience?
J. Whang: [As of March 9,] we have about 520 users. And we are quickly growing, because here in Texas, the state lifted the mask mandate and all business restrictions. As more states start to lift restrictions, I think this app will be even more useful for other parts of the country. But our targeted audience definitely cares about staying safe and finding safe places to go for them and for their family.
Q: Could this be beneficial for businesses with good safety practices?
J. Whang: We wanted to make sure that we allow businesses to really amend whatever safety practices they may have. So maybe they didn’t have strong practices or didn’t have the funds to purchase additional safety equipment at first, but then started to; those reviews that were posted most recently and the most up-to-date information will be shown on a business’s page first.
Q: What is the app’s business model if it’s free?
J. Whang: This is a completely community-focused side project. We don’t make any money. We do have a few ads on our app but 100 percent of the proceeds, which really isn’t that much, are sent directly to Feeding America. So even if we just fund a few meals, I think there’s a real value in that.
Q: How will an app like this be sustainable in a post-COVID economy?
J. Whang: At first, we thought to ourselves, we just put a ton of time and effort into making this app and in a year or so it might not even be that useful because of how the pandemic (and vaccine timeline) keep evolving. But we think Co-Crit can be useful . . . for evaluating a business’s cleanliness and overall sanitary practices. But we definitely want to hear more feedback from users down the line.