In a year that has been disrupted by Covid-19, it has become much more challenging for university students to make classroom connections. This is especially the case for first-year students, who have had most of their courses moved online for the 2020-2021 academic year. Kaku, a social media app built by Eric Fillion, Sci ’21, is trying to change this.
Fillion describes the app as being an “exclusive social media app for university students to bring [students] closer together.”
Users configure their profiles including their school, year, program, and courses they are taking. They are then automatically assigned groups based on the profile they have created. Additionally, students can follow each other, add their biography, photos, and make status posts.
“Imagine all of the incoming first-years who are not going to live on campus and will not participate in any in-person activities due to COVID-19. Students like these are going to struggle to make new friends and to connect with their classmates.
“By joining Kaku, these students will be automatically placed into group chats based on their degree and courses, helping them make friends with fellow students,” Fillion said.
Fillion started the project in August 2019, when he realized the benefits of having an educational group chats with other students. He noticed that some programs don’t have a platform that facilitates group chats of this type. His prototype was built by the end of August, but he stopped the project to pursue a natural language processing project called Happy Transformer.
“Happy Transformer ended up taking off and went on to be used by AI researchers worldwide and won a Best Paper Award at the Canadian Undergraduate Conference for AI.”
“But after COVID-19, I decided to instead focus on Kaku because it has the potential to solve a major problem as students need a way to connect with each other from home rather than on-campus” Fillion said.
Happy Transformer has since been downloaded over 5000 times and has been used by researchers worldwide. Happy Transformer allows programmers to implement state-of-the-art language models with only a few lines of code. Fillion returned to developing the app in May in the midst of uncertainty for the upcoming school year.
Fillion built Kaku by combining foundational knowledge gained from the Queen’s Computer Engineering program and through self-study. “I used Flutter to develop the app, which I started learning on my own back in August as I was developing the prototype. Then, I took an 8-month break from Flutter to then begin developing the production version of Kaku in May.”
“Queen’s Computer Engineering has taught me significant foundational knowledge, which has made it easier for me to add other skills such as Flutter and Natural Language Processing through self-study,” Fillion said. Flutter is an open-source software based off Google’s mobile UI framework. It is known for its fast development capabilities and for using the Dart programming language.
The app is not just for first years. Fillion envisions this app being used with upper-year students who want to see which courses their friends plan on are taking prior to the end of their course selection.
Fillion’s Plans to Grow the App
Fillion has plans to grow the app. In the future, he hopes to add optional group chats for specific topics of interest. “For example, one group could be for Queen’s students who are interested in environmental conservation,” Fillion said. He believes that the app is a great way for like-minded students to share resources and opportunities.
Fillion hopes to expand the apps reach beyond Queen’s University. In the near future, Fillion will begin rolling out the app to more universities in Canada.
Since the app has gone live, it’s experienced modest growth. The app currently has over 350 users, growing at a rate of about 100 users a day. Fillion has grown the app by reaching out to like-minded students on other social media platforms.