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These students have an app that makes life easier for digital nomads

These students have an app that makes life easier for digital nomads

In recent months, there has been a lot of talk in Croatia about the initiative to attract digital nomads to live and work in Croatia, successfully implemented through regulations allowing individuals to stay to Croatia. Consequently, Croatia has become one of the first countries in the world to introduce this type of elaborate program for attracting digital nomads.

The students enrolled in Algebra University College graduate programs have decided to explore and further elaborate this idea, in the framework of the recently introduced innovative project program, a compulsory course implemented on the level of all graduate study programs.

During the program, which students attend for the duration of their graduate studies, they acquire entrepreneurial skills and go through a step-by-step program similar to the one startups would undergo in an incubator. They also have mentors at their disposal available to advise them. There are no exams or tests of knowledge, but rather, the contribution of each student is evaluated, as well as the overall result of the team – which is an innovative form of practice-based coursework and a novelty in the educational system.

A special “catch” is that the program brings together students from different graduate programs offered at Algebra University College – software engineering, digital marketing and data science – so students with different skills and educational backgrounds, who previously would not get a chance to meet in the course of their studies, now get to exchange ideas and knowledge and work together on a project, which makes it all the more interesting and fun!

“Our idea is that in this course students should learn the golden rules of how to reach the goal – after that, each new endeavor is a step forward for them, and they have the confidence that they will succeed, it is just a matter of when. In other words, it is only a question of their own persistence,” emphasizes Maja Brkljačić, PhD, one of the heads of this course and Business Development Manager at the longest-running and most relevant startup incubator in the country, Algebra LAB.

A one-stop shop for digital nomads

Seven members of the interdisciplinary team of students “The Nomads” decided to study the lifestyle of digital nomads, which led them to the idea of ​​developing a web application called “Nomad Rescue”, a one-stop shop for digital nomads. Their research of the problems faced by digital nomads has shown that some of them have trouble relocating to another location, while others face bigger challenges after relocating.

Andro Žonja and Ivan Jakovljević, students of the software engineering graduate program, Nina Tudor, Marta Krznar and Filip Puljić, students of the digital marketing graduate program, and Antonio Akrapović and Mateja Novaković, enrolled in the data science graduate program, have designed an application offering “digital nomads” reliable information on various topics quickly and efficiently.

Nomad Rescue is designed as a social network with an integrated search engine for accommodations suitable for people who want to stay in the country for an extended period of time. Its users will be able to use this social network as a tool to meet other digital nomads in their location, which will allow them to even find a roommate. The network will also contain a search tool for accommodations for extended stays, as well as a module which the students call a “virtual guide” that will allow the users to more easily integrate into the new surroundings.

“It is a platform designed to help people choose their new location, find accommodation, review the content offered in nearby locations and meet other nomads via a social network,” explains Ivan Jakovljević.

The digital nomads trend is on the rise and the app is more than useful

“I came up with the idea almost a year before we started this project,” says Nina Tudor, a digital marketing graduate student and team leader, adding that she would like to try her hand at being a digital nomad in New Zealand, if the opportunity should arise.

“I follow people on social networks who combine work and travel and have a digital nomad lifestyle, and it is something I would also like to do in a few years’ time. This was something I wanted to do for myself, and since the digital nomad lifestyle is becoming increasingly popular, I knew it could be interesting to others people as well. The idea was perhaps too ambitious to develop it on my own, so I am very happy that the others have recognized its potential and have enabled it to come to life. Of course, the idea has undergone several phases and modifications, so its current format is the result of the inputs of the entire team,” explains Nina.

The popularity of digital nomads is constantly on the rise, especially since the start of the pandemic. Many employees are disinclined to go back to the office so companies will need to adapt to new labor market demands. “The pandemic has accelerated the trend of working from home, which allows IT sector employees and related professionals to travel more and extend their stays in other locations. The reasons might be the weather, lower living costs or simply because they want to explore other cultures,” explains Ivan Jakovljević.

Nina says that she spent many years working in tourism and talking to people from different countries, concluding that a large number of tourists like to stay in Croatia and return summer after summer. “That is why I was not at all surprised by the interest in Croatia’s digital nomad program, moreover, I am very glad that people such as Jan de Jong have recognized the importance of such a programme and made an effort to make it happen,” says Nina Tudor.

 Successful digital nomads projects contribute to the country’s appeal

Although Croatia is one of the first countries to introduce a programme for digital nomads, students have devised the app so that it can be easily applied to any country. “Of course, data entry is a challenge in such cases, but our application relies primarily on global information repositories offered by Amazon and Google,” explains Ivan Jakovljević.

“We believe that local governments or tourist boards could use the application to promote their location with digital nomads. One of the best indicators of how favorable to digital nomads certain location is, is the availability of information in digital format,” says Ivan.

Mentors helping the student team with further project development say that it is quite logical that the students have taken an interest in this topic.

“It is to be expected and quite logical that these generations of students have chosen this topic, because the idea of ​​digital nomads is something that will figure prominently and be quite present in their future work experience. Algebra students from abroad, working alongside domestic students, are in a sense digital nomads as well. At the moment, we have 2 to 3 startups in Croatia working with this topic, so it is definitely a very hot area, and there is a real need for such a platform,” emphasizes Maja Brkljačić.

Once they are launched, such projects can significantly raise the country’s appeal and attractiveness as a destination for digital nomads. These people travel and relocate easily and quickly, so they need access to relevant information that is just as fast and easy. The project is set up in a way that it is scalable and can be easily replicated to other countries, which is crucial for finding sources of financing, since VC funds, as well as EU funding, strongly favor global or at the very least European solutions – the mentors of this student team tell us.

Students benefited the most from group work experience

“This interdisciplinary group project has helped me learn a lot about the marketing side of product development and product design itself. Also, our colleagues from the data science graduate program have taught us a lot about using and managing information and how to implement that in our product,” says Andro Žonja, a programmer developing the back-end, i.e. the server side of the application that consists of a layer involving business logic and databases and enabling the communication both internally and with the client side of the application.

At the same time, one of the future data science graduates, Mateja Novaković, also says that “interdisciplinary collaboration is quite common today and encouraged in all spheres of life and work.” She liked working with fellow software engineering students because, she says, it was an opportunity for her to perform tasks that go beyond her role as a data science member of the team.

“I think this is one of the most important courses in our studies, because it prepares us for the real labor market, in which we are bound to collaborate with people from different industries and with different mindsets. Working on this project is especially interesting for me because of all the knowledge that I will acquire, not only from our mentors, but also from my teammates,” stresses Nina Tudor.

Antonio Akrapović says that, as with any other team working on a joint project, a constructive exchange of knowledge and skills is vital; without it “the project would not even get off the ground, so the synergy and exchange of opinions is critical.” On the project, Antonio is in charge of data collection strategy and its application in terms of data science, with the aim of finding the most efficient way of improving user experience when searching for the desired services.

But just as in the real world, not everything is ideal – and everyone learns by overcoming obstacles. Ivan Jakovljević highlights good communication as a prerequisite for team integration and its overall successfulness:

“The fact that team members come from different educational backgrounds enriches their ideas and ways of looking at the problem, but it also sometimes makes communication difficult. Each newly formed team has a relatively low level of efficiency compared to the potential of its members. Over time, the team adopts a common language evident in the norms and a clearly defined work process. Only after this has been achieved can the team realize its full potential. However, getting to that point requires constructive communication and overcoming certain obstacles, which is something that is difficult to learn from books, and requires the experience of working in a team.”

Mentoring support in researching new topics and knowledge

The task of the mentor awarded to each student team is to help them, throughout the two-year project development, with their knowledge and experience. Of course, there are always a number of challenges.

“The biggest challenges arose with project modules that students have not dealt with before, such as security aspects and the use of certificates, as well as data collection, which made it difficult to analyze and evaluate these tasks because students did not have a frame of reference with similar functionalities.” says Aleksander Radovan, PhD, a lecturer at Algebra and an expert in Java software solution development. But such situations are good because students have the opportunity to acquire skills that they have not yet encountered in their studies or working on real projects.

“In such situations, we helped students by adding an additional task related to research and development – R&D – so, after discovering how to implement certain functionality that presented a challenge, in the next project sprint, that is, intensive consultations with the mentor, they could also add the task of creating a specific functionality, explains Radovan.

Aleksander Radovan Aleksander Radovan, PhD, a lecturer at Algebra, mentored the student team in the segment of software engineering and the use of current technologies in solutions development.

As with any other type of startup, it is important that the students recognize potential pitfalls in developing a project and learn how to avoid them.

“Most startups come to life when their initiators start from their own needs, believing that if a product is useful to them, it will probably be useful to others. However, such an assumption needs to be verified, i.e. validated by market research, which is actually a rather complicated procedure. Our biggest challenge was checking to see whether our ideas seemed useful to other people and trying to rank them according to market interest,” says Ivan Jakovljević.

How to launch a successful web or mobile application today?

Finally, an important question that arises is how to successfully launch a new web application, amidst sharp international competition. Business Development Manager at Algebra LAB Maja Brkljačić, who has extensive experience in mentoring and organizing the incubation process for many startups in recent years, offers up some advice for this innovative team, as well as anyone working on similar startup projects.

“First and foremost, I would say: know your customer. The mobile and web apps market is a shark pool. In October 2021 alone, there were 69,000 new mobile apps launched on Google Play Store. In order for someone to want to install your application on their mobile phone, or use your web service, they have to be really motivated,” emphasizes Maja Brkljačić.

Then, she continues, “you need to know how you are going to reach that user, how they are going to find you among more than half a million new apps a year”. “The communication process must be as fast and simple as possible – the digital age does not suffer delays, technical problems, stalling. Which means your app needs to work perfectly. In other words – when entering the market, it is better to have fewer functionalities, but they need to be as refined as possible,” she concludes.

Ultimately, through the “Nomad Rescue” project, the Algebra University College team of students gains valuable knowledge and experience of what developing such a project looks like in practice. Although this knowledge is for the most part an extension of what they have already learnt in their studies, they stress that it is crucial to actively acquire knowledge outside of the formal educational process.

“It is necessary to acquire knowledge independently and outside of the framework proscribed by the study curriculum. However, the knowledge we gained in different subjects proved to be extremely useful in certain steps of developing this app. In the field of software engineering, these were topics such as organizing large amounts of data and making it more accessible for analysis, containerizing an application to run on multiple computers, or cryptography-related issues in order to protect sensitive data, as well as other technology- related topics that are key to our project’s success,” sums up Ivan Jakovljević.

This course teaches students to disregard their primary specializations in one area and look for a common language with other colleagues.

“We ask them to get involved as much as possible in working on different tasks together: which means software developers have to start communicating with end users, which is a very new and often surprising experience for them. At the same time, product developers participate in the development of a functional specification, and learn, for example, how difficult it is to make changes to functionalities once they have been developed. Tomorrow, when they start working on similar complex projects, we expect our students will be much better communicators and will understand their colleagues in other departments much more,” concludes Maja Brkljačić, one of the heads of this innovative graduate-level course at Algebra University College.

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