Photo courtesy of Heidi Hall/Vanderbilt University.
Hoover High alumnus Zachary Diggins took on a volunteer web designing project while pursuing a Ph.D. at Vanderbilt University.
While pursuing his Ph.D. in electrical engineering at Vanderbilt University, Zachary Diggins decided to use his computer skills to give back.
Diggins, a 2008 graduate of Hoover High School, majored in electrical engineering and minored in computer science during his undergraduate studies at Vanderbilt. While he studied the effects of gamma radiation on robots for his doctorate, Diggins looked for a way to apply his hobby of web design.
“I’ve been doing web design stuff as a hobby for probably five or six years, and I was looking for a bigger project to do,” Diggins said.
Through VolunteerMatch.org, a web service that connects potential volunteers with projects, Diggins connected with Companions Journeying Together. Companions Journeying Together is a Chicago-based nonprofit that works with incarcerated individuals and their families. Diggins worked on the nonprofit’s Aunt Mary’s Storybook Program, which provides recordings of incarcerated parents reading to their children.
“I just think it’s a really great organization, and I think the work that they do is really important — keeping families connected during periods of incarceration,” Diggins said.
At this time, Companions Journeying Together burns CDs of the recordings and mails them to the children. Diggins, however, created a website to help streamline the process and hopefully provide easier access.
“For the families, it’s an upgrade because nowadays more people have access to the Internet or a smartphone than they have to a CD player,” Diggins said.
Throughout the project, Diggins said, he enjoyed the chance to be creative with design and different administrative aspects. The process also saw a few changes in the plan for the web system. “I think the user side is how we pictured it when we started, but the administrative side has grown a lot, in a good way,” Diggins said.
In addition to building the interface where families can access recordings, Diggins added a few features to make access and distribution easier. The website, for example, automatically generates a letter that is sent out with the children’s books. This letter provides a login, so that child can access the recording from any device connected to the Internet.
The website also maintains an archive of the recordings, meaning the families do not have to worry about losing or scratching a CD. There is also an algorithm that allows Companions Journeying Together to keep track of the most popular books in the program, which Diggins said helps from an administrative point of view.
Right now, they are in the final testing phases of the website, Diggins said, and it will soon be released.
Diggins said he has enjoyed working with Companions Journeying Together and plans to continue helping with maintenance on the web system. The website, he hopes, will help further connect families.
“I think it definitely breaks down some barriers in terms of access,” Diggins said. “It’s easy to do these things now with technology.”
In addition to helping an organization, Diggins said the project helped him stay motivated. Sometimes barriers stop people from completing projects that are “for fun.” He said he would encourage anyone looking for that motivation or who are looking to apply a hobby, like he was.
“If you partner with another organization, it encourages you to push through those obstacles,” Diggins said.
Get to know Zachary Diggins
- HIGH SCHOOL: Hoover
- GRADUATED: 2008
- WHAT HE’S DOING NOW: Ph.D. research on gamma radiation and its effects on robots; volunteering with Companions Journeying Together.