Ryan Hancock (left) and Olivier Houle.

Because the mail never stops

March 28, 2019 | Science

Ryan Hancock was trying to figure out what to do for his computer science capstone project, when his roommate shared a problem he had encountered. In his job at Bissell Centre, Ryan’s roommate was interested in how the nonprofit organization’s mail could be improved.

As the roommate explained, people register to have their mail sent to Bissell Centre (often because they don’t have an address for it to be sent to) and wait in line at the reception desk to see if they’ve received anything. Mail is kept locked in cabinets.

“The current mail system takes up so much time at the reception desk, and creates a giant lineup for people who need help in other areas, like health or child care,” explains Ryan.

It’s a big problem because Bissell Centre provides supports to nearly 800 families annually and houses approximately 400 people annually. So Ryan recruited his friend and fellow computer science student, Olivier Houle, and together they came up with the idea for a secure web application and database to notify people who have phone or email access when they have mail waiting for them, as well as a system to track in-kind donations that are brought to Bissell Centre’s head office.

“I think it will really improve the quality of work at the reception desk,” says Olivier, “And hopefully the users themselves also like having the notifications.”

Ryan and Olivier say they were surprised that there wasn’t already an electronic system in place, but that it also makes sense. With so many people needing access to its services, Bissell Centre doesn’t have the time or resources to develop an electronic mail tracking system without outside assistance.

This was Ryan and Olivier’s first time working with a real-world client — without the parameters of an in-class assignment or having a professor act as a go-between — and they were challenged to create and develop a solution by themselves. The web application became their capstone project, the culmination of the knowledge gained from their program. But it didn’t stop there. In January, they began working on upgrading and implementing their application into Bissell Centre’s server. The new system will be in place in a few months.

“We are very excited to implement the new mail tracking system created by Ryan and Olivier,” says Mary Higgs, director of administration at Bissell Centre, “as we expect it will result in real-time savings for both Bissell Centre and, more importantly, our clients.”

“It’s cool when you get to see other people use something you built,” says Ryan. “Or if you have a problem and create something to solve it, you're watching something you made do it for you.”

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