Teachers College Student, Ilya Lyashevsky, Puts Us In Someone Else's Shoes with Software and Storytelling

You’re hustling down a busy sidewalk. Maybe you’re late for a class, a meeting, a date. Or maybe you’re just accustomed to power-walking like other New Yorkers. Then, up ahead, you spot an all-too-familiar figure—a man with dirty, ill-fitting clothes who’s shuffling behind a rickety grocery cart overstuffed with garbage bags. He looks exhausted, alone. As you get closer, you watch other passers-by zip around him in neat little arcs. You feel for this guy, you really do, but you’ve got no time and no cash you can part with. Since there’s no meaningful action you can take, you move right past him. And at some level, that bothers you.

Photo of Ilya Lyashevsky
It also bothered Ilya Lyashevsky, a Ph.D. student at Teachers College.

“When I encountered the homelessness in New York, I had no answer,” says Ilya. “But then it occurred to me, maybe here was something that mobile technology could help address.”

Armed with his bachelors and masters training in computer science from Stanford, Ilya and a team of other volunteers began developing an idea for a mobile app called WeShelter. Their intention? Give people a way to act on their natural impulse, in the moment and at no cost to themselves, to help when they see someone in need.

The app works in two key ways. You can raise money for homeless services by using your mobile device to “unlock” funds donated by corporations who advertise on the app. You can also provide direct assistance to someone in need by using your device to alert shelter outreach teams and provide them with mapping data for that person’s location.

“Ultimately, our hope is that this app can move people from one small, digital action to a series of larger steps and more understanding and engagement with the issue over time,” says Ilya.

“Since we’re an entirely volunteer-driven project with limited hours to invest each month, our focus is to first validate WeShelter as an effective tool for combatting homelessness in New York City before we expand to other cities.”

WeShelter went live in Apple’s App Store in 2015 and has already garnered considerable interest from non-profit organizations and city governments, as well as media coverage in Fast Company, The Atlantic, and the Huffington Post.

As impressive as the WeShelter idea is, Ilya has been an innovator in other public-minded initiatives, too. He created mobile apps for Human Rights Watch and the Kenyon Review. He co-founded Good To Know, Inc. which created Storied, a suite of educational software that helps students learn vocabulary by reading original stories. In addition, Ilya headed mobile development at Electric Literature, an organization that uses digital technology to keep literature a vital part of popular culture and to amplify storytelling.

“The fiction writer and the software engineer both have to establish goals, break apart the pieces of a big project, analyze its elements.”


When asked about his attraction to storytelling, an interest some people might not expect of a computer scientist, Ilya first gently points to the precedent set by other scientist-writers. Dostoyevsky was trained as an engineer. Chekhov was a doctor. “Not that I’m putting myself in their class!” he adds with a laugh.

It turns out that his minor at Stanford was Creative Writing. Later, he started pursuing a Master of Fine Arts. But he eventually withdrew from the program, deciding that he could learn just as much on his own. At its heart, fiction has always appealed to Ilya’s deep sense of empathy for others.

“Writing has two big pieces that are important,” he says. One is how central the psychology of the character and the audience is to creating a compelling story. We're able to see things from the perspective of others. The second piece is educational—stories reveal important truths about who we are.”

And crafting a story, he explains, is not unlike developing a computer program: “The fiction writer and the software engineer both have to establish goals, break apart the pieces of a big project, analyze its elements.”

Now a doctoral student in the Cognitive Studies program at Teachers College, Ilya has more opportunities to apply the same drive that led him to examine the challenges of responding to pressing social concerns like homelessness.

His current interest is in social-emotional learning—what roles do psychology and education play in understanding ourselves emotionally? How can we use our emotional intelligence to more deeply empathize with others and reduce conflict? Among the possibilities for his research, Ilya is considering the application of a structural methodology to the development of software that helps people build these social-emotional skills.

“I tend to want to get to the core of the question, to its underlying principles,” Ilya says. “The research I'm doing now is kind of like that. It's about giving people a common model for reasoning about their own and others' emotions. When you understand the system that governs emotion, you can look past the surface details, and see what’s happening underneath. And that allows you to respond more effectively.”

— By Matthew Sholler

Friday, January 1, 2016


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