Hang up to hang out

This Houston app wants to connect outdoor sports hobbyists with its new platform

A brother and sister team have created a digital tool to connect people on their outdoor adventures. Getty Images

Jeff Long had plenty of professional connections, but he struggled to find a network of people with similar outdoor hobbies.

"I'm a climber and I had no good way to meet other climbers," he says.

His sister, Sarah Long, had a similar problem when she was skiing at the Whistler Resort in British Columbia.

"I was alone and I was looking for people to ski with," she says. "So, I actually got on Tinder and made it a point to say, 'Not looking for a hookup, but if you're here and want to ski, so am I.'"

The siblings weren't alone in their dissatisfaction, and, within a few months of launching Axis Earth, the Houston-based app has over 1,500 users.

The app is part location finder, part social media channel and part professional networking tool. Designed for enthusiasts and professional athletes of individual sports (think: skiing, climbing, surfing, etc.), Axis Earth connects them with others in their area who share their interests, giving them running or climbing partners.

"We use information input by the users and geolocation software to find them the best connections," explained Jeff. "And our algorithm filters through what they've provided us about their interests and level of participation or competition so we can give them the people who seem most compatible."

The app launched on Sept. 15, but the siblings have put in nearly two years of development.

"The first year was really fleshing out the idea, and creating a business plan that allowed us to feel comfortable being able to bring it to market," says Sarah.

The pair divided their tasks for creating the app based on their own strengths. Sarah, who's based in the Washington D.C. area, handles the business development, logistics, and operations. She founded her marketing and communications services firm called Breck — named after the Colorado skiing resort, Breckenridge. Jeff, who Sarah calls "the face of Axis Earth" and is naturally more outgoing, dealt with marketing and brand awareness.

She and Jeff did multiple interviews with athletes about the kinds of things they wanted to see in a site like this. Software teams spent six months building the back-end mechanisms that would put those opinions into practice. Then came all the front-end design.

The result is an app that can appeal, the Longs feel, to users across multiple disciplines and at multiple skill levels. Users select the sport they're passionate about and choose their level of of participation from beginner, intermediate, or professional.

"And for those who select professional, we independently validate that," says Sarah.

The app is designed for those who enjoy being active. Jeff said that they wanted something that would use technology to get people away from technology.

"I want people to be able to use their phones to put down their phones," he says. "Whether you're using the app to find other people who want to do what you do, or if you're looking at a photo someone posted and it inspires you to get out there and be more active."

The Houston Food Bank app aims to help optimize access to resources for the thousands of food insecure Houstonians. Photo via houstonfoodbank.org

In many ways, it was a perfect storm. Pariveda Solutions, a Dallas-based management consulting firm that specialized in helping its client maximize performance, reached out to the Houston Food Bank about offering some of its interns for a project. The Food Bank, long a pioneer and foot soldier in the fight to end food insecurity and hunger for the region's residents, had been considering ways to harness technology to better serve the needs of its clients.

"It was a fantastic opportunity for us," says Casey Ferrell, the Houston Food Bank's director of information technology, about the opportunity. "And we thought an app would be the best thing for the intern team to work on."

Five Pariveda interns worked over the summer on the app, which taps into Amazon Web Services, which the Food Bank was already using.

"Since the Houston Food Bank was already using AWS, this fit into where they wanted to go," explains Kevin Moorman, principal consultant for Pariveda. "The app uses GPS location services to help connect people who need the Food Bank's services with the closest location that can help them."

Across the Houston region, more than one million people are food insecure, lacking reliable access to nutritious food. Through its network of more than 1,500 community partners, the Houston Food Bank leads the fight against hunger by providing food assistance across its 18-county coverage area in southeast Texas. The Food Bank partners with thousands of entities, from soup kitchen to meal sites to shelters. Every year, the Houston Food Bank helps feed 800,000 individuals. There is a lot of need, and there are a lot of sites around the region that can aid people lacking food.

The app, in addition to pinpointing locations that can provide food for those in need, also allows people to make appointment with Food Bank staff. Currently, those appointments are on a walk-in basis, and clients are seen on a first-come, first served basis. With the launch of the app earlier this month, Ferrell says the organization has launched a pilot program with its Portwall location to allow clients to make appointments via the app. In the future, they should be able to make appointments all more Houston Food Bank locations.

"We actually did a soft launch back in October, says Ferrell. "And now, we have more than 3,000 downloads and 2,500 monthly users. The app lets them see open times for appointments, as well as contact information for locations."

Ferrell says the feedback from users has been positive. In particular, they enjoy the ability to receive updates about their appointments. But the app also provides for a greater user experience, allowing clients the chance to set things up as it makes sense for them and their daily schedules.

"We've also heard from other food banks who are looking to do something similar," says Ferrell. "So, we're looking forward to sharing our experiences with them."

Pariveda Solutions' 11-week internship program, offered each summer, is focused on making an impact to the community. The app last summer's intern cohort created is a first because it integrates with the database housed on AWS and reaches new communities.

"Working with Houston Food Bank gave us the opportunity to impact the Houston community at a large scale," says Allison Esenkova, Houston vice president for Pariveda Solutions in a press release announcing the app. "It provided a platform for our interns to learn the world of consulting while giving back in a way that impacts the Houston community to reduce hunger."

The internship was also an important opportunity for students to get hands-on experience not only in building an app, but also to get experience working with a client, listening to feedback and coming up with solutions to challenges.

"We want our interns to have as much real-world experience as possible," says Moormann. "This not only provided that, but has wonderful value for the end user. The app makes the process of finding services much smoother for those who need them."

Ferrell says that as the app is updated, the Houston Food Bank hopes to be able to use it to engage volunteers, as well as provide places where clients can rate their experiences at various food pantries.

"This has been a great value to us," says Ferrell. "And it allows us to provide better services to our clients."


The app connects the user to the Houston Food Bank and also provides more information about resources.