Ben Wiser and Element16 Media

Congratulations once again to Ben Wiser of Element16 Media for winning the ‘Volunteer of the Month’ prize for April from National League sponsors Vanarama.

Back in November 2021, Ben spoke to the club’s match-day programme for the fixture with AFC Fylde about how he became involved with the club and the development of the smartphone app, so in recognition of his award we thought we’d share it here:

The 2020 lockdown gave rise to a huge increase in activities such as home baking, learning to play a musical instrument, a huge amount of house decluttering and even working out with Joe Wicks. However, rather than invest huge numbers of hours in box sets or the latest Netflix releases, Ben Wiser decided to develop his skills for the benefit of himself, but also AFC Telford United.

The results of Ben’s assiduous efforts were the club’s live streaming service and also the AFC Telford United smartphone app, which has added a new dimension to match days for Bucks fans. The app has been downloaded by more than 1,000 people and helps to keep Bucks fans updated on news from the club, with more developments in the pipeline.

The app has caught the eye of fans, but also app developers, eager to understand how Ben and his friend Vignesh Sudarsaen have managed to create an eye-catching, feature-packed app without the benefits of a huge budget and a team of developers; instead, Ben and Vignesh have acquired the required skills pretty much from scratch.

Ben and I spoke this week, and as he explained, it was being able to anticipate the need to live stream Bucks fixtures that led to the development of the app.

“I was a bit bored last summer, the summer of 2020, and I just wondered if Telford had started to look into streaming their matches because fans weren’t going to immediately come back. Over the next 3 to 4 months we built up a relationship with the club, working closely with a lot of the people and building up a little bit of trust as well.”

“I experienced a bit of the ‘community’ of the club, through the fans and how engaged they were with the streams, and in the time that I had free, because my GCSEs had been pushed forward, I thought “I need to use this time well”, and asked myself “what can I do?”. The app was one of the things that we originally thought of; the chances of it being published were actually quite low, but we thought “we’re going to try it”. We came across a lot of issues as we were building it, but we managed to overcome each one and finally publish it.”

From the outside, one of the apparent obstacles would have been Ben’s youth and relative inexperience; he’s just 16 years old:

“When you look at the app industry, the app developers are generally as young as I am. It’s generally people who have been to university, who have studied computer science, and in this case, it was just me and my mate who’d had a bit of free time.”

I suggested to Ben that as well as helping the football club, he has taken a big step towards a potential future career:

“I hadn’t realised quite the magnitude of what we’d got until we’d published the app. Instantly, I was contacted by a lot of people in the industry, asking questions about it, which meant we had to go down the route of thinking “what can we reveal about it?”. Essentially, we’d developed it in a lot less time than the big companies, and they wanted to know how we’d done it. It also doesn’t take a genius to work out that we hadn’t had corporate backing, so there hadn’t been an endless supply of cash. We did it on an absolute shoestring budget.”

As Ben explained, it was working hand-in-hand with the Bucks that had brought the project to fruition:

“We needed a bit (cash) from the club so that we didn’t make a loss, to ensure that we’d covered our costs, but other than that we did it all extremely cheaply, for a lot less than it would cost commercially.”

“I originally approached Luke (Shelley), and said “we’re going to make you an app, and I need to know from you what you want on it”. Luke said “I’ll get you a list” and I thought it was going to be too advanced, but it was things like a link to the ticketing portal, the BBC Radio Shropshire commentary, the fixtures, and that was pretty much it; that was the sort of ‘Utopia’ we were looking at.”

“We took it away, worked with it, did all of the design, and then we started to come up with ideas like a link to the squad, so you can click on it as you do on the website and read about each player. Then we thought about live stats, using the software we’d used for the streaming. We weren’t sure it was going to work, but it all came together.”

The Live Game Centre part of the app is one aspect that has really caught people’s eye, and not just amongst supporters, as Ben explained:

“The people who software we use for the live game centre have approached us for an interview, and we were in their newsletter. They were impressed with how we’d been able to use their platform in such an innovative way; normally, broadcast graphics are all that you’d use it for, but they were asking us “how you used it to make an app?”, which was really good.”

Ben and Vignesh are both GCSE students and armed with their knowledge and what Ben had picked up about graphics from a £10 Udemy online course, they set about creating ‘AFC Telford United: The App’.

I couldn’t help but be impressed that without computer science degrees or major financial input, Ben and Vignesh had been able to create something as impressive, and as Ben explained, it’s the simple characteristic of persistence that’s been the key factor:

“I think it’s been our willingness to learn. If you can willingly teach yourself something, and just go with that every day, eventually you’ll get to the standard where you need to be. It’s just programming really, learning a couple of new programming languages.”

“Officially, it took us three weeks, from beginning with the design to when it was finished as an app, but that doesn’t really do it justice. During those three weeks, it was getting up at 6 or 7 AM, then not going to bed until 10 PM, working solidly on it.”

The pace of their progress surprised even Ben:

“When we originally started, I said “It would be great to get it done by Christmas”, and it went so well that we got it done much earlier. We started using it during the Bucks pre-season fixtures, where there was some fine-tuning, some stuff we needed to fix.”

“I wanted to come up with something that would really benefit the club and its community; I didn’t really care about profits, I just wanted to use the time beneficially. If we’d gone back to broadcasting live streams this season, I’d already ready mapped out what we were going to change, the additional equipment we were going to buy, but then it became clear we wouldn’t be returning to live streaming.”

Although the reversion back to pre-Covid broadcasting rules had closed down that avenue for Ben, it quickly opened another:

“I wasn’t sure the app was possible, but once I realised what was possible with it, our enthusiasm for it began to take over. I was going to bed at night, having already planned out exactly what I was going to do the next day, and I was so excited about it. There’d be days where I might be stuck for the whole day with an error in one line of code, working out the error and how to fix it, and along the way came new ideas, like the ‘Sponsors Lounge’, which was a new way to bring income in for the club, also things like the live countdowns to match day. I was thinking “Is that possible? Can we code that? Yes, we can!”

Are there further ideas which Ben and Vignesh have yet to develop?

“Yes, there are things like the match galleries, but also just generally improving the app overall. When we published it, we were honest about the app not being perhaps the best version of it we could put out, but we spend the time making it better. However, with us both still being at school, we’re kind of dictated to by things like half-term” Ben laughed.

“The possibilities are endless. Because we’re doing this for free, if there’s anything we ever want to try it’ll be tested through the AFC Telford app. We had to create a website, and we’ve had a few enquiries, not even from football clubs, but a fitness brand, a golf club, hotels, who were looking at booking systems, and so on.”

The skills that Ben and Vignesh have gained mean that they are transitioning from being enthusiastic amateurs into a more professional realm:

“We go through the testing process that we should now, because we’re certified developers. Even with this app, we put out a new version and it crashed horribly because somewhere between here and it reaching people’s phones there’d been an error, which we then have to work to get fixed, but that’s just us working on things to make the app better. The Android app was fine, but somewhere along the line we submitted it to Apple written in the wrong version.”

Even that confession from Ben raised something I’d not considered, namely that to have both an Android and Apple version of the app, there had to be two different coded versions:

“Android is easier to work with in my experience, but you can write a version for Android and then there’s a tool that converts that to Apple. It’s not great; there should really be a standard for it!”

Finally, were there any new developments in the pipeline?

“Over Christmas, we’re looking to release a big update, so if people have ideas for features which they’d really like to see in the app, then definitely get in touch.”

With over 1,000 users getting live notifications on match day through Ben and Vignesh’s app, the Bucks are, in one respect at least, ahead of the game in the Vanarama National League North when it comes to keeping its followers ‘on the ball’…

Interview by: Rich Worton (@buckswriter)

Ben Wiser and Element16 Media

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