Guest Post: Creating “Art Thief”

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The iOS app Art Thief started as a personal challenge and became a serious project. Now, hundreds of people are using it to prepare for this year’s Patrons’ Show Fundraiser. We asked its creator, Steve Roberson, to write this guest blog post.

To understand why someone would write an app, like Art Thief, that would be used by a few hundred people only once a year, you have to understand a bit about the Patrons’ Show.

There really are a whole host of reasons to love the Patrons’ Show. My wife and I go with a group of friends who bring wine and tasty snacks, so there’s a fun social component. There is a great range of art, and the lottery dimension adds excitement.

It is also incredibly interesting to observe how varied peoples’ tastes are. It can be so surprising to watch some pieces go early on that you have no interest in whatsoever, and an equally pleasant surprise to be called near the end of the event and still be able to get something you like. We were once called within the last 20 names and still managed to get a piece from one of the hundred or so we had on our list.

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But it’s not always easy. We enjoy reviewing the art and making a list of pieces we like, but the actual drawing can be nerve-wracking. It was particularly painful our first year. We understood the process, but completely underestimated how fast it went. We tried to scramble through the many pieces of paper we had and mark off the artwork that had been taken by others. So stressful!

The following year we adopted a system that had been created by friends. It worked well, but it was still paper-based, and that bugged me.

You see, I’m a web developer, and the group I go to the Patrons’ Show with has programmers and other IT professionals in it. Managing your list of artwork at the Patrons’ Show felt like an information technology problem to us. But unlike the web applications I typically work on, this would have to be something that worked standalone. Access to the Internet during the night of the drawing is unreliable, at best. A phone or tablet app was a natural platform.

In the past I explored iOS, the operating system that runs iPhones and iPads, but I hadn’t done any programming for iOS beyond tutorials and experimentation. But now I had this idea for a project. Something where I understood the need. Something that I could sink my teeth into.

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I decided that I’d try to build a bare bones app, with the minimum feature set to be useful at the drawing. Just good enough where I could prove to myself that it could be a reasonable solution to the problem.

This initial, one-screen version of Art Thief was built over the 2014 holidays so that a few in my group could try it out at the 2015 Patron’s Show. It worked pretty well. Not only did it use very little battery power on our devices, it was easy to keep up at the drawing. Plus, it was a great learning experience. Using it at the 2015 show let us know what worked, what didn’t, and of course, filled us with ideas of what features would be great to have just in case I felt overly ambitious. After the 2015 show, Art Thief became a full blown hobby.

Code was written and rewritten as key features were added. In the Spring of 2015, I reached out to Whitney Staiger and Suzanne Bethel of The Art League. In all honestly, I was a little nervous. Would they like it? Would they be put off by the name, Art Thief? I didn’t know.

Whitney and Suzanne were great. Their enthusiasm, insights and suggestions provided a great perspective. In fact, everyone I’ve interacted with at The Art League has been warm and generous. It’s really a wonderful community.

Art Thief was further revised and the app was submitted to Apple for review in the Fall and approved for the App Store a week later. My goal was for 100 people to use the app. After all, there are only 700 or so tickets sold, and if you’ve come in previous years, it’s likely that you already have some sort of system in place.

I’m pleased to say that as of this writing there have been over 350 downloads. And I’m more pleased to be contributing back to an event and community I enjoy and respect.

— Steve Roberson

You can download Art Thief for free on the App Store. Learn more about how to use it at Zurka Interactive’s website.

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