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atSpaceChat: Students Building for Social Privacy on Flutter

Introduction

Tired of social media companies like Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter messing with our data? Meet Gefei Zhang, an entrepreneur and student who is single handedly flipping the internet by taking on these corporate giants! She is the co-founder of atSpaceChat (formerly @SpaceChat), an app where you can connect with both friends and strangers while maintaining privacy and control over your data!

In March 2020, COVID hit us all hard — we were all stuck alone (and, in many cases, still are). Gefei and her co-founders decided to do something about that. Having no coding experience, she binged tutorial videos and documentation on creating apps with Flutter and the atPlatform, all while pursuing her master’s degree in computer science at Columbia University. As she points out, “If I can learn it by myself, then anyone can learn it.”

She built atSpaceChat to not only connect people together, but to ensure people feel safe and secure using the app. By incorporating features like recalling messages and atPlatform technology, Gefei is putting privacy and social connection first. At the core of the app is her conviction that “people need to know that they can have control over their own data,” rather than take what big social media companies offer them.

atSpaceChat is undergoing final beta testing (contact beta-testing@atsign.com to be a beta tester!). Stay tuned for its release on the iOS and Android app stores! Learn more about Gefei’s vision for the app and social privacy below in her conversation with Sahil Mehta, product intern at Atsign and student at UC Berkeley.

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Sahil (Student Intern at Atsign): Hi Gefei! Can you introduce yourself as a student and developer?

Gefei (Co-Founder of atSpaceChat): Yeah, I am a 2nd year M.S. Computer Science student at Columbia University. Before, I also got my master’s in finance at Syracuse University, and I worked in the finance industry for three years. But I realized I was more interested in coding and decided to pursue computer science!

Sahil: Great! Can you talk about your app atSpaceChat and your vision for it?

Gefei: atSpaceChat was created in 2020 during quarantine. At the time, people were quarantined at home. It reminded me and my teammates about a childhood fairytale called the Little Prince, where everyone is staying on their own planet disconnected from each other.

That inspired us to create an app that can connect people. So we started creating atSpaceChat, where people can send messages to a space and receive messages to connect with each other.

Sahil: Definitely a great way to bridge a lot of the social connections lost in quarantine. I am curious what technologies you used in building the app?

Gefei: We used Flutter and the atPlatform. We got a lot of help from Atsign, including some demo apps to look at. Whenever we had questions about the atPlatform, we could always reach out and ask.

Sahil: What was one of the biggest questions you had when building your app?

Gefei: It was to understand how to use the atPlatform to help users have the right to own and manage their data. Especially for protecting users’ privacy. We want users to be able to protect themselves. We had a lot of talks with Atsign on how to use the platform for privacy. We built a feature to recall messages, so that users can protect themselves from strangers. After talking with Atsign we were able to achieve it on our app.

Sahil: Definitely that’s a great point, being able to recall messages is a great aspect of privacy and security, especially for a social app like atSpaceChat. What do you think are the current shortcomings of social media apps like Facebook and Instagram, and why is atSpaceChat a great alternative to them?

Gefei: When we look at current social apps, people don’t really believe that their privacy is protected. People know that these apps sell our data. We need to rebuild confidence, people need to know that they can have control over their own data. We don’t need to give up on our privacy. atSpaceChat and Atsign are trying their best to protect everyone’s privacy.

Sahil: It’s also a great way for people to feel more comfortable using a social app like atSpaceChat. I am curious why you decided to use the atPlatform rather than a more traditional technology framework like React Native or plain Flutter?

Gefei: I wanted to use the atPlatform because it ensures our app gives users full control over their data. Flutter was compatible with the platform and was very easy to use. I started with zero, I was working on the app when I had just transitioned from finance to tech. If I can learn it by myself, then anyone can learn it by themselves!

Sahil: It’s awesome to hear that it’s such a low barrier to entry. Since here at Atsign we’re always interested in privacy and flipping the Internet, with ownership of data given to the people rather than the company. I am curious how your app helps flip the Internet.

Gefei: Our app gives people another option. We show that there are ways for them to protect their privacy — it’s not that they don’t have a choice and have to take what big companies offer them.

Sahil: It’s very exciting to see you give power back to the people. I am curious what were the biggest challenges you faced building the app.

Gefei: My biggest challenges were technical, learning Flutter and how to build on the atPlatform. I watched a lot of YouTube videos to get introduced to Flutter. With Atsign, I was always able to get help from them. Everyone at the company helps me, it’s a great opportunity for me to build the app on the atPlatform.

Sahil: Hearing how you were able to learn Flutter and all the support you received, it makes me super excited to pursue app development, especially while still in school. I am wondering if there’s anything else you wanted to talk about your next steps and vision for atSpaceChat!

Gefei: Yeah, currently we’re almost finishing building atSpaceChat. We’re in the testing stage, and hopefully, atSpaceChat will be online soon.

Sahil: Awesome, looking forward to seeing it on the app store! Thanks so much for sharing your story and contributing to privacy.

If you’d like to become a beta tester email: beta-testing@atsign.com

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