Category: Business & Technology

Community members respond to possible relocation of HOPE Outdoor Gallery

Story by Amanda Pinney & Edited by Bryan Rolli

Photos By Tess Cagle

Video Filmed and Edited by Kailey Thompson

 

Splashes of neon paint explode off the concrete walls nestled into the grassy hill on 11th and Baylor Street, home to Austin’s iconic graffiti park, the HOPE Outdoor Gallery. Each layer of spray paint reveals a colorful mess of chunky bubble letters, intricate murals and hastily scribbled phrases. The artwork changes constantly, as the space welcomes myriads of locals and tourists who need only a spray can and a bit of inspiration to leave their mark on the city.


The HOPE Outdoor Gallery was developed in 2010 as a short-term art installation linked to the HOPE Campaign and created with the intention to channel and promote positive messages in the community. Property developers planned to turn the gallery’s concrete walls — remnants of an abandoned construction project from the 1980s — into condos once the installation ran its course.

View the rest of the story here.

Why Businesses Fail on The Drag

By Faith Ann Ruszkowski, Samantha Grasso and Ellen Gonzalez

Video by Faith Ann Ruszkowski and Samantha Grasso

Why Businesses on “The Drag” Fail: An Investigation

Story by Faith Ann Ruszkowski

When Noodles & Company closed its location on the corner of Guadalupe and 24th Streets last fall, its departure was abrupt. On Nov. 4 the restaurant was serving pasta, and by Nov. 5 its doors were locked and a note hung on the window thanking customers for their patronage.

Estephanie Gomez, a journalism senior at the University of Texas at Austin, was working for Noodles & Company when it closed. She was shocked when the restaurant went out of business.

“I literally got a text at 10 p.m. the night before that said, ‘Hey, yeah, don’t come to work tomorrow but come and pick up your severance package at 8 a.m.,” Gomez said. “I didn’t catch on—oh, Noodles is doing badly—because we were pretty busy everyday at the same times. I never knew, until the night before.”

While the swiftness of Noodles & Company’s exit might have been shocking, another business deciding to leave the strip of Guadalupe Street, known as “the Drag,” is a relatively a common occurrence.

After Noodles & Company closed in November, The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf, which was located next door, called it quits. Pita Pit, also located on Guadalupe, closed its doors this spring. Earlier in 2015, Manju’s, Mellow Mushroom, and Jack in the Box, all located on Guadalupe, closed up shop.

Out of the 53 establishments currently on the Drag, 13 have been there for five years or less, according to data gathered from in-person interviews and business’ websites. Additionally six storefronts along the stretch of Guadalupe from 21st to 27th Streets are vacant.

Students like Ilda Arroyo have become accustomed to the high turnover of businesses on the Drag. Arroyo, who graduated from UT in December with a degree in Human Development and Family Sciences, said she noticed the constant change during her five years as a student.

“I remember as a freshman it consisted mostly of food places, but the food places have changed to businesses like the expanding Urban Outfitters, a real estate office, and a small convenience store,” Arroyo said.

So although the high turnover has become commonplace, it raises the question: why are so many businesses unable to succeed on the Drag?

Why Businesses Leave the Drag

This semester, Melissa’s Custom Gifts vacated its location on the Drag next to the long-standing Goodall Wooten dormitory and moved shop to the corner of 24th Street and Rio Grande. The store’s owner, Ken Jones, said that he made the decision to move for many reasons, one of which was that he wanted to discontinue ATX Books, which he also owned and operated from that location.

“One of the biggest things was I had been planning to end the bookstore for a very long time,” Jones said. “I didn’t need as much space, although they didn’t want me to leave because it is really hard to keep tenants on the drag period. But, it was a little bit too much space, a little bit more than what I wanted for what I was doing here, and, of course, the rent on the Drag—anywhere in this area—is very high per square foot.”

However, during his 5 years on the Drag, Ken Jones did concoct some theories about why so many businesses were failing based on personal experience and observation. For many rent is an issue like it was for him, but one of his main observations is that students do not support local businesses.

“The kids do not connect with the businesses that are there, they just don’t,” Jones said. “I ask kids and none of them know a business owner’s name. They don’t have any allegiance of any kind to anything on there. And guess what? Those businesses go out of business…They do not support the businesses that support them. Bottom line. Why doesn’t it work? It’s the students fault.”

He has also observed that business do not understand the UT campus environment.

“They come in with great intentions thinking we’ve got this concentrated amount of 39,000 [undergraduate] students we’re going to make a killing,” Jones said. “They do not do their research.”

Jennifer Hillhouse, the owner of Jenn’s copies which has two locations on the Drag and has been in business since 1982, also said that many stores open on Guadalupe without realizing how dependent their business will be on the students’ schedules. She has had 12 different neighbors since she opened her second location on the Drag near Dean Keeton.

“This is a nine-month business cycle,” Hillhouse said. “It dies in December, a horrible death, and if you have to sell at least 500 hamburgers a day to make your rent that is not going to happen in December and in June and July and halfway through August… It’s a whole town for nine month out of the year and it is a ghost town for the other three and businesses get blindsided by that.”

Matyear pointed to Terra Burger, a now closed business, as a classic example of a business that was not able to anticipate the campus cycle.

“They ran out of buns on Parents’ Day,” said Hillhouse.

What Successful Businesses on the Drag have in Common

Jenn’s Copies is one of the few businesses on Guadalupe that has achieved decades of success. The Co-Op is the longest running business on the Drag, with 99 years of service. The Wooten Barber Shop has been in business for 52 years. These are all businesses that provide services students are always in need of: prints for projects, books and haircuts.

“People have to get their haircut. It’s a destination shop,” Jones said, of his former neighbor.

Don Stafford has been working at the Wooten Barber Shop on the Drag for 23 years aggregating loyal customers all the while. He characterizes the establishment as plain, but reliable and comfortable.

“They come here because they need haircuts, but they also come here because they feel comfortable in the shop,” said Stafford. “It’s not a place where we serve wine and cheese, but come in and tell us how bad your day was or how good your day was.”

The barber shop is remarkably small, but manages to fit three stations into a space the size of the average public restroom. Jenn’s Copies also operates on a small number of square footage. Hillhouse believes modest decorations, reliable service and limited space are key to remaining in business when rent is so high and the business cycle is inconsistent throughout the year.

“When they [the shop next to Jenn’s Copies] turned into a restaurant their finish-out cost $250,000, comparison mine cost $20,000,” Hillhouse said. “I went to TOPS, which is Texas Office Products & Supplies, everything is secondhand…I only had one fancy piece of equipment and it was leased. I did not have a color copier and my husband literally painted my name on a shingle, on a piece of ply board and we hung it outside.”

Graphic by Ellen Gonzalez

“The Drag” through the Years

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2300 Block Guadalupe St.

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2400 Block Guadalupe St.

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2400 Block Guadalupe St. (continued)

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 2500 Block Guadalupe St.

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Screenshots from maps.google.com

 

Tiny Homes For A Tiny Budget

By: Vanessa Pulido, Alex Wilts, Michael Baez, and Jessica Stovall

Lisa Villanyi, 46, may need to go out for Thanksgiving dinner next year. The small dining space in the 399 square-foot home she’s thinking about buying may not be enough room to cook a full feast – and fit her entire family.

Project

Villanyi is soon to be part of the one percent of homebuyers that have chosen to purchase a house of less than 1,000 square feet. As apartment rent costs rise and consumers become more environmentally conscious, the tiny house movement has grown in certain U.S. cities, including Austin.

 

“I think everyone still wants a piece of the American dream, and small houses are sustainable and affordable,” said Shay Reynolds, owner of Buy A Small House in Austin.

 

On Nov. 19, the Austin City Council even voted to ease the rules restricting the construction of backyard cottages, or additional add-on properties to larger homes, which often serve as housing for aging relatives.

 

“When someone comes in and they’ve decided they want to buy a small house, they choose between 15 to 18 different floor plans,” Reynolds said. He said customers are then able to also select the type of flooring and roof, as well as paint colors.

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“Once it’s finished being built, we deliver it, lock it, level it, tie it down and hook it up to the utilities and it’s a fully functional house,” Reynolds said.

 

Reynolds said people tend to either purchase or lease land, or find an RV park to place their new $45,000 tiny home. He also said the 399 square-foot houses are not subject to sales or property taxes.

 

Villanyi, who currently resides in Denver, Colorado, said she is currently struggling to find property in Austin to put her house, as the area has recently become flooded with new housing and construction developments. She said she currently pays $1,000 per month for a one-bedroom apartment.

 

“You’re constantly paying rent every month and never getting ahead,” Villanyi said. “I figured if I could pay for this in cash, then I’d have it for my own.”

 

Reynolds said “business is booming,” but it is difficult to determine the actual impact the tiny house movement is having on Austin since other forms of housing remain popular.

 

Residential Strategies Inc., a Dallas-based market research company, reported in January 2015 the new home inventory – including model homes, homes under construction and finished vacant homes – was 7,279 at the end of 2014. This was a 46-unit increase from 2013. Several new apartment complexes are also under construction to keep up with the housing demand of the city’s booming population.

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But Villanyi has other things to think about, especially if she will be able to host her family that lives in Colorado for Thanksgiving and Christmas.

 

“I haven’t even thought about holidays,” Villanyi said. “It’s small, but it’s plenty big for me.”

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Women in STEM rely on support systems

by Lucy Chen, Karen Martinez, and Claire Rodgers

In the words of Henry Ford, “Whether you think you can or think you can’t, you are right.” How true does this maxim ring for women in science, technology, engineering and math fields? At the University of Texas at Austin, the gender gap in each STEM major is evident, but the university is making strides to close that gap with support programs for women.

In the College of Natural Sciences at the university, 51 percent of undergraduates are women while 35 percent of graduates are women. In the Cockrell School of Engineering, 27 percent of undergraduates are women while 21 percent of graduates are women. In the mathematics Ph.D. program at UT, 32 percent of its members are women.

The above map shows the top 10 universities for women in STEM, based on resources and opportunities for women. Majority of the top schools are in the Northeast and West Coast.

Keely Finkelstein, an astronomy lecturer at UT Austin, said the astronomy department has recently developed a group called AWARE, The Association of Women in Astronomy Research and Education.

“One of the best things universities can do to increase women participation in STEM fields is to develop a support system,” Finkelstein said. “I think some departments have had that unofficially for years, but we’ve recently tried to have it as a formal group so there can be a safe space when you need it.”

AWARE was formed in September 2014, and it strives to increase female participation in STEM fields, fostering better working environments for all members, educating members of the STEM community and engaging members of the STEM community.

The lack of women enrollment in STEM in college starts with girls' experiences at a young age.

Alexandra Gibner, a computer science major at UT, said in order to close the gender gap, STEM interests need to be introduced at a young age.

“If computer science were taught earlier and more mandated, there would be less of a sense that “oh this isn’t for girls,” or “oh I wouldn’t be good at this,” Gibner said.

Just like Finkelstein, Gibner said she valued her support system.

“I do appreciate that the UT Women in CS student org will pair incoming freshman girls with mentors,” Giber said.

Margret Tombokun, an electrical engineering student at UT, said that mentors are very important and that she had to seek out her own mentors in college.

“I think the clearest disadvantage is the smaller number of female mentors, so I think it can be easier for female students to fall through the cracks,” Tumbokun said. “I tell [younger girls] that it’s probably going to be tough, but if they find something about it that they love or like enough to work at it, then they should go for it.”

From the Ground Up: A Startup Tale

by Alyssa Brant, Sylvia Butanda, Kim Carmona and Rebecca Salazar

Longhorn Startup Demo Day was held in the Lady Bird Auditorium on April 30, 2015. Photo by: Rebecca Salazar

Longhorn Startup Demo Day was held in the Lady Bird Auditorium on April 30, 2015. Photo by: Rebecca Salazar

It is difficult to run a business, but trying to balance school adds a whole other level of stress. However, Sid Gutter is one out of the handful of college students who has accepted the challenge of doing both.

Sid Gutter is a sophomore liberal arts honors student majoring in economics and history at the University of Texas at Austin. He is also the founder of Entrée, a startup company that is creating a new and enhanced restaurant operating system.

“I never ever in my life thought I would start a business or work in restaurant technology,” Gutter said.

The idea was inspired when Gutter was at a restaurant with his parents. Tired of long wait times, waiting on food and slow check out times, he thought there must be a way to fix this problem. Gutter then started talking to numerous owners, managers and waiters to gather insight.

“After a month of that it became clear that there is a problem, and maybe it’s not that crazy to think I as a student can actually solve the problem,” Gutter said.

What Gutter uncovered was that traditional restaurant operations systems are clunky and expensive. This led him to creating Entrée, a cost-effective system that combines point-of-sales technology and smarter analytics through carefully crated interfaces. Eventually with this technology, waiters will be able to check out a table by using just a mobile phone or tablet, and one day may eliminate the need for waiters completely.

“It’s not necessarily the sexiest industry,” Brian Alford said. “But if you look at their presentation and the way they bring a lot more advanced user interfaces, it is really an exciting change for restaurants.”

Alford is a small business lawyer as well as Gutter’s Longhorn Startup Lab mentor.

“I have an undergraduate degree in business,” Alford said. “As a lawyer, I can represent companies at the early stages by helping them make more business level decisions and not just legal decisions.”


Longhorn Startup Lab is a course offered by the university, so students who are attempting to start a company can get course credit for their efforts. The course includes weekly mentoring sessions as a free co-working membership at Capital Factory. At the end of the spring semester, they host Longhorn Demo Day to showcase their accomplishments.

“It’s a large advertising event for young startups that don’t usually get the chance to get their ideas out to the public,” Stephen Franklin said.

This year’s Demo Day was held on April 30. Thirteen different student startups went on stage to pitch their company. Franklin, a senior mechanical engineering student, was there to promote his product as a part of the company called Grey Matter.

“The dream is to have someone really interested in our product and invest in our idea,” Franklin said. “But really it is to get our name out there and to promote our product.”

Franklin’s product is an athletic mouth guard that can identify when concussions occur as well as track an athlete’s concussion history by storing data in the cloud. With the help of this class, they were able to make a functioning prototype to showcase at the event.

“This class itself provides us with a ton of mentors and great connections that really helped us establish our product,” Franklin said.

Pamela Valdes is an exchange student from Mexico City and creator of Beek, a social network for book lovers in Latin America.

“I want more people to know about my startup,” Valdes said.


Valdes’ company already has about 23,000 followers on Facebook and 400 subscribed on the website. By October of 2015 they plan to reach a goal of 100,000 active users.

“It is a place for discovering, discussing and recommending books between followers and friends,” Valdes said. “It is like a Facebook, but for people who like to read.”

Valdes created Beek for a MIT contest about a year ago. She did not win, and in result, all of her team left. She had to start from scratch and build a whole new team, which was probably one of the most difficult things she has had to overcome.

“Believing in yourself when no one else does is the hardest thing as an entrepreneur,” Valdes said.

Longhorn Startup Lab provides the students with many resources, but also a place for them to see other entrepreneurs their age struggle, as well as succeed, balancing school and other work.

“I think this is really an example of the great community here at UT and what is possible with student entrepreneurs here on campus,” Gutta said.

Even after the semester ends, many of these startups will continue to grow and develop. Because for these entrepreneurs their projects are no longer just a school assignment, it is their future.

“It’s kind of corny, but entrepreneurship found us,” Gutta said.
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Patricia Tamminga uses Patricia’s Table to empower children to eat healthy by making fun, simple food in the kitchen. She uses locally-grown food from the Austin area as well as the garden near the building. She was a kindergarden teacher before starting Patricia’s Table.

After witnessing the lack of diversity in media outlets and lack of representation of Latina women in magazines, Laura Donnelly and Alicia Rascon wanted to fill that niche. They transformed their ideas in a UT graduate school class into Latinitas, a non-profit organization with locations in El Paso and Austin, which has been actively empowering Latina youth through media and technology for 13 years.

Video Games: From Concept to Console

Video games have come a long way since the days of Atari’s PONG or Super Nintendo’s Duck Hunt. Today 59 percent of Americans play video games and the industry brings in more than $21 billion in revenue each year. However, long gone are the days of video games being played on game consoles that are tethered to an outlet.

Now video game consoles are portable laptop computers, totable tablets, handheld players and pocketable smartphones. There are video game development courses at the college level, an industry full of creative, driven developers and a consumer audience eager to play the latest games.

Game Development Infographic

Game development is a team effort and there are many different layers and people involved in bringing a game from concept to console. There are game designers, artists, programers, producers and developers. “Video games are a growing genre,” said Bailey Lund, a University of Texas video game design student. “For the fact that there’s an interactive element to it.”

A number of people are drawn to video games because of their interactive side. Not only are more interactive games fun to play, they are also more fun to make. To find out more about how video games are made and how you can make one yourself slide through this slideshow of helpful links.

Make Your Own Game

SXSW Interactive Goes Gaming

In late March, South by Southwest hosted SXSW Gaming, a three day gaming expo at the Palmer Events Center. The South by Southwest organization proudly says, “with the full force of SXSW Interactive behind it, SXSW Gaming heads the next era of gaming expositions.” There were Gaming Awards, the Gaming Expo, Special Events, Geek Stage Programing and Gaming Programing during SXSW Gaming.

The expo, which was free and open to the public, was at capacity with wide-eyed children and teens excitedly playing playing games and patiently, sometimes not so patiently, waiting to play next. The gamers aged 18 and up, which make up 71 percent of total gamers, were enjoying talking with developers and industry professionals in the dimly lit space. Bright screens, flashy graphics and imaginative sound effects filled the Palmer Events Center’s main hall with a vibrancy it rarely sees.

Across the way at the Long Center for Preforming Arts were a variety of talks, panels and interactive opportunities for gamers to participate in. One topic many panels mentioned by only one covered was the role of women in the gaming industry. In a 2014 survey conducted by the Entertainment Software Association, 48% of game players are female.

Age and Gender in Gaming

While game developers play a huge role in the industry as a whole, the people playing the games are the most important. Without the huge number of men and women of all ages being interested in video games the industry would not exist. Take a sneak peak inside the SXSW Gaming Expo and hear from some games who can’t get enough gaming in this video below.

Why Play Games

Women & Gaming: A Love Story

A growing number of women are playing games in addition to becoming game designers, artists and developers, but on the first day of SXSW Gaming a panel dedicated completely to women drew a meager crowd.

Women in Gaming: Navigating Successful Careers, was a panel of four industry professionals who tried to tackle some of the tough questions about women’s roles in the gaming industry and how to get ahead of some of the challenges young women in the industry will face.

“The positives outweigh the negatives but they’re still there,” said Alison Carrier, a designer for Electronic Arts’ Red Crow mobile game studio. “Sexual harassment is one of the biggest challenges to have to overcome.”

Women in Gaming

“I had to abandon manners,” added Carrier. “Interrupting was something I never did before gaming.” The women who are successful in the gaming industry have had to assert themselves in order to be heard because their work is judged even harder than their male peers’.

These women are working harder to fit into a heavily male dominated industry. Why? Because they love it and because gaming is in their blood. Video games are more than just a hobby for these women and for many women game developers and players. Gaming is a passion, a way of life and the ultimate creative expression.

Game Studios Around Austin

Written by Katelyn Orlowski
Photos and Video by Lazaro Hernandez
Graphic and Map by Lauren Lowe

Women Who Code provides outlet for women in tech

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Kacy Hulme explains coding technique at the Women Who Code’s lightening talk.


For coder Tricia McTigrit, her technology career started with virtual cats and dogs.

After discovering that she had a natural ability to code in junior high–“I enjoyed being able to manipulate programs and create things that weren’t there”–McTigrit, who was not allowed to have real pets as a child, began messing around with the programming of the Petz video game series when she was in sixth grade.

“There was a community of us who realized we could used something called a HexEditor, which allows you to open up the program file and manipulate it,” McTigrit said. “What we realized was that we could change values in there. And by changing these values, we could take a chihuahua and we could turn it into a poodle. Or we could take a ball in the program and we could turn it into a bone. And so, it was an online community and people still do it to this day.”

This childhood hobby would eventually become a lifelong practice. McTigrit programmed websites for small businesses throughout high school and college, where she majored in finance after being met with hostility in her computer sciences classes. “I actually had a female professor, when I walked into a Java 101 class, ask me if I was in the right classroom,” McTigrit said.

Following college, McTigrit worked in the oil and gas industry and eventually got into development professionally. Now she’s an associate developer at ShipStation and on the organizing team of Austin’s branch of Women Who Code (WWC).

WWC is a national non-profit organization “dedicated to inspiring women to excel in technology careers,” according to their official website. McTigrit emphasized that it is an organization open to all women who work or are interested in coding, no matter their skill level.

Click to continue with Women Who Code…

The House of the Rising Sun

By: Anderson Boyd, Carola Guerrero De León, Taylor Turner

In America, “energy” is most often associated with terms like “oil” and “fossil.” UT’s solar decathlon team wants to change that distinction.

The team, made up of University students partnered with students from German university Technische Universität München, has spent the last two years designing a solar-powered home called “Nexushaus.” The project will be a part of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Solar Decathlon competition, which promotes the application and use of solar technologies in buildings. Although currently a model, the team plans to marry solar power with water-saving and food-producing technology to create a self-sustaining home that is both eco-friendly and stylish, which they will build in Austin and ship to Irvine, California for the October competition.

“It’s very much motivated by the local water and energy and housing scarcity elements facing Austin,” team co-captain Charles Upshaw said. “The house is trying to reduce water consumption issues…as well as address sustainable electricity production. We’re also trying to incorporate…sustainable food production [as well].”

Upshaw, a fifth-year graduate student who is also the team’s solar engineer, became involved with the project through the University’s architectural engineering department. He said his Ph.D. research into integrated buildings and water systems attracted him to Nexushaus when the DOE approved the project application last March.

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The design mock up shows the recyclable and reusable materials the team plans to use for the home.

 

“Back then it was called the Energy Water Nexus Unit,” Upshaw said. “[It] is in line with my research, and so I got involved.”

Upshaw said the house takes a holistic approach to energy issues by including water-saving technology and food production as well as solar energy into the plans.

“Agriculture is [a large] consumer of water, and it is a big consumer of electricity and natural resources, but it is typically not talked about the same way as energy and water,” Upshaw said. “We are trying to tie all of this together and address them all at once.”

The home, which includes two 400-square-foot modules connected by a central corridor, will be zero net energy, which Upshaw said means it would produce as much or more electricity it consumes over a single year. The home also hosts cisterns on the roof to collect rainwater, which is then treated and used for domestic tasks, such as shower, laundry and wastewater. Once used, Upshaw said that water becomes gray water, which is then used to produce the unit’s food.

“We are not allowed by law to use gray water inside the house,” Upshaw said. “So what we will be doing with the gray water is producing food… In addition, we’ll have an aquaponics system, [which] is a symbiotic system where fish fertilize the plants and the plants clean the water.”

Project manager Ryan McKeman, a second-year architecture masters’ student, said he first became acquainted with the project after seeing a Solar Decathlon competition while consulting in Washington, D.C, where the competition formerly took place.

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The model of the house shows the solar panels and sustainable food areas.

 

“[The project] marries my work in architecture [and] my undergraduate degree in mathematics,” McKeman said. “When I [applied] to graduate schools, I chose UT because they were putting this team together to enter the competition.”

McKeman said besides working with engineers to get the correct building permits and having the project be completely student-led, a problem faced by the team is the partnership with German university Technische Universität München, or TUM.

“We had deep connections with professors at TUM, so the design went from Austin to Munich back to Austin, back to Munich,” McKeman said. “It has been a really collaborative and productive partnership with them at every step, but at the same time we work 6,000 miles and 6-7 hours apart…and we have language barriers and differences to maneuver and negotiate.”

Interior design senior Emily Hightswaggle said working with students from TUM presents a different experience than found at UT.

“[Here] all of our projects are mostly single person-based,” Hightswaggle said, “so actually working with a team and [coordinating] with vendors and students from TUM…makes you realize how crucial everyone is in the project and how much their impact will impact the final design. We’ve made some close relationships not only with the people in the studio but with our vendors and people who are willing to donate [to the project] as well.’”

Hightswaggle, who is a part of designing the home’s interior, said the team is in the process of picking out reusable or recycled material for the home’s construction, which Upshaw said will begin next month.

“[We’re] looking at materials that have less of an impact to the environment and could be reused in the future,” Hightswaggle said.

Upshaw said the energy problems the team is looking to solve are universal issues.

“There is a lot of overlap [in] energy and water scarcity issues [in the U.S.], and they are facing…similar issues around the world,” Upshaw said. “We are trying to get beyond the energy efficiency and water efficiency and get to the bigger picture of things.”

Social animals: rewriting the underdog story in the age of social media

 

Tuna looks upon the line of fans waiting to get his “pawtograph” for the book titled Tuna Melts My Heart: The Underdog with the Overbite. Tuna fans flocked to BookPeople on Friday, March 6, 2015 for the book signing and opportunity to take photos with the Instafamous dog.

He saw hundreds of people waiting in line — the usual. Fans were squealing his name in adoration. Young and old would wait for two hours on a Friday night in Austin, Texas. For what? They had come from far and wide just for a signed copy of his book and a chance to take a quick picture with him. It was surreal — something you’d expect to be humbling, like playing Madison Square Garden. Yet, all he could think about was the squeaky toy one of his handlers was dangling high up above his face.

Tuna, the Chihuahua-Dachshund mix, internet celebrity, and inspirational figure for the modern era has come a long way from his humble roots on the side of a Southern California road, where he was abandoned as a puppy — presumably, because of the trademark underbite and crumpled neck for which he is now famous.

“You know, I like to call him Sir,” said Tuna’s owner Courtney Dasher, to a packed house at BookPeople for a book signing to promote his new book, Tuna Melts My Heart: The Underdog with the Overbite.

Tuna’s inspirational underdog story starts in 2011, when Dasher adopted him and quickly began posting pictures of her pup’s peculiarly pronounced pearly whites to an Instagram account.

“[Tuna] reaches all demographics,” Dasher said. “I think people from all different walks of life are drawn to him so he speaks to different people’s hearts and situations by being quirky and unconventional.”

Now his website, TunaMeltsMyHeart, has more than 1.2 million Instagram followers. That’s right — this dog has more Instagram followers than you. That’s also more Instagram followers than actor John Stamos (553k), actress Amanda Seyfried (831k) and just slightly less than comedienne and star of The Mindy Project,  Mindy Kaling (1.4m). Somebody get this dog a Super Bowl commercial!

In 2012, Tuna's Instagram went viral, increasing from 8,500 followers to over 32,000 in less than 24 hours. Tuna now has over 1.2 million Instagram followers.

In 2012, Tuna’s Instagram went viral, increasing from 8,500 followers to over 32,000 in less than 24 hours. Tuna now has over 1.2 million Instagram followers.

If you think this is all just the work of a fame-hungry Chiweenie, however, you’d be wrong.  Tuna has not forgotten his roots and is using his celebrity to give back to his favorite cause, according to Dasher.

“We’re being used as a catalyst to change people’s days,” said Dasher. “I look at him as a vehicle to bring people a lot of joy, and on our tours, like anytime we do anything, we want to be able to support animal rescue groups.”

Donations that night went to local animal rescue group Austin Pets Alive!, which brought to BookPeople a puppy who, much like Tuna, was born with a congenital defect that could hurt his chances for adoption. Tuna was only too happy to pose for a picture with the puppy whose front paw will likely be removed due to lack of sufficient bone structure.

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Tuna poses for a photo with Austin Pets Alive puppy, Scooter who was born with a defect in his front paw and abandoned by previous owners before APA rescued him.

An APA! volunteer said Tuna’s celebrity helps raise the visibility of the nonprofit’s work in an important way.

“It’s one thing to hear Austin Pets Alive!, you can adopt an animal from them,” the volunteer said. “It’s a different thing to see the puppies and kittens and cats and dogs that we’re saving at an event like this.”

She also said social media is huge for promoting animal rescue — even in a city like Austin, with a thriving network of animal rescue groups and an army of volunteers touting its dog-friendly distinction as the largest no-kill city in the nation.

“Social media is how people find out about us: without social media all you’ve got is word of mouth, which isn’t going to get you very far,” she said. “Social media within your own organization is even big for us: it’s how we can plead for a new foster home.”

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Fans hold up their smart phones to snap photos while Courtney Dasher introduces Tuna before the book signing on Friday, March 6th, 2015.

Tuna’s Instagram has become a social media tool more powerful than Dasher ever expected.

“Social media is an outlet to connect with a community that is global, which is so fascinating to me,” Dasher said. “I don’t look at this as just an Instagram account. I have a lot of responsibility attached to me now and I want to make sure to use it to promote things that are encouraging and uplifting.”

Tuna may be the first Instagram pet to go on tour, but if he’s the first one you’ve heard of, you must not be one of Milla the cat’s 200k Instagram followers. The feline with comically small ears, whose owners ask for donations to fund treatment for her heart disease, is just one of an increasing number of Instagram pets with followings that dwarf those which rescue organizations can attract.  Compare the 8,400 followers of APA!’s Instagram to the 97k followers of Elfie and Gimli, two brother and sister cats born with dwarfism.

Tuna’s cartoonish appearance has helped catapult him to the top of the pack, but there is also a place on Instagram for more conventionally cute cats and canines. If you would like to share your own rescue pet’s story, but feel you don’t have time to cultivate a following,  you can submit a photo and story to Rescue Pets of Instagram. It has 71k followers.

While social media on Facebook and Twitter have played a significant role in grassroots movements for social change in recent years, University of Texas at Austin journalism professor Robert Quigley says there may be a reason Instagram is appealing for promoting animal rescue, in particular.

“Considering Instagram has more than 200 million users, it’s a great place to spread a message and get people involved,” Quigley said. “It’s the perfect place for an animal rescue message, because Instagram is a visual medium. Who can turn down Tuna?”

Water Allocation…Is It Fair?

By: Judy Hong, Mackenzie Drake, Garrett Callahan, Samantha Rivera

 

When Taiki Miki woke up in the morning, his usual routine involved a quick shower, brushing his teeth and possibility drinking a glass or two of water.

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The sink water running in an Austin apartment.

Miki estimates he uses about 18 gallons of water each morning. But when he lived at his former apartment in Austin, he didn’t have to worry about the individual amount of water he used.

“I wasn’t very lenient in my use of water,” Miki said. “I didn’t use excess water than I needed, but I knew that any additional gallon of water that I used wasn’t going towards my individual bill.”

This is because Miki lived in an apartment that used a water allocation system. Instead of each residential unit paying for the amount of water it uses individually under submeters, residents are charged a part of the water usage of the whole apartment complex, which is calculated by the utility company.

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Austin Water Utility in downtown Austin takes part in the water allocations.

Some older apartments in Austin use a master meter for the entire complex, which measures the total amount of water used throughout all of the units. Based on this usage, the property gets a master bill, which is then split among the tenants using an allocation method approved by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality or Public Utility Commission.

Some properties divide water usage based on the square footage of each apartment or based on a percentage for each unit, along with the number of residents.

Many properties use the allocation system because it is the only method possible. If properties have only one master meter for the entire complex, they are unable to see the individual usage of each apartment. For this reason, many of Austin’s older complexes, such as Tanglewood North and Su Casa Apartments, use the allocation system.

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Taped-up water pipes in various apartments in Austin.

However, many residents think this type of billing system constitutes an imbalanced system, as some units typically use far less or far more water than others.

“I think it’s very unfair,” said Jeff Haniuk, a tenant at Heritage at Hillcrest in Austin. “Because if you’re somebody like my wife who takes a lot of baths, I would hate for somebody to be charged for her bath water if they don’t use as much water.”

Under Texas law, water allocation is a legal practice. As long as property owners outline specific rules and disclosures in the rental agreement, they are able to allocate water based on the whole property’s usage.

In the lease, tenants must be made aware they will be billed on an allocation basis, the exact allocation method, and the average monthly water bill for the last calendar year, along with other procedures.

“I don’t think it’s a good system,” said Andy McClintic, a tenant of a complex that uses a submeter system. “Why would I even turn our water off, if we’re being billed for everyone’s water?”

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Although the water allocation system can be backwards from the conservation efforts that Austin is pushing for, there are other ways for individuals to save water.

There is not much residents can do to combat the water allocation system, if they don’t agree with it. Since it is allowed under Texas law, properties have the right to use their own metering system. The Austin Water Utility suggests getting into contact with property managers to make them aware of water conservation issues and educate them on the best practices to save water.

Many tenants believe that water allocation opposes Austin’s water conservation efforts. Currently in a Stage 2 drought restriction phase, Austin is making a push to lower water usage within residents and businesses.

However, under the water allocation system, tenants face almost no consequences to using more water than they need, since they are not paying for their individual usage.

“If you’re trying to encourage water conservation the best way would be the individual approach,” said Austin Batson, whose apartment uses the allocation system. “Having every unit responsible for their own bill or even more ideally you could track where the water is actually being used.”