Down to the Wire on Big Ideas@Berkeley’s IT for Society Competition

By Andrea Guzman

On April 10, the seven finalist teams in the Information Technology for Society category of this year’s Big Ideas@Berkeley social innovation contest went through the nail-biting process of presenting their projects to a panel of judges at Sutardja Dai Hall.

Finalists included: Piezoelectric Shoe Sole GPS Tracker, a low-cost, ergonomic children’s shoe design with an embedded data logger powered by piezoelectric materials; BCAPI, an open-source Brain-to-Computer Interfacing software for creation of assistive technologies; and TIRO, an interactive hotline management system designed to give small NGOs serving vulnerable clients in China better record-keeping and reporting capabilities. Also presenting were the Smart Diaphragm group, which aims to detect vaginal infections in pregnant women, and Lifenik, which creates games that help kids develop their brains for optimal emotional health.

Sponsored by the Center for Information Technology Research in the Interest of Society (CITRIS) and the Blum Center for Developing Economies, the IT for Society category challenges students to develop a project that demonstrates the capacity of information technology to address major societal challenges. Past winners have included: Transence, a mobile application enabling hard-of-hearing people to interact more freely with the rest of the world; and Sahay, an information and communication technology platform connecting workers in the informal household sector (e.g., domestic workers, cooks, drivers, security guards, etc.) in India with employment opportunities.

Among this year’s contestants was Team Aqua Power, which is designing a water measurement device to be installed on faucets and showers, to make people more conscience of their water consumption. Thuria Narayan said the yearlong competition allowed her team to further develop their idea, particularly with help from their mentor. “Our mentor helped us in the areas that we lacked,” she said.

For Shyam Kumar of OhMyCause!, a web platform that connects people with causes and nonprofits, BigIdeas@Berkeley motivated him to just start the project. “Big Ideas is a great channel for people to take their ideas to the next level,” he said. “Without it, people may choose to focus on something less socially driven. The contest really brings out the best in us.”

The judges in the competition seemed impressed with the quality and maturity of the proposals. “It is great to see university students not just think about these problems but to have the courage to go forward with them,” said judge Jayarami Reddy from Cisco.

Awards will be announced in mid April, with $22,500 in prizes for the Information Technology for Society winners. Awards for all categories will be celebrated on May 5, 2015, 2-4 pm, in B100 Blum Hall.

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