July 08, 2008, 10:42 AM — Microsoft added an award for Rural Innovation for the first time to its Imagine Cup competition this year, and it attracted a number of projects aimed at solving problems faced by people in developing nations.
The point of the Imagine Cup is for students around the world to come up with solutions to problems using technology. In the Rural Innovation category, two of the finalists have developed projects aimed squarely at people in poor nations.
One of those projects is a system to provide timely bus information in South Africa. It's no small matter. Many people in South Africa can't afford a car yet road and other conditions ensure buses are late most of the time. Worse, waiting for a bus isn't a smart option, according to the South African team, Smile, because it makes you a target for thieves.
The government can't solve the problem with electronic sign boards to follow bus activity, either, because such boards would be stolen as quickly as they're put up, Smile said.
"We therefore needed to find a means of reaching people from all classes of society, and which takes heed of the limitations within South Africa. It was then during our research that we discovered that South Africa has the single highest mobile usage density per capita in the world. With this knowledge, we immediately had our answer. The humble SMS," the group said.
They developed a system that uses software and algorithms that take into account the flow of traffic to estimate the arrival time of a bus. Then it uses mobile phone SMS to communicate bus times.
So far, they've gotten the system to predict bus activity correctly 97 percent of the time in South Africa. The group hopes to expand the system throughout Africa in the future.
Another finalist in the Rural Innovation category has developed a novel way to help farmers in India determine the nutrients in their soil and figure out which crops would be best planted there.
The conventional approach to farming is to assume all the fields in an area are the same, so one-size-fits all crop management systems are used. But the reality is that fields can vary considerably, and without the right data, a lot of resources can be wasted, said team Novices@Work.
They invented a system they call Kalpvriksha, which uses wireless sensor networks to collect data on soil characteristics such as moisture, pH, ambient light and temperature. The system then takes this and other information into account to help farmers make decisions on how best to water crops, what kinds of fertilizer to use, and more. The result is more, healthier crops.
"Our technology is specifically aimed at bettering the standards of living of grass-root workers," said Krunal Dedhia, a member of Novices@Work. "It addresses the problem of low productivity and salination of land due to excessive use of fertilizers. These problems are all a culmination of lack of awareness amongst people."
Novices@Work has deployed the system in a small field in India, but it will take time to obtain results. They hope to expand the system throughout India and beyond with the help of grassroots organizations.
There are other interesting ideas among the finalists. A team from Columbia University developed a tree-seedling management system that uses sensors to help solve the deforestation problem in the country. A team from Egypt developed a landmine detection system that uses images captured by ground penetrating radar to determine the location of mines, so they can be cleared more easily.
Four members of the winning team will be eligible for a research internship at Microsoft Research India, in Bangalore, said Kentaro Toyama, head of research at the site. They'll get a chance to work with world-class researchers on cutting-edge computer science work. The winners will work in particular with the research group called Technology for Emerging Markets.
But ultimately, winning the competition could lead to a job at Microsoft, as past winners have found, or to the start of a company or non-profit around the team's idea, Toyama said.
The winner of the competition will be announced late Tuesday.