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Computing for Good: Web technology to solve human problems

Georgia Tech computer science course blends technology and compassion

By , Network World
December 11, 2008 01:05 PM ET

Network World - It wasn't your typical computer science problem that caught the attention of two Ph.D. candidates at Georgia Tech's College of Computing. It was more of a life-or-death problem: monitoring the safety of blood supplies in African nations ravaged by HIV and AIDS.

And the fact that it caught anyone's attention is due in large part to the college's recently launched Computing for Good project, known as C4G. It's a course that encourages Georgia Tech students and faculty to look at how computer technology can be applied concretely to improve — and even save — lives.  

The C4G course was sparked by a faculty presentation in the fall of 2007 by its lead advocate, Santosh Vempala, distinguished professor of computing at the college's School of Computer Science. In spring 2008, 17 Georgia Tech students signed up for the first C4G course, breaking up into teams to work on seven projects as close as the school's home in downtown Atlanta and as far as Africa. It was taught by Vempala, assistant professor Michael Best, of the School of International Affairs, School of Computer Science Chair and Prof. Ellen Zegura.

The Georgia Tech course is just one example of a growing interest in what's often called computing for a cause or socially relevant computing. As one paper, by researchers from State University of New York in Buffalo, Rice University and Microsoft Research, put it: "It presents computer science as a cutting-edge technological discipline that empowers [students] to solve problems of personal interest…as well as problems that are important to society at large…."  

Keeping blood safe

The Web tool for blood safety monitoring is one of the latter. In a few weeks, it will go live in 14 African countries. The idea was to create an easy-to-use Web application that could be used by public health staff in Africa to monitor the safety of national blood supplies from collection through distribution. The problem is especially critical in nations where HIV and AIDS infections are epidemic.

The need for such an application came to Vempala's attention last year, when he talked with John Pitman, a public health advisor in with the Global AIDS Program at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta, who had created an Excel-based spreadsheet that public health staff could use to report quarterly on about 80 different data points that were indicators of blood safety.

But there were obvious problems. Staff needed to know Excel and have it loaded on a local computer. With separate applications running on PCs, aggregating and sifting data from different locations was awkward, inconsistent and time-consuming. As a result, getting local staff to use the spreadsheet consistently, or even at all, was a struggle. Pitman and Vempala thought a Web-based application could change all this.

The problem and the project appealed to two Ph.D. candidates in the C4G course, Adebola ("Bola") Osuntogun, originally from Nigeria, and Stephen Thomas, both of whom had heard Pitman's presentation. Putting their skills to practical work and seeing lasting results that would benefit someone other than researchers was a big part of the attraction. "It seemed a way to do something that was not purely academic," Thomas says. "We'd be improving the quality of life."

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