Microsoft nurtures software to save the world

Imagine Cup competition honors altruistic app development

The other day, I wrote about the Microsoft-sponsored Imagine Cup competition that is pitting 10 finalists against each other who have created games that put the spotlight on global issues like child mortality, conservation, health, gender equality and poverty. Another part of the competition, culminating at a conference running from April 24-26 in Washington, D.C., focuses on development of software applications tackling the same issues.

Again, 10 finalists of teams of students from universities across the U.S. are in the running for the prizes to be awarded at the Imagine Cup 2010 event. Winners in the U.S. competition advance to global finals in Warsaw in July. The competition challenges developers to come up with ways to reach the United Nations Millennium Development Goals to solve a wide variety of global problems by 2015.

Imagine Cup rules require teams to eat Microsoft's dog food to be eligible. The applications have to run on the Microsoft .NET Framework, implement or consume an XML Web service and be developed using at least one part of the Visual Studio suite. Apps must also use at least one of the following products: Windows 7; Windows Live SDK; Windows Mobile; Silverlight; or Azure, Microsoft's version of Windows Server in cloud environments. Fair enough, if Microsoft is to put up $15,000 in prize money for the top three entries.

One of the nominees is from a team called Coders Inc., which is made up of students at the Illinois Institute of Technology and the Georgia Institute of Technology. Their app, AwareNet, is an online forum for sharing resources among nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to solve problems.

"The underlying idea is to create a social media enterprise for people who want to help or are in need of help," reads the Coders team contest entry. "Any welfare activity at the least needs money, resources (food, clothing, books, medicines, etc.) and volunteers. Finding all these distributed resources is a herculean task."

AwareNet, then, uses the power of the Internet to bring together participants globally who can connect to carry out a mission. "For example, a pharmaceutical company in Australia can easily locate and donate medicines to NGOs in far flung regions like the Sahara," team Coders explains.

The Extraplaid team from the University of Utah has created AidVenture, a social-networking app designed to improve the effectiveness of micro-lending programs in developing countries. The app aims to solve two problems with micro-lending, which are the lack of an efficient way to raise micro-lending funds and a lack of checks to make sure funds are spent, not on personal expenses, but on building the new business.

AidVenture includes a Facebook application where entrepreneurs describe their business plan and say how much money they'll need. Investors can fund entrepreneurs through PayPal and it's the investors who make the necessary purchases to ensure funds are spent only on the business.

Then there is the Tesla Project at San Jose State University that addresses the U.N Millennium goal of environmental sustainability. The application is a business intelligence tool designed to analyze the consumption of electricity by computer networks. One component of the product is a "background client" that runs on a computer and gathers information on the operation of its various components. The second is a server that displays usage statistics and identifies ways to lower electrical consumption.

Other finalist apps address health care, education, gender equality and other concerns. Videos describing each of the 10 finalist projects can be found here

The Internet has been a powerful force these last 20 plus years, but much of it has been used to promote conspicuous consumption, mindless entertainment, caustic political discourse or the worst of human nature. It's heartening to see these other examples of people trying to use the Internet for good.

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