Technology for the Greater Good

These Computerworld Honors laureates benefit society by using low-tech gadgets for high impact.

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Developed by an IT team at Novartis, the SMS system comprises an SMS management tool and a Web-based reporting tool. The SMS app stores a single registered mobile phone number for one healthcare worker at each facility. Once a week, the system automatically sends a text message to each of these phone numbers asking for the current stock of medicines at their facility. Stock data is then returned using a short code number at no cost to the healthcare worker.

"This is one of those unique programs and one of our favorite programs in IT," James says, adding that everyone who worked on the project did so as a volunteer.

Low-Cost Literacy Tools

Keeping user costs low was also a major driver in the development of an application known as Mobile and Immersive Learning for Literacy in Emerging Economies, or MILLEE for short. Designed as a series of English literacy games that are played on cellphones, the application aims to improve English as a second language among poor children living in rural villages and urban slums in the developing world.

Matthew Kam started the project in 2004, when he was a graduate student at the University of California, Berkeley. When Kam moved to Carnegie Mellon University to become an assistant professor in human-computer interaction, he expanded the project with the idea of having students rewrite the software from scratch so that it would operate on very low-end cellphones.

"Before CMU, the application was running on higher-end phones," Kam explains. "What we were really trying to do with the expansion is to target the most affordable phones out there, so as to perform research pilots that reflect more realistic cost conditions. We were looking for the lowest common denominator," he says.

Specifically, Kam and his team were targeting Java Micro edition (J2ME) phones, which are significantly cheaper than high-end smartphones. Technical barriers included optimizing the application for use on low-resource devices with limited memory and organizing the English-language learning content, including graphics and voiceover files, on the phone's storage system so that file input and output remained efficient.

There were cultural challenges as well. The earliest game designs weren't intuitive to children in rural India.

"This forced us to take a step back and study 28 of their traditional village games and contemporary Western video games," Kam says. The analysis provided the team with a set of guidelines on how to design educational games for non-Westerners.

MILLEE team member Ashton Thomas, who graduated from CMU in May 2011, developed a game called Word Catch, in which a player is presented with an English word and four images, one of which corresponds to the meaning of the word. "You had to stop a ball over the correct image, and the speed of the ball would change. As the words got harder, the speed of the ball got faster," he recalls.

Thomas, who has since launched a fitness software company called Acrinta, recalls that one of the challenges for his MILLEE team was that it was geographically dispersed, with some members in India and others at CMU's campus in Pittsburgh.

"The time zone difference, the physical distance and the communication barriers were all challenges," he says. "The students in India would help maintain the code base and do some development. They would also take the phones and install the games and go to the learners to get feedback and relay all of that information back to us."

As Thomas sees it, one key to the value of the MILLEE project is that "it's a game, and as the students are playing, they're having fun." But he points out that the students are also learning, "and that is creating opportunities that could lead to serious social change" -- an observation confirmed in a recent report from the British Council, which estimates that the salary gap between professionals with and without English skills in some developing countries is as high as 20% to 30%.

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