Drexel students Zachary Howitt and Daniel Sullivan competed in the United States finals of the Microsoft Imagine Cup student technology competition April 8-11 in Redmond, Wash.
Howitt is a senior majoring in business and engineering, and Sullivan is a freshman majoring in computer science. For the competition, the duo developed a mobile application that attempts to improve accountability and transparency in health care services and other processes in Sierra Leone. According to Microsoft’s website, the focus of the competition is to create technologies to help solve real-world problems.
The Drexel team’s app would allow information like health care data to be sent to central servers, referred to as the “cloud”, where data could be accessed by organizations such as universities and other researchers, who could then study the material. The app could also be used to keep track of other processes, such as the distribution of bed nets to protect against malaria, according to Howitt. Sullivan added that he is excited about the many possibilities to which the app’s concept relates.
Howitt thinks the idea behind the app is in many ways more important than the app itself, and even if the app does not become widespread, he hopes its underlying idea will.
“The idea is transparency and accountability of data using technology,” Howitt said. He added that this concept can allow for better feedback and improvements to existing systems.
The Drexel team did not advance to the competition’s world championships, which, according to the press release, take place in New York City in July. However, Howitt said the app was very well received at the United States competition. He added that “a lot of Microsoft executives really liked our idea.”
The Drexel team also showed their app directly to Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer and Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett, when Ballmer and Corbett attended the opening of the Malvern Microsoft Technology Center March 9, according to the press release.
Howitt said Ballmer and Corbett both really seemed to like the app, and that Ballmer specifically seemed very enthusiastic about it.
Sullivan said it was a great and unexpected opportunity to be able to meet Corbett and Ballmer.
“It was very exciting to be able to share our idea with them directly,” he said, calling it “a very one-in-a-million kind of opportunity.”
Although Howitt said the idea behind the app may be the Drexel team’s greatest contribution, he added that the team does hope to implement the app in Sierra Leone. Howitt said the project still needs funds, but he hopes it can begin to go through pilot programs in Sierra Leone during the summer.
For Sullivan, the most rewarding part of the project was being able to meet many people from around the world and share the team’s project with them. He added that he fell in love with the project’s idea of helping Sierra Leone get more out of its technology than it has previously.
Sullivan said he wanted to join the Drexel team because “[he] thought it would be a good way to get noticed,” since he is currently a freshman. He hopes to compete in the Microsoft competition again in future years, and he encourages other people to attempt to think up and implement real world ideas.
Howitt said he enjoyed the real-world aspect of the project.
“It was really cool to get on the ground and actually do stuff and see some results,” he said.
The Drexel team’s project was influenced by his previous experience working in Sierra Leone, according to Howitt.
“I was thinking of how technology can help solve the world’s problems,” he said.
Howitt previously worked with the non-governmental organization Wellbody Alliance in Sierra Leone. Wellbody has also assisted on the current app project. As part of his previous work with Wellbody, Howitt traveled to Africa four times in the past year, including two trips to Sierra Leone. During these trips, Howitt helped implement a microfinance system where people were given zero-interest loans in the form of farming tools, seeds, plots of land, instruction and other benefits.
Howitt said the microfinance project has been successful, and the citizens have done a strong job of paying back the loans using proceeds from their crops.
Howitt added that “we kind of defied the odds,” due in part to the difficult living conditions of the areas the microfinance program focused on, and the challenge of implementing a loan system in areas that had been used to receiving aid, which did not need to be paid back.
The microfinance project placed second in the Wharton Social Business Plan competition. Howitt said he appreciates the help given to him by Drexel, and specifically by decision sciences clinical assistant professor Neil Desnoyers, who has served as his mentor.