May 24, 2007
Have something to donate? Let the Charitopia website help you find an interested charity
By Jesse Boyett Anderson
When students move out of their dorms next month, fewer of their possessions may be headed for the trash heap, thanks to a new website that matches people with items to donate and charities needing specific goods. Charitopia, http://charitopia.org, is the brainchild of Stanford scientists using computational logic to bring intelligent matchmaking to the world of donations.
"We wanted to provide a useful service and also investigate groundbreaking technological innovation," says Michael Genesereth, associate professor of computer science and director of the Stanford Logic Group.
The Charitopia website, which went live in March, was developed by Genesereth and Michael Kassoff, one of his doctoral students. They began the venture as a project to benefit the San Jose chapter of Habitat for Humanity but soon realized that their work could have a broader impact. Log in to donate your old computer, unopened pack of pencils or some other item and you may be put in contact with the Belle Haven Community School, Budding Ballerinas or another charitable organization.
The tools currently incorporated in the website favor individuals with a small number of unique items to donate, says Kassoff. This makes the site a boon to students preparing to leave at the end of the quarter. Genesereth and Kassoff have developed other tools that will allow donors to easily list multiple identical items and specify to which type of charity they want their donations to go, for example, education-based, sectarian, or arts-oriented organizations. They will deploy these tools once the site becomes more well-established, Genesereth says.
The Charitopia website has two distinctive features, he says. The first is the automatic tracking of donations for individual donors, who can use the information for tax-deduction purposes. The second is a technological innovation that helps match goods to recipients.
This matching process derives its power from the application of computational logic, a branch of computer science focused on endowing computers with logical reasoning abilities. Scientists enable computational reasoning by representing and processing information about the world in logical statements. Instead of providing textual lists of donated and desired items, as other websites do, Charitopia requires donors and charities to describe each donated or desired good using a classification scheme that both computers and humans can understand. The servers housing the website can then accurately match donations to charities by applying logical rules to the precisely classified items.
The project receives no funding outside of the Computer Science Department. But members of CodeX, also known as the Stanford Center for Computers and Law, of which Genesereth is the research director, have helped secure pro bono legal services for the website.
The collaboration between CodeX and Charitopia reflects the reliance of each venture on computational logic. Although the aim of CodeX, enabling computers to understand law, may seem far removed from the matchmaking service Charitopia provides for donors and charities, the success of both ventures hinges on finding solutions to what Kassoff describes as the central question of computational logic. "How do you formalize the world?" he asks. "[That is], how do you interact with a computer and tell it facts about the world?"
Jesse Boyett Anderson is a freelance writer.
Freelancer Jesse Boyett Anderson wrote this release.