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Lisa Trei, News Service (650) 725-0224; e-mail:

Students design cool technology for poor countries

Ever try to use a high-tech gadget designed by a die-hard computer geek? While the inventor may wax eloquent about its nifty features, mere mortals may be left wondering how to turn the thing on.

Communication Professor Clifford Nass sets about trying to fix that problem in his popular course Comm 169/Computers and Interfaces: Psychological and Social Issues. The Spring Quarter lecture course focuses on the psychology of how people interact with technology. The class has no prerequisites and, consequently, attracts English and sociology majors as well as computer scientists -- a mix that helps keep the class grounded in reality, Nass said. Two years ago, he added a project component to encourage students to think about the practical application of product ideas.

"One of the biggest complaints about software products is that they're designed by computer people," he said. "The best training for a designer is to design for someone else who is very different. This project forces you to stand in the shoes of the user."

Last year, students focused on clever uses of technology assuming a high connectivity to the web -- the coolest products for the most developed nations. Some of the projects that students dreamed up were so innovative that they are being incorporated into real products being developed, Nass said. In a few years, these "context-aware" gadgets will help people do everything from locate a lost car in a parking lot to find the shortest line for a ride at an amusement park.

In the wake of last September's terrorist attacks, Nass decided to broaden the scope of the class by requiring half of his students to design products for environments very different from Silicon Valley.

"This project forces students to think hard about problems at local levels in different cultures," he said. "Rather than rely on stereotypes, such as, 'If they only had more money they could fix this,' they have to find real solutions. So, there's no electricity in a village? Solve that!"

Nass asked students to select a local community in a lesser developed country, find a problem related to communication technology and devise a solution. "They came up with lots of clever solutions," he said. "We're not trying to solve all the world's problems -- we're looking for doable projects."

On June 5, students presented 29 projects covering 25 countries. The projects use technology to do everything from detect landmines to promote sustainable farming.

Top place went a trio of undergraduates who dreamed up a device that helps teach illiterate people in Brazil's favelas, or shantytowns, to read and write. Lidos Escrevem o Assistente, The Read Write Assistant, is a handheld text scanner that highlights and reads words aloud so that a user can follow along and learn to read. The device also takes dictation to help teach people to write. The tool is the creation of Cheng Wang, a sophomore in chemical engineering; Pearl Woon-Tai, a junior in management science and engineering; and Tom Whitnah, a junior in computer science.

Paul Rankin, a festival judge and a scientist at Philips Research Laboratories in England, praised The Read Write Assistant for its novelty, business sustainability, design quality and effectiveness in anticipating a user's needs. "I think we should be talking with these folks," Rankin said. Philips, a Dutch consumer electronics company, wants to "develop sustainability as a new brand identity," he said.

Melanie Edwards and Enrica Porcari, fellows at Stanford's new Reuters Digital Fellowship Program, assisted in the judging. Porcari said she was often impressed by the quality of projects, which the students developed in just seven weeks. Rankin added: "Every one of these projects has the seed of a good idea."

Other top-ranked projects include:

  • Biosphere -- International Health Worker -- a system for integrating existing technologies (fingerprint scanning) to establish electronic medical records accessible worldwide. It is designed to help international aid agencies working with refugees.
  • Navajo Navigator for the Navajo Nation, USA -- a device that helps to preserve tribal culture and language and connect the far-flung regions of the Navajo Nation.
  • HealthKeeper for Malawi -- a device that contains a database of ailments, symptoms and treatments for health care workers in remote areas.

Sheba Najmi, a senior in symbolic systems who designed HealthKeeper, said it was difficult to focus on a single issue in Malawi, one of the world's poorest countries. "Sometimes it was really depressing and overwhelming," she said. Leif Granberg, a senior in mechanical engineering; Chris McGraw, a senior in computer science; and Najmi turned to personal contacts in Malawi to ensure their project's relevancy. They were pleased with the results, which addressed practical problems such as the country's lack of infrastructure to support Internet connections in clinics by manually transferring data by bicycle.

While Nass does not expect the students' ideas to turn into final products, he said the exercise advances the search for workable solutions. "Often, it's not the product they develop, but the reasoning behind it that informs the process," he said. "This can be applied."

Granberg and Najmi certainly hope so. After graduation, Granberg wants to design wheelchairs and prostheses that work more naturally with the movements of the human body. Najmi plans to help her strife-torn native Pakistan in some practical way. "It would be great if some of these projects are carried out and actually help people," she said.


By Lisa Trei

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