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

Students design cool technology for poor countries

Techie and fuzzy students have joined forces to dream up communication technology solutions for poor parts of the globe.

Thirty teams of students will pitch their product ideas at 5 p.m. Wednesday, June 5, in 100 Cordura Hall, at the corner of Panama Street and Campus Drive. Venture capitalists, industry representatives and fellows from the Reuters Digital Vision Program, which supports devising appropriate technology for developing countries, will attend the session. The best projects will be awarded small prizes.

"We're not trying to solve all the world's problems -- we're looking for doable projects," said communication Professor Clifford Nass, instructor of Comm 169/Computers and Interfaces: Psychological and Social Issues.

Projects include:

  • Lidos Escrevem o Assistente or The Read Write Assistant for Brazil -- a device that helps teach illiterate people to read and write.
  • 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.

Nass's class, which focuses on the psychology of how people interact with technology, has no prerequisites and, as a result, attracts English and sociology majors as well as computer whizzes. This quarter, 140 students participated in the lecture class. Two years ago, Nass added a team-based 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, Nass said. Some of the projects were so good that the ideas they advanced will be incorporated into commercial products being developed that will help users do everything from locate their car in a parking lot to find the shortest line for a ride at an amusement park, he said.

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

"Hey, there's a world out there," Nass said. "This project forces students to think hard about problems at local levels in different cultures. 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 the students to select and study 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 to little problems," Nass said.

While Nass does not expect the students' ideas to turn into final, marketed 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."


By Lisa Trei

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