Four Cape Town students have come up with a simple SMS-based technology that could change the face of public transport in South Africa – and has already won its developers a top international award.
Devin de Vries, Christopher King, Nabeel Nazeer and Nadeem Isaacs won the Microsoft/British Telecom Innovation Accelerator Award at the Imagine Cup 2008, a Microsoft-sponsored technology competition, which challenges the world's best student programmers to create applications to solve real-world problems.
About 1-million university students from 110 countries took part, 200 000 going on to the Microsoft elimination rounds, and only a little over 300 making it to the World Wide Finals in the Software Design category.
The South Africa students, known as Team Smile, also reached the worldwide finals of the Rural Innovation Category and the worldwide semi-finals (Top 12) of the heavily-contested Software Design category for their "WhereIsMyShuttle?" application, which uses satellite navigation devices to provide timely bus information directly to commuters by SMS.
De Vries believes the system could help create a more sustainable and efficient transport system in South Africa, where lower income groups use public transport, but higher income groups use their own cars – leading to over-crowded roads, excessive fuel emissions, and even greater resource inefficiency in many public sectors.
"Our research identified a lack of security and an absence of bus schedules as the main reason for middle and upper income groups not using public transport," says De Vries. "We also discovered that South Africa, despite its high levels of poverty and unemployment, has the highest mobile-phone usage density per capita in the world. With that knowledge we had our answer: the humble SMS."
A Web-based Geographic Information System, "WhereIsMyShuttle?" uses GPS/GPRS tracking devices fitted to buses to provide daily schedules of bus activities, with a notification service providing automated notification of abnormal bus activities. In addition, commuters can send an SMS to the system with the bus company number, bus stop number and destination code and the system will respond with the closest bus due to stop at their location.
David Ives, head of the developer and platforms team at Microsoft SA, says that Imagine Cup is about capturing the creativity of university students from all over the world. It harnesses their unique perspectives to developing technology solutions that address challenges and issues they care about and that are unique to their countries.
"The students who participate in the Imagine Cup represent the next generation of technology and business leaders. Their creativity and innovation speaks volumes about the promise of technology to really make a difference in peoples' lives in the way we think, work and communicate," he says.
The Rural Innovation Award finals pitted Team Smile against teams from Colombia, India, Indonesia and Egypt. The team from Colombia University developed a tree-seedling management system that uses sensors to help solve the deforestation problem in the country. The Egyptian team developed a landmine detection system that uses images captured by ground penetrating radar to determine the location of mines, so they can be cleared more easily.
"It's absolutely inspiring to see what our students can do, and I'm delighted to see that innovation is alive and well in South Africa," says Ives. "Team Smile shows an amazing combination of passion and creativity while using technology to solve real world problems. I think our hopes of building and sustaining a thriving local software ecosystem in South Africa are in excellent hands."
Team Smile will be honing its product at the newly-opened Microsoft Innovation Centre (MIC) Interoperability Laboratory, a joint venture between Microsoft and the Cape IT Initiative (CITi) to meet the needs of technology-starved small businesses, entrepreneurs, developers and students in the Western Cape.
The MIC combines various software approaches to assist in developing solutions for various sectors within the local economy. The initiative is also aimed at start-ups and incubators that want to take their products and services to market in the near future.
Prof Barry Dwolatzky, the chief executive of the Joburg Centre for Software Engineering (JCSE) at Wits University in Braamfontein, says innovation centres play an important part in developing the vital high-level technology skills that the country's IT industry needs.
"We're trying to produce start-up companies, but the real issue is that we're giving people real skills to take into the industry, whether their companies succeed or not," says Prof Dwolatzky. "High-level technology skills have a multiplier effect on employment: the more highly qualified people there are, the more people with entry-level skills can be absorbed by industry."