Microsoft TechEd, Durban – A tool that allows businesses to see what people are saying about them on social media platforms has won three University of Johannesburg (UJ) computer science students and their supervisor a place in the final of a global technology competition in Russia later this year. 
Dr Ian Ellefsen, Jan van Niekerk, Lorenzo Boccetti and Merrick Bengis beat off the challenge of South Africa’s top computer programming students to win the local leg of the Imagine Cup, a Microsoft-sponsored technology competition which pits the world’s best student programmers against each other. As part of their prize, they will be jetting off to St Petersburg in July to compete in the global finals.
Now in its 11th year, the Imagine Cup challenges the world’s best student programmers to create applications to solve real-world problems. More than 1,65-million students across the globe have participated in Imagine Cup during the past decade.
Locally, this year’s local Imagine Cup drew 78 entries from universities across the country. Sponsors included the Department of Science and Technology/ CSIR Meraka Institute, BBD and Nokia.
The winning solution, SentiMeter, is a big data/social media analytics tool.
The young developers describe it as being able to “go through everything people say on your social media platforms to find out what the sentiment is. It gathers data and presents it to the business, which can then make concise and informed marketing decisions”.
Unlike a number of products already available on the market, SentiMeter doesn’t rely on human analytics, but uses a completely automated system to perform discovery and analysis.
UK has assisted the team in setting up a company, which has launched SentiMeter in a closed beta version that is currently being tested with commercial companies.
The team is gaining feedback from the exercise and is hopeful that it will launch the product soon.
Currently, SentiMeter can only analyse correct English – no slang or sarcasm – but with ongoing development, the youngsters hope to add other languages and colloquialisms soon.
SentiMeter was born a few years ago at the start of the social media boom, and the team realised that brands needed a way to take charge of what is being said about them – or face brand decimation.
“We believe our platform will save companies not only in rands, but also in reputation management,” says Van Niekerk. “The award means so much to us. As the tool is currently in Beta phase, we can now continue to grow our start-up even further.”
The tool combines sentiment analysis derived from an identified location anywhere in the world and various social platforms to provide companies with detailed reports, trends and insights, says Van Niekerk.
The team has already set up a company and is offering sentiment analysis services to the market.
The head of Microsoft South Africa’s developer and platform team, Clifford de Wit, says Imagine Cup is a cornerstone of Microsoft’s commitment to providing opportunities for young people, by providing a platform to inspire and showcase innovation and to encourage entrepreneurship.
The event saw entries across three categories – Gaming, Innovation and World Citizenship. Microsoft also included an additional App Challenge, where students were challenged to build Apps for the Windows 8, Windows Phone and Windows Azure platforms.
The complete list of South African Imagine Cup winners is as follows:
* Best Windows Phone App – SignPro, developed by Linda Nyoka at Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University;
* Best Windows 8 App – Noted, developed by Brian Campbell at University of Free State;
* Best Windows Azure App (Best Use of Windows Azure in Solution) – SentiMeter at University of Johannesburg;
* Best World Citizenship Solution – team Superstiens with the eTute Mathematics Tutoring System solution at Nelson Mandel Metropolitan University;
* Best Innovation Project – team SentiMeter; and
* Best Games Project – Pillar: Revenge of the Mad Scientist, developed by team Sumo Development at Nelson Mandel Metropolitan University.=