In a recent editorial in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Tech computing professor Santosh Vempala pointed out that while computing has been the defining scientific development of this period of history, people often associate it with business, social networking and entertainment.
“What I find to be just as compelling, challenging and of the utmost importance is applying technology beyond its current confines to where it impacts society in fundamental ways,” he wrote.
It was that idea that Vempala carried into a computing faculty retreat three years ago. During an open-ended discussion he asked, “Why not do more?”
Building on the College of Computing’s history of socially beneficial computing projects, Vempala envisioned formalizing the effort, involving students and focusing on making a direct impact.
To that end, he partnered with computer science professor Ellen Zegura and Michael Best, a joint professor of computing and international affairs, to create the Computing for Good (https://www.cc.gatech.edu/inside/computingforgood) class, first offered in the spring of 2008 with 17 students. There was no reading or tests. Instead, the students formed teams to tackle various social, political and health problems and search for computing solutions.
“We decided to look at the really big problems of our society, wherever they are,” Vempala said.
The first projects looked at issues in Georgia and others in Africa and elsewhere around the globe. The problems were widely varied, as were the solutions.
Among them were an online blood-safety monitoring system for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to use in 14 African countries, a system to organize homeless shelters, an online learning tool for summer and after-school programs for children in low-income Atlanta neighborhoods and a tent to record video testimonies of victims of atrocities in Liberia.
“It’s theory and execution together,” Vempala said. “The goal was to deliver something. We figured that students would end up learning in the process. And I think it worked. Solving some of these problems required totally new ideas.”
The blood-safety system is already being tested by the CDC, which previously had only paper records in its labs in Africa, Vempala said. By bringing the data together online, CDC researchers can study trends and test the efficacy of HIV/AIDS programs.
For the United Way in Atlanta, the homeless shelter tracking program also replaced paper records. Previously, shelter workers had to dig through paperwork and make a flurry of phone calls to find open space for homeless people seeking a shelter. Now, they can find that information instantly with the computer program. They also can call up a person’s case history and track how many people successfully “graduate” to more permanent housing.
“There are clear needs, and then there are resources,” Vempala said. “Connecting these efficiently, that is a major problem. And it fits squarely into computer science.”
This year’s class has developed another set of solutions. One project tackles the challenge of communications in the wake of a disaster. Situations such as those in Haiti after the earthquake are so unstable that, often, communications infrastructure is fractured, Vempala said.
The team’s solution was as simple as a strand of computer code. By uploading the code onto computers and other simple personal devices, users will be able to connect with each other, creating an ad hoc network. The benefit is that, even if one user then loses access, the network remains connected.
Ashwin Paranjpe, CS 09, worked on the project and said the communications problem required the class to think of a flexible, low-cost answer instead of an expensive development of hardware or software.
Currently the project, called MyMANET, is being developed into a nonprofit venture.
“It was one of the most comprehensive software projects I have worked on to date,” Paranjpe said. “We worked on this project to do something good for society. Such a motivation is quite different, and it was surprisingly much more powerful than working just to get good grades or develop personal skills or make money.
“At the end of the class, we had built a simple solution to a very complex problem. It has made me realize we have the power to apply technology to crucial societal problems.”
Since graduating, Paranjpe has started working for an online security company, but in his free time he continues looking for opportunities to compute for good.
Vempala has seen that impact on the students who come through the class. “It was clear they drew something that would stay with them the rest of their lives.”
What’s next on his slate of projects to tackle? No less than world peace. “We have to figure out how to do it.”