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The Tech Heroes of Hilo

Left to Right: Wallace Hamada, Mike Purvis, Ryder Donahue, Kayton Summers. Photo courtesy of Microsoft Imagine Cup.

Left to Right: Wallace Hamada, Mike Purvis, Ryder Donahue, Kayton Summers. Photo courtesy of Microsoft Imagine Cup.

By Keane Carlin, Sports Editor

Over the summer, a group from UH Hilo represented the United States in Russia for the largest student-technology contest in the world.  The team didn’t place, but they did receive the most positive feedback from the audience.

Four UH Hilo technology students comprised Team Poli’ahu, the official champions of the 2013 Microsoft Imagine Cup for the United States: Ryder Donahue (a junior), recent graduates Wallace Hamada, Kayton Summers, and official spokesman Mike Purvis.

The group created an application (app) to be used on smart-phones for their 2012-2013 school year senior project.  Their original idea was an app that would track native and invasive species on Mauna Kea.  The way it worked was that a person would see a plant/insect and snap a picture of it on their smart-phone within their app.  The app would then show the user what kind of plant/insect it was (if it was native or not) and immediately post the location using the GPS of the phone.  If the plant/insect was invasive and spreading, Park Rangers could eradicate it quickly.

That idea got them invited to a week-long, all-expenses paid, trip to Silicon Valley, courtesy of Microsoft.

“When we think of Microsoft we think of Bill Gates, the Bill Gates foundation and basically humanitarian things,” said team member Mike Purvis.  “So we thought the whole competition was about how we could help people and how we could use technology for humanitarian reasons.”

In the first few days of the Purvis-described “tech-boot-camp,” the team realized that they were being prepped for the business-side of technology.  They were given lots of information about raising funds for their ideas and for getting the most money out of their idea.  Team Poli`ahu quickly came to the conclusion that selling their app for the small population that visited Mauna Kea wasn’t going to win the competition.

During the boot-camp, the team talked about a new idea that would make a larger impact.  They realized it would be pretty easy to take the technology they had already developed and apply it to disasters and hazards.

“While we were there we had this moment where we huddled together and were like: ‘Alright guys, you know how we have talked about changing our idea to make it work for disaster response?  I think we should change the entire thing around.’  And we did,” said Purvis.

The team said that the idea couldn’t be credited to any one specific team member, but rather that the idea emerged organically through discussions.

Instead of taking a picture of a plant, the person using the app could take a picture of a wildfire and the information would automatically update and alert authorities.  The app was aptly named “Help Me Help.”  It took about six months for the team to create the Mauna Kea app, and less than two weeks of late nights to change it.  No other group from the United States switched their idea on the fly and Purvis believed that it resonated with the judges, getting the team invited to the second round and eventually winning the entire United States competition.

“I was concerned because we were up against some guys from Ivy League schools.  There was a team from Harvard and Boston University and I don’t think anyone had ever heard of Hilo before we arrived,” said Purvis, cementing the thoughts of all who have followed their journey thus far.  Not bad for a group hailing from a small school with a fraction of the resources.

“We came with a pretty solid, working prototype.  We have the disaster app for the Windows phone, which is new to the market, but it’s working for that beautifully.  And, we have one working for the Android phone,” said Purvis on the availability of their app.  “We have a nice website and Windows application that shows a map of all the places and submissions that have been uploaded.  The product is pretty much ready right now,” said Purvis.

Team Poli`ahu is currently in discussions with the Hawaii State Civil Defense.  They have also been invited to the next State Civil Defense meeting.  There is a possibility that the app will be in use soon.  “If Civil Defense used it they would have control of the map and see where the hazards are.  They could be control of deciding when to get rid of the hazard from the map and it could also archive each hazard,” said Purvis.

Thanks to the tech-boot-camp, the team learned how much they could sell their app.  Purvis said they are still figuring out the numbers, but that ten cents per person, per year, for the population of Hawaii, would be a reasonable price.  With a state population of 1.39 million, that would bring the group a nice paycheck every year.  The Civil Defense would pick up the tab.

Purvis said that another private-owned technology-cell-phone service employed by the Civil Defense sends out mass text messages during an emergency and that “Help Me Help” would cost the same, if not cheaper.  In a chance meeting with a FEMA official in Portland, Oregon, Purvis said that he learned that FEMA was looking into creating a similar technology.

“It just shows that there is a need.  We have great technology in smart phones with their GPS and high quality cameras, there’s no reason we shouldn’t leverage it to help with disasters,” said Purvis.

After winning the United States competition, they were coached by Microsoft officials to fine-tune their presentation.  They also were given access to special accounts that offered expensive, top of the line software for three years.  Team Poli`ahu also be sported the finest Sig Zane aloha shirts and Microsoft shipped out many leis to Russia for the team to show the judges some aloha.

Team Poli`ahu was one of two teams from the United States who earned the right to be part of the 86-team competition.  Those 86 teams of students hailed from 69 countries.  There were six different categories with Team Poli`ahu being part of the 31-team, second-largest category” “Innovation.”  First place went to Team Colinked from the United Kingdom for their innovative app SoundSYNK which connects mobile phones via Wi-Fi or Bluetooth to sync various forms of media.  The other United States team “Bears Unlimited” hailed from the University of Central Arkansas, but didn’t place in the largest category: “World Citizenship.”  The teams arrived in St. Petersburg, Russia on July 8 and after two days of presentations; the winners were announced on the night of July 11.

The worldwide competition started in 2003 and has since attracted 1.65 million students from over 190 countries.  No team from the state of Hawaii has ever been invited to the national competition (in the U.S.), let alone the World Cup.   Not that the team hasn’t already enjoyed the luxuries of Microsoft; their trips to California were all expenses paid with good food and connections with people that were priceless.

“We feel like there is a pretty good opportunity to get a good job with Microsoft after this,” said Purvis about the experience.  “A few months ago I was thinking: ‘which jobs am I going to apply for and how am I going to stand out?’  The people we have met have opened a ton of doors.  That’s been the biggest wow moment.”

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