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July 20, 2009
Imagine no hunger. Or poverty. Imagine a sustainable world, with universal literacy, complete gender equality, and healthy, well-fed children. Imagine every woman receiving prenatal care. Imagine no one infected with HIV. Imagine nations in harmony.
The United Nations took these utopian ideas seriously enough to name them as its eight Millennium Development Goals. This caught the eye of Microsoft Corp., which in 2002 issued a challenge to the students of the world: Let’s make these happen.
And the imagining began.
In 2003, Microsoft sponsored the first Imagine Cup competition, in which computing and technology students were invited to submit innovations in a single category: software design. The big condition? Entries had to, in some way, further the realization of the UN's Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). In later years, the Imagine Cup added categories such as game design, short film, embedded development and others.
This year, a pair of Georgia Tech-educated students calling themselves Team Curious managed to imagine something just a bit better than any other team in the world. On July 7, in the land of the Sphinx, Team Curious was named the winner in the MashUp category. Some 59,000 students representing 142 countries competed in Imagine Cup 2009, and Microsoft invited 148 finalist teams to Cairo.
Team Curious won for its Web application "MDG Actors." The site allows users to click on any of the eight MDGs, then instantly crawls the Web and displays news and other information grouped under more specific topic headings. The mashup highlights names of individual persons, and users can scroll over those people's names for pop-up menus of additional information (such as the individual's Wikipedia page, the latest relevant posts on Twitter, and other links).
Behind Team Curious are Kathy Pham, who earned both her bachelor’s (2007) and master's (2009) degrees from the College of Computing, and undergraduate Marc Paré, a mechanical engineering major. Not only did they come up with MDG Actors, Pham and Paré also maintained an active blog devoted to Team Curious, and they used it to present their "manifesto":
"MDG Actors is our first hi-tech composition," they wrote. "It is as much programming as it is story-telling, empathy and design. It leverages the power of emerging Web technology to provide an interactive, playful experience. Its goal is inspiration, and it provides the jumping off points for turning that inspiration into action. By itself, our website won’t overturn the 'rusting DNA' our generation faces, but we hope it at least provides the same glimmer of the future for you as it does for us. It is one of our first steps in organizing our new world for a brighter tomorrow."
Indeed, it was enough not only to get them to Cairo as the only U.S. representative in the MashUp category, but also to make them the only U.S. team to win a category.
"Travel and perks aside, it was my first time ever being in a room of so many motivated, creative students from all over the world who want to use technology to change the world," Pham said of the experience. "The energy in the presentation rooms was amazing. It was great to exchange ideas with people, discuss how our project can advance in the future, and see why and how the other teams created their technologies."
Having a few days in Cairo wasn't bad either. No stranger to international travel—she spent a year and a half in France at the Georgia Tech-Lorraine campus while working toward her master's degree, as well as a summer in Barcelona (Spain) as an undergraduate—Pham relished her time among the pyramids. Paré also attended Georgia Tech-Lorraine in fall 2008.
"While other [Imagine Cup category finalists] required a devotion of 24 to 36 hours while in Cairo, the MashUp competition was Web-based, so we already did all of our work in advance," she said. "We had a 30-minute conversation with one of the judges and were told to go enjoy Cairo. Therefore, we had much time to meet other competitors, enjoy presentations, lie by the pool of the five-star hotel and take a trip into the city.
"Our travels include organized trips to Giza to see the pyramids and Sphinx, a 'felucca' ride down the Nile, and a visit to the Bazaar,” Pham said. "The actual awards ceremony was held on a stage in front of the pyramids! I know all the students—myself included—were stunned. It was a wonderful culture experience."