CATEGORY: News

Turning big ideas into solutions

UC CITRIS rewards student teams for developing innovative tools.

Nikita Bier (left) and Jeremy Blalock, UC Berkeley

UC’s Center for Information Technology Research in the Interest of Society (CITRIS) rewarded teams of students for developing innovative tools that may prove handy for politics, health care and seeking social services.

An online tool where you can find out — within seconds — how the next election could affect your financial life. A pen that lights up to help autistic kids and stroke victims write by hand. Text messages that let people know where they can find food banks, job assistance or day care.

These ideas may seem to have little in common, but all fit squarely within the job description of the Center for Information Technology Research in the Interest of Society (CITRIS), a UC Berkeley-based think tank where science meets entrepreneurship for the good of society. The ideas were just a few of the winners in the recent Big Ideas competition at CITRIS.

Since radical feminist Carol Hanisch coined the phrase, “the personal is the political,” in a 1969 essay, one might say that American politics have become less personal, with declining voter turnout and rising cynicism about the political process.

Everyone from rock stars to policy wonks has tried to bridge the gap between Washington and the rest of the country. But two dynamic UC Berkeley undergraduates, Nikita Bier and Jeremy Blalock (in photo above), may have come along at the right time, when technology offers unprecedented access to the ties that bind us to government, whether we know it or not.

Bier, a political economy and business administration major, and Blalock, who studies electrical engineering and computer science, came up with an algorithm that allows anyone to type in a few simple facts about themselves — including age, ZIP code and income — to find out how the agendas of the presidential candidates will affect their lives and the U.S. government.

The online tool — which they named Politify — took the first prize of $20,000 in CITRIS’ Big Ideas competition, April 5.

“It was really shocking to me that we were picking the most powerful person in the world based on emotions: the way they talk, the way they look,” said Bier, 22. “I wanted to find a way to quantify their proposals. We read their websites, and we wrote direct mathematical algorithms for what they propose.”

If that sounds wonkish, it’s not. One writer tried Politify’s beta test version, and the results surprised her. Taxwise, she’d make out a little better financially if Mitt Romney were elected president. But the government does a lot worse: Revenues would drop $900 billion. Under an Obama administration, she’d pay $106 more in taxes, but government revenues go up $160 billion.

The Politify website is still in its early stages and is fairly simple. But perhaps the most striking thing about Politify is that it people using it do feel personally connected.

Its software has attracted 250,000 uses and press coverage from U.S. News and World Report, MTV, Glamour magazine and the influential tech tome Mashable.  Advisers include Will Glazer, the founder of music download site Pandora, and Emmanuel Saez, professor of economics at UC Berkeley, a Macarthur fellow who directs the Center for Equitable Growth. And since the team’s contest victory, they’ve been able to hire two more UC Berkeley students as staff.

But the real bellwether for success may be the buzz that Politify is generating on both sides of the aisle. “President Obama’s chief technical officer tweeted about us,” said Bier. “And the Heritage Foundation has been writing about us.”

As Politify’s roster of advisers reveals, the Bay Area is unique in the country, and possibly in the world, for its nexus of social activism, business and technology. UC’s CITRIS program was founded to make those resources available to students.

“There just aren’t many places out there where a college sophomore can get advice on her startup from the founder of an Internet company listed on the New York Stock Exchange,” said Yvette Subramanian, CITRIS’ Big Ideas coordinator. “CITRIS leverages one of the top research university systems in the world, matching professors and students with highly successful partners in business and government.”

Lighting up for autism

Still, new ideas require what scientists call “the Eureka moment.” Twenty-eight-year-old UC Berkeley engineering graduate student Evan Chang-Siu was having Thanksgiving dinner with a college friend and his parents when his moment arrived.

Chang-Siu was chatting about his research with his friend’s mother, an occupational therapist named Kohar Enemark who directs The Lighthouse Project, a center for children with autism and other sensory and motor skills issues in San Jose.

“I work with sensors, motors, software and actuators — which is engineering-speak for anything that makes something move,” he said. “I was explaining this to Kohar. And she says one of the problems with children with disabilities, especially kids with autism, is that when they write, they push the pen too hard or too soft. So they just give up. They lose motivation.”

The family started batting ideas around. “At first we were thinking, what if we have a glove with a force sensor in the finger that lights up and tells them when they do it right?” Chang-Siu recalls.

“Why do you need a glove?” asked Kohar’s husband, Keizo. “Why don’t you make a pen?”

Six months later, Chang-Siu had a prototype and five partners, three UC Berkeley graduate students and two undergraduates: Raechel Tan, Wenjie Chen, Jonathan Beard, Matthew Brown and Dominick Lim. The PikaPen, as it is now called, won third prize in the Big Idea competition and $7,000 in startup funds. Chang-Siu is looking forward to testing his invention with children.

Here are the other projects recognized in this year’s CITRIS Big Ideas competition:

Pathologicode. This project uses new technology to detect diabetes before it happens by gauging microcirculation in the eye using non-invasive methods. Led by Wilson To, a pathology Ph.D. student at UC Davis, the project won second place and $10,000.

Pop-Up Radio Archive: Rescuing Lost Culture. Students at UC Berkeley realized that independent radio producers hold culturally significant collections, but have no way of archiving them. UC Berkeley students Anne Wootton, Bailey Smith and Christen Penny worked with producers and national radio organizations to build a prototype oral history archive. They won an honorable mention and $4,000 in startup funds.

TxtWorker. Because they realized that many low-income people don’t have computers, two UC Berkeley undergraduates came up with the idea of offering information about social services via text message. This project won an honorable mention in the Big Ideas competition and $4,000.

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