August, 2014

  • The Latest Idea in Wearable Tech: the Panic Button Bracelet

    By James Rooney, Senior Program Manager, Citizenship and Public Affairs

    It’s a wearable “panic button” for the unexpected dangerous circumstance. Attached to a bracelet, the panic button will signal to a Windows Phone OS, sending a 30-second voice clip to a pre-identified emergency contact with the phone. A GPS system will keep track of the person wearing the device.

    SafeWear was designed by a team of Microsoft software engineers led by Thambu Zaemenock Kamalabai, who came up with the idea after hearing about a woman attacked on a bus in India. “She didn’t have a phone or any way of notifying someone,” Thambu said. “She was totally alone.”

    Thambu wanted to come up with a device for people who may need to call for help but don’t carry a phone. Children will be able to wear the bracelet and be connected to parents’ phones. Runners can connect to a friend or family member. Travelers and seniors can be connected to loved ones.

    “I have a five-year-old daughter and I’m not ready to give her a phone so a wearable solution is perfect,” Thambu said. “It’s safe and easy to operate in case of an emergency.”

    At our Hackathon last month at Microsoft headquarters in Redmond, WA, employees from across the globe worked in teams, hacking for two days to come up with apps and solutions for government, consumers, nonprofits and more. More than 30 of the teams created Tech for Good solutions designed to address social issues. 

    Thambu and his team won in the Tech for Good category. Judges said the project was innovative, useful, and they liked the wearable angle. The team was awarded a $1,000 donation gift card for YouthSpark on GlobalGiving, a crowdfunding program that finances important projects around the world.

    The two other winners in the Tech for Good category were Ability EyeGaze which uses Microsoft tech like the Surface 3 and Kinect to enable people with ALS and other degenerative diseases to control their assistive technologies, such as wheelchairs and communication tools, using only their eyes. Another winner, MATT: Microsoft Accessibility Testing Tool, makes accessibility testing for products faster and easier.

    Team SafeWear is already turning its winning idea into a reality. The team is currently working with hardware engineers to perfect the bracelet prototype, and has been pitching the concept and product to potential investors and Microsoft development teams.

    Microsoft Citizenship is proud to sponsor the Tech for Good category as part of our commitment to creating solutions that serve the needs of people around the globe.

    About the //oneweek Hackathon, Thambus said, “It was such a great experience turning my idea into a product, I can’t wait to take this to the next level.”

  • Seattle girls learn the "undercover greatness" of computer science

    By Yvonne Thomas, Senior Program Manager, Microsoft Citizenship & Public Affairs

    Since the age of five, Hana Yohannes knew she wanted to create apps and work with technology for a living. “I saw so much power in computers in terms of what they can do for us,” she says.

    The 16 year-old Seattle high school student is one of 20 girls who spent their summer on Microsoft’s campus participating in Girls Who Code, a program we support as a part of Microsoft YouthSpark.

    Girls Who Code is an intensive seven-week immersion that offers hands on, project-based computer science education while providing a glimpse into life at some of the most vibrant technology companies. Participants learn several coding languages, mobile app development, how to program robots, and web design. Students are paired with female mentors, take field trips to meet other professionals, and learn how computer science is applied to the world on a day-to-day basis.

    Price Jimerson, another Girls Who Code participant, first became hooked on computer science through another YouthSpark program: Technology Education And Literacy in Schools (TEALS). TEALS pairs engineers from companies such as Microsoft with classroom teachers to teach computer science daily in 70 schools in 12 states. Price was excited when she learned that she would work with a Windows Phone every day through TEALS. “Then I realized it was hard work,” she acknowledges. But soon she was creating apps and even posting them in the Windows Phone Store.

    “Computer science is the greatest opportunity there is,” Price explains. “But it’s an undercover greatness because most kids don’t know about it.”

    That’s exactly what we’re addressing through Microsoft YouthSpark: helping more young people imagine the possibilities they unlock for themselves, their families, their communities and the world by learning how to use, create and apply technology.

    One of the ways that Girls Who Code teaches how computer science is applied at companies such as Microsoft is by giving participants the opportunity to “work backwards,” by visualizing how a certain person’s needs can be addressed with technology. Price’s team dreamed up an imaginary 70 year-old retiree named Edith Johnson, who requires a wheelchair and has impaired vision. But Edith, according to Price, still wants to go to the Seattle Art Museum. Their solution was to create an app that uses geolocation to provide large-text descriptions of exhibits nearby, making Edith’s overall visit more convenient and enjoyable.

    Girls Who Code participants at Microsoft’s headquarters in Redmond, Washington were also able to design elements of physical computing. They worked with Arduino, an open-source electronics platform to build apps that interact with sensors and microphones. Hana and her team created a circuit board that turns a music app on and off with the clap of a hand.

    Girls Who Code and programs like it tackle one of the tough challenges that we’re working to address through YouthSpark – that too few young people have access to computer science education. Too few receive hands-on experience with the kinds of hardware and software that Girls Who Code provides.

    “Being in the computer science field had always been something that I thought about but never really had the tools or resources to delve deeply into,” observes Bemnet Assefa, a junior at the Evergreen High School Campus in Seattle’s Highline School District. “The Girls Who Code Summer Immersion program provided me with the opportunity. That’s why I’ve dedicated my summer to it, and I don’t regret it one bit.”

    Bemnet also enjoyed spending time on Microsoft’s campus. “The environment is very laid back and there are a lot of resources that are available,” she says.

    As they wrapped up their summer at Microsoft, Hana, Price and Bemnet reflected on how to reach other girls, and young people in general, about the near-infinite possibilities technology education presents. They agreed that common perceptions need to be confronted. “People think technology companies are full of geeks who wear thick glasses and don’t go outside,” Price observed, in a building situated a block away from one of Microsoft’s soccer fields. “Really it’s an awesome culture of people who do coding for the greater good.”

    If you are inspired by these terrific young women, and want to learn about what a career in technology might hold for you, we invite you to visit our YouthSpark Hub, a place to explore free resources, such as coding lessons, and programs to help you imagine and create a better future. By accessing these and other opportunities, you, too, can be a girl (or a boy) who codes.

  • Harnessing the Power of Technology to Fight Human Trafficking

    Guest Post by Professor Mary Leary, Professor of Law at the Catholic University of America

    Human trafficking is a social problem as complex as it is horrific.  Often referred to as “modern day slavery,” the effect of this victimization is enormous.  It encompasses a crime that is both domestic and global, affects both men and women, injures both adults and children, and occurs concomitantly in both public and hidden spaces.

    Similar to its efforts to combat online child exploitation, which led to its successful collaboration with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children and the creation of Photo DNA, Microsoft has begun partnering with leaders in the field  to combat child sex trafficking.  While a body of research is beginning to emerge regarding this horrible phenomenon, much remains to be learned.  Notwithstanding that reality, there are at least two points regarding child sex trafficking on which all would agree.  First, technology is playing an increasingly significant role in the commission of child sex trafficking – and technology also offers new ways to help fight these crimes.  Second, the solution to combatting this complex crime is multi-disciplinary and will demand leaders of all sectors of society to join together to counter this assault on our children at every front.

    On July 24, Microsoft took an important step in its initiative to combat human trafficking by convening a “generator” discussion in Washington, D.C.  Generators are facilitated sessions designed to find opportunities for technology interventions within specific issue areas.  Consistent with its continuing work with the White House Office of Science and  Technology, Microsoft convened this generator as a forum for many of the nation’s leaders in the fight against child sex trafficking to join together and discuss ways in which technology is used and can be harnessed to disrupt child sex trafficking. 

    The facilitated discussion, organized by Dan Bross, Senior Director of Corporate Citizenship, and Courtney Gregoire, Senior Attorney in the Digital Crimes Unit, brought together representatives from law enforcement, non-governmental organizations, academia, federal authorities, and private industry to brainstorm about possible areas of focus for Microsoft as it moves forward in its commitment.  I had the opportunity to participate in this important meeting.  As one of six recipients of funding from Microsoft to conduct research regarding this issue, it was truly an honor to be able to share the results of my work with such a group of diverse leaders in the field.  I presented the participants my findings regarding the role of technology in child sex trafficking cases, which were recently published in the Duke Journal of Gender Law and Policy.

    The bulk of the day was spent garnering information from these diverse actors regarding the manifestations and characteristics of child sex trafficking and the need for these groups to work together to combat it.  The participants, encouraged to think “outside the box,” generated several areas of potential focus. Although these organizations may take different positions on some issues, they found much common ground in their analysis and creative ideas for solutions. These are now being processed by Microsoft to determine next steps in contributing to a comprehensive response. 

    Technology has, unfortunately, played a dual role in child exploitation.  Yet it can – and must - also play a role in disrupting this crime.  All who participated in the discussion in Washington are committed to that disruption and hopefully moved us closer to its realization.

  • Microsoft Celebrates Student Innovators at Imagine Cup World Finals

    By Jane Meseck, Director, Corporate Citizenship

    Last week marked the 2014 Microsoft Imagine Cup World Finals, where more than 125 students, representing 34 countries around the world, traveled to Seattle for a week of inspiring presentations, intense hands-on judging and student project showcases – all to compete for the grand prize: $50,000 and a private meeting with Bill Gates.

    Throughout the week, student teams competed in the Games, Innovation and World Citizenship categories to showcase their products and innovations to panels of judges. Student projects addressed a number of issues, including accessibility, social media, physical therapy “gamification” and much more.

    More than 80 percent of World Citizenship teams created innovative ways to use technology in the medical field. This year’s grand prize winner, the Eyenaemia team from Australia, created an app that digitally screens for anemia by taking a simple selfie on your smart phone. Below is an overview of all the winners in each category:

    Games Category:

    • First Place, $50,000 prize and PAX Boot Camp: Team Brainy Studio (Russia) Project: TurnOn
    • Second Place, $10,000 prize: Team Bomon (Korea) Project: Under Bed
    • Third Place, $5,000 prize: Team Illogic (Egypt) Project: Puppy in Bubble

    Innovation Category:

    • First Place, $50,000 prize and Microsoft Ventures Boot Camp: Team Estimeet (New Zealand) Project: Estimeet
    • Second Place, $10,000 prize: Team Tep (Hungary) Project: Tep
    • Third Place, $5,000 prize: Team Butterfly (Bahrain) Project: Nail Polish Mixer

    World Citizenship Category:

    • First Place, $50,000 prize and Microsoft YouthSpark Boot Camp: Team Eyenaemia (Australia) Project: Eyenaemia
    • Second Place, $10,000 prize: Team SMART crew (Taiwan) Project: Versatility of Usens: From Lab to Life
    • Third Place, $5,000 prize: Team Access Earth (Ireland) Project: Access Earth

    Imagine Cup Day at Seattle’s Museum of History and Industry (MOHAI) brought the event to an exciting conclusion. Sponsored by Avanade, the day featured performances by D20 Brass Band and the School of Rock, among others. Imagine Cup competitors demonstrated their projects and the public had the opportunity to vote for their favorite Imagine Cup project. Team Chemicalium from Bosnia, took home the “Avanade People's Choice Award,” along with a check for $2,000. The event also featured a surprise, when Robert Feldstein, Director, Office of Policy and Innovation at the Seattle Mayor's Office, joined Lori Forte Harnick, General Manager, Microsoft Citizenship and Public Affairs, on stage to proclaim August 2nd as Imagine Cup Day in Seattle.

    Microsoft Imagine Cup is Microsoft’s premier student technology program and competition, and a cornerstone of the Microsoft YouthSpark initiative. It provides an opportunity for student technologists, developers and aspiring entrepreneurs from all academic backgrounds to collaborate, develop a technology application, create a business plan and gain a keen understanding of what is needed to bring a concept to market.

    For more details on last week’s event and announcements, please visit the Imagine Cup Virtual Press Room.

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