Mobile App Challenge: Inventing Small Ways to Make a Big Difference

Congratulations to the CITRIS @ Berkeley Mobile App Challenge Winners!

Most students aspire to both do well and do good in school. A semester-long app-development competition helped give traction for 50 graduate and undergraduate students at UC Berkeley. The Mobile App Challenge, a project sponsored by CITRIS, the CITRIS Social Apps Lab, and the Berkeley Center for New Media, recently culminated in a public Demo Day pitch-competition on May 7.  Although business models ranged widely and the participants were drawn from 15 different academic majors, the contestants all addressed serious social challenges within the scope of CITRIS’s mission.

WattTime Shift team wins the “Judge’s Overall” prize. Their app allows users to track inputs to the power grid to minimize their carbon footprint.

The “Judge’s Overall Prize” was awarded to WattTime Shift, which allows users to track inputs to the power grid to minimize their carbon footprint. In his pitch at the Demo Day, CEO Gavin McCormick explained that different sources of power production contribute to the grid in different proportions at different times depending on weather and light conditions, wind levels, and even water levels in dammed power-generating reservoirs. And each source of electricity generation has a different kind and degree of impact on the environment. Using energy when the grid is fed mostly by coal, for instance, contributes more carbon and particulates to the environment than plugging in when sources like wind and solar are playing a bigger part. Given a user’s location, WattTime Shift will appraise where the electricity is coming from and recommend the best (cleanest) time to engage in electricity-intense activities, like drying the laundry or charging an electric car.

WattTime Shift first locates the user through a cell phone’s GPS and then collects real-time data about grid conditions from local electricity market entities. It combines those with historical data from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, the Western Electricity Coordinating Council, and the US Environmental Protection Agency. All these data sources are analyzed to give an up-to-the-minute history of the electricity streaming (or soon to stream) through a location’s outlets.

For example, a user wanting to do laundry plugs two numbers into the WattTime Shift’s query: “I need to do something that uses electricity for x hours out of the next y hours,” where x is, say, 2 (for one hour of washing and one of drying) and y may be 12 because the user needs his laundry to be done sometime in the next 12 hours, before he dresses for work the next day. The app recommends starting the laundry at 2 pm, informing the user that, by doing so, he can use 13.3% clean energy, a 58% improvement over the daily average for a similar job.

In addition to the Judges’ Overall Award category, the competition included three others: Most Improved, Social Impact, and Public Choice. Each winning team was presented with a $1,000 check from CITRIS with support from the Mobile App Challenge co-sponsors AT&T and the Center on Civility and Democratic Engagement at the Goldman School of Public Policy.

Prescribd team wins the “Social Impact” Prize. Their app is designed to make online prescription fulfillment fast, secure, and accessible to all users.

Winning the “Social Impact” category was an app designed to make online prescription fulfillment fast, secure, and accessible to all users regardless of their technical prowess. Called Prescribd, the app lets users receive a prescription from their doctor, send it to a pharmacy, and pick it up all on the same day. Physicians using Prescribd write prescriptions through an easy-to-use and secure web portal. The patient is instantly notified on her mobile phone when the prescription comes through,  allowing her to review and forward it along to a participating pharmacist.

Prescription fraud and HIPPA compliance are both big issues, says Howard Wu, the team leader, so authentication and security must be watertight.  “The whole process runs through Prescribd’s encrypted servers, and the app uses a two-factor authentication to ensure security,” Wu says. He and his partners Bryan Sieber and Evan Fossier plan to add a translator to help non-English speakers to safely and easily fulfill their subscriptions, too.

MoodStreamer wins “Most Improved” prize. Their app helps people with mood disorders to track and log their symptoms and report to doctors.

Taking the “Most Improved” prize  (awarded to recognize the fact that some teams entered the semester with relatively mature projects already underway, while others first conceived of their apps only after the Challenge began) was MoodStreamer, an application that helps people with mood disorders to track and log their symptoms and report them accurately and fully to their doctors. The nature of many mood disorders, including depression and bipolar disorder, often inhibits patients from accurately, consistently, and persistently reporting their psychological states over extended periods of time. Asked by a psychiatrist how the past week has been, a patient may be hard-pressed to describe anything but his current mood, which may cast a heavy shadow backward over the entire week. So it can be very difficult for a doctor or therapist to evaluate a patient’s long-term state of mind.

Therapists and doctors recommend that mood disorder patients keep daily records, says MoodStream’s team leader Orianna DeMasi, a PhD student in computer science. Unfortunately, such patients too often do not comply for more than the first couple of weeks of treatment, she says.

MoodStreamer bypasses the need for self reporting by establishing correlations between the user’s mood and certain quantifiable kinds of automatically detectable behaviors. For example, the app will track texting, registering both the kinds of words appearing in SMS messages and the frequency and length of texts. Using the phone’s GPS and accelerometer the app can also estimate the amount and type of physical activity on any given day, the hours and quality of sleep, and the number of excursions a patient is taking away from home. Extremes of any of those things may indicate mania, depression, or other conditions.

“Deciding on the final prizewinners was a tough decision,” says CITRIS Deputy Director Camille Crittenden. “All the projects were creative, and the pitches well polished. We are pleased to recognize these four for the advanced technology and algorithms required for their implementation and the promise of their impact on society.”

The final award of the night was chosen not by the judges, but by the audience of students, faculty, and others on hand during the presentations and by YouTube viewers of videos made by each team.  The “Audience Choice Prize” was awarded to Two Cents, an app that aims to multiply pennies into big bucks by making donations of at least two cents a day irresistible to millions of ordinary people. The group, led by Maruchi Kim, specifically addresses fresh water, housing, and education shortages around the world by converting pocket change into social change.

The inspiration for this competition is the UC Merced Mobile App Challenge, which began in 2011. In Fall 2013, Rani Yadav-Ranjan, CEO of Gray Cloud Technology and a co-founder of Merced’s competition, helped Crittenden expand the Mobile App Challenge to UC Berkeley, adding a CITRIS twist by emphasizing apps’ potential contributions to society.

“The purpose of this program is to focus on skills that are not easy to acquire or necessary for school, but that are key to business innovation,” says  Dan Gillette, a visiting scholar in the Data and Democracy Initiative at CITRIS. “Our hope is that we can eventually spread the challenge to all four CITRIS campuses.”

Judges for the CITRIS@Berkeley Demo Day competition included Michael Berolzheimer, the founder of Bee Partners; Larry Rosenthal, director of UC Berkeley’s Center on Civility & Democratic Engagement; Rich Levinson, the founder, BrainAid; Tejpal Chadha, vice president of cloud services at eGain; and CITRIS Deputy Director Camille Crittenden.

by Gordy Slack

Read about the CITRIS @ Merced Mobile App Challenge winners.