For the last 10 years, Microsoft have held the prestigious Imagine Cup, a competition open to students around the world to use technology, creativity and knowledge to help solve global issues and make a difference in the world.
Recently Software4Students interviewed 2011 winners ‘’Team Hermes’’, made up of four students from Sligo IT; Aíne Conaghan, Calum Cawley, Matthew Padden and James McNamara. The team’s lead software developer, James McNamara, provides some valuable information for those who wish to become the next MS Imagine Cup winner. of 4 students from Sligo, Ireland focussing on their initial thoughts of the competition, involvement and experience overall.
Software4Students (S4S): Hi James! First of all congratulations to you and your team on winning Microsoft´s Imagine Cup 2011! It´s been almost two months since you won, how has your journey been so far?
James: It’s been amazing, and very busy! The Imagine Cup gave us the opportunity to take a nugget of an idea, develop it and present it to a global audience. The solution’ s development was a very intense process and a great learning experience for four students to go through, and especially getting the feedback and insight you can receive through the Imagine Cup. Winning the competition has enabled us to learn even more, like learning how to work with the media (they are all, of course, very nice people!), how to pitch a product in a business environment and make great contacts.
S4S:Could you give us a brief overview on what your project consisted of?
James: Our solution monitors and evaluates driving behaviour and provides real time feedback to both the driver and a third party. It consists of three main parts. Firstly, we have an in-car device, which plugs into the car. This monitors the driver’s behaviour and evaluates their performance. If the driver behaves poorly, the device alarms, much like a seat belt alarm. This monitored data is sent to and stored on the Azure cloud. Secondly, this data displayed on a Silverlight website using Bing Maps, which sections of a completed journey colour coded depending on the drivers behaviour. Thirdly, if any dangerous driving behaviour is recorded updates are sent to our “vehicle owner” mobile app. So in essence, through making drivers aware of their dangerous driving habits they can use the tools we provide to make themselves a safer driver, and safer drivers mean safer roads.
S4S: Wow, sounds amazing! So where did your idea come from?
James: Road deaths are a huge problem in Ireland, especially in the North West, and we wanted to build a system that would reduce road traffic accidents. The initial idea was for the development of a pot-hole monitoring system. We believed that if authorities were aware of, and fixed the bad roads, it would improve safety. We realized that the real problem with road safety was not roads but drivers, and from there the idea evolved. We designed a system that is globally adaptable and scalable, as this is a global problem.
S4S:It certainly is. So you had the problem and the solution, what approach did you take on developing the project?
James: We wanted a massively scalable architecture as this was global solution. So we decided on implementing a cloud solution. We also wanted an easily deliverable solution, so decided on using a phone app and a web app. The most efficient way of implementing this type of solution we found was with Azure, as the homogeneous nature of the Microsoft products meant we could develop the system very quickly. So we built our SQL Azure database, built our WCF services to transport and parse data and fronted ended it with Silverlight. Silverlight was great as we could copy and paste a lot of code from the Windows Phone apps to the web app and vice versa, especially the mapping code as they both supports Bing Maps. Our in car device runs the .Net Micro framework so that could simply consume the WCF services. Apart from some tricky work with the communication from the device to the cloud, it all work perfectly.
S4S:Well it certainly worked for you and your team. So tell us - what are Team Hermes’ plans for the future?
James: The plans are big! We plan to set up a company shortly to commercialize the product. We have received a lot of positive feedback from the business community and the public in general, there seems to be a real desire out there to see this product on the shelves. The feeling is that this product really could save lives on the roads, and if we could deliver on this it would be amazing! We have received massive support from our college IT Sligo, and especially the Innovation Centre based there and also Microsoft Ireland.
S4S: We wish you the best of luck with it too! For those students out there who dream of winning the Imagine Cup, what advice would you give them?
James: The best advice I can give is to find a topic you have real passion for, and give it all you’ve got. Don’t get too vague, focus on a problem and build the solution around being able to deliver tangible results. Also, remember that for a project to deliver real change it needs to sustain itself through generating revenue, so don’t forget the business side. We found having an interdisciplinary team was a huge boost, especially having a business/marketing student; the idea is no good unless you can sell it!
S4S:What are your 3 favourite software applications from Microsoft and why?
James: Visual Studio 2010. I am a programmer, VS is my life! I’ve use a good few development environments but the sheer power of VS is impressive. And, dare is say it…it’s pretty! The second one is Zune. I started using it when I moved to Windows Phone. It’s very nice to use and nice too look at, which is important for a media player! Thirdly, although it is not strictly a piece of software, the Windows Phone OS. I have been using Windows Phone for a while and I love it. Very smart and stylish, functional and since all Imagine Cup finalists are getting a free one off Microsoft, it’s at the right price!
S4S: How important do you think school life is for enhancing pupils’ digital skillsets?
James: It’s huge. The need for exposure to as much digital technology as possible is school is ever increasing. Technology is becoming ubiquitous in the work place, from the move away from a paper based environment to technology like slate PCs and touch devices to the huge increase in smart phones and the constant emergence of new technology, students emerging from the academic world into the workplace need to have a firm grasp on technology, regardless of their industry.
S4S: As you know, we are dedicated to offering software with huge discounts for students to help bridge the digital divide. What else do you think is important to encourage students to use and develop their skills in technology?
James: Affordable software is a huge benefit to students. Being one myself I know the challenges of being able to acquire software, so what Software4Students are doing is great. Students need to be made aware that there are massive benefits in developing their skills in technology. Currently in Ireland we are experiencing a surge in jobs in the software development industry and also have a huge lack of graduates in the industry. This just shows there are real tangible benefits in looking to development of technological skills, not just as a means to an end but a goal in itself.
If you think any of your students would be interested in entering the Microsoft Imagine cup 2012, registrations can be made here