It is already a well-worn 21st Century cliché: the young tech entrepreneur who, while still at university, invents a new app, sells it to an internet giant for a fortune and settles into life as a multi-millionaire, at an age when most of us are still wondering what on earth to do with our lives.
Thankfully though, such precocious brilliance is not always aimed at personal enrichment. Some of the next generations’ finest minds are instead determined to tackle some of society’s most pressing problems simply for the greater good.
The TCS Tech Challenge is designed to harness the energy and innovative thinking of students from five top UK universities to find real-world IT business solutions for local charities. Its winners have helped those charities solve some very pressing problems.
A team of four University of East Anglia students won the 2014 Tech Challenge for their app design aimed at helping people with eating disorders.
The UK has an estimated 4.1 million people affected by such disorders. Beat is the only nationwide charity supporting them and the UEA team agreed to help the charity extend the reach of its existing advice and support website in view of a dramatic rise in users accessing the site from their phones.
The students undertook extensive research to get to grips with their brief, interviewing staff members and people with eating disorders, attending focus groups and national awareness events.
The result: a beautiful app design that is intuitive, inspiring and intimate, and helps users find a healthy pathway to independent recovery. It offers a range of functions including managing a healthy lifestyle, inspiring stories, a news feed, book reviews and a help finder. Other features allow users to access local recovery events, communicate with forums and track their personal progress.
As the UEA entry was declared the winner, Yogesh Chauhan, TCS Director of Corporate Sustainability, declared that he was “simply blown away with the exceedingly high standard of entries.”
Nina Dufeu, from the charity that benefited from the winning entry, was full of praise for the student team. “From day one they really listened to us. This app is very much what we want.” The charity says a full version of the app could have several hundred thousand users.
“All those gruelling nights of hard work, bad coffee and takeaways with these guys paid off in the end,” said Timea Süli of the winning team. Süli hopes the app will empower people and help them on their path to recovery.
Recovery was also the focus of the winning design in 2015. Bristol University’s team partnered with Bristol Drugs Project charity, which offers advice, information and recovery support for people wanting to kick or control their use of drugs and alcohol.
The challenge was to create an IT solution that specifically targeted ‘recreational’ drug users and included a messaging interface and a better way of collecting data.
The result: an app design that combined a questionnaire, users’ stories and personal diaries in a “clean, intuitive and engaging interface”. They even added an element of gamification to incentivise regular use of the software.
Competition judge Julie Lowndes praised the Bristol team’s customer understanding and consultative style. For the students, it had been a transformative experience. Team leader Rachit Bangar said, “It made us think hard about the technology but also about the power of people.”
Rachit Bangar, TCM Tech Challenge team leader
The TCS student entrepreneurs had a total of ten weeks to plan, test and implement their solutions, pulling off an often-tricky balancing act between project deadlines and their own study commitments.
Each member of the winning team gets a paid one-month internship at TCS while their partner charity gets a £1,000 donation. The real reward, though, is the work done – both for the charities that have benefited from the winning projects and the students who have learnt a huge amount about project management, business, collaboration and technology.
A world of good
The importance of empowering young people to develop new technology to change the world around them has even been recognised by the United Nations with its Youth Mobile program.
The program recognises that mobile technology has become a medium for youth empowerment, activism and an engine for change.
With the number of mobile internet connections rapidly increasing in developing countries, smartphones are often the only computer young people in developing countries have access to. Helping young people create solutions to personal challenges and problems faced by the local community has a profound effect on the individual and society.
Successes to date include apps for pregnancy information in Senegal, market information for Rwandan farmers and a traffic app in Cambodia.
Young people are, of course, perfectly placed to harness the possibilities offered by new technology. But it often only within a supportive framework that their potential can be fully realised.
Programs like the TCS Tech Challenge and Youth Mobile are enabling some of the most promising members of the next generation to plug in to the innovative and entrepreneurial world and become catalysts for change.
As the President of the UN Economic and Social Council Néstor Osorio, puts it:
“Innovation is the essence of our modern society. Without harnessing its power, we will not be able to create healthy, educated or inclusive societies.”
The TCS Challenge is helping young people do exactly that.