Categorized | Featured, Sci-Tech

UH Hilo students to attend Imagine Cup Finals in Russia

Team "Help me Help" (Photo courtesy of Kelsey Ito)

Team “Help me Help” (Photo courtesy of Kelsey Ito)

Roya Sabri | Hawaii 24/7 Reporter

At Microsoft’s 11th annual Image Cup U.S. Finals in Silicon Valley, Mike Purvis, team leader of “Help me Help,” asked investors, entrepreneurs and technology professionals to “imagine a world where emergency responders can see the hazards by images as they happen moment to moment. Imagine a world where we can leverage the power of all the smartphone and cameras and use them in emergency situations.”

Microsoft stepped into that world and the team won the overall prize for the competition. After winning the May U.S. finals, team P’oli Ahu is off to St. Petersburg, Russia, for the Worldwide Finals, which begin July 11.

Purvis will be joined by team members Wallace Hamada, Ryder Donahue and Kayton Summers for the journey. The quartet are computer science students at University of Hawaii at Hilo.

The team competed against business majors experienced in entrepreneurship. Most of the finalists had competed in competition before and learned from feedback.

But Purvis said their inexperience did not prove so much of a challenge.

“The focus of the competition was not on how far the idea had been developed,” he said, “but to pitch a great idea.”

The team was fortunate to learn from a weeklong boot camp before the competition, where it had the opportunity to tap experienced venture capitalists.

Purvis said the team learned to “get out a minimum viable product” and then “adapt it based on user feedback.”

This is what the UH team did, adapting their initial idea to a larger scale in less than two weeks. Mike said no other team did something like this.

The judges were impressed.

The idea came from a school project in which the students developed an application to track invasive species in the Mauna Kea area by collecting images uploaded by visitors.

Purvis said the idea to expand the influence and scale of the application came from personal experiences. As Hawaii residents, he said, the team members have experienced natural disasters in many forms. Purvis, a Hilo resident, said he has been evacuated three times for tsunamis.

In Hawaii, dangers include fires, flooding, earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes and a host of man-made disasters. Response to these disasters typically is limited by knowledge of the location of damage, Purvis said.

One of those events — the 2006 Kiholo Bay earthquake — inspired the team to develop the application.

According to a report by Risk Management Solutions, the October 2006 Kiholo Bay earthquake registered a magnitude 6.7 and resulted in commercial, residential and public facility damage, including at least 61 buildings destroyed or red-tagged.

At the time, FEMA crews on the mainland were ready to respond, but didn’t immediately know how. For example, they didn’t know if the needs would include tents, water and food, or if they should be loading up the planes with body bags.

“Those were continuous reminders that [the application] could be used for a larger domain,” Purvis said.

The team set out with a goal to help the county Civil Defense Agency in locating and mitigating the effects of disasters. With information from people at disaster sites collected in one place, Civil Defense personnel can more easily prioritize damage for optimal response.

The biggest challenge in building the architecture was cloud-sourcing information to a much larger scale, Purvis said. The challenge was to take a “trivial school task and expand it to situations that will impact the way things work in the big real world.”

But the “big real world” can become smaller and kinder with aloha. Purvis said the team was not only surprised by the amount of time and resources that other teams put into their ideas, but also by the camaraderie among teams.

“I remember when they were announcing the awards, people were laughing and patting each other on the back,” he said.

The team is back home now, preparing for the finals. “Right now we’re concentrated on refining our vision, business model and technology description into a polished, eight-minute presentation,” Purvis said. “From here on out, we will be practicing our final speech over and over until we can recite it in our sleep.”

This year’s competition features 86 teams of students from 69 countries competing in six categories for more than $1 million in cash and prizes.

The UH Hilo squad will compete in the largest category — Innovation.

The team members are looking forward to the challenge along with the opportunity to spread some aloha, as the team is “representing the United States. But even more, Hawaii,” Purvis said. They plan to bring along pictures of Hawaii, a box of leis, and will be “sporting aloha shirts.”

Purvis said he feels fortunate to be in his position. The potentials of the application are becoming reality as the team strengthens relationships with county departments.

Despite hopes of a utopian world, crisis is inevitable–particularly in Hawaii. That is why team P’oli Ahu created “Help me Help.” With Microsoft’s help, “Help me Help” will surely become reality before the next emergency call.


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