How College Students and Watson Can Help Change the World

By Bri Connelly

The University of Texas at Austin team flashes the school's "hook 'em horns" sign as they celebrate their first place win in the Watson University Competition
The University of Texas at Austin team flashes the school’s “hook ’em horns” sign as they celebrate their first place win in the Watson University Competition
Bri Connelly, student, The University of Texas at Austin
Bri Connelly, student, The University of Texas at Austin

I just got back to Austin from a whirlwind trip to New York City where my classmates from The University of Texas at Austin and I stayed in an Airbnb on the Lower East Side, visited the September 11 Memorial and ate meals at as many different restaurants as we could pack into a short stay. The centerpiece of the trip, though, was the day we spent at IBM Watson Group headquarters at 51 Astor Place competing in the first-ever IBM Watson University Competition.

Last Friday, we were among teams from eight notable universities who showcased prototype apps we had built using Watson, IBM’s cognitive computing technology.  It was like being on an episode of Shark Tank – the judging was really tough. And our app won!

I was really stunned when we were chosen as the winners. Not that I had doubts about the quality of our idea; but it was incredible to compete in the final round against really smart people from the University of California, Berkeley and the University of Toronto who also had great ideas.

Our business idea and app, “CallScout”, enables people in need of help to download an app to a smartphone, use it to conduct a typed conversation with Watson, and get information about social services in their community. (Eventually, people will be able to interact via texting, as well.) Topics might include health care, food pantries, temporary housing and other government and non-profit services. We’re hoping to launch a pilot of the app with the United Way of Austin by the end of summer.

As a senior computer science major, I got involved in this project because I’m interested in cognitive computing. Last semester, I took the course Automated Questioning and Answering, which is all about  IBM Watson technology. A key element of the course was to learn by doing, not just by hearing or reading. Our class actually got to work with our own private cloud instance of Watson. The competition became a really important aspect of our learning. We worked in teams to identify and create real-world use cases for how cognitive technologies can be put into practice to solve a societal need.

This experience taught me an important lesson about the potential of technology to have an impact on people’s lives. So many smart, young people are working in companies on apps or services that are designed for people like them–young, well-educated, relatively affluent people. That’s all well and good, but we can do so much more and reach a far more diverse group of individuals that can benefit from these important technologies. We’ve shown with our project in this class that we really can change the world.

A little bit of background on me: I grew up in privilege in Portland, Oregon, and Austin, TX. My dad’s a tech guy. When I was a kid I was aware that many people were less well-off, but last September the potential of technology to help society came into focus for me. It happened when I watched the documentary movie, American Winter, which profiles American families who are struggling day-to-day to pay for their heat, rent and food. Watching it was an emotionally wrenching experience.

I saw that helping to solve those families’ problems would be a good use for Watson, and I took that idea to the class. About half of my classmates formed a team to do it.

Now that the competition is over, I look at what  a great experience it was. We learned a lot about technology and how to work as a team. And in this day of start-ups, we also learned a great skill –  how to fund and launch a business.  And yes, we do plan on pushing the application forward, because unfortunately, we know that just about every town or city in America could use it.

To be honest, before we won we didn’t really think much about actually forming a business to commercialize CallScout. But last Sunday the 12 of us on the team had a meeting to discuss its future. We’re now thinking seriously about creating a startup.. As the winners, we will get access to a $100,000 investment seed fund sponsored by IBM Watson Group and The Entrepreneurs’ Fund to help launch it.  And we hope to join the Longhorn Startup Lab, a program at UT that helps foster entrepreneurship.

I don’t know what will come of all of this. But I’m sure of one thing: This is the first thing I have ever done in technology that’s really helping people. I won’t stop now.

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