Big Ideas@Berkeley: An Ecosystem of Social Innovation

Big Ideas@Berkeley held its annual award ceremony earlier this week, just as the $1 billion sale of the popular smartphone application Instagram made international headlines.

Author:Luis Flores

BERKELEY, Calif. — Big Ideas@Berkeley held its annual award ceremony earlier this week, just as the $1 billion sale of the popular smartphone application Instagram made international headlines. “Impressive, but not that impressive,” said Prof. Ananya Roy, in response to news of the sale.

Roy, the Distinguished Chair of Global Poverty and Practice, explained that the successes of social media are to be expected in a contemporary environment that places disproportionate value on entertainment innovations.

Big Ideas Awards Ceremony“I am not saying that this type of technological innovation is easy,” said Roy. “What I am suggesting is that, as a society, we have found ways to value this kind of innovation… but we have not found a way to create an ecosystem that supports innovations that have social purpose.”

That is where the Big Ideas@Berkeley competition comes in.

“The competition is very unique and provides much more than just funds,” explained Diana Alonzo, whose team Youth Leadership Now (YLN) won the grand prize. “Big Ideas provides a support network for students who want to transform their ideas into reality.”

Beginning last September, new and expanded contest resources—such as pairing competing teams with mentors; offering weekly office hours with past contest winners; holding proposal writing workshops; and providing early feedback from judges—helped make the proposals submitted this year among the most competitive in the competition’s six-year history.

Mentors provided by Big Ideas@Berkeley are cited by many contest winners as instrumental in the drafting of a clear proposal. The mentors, who are often industry or academic experts, provided the student teams with insight on the practical steps involved in implementing their ideas, as well as logistical and business advice.

“Big Ideas gave Politify ( the time and attention that is so crucial to the early stages of ventures,” said Nikita Bierwhose team won first place in the Information Technology for Society category. The Politify website allows users to forecast the impacts of political candidates and political scenarios on their personal finances just by answering a few questions.  With the support of Big Ideas mentors and notable UC Berkeley economists, the website has the potential to increase political awareness and facilitate transparency.

Politify’s rapid growth would not have been possible without the remarkable network of policymakers and industry executives,” said Bier.
Footstep Energy, a proposal to use piezoelectric tiles to convert the energy of footsteps on heavily transited campus areas into electrical energy, benefited greatly from the expertise of their mentor.

“[My mentor] told me writing a business proposal, in a sense, is just like writing a story, a story and problem about current life and the potential of a future we can achieve,” said Katherine Yip, a sophomore student pursuing degrees in Economics and Statistics.

Similarly, the developers of Pika Pen, a winning proposal for a low-cost, sensor-rich pen that will allow children with disabilities to improve their handwriting, benefited greatly from the timelines and deadlines provided by mentors and the contest schedule.

“Since we already had huge time commitments in school, we might have let our idea slide,” explained Evan Chang-Siu, a graduate student in Mechanical Engineering. “However, by providing timelines, judging criteria and, of course, financial incentive, the Big Ideas competition really helped motivate our team.”

Inspiring among a group of exceptional proposals are a few that use this model of mentorship and empowerment as an integral part of their projects. Alonzo’s YLN seeks to enable social innovation in West Oakland by connecting mentors and local youth through photography, internships, and education.

Similarly, the PiE Mentorship Program will recruit UC Berkeley students for yearlong mentorship programs with Bay Area high school students. Through valuable one-on-one interactions, PiE hopes to inspire students to pursue college degrees in science and technology.

Public research universities are especially qualified and responsible for creating alternative ecosystems that value social innovation, said Roy. With support from the Rudd Family Foundation, the Big Ideas@Berkeley competition is attempting to do just that.

The next big idea, according to Tom Kalil, founder of the competition and current Deputy Director of Policy at the White House Office of Science and Technology, is “to figure out how to get other research universities to steal this idea.”

EMS Shirati: Cal Students Address Maternal Health in Rural Tanzania

EMS Shirati aims to reduce the maternal death rate with the MedBike—an innovative, rugged motorcycle that will safely and rapidly transport patients to the hospital.

Author: Javier Kordi

In the Rorya region of Tanzania, there is one doctor for every 30,000 people—the near equivalent of a single doctor for the entire UC Berkeley student population. With this kind of ratio, the delivery of emergency medical services to surrounding villages is not an easy task. The maternal mortality rate in this region is among the highest in the world—529 deaths for every 100,000 live births, which is 32 percent higher than the world average, according to the World Health Organization. Due to a lack of infrastructure for emergency transportation, mothers experiencing complications during or after childbirth have no way of receiving critical care.Two years ago, as a Global Poverty and Practice Minor fellow, Nicholas Hu and his colleague Sara Adelman traveled to Tanzania’s Rorya region, where they witnessed the dire consequences of this situation first-hand.

Working in the Shirati KMT Hospital, Nicholas recalls the story of a woman who experienced post-partum hemorrhaging (excessive bleeding after child birth) in a rural village. Although the situation seemed bleak, serendipity would save her life. A doctor who happened to be passing the village in a hospital car on outreach rounds picked her up and safely drove her to the hospital.

“Without the passing car, there was no way she could have survived,” Hu said. Out of this experience grew Hu and Adelman’s “big idea”to establish a new form of emergency medical service in Shirati, to ensure that no one is left stranded.

EMS Shirati, which won second place in this year’s BigIdeas@Berkeley Global Poverty Alleviation category, aims to reduce the maternal death rate with the MedBike—an innovative, rugged motorcycle that will safely and rapidly transport patients to the hospital. To acquire the bikes, team member Alejandro LaRiviere established a partnership with manufacturer eRanger.

This motorcycle comes equipped with heavy suspension, a built-in power generator (for cell phone charging & tire compression), and a modified sidecar with a medical stretcher. Far more fuel efficient and better able to transverse the rugged terrain than a standard ambulance, the MedBike promises to radically transform the medical situation in Rorya. In a similar project in neighboring Malawi, the MedBike decreased the maternal mortality rate by 60 percent. Hu hopes the funding from Big Ideas will give his pilot project the momentum it needs to have a similar impact.

Aside from the prize money, the Big Ideas competition was itself a journey of growth and discovery. For the past few months, teams were paired with mentors to help nurture their ideas into project proposals. Team member Yulia Zektser explains how their mentor, Rachel Yeager, offered professional insights that helped maximize the practicality and functionality of the project. While they had initially planned to implement a text messaging system between MedBikes and the hospital, this mode of communication proved impractical. Following the advice of Dr. Chirangi in Tanzania, EMS Shirati decided to use a call system instead to relay patient history, vitals, location, and all other critical information to the hospital.
After purchasing their first MedBike with the Big Ideas grant, the team’s idea will become a reality. In the future, Hu hopes that enthusiasm and support for the project will result in Shirati KMT using the MedBike for all emergency situations. The hope for the communities of Shirati is that surviving a maternal complication will not be dependent on serendipity, but rather on the work and collaboration of EMS Shirati, traditional birth attendants, and the district hospital.

Big Ideas@Berkeley: Student-Led Innovations Win Over $200,000

Big Ideas@Berkeley is much more than a prize. It is an entire process for nurturing student-led innovation.

Author: Brittany Schell

BERKELEY, Calif. — Nearly 30 teams of 100 students from 45 diverse academic disciplines across the University of California, Berkeley, campus will receive over $200,000 of funding to support innovative, high-impact projects aimed at solving some of the world’s most pressing problems.

These students competed in Big Ideas@Berkeley, an annual prize competition hosted by the Blum Center for Developing Economies. The competition provides funding, support and encouragement to interdisciplinary teams of students with creative new approaches to problems of local and global reach.

This year’s winning ideas include a non-invasive technology to detect pre-diabetes and enable early intervention; a science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) mentorship program involving UC Berkeley and local high school students; a mobile health system that provides post-natal services in underserved areas of Nairobi; a project that utilizes the kinetic energy from human footsteps to generate electricity for the campus; and an initiative that provides comprehensive restorative dental care at the Berkeley Free Clinic.

“Big Ideas@Berkeley is much more than a prize. It is an entire process for nurturing student-led innovation,” said Prof. Ananya Roy, the Education Director for the Blum Center and Distinguished Chair of Global Poverty and Practice.

This year’s competition launched last November with applications from 125 teams of 400 students from 70 different majors on campus. After an initial judging period, 41 finalist teams were paired with mentors to fine-tune their proposals. Teams also attended information sessions, writing workshops, and expert office hours.  The significant advising and support structure provided by Big Ideas@Berkeley ensured that every team, regardless of whether they won, took away something valuable from the competition.

“Participating in this year’s event was an opportunity for our team, Acopio, to get valuable feedback from the Big Ideas judges,” said Iris Shim, a second year Master of Business Administration candidate at the Haas School of Business. “The funding will undoubtedly be helpful as we  move forward with our big idea, but the benefits of the competition extend far beyond the prize itself.”

The Acopio team will develop information systems to enable farmer-owned cooperatives to better manage data, access financing, and market their products. Shim  and her teammates believe their project has the potential to positively affect the lives of millions of farmers in the developing world. The  team spent last summer in Latin America conducting field research and establishing partnerships.

Closer to campus, Youth Leadership Now (YLN) is a co-winner in the Creative Expression for Social Justice category. The group connects college students who have grown up in West Oakland with younger teens to explore themes of community through photography.

“Big Ideas@Berkeley has been critical to the growth of YLN because it has allowed us to work with a mentor and it has prepared us to present our big idea in a professional manner,” said Diana Pascual Alonzo, a UC Berkeley undergraduate student double majoring in Spanish and American Studies. “Most importantly, it has transformed the idea for our first major project into a reality.”

This summer, Pascual Alonzo and her two teammates will launch “Looking Through Our Lens,” a project that will engage a dozen West Oakland youth in research and photography about their community.

“The transition from knowing and wanting to do something in your community to actually having the means to create change reinforces my hope in the work I do and fills me with happiness because I have the support of Big Ideas and the campus,” said Pascual Alonzo.

Acopio, Youth Leadership Now, and 26 other well-deserving student teams will now have the opportunity, resources, and support to begin to turn their “big ideas” into a reality.

“We are in an era of innovation, and Big Ideas@Berkeley is one of those rare platforms that applies student-led innovation to urgent human problems such as poverty,” said Roy, who also teaches in the Department of City and Regional Planning. “This is precisely what we should be doing at Cal.”

Founded in 2006, Big Ideas@Berkeley is made possible through the generosity of many supporters, in particular the Rudd Family Foundation, and including the Associated Students of the University of California, the Blum Center for Developing Economies, the Center for Emerging and Neglected Diseases, the Center for Information Technology for Society, the Rosenfeld Fund for Sustainable Development, the Committee on Student Fees and Budget Review, and the Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs.

Big Ideas@Berkeley People’s Choice Winner: Pop Up Radio Archive

The Pop Up Radio Archive team is working not only to preserve bits and pieces of culture, but also to make these resources available and easily accessible on the web.

Author: Brittany Schell

BERKELEY, Calif. — The Pop Up Radio Archive team is working not only to preserve bits and pieces of culture, but also to make these resources available and easily accessible on the web. During this year’s Big Ideas@Berkeley contest, the team of graduate students won the People’s Choice Video contest and an honorable mention in the Information Technology for Society competition.

It all began last year when Anne Wootton, a second-year graduate student in UC Berkeley’s School of Information, started working with the Kitchen Sisters, also known as Davia Nelson and Nikki Silva, a pair of independent radio producers based in San Francisco.

“What you hear on the radio are just small, highly produced segments of what they have collected,” said Wootton. But behind the Kitchen Sisters’ five- to 10-minute radio shows are hours and hours of audio files, photographs, transcripts and other supplementary material, stored “on piles of hard drives, across multiple locations.”

The problem, said Wootton, is that the Kitchen Sisters have no easy, systematic way to organize their content and make it accessible to users. This is a common problem for independent media producers, who often lack the time, technology and budget to devote to archiving their material.
But the team of Berkeley graduate students has a solution: the Pop Up Radio Archive, a flexible, customizable online archival system.

When Wootton and her teammates Bailey Smith and Christen Penny (also second year graduate students at the School of Information) set out to create the Pop Up Radio Archive, they envisioned a solution for not only the needs of the Kitchen Sisters, but the needs of other radio producers and broadcasters as well.

“We’re not sure where it will stop,” said Wootton about the expansion of their idea. “Big Ideas has given us the opportunity to tackle this tall problem.”

There is a lack of resources in public media in general, and often more attention is paid to production than to archiving, Wootton explained. In an age when Internet users want to be able to sift through content, access old episodes, or see a photo of this person or that subject, technology such as this can really enhance shows like the Kitchen Sisters.

The plan is for the Pop Up Radio Archive system to be intuitive and inexpensive so that it can fit seamlessly into the budgets and schedules of busy, underfunded public media outlets. The team agreed that both the Big Ideas prize money and experience would be assets as they move forward with their project.

“Big Ideas gave us an extra push,” said Smith. “In addition to the prize money, which will allow us to take this project as far as we possibly can, the opportunity to iterate and refine our proposal, and the advice and business perspective of our wonderful mentor Nancy Roberts, were invaluable.”

Bailey said the encouragement the team received for their project during the video contest, even from complete strangers, let them know how important the Pop Up Radio Archive project was to a lot of people.

“Thank you so much to Big Ideas,” Smith said.