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Dynamic Trio Creates Dynamic Heat Map

For computer engineering students Jonathan Ahumada, Jasmine Farias, and Kurt Jurgens, the technical expertise they bring to their Senior Design project is just one aspect that contributes to the success of their work—communication skills and understanding different cultures are also crucial.

The student team is working with HP in Ireland and Fundacion Paraguaya (FP) to create a website offering an up-to-the-minute heat map illustrating which areas of Paraguay are most in need of government resources to alleviate poverty based on survey information that is actively being gathered from a growing number of FP field offices. Poverty indicators such as Income, employment, health, housing, education and sanitation, may be quickly and easily accessed and analyzed by region using the student-designed app and website which will display a map of Paraguay color coded red (most in need of government resources), yellow and green.

Heat_Map
From left, Kurt Jurgens, Jasmine Farias, and Jonathan Ahumada
Photo: Heidi Williams

Kurt, a computer engineering major, and Jonathan, a web design and engineering major and computer engineering minor, were looking for a project that incorporated an element of social benefit, so they turned to the School of Engineering’s Frugal Innovation Lab (FIL) for ideas. With its close connection to SCU’s Center for Science, Technology, and Society, and access to a vast network of social enterprise alumni from the Global Social Benefit Incubator, FIL connects students and faculty with partners around the world to create solutions for emerging markets, and the FIL’s Mobile Health Lab focuses on computer applications development. Through the FIL, the students learned of the work being done in Paraguay. HP had been working with Fundacion Paraguaya for some time, but were looking for a more easily readable format for their data, and that is when the SCU students got involved. Kurt and Jonathan recruited fellow web design and engineering major, Jasmine, to their team and the trio immediately got to work creating a web application that would take the data from HP’s servers and display it to users in an easily understandable and efficient manner.

From the start, effective communication played an important role in the process. “Both Jonathan and I speak Spanish,” said Jasmine, “but cultural differences were immediately apparent. The Spanish we know is different from Paraguayan Spanish, and Ireland uses their own form of English, so it’s been interesting to be exposed to these different cultures.” The timing of meetings with their international clients has been challenging, too. “We have a lot of Skype conversations with both the foundation and with HP’s group, and one time, we had to coordinate our meeting across four different time zones. You hear about people having these conference calls and working in global teams, but as a student you don’t think of all the logistics that go into it, so it’s really great exposure to have the experience ourselves through this project. ” said Jonathan.

Learning HP’s custom coding was also a challenge for Kurt and Jonathan who were used to working with open source coding. In order to implement their system of data retrieval and dissemination, they had to first master HP’s way of doing things. “We’re working with their engineer who is very helpful in providing information to help us figure things out on our own. We thought it would be really straightforward, but there is a lot of encryption or stuff that’s been hashed somehow or provided without legends, that we’ve needed to decipher,” said Kurt.

“That’s the reality of working on projects through the Frugal Innovation Lab,” said Silvia Figueira, computer engineering professor and team advisor; “students are basically handed a problem and told, ‘here you go.’ This team, with their mix of computer engineering and web design expertise is a great combination for this project and they are learning about the realities of working with clients representing opposite ends of the spectrum—a nonprofit organization and a technology giant—as they work toward a solution that pleases everyone.”

For her part, Jasmine especially appreciates the opportunity to help women that this project affords. “In Paraguay, women are considered the head of household and they are the ones answering the survey. I love the fact that this project goes directly to women, as they are the ones most affected by poverty. After I graduate, I hope to use my skills to help women in Latin America or elsewhere.”

Jonathan is also exploring the possibility of working for a company such as HP or Cisco that have divisions working on societal challenges in Latin America. Kurt has already lined up a job with Zuora, a Silicon Valley company that designs software to assist subscription billing for clients like Netflix. Wherever they end up, these three will bring with them a wealth of cultural, communication, and technical experience that will serve them well.