The Rural Innovation Award Finals–Kentaro Toyama, Assistant Managing Director, Microsoft Research India

This morning, we heard presentations by the five teams in the finals for the Rural Innovation Award at the Imagine Cup 2008. All five teams did an amazing job, and the enthusiasm and the quality of the work really made me appreciate what the Imagine Cup is all about.  In alphabetical order by country, except for the winner…


The team from Colombia presented an application that tracked the health and germination capabilities of trees, using data collected by ecologists or botanists. They had a sophisticated data-analysis component whose results could then be viewed by region or even by individual tree.    


Abdullah Hazaa Abdullah, from Egypt, was the lone, and courageous, representative of that team – unfortunately, his teammates were unable to attend. This team tackled the important problem of detecting landmines, with a solution involving software-based analysis of signals collected by an existing hardware device that scans the earth under it. He mentioned that landmines were preventing some of Egypt’s most valuable land from being farmed or developed.


India focused on providing rural farmers with information to help them farm better, based on input from electronic sensors that would measure local conditions, with parameters such as humidity and temperature. They hoped that local entrepreneurs would set up the systems and then charge farmers for information that would be worth even more to them in farm yield. I thought it was great that they spoke with farmers to see what they liked about the system.




Team Smile from South Africa presented a beautifully implemented project to inform commuters about when the next bus will arrive, using their mobile phones as an interface. The problem of waiting for the bus apparently takes a particular twist in South Africa, where people are afraid to spend too much time waiting, due to public safety concerns.


Ultimately, the judge’s tally came out in favor of the Indonesian team. They had built a system, called Butterfly, that allowed people from rural areas to log environmental issues with the government, via SMS text-messaging. As with many of the other teams, Indonesia had chosen a relevant topic, the demo was compelling, and the presentation was polished. But, what impressed all of us most about their effort that they spend time to talk to their eventual users. They had spoken with rural residents to understand their needs better, and they had asked for feedback from the government offices that they hoped to interact with. The resulting project certainly benefited from this extra attention to the “customers”.




Congratulations to all the teams for making it as far as the finals, and good luck to all in your future endeavors! Additionally, a special congratulations to the team from Indonesia! The award comes with two components – one is a $10K award sponsored by Microsoft’s Unlimited Potential Group. The other is the offer to do a research internship with Microsoft Research India, where I run a group called Technology for Emerging Markets ( So, I hope to see you next year in Bangalore, India!


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