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Tufts professor sparks app contest for teens

Karen Panetta of Tufts says she developed the idea after hearing a speech by Bill Clinton.

Karen Panetta of Tufts says she developed the idea after hearing a speech by Bill Clinton.

Can a software app change the world? Perhaps, if you can find the right teenager to design it.

So a Tufts University dean and the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers, or IEEE, have launched a contest for young people 13 and older to devise apps to deal with global problems such as health care, education, and clean energy.

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Karen Panetta, IEEE fellow and associate dean at the Tufts graduate school of engineering, said the goal is to aid low-income people worldwide, using the most common computing device on the planet.

“One of the most key technologies out there is the cellphone,” Panetta said. “Even if they’re poor, they have a cellphone.”

Contestants 18 and older will be expected to submit a working piece of software, but those between 13 and 17 don’t have to write an app. Instead, they can come up with ideas for apps and present sketches to show how they might work. Prizes will include an Apple iPad Air tablet and the chance to fully develop the app with assistance from an IEEE engineer.

The contest will help launch a new IEEE service called App-E-Feat, which will hook up professional engineers with nonprofit organizations that need mobile apps to accomplish their missions. IEEE set up the program in cooperation with the Clinton Global Initiative, a foundation established by former President Bill Clinton to assist international development projects.

Panetta came up with the idea after hearing a speech by Clinton in which he discussed the use of mobile apps to assist with rescue and recovery operations in the aftermath of the devastating 2010 earthquake in Haiti.

She realized that the same mobile technology could be applied to a wide range of problems in developing countries, and in the United States. “I have 400,000 engineers in IEEE who’d do this for fun,” she said. Interest was so high that Panetta got 500 volunteers even before App-E-Feat was officially launched in mid-February.

The app contest is designed to draw more attention to the App-E-Feat program and to help develop a new generation of software engineers. Many of the early entrants are female, said Panetta.

“One teacher said that some young girl is going to think that knowing the whereabouts of Justin Bieber at any time is doing humanity a service,” she said, but in fact, “we haven’t gotten any apps like that.”

Instead, many of them are designed to help girls develop better friendships, in one example, by spotting the warning signs that a close relationship is turning toxic. Another popular topic is the environment, with youngsters developing apps that use Google Maps to pinpoint areas that need to be cleaned up. “Kids are very environment conscious and they’re very relationship conscious right now,” said Panetta.

The App-E-Feat contest closes on May 19, and winners will be announced on June 20.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at bray@globe.com.
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