5th Smart Sweep Innovation and Excellence Award: Notes from the sidelines

(This is for my column on Tuesday, March 17)

BY THE TIME this column gets printed, we’d have known whether a group of students from the University of San Carlos (USC) made Smart Wireless Engineering Education Program (Sweep) history by being the first Cebu team to win the Innovation and Excellence Award.

We’d have known whether a group of high school students from the Science and Technology Education Center (STEC) in Basak, Lapu-Lapu City made Smart Sweep history by winning the first Doon Po Sa Amin (DPSA) Learning Challenge (I was jut told that they did—Charles Pascual of STEC won the contest).

But by the time I was writing this, I just came up from breakfast where I saw a group of students, among them some of the USC and STEC members, eating breakfast in a muted, definitely non- student type of way. I know the reason for the behavior. They’re geeks and later in the day, Smart Sweep will be announcing winners of the Innovation and Excellence Award and DPSA Learning Challenge. Nerves  make anyone behave.
The Innovation and Excellence Award is a contest that pits some of the best engineering students in the country who are then tasked to produce working protoypes of technical mobile projects that help communities deal with disasters. Many of the projects I’ve seen in the three stagings of Smart Sweep I’ve witnessed are systems that detect fire or theft and then alert house owners.

This year is the first time that a team from Cebu made it to the finals, which is dominated by the Ateneo de Manila University and Bulacan State University.

Winning the Smart Sweep Innovation and Excellence Award brings pride and a large sum of money to the school. To the winning student, it brings a large sum of money and opens doors in the telecommunications industry. At least two products of the award, I’m told, are now employed by Smart.

Ramon Isberto, head of the public affairs group in Smart, said the contest focuses on applications that deal with natural disasters because Smart feels that more can be done in that field.

While the focus on community is understandable, it might make the contest more interesting, however, if it isn’t limited to addressing the problem on disasters. Not all communities, after all, have natural disasters as the top problem. Maybe telecommunications technology holds innovative solutions to old community problems on such areas as security, livelihood and general well-being.

But back to the USC team led by Mark Joseph Salvado. Their entry is a system that detects when a fire breaks out in a house and then broadcasts an alert, sent via frequency modulation (FM), to  what they described as an “indicator unit” that is located in a community center.

The indicator unit is configured to alert the fire department via an Internet connection.

While I remain hopeful that the team can make it, I’m concerned over it’s use of FM and IP (Internet Protocol) to convey alert data instead of making use of the GSM network. For one, it doesn’t help you with Smart Sweep judges. For another, you’d think the GSM network is more dependable and ubiquitous.

FM is vulnerable to interference and needs a lot of power to bridge large distances while Internet availability isn’t as widespread as GSM coverage. This limits deployment.

Conveying the data through short messaging service (SMS) would have made the system more resistant to disasters. And it would have scored more competition points. But, as I said, my fingers are crossed or will be as soon as I finish submitting this column.

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