It is always refreshing and inspiring to cover the Smart Wireless Engineering Education Program (Sweep) Innovation and Excellence Awards. The annual contest pits engineering schools throughout the country in a contest on the use of mobile technology to solve community problems.

Anyone in despair at the state of education in the country need only to spend an afternoon among these kids to rekindle hope. These kids are awesome hackers (in the original meaning of the word).

This year’s winner is an all-women team from the Mapua Institute of Technology. Their project was a device that rendered text messages into Braille and a cane that can detect obstructions and then warn its user.

The team of Janiena Roxanne Dirain, Kristine Emy Matabang and Girly Perando with mentor Ayra Panganiban got P500,000 for the win. Their school got P500,000 in grants.

Dirain told me after they were announced as winners last Wednesday in SM Mall of Asia that they thought about the project after she and her two student teammates saw a masseuse crouching at a corner and listening to her cell phone dictate a text message that she received. The masseuse had to listen to the message three or four times because she had difficulty understanding the program, which had an American accent, render into voice text messages in Filipino.

That gave the three students the idea for their project. They thought of rendering SMS into a writing format that blind people are comfortable with.

The first runner up is close to my heart — the project involves the use of quick response (QR) codes to facilitate payment of fares. The Notre Dame of Marbel University student team that created the project won P300,000 and an equivalent amount in grants for their school.

At third was Bataan State Peninsula University with its system to monitor and regulate the salinity and level of dissolved oxygen in fishponds to prevent widespread fishkills.

A team from the University of San Carlos (USC) made it to the finals but failed to build a prototype after encountering problems in the delivery of parts. USC’s project was a portable breathalyzer with GSM connectivity.

One of the judges of the events, Smart strategic business development head Earl Valencia, said he was impressed by the quality of the projects submitted by the students.

“It’s inspiring and refreshing to see that mobility is ingrained in our culture,” he said.

Valencia said Filipinos are very good in mobile but he wants to see more development leading to smartphones. He also sees the need to push for simplicity in technology and focus on user experience.

“Complicated technology is a thing of the past,” Valencia said.

He said the projects submitted by students addressed issues of their respective communities. He cited the entries on using technology to monitor fishponds and guard against the widespread fishkills of recent years.

He also cited the project of the Polytechnic University of the Philippines to monitor and speed up the production of fish sauce or patis.

“People in the US will not think of these projects because they are not exposed to these problems,” he said.

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