Every year Microsoft sponsors the Imagine Cup and throws a challenge to students around the world. The competition is intense, and each participating country will send one team to represent it in the finals - this year in France.
This year's theme is "The Environment" and Microsoft is calling on young programmers, artists and technologists around the world to "imagine a world where technology enables a sustainable environment."
The challenge is for students to bring their ideas to life in a competition that comprises nine categories, each catering to a different technological or artistic affinity. Students’ work will reflect valuable, real world solutions, while giving them the opportunity to compete for cash prizes.
We had a quick chat with Team Phoenix, one of the four teams participating in the New Zealand finals and aiming at representing New Zealand in the world finals. Keep an eye open for other articles in this series.
Hi Louis, Nice to meet your Team. Can you introduce Team Phoenix?
Hi, thanks for having us. The team consists of four University of Canterbury computer science students – myself, Janina (pronounced ‘Yanina’), Yugan, and Stephen.
We started off with some roles, and I guess I was titled ‘Project Manager’, but it really is a community process. We know our strengths and weaknesses, and we play to them.
Our Academic Mentor is Warwick Irwin, who specialises in software engineering and crazy ideas.
Our Industry Mentor is Mike Darton, who is a contractor for Clarus and works with Microsoft technologies.
We’ve also had help from Carl Cerecke, who is a vehicle routing expert working for Telogis.
Congrats on entering Imagine Cup 2008 New Zealand Finals. How did you find Round 1?
Round 1 has been lots of work. At the start, we were constantly brainstorming ideas – often we felt that our idea was about to take off, and then we’d find out that someone else had already done it, or that it just wasn’t going to be that effective.
Everyone on the team was thinking different things, and it was a bit of work just getting everyone to decide on one topic.
Technology wise – we don’t use much Microsoft technology at university, and so we’re constantly learning. We’ve had to search and search again for the right software to use, and we’re still learning, still developing – and I think we will be for quite some time yet!
In this competition you need more than just technical skills. So we’ve been thinking outside the technical box, and that’s probably where quite a lot of the work has been going.
Is this your first year with Imagine Cup?
This is my second year in Imagine Cup, and the others’ first year. My last team was quite a disaster – we had people who weren’t willing to put in a decent effort, and by the time we signed up we had very limited time (only a few months). As with any experience, you learn from your mistakes, and I made sure that I was part of a solid team this year.
What motivated your team to participate in Imagine Cup competition?
Lots and lots of bribes… just kidding – they are a good bonus though. I guess we’re motivated by a range of things.
Being involved in Imagine Cup is fun. You get to use your creativeness combined with your technical skills to create something new and exciting, and you get support along the way. It’s a great learning experience and you get to meet lots of people in the industry.
It’s quite amazing how many people are willing to help. We’ve managed to get a free license for the Geobase mapping software from Telogis, and we’ve done presentations at a variety of places, including Telogis, AMI, Environment Canterbury (ECan), our university and Canterprise. The support is really wonderful. Our mentors have spent lots of time with us, and other people have offered various support.
We get to be our own bosses as well. There’s no one telling us that we can’t do something or that we must do something else. If we don’t like something we change it, and at the end of the day we know that our software was built by us, so you get a real sense of accomplishment.
What is your Imagine Cup 2008 project about?
The theme for this year is ‘Imagine a world where technology enables a more sustainable environment’ and so we’ve been working towards doing something which is beneficial to the environment and to the people.
Our project is about cutting the amount of carbon dioxide being pumped into our atmosphere each and every day from cars, while giving people the convenience and accessibility of a car, and saving them money!
Imagine deciding you want to go from home to town to go to an art exhibition, and you want to go now. You pull your cellphone out and send a text message which contains your home address and the location you want to go to. In two minutes a taxibus (a minivan) picks you up. While you’re on the taxibus, it stops somewhere else to pick another person up – you ask if they’re going to the art center too – they say no, they’re going to the movies. The taxibus continues on, and drops you off at the art center.
So how do we know if this would work, and provide the benefits I’ve mentioned? Well we’ve created the brains behind this system, as well as a simulation to show that this idea does in fact work.
Many are anxious to hear about TaxibusSystem in technical terms. Can you explain them for them?
The heart of the Taxibus System is the algorithm which matches passengers with taxibuses. The matching of passengers to taxibuses is an NP-complete problem, and therefore we use heuristics to minimise waiting and travelling times for passengers.
We’ve also created a simulation that gives us statistics which show the environmental benefits, and the convenience(via waiting and travelling times) of the Taxibus System under different configurations. We’ve tried to keep the simulation as close to reality as possible to allow reliable statistics to be collected. The simulation takes into account traffic flows at different times of day, and generates passengers according to a Poisson distribution.
By using the simulation, we are able to determine how many taxibuses we need for a certain average number of passengers per day, and how many tons of carbon dioxidewould be saved compared to a person taking their car. The Taxibus System would reduce congestion by taking more cars off the road and directly help the environment by reducing carbon dioxide emissions, which are a major cause for global warming.
We’ve created a website which allows passengers to book rides, and we are currently working on a cellphone application.
Virtual Earth is integrated with the website to allow passengers to have the functionality and user experience that comes with Virtual Earth. Currently the website will call a WCF service when a passenger books a ride, and this will put the passenger into the simulation.
We have modularised our software, to ensure reusability. For example, at the moment we use the Geobasemapping software. If at some stage we decide to use a different technology like Microsoft’s MapPoint instead, we could easily plug MapPoint into the existing system.
What tools are you using to develop the Taxibus System?
We’ve been using Visual Studio 2005 and C# to develop the Simulation and core algorithm, and Visual Studio 2008 to develop the website.
We’ve used Geobase as our mapping software as it provides the functionality we need for our simulation.
The website is developed using ASP.NET and uses the AJAX community toolkit.
We have been using Simplovation to integrate with Virtual Earth, however it lacks geocoding support, so we’re currently looking at using the Virtual Earth SDK.
We’re currently looking at the mCore .NET SMS Library to link a cellphone to our simulation.
Are there any plans for Taxibus System after Imagine Cup?
Yes! We’d like to get a small trial of the system going, and we’re currently in discussion amongst ourselves and with Matthew Journee, a business manager at the Canterbury Innovation Incubator, about the best way to do this.
Carl Cerecke also has an interest in taxibuses and has applied for funding from the government.
How are the preparations going on for the New Zealand finals?
We’re extremely busy at the moment; our long list of things to do before the finals includes making a poster, doing some more development work and refining our presentation. Luckily our team is pretty good with time management, so there shouldn’t be any problems with assignments due in at the start of next term!
Do you blog about Taxibus System?
Yes, we’ve just started to blog about theTaxibus System – we don’t want to give too much away to the other teams though, so we’re quite cautious about how much we tell in our blog ;)