Students Help Humanity with Open Source Software

Posted 09/04/08
When a 7.9-magnitude earthquake shook China in May, more than 10,000 people died, and thousands remained trapped under rubble and debris. On the other side of the world, Wesleyan computer science students helped write the software used to coordinate volunteers for relief efforts.

The software is part of Sahana, an open-source information technology system that was built to aid in the recovery effort following the 2004 Asian tsunami. The students contributed as part of the Humanitarian Free and Open Source Software (HFOSS) project, a joint venture between the computer science departments of Wesleyan, Trinity College and Connecticut College, which aims to bring open source software that benefits humanity into the computer science curriculum.

“Open source software is just one example where we team up to create something for everyone,” says HFOSS team member Eli Fox-Epstein ’11 (pictured at right). “It’s a very creative, democratic process where everyone contributes what they can.”

The HFOSS venture teaches undergraduates that designing and building software is an exciting, creative and socially-beneficial activity, explains HFOSS steering committee member Danny Krizanc, professor of computer science.

“Most of the computer programs that students write while in college are just exercises that have been solved many times before by many people. These are necessary for training the mind but I think students get a real satisfaction out of working on something that potentially will have thousands of users that they will never meet,” Krizanc says. “One could achieve this goal by having students get involved in the Free and Open Source movement in general but it is our hope that some students will be attracted by the humanitarian aspect of the project.”

This summer, Fox-Epstein worked on the Credentialing Module for Sahana during the HFOSS Summer Institute, a 10-week internship program.

“A credentialing module is a way for disaster management officials to ensure that people are who they claim to be,” Fox-Epstein explains. “For example, if I show up at a disaster scene and claim to be a doctor, I could be a very valuable asset to the recovery effort. But I might be lying about being a doctor. So, before handing me the keys to the medicine cabinet and access to the morphine supply, I need to be credentialed. This is a process that involves giving evidence in the form of documents. This module takes care of that.”

Meanwhile, Juan Mendoza ’10 (pictured at left) and Qianqian Lin ’11 (pictured below), worked on an project called InSTEDD, helping to develop artificial intelligence algorithms for identifying disease outbreaks by processing news reports from around the world. Other interns developed software for Literacy Volunteers of Greater Hartford; created a touch screen tool kit for OpenMRS, an electronic medical record system for developing countries; and designed a scheduling system for the Darien, Conn. Emergency Medical Services volunteer supervisors.

Next fall, Norman Danner, assistant professor of computer science, will be teaching an open source-based course called Programming Methods (COMP 342). Students will not only learn the fundamental principles of software design, but discover ways computer scientists can contribute to their community. The course always is centered on developing a working software application that satisfies a real client’s needs; this fall all students in COMP 342 will make significant contributions to OpenMRS.

“We’re trying to destroy the ‘computer science is just programming’ myth by bringing in not only real-world problems, but real-world organizations who are trying to solve those problems,” Danner says. “Given how community-minded many of our students are, open-source solutions, which themselves are inherently community-based, are a terrific way to bring this into the curriculum. We want students to think of computer science as a field in which they can apply problem-solving skills to help make the world better, not just one in which they can get a job.”

The HFOSS project is funded by the Directorate for Computing & Information Science & Engineering of The National Science Foundation under its Pathways to Revitalized Undergraduate Computing Education program (CPATH). The focus of CPATH is to help revitalize interest in computing education.

“Through HFOSS, I’ve learned that computer science does not need to be separated from the basic human needs, since a good piece of free software can help save lives and resources,” Mendoza says.

The project was featured recently in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

By Olivia Drake, The Wesleyan Connection editor