BitDepth 723 - March 23

The Teleios CodeJam 2010 produced some interesting notions and bits of code in the service of ICT based social improvement.
Young programmers feel the fire

First placed CodeJam 2010 winners Craig Ramlal, Yudhistre Jonas and Gyasi Ambrose work on their SMS application. Photography by Mark Lyndersay.

You may not know Teleios, but you know their products. Their programming expertise has been used in SMS text messaging applications for bMobile and the company has built websites used for the Government of Trinidad and Tobago.
Last Thursday, they hosted their second CodeJam, an all-day event that invited ten groups of local programmers to work with a software development kit (SDK) developed by Teleios for their SMS engine Message Central, coding tools from Microsoft and an absurdly short time frame to develop a viable SMS application.

The air-conditioned room at UWI’s Engineering Faculty, was chilly, and that’s probably the only reason that the young programmers weren’t sweating bullets.
They might have had access to the SDK and to the Microsoft .NET coding platform beforehand, but they didn’t know which of the six subjects they would be programming for.
On Thursday morning, competitors drew lots for a target for their coding efforts from six categories, each drawn from the admittedly dull as dishwater developmental goals outlined in the National ICT plan.

Before you laugh, let’s see you deliver a presentation on “Improving education at all levels and increasing science and technology literacy through cutting-edge information and knowledge” in four and a half hours, far less create software that addresses it.
Of course, engineers, being engineers, might have thought of a brute force solution to the problem as well as an elegant one expected of them.
Could the competitors have developed the outline of an application for each of the subject areas, I asked Teleios’ Kevin Khelawan.

“That’s what I would have done,” he responded with a laugh. To be clear, bringing pre-authored code to the CodeJam room would have been a cheat, though not pre-considered strategies and approaches.
In a spirit of shared stress, a team of programmers from Teleios worked on an application alongside the competitors, also making themselves available to answer questions as the session progressed. Dubbed Team Unbeatable, no doubt because they were barred from competing, they presented a shaky effort based on Google Maps to lead off the presentations.

Their cockiness earned them some sharp quips from the competing teams, who acquitted themselves after the intense sessions with more than a little dignity.
The young programmers weren’t strong on presentation, a point that the judges representing Microsoft, Teleios and bMobile did not miss reminding them of, and there were some uncomfortable moments as these young men and women lurched through their sales pitches for the products they had just bolted together.

The other thing that they had in common was a strong commitment to crowd level empowerment, and virtually every application seemed geared to open avenues of communication that are frustratingly opaque in the nation’s public service, many of them build on principles that delivered public information in response to text messaged queries and seemed geared to make surly public servants irrelevant.
Overwhelmingly, their programming efforts assumed a capacity for social empowerment that seemed likely to be a hardsell to a Government that talks open far more fluently than it implements it.

“Maybe two years ago it would have been a no-go,” said Khelawan, the company’s Chief Operating Officer and someone on the frontline of government level software pitches.
“But now Ministries are beginning to call for the kinds of solutions we’re seeing here.”
The winning final year UWI students developed and presented with a vigorous pitch, an SMS application for application for gathering and managing feedback on social equity issues. The second and third place winners developed a job application service and a bus ticketing service respectively.

Judges from bMobile and Teleios were frank in their desire to find ideas they could develop. It’s going to be interesting to see if they find ways to incorporate not just the best ideas presented at the competition, but the powerful undercurrent of social engagement that pervaded all of the entries.
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