Students Help Humanity with Open Source Software
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.
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
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
“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
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
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
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.
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 Bartlett, The Wesleyan Connection