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SPS Students Work with UN Mentors to Present Tech-Based Solutions to Global Challenges

The winners of the first Columbia University – UNICC Think-a-Thon were revealed during its final competition and awards ceremony on Tuesday, August 24. Forty-five Columbia University students across seven teams competed for cash prizes, presenting all-new solutions for disaster preparedness, gender equity, and cybersecurity in front of a live audience. Senior executives from the United Nations, U.S. Department of Transportation's Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA), Primus AI, RPA, and The Geneva Learning Foundation sat on the panel of judges.

A collaboration between the United Nations International Computing Centre (UNICC) and the Career Design Lab at the Columbia University School of Professional Studies (SPS), the Think-a-Thon was created to motivate Columbia SPS students and alumni to collaborate and innovate in service of human welfare and the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The seven teams worked throughout the summer to develop real-world solutions with live data, mentored by area experts from the UN Development Programme (UNDP), UN Women, UNICC, as well as Columbia faculty.

First Place: Agritech, presented by Dean Argier (SPS, Technology Management), Nasri Abi Farah (SPS, Technology Management), Helmut Leili, and Chris Weisdorf

The first-place winner, Team Agritech, received a $3,000 cash prize for their disaster preparedness solution. Agritech is a food delivery system that uses ozone-based technology to reduce malicious pathogens in food and increase the shelf life of perishables when they’re being delivered to towns in need after major disasters. The system is designed to increase food security, reduce food waste, and protect both consumers and workers along the food supply chain. Dean Argier (SPS), Nasri Abi Farah, Helmut Leili, and Chris Weisdorf comprised the winning team.

“Our unique ozone delivery system is designed extensively to be applied in the form of dry or wet methods determined by sensitivity, delicateness, fertility of the treated products.”

- Team Agritech

Second Place: Logista Emergency Response, presented by Ethan Downing, Drew Downing, Steve Medley, and Nancy Chow

The runner-up was Team Logista Emergency Response, presented by Ethan Downing, Drew Downing, and S. Chow. Their solution, which also addressed disaster preparedness, is a data-based platform that empowers public servants and emergency responders to predict logistical needs prior to an emergency so that they can deploy resources more quickly and efficiently when a crisis actually hits. The cash prize for the runner-up team was $2,000.

The teams were evaluated for their clarity and innovation, the social impact of their solution, the capital requirements and financial forecast, the viability—both operational and technical— feasibility, and sustainability of the solution, as well as the presentation delivery. The panel included:

  • Pavan Pidugu, Chief Technology Officer, Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, U.S. Department of Transportation;
  • Rodrigo Hernan Prado Cordova, Co-Founder and Managing Partner of Primus AI, RPA;
  • Reda Sadki, President, The Geneva Learning Foundation; and
  • Ursula Wynhoven, United Nations Representative, International Telecommunications Union.

Audience’s Pick: The Bulb, presented by Brielle Cannavino, Joy Ding, Jingyu Zhang (SPS, Applied Analytics), and Simon Urban

This team took Audience’s Pick for their gender equity proposal, The Bulb. The Bulb was designed to support bystander intervention against gender-based violence (GBV) by cultivating a safe virtual community that provides reliable information and resources on What’s App. By providing survivors of GBV with a non-threatening and confidential way to report incidents, The Bulb also aims to collect data that can be used to develop preventative countermeasures.

A summer-long Think-a-Thon

In June, more than seventy participants formed teams made up of 3 to 5 people—with at least one Columbia SPS student or graduate represented—to submit proposals with a statement of interest, answers to one of the 3 challenge prompts and optional supporting documents. The Think-a-Thon drew forty-five Columbia University students and alumni from 5 different schools, and thirty-eight external students and professionals. Up to ten countries of 4 continents were represented. 

A review committee selected seven teams to advance to the competition. Throughout July and August, they worked with expert mentors to refine their proposals and final presentations. Three of the teams selected the Gender Equality challenge, two teams worked on the topic of Disaster Preparedness, and the last two teams chose the Cybersecurity challenge.

The mentors who provided guidance and support to the teams are:

  • Edna Chun, Lecturer, Human Capital Management M.S. Program, Columbia University School of Professional Studies;
  • Shouryadipta Sarkar, Information Management Senior Specialist, UNDP;
  • Shahryar Shaghaghi, Chief Technology Officer, Quantum Xchange;
  • Tima Soni, Chief, Cyber Security Section, UNICC;
  • Lizzette Soria, Women’s Policy Expert, Safe Cities, UN; and
  • Jay Kesavan, Data Science Expert and Partner, Bowery Software.

Final presentation and winners

The final competition and awards ceremony was held live online, featuring opening remarks by Columbia University SPS Associate Dean of the Career Design Lab Kelly Ahn and presentations by UNICC’s Chief of Data Analytics Anusha Dandapani.

Each team had five minutes for their final pitch, after an introduction by their mentors. The judges had the opportunity to ask follow-up questions. Congratulations to all of the winners and teams!

Team 3: Merakhi, presented by Priyanka Patel, Kristen Fall (SPS, Strategic Communication), Conor Joseph Mack (SPS, Strategic Communication), Kimberlee Sibilia, and Khushi Patel

Category: Gender Equity

Summary: Smart jewelry that enables potential victims of GBV to activate an alarm, GPS tracking, an audio recording, and a cellular connection to deter perpetrators, to collect evidence, and to connect victims with trusted contacts in real time.

Team 4: SafeTeal, presented by Sophie Capshaw-Mack, MPA ('20SIPA), Natasha Chakraborty, Fatema Kamal, MPH, and Cheyenne Jacobs

Category: Gender Equity

Summary: A mobile app that provides culturally-appropriate and intersectional education and training on preventing and responding to gender-based violence as well as access to legal resources.

Team 6: WorldID, presented by Chris Gilchrist ('20SPS, Information and Knowledge Strategy), Sinclair Kim (SPS), Sunny Chang (SPS), Yuyang He, and Vaishnavi G. Kannur

Category: Disaster Preparedness OR Cybersecurity

Summary: A blockchain-based platform that enables countries to share information and to coordinate with other countries to codify and track global efforts to realize the UN’s SDGs.

Team 7: CV2, presented by Claire Wang (SPS, Applied Analytics), Akshaya R. Vardhan (SPS), Varsha Bhat, and Rohit Bakhshi

Category: Disaster Preparedness

Summary: A secure information-sharing platform, powered by blockchain, that enables health experts to share crisis data with the UN and other responding agencies in real time, anonymously.