October 7, 2014

A platform to share best practices of big-city government. A program to reduce food waste at India’s elaborate weddings. An app to connect international travelers with local residents who wish to serve as guides. These are three of the five projects selected as finalists for the first SIPA Dean’s Public Policy Challenge—chosen yesterday by a panel of faculty and technology experts.

Launched in Spring 2014, the program challenged students to develop projects and prototypes that use information and communications technology (ICT) and/or data analytics to solve urban problems taking place around the globe.

The five finalists were selected from eight semifinalist teams, which were chosen in April.  Over the summer, the semifinalists received a variety of support to help develop and test their ideas further. Summer support included courses related to big data, user experience design, web design, and app development, among others, and a boot camp at SIPA that included sessions on creating prototypes, financial planning for new enterprises, legal issues for startups, and effective pitching. Teams also received modest financial support to help move their projects along.

“All of the participants, but especially the five finalists, have made impressive presentations that reflect remarkable progress since the competition began,” said Dean Merit E. Janow of SIPA. “The remaining projects are fascinating examples of the geographic reach and vision of our students around urban challenges and have the potential to make a real impact.”

Judges on yesterday’s panel were Dean Janow; SIPA faculty members Sarah Holloway, Suresh Naidu, Kenneth Prewitt, and Rit Aggarwala; and David Park, dean of strategic initiatives in the office of Columbia’s executive vice president for arts and sciences. Silicon Valley entrepreneur Joe Lonsdale, the co-founder of Palantir, founder of Addepar, and a supporter of the challenge grant program, also contributed to the evaluation of semi-finalists.

The following teams advanced to the final round:

  • Madad is a social enterprise that will support the development of NGOs in Egypt by marketing and developing an online platform that increases transparency among participating NGOs and facilitates donations from individuals. (Sameh Hassan and Salma Amer)
  • Open Government Toolkit aims to create a platform for sharing of best practices based on the experiences of New York City, Rio de Janeiro, and Mumbai, three of the most dynamic centers for “Big Data” innovation in urban policies worldwide. (Guilherme Almeida de Almeida, Bruna Santos, Clara Cezar de Andrade, Nora Shannon Johnson, Sharmishtha Maheshwari, Sena Samerah Filsoofi, Joel Putnam)
  • Paisaback is a unique mobile-enabled platform that promotes healthcare-seeking behavior among women in India, who earn digital points for seeking preventative care such as immunizations, anemia screening, and prenatal care for themselves and their children. (Swami Ganesan, Greg Levin, Ritu Rajan, Conor Troy)
  • ShaadiKarma, which translates in English to “wedding karma,” strives to turn excess food at weddings in India into nourishing meals for the underprivileged, while also reducing waste. (Rachana Kumar, Sriram Gutta, Leah Verghese, Anahita Arora, Linda Theander-Adam)
  • Terranga (formerly No.mad) is a peer-to-peer web platform and mobile app that enables underemployed locals to become tour guides for international travelers. (Lindsay Litowitz, Tammy Lewin)

These finalists will now have three more months to further refine and develop their projects. Third round proposals, business models, and prototypes are due in mid-January; then, after nearly a year’s worth of work, as many as three teams will be selected by the committee on February 9, 2015, and win a total of $50,000 in support to help launch their projects.

The inaugural competition, conducted in collaboration with Columbia Entrepreneurship, is the first of at least two. Student proposals were submitted earlier this week for a second competition, which will end in late Spring of 2015.  Funding for the Challenge Grant has been provided by Joe Lonsdale, the Rockefeller Foundation, and Juan Navarro, founder, chair and CEO of the Exxel Group and a member of the SIPA Advisory Board.

Pictured: Joel Putnam MPA '15 (Open Government Toolkit) and Rachana Kumar MPA '14 (ShaadiKarma) are members of teams selected as finalists.