Students will use prize money for social services app

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(Left to right) Computer science seniors Matt Ebeweber, Bri Connelly and Niko Lazaris display their $100,000 award from the IBM Watson University competition. They were among seven students who worked to develop the prototype app called CallScout.

Photo Credit: Charlotte Carpenter | Daily Texan Staff

After winning a $100,000 award in the IBM Watson University Competition, a group of seven computer science students plan to develop an mobile app that connects users to local social services, such as clothing banks and health insurance programs. 

As their winning entry, the students developed a prototype app named “CallScout,” aimed at meeting the needs of users in Central Texas.

Bri Connelly, computer science senior and project member, said CallScout will provide useful information directly to callers in need, so callers won’t have to find or wait for human representatives. 

“Right now, when people have questions about social services, like where to find a homeless shelter, or if they need help paying their rent, they call the 211 hotline,” Connelly said. “Through the app, people can ask those questions and Watson will answer them, and they’ll also be able to do things that they can’t normally do over the phone, like have favorites and rate and review services.”

The Callscout app uses IBM’s automated question-answering software, known as “Watson.”

According to Bruce Porter, computer science department chair and class instructor, IBM’s Watson software was popularized by its appearance on “Jeopardy,” when it played against human opponents and won. 

“It’s a program that enables computers to interact with people in English — for a person to ask Watson a question, and Watson to deliver a specific answer,” Porter said.

The students began work on the app in September as part of a capstone projects class, which was designed to combine education and career-oriented research.

Connelly said with the help of the Longhorn Startup Lab, an on-campus group that helps students form start-up companies, the team will use the award money to produce the application.

Porter said he believes the students won the competition because their project focused on helping people in the real world.

“My guess is that one differentiating factor was that the students here built a system for a real client, in this case, the United Way of Central Texas,” Porter said. “It wasn’t just a class project.”

Niko Lazaris, computer science and finance senior and project member, said the group learned more than what they expected from a computer science class.

“I think what we expected to learn was a lot more technical insight into how Watson works, and we did learn that, but I think what kind of surprised us was the whole product development that goes behind it and figuring out a viable pitch to the competition,” Lazaris said.