Funding, Grants & Awards

UT Austin Wins IBM Watson Competition

The University of Texas at Austin has won IBM's Watson University Competition, which challenged teams of students to identify and solve an industry-specific challenge using the Watson cognitive computing system.

The student team from the University of Texas at Austin won for its CallScout app, which lets Texas residents use their mobile devices to find information about the state's social services, such as transportation, health care, nutrition programs and housing assistance. The winning team will receive $100,000 in seed funding to help launch a business based on their Watson app, and the state of Texas has approved the CallScout app for pilot.

"This is more than a school project for us – it's about creating a sustainable business that addresses one of the key challenges we all face as Texas residents," said Bri Connelly, team leader and undergraduate computer science student at the University of Texas at Austin, in a prepared statement. "The opportunity to directly impact citizens of our home state was a huge driving force in our work."

Other universities in the competition were Carnegie Mellon University; Ohio State University; Northwestern University; Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI); University of California, Berkeley; University of Michigan; and the University of Toronto. The student team from the University of Toronto won second place in the competition for its "Ross" app that lets lawyers use Watson to find answers to legal questions related to their case work. The student team from the University of California, Berkeley won third place for its "Patent Fox" app that helps organizations search for patent overlaps.

Student teams participating in the competition developed their apps as part of cognitive computing courses introduced at their respective universities in the fall of 2014. The course curricula gave students direct access to Watson in the classroom through the Watson Developer Cloud. According to information on IBM's Watson site, the courses were co-designed by the Watson Group and academic experts in the fields of artificial intelligence and computer science with the goal of providing students "with the technical knowledge and hands-on learning required to develop new cognitive computing applications fueled by Watson's intelligence."

"As an educator, I'm always looking for creative ways to challenge and engage students," said Bruce Porter, chairman of the Department of Computer Sciences at the University of Texas at Austin, in a prepared statement. "Through this program we have been able to create a unique experience that not only enabled our students to develop skills in cognitive computing, app development and teamwork, but also in business development."

In related IBM Watson news, the City University of New York (CUNY) has announced the winners of its own Watson student app competition hosted by CUNY and IBM. The competition challenged CUNY students in a wide variety of majors — including computer science, marketing, economics, math, urban studies and finance — to propose evidence-based Watson apps that could improve city services and universities.

The first place team won $5,000 for its proposed Watson LMSW app, a virtual case-worker assistant designed to help the city's child welfare workers analyze reports for patterns of abuse. The second place team won $3,000 for its proposed SmartCall app, a virtual agent intended to improve the efficiency of the city's 311 information system. The third place team won $2,000 for its proposed Advyzr app, designed to help students and counselors select ideal courses and schedules based on learning preferences, graduation requirements, majors and career goals.

According to a news release from IBM, "Watson is a cognitive computing system that can analyze volumes of data, understand complex questions posed in natural language and propose evidenced-based answers that help improve decision making." Further information about Watson and Watson course curricula can be found on IBM's site.

About the Author

Leila Meyer is a technology writer based in British Columbia. She can be reached at leilameyer@gmail.com.

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