Yale’s ‘Coffee-Powered Altruism’ Team Competing for Imagine Cup

Beating out some 14,000 students across the United States, two Yale students have advanced to the final round of the Microsoft Corporation-hosted Imagine Cup competition.

Currently in its eighth year, the competition is dedicated to encouraging young people to apply their imagination to bring to life technological innovation. The theme of this year’s competition is “imagine how software can change the world.” Teams were tasked with using technology to solve the world’s biggest problems.

The competition itself has been ongoing since September and consists of several categories ranging from Software Design to Digital Media to an IT Challenge Competition. The Yale finalists advanced in the Game Design category, which challenges competitors to create an interactive program.

The Yale team, dubbed “Coffee-Powered Altruism,” is the brainchild of Chris Riederer ‘10 and Henry Corrigan-Gibbs ‘10, two computer science majors from Saybrook College. Their creation, “Alterra,” is a strategy game that seeks to show the power of applying humanitarian intervention by tasking participants with tackling development issues of a country or region. The pair will travel to Washington, D.C., this month to compete against the other U.S. finalists.

Corrigan-Gibbs says he and Riederer found out about the competition through a mailer sent by the director of undergraduate studies back in September, but both have been interested in computer science throughout their Yale careers.

“I’ve always been interested in problem solving,” says Corrigan-Gibbs. “The nice thing about this competition is that you get an opportunity to do some socially responsible problem solving - ending world hunger using technology.”

Riederer has always been interested in science, he says, noting that he comes from a family of scientists (his father is an MRI researcher). He considered majoring in biomedical engineering when he first arrived at Yale, but changed his mind after learning how to create a computer program one summer.

“I really liked the program,” he says. “And then I took ‘Computer Science 201’ and really loved it. Ever since then, I’ve wanted to do computer science.”

In “Alterra,” players are shown dots representing people, which move about in a determined area representing a country or region. The dots change in size and color according to their state, which can be anything from healthy to sick to dying - with the dots growing in size as the state of the population worsens. The player then can click to choose different interventions, such as building a hospital or a school, and eventually, these dots fade away as various issues are addressed.

“It shows how intervention can work in real life,” says Riederer. “It’s an interesting experience to play and to see how intervention techniques produce feedback on the macro level.”

A key component to creating “Alterra” was determining exactly how certain intervention techniques would influence a country, say the duo. They based the effects of the ones in the game on standard macro-economic models that they researched in academic papers; they sometimes used their own intuition as well. However, they note, they are still learning.

“When you build a school, for example, we tried to incorporate what effect we thought the school would have on the country’s economic output,” Corrigan-Gibbs says.

The team also sought advice from faculty members at Yale, and say that Yale in general has been terrific at supporting their endeavors.

The program itself is still a work in progress, but Corrigan-Gibbs and Riederer are determined to continue perfecting it until the national competition. The team has also entered into the international Imagine Cup, a different competition whose finalists have yet to be determined. If the duo makes the cut, they will head to Poland to compete against the world’s best.

In terms of their own futures, both Corrigan-Gibbs and Riederer are preparing for careers in the computer science and technology industry. Corrigan-Gibbs has received a grant from Yale to go to East Africa next year to work on technology and public support, and Riederer will take a job offer at a software company in Boston upon graduation.

The final U.S. competition will take place April 23-26 in Washington, D.C., and the winner of the Game Design competition will receive a prize of $8,000.

— By Clark Xue, Office of Public Affairs Intern

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