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High-tech toilets and homeless smartphone app named winners in Australian Google Impact Challenge

High tech toilets, a smartphone app for the homeless, an educational game for indigenous students, and a mobile tablet camera to detect blindness have taken out top honours in the 2014 Australian Google Impact Challenge.

The four winners were chosen from 10 finalists in the competition, which invites non-profit organisations to develop technological solutions to social problems, winning $500,000 each to fund their ideas.

Among the winners was Melbourne organisation Infoxchange, who will now develop their Homeless Assist smartphone app which, as reported on Techly last week, will help Australia’s homeless to find food, shelter and other essential services.

The world-first app, due for release in mid-2015, uses web and smartphone technology to help homeless people find social support services near them.

Infoxchange chief executive officer David Spriggs said many people had been surprised at the idea of a smartphone app to help the homeless.

“It might seem surprising but a recent study showed 95 per cent of homeless people have a mobile phone and of those 77 per cent have a smartphone,” he said.

“Think about how much you rely on your own mobile and then imagine how important that phone becomes to stay in touch with friends and family if you’re moving from place to place. That phone becomes a lifeline.

“An estimated 42 per cent of homeless people are under the age of 24, meaning they are even more likely to have smartphone.”

Mr Spriggs said many homeless people don’t have credit on their mobile phones, but they could still use it to call emergency services, receive calls and use free WiFi to access online services such as a Homeless Assist app.

Mr Spriggs said the Homeless Assist app would improve the quality of life for 100,000 Australians.

Also among the four winners was Melbourne organisation Engineers without Borders Australia, which plans to install 2500 “biodigester toilets” across Cambodia, a country in which 66 per cent of rural citizens lack access to sanitation infrastructure.

The mechanised toilet system uses bacteria to convert human waste into methane, and so does not require sewage systems. The group anticipates the new toilets will initially benefit 15,000 people, and over the next 10 years provide sanitation and energy solutions to 1.2 million Cambodians.

Sydney not-for-profit Australian Indigenous Mentoring Experience (AIME) also won $500,000 for AIMESTAR, an immersive online game that encourages young indigenous students to learn and excel in maths and science.

By 2018 AIME hopes to connect with 10,000 indigenous Year 7 and 8 students to increase ability and interest in maths and science, and connect them with careers in science, engineering, technology, design and innovation.

A People’s Choice award of $500,000 was given to the Fred Hollows Foundation to develop a mobile camera to detect eye damage caused by diabetes.

Called MARVIN, the tablet device will use a mobile diagnostic platform to take high-quality photos of the back of the eye to detect blinding damage. MARVIN can be operated by anyone, and will provide on-the-spot assessment and diagnosis for millions of people in remote communities.

The six other finalists – the University of Technology Sydney, the Zoo and Aquarium Association Australasia, the University of New South Wales, the Alternative Technology Association, the Asthma Foundation NSW, and the Penguin Foundation on Phillip Island – will receive $250,000 each. All finalists receive mentoring from Google.

Winners were chosen by a panel of five judges including former News Corp Australia CEO Kim Williams, photographer Anne Geddes, former Australian cricketer Glenn McGrath, Manager Director of Google ANS Maile Carnegie, and Jacquelline Fuller, Director of Google.org.

About the author

A former web designer turned journalist, Petra has 10 years’ experience in digital media having worked as the online editor of South Australia’s Sunday Mail and as the national social media and technology reporter for News Corp Australia. As iPad editor for The Advertiser, she also oversaw the launch of the masthead’s first iPad app in 2010. Her work has been published in Elle Australia, Cosmopolitan, The Daily Telegraph, Herald Sun, Courier Mail, The Advertiser, Sunday Mail and The Vine.

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