U. of Alberta students prepare portal for Imagine Cup

Two University of Alberta students will represent Canada in a global competition showcasing .Net and Web services programming know-how.

Dickson Wong and Mack Male, both Edmonton natives, are off to TechEd Barcelona to take

on 14 other teams in Microsoft Corp.’s first-ever Imagine Cup.

Male, who will start his third year in computing science in the fall and also runs his own software company, has always been interested in programming languages outside of school. “”I’ve always done a lot of learning on my own,”” he says. “”I picked up .Net and when the university started having its .Net student user groups I started going to those meetings and they would tell us about upcoming events.””

He and Wong, a computer engineering student also looking to his third year, had less than a month on the heels of exams to put together a project in time for a mid-May deadline. They chose to use MSN Messenger as a vehicle to compile an online health questionnaire. Dubbed the Imagine Cup Health Service (ICHS), it allows users to add a contact to their Messenger application and query it on health-related matters. “”They can ask a health-related question and get an answer right away,”” says Male.

Using keywords from the query, the application pulls the answer from a SQL Server database. If it can’t immediately provide an answer, the question is put in another database for an administrator to input an answer later. “”The other cool thing is that if there is no answer, instead of just returning to the user (with) ‘Sorry, I don’t know,’ it searches the Google search engine using its Web service and takes the main keywords to get an answer.”” The application also has the ability to prompt the user to clarify the question if need be.

The idea for the ICHS came from looking at Edmonton’s Capital Health Authority phone-in service to provide answers health questions. “”We thought it would be great to extend that and have it all automated,”” says Male.

It was also a natural fit for the requirements of the competition, he adds.

“”It had to be commercially viable and socially responsible, so the first thing we thought of was health.””

Using an instant messenger application made sense because it easy to set up, and ICHS also works with other programs such AOL’s client and Yahoo! Messenger.

“”We wanted it to be something that was open to the general public,”” says Wong, “”so we thought it would be good to incorporate tools that already existed.””

The students are allowed to modify their project for the international competition, so Male and Wong have added a feature where the application will also connect with XML-based news feeds on current health topics as well.

“”If they ask about SARS, you can imagine how many news articles there would be,”” says Male.

The application is not even limited to providing health information, notes Wong, but for now there’s only sample data residing in the database to answer specific demo questions. And while there may be commercial opportunities for their application — Wong and Male retain rights to their code — their immediate focus is on the competition in Spain.

The Imagine Cup is part of Microsoft’s Academic .Net program, an initiative to facilitate learning of Microsoft’s latest technologies among students in colleges and universities.

There were nine Canadian submissions in total, says Pamela Lauz, programmer manager for Academic .Net with Microsoft Canada in Mississauga, Ont. “”This year’s theme was programming Web services,”” she says. “”The response has been very positive.””

The criteria for the project was very specific — students had to create a client application and two Web services, says Lauz. A panel of three judges evaluated the entries.

Nine teams in all from across Canada competed for the chance to go to Barcelona, and Lauz says Microsoft expects even more participation next year.

Male and Wong will leave for the competition at the end of the month.

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Gary Hilson
Gary Hilson
Gary Hilson is a Toronto-based freelance writer who has written thousands of words for print and pixel in publications across North America. His areas of interest and expertise include software, enterprise and networking technology, memory systems, green energy, sustainable transportation, and research and education. His articles have been published by EE Times, SolarEnergy.Net, Network Computing, InformationWeek, Computing Canada, Computer Dealer News, Toronto Business Times and the Ottawa Citizen, among others.

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